Thursday, 11 Sep 2014

Written by Cantor Gershon Silins

The entire book of Deuteronomy can be thought of as an argument with history. This is suggested even by its English name, which means the “second law,” an indication that we are engaging with our past, since the first law still obtains, and with our future, since the acknowledgement that there can be a second law testifies to the possibility of change.

In Ki Tavo, our current portion, the Israelites are commanded to bring their first fruits as an offering: “When you come into the land that the Eternal your God is giving you for an inheritance and have taken possession of it and live in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from your land that the Eternal your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket, and you shall go to the place that the Eternal your God will choose, to make his name to dwell there. And you shall go to the priest that shall be in those days and say to him, ‘I declare today to the Eternal your God that I have come into the land that the Eternal swore to our fathers to give us.’ Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the Eternal your God.”

In this brief passage we see the past, present and future, as the text attempts, in its day, to secure the future by means of its being embedded in the past. It envisions a future in which the Israelites will have inherited the land promised to them by God. They will bring the first fruits of its produce to the priest that shall be in those days to come, and they will say to him, “I have come into the land that the Eternal swore to our fathers to give us.” The Israelites living in that distant future shall say to the priest living then, that they themselves have come into the land promised to their ancestors who had lived generations before.

In a commentary on this portion, Nehama Leibowitz reminds us of the passage in the Haggadah that says that in every generation every Jew is obligated to see him or herself as if he or she personally had gone out of Egypt. Similarly, this passage concerning first fruits seeks to secure the future through attachment to a narrative about a shared past. It would not be enough for the Israelites of the future to complacently consider the land merely an inheritance from long dead ancestors. They would have to behave as, and therefore come to believe themselves to be, one with the very generation that had been so dramatically redeemed. Thus, the bringing of first fruits was not only a ritual of recollection but also of re-enactment.

This conscription of the reader into a role in an irresistible historical tide is compelling but, for modern people, troubling. How are we, with our very different relationship to Jewish identity and to the land that is so central to this passage, to relate to this text?

The difficulty is that such a re-enactment does not leave much room for critical reflection; re-enactment effects rather a kind of closure against a more critical mode of recollection. Transcending this is the job not of myth but of history.  History cannot be bound by the heroic narratives it encounters, and that make it deeply disquieting for those for whom the heroic narrative provides meaning and belonging. In his 2005 lecture, “The Same History is not the Same Story: Jewish History and Jewish Politics,” Prof. Michael Brenner notes that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was a series of massive multi-volume works of Jewish history: Isaac Markus Jost’s History of the Israelites, (1820-29), Heinrich Graetz’s History of the Jews, (1853-75), Simon Dubnow’s World History of the Jewish People (1925-29) and Salo Baron’s A Social and Religious History of the Jews (1937, 1952-1983). Each bears different ideological commitments. Jost focuses on religious community, Graetz marks a step towards a national history, Dubnow writes from a vision of national autonomy among East European Jews, while Baron fundamentally challenged (also, notably, in his remarkable 1928 essay “Ghetto and Emancipation”) the traditional view of centuries of persecution followed by the welcome liberation of the Enlightenment.

Over the last few decades, a group of historians now loosely categorized as the “New Historians” have challenged the traditional versions of modern Israel’s history and origins. Based to some degree on the release of declassified documents, their work was and is extremely controversial. There is little agreement among them, but in each case their work calls upon us to effect a mode of ethics – a framework of engagement which is linked to a commitment to tikkun olam, – to inform our historical work and to understand controversy and contestation as part of that ethic. It is from this vantage point that we cannot ignore uncomfortable facts or findings or refuse to engage in productive debate about the character, context, basis and consequences of even our most cherished, consoling or well established narratives.

We no longer obey the commandment to take our first fruits to the Temple; there is no Temple and we do not live the lives of our ancestors. But there is still a lesson to be learned from this passage. We must indeed encounter historical facts and engage with them. But at the same time, there is a reason to ground that engagement in a sense of who we are and who we wish to be, based upon the values that undergird that identity. The myths combine to create our identity, which in turn determines the way we will understand our history. There is no such thing as fully objective history, not least because the choice of what is included or ignored is made by real people with real commitments. But our story cannot be told without an awareness of other people with different and often conflicting narratives.

This Torah portion challenges us to live in two worlds, the rich world of identity embodied in the re-enactment of our founding myths, and the ever-widening awareness of shared humanity arising from a willingness to see the world as it presents itself to us.

Gershon Silins
LBC rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.