Thursday, 03 Sep 2015

Written by Igor Zinkov


A while ago my friend told me an interesting idea I’ve never thought of before. He thinks that we make the real choice in life when we decide something not for ourselves but for our children. In the beginning I did not accept this idea because in my mind almost everything was changeable and reparable when we get older. However I’m probably changing my mind now. Occasionally I catch myself on using the same phrases as my parents, thinking like my parents and acting in the same way. Isn’t it an example of a huge unchangeable impact made by my parents on me?

How much children contain from their parents? Can we really change our ideology which we got from our childhood? The same question was asked by scholars from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the research “Nazi indoctrination and anti-Semitic beliefs in Germany” (you can find an abstract of it here: The research was made to attempt to check to how successful the “brainwashing” Nazi propaganda was. In a course of the research scholars came to the conclusion that “Germans who grew up under the Nazi regime are much more anti-Semitic today than those born before or after that period”. What does it mean? Perhaps it means that today it is much harder to change an anti-Semitic ideology for most of those who were children during the Nazi’s period. In spite of the fact that all of them nowadays are grown and I think educated people, they are still living under their childhood experience.

Perhaps I’m exaggerating the conclusion of this research. But I think the right question is “what can we learn today from it in order to make our future better?” The key term in this research is “indoctrination”. It means teaching a person or group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically. Teaching and learning without asking too many questions and without any doubts about an idea is the very core of the Nazi’s “success”. Perhaps when we teach our children to doubt and to ask as many questions as possible, we give them an antidote to indoctrination.

Let us look at this week’s Torah portion “Ki Tavo” (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8). We read about Moses reminds the people of Torah, gives an instruction to everybody to take large stones and to “write upon them all the words of this law (Torah)” and set them up in mount Ebal (Deuteronomy 27:2-4). A few verses later we read Moses’ instructions of a curses and blessings’ ceremony on mounts Ebal and Gerizim:

“These shall stand upon mount Gerizim to bless the people, when ye are passed over the Jordan: Simeon, and Levi, and Judah, and Issachar, and Joseph, and Benjamin; and these shall stand upon mount Ebal for the curse: Reuben, Gad, and Asher, and Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali.” (Deuteronomy 27:12-13)

In the book of Prophets we can find a realization of these instructions. When Joshua son of Nun took the leadership of the People of Israel after the death of Moses, he fulfilled the commandment:

  “And all Israel, and their elders and officers, and their judges, stood on this side the ark and on that side before the priests the Levites, that bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD, as well the stranger as the home-born; half of them in front of mount Gerizim and half of them in front of mount Ebal; as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded at the first, that they should bless the people of Israel.” (Joshua 8:33)

Despite the fact that the whole procedure seems to be “as Moses had commanded at the first”, we can see that the fulfilment is slightly differ from the original instructions. Originally Levites should have been on the side of mount Gerizim and their task was to bless people. In the Joshua quote we can see that all people stood “on that side before the priests, the Levites”. Moreover, it is written further that Joshua has read all the curses and blessings on his own (Joshua 8:34), even though the initial commandment was that the Tribes should read it. We can see that there are at least two differences in details of the commandment. Isn’t it Joshua’s critical view of the instructions? We cannot know all the details of a real situation of the time and we cannot know reasons of these changes but we definitely can see that despite all these differences the ceremony is still called “as Moses had commanded at the first”. Therefore we can come to the conclusion that in Biblical times there was no indoctrination of religious law. By fulfilling the main principles Joshua still had the highest authority among the people. And, by the way, the whole of Joshua’s process of cursing and blessing people seems to me as powerful as it was described by Moses. And I’m sure that all children who went through this ceremony got a very powerful experience in their lives.

Who knows, perhaps it is not a coincident that a few verses later Moses gives people a blessing “And the LORD will make thee the head, and not the tail; and thou shalt be above only, and thou shalt not be beneath” (Deuteronomy 28:13). Perhaps it is a hint for us to use our heads and have our own critical opinion to everything we have around us. On the threshold of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year,  I wish all of us to be the head, not the tail and to be above only, not to be beneath.

Shana Tova uMetukah! Happy and sweet New Year!

Student Rabbi Igor Zinkov.

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