Parashat Re’eh 5767 (on revelation and ethics)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

כִּי יָקוּם בְּקִרְבְּךָ נָבִיא אוֹ חֹלֵם חֲלוֹם וְנָתַן אֵלֶיךָ אוֹת אוֹ מוֹפֵת: וּבָא הָאוֹת וְהַמּוֹפֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֵלֶיךָ לֵאמֹר נֵלְכָה אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדַעְתָּם וְנָעָבְדֵםלֹא תִשְׁמַע אֶל דִּבְרֵי הַנָּבִיא הַהוּא אוֹ אֶל חוֹלֵם הַחֲלוֹם הַהוּא

When there arises in your vicinity a false prophet or dreamer, and gives you a sign or an omen, and this sign or omen that he told you about happens, and he says to you: “Let us follow after other gods”, which you do not know, “and let us serve them.” – Do not listen to the words of this prophet or this dreamer…(Deuternomy 13:2-4)

The Torah warns us here to ignore the evidence of omens or predictions that come true, and instead to judge prophets on the basis of their advice. If it is to follow other gods – to do “avodah zarah” – the prophet is not valid. It may seem a little surprising for an ancient text to put such little faith in foretelling events. In fact, a passage in next week’s portion (Deuteronomy 18:20-22) teaches that the test for prophets is whether or not their predictions come about, but here that is explicitly contradicted.

Immanuel Kant in the fourth book of Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone(ch.4), has his own take on false prophecy. He argues that allvisions and prophecies are intrinsically questionable. This is because it is always possible that the one who heard or saw this revelation was mistaken. Conversely, Kant believes in a strong concept of a rational personal conscience. This allows every person to truly know when a certain action is immoral. Therefore, in his example of an inquisitor faced with a heretic, the inquisitor is not permitted to put the heretic to death. This is because killing is knownto be morally wrong, whereas the religious imperative to kill the heretic may have been a mistake of the prophet that affirmed it. For Kant, obeying the revealed religious law at the expense of morality is not acceptable. So, the yardstick he gives us to judge if the prophet is trustworthy, is that of morality.

Kant’s test, then, seems very similar to the one in our Torah reading – the alleged prophet who preaches avodah zarah – which some Jewish voices, both contemporary and medieval, understand as a lack of moral boundaries – should be considered a false prophet.

Now, let us look at the alternative to the false prophet that the Torah proposes in the next verse:

אַחֲרֵי יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיכֶם תֵּלֵכוּ וְאֹתוֹ תִירָאוּ וְאֶת מִצְוֹתָיו תִּשְׁמֹרוּ וּבְקֹלוֹ תִשְׁמָעוּ וְאֹתוֹ תַעֲבֹדוּ וּבוֹ תִדְבָּקוּן

Walk after Hashem your God, and fear God, and accept God’s commandments, and listen to God’s voice and worship God and cleave to God. (Deuteronomy 13:6)

The Talmud finds this advice problematic:

מאי דכתיב: +דברים יג+ אחרי האלהיכם תלכו? — וכי אפשר לו לאדם להלך אחר שכינה? והלא כבר נאמר: כי האלהיך אש אוכלה הוא 

What does it mean when the Torah says “Walk after God”? — Is it really possible to walk behind the Shechinah – the presence of God!? For earlier in the Torah we find the expression, for Hashem your God is a consuming fire(Sotah 14a)

This is the rabbinic way of asking perhaps the central question of religion – how is it possible to understand, obey, or have a relationship with a God who is so beyond humanity? What does it mean to “walk after” God?

The Talmud continues with its answer:

אלא להלך אחר מדותיושל הקבה

…rather, to walk following the middot [– here, the tendencies –] of the Holy Blessed One.

And it gives four examples of God’s middot, all from the Torah – God clothes Adam, God visits Abraham [when he is weak, as understood by the rabbis], God comforts Isaac after the death of his father; and God buries Moses after his death. Just as God does malbish arumin – clothing the naked; bikur cholim – visiting the sick; nihum aveilim – comforting mourners; and kvurat metim – burying the dead, so too should weperform these acts of love for others.

These actions are vitally important – but this answer still seems to lack something. By forbidding avodah zarah and requiring acts of love, the Torah has given us a prohibition on doing evil and an exhortation to do good. But is that all there is to “following after God”? Surely there are ethical humanists with no belief in God, no language of ritual, no spiritual practices or religious literary tradition, who refrain from immoral deeds, and take part in acts of love?

Spinoza raises this problem as a critique of Judaism. In the Theologico-Political Treatise, he claims that the purpose of the Torah is simply to teach primitive Jews a little basic theology, but primarily good behaviour. Thus we need to be commanded not to do “avodah zarah”, and to do acts of love. However, enlightened people can, and do, work out how to behave well on their own, and have have no need of the Torah.

Is Spinoza right?Does “walking after God” entail nothing that we couldn’t have come up with on our own? Let us re-examine the Talmud’s answer. In classic midrashic style, each of the mitzvot is learned from a verse of the Torah. Thus, the mitzvah, the text and God are intertwined by this rabbinic explanation.

This is our way of following God – we do actions not onlyas ethical human beings, but alsobecause they are part of our textual heritage; and because we are mandated to do so by halakhah,which imbues our actions with a relationship with God. Judaism expects of us more than doing the right thing. We mustperform right actions, but we must do so in the context of Torah, and, in relationship with God.

Shabbat Shalom.
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