The Torah portion for yesterday was a double one: Nitzavim-Vayeilech (Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30). I have already written about Vayeilech here, yet as with any parshah there is always more to say. Nonetheless, I will mainly focus on the motifs that are more particular to Nitzavim (Deut. 29:9-30:20). Some we have seen before like an obsession with idolatry, threats and punishments in the forms of disease, plagues, destructions, and annihilations, the Israelites’ persistent betrayal, and this-worldly rewards for good behavior. Yet, there are some ideas we haven’t seen yet. I want to focus on three: the Torah referring to itself; the idea of the Torah being heard; and the freedom of people to choose their own heart’s inclinations.
Deuteronomy 29:20 refers to the book of the Torah. However, it is only in verse 31:9, that we learn that Moses is the author of the Torah. More orthodox versions of Judaism adhere to this belief that Moses wrote the Torah (except for perhaps the last 8 verses or so since he had died), but according to biblical historians, the Torah was compiled out of a myriad of sources during the Babylonian exile. Nonetheless, I find it interesting that in Vayeilech-Nitzavim, the Torah refers to itself eight times (29:20, 21, 27, 30:10, and 31:9, 12, 24 and 26). To some extent, it seems to be setting itself up to be an equal to the ten commandments within Israelite temple worship as there are also instructions to put this book of Moses next to the ark of the covenant within the tent of meeting (31:26). While Moses may not have written the Torah, it is clear that its authors intended for it to be a religiously significant book within Israel. And, it has become for Jews, the religiously significant book.
It is also interesting to point out that, for the most part, the Torah was never meant to be read as a book per se, at least according to Moses and the deity. It was always meant to be heard aloud. Verse 30:14 and 31:11 both speak to it as an auditory experience. I find this a provocative concept since when one hears something the experience is different from one when one has a book in front of them and can read it for themselves. People hear different things and so much more so depending on moods, experiences, attention spans, and so on. If the book was not in front of me, but rather I heard each of these parshot (portions), I wonder what I would hear, what would resonate with me, and what would stick minutes or hours later. I imagine there would be days in which I would focus on the negatives of divine anger and wrath, but would there also be days in which I would only hear about divine care and love, where I would remember the ways in which the words of the Torah are available to all (29:10 and 28*) and that I am included within that call (29:9 and 31:11). In a way then each person hears what they need to hear on any given day. Unfortunately, this does not diminish the patriarchal nature of the Torah, but it perhaps does allow it to speak more to one’s heart.
In particular, from a feminist perspective, hearing the Torah does not set up a hierarchy as to who is more learned.** Unfortunately, Torah study*** has traditionally been a male-only domain, although this is less and less the case today. Nevertheless, there still exist many Jewish communities in which women do not have the same access to Torah study that men do. Neither can they interact with the Torah in the same ways that men can. This needs to change and Nitzavim-Vayeilech supports this change. Furthermore, from a feminist perspective, it is important that the Torah itself says that it is meant for everyone regardless of social standing within the society (29:28*). I imagine that this was rather revolutionary in the day. Even today, the idea that everyone is equal and has equality within society and in religion is equally revolutionary. In so many places and in so many spiritual communities, this is sadly not the case.
Finally, we have the idea of the human heart and its capacity for choosing the good within Nitzavim-Vayeilech. Verse 30:6 reads, “And the L-rd, your G-d, will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, [so that you may] love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul, for the sake of your life.” Here, the deity will turn people’s hearts rather than rely on them to follow the divine freely. There is a way in which this help seems promising, that the divine won’t make it so hard to believe, that there is a part of one’s heart that is directly connected to the divine because the divine wishes it to be so. But, from a feminist perspective, if we look at the behavior of the divine as jealous, wrathful, and violent, I wonder if taking away one’s free will to choose to follow the deity isn’t just another form of patriarchal violence to human free will, this time in the form of control. Luckily, the prophetic tradition does not agree with this assessment and finds human’s hearts freely their own.****
In summary, Nitzavim-Vayeilech says that everyone is equal before the Torah and, in many ways, then, before the divine. The parshah also focuses on hearing the Torah as a community, which could also illicit more egalitarianism within worship rather than services and study being predominately male pursuits. Both of these could transform Judaism in profound ways. Yet, let us not forget that the parshah also includes an aspect of patriarchal control when the deity intervenes in the human heart decreasing our capacity for free will. In other words, Nitzavim-Vayeilech is very much like many Torah portions I have covered here: a mixture of patriarchy and some aspects that could inspire a more feminist, egalitarian Judaism.
* Some versions of the Torah have this as chapter 29 verse 28 and others chapter 29 verse 29. I have not had sufficient time to track down why and where the additional verse number comes in depending on the translation. I can only offer you this: in Chabad, it is 29:28, and in the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) it is 29:29.
** Except perhaps between those who know how to read it aloud and those who can’t. But the value would be placed on the listening and not the ability to read I would think. In addition, when it comes to hearing, there are justice concerns that we should consider. What language is the Torah read in? Who can understand it and who can’t? How do we ensure that everyone can understand the language? In addition, communities need to incorporate accommodations those who are hard of hearing, an interpreter for those who are deaf, and be aware that listening attentively is not always easy or comfortable for everyone.
***Jewish services do have oral Torah readings, but they are not the primary way in which day-to-day engagement with the Torah takes place.
****See The New Oxford Annotated Bible’s note to verse 30:6 for this suggestion and more information about it. This is not without issue though as free will supports the predominant yet problematic theodicy of the Torah. Look here for more.