A tradition of optimism

A tradition of optimism

Devarim — Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22

I sometimes hate admitting what I do. Just saying I am a rabbi leads perfect strangers to apologize for not being religious, as if I were some Jewish Grand Inquisitor charged with measuring Jewish piety.

I do, however, wonder what is meant by “not religious.” Some people mean they don’t believe in God; but when they describe the God in whom they don’t believe, I find that I don’t believe in such a God either. Others say they are “secular,” but originally (13th century), “secular” just meant living in the world, rather than closeted away in monasteries — like me, actually. I trust science, watch movies, and do whatever else that “secular”
people do.

Usually people mean they are not “observant”: they don’t keep all the mitzvot. But there are different ways to be religious; rather than “not religious,” they may be “differently religious.” Even someone who keeps few or no mitzvot may have a religious outlook on life.

A religious outlook on life is at the core of Deuteronomy, the fifth and final book of Torah that we begin this week.

The problem with Deuteronomy is that it seems, in the main, unnecessary, in that it mostly reiterates mitzvot that we already know from other books of Torah — the Ten Commandments, for example, that occur also in Exodus (20:2-17) — albeit in somewhat different wording. Tradition even labels it “Mishnah Torah,” a “repetition of Torah,” because in terms of commandments, it provides so little that is new.

Almost universally, our commentators struggle with Deuteronomy’s redundancy — without, however, very much success. Why, really, are there two sets of Ten Commandments? The actual reason may lie with the scientific approach that assigns Deuteronomy its own authorship. Whatever Moses received on Sinai, Torah was composed over time by separate authors. Deuteronomy was written after Exodus by authors with a slightly different version of things.

That is, perhaps, a secular explanation — one of the things that makes me secular. But “secular” and “religious” are not mutually exclusive. When I consult tradition also, I am religious. The “science” of Torah explains our literature. Traditional commentary explains our souls. I read the rabbis to get what science cannot offer.

The Vilna Gaon, or Gra, for example, points out that only a third of Deuteronomy is about mitzvot, making Deuteronomy a book about other things as well, including, particularly, dire forecasts of punishment for sin. But, says Ramban, these warnings are not meant to frighten us into obedience. Just the reverse! They underscore the centrality of God’s compassion. People are salvable; they can repent; God regularly reaches out a hand in forgiveness.

Here is the religious outlook that I mentioned above, the moral judgment with which we approach reality: is human nature principally evil? Must society always default to its basest instincts? Or, despite human errors, despite even the evil of Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia, despite all that, do we have the right to expect goodness from our fellow creatures? Is the world and its people fundamentally good or bad? That’s the question. And whatever side you take on that, if you take a side at all, you enter the realm of religion; you are now not altogether “not religious.”

Some religious traditions are pessimistic on reality; and what I like about Judaism is its measured optimism. Human beings do sin, but they are basically good, and have it in them to repent and start anew. Deuteronomy’s point, says Ramban, is the ubiquitous presence of compassionate forgiveness.

Especially noteworthy is Ramban’s subtle claim that the possibility of human repentance and the guarantee of divine pardon apply to b’nei adam, to “all humanity,” not just Jews. That too is a religious point of view that Judaism champions. Yes, we Jews have our own special mandates and relationship with God. But other peoples do as well, and all of us share God’s choicest blessings: basic goodness, the ability to mend our ways, and the chance to pick up life and start all over.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

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