This week we will be reading from parashat Devarim. Devarim begins the fifth and final book of the Torah. In 1805, the German Biblical Scholar W. M. L. De Wette proposed that the book found by the Priest Hilkiah in the Temple in 622 BCE was actually the book of Deuteronomy. The central argument being that Deuteronomy was not written by Moses but was written by an anonymous author referred to by Biblical Scholars as, “D” or the “Deuteronomist.” The reason for this book was to help support the religious reforms during the reign of King Josiah (c.649-609 BCE). It was Josiah, not Solomon, which De Wette argued, who sought to centralize the worship experience at one Temple in Jerusalem.
Not every scholar agrees with this assessment of the Book of Deuteronomy, but what we do find is a book whose theology is often at odds with expressions found in the other four books of the Torah. In a way, it is a reforming of tradition with a particular emphasis on tzedek (justice) especially in regard to the poor, widow, stranger and orphan. It places less emphasis on the sacrificial cult and more emphasis on righteous deeds.
The reason why I mention all of this is we often times make the mistake of assuming that there is one universal approach to Jewish practice, worship, and theology. And because of this false assessment, we believe we are either authentic or inauthentic in our approaches to Jewish life.
In reality, Judaism contains a myriad of approaches to engaging with the ineffable, with the holy, with the Divine. If the Torah, the foundational text to Jewish life does not agree with itself on these issues, how much the more so, it invites us to question, struggle, and wrestle to make our own pathways towards holiness.
Devarim translates to “words.” As Rabbi Steven Roberts wrote, “words have always had a central place in Judaism. As Jews, we have always understood that words have real power. Words create. Words destroy. Words are holy.”1
Words are how we choose to express ourselves, and they can often give insight into our thinking, even in ways we may not have intended. Thus the words of Devarim, whether written by Moses or some later priest, remind us that it is our prerogative to make Judaism meaningful and relevant to our lives. We just have to find the right words.
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff
1 Roberts, Stephen B. “Words like Bees,” The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary, ed. Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin, Jewish Lights, 2009, pg. 253