Torah from Around the World #282

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Parashat Devarim 1:1-3:22

By: Rabbi Uri Lam –

Congregação Israelita Mineira – CIM

(Jewish Congregation from Minas Gerais), Brazil

Moses addressed to all the People of Israel

“Language is my Fatherland, but I have no Fatherland, I have a Motherland and I want a Brotherland Concrete poetry, chaotic prose.” (Caetano Veloso, Língua, 1984)

These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel in the desert east of the Jordan (Deut. 1:1)

To whom did Moses speak when he spoke to the People of Israel? His words were addressed not only to a specific part of the people. He could have focused on the priests: this would be their privilege and their responsibility, and also their instrument of power: the priest could choose what to say and what not to say – and more than that, how to say. Moses could speak only to the men: after all, it seems that at that time the Israelite society was patriarchal. But instead of sharing his words only for priests or men, Moses shared the Torah with all of Israel, without distinction.

And in what language did Moses deliver these words? We assume that it was in Hebrew – but was it? Was it in Hebrew, or at least in Hebrew as we know it today? With the same meaning and the same emphasis we put nowadays? Probably not. We know no more than that the Torah was written in Hebrew.

Many centuries later, our Sages recorded in the Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah (Seder Devarim, Parashah Alef) that the Tanach books could have been written not only in Hebrew, but in the nation’s language. However, Rabban Gamliel understood that it was not the case: in addition to Hebrew, the Tanach could only be written in Greek. Why Greek? The explanation is quite ingenious: the Greek, regarded as the beautifullanguage of Japheth, the son of Noah, settled in “the tents of Shem”, which were the synagogues and Jewish studies centers.

There it is: we live forever in a much bigger world than just the Jewish world. Those who have had the opportunity to visit Tzipori, in Israel, can find, among the ancient synagogues and temple remains mosaic floors in the dedicated to Greek deities. Our Sages recognized – and appreciated – the fact that Jewish culture and tradition were also permeated by the beautiful language and by the sophisticated Greek culture; and they had to coexist.

Today we live immersed in the Information Age. I write in Portuguese, think in “Jewish” and translate my Dvar Torah into English – which often takes the place of the Greek for our times. For this same Torah commentary, which speaks of the words spoken by Moses and addressed to all the people, all of us, men and women of all ages and backgrounds are invited to interact, interpret and create new meanings.

The language is our homeland, as written by the Brazilian composer Caetano Veloso: “But I have no fatherland, I have a Motherland and I want a Brotherland”. As Reform and Progressive Jews claim in recent years, Caetano claims that the language that shapes the way we communicate and think is not only a legacy of our fathers, but also of our mothers. The patriarchal time passed; today we have also women, mothers, female teachers, rabbis, leaders, as protagonists in the art of creating new languages and new meanings for the Torah. But if today we need to struggle for a protagonist role of women in Jewish society, Caetano Veloso inspires us to look for the day that our language will be our brotherland/sisterland, in order to achieve the balance of speech, expressions and interpretations of our literary legacy, religious and spiritual. I don’t search for the politically correct discourse, with extreme caution not to offender women, gays, Jews, blacks or people with special needs of all kinds. Moses, after all, spoke to all the People of Israel. So I expect that all the people in their diversity have the right to talk to Moses with the same level respect and dignity.

On the other hand, if everyone has equal rights and everyone should be heard, then does anything go? What unites us? Who or what can serve as our guide? For if, with clear and organized laws through Halacha, poetry, stories and metaphors of Torah could become concrete law, we could imagine that if everyone sees the world differently and all modes are equally valued, the legacy will be something like a meaningless “chaotic prose”.

In recent weeks we followed, without surprise, the words of Israel’s Minister of Religious Affairs, David Azoulay of the Shas party, saying that we Reform Jews are not Jews. The Minister tries to exclude us from the People of Israel. However, what unites our people is not Mr. Azoulay’s authority nor the Orthodox establishment in Israel. What unites us as brothers and sisters is not only the Hebrew as a mother tongue (because it’s not) nor any institution which considers itself the mother of all others, but the Torah as our Brother/Sisterland: the text behind the text, the spiritual language through which Moses spoke to all the People of Israel indiscriminately – even for us, Reform Jews.

So it was that Ezra would do further with the Torat Moshe itself, on returning to Israel after the Babylonian exile, when he brought it to be read before the “men and women able to understand what was presented to them” (Nehemiah 8:2). A Torah with one voice? This is not the Torah of Moses.

Finally, the beginning of Deuteronomy Rabbah proposes an optimistic way: “This said Hakadosh Baruch Hu: Look at the language of the Torah, how dear is it! For it heals the language. What is the source? It is written: ‘Benign tongue is a Tree of Life’ (Proverbs 15: 4) And the Tree of Life is none other but the Torah, as it is written: ‘It is the Tree of Life for those who sustains it’” (Proverbs 3:18).

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