When groups of non-Jews visit the synagogue, they often ask me how I would sum up what is distinctive about Judaism and Jewish life. Well, Jews very rarely get together without food being part of the proceedings. But then, we’re not entirely unique in this respect. Jews are also very family-orientated. But then again, so are people from other religions, ethnicities and cultures. What I usually say in response to this question is that Jews have a love affair with books – not just with one book, the Torah, but with many, many books; and that what we have done for millennia is generate book after book after book.

Five years ago, Israeli writer Amos Oz and his daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, who is a historian, published a wonderful book, entitled, jews and words.[1] Let me share with you their opening paragraphs:[2]

Jewish continuity has always hinged on uttered and written words, and expanding interpretations, debates, and disagreements, and on a unique human rapport. In the synagogue, at school, and most of all in the home, it has always involved two or three generations deep in conversation.

Ours is not a bloodline but a textline. There is a tangible sense in which Abraham and Sarah, Rabban Yohanan, Glikl of Hameln, and the present authors belong to the same family tree. Such continuity has recently been disputed: there is no such thing as a “Jewish nation”, we are told, before modern ideologues deviously dreamed it up. Well, we disagree. Not because we are nationalists. One purpose of this book is to reclaim our ancestry, but another is to explain what kind of ancestry, in our view, is worth the effort of reclaiming.

We are not about stones, clans, or chromosomes. You don’t have to be an archaeologist, an anthropologist, or a geneticist to trace and substantiate the Jewish continuum. You don’t have to be an observant Jew. You don’t have to be a Jew. Or, for that matter, an anti-Semite. All you have to be is a reader.

So, at the heart of Jewish life: books and reading. This week, we open a new book of the Torah; the fifth and final book. It is known to most people as Deuteronomy; a name derived from the late Latin word, Deuteronomium, which is itself derived from the Greek, Deueronomion, literally,’ second law’; a combination of deuteros, ‘second’ and nomos, ‘law’.[3] This Latin/Greek name tells us that this final book includes a repetition of laws found elsewhere in the Torah. According to the biblical account, the book was discovered during the reign of King Josiah of Judah in 628 BCE,[4] although critical analysis suggests that it was may have been composed at that time as part of a campaign by Josiah to return his backsliding people to obedience to God.

The Hebrew name of the book, D’varim, like the names of all the books of each of the 54 portions of the Torah, recalls the first word that distinguishes the book and the portion that bears the same name. So, the first verse begins: Eilleh ha-d’varim asher dibbeir Moshe el-kol-Yisraeil b’eiver Yardein… – ‘These are the words which Moses spoke to Israel beyond the Jordan.’ D’varim – singular, davar – means ‘words’. Curiously, it also means, ‘things’. More of that in a moment.

As Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger remind us, Jewish life is saturated with words. Of course, first and foremost we think of texts: the Torah, the Mishnah, its companion, the Tosefta, the Talmud – both the Jerusalem and Babylonian versions – the numerous collections of midrashim – the commentaries on the Torah – and the various law codes created in order to make it easier to access the rules and regulations embedded in the Talmud, which, especially in its Babylonian edition, is a complex multi-vocal document. [5]

So many texts! No wonder, so many Jews wear glasses! But before words were written down, they were simply spoken. Significantly, the Hebrew root for ‘reading’, Kuf Reish Alef also means, ‘calling’. At the very beginning of the Torah, the first account of creation comes to life, when ‘the spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters’, becomes a voice: “God said: ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. / And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called to the light ‘Day’ and called to the darkness, ‘Night’. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.”[6] It is very easy when we read these words to miss the fact that the voice that uttered, ‘Let there be light’, also uttered the names ‘Day’ and ‘Night’. Again: ‘God called to the light, ‘Day’ and called to the darkness, ‘Night’.’

Throughout the Torah, speaking is paramount, and the transmission of the laws is primarily related in the form of speech – starting, famously, with what we know as ‘the Ten Commandments’, described more accurately in the Hebrew as Aseret Ha-Dibbrot, ‘the Ten Utterances’. Aseret Ha-Dibbrot begin with this phrase: Va-y’dabbeir Elohim eit kol-ha’dv’arim ha-eilleh, leimor… – ‘Then God spoke all these words, saying: …’ [7]

We encounter our tradition via texts, but it was many centuries before words were committed to writing. And even then, texts were written by scribes, those with the skill to read and write, on parchment in the form of scrolls. Ordinary people only had access to these texts by listening to them being read to them – that is, called out to them. The Book of Nehemiah records that after the return from Babylon, that is c. 538 BCE, following the repair of the walls of Jerusalem, Ezra the scribe, who was also a priest, gathered the people together at the Watergate in Jerusalem, on the ‘first day of the seventh month’, where he read to them from seifer Torat Moshe – the book of the Torah of Moses.[8] Let me quote from the text, which relates how Ezra ‘called’ out the book to the people:

Then Ezra the priest brought the Torah before the assembly – ha-kahal – both men and women, and all that could discern to listen, on the first day of the seventh month. / And he read from it before the broad place, which is before the Watergate from first light until midday, in the presence of the men and women, and of those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the Torah. / And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood which had been made for the purpose…

Perhaps, it was there in that moment that the tradition of the public Torah reading and the sermon began!

I mentioned earlier that d’varim also means ‘things’. At first sight, ‘words’ and ‘things’ seem utterly different. But when we think about the relationship of spoken words with text in Jewish tradition, we can see that words and things are inextricably related. First, there’s the obvious point that there is a thingy-ness about words, particularly when they are written down and become glossy ink on parchment – are illuminated, as in the mediaeval haggadot.[9] Words also have a power that can match material force. This is most evident when words are used to express curses. In ancient times, the utterance of curses virtually conjured up the grisly consequences described. In fact, in Orthodox communities to this day, the power of the curses in the Torah are considered so potent still that when they form part of the Torah reading, as they do in parashat Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy chapter 27, the Torah reader rushes through them in an undertone.[10] So much for the English saying that ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’!

There is also a deeper sense in which words – or rather the breath that infuses them – is tangibly connected with the materiality of the world. As we read in the second account of creation: ‘Then the Eternal God formed the human – ha-adam – out of the dust of the ground – ha-adamah – and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life – nishmat chayyim – and the human became a living being – nefesh chayyah.’[11] As the first creation narrative makes clear, the other creatures are also living beings.[12] But unlike the other creatures, human beings use the breath of life to speak. And so, just as Genesis chapter 1 relates that God speaks the different elements of creation into existence, we read in Genesis chapter 2 that the first human called outVa-yikra – the names of all the animals in the quest to find a companion.[13] But it was to no avail. In designating their names, the human exerted power over the animals, and so in the very act of naming, failed to find a suitable companion.

Even more significant than the way in which the Torah describes the breath of the Divine materialising in the human, bringing the red mud of the ground to life, the numerous rules and regulations set out in the Torah – and repeated again in the book of Deuteronomy/D’varim – establish the indivisible connection between words and deeds. Every command is by definition a form of words to be translated into acts – both ritual and ethical. This is the whole purpose of ha-d’varim, ‘the words’ of the Torah, and in particular, of those articulated in the final book. And so, we read in verse 3 of the book: ‘And it came to pass in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first day of the month that Moses spoke to the Israelites according to all that the Eternal had commanded him to them.’ God spoke to Moses who spoke to the people, exhorting them to fulfil the commandments. In next week’s parashah, Va-etchannan, we find the second version of the Aseret Ha-Dibbrot, ‘the Ten Utterances’,[14] and also the paragraph that begins, Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad – ‘Listen! Israel: The Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One.’[15] A declaration of the oneness of the Eternal, this passage which has been included in the liturgy – both for recitation at home and in the synagogue – is a call to action; action which begins in the home, in particular with the teaching of children, and continues outside in the street.

There is no doubt that Jews are intoxicated with words and passionate about books, but reading and studying is supposed to galvanise us to act – at home, in the community, and in the wider world. This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised sexual acts in private between two men over the age of 21.[16] It was an important first step, which has been followed in more recent years by further steps leading to full equality for LGBT people in Britain. Meanwhile, in 75 countries, homosexuality is still illegal,[17] and LGBT people face discrimination and persecution. Indeed, in Mauritania, Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, those found guilty of homosexual acts face the death penalty, while in Nigeria and Iraq, LGBT people are executed even though the law does not require it.[18] In most of these places, religious texts are often used to justify oppressive practices – indeed, in some Jewish and many Christian denominations, the two biblical verses that proscribe sex between two men are still used in this way.[19] In recognising the inextricable connection between words and deeds in the Torah, it is also important for us to remember that our Jewish tradition of generating multiple interpretations eschews fundamentalist readings. As we read the Book of Deuteronomy/D’varim over the next few weeks and celebrate our gloriously rich tradition of words, let us also acknowledge our responsibility as Liberal Jews to continue to re-examine and develop Jewish teachings in the context of contemporary issues and concerns, and in the interests of extending human rights and increasing justice and peace throughout the world. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue

Shabbat D’varim, 29th July 2017 / 6th Av 5777

  1. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2012.
  2. Ibid., pp.1-2
  3. www.etymonline.com
  4. Josiah succeeded his father, Amon c. 638 BCE, when he was only eight years old (2 Kings 22:1). The discovery of seifer ha-Torah, ‘the book of the Torah’ by Hilkiah, the High Priest ten years later is recounted at 2 Kings 2:8ff.
  5. I’ve mentioned the main examples of rabbinic literature. The Mishnah, the first rabbinic code of law, was edited c. 200 CE. The Tosefta (meaning, ‘addition’ or ‘supplement’), contains material supplementary to the Mishnah, and was edited around the same time. The Jerusalem Talmud (Y’rushalmi) was edited c. 400 CE. The Babylonian Talmud (Bavli) was edited c. 500 CE. The collections of midrash – both halakhic, focussing on legal sections of the Torah, and aggadic, focussing on the narratives of the Torah – are numerous and span several centuries, from c. 200 through the Middle Ages. The codes of law began to be developed from the 600s CE by the Geonim, the heads of the academies in Babylonia. The last code, accepted as authoritative throughout the Jewish world, once a mappah, ‘table-cloth’ of ‘glosses’ reflecting Ashkenazi (northern European) minhagim (customs) had been added by Ashkenazi authority, Moses Isserles, is the Shulchan Arukh (‘Prepared Table’) written by the Sephardi authority, Joseph Caro, and first published in 1565.
  6. B’reishit/Genesis 1:3-5.
  7. Mishpatim/Exodus 20:1.
  8. Nehemiah 8:7:73b-8:8.
  9. For example, the Golden Haggadah, created around 1320, in or near Barcelona, which may be viewed at the British Library http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/sacredtexts/golden.html
  10. Ki Tavo/ Deut. 27:11-26.
  11. B’reishit/Genesis 2:7.
  12. B’reishit/Genesis 1:20-21.
  13. Be’eishit/Gen. 2:20
  14. Va-etchannan/Deut. 5:1-18.
  15. Va-etchannan/ Deut. 6:4-9.
  16. http://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/sexual-offences-act/
  17. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/where-is-it-illegal-to-be-homosexual-and-which-is-the-most-deadly-country-to-be-gay-10355338.html
  18. Ibid.
  19. Acharei Mot/Leviticus 18:22 and K’doshim/Lev. 20:13.