Ki Tavo: An Authentic Non-Torah Judaism?

Every Passover – our ancient and most conspicuous celebration of Jewish history -- I can’t help but notice something extraordinary about the summary historical narrative that comes right out of this week’s Torah portion: 

“My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Surprisingly to many, the actual context of the required recitation of this passage isn’t Passover.  This is the “Pilgrim’s Prayer,” which farmers were obliged to recite when they brought the first fruits of their harvest to the Temple in Jerusalem.  In fact, the Haggadah account repeated above stops abruptly, omitting the very next Torah verse, the conclusion to the narrative, which is “Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.”  It’s an expression of gratitude to G-d for the land and its bounty.

What is astounding to me is what is missing from this summary history.   It basically says: “You heard our pleas in Egypt and You brought us here; Thanks, G-d!”  That’s it?!  What about Sinai?  What about G-d’s actual revelation to the Jewish people?  What about G-d’s Covenant with us?  What about the giving and receiving of the Ten Commandments and the rest of Torah!  Wasn’t it these events at Sinai that made Judaism, Judaism? 

Nor is this a carelessly drafted narrative; quite the opposite. It is one of the very few places in the entire Torah that commands the recitation of specific words or verses.  We can therefore be certain that it was very carefully crafted (whether by G-d or by man).  So, the absence of any mention of Sinai, of revelation, of Torah can’t be an oversight or something simply discussed elsewhere.  This formula is how the Jewish people are commanded to remember their history – without mentioning revelation, covenant, or Torah.    It’s remarkable, even astonishing!   

If this seems an aberration, I invite you to also read the Book of Joshua, Chapter 24.  In it, Joshua assembles all the people at Shechem (today, the city of Nablus claimed by the Palestinians) and quotes G-d giving them a recap of their history.   It’s rather lengthy, so I’ll paraphrase.  G-d says:  

"Your ancestors worshipped false gods.  I took your Abraham and gave him Isaac, and to Issac I gave Jacob and Esau.  Then I sent Moses and Aaron and I wrought wonders and freed your fathers from Egypt, and you came to the Sea. But the Egyptians pursued your fathers and you saw what I did to them.  After you had lived a long time in the wilderness, I brought you to the land of the Amorites but I delivered you from them.  I didn’t listen to Balaam.  Then you crossed the Jordan and I delivered the inhabitants to you.  I have given you the land, therefore give up your other gods and revere the Lord; serve Him with undivided loyalty."

What has G-d left out of this account?   Sinai!  Torah! The Covenant! The grievous sin of the Golden Calf!  Our imminent destruction, but for Moses’ intervention with G-d.     

The people, who were apparently pagan to that time, replied to this account by assuring Joshua that: “we will serve G-d.”  Joshua warns them that if they accept G-d, He is jealous and won’t forgive them if they stray, and they assure him that G-d, who rescued them from Egypt and gave them the land, is now their G-d.

The text concludes, at verse 25:

“On that day at Shechem, Joshua made a covenant for the people and he made a fixed rule for them.  Joshua recorded all this in a book of divine instruction.” 

This is much more than a startling omission, as I characterized the history summary in this week’s portion.  This is an alternative historical narrative in which Sinai, Revelation, and the giving of Torah never happened.  Joshua is the lawgiver, not Moses.  And remember who it is who is stated as giving this narrative: G-d.  Or, if you prefer, Joshua -- Moses’ right-hand man, the one who, according to the Torah narrative we’re used to, was at Sinai with Moses, heard G-d’s voice, and saw it all himself!  If anyone should be affirming and emphasizing the Moses-Sinai-Torah narrative, it should be Joshua, who, we were told, lived through it all!  And yet he says nothing whatsoever about these. 

What Joshua presents is a conversion ceremony from paganism to an apparently non-Torah, Joshua-instituted, covenant Judaism at Shechem.  No Sinai, no Torah, no Golden Calf – and an entirely different covenant!  The stated justification is the same one expressed in the Pilgrim’s prayer that has become part of the Seder: “We were in Egypt, G-d saved us and brought us here.  Thanks!”   No mention of Torah.   (The image accompanying this D’var Torah is captioned “Joshua renewing the covenant,” but this seems to me a forced “spin,” there being no textual reference in the account to a prior covenant.)  

These two sections of text recounting Jewish history without Sinai or Torah aren’t the only two to do so.   First Book of Samuel, Chapter 12 and Psalms 78, 105, and 136 are additional examples.    

What are we to make of this?  Biblical criticism suggests that there were two separate traditions, that of Judah (the Southern Kingdom) and that of Israel (the Northern Kingdom), and that Israel’s knew nothing of Sinai.  Dr. Israel Knohl of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, who first introduced me to the Joshua narrative, speculates that a lone man fleeing the Assyrian conquest of Israel in the 8th century BCE smuggled a scroll to Judah containing this narrative, and that much later, when Tanach was redacted, the editors felt compelled to include the alternative narrative. 

We know that Israel was more agricultural (think: Matzah) and that Judah was more pastoral (think: the Pascal Lamb), so I suspect that the “Pilgrim’s Prayer” first-fruit narrative omits Torah for the same reason – Torah and Sinai simply weren’t part of Northern history. 

Torah is certainly a crucial part of my Jewish narrative, and I am not suggesting that any of us say “let’s just revere G-d and dispense with the mitzvot.”  However, I do take a lesson from this.  There are valid alternative narratives to my truth.  My way, or that of my tradition, isn’t the only right way.

It seems to me that this “revelation” -- that there may not have been a revelation; that there is an apparent alternative narrative in Torah that excludes Torah -- should teach us humility and tolerance of other ways to be authentically Jewish.  The redactors of the Tanach could have left out Joshua 24 as aberrant and heretical, and edited or omitted the “My father was” and other “problematic” sections that challenged or even refuted their theology.  But they didn’t.   We have a wonderful and important tradition of tolerance of dissenting views:

"Rabbi Abba said in the name of Sh’mu’el: For three years the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel debated [a matter of ritual purity]. These said, “The law is according to our position,” and these said, “The law is according to our position.” A divine voice came and said, “These and these are the words of the living God, and the law is according to the House of Hillel.” But if these and these are both the words of the living God, why was the law set according to the House of Hillel? Because they (the House of Hillel) were gentle and humble and they taught both their own words and the words of the House of Shammai. And not only this, but they taught the words of the House of Shammai before their own." (Talmud Eruvin 13b)

As we approach the Days of Awe, may we be reminded to follow these examples of respect for the differing opinions of others, especially of other Jews. 

Shabbat shalom from Bath, England. 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb