This week’s Torah parshah, as you can tell from the title, is Ha’azinu, or Deuteronomy 32:1-52. This is Moses’ final speech to the Israelites before he ascends Mount Nebo to die. It is traditionally associated with Yom Kippur and read somewhere very close to it (when exactly depends on the year). The reasons for this association should become obvious as we continue.
In the parshah, Moses describes how, even in the Promised Land, the Israelites will continue to be idolatrous, thus disobeying their deity and bringing divine wrath upon themselves. From what I have already discussed in past blogs about the history of the Torah’s composition, clearly the exiled Israelites in Babylonian sought reasons for that exile; in traditional Isrealite fashion, they made sense of their current circumstances by reasoning whose disobedience was to blame.
This speaks to the overarching theme of the parshah: divine judgment and wrath. In the parshah, the deity is portrayed as wrathful, jealous, and angry (32:19-23). Yet, the Torah calls those wise, who understand what they have done and reflect on how their actions have led to their being punished by the deity (32:29). This wisdom however by no means changes their fate; the “day of reckoning” approaches and destinies will come (32:35).
In some regard, this day of reckoning discussed in the Torah echos Yom Kippur. On the days leading up to it and on Yom Kippur itself, we are expected to be “the wise,” those reflect on our behavior towards the divine and ask for forgiveness. Divine judgment, it is said, comes by way of whether or not we live out the year; it is on this day that, according to tradition, the Book of Life is sealed. Of course, the day’s intended outcome is perhaps also not so literal. One hopes that reflection on one’s mistakes produces genuine desire for a positive change in behavior and a deeper, more heartfelt relationship with the divine.
That being said, what is gnawing at me is this parshah’s image of the divine. If we are asked to be faithful to our deity, who is that deity? In Ha’azinu, the deity is wrathful, jealous, and angry. We need to do good by “him” so that we are not punished.
On multiple occasions, in my blogs, I have explained how this understanding of a divine being is a product of its time and part and parcel of the way ancients understood how deities worked. That does not mean that I like it. In fact, I’m quite over such patriarchal imagery. In this parshah, the deity clearly blames ‘his’ wrath and anger on the actions of Israelites, rather than owning those actions for what they are: uncontrollable, unjustifiable outbursts of violence. We would not allow this type of behavior from a human abuser, why would we find it acceptable for a deity? It is not, and I will not defend it. Patriarchal abuse and power-over does not produce authentic acts of devotion, concern, care, justice, goodness, and holiness in individuals; it produces blind, fear-laden adherence. That is not a healthy, spiritually-mature practice. Of course, anger sometimes has its place, but that is a topic for another blog.
So, what is an alternative model? Here, we will examine three although there are many more. First, we can find one in Ha’azinu. In verse 32:11, the deity is likened to a mothering eagle. She uplifts and supports the Israelites on their journey out of Egypt. She is not a deity of wrath, anger, or jealousy. Rather, She is the one who comforts, protects, provides, and cares for those under her wings.
We find a second image for the divine in Psalm 27. It is traditional for Ashkenazis to add this psalm twice daily to one’s prayers starting in the month of Elul and continuing until Yom Kippur. Some say that its daily repetition will seal one into the Book of Life. For our purpose here, what is more important is that it offers a different understanding of who the divine is.
In the psalm, the divine is a source of salvation and comfort, whose presence dwells among us. The deity is one that we could be physically and spiritually close in the temple. In a similar vein, we hope that one day divine “goodness will be seen in the land of the living,” (27:13). The divine is a source of protection from those who may do us harm, providing a hiding space and help when needed. Rather than fight against the believer, in the psalm, the deity is on the believer’s side. The deity is also imagined as a teacher. It is important to note that this psalm does have some violent imagery and beckons the deity to not turn away in anger. Yet, it also stresses how each person can have a personal relationship with the divine, who can be trusted to respond in times of need. Similar imagery can also be found in the Haftarah for this week (II Samuel 22:1-51).
The final model for the divine that we will explore together here comes from another twice-daily prayer: the Shema. In the prayer, we speak about Jewish understandings of the divine: the divine is one. While oneness could connotate singularity (as if only one divine being exists), it can also mean unity. For example, the mystical tradition of Judaism suggests that the divine has many aspects that make up its nature, or sefirot. They are the ways that we can experience the divine among us as there are three other worlds that separate our world from the divine.
Another example that is less esoteric and less transcendent understanding could be that the divine has many personalities so to speak. In this parshah, we see two: the warrior, jealous, wrathful deity and the motherly one. In Psalm 27, the divine is a personal protector, one who yearns for our closeness as much as we yearn to be close to the divine. There is also the deity as teacher and as helper.
No one model fits our understanding of divinity; there is no reason why the divine cannot be understood as one and yet express various traits depending on the situation. Humans do. However, there are patriarchal models that lord power-over others with violence and abuse, just like the one we read about in Ha’azinu. These we cannot accept.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.