Grounded in an ancient theodicy, Ki Tavo (Deutoronomy 26:1-29:8), the Torah portion for September 17th, is an emotional rollercoaster. In it, the Israelites find their lot in life directly linked to their own behavior. Follow the commandments to gain blessing; ignore them at your own peril. While the commandments listed here are laudable from a feminist perspective, the deity’s response to non-concompliance is problematic. It is full of victim-blaming and empty of compassion. Furthermore, Ki Tavo’s portrayal of divine expectations leaves no room for human nature to actually be anything other than complete perfection. This is unacceptable.
As should sound familiar to the reader by now, Ki Tavo speaks to a specific historical context: the Babylonian exile. As we are aware, the typical theodicy of the Babylonian exile places blame for the Israelites’ lot in life on the Israelites themselves, specifically on how their behavior (or their ancestors’ behavior) has warranted divine punishment. In other words, the Isrealites have not observed the commandments and thus deserve what is happening to them. This justifies an understanding of the divine as vengeful, spiteful, jealous, and victim-blaming.
That being said, what exactly happens in Ki Tavo? Ki Tavo, also like many Torah portions, discusses commandment observance. From a feminist perspective, the portion rightly focuses its description of the commandments on justice and fairness within the community (27:16-25) as well as care for the widow, stranger, orphan, the poor, and the disenfranchised (26:12-13, 27:18-19). Its interpretation of the commandments seem to be truly about how, according to its time, a community, that puts the downtrodden and outcast first, should function. These are generally good principles.
Ki Tavo then lists, in varying degrees of specificity, what happens to the Israelites when and if they observe the commandments. If they heed the commandments, they receive abundant blessings. These blessings focus on material, this-worldly rewards (28:3-13). Most offer abundant crops, flowing, deep rivers, good bread, fertility of human and animal, and rain, while, unfortunately, there are a few which mention blessings in terms of gaining power-over and, thus, influence. (Here it is impossible to give specific verse references as many verses have a combination of material blessings and less tangible, power-focused ones.)
When the Isrealites fail to heed the commandments, they incur divine wrath. This is depicted in Ki Tavo as curses or cursing. The curses are sometimes quite mundane and other times absolutely disturbing. There are the typical droughts (28:22, 24), plagues (28:22, 38-39, 42), diseases (28:22, 27-28, 35, 59-61), wars (28:49-53) and so on.
And, then, there are some not-so-common curses. One intriguing curse is exile, which forces the Israelites to practice idolatry (28:36). Interestingly, here idolatry is not a breaking of the commandments, but a punishment for doing so (28:36). Exile signifies the physical breakdown of the group, while idolatry distances that same group from their covenantal relationship with their chosen deity (28:64). They are not a people any longer as they live in foreign lands and worship different gods.
The uncommon curses go one step further and remove any semblance of the Israelites’ humanity through cannibalism. In Ki Tavo, this is a result of war. The deity wages a vicious war against the disobeying Israelites, using other humans (28:57). Their cities are so mercilessly besieged to the point that the people completely run out of food. With nowhere else to turn, they are forced to resort to cannibalism (28:53). Even the most gentle and well-behaved man and woman becomes, when this happens, cannibals (28:53-55), eating their own children to survive.
Yet, who is to blame for the death of their community and their own inhumanity? The deity who punishes? No. Ki Tavo makes it clear that it is the Isrealites themselves. By punishing the Israelites’ non-observance, the deity is only being faithful to the established covenant to which both parties freely agreed. This victim-blaming might have made sense of the Babylonian exile for those who were living through it, but it is also clearly a product of patriarchy. Back then victim-blaming justified war and disease. Now, it condones such practices as domestic violence, rape, and various manifestations of power-over. It is problematic because it does not acknowledge who is most often truly at fault: other, more powerful, humans.
Ki Tavo also paints a one-sided picture of divine understanding when it comes to good and evil. There is either goodness (in Ki Tavo, observance) and blessings or evil (non-observance) and curses. There is no middle ground, no explanation, and certainly no compassion.
This lack of divine compassion is what bothers me the most in Ki Tavo. Even though humans are divine creations, the writers of the Torah have depicted the Creator as so disconnected from creation that there is no compassion and no understanding of humanity, only sheer anger and divine wrath. According to Ki Tavo, our Creator is more than willing to shattered the community, our relationship with the divine, and even our own humanity than practice forgiveness and mercy.
Thank goodness that the Jewish tradition’s understanding of the divine does not stop at Ki Tavo. Rather, Jewish tradition teaches us that we, in the covenant, have partnered with the divine who understands us, showers us with compassion and mercy, and does indeed forgive us (when we don’t always behave as we should). We have a faithful deity who is abundant in goodness and rarely upset or disappointed. We can put our hope and our faith in the goodness of the Holy.
As we enter the High Holy Days, may Ki Tavo’s understanding of the divine as wrathful, angry, destructive, and vindictive stay in the past where it belongs. In this new year, may Compassion embrace us, gifting us with a sacred empathy for others and also for ourselves. May mercy and goodness be with us this year and all the days of our lives. And, may the world and our hearts be at peace.
L’shana tova umetukah! (For good and sweet year!)
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.