On Ki Tavo and its Absence of Divine Compassion by Ivy Helman.

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.

Taken by author.

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.  

On Eikev: Whose Behavior Should We Emulate? by Ivy Helman

The Torah portion for 20 August is Eikev, or Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25.  Eikev describes the importance of spirituality in one’s life and proscribes the actions of spiritually-attuned people.  The portion returns time and again to whom one should be spiritually connected: the deity, a jealous, angry, and fierce warrior who freed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery.  Yet, if we look closely at the language of Eikev, there is a disconnect between this warrior imagery, other language in Eikev about the divine, and how the spiritually-attuned should behave.  It is as if there are two understandings of divine nature here, and they are at odds with one another. In spite of itself, the language of the parshah decidedly favors a more feminist understanding of the divine.

Let us begin by looking at what Eikev says about spirituality.  Deuteronomy 8:3 asserts that one needs not just bread to live, but connection to the divine as well.  In other words, humans have concrete material needs that are extremely important.  However, there is also more to life than just the material.  

But, to whom is one supposed to spiritually connect?  It cannot be denied that there is a lot of language in Eikev that refers to the deity as a fierce warrior, quick to anger, whose principle act was freeing the Israelites from slavery.  A typical example of this language can be found in verse 7:19.  “The great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, the wonders, the mighty hand, and the outstretched arm with which the L-rd, your G-d, brought you out. So will the L-rd, Your G-d, do to all the peoples you fear.”  The deity showed strength and power when rescuing the Isrealites from slavery and will not hestitate to bring low those who threaten them.  The deity is also often depicted as jealous and vengeful and quick to anger at Israelite misbehavior (9:7-8, 18, and 22).  It is even said in Eikev that the deity gave the Israelites the Land not because of their goodness but because of the wickedness of the Land’s inhabitants (9:4-5).  

Yet, in Eikev, one can read other passages in which that fierceness is overshadowed, where instead the deity displays love, care, and concern, and blesses the Israelites.  This model for the divine is considerably more feminist because, as I have explained in numerous other posts, it is definitively not based on a patriarchal model of anger, jealousy, or power-over others.* The main example of the juxtaposition between the angry, vengeful warrior deity and the loving, kind one is in Deuteronomy 8.  The deity both punishes and provides. But, in the end, divine care and concern outweigh more warrior-like behavior (verses 3-4), because despite the tests and trials, the people had food, water, their health, and clothing.   

There are other examples in Eikev that highlight the divine as care and acts of loving-kindness.  In Deuteronomy 7:13-14, we read about the many blessings the divine will bestow on the Israelites including fertility of the people and of the land.  People will not suffer disease in the land (7:15).  The deity makes sure to bring the Israelites to a good land with water, hills and valleys for mining and fertile fields for raising animals and planting crops and various fruit trees; no one will go hungry (8:7-10).  

Why does the deity do this?  Because of love.  The parshah’s second verse (7:13) says that the Israelites are blessed because of divine love for them.  The deity operates out of love for the stranger as well (10:18).  Love is also part of how the Israelites should behave.  They should love the divine (10:12, 11:1 and 22).  And, because they love the divine and the divine loves the stranger, they too should love the stranger (10:18-19).

This very much reminds me of the sentiments expressed in Leviticus.  We are to be holy like the divine is holy (Lev. 11;44-45 and 19:2).  Just sixteen verses later, we read “…Love your neighbour as yourself,” (19:18). However, in Eikev, there is a more immediate connection between who the divine is and how the Israelites should behave. As I have already mentioned above, one should love because the divine loves, do acts of loving-kindness because the divine does, shelter, clothe, feed, and so on.  Operating out of an understanding of the divine as angry, vengeful, jealous warrior would produce very different behavior, would it not?  

Spiritual connection and action go hand-in-hand.  Be holy for I am holy.  Love because I love.  Be kind because I am.  Take care of others as I have taken care of you.   This is Eikev’s message, one I think we should heed.

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.  

*A partial list of my past blog posts that critique the patriarchal model of divinity as a jealous, fierce, angry warrior: Balak; Vayikr; Sh’lach; and Ha’azinu.

Ha’azinu and Models of the Divine by Ivy Helman.

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.   

Continue reading “Ha’azinu and Models of the Divine by Ivy Helman.”
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