Parshat V’zot haberacha (Deuteronomy 33:1- 34:12)
a.k.a Moses blesses the Israelites
and dies, aged 120
Children of Israel, tribe by tribe, reminding them that God's teaching is the inheritance for the children of
Israel and what unites them. Moses gave a different message to each of the tribes, specifying their special
qualities and their domains of excellence. He gave a special message to Reuben, Judah, Levi, Benjamin, Joseph,
Zebulun, Issachar, Gad, Dan, Naphtali, Asher, Yeshurun – all of Jacob’s sons and their
Then Moses said to the
people, “There is none like your God. God guides heavens to help you. God is the everlasting support that raises
all things from the depths. God has driven away your enemy from before you.”
Moses went up from the
wastelands of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the summit of the high place that lies overlooking Jericho, and God showed him
all the land. Then God said to Moses. “This is the land which I promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. To your
descendants I will give it. I will let you see it with your eyes but you will not go there.”
And Moses, the servant
of God, died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of God. God buried him in the valley in the land of
Moab, opposite Beth-Peor and no one has ever found his grave. Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eyes had
not become dim and his freshness had not left him.
The Children of Israel
wept for Moses in the wastelands of Moab for 30 days. When the days of weeping in mourning for Moses were at an
, the son
of Nun, was filled with the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands upon him. Then the Children of Israel
listened to Joshua as God had commanded Moses that they should. And no prophet has yet arisen in Israel like Moses,
whom God allowed to know him face to face.
Commentary on the 54th parsha (portion) of the Torah. The Torah consists of
the five books of Moses, the first part of the Old Testament.
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza,
interviews Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand
Judaism and how we got where we are.
He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
that’s it. The end of the Torah. The end of Moses. It’s sad. I still think he got a raw deal.
MS: Yes, well, I think he probably didn’t see it that way.
He was the prophet who got closest to God. And it is he who took us through the last four books of the Torah. His
history is our history. And his prophecy was the future of the Children of Israel.
SAS: Well, if you see it like that. But the tribes of
Israel did not really fulfil that prophecy, did they? Some got lost along the way. And some were marked for
disaster. And anyway, do you really believe all of that, especially the prophecies about the tribes of Israel? They
too were the puppets of the bible and of history.
MS: Look, the journey of the Children of Israel out of
slavery and into freedom is one of the seminal stories of our culture. It was an impossible journey, and they made
it, through the help of God, and with the leadership of Moses. He kept them together as a people, and brought them
out of the desert. You must admit that our history goes very far back and the story of our faith is a consistent
SAS: Look, I understand the longevity and fascination of
the myth. But I have no great belief that I am related to any of that ragtag rabble who came out of Egypt all those
years ago. I don’t even believe that they existed, let alone that they were my ancestors.
MS: So where do you think you come from Sigmund? Do you
have no relationship at all to any of this? You don’t believe that God exists, you don’t believe that Moses existed
as a real person, you don’t believe that there were twelve tribes, the descendants of the children of Jacob. What’s
your connection? Why do you care? Why are you even talking to me about these things? What do they have to do with
SAS: Well, I am fascinated at the length and consistency of
this tradition and a belief structure founded on monotheism and circumcision. I want to understand how the belief
and the people who believe it have lasted this long. I wonder if they were a very warlike people who conquered
other desert tribes, or perhaps if they were so clever they outwitted their enemies. I wonder what happened to them
as they dispersed all over the world, and I wonder who it was that continued their traditions as though they were
the word of God. I want to understand what kept these people together, and what could drive them apart. I want to
understand their claim to a land that was promised to them by an imaginary being, and how their traditions have
kept them together as a group.
MS: Well, I think you are beginning to see that the answers
to your questions are subtle and complex ones. I must ask you, as well, to consider why it is you, a secular
atheist, a rational thinker who needs to ask these questions.
because that’s what rational people do. They wrestle with the deepest question of existence, they don’t accept
off-pat answers, and they make traditionalists and fundamentalists like you think carefully about why they believe
what they believe.
MS: I think it’s largely because you are seeking the truth.
You will be alienated from your Maker, your people and yourself until you embrace the faith of your fathers. Come
back to the fold, Sigmund. Until you do, you will feel incomplete and deeply unsatisfied.
SAS: I feel fine, thank you very much. My duty is to the
truth. I will never embrace religious belief for the sake of good fellowship and community spirit.
MS: Or any other reason, I think. Oh well, I suppose now
that we’ve finished our discussion on Torah there’s not much left for us to say to each other.
SAS: I think you’re right. I wish you well, though. No one
can doubt your dedication to the tradition of your fathers.
MS: Thank you. I will pray that one day you will find the
way back to the fold.
If you’d like to know more about the real history of our extended Jewish
family, read on.
Historical and cultural perspectives on Jewish Identity
The question, “Who is a Jew?” is an important one, not only for Jews but
for those who wish to legislate issues relating to Jews. As an extreme example of the latter case, the Nazis
needed a definition of Jewishness before they could execute their discriminatory, brutal policies.
According to the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, anyone with three Jewish
grandparents was a Jew. Further, anyone married to a Jew or with one Jewish parent was considered Jewish. Those
with some Jewish blood were categorized as Mischlinge, or hybrids.
Those with two Jewish grandparents were Mischlinge of the first
degree and those with one Jewish grandparent were of the second degree. Any Mischlinge could be deported if they looked Jewish. By October 1942, the
policy for Mischlinge was decided – those of the first degree were to
be sterilized while those of the second degree were to be accepted as Germans but were to be subject to various
Because the Nazi definition of a Jew was genetically based, there was no
way to deny one’s Jewishness or opt not to embrace it. At least in the time of the Spanish Inquisition, Jews had
been given the opportunity to convert to Catholicism and continue to live within the society of the time. Of
course, many Jews claimed to have converted to Catholicism but continued practicing their faith as crypto-Jews.
The Spanish authorities and members of Christian society remained skeptical of the commitment of these New
Christians and continued to regard them with suspicion. But, by and large, they let them carry on with their
Amongst the Spanish Jews, these forced converts were known as Anusim (unwilling ones) and they and their fellow “secret Jews” never doubted
their true identity even though it was kept carefully hidden.
From biblical times the question of Jewish identity has been important
since membership of the people of Israel bound one to a covenant to which specific blessings and curses were
attached. The people needed a clear-cut, binding sense of identity. The principle of matrilineal descent was
Orthodox Judaism today still upholds the halakhic principle of matrilineal descent in determining who is
Jewish. Reform Judaism, on the other hand, will accept a child as
Jewish if it has one Jewish parent – whether the father or mother – provided the child has been raised as a Jew
and maintains a Jewish identity. Karaite Judaism, on the other hand, follows patrilineal descent on the basis
that the biblical tribes have male names and biblical characters were identified as sons of their
The first written source for the halakha was the Mishnah, which upholds matrilineal descent for a person of a
mixed marriage. A person may also convert to Judaism and be accepted as Jewish. In rabbinic Judaism, the basis
for conversion is established in classic sources of Jewish law such as the Talmud. In terms of Orthodox
requirements, the person requires instruction in the commandments, circumcision for men or immersion in water (a
mikveh) for women, and acceptance of the commandments before a
rabbinical court. The convert must undertake to observe halakha.
In Reform Judaism, requirements for conversion differ. Usually, a course in
basic Jewish history, culture, theology and customs is necessary as well as individual study with a rabbi,
attendance of religious services and participation in synagogue life and home practice of Judaism. Circumcision
and immersion are not required in Reform Judaism in the USA.
Once a person is accepted as Jewish, he or she will continue to be
considered Jewish in most cases, even within Orthodox Judaism, if they convert to another faith. If a Jew is
declared a heretic (i.e. he has a cherem placed on him like Spinoza),
he is excluded from the community but is still considered a Jew. Avowed atheists and agnostics are still
considered Jewish because they are “ethnic Jews” and they are free to return to the faith at any time. Converts
who turn away from Judaism may, or may not, be considered Jewish depending on the modus operandi of the congregation in question.
The Law of Return, enacted in 1948, gave every Jew the right to live in
Israel. This right was also extended to converts. However, Jews who have openly converted to another faith do
not have this right. In the early 1950s there was strong resistance to the immigration of Karaite Jews, but this
no longer applies.
In the USA, inter-marriage has seen the population of “half-Jews” come
close to matching, proportionally, that of Jews with two Jewish parents.
For most people in society, the identification of a Jew rests with the
image that the person presents of himself or herself. If the person claims that identity, follows Jewish
traditions, and shows empathy with Jewish culture, then that person will be perceived to be Jewish.
For the philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, the Jewish identity was reinforced
more strongly by those opposed to the Jewish ethos than those within it. He famously wrote, “It is the
anti-Semite who creates the Jew”.
Many Postmodernists would agree with this perception. All concepts or
realities have binary opposites and it is those opposites that bring clarity, form and definition to the
concepts or phenomena under discussion.
Those who oppose Judaism and its people, the argument goes, provide Jews
with their strongest motivation for maintaining their beliefs, culture and identity. Even more than religion or
Jewish cultural habits, it’s the ongoing antagonisms and the perennial threats of Jew-haters that keeps the
Jewish community united and which fosters the community’s absolute determination to survive and stand tall in
Many would reject this view and assert that Judaism has internal traditions
and habits that would be cherished even if no external threats to Judaism existed. Perhaps, they might assert, it is Orthodox Judaism that most effectively holds
the Jewish community to account.
Whatever the case, and no matter what difficulties in definition exist, the
Jewish life-world remains extraordinarily vibrant, charismatic and powerful in today’s world.
Here follows a discussion on this historical segment by Dad, Chaya and
BEN: I have never thought much about defining who Jews are since I’ve always been
accepted as a Jew. But, thinking about it, I’m sure it’s very important. For example, if you want to go to a
Jewish school that is Orthodox then you need to prove that you are Jewish according to the Orthodox definition.
CHAYA: Sometimes it’s not being Jewish that’s important, but being sympathetic to the
Jewish ethos. Like when non-Jewish people want to attend a bar mitzvah, they need to convince the security guard
at the Shul gate that they are well-disposed to the community and
pose no risk.
DAD: The very fact that many synagogues do have security personnel in attendance shows
that there is a kind of “us” and “them” thing happening here. And as you say, Chaya, it’s not just about
defining who is a Jew, a part Jew, or a friend of a Jew. It’s about who you can safely or comfortably allow
inside a Jewish place of worship.
CHAYA: But is that about Judaism or a perceived threat of terrorism in this
DAD: It may be a bit of both. I think the message it’s designed to send is that we Jews
are vigilant, about all kinds of things.
BEN: As far as definitions go, the halakhic
one makes sense to me. After all, barring a DNA test, you can’t always be sure who a person’s father is while
it’s easy enough to identify the mother.
DAD: And yet, with all that male “begatting” in the bible, it is something of a surprise
to see matrilineal succession being definitive. How many lines of holy writing do we have telling us who
fathered whom? It goes on for ages, and yet – when push comes to shove – a Jew is defined in terms of who
mothered whom. Do you think it matters, actually, whether it’s your
mother or your father who’s Jewish if you are brought up to be a Jew and you want to be a Jew?
BEN: Well, it matters if you want to be sure – biologically.
DAD: We could spend some time discussing the ways in which recent studies have tracked
chromosome, which is passed on only by males, and the mitochondrial genome, which is passed on only
by females, through the generations. It’s a very technical discussion. I’m not sure it’s a relevant one for what
makes one Jewish, anyway.
BEN: Agreed! Let’s rather discuss the racist program of the Nazis. I have never been
sure about whether Nazi doctrines of racial purity and Aryanism on the one hand, and the tainted, corrupting
nature of Jewish blood on the other, were taken seriously at official level or were merely pretexts for
dispossessing people whose assets they wanted and for whom they had held a long and abiding
CHAYA: I think that if we examine the amount of effort the Nazis made to classify
degrees of Jewishness and to catalogue people’s ancestry, we are inevitably led to the view that many Germans
took the notion of Aryan purity extremely serious and believed, without doubt, that mass murder as well as
eugenic planning and programming could turn the German people into a purified master race.
DAD: Indeed! And because they needed a working definition of Jewishness, and because
they believed in systematic thought and practice, it became necessary to define Jewishness and decide how to
deal with people with various degrees of Jewish blood. It took a
very grotesque form of fastidiousness to do that. It was obsessive and fanatical behavior, not to mention
CHAYA: It is difficult to comprehend such cruelty and monstrousness. Yet we Jews also
have a predilection for enforcing rules to do with ethnic purity. As we said, Orthodox Judaism is extremely
fussy when it comes to who is Jewish and who is not. Jewish identity is linked to bloodlines and rules of
exclusion are strictly enforced.
BEN: I sometimes wonder why. If you think of how much we’ve been persecuted and how many
difficulties a person might face for being Jewish, you’d think we’d be only too eager to welcome converts who
want to be part of the Jewish community. We need all the support we can get. Should Orthodox religious leaders
not relax the rules and allow conversion to be easier? And should they not welcome both patrilineal and
matrilineal succession when it comes to people of mixed parentage?
DAD: The counter-argument to this is that Orthodoxy maintains the rules and customs that
give Judaism its true identity, its shape, its boundaries and its character. Bend the rules too much and you
might end up with a syncretistic mixture of Judaism and New Age spirituality, or Judaism and contemporary
secularism. According to the Orthodox Jewry, someone has to play cultural policeman, and they think the role is
BEN: I think Reform Judaism makes a lot more sense in a contemporary, cross-cultural,
urban setting. Their more flexible approach to Jewish identity is refreshing and will result in a stronger, more
tolerant and more intellectually stimulating community.
CHAYA: Or one which slowly loses its sense of identity and becomes too heterodox for its
DAD: Orthodox and Reform Judaism each have things to teach the other. Judaism benefits
from both approaches.
CHAYA: If only they would leave that imposter, God, out of the equation.
Every Shabbat we read five short sayings that express, with typically
Jewish wit and humor, insightful reflections on this life of ours.
Here are tonight’s sayings:
· A heavy purse is light to carry
· The follies of children are termites to their fathers’ possessions.
· Any Jew can be a cantor, except that at this moment he happens to be hoarse.
· Treat him like a rabbi and watch him like a thief.
· One day a vizier, the next day dismissed.
Celebration of Great Lives
Every Friday night we celebrate the achievements of our Jewish family in
contributing to changing the world for the better and having an extraordinary impact on those around
Tristan Tzara (1896 – 1963)
Born Sami Rosenstein in Romania, Tzara established a literary reputation for symbolist verse in
his native land before relocating to Zurich and then Paris. In Zurich he became the co-founder of the
Dada movement and the impact of this group in Europe was immense.
It played fast and loose with the rules of language and logic, and gave poetry an ideological dimension it
had formerly lacked. The impact of Dada weakened in 1924 as
Surrealism emerged, and by 1931 Tzara had embraced Surrealism with the publication of L’Homme approximatif, considered by some to be the poetic masterwork of Surrealism. His theoretical essay, Sur la situation de la poésie, is
also an important statement of his artistic code. In 1935 Tzara became a Communist and was active in the
French Underground during the Second World War. His post-war work included poetry, drama and
1970 the company La Monnaie de Paris stamped a medal with the
image of Tristan Tzara that declared him, “the father of Dadaism”.
We will now sing a traditional song to conclude our Shabbat celebration.
You have a copy of the words, so please join in as we sing.
The song is sung
Farewell and an Invitation
Thank you for coming together to share our Shabbat. May you go out into the
new week with renewed strength, confidence and happiness.
We now cordially invite you to join us for some coffee and cake.