August 7, 2008
Back to School
Parshat Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)
I primarily do two kinds of teaching: Torah classes in a wide range of areas within my extended congregational community and California civil procedure and advanced torts at law school. As the terms wind down, my law students often ask whether I would mind devoting time in our last class of the term to reviewing material we have studied. And that is the way of teaching. One begins by explaining where she is going with her message or class, one teaches or writes accordingly and one concludes by reviewing for her students or readers what she has taught.
In Parshat Devarim we begin a new book, Deuteronomy, the fifth and final volume of the Five Books of Moses, or the Pentateuch. In Hebrew, we call it the Chumash, or the Torah. Christians call it the Old Testament. Each of these names implicitly perceives the Book of Devarim as part and parcel of an integrated package.
Primarily in the late 19th century -- only a bit more than a century ago -- Julius Wellhausen, a German scholar who undertook analyzing the Pentateuch, emerged with his "Documentary Hypothesis," arguing that the Torah was not the revealed word of the Creator to the Jewish People but instead had been authored individually by several different contributors. One of those authors, he submitted, was the Deuteronomist, the supposed human author of the Book of Devarim. Wellhausen posited that the presence within Deuteronomy of so much text that recounts and repeats the substance of earlier Chumash volumes proves a separate human author.
Interestingly, many non-observant Jewish historians and theologians see in Wellhausen's writings an unmistakable reflection of the intense anti-Semitism that pervaded German academia in the late 19th century. It was incomprehensible for so many Germans, including intellectuals, to fathom that the Master of the Universe would have chosen the Jewish People, as among all nations on earth, to have received the Torah in their millions amid thunder and lightning, dramatic shofar sounding and the glory of the Divine revelation at Mount Sinai. It was easier to posit that a bunch of individuals had written book parts. The school of literary criticism provided an angle.
For those of us who believe with absolute intellectual certitude that the entire Chumash is the exact Word of the Creator, down to each letter -- Divinely revealed in Ten Pronouncements to the Nation at Mount Sinai and further Divinely revealed in 613 laws orally taught to Moses atop the mountain and thereafter in text that Moses transcribed by direct dictation from Hashem's "mouth" during the peregrinations through Sinai -- the repetition in Devarim is not redundancy but review. If Moses was anything, he was Moshe Rabbeinu -- Moses our Teacher. And, just as a trial attorney sums up for a jury in an elegantly woven fabric everything they have heard and experienced in bits and pieces during days or weeks of a trial, so Moses begins his summation before dying, reminding the nation what they have seen and experienced in bits and pieces, heard and learned over 40 years and two generations, weaving the strands into a coherent fabric.
The Jewish nation in the Sinai Desert, learning at the feet of Moses, are not law students preparing to take a written final or to sit for a bar exam while their law school professor weaves together a term's lectures in one final review. But they know that, at their journey end, they will -- as we all ultimately will -- encounter a final test. In preparing for that test, there is no better starting point than to study carefully the words of the Book of Devarim that will be read at your synagoguge this year in nine weekly installments between Aug. 9 and Oct. 4.
Our greatest teacher is summing up the lessons of a lifetime. Get out your notebooks and pens, your laptops. Start writing and typing notes right after Shabbat each week.
And share the Word.
Rabbi Dov Fischer, an adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and Chapman School of Law, is founding spiritual leader of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at www.ravfischer.blogspot.com and can be contacted via his Web site at www.ravfischer.com.
A version of this article appeared in print.
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