Ki Tavo – Judaism’s Continental Divide

In North America, the Continental Divide runs along a series of western mountains. Everything to one side flows to the Pacific. Runoff on the other side flows to the Atlantic, principally through the Gulf of Mexico.

The Torah portion read Saturday functions much the same way.  The dividing line is whether we believe there are consequences for failing to follow the Torah’s laws.

As Ki Tavo begins, the Children of Israel are about to cross into the promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  One last time, Moshe Rabbenu describes the Covenant.  Follow Gd’s Laws, and blessings will follow.  Break them, and the consequences will be horrific.  Among the consequences:

Your sons and daughters will be given over to another people, and your eyes will see [this] and long for them all day long, but you will be powerless.

And you will remain few in number, whereas you were once as numerous as the stars of the heavens because you did not obey the Lord, your God.

At my shul, the curses portion were read hurriedly, in hushed tones, as is traditional. It is a Conservative synagogue but the rabbi, trained in a Reform seminary, was quick to explain that he didn’t see any cause-and-effect role in the blessings and curses.  The desire to show that curses can befall good people is what led early rabbis to include The Book of Job into the Hebrew Bible, he described being told in seminary.

That is precisely the view of Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein, who  wrote the following for Reform Judaism’s website :

Any efforts to apply the world view of Deuteronomy 28 to actual Jewish experience in history seems abhorrent and blasphemous, a non starter for us in a post Holocaust world…. Progressive Jews hold that the Torah was written by human beings.
Not surprisingly, the Orthodox position is different.  Here is how Seattle Rabbi Bernie Fox put it for the Orthodox Union several years ago:
The Torah is a law revealed by the Almighty. It is not a set of traditions. We do not accept the Torah because it was our ancestors’ way of life.  We accept the Torah because it is Hashem’s revealed truth.
Professor Saperstein is having none of that.   “After the Holocaust, the traditionalist interpretation of suffering as divine punishment has been relegated to the lunatic fringe of fundamentalist theologies.”
Our congregational rabbi is working to pull us back from the lunatic fringes. In the past year, he has sermonized that there is no Covenant, discussed “Putting God Second” and has now discounted the notion of blessings and curses.
I find it difficult to accept Reform’s use of the Holocaust to explain abrogation of the Covenant, as that movement has been rejecting the Covenant since the early 1800’s, nearly a century before there was a Nazi Party.
By the mid-1800’s, most large congregations in Germany had been taken over by adherents of Reform.  And, since America’s Jews mid century had primarily come from Germany, many (if not most) congregations here were Reform as well.  It was only here and there, especially in the Midwest, that Jews wanting a more traditional experience began leaving the Reform for what years later would become known as Conservative Judaism.
Lord Jonathan Sacks, retired now as Britain’s chief rabbi, has written about Ki Tavo several times.  He sees it as an opportunity to retell our story.
A large part of what Moses is doing in the book of Devarim is retelling that story to the next generation, reminding them of what God had done for their parents and of some of the mistakes their parents had made. Moses, as well as being the great liberator, is the supreme storyteller. Yet what he does in parshat Ki Tavo extends way beyond this.
Throughout Devarim Moses warns the people – no less than fourteen times – not to forget. If they forget the past they will lose their identity and sense of direction and disaster will follow. Moreover, not only are the people commanded to remember, they are also commanded to hand that memory on to their children.
It could be said that among the non-Orthodox we have begun to forget.
Perhaps the disaster Moses is warning of relates to becoming few in numbers and disappearing from the world; having our sons and daughters given over to another people; seeing this with our own eyes yet being incapable of doing anything about it?
As with falling fertility and  soaring intermarriage?
About the Author
A resident of Ann Arbor, Michigan, I hold BA and MA degrees in economics, and spent the first decade after graduate school in journalism. I have worked on Wall Street, met a payroll, won a wire service award, and served on three boards. With a partner, I am involved in a litigation funding business.
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