Friday, September 25, 2015

God’s children - disowned? Political, social justice and religious perspectives - Haazinu

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I object to the idea of God completely rejecting people. If we accept the proposition that God Himself rejected a group utterly, then why should mere mortals restrain their own bigotry or oppression? I am committed to the principle of the intrinsic worth of every human. On Wednesday this week, I was dressed in a ritual white robe, fasting and praying to my “father in heaven” for atonement. I feel cleansed and have a warm peaceful feeling. Yet in Judaism there is an argument against my assumption of an unconditional parent-child relationship between God and me.

We have an ambiguous verse in this week’s reading of Haazinu. If translated literally it reads:  “Destroyed/Corrupted to him, no, his children, their blemish, [a] crooked and twisted generation”. 1 One way of reading the first part of this text is “Corrupted to Him [namely to God, have they, the Jews, who are] not [any more considered to be] His children, [and this lost status] is their blemish…” The idea is that the status of being God’s children can be lost due to disobedience”. 2

While I can see the advantages of not setting one group apart as God’s children, I am uncomfortable with the idea of any group being deemed “God’s disowned children”. One source for the notion of a conditional relationship is in the Talmud, 3 but it comes not from the great sages but out of the mouth of an evil person, the Roman Governor, poster-boy for what not to do in Inter-faith dialogue, Turnus-Rufus the wicked. 4 The Governor asserted in an argument with Rabbi Akiva about the merit of charity, that when the Jews do not do the will of God they are no longer called his children but rather his servants. 5 He argued that because God does not provide sustenance to poor Jews, other Jews should not interfere in God’s plan by giving them charity.

Rabbi Akiva did not argue the point, which some might take as him agreeing with it. 6 I suggest Rabbi Akiva was focused on the main game, which was the attempted justification of the Roman cruel oppression of the minority exiled Jews, rather than the word play in the theological argument. 7 Rabbi Akiva, ignored the arrogant and flawed 8 attempt by Turnus Rufus to determine Jewish theology and instead drew his attention to the prophet’s call, to bring the “oppressed poor into your home”. 9 There is a pointed reference to the cruelty of the oppressive Romans and a clever move that enabled him to recapture the moral high ground as he negotiated the position of his people.

However this argument goes back even earlier between sages of the Talmud themselves, 10 but I have seen it argued that this dispute was resolved with the proponent of conditional “child status”, conceding in the end to his opponent 11 that in fact even when the Israelites behave poorly, they are castigated as it is our reading of Haazinu as “Sons in whom there is no faith”, 12 or “foolish sons”.   13

I find the alternative interpretations to our text above about “His children” more plausible. It has been translated as “They have corrupted for themselves, their good deeds, His beloved children”. 14 Or, in another interpretation it is the ‘Jews themselves that have turned their back on the relationship with God rejecting their status as His children in their hearts’. 15 Yet, God insists in the very next verse that the Jews should recognise Him as their father, God asking rhetorically “Is he not your father?!” 16 On the day after Yom Kippur I feel a little closer to my Father in heaven, whose parenthood, at least from His perspective was never in question. I pray that all of God’s children, regardless of their beliefs or behaviour be shown His love and compassion, and are valued by their fellow humans unconditionally.


1.    Deuteronomy 32:5, שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹּא בָּנָיו מוּמָם דּוֹר עִקֵּשׁ וּפְתַלְתֹּל
2.    Note that in Hebrew the same word “Lo- לא” is used both for no and not. This view is taken by highly respected classic commentators including Ramban, also known as Nachmanides, of the 13th century, Abarbanel 15th Century and more recent commentators: Ohr Hachayim 18th Century, Samson Raphael Hirsch 19th Century. The view of the most commonly studied and very authoritative Rashi from the 11th century is ambiguous. He states "they were his sons, but the corruption that they corrupted is their blemish”. One prominent supra-commentary, known as Mizrahi, emphasises the past tense in Rashi’s comment. “they were” [his children] meaning at the beginning, because it cannot be that they would be called His children after they have acted corruptly. This view seemed to be shared by Sifsei Chachomim, but it is disputed by Be’er Basadeh who asserts that Rashi sees the damage in the context of a non-negotiable parent child relationship, in which God is as protective of His children as one would be toward the apple of their eye but because of the sin God hides his face. Yet, he argues that the relationship is not confined to the past, prior to the sin as we can see from the way Rashi continues to refers to the Jews as God’s children in Rashi’s very next sentence. Sefer Hazikaron, agreed with Mizrahi that the relationship is conditional but also notes the evidence for a non-negotiable relationship cited by Be’er Basadeh, and states that he doesn’t understand it, and that further study is needed. 
3.    Talmud Bava Basra, 10a
5.    Talmud Bava Basra, 10a
6.    This might explain the direct quote from Turnus Rufus turning up in Ohr Hachayim but being attributed to those whose “memory is a blessing”, in Ohr Hachayim’s commentary to Deuteronomy 32:5
7.    See Maharsha on Talmud Bava Basra, 10a, beginning with “this makes them liable for hell”.
8.    Torah Temimah on Deuteronomy 14:1, refutes the binary proposition put forward by Turnus Rufus that Jews can either be the children or God as they are referred in some verses, which he asserts apply when they do the will of God, and they are refered to as servants of Gods in other verses which would apply when they don’t do the will of God. In fact, Moses himself is called a servant of God as a form of high praise, rather than punishment. 
9.    Isaiah 58, read as the Yom Kippur Haftorah, translation follows Maharsha’s commentary
10.    Talmud Kidushin 36a
11.    Torah Temimah on Deuteronomy 14:1 asserts that this implied in the Sifre on Deuteronomy 32:5
12.    Deuteronomy 32:20
13.    Jeremiah 4
14.    This is a composite of the translations by the classic translators, Unkelus (1st Century) and Yonatan Ben Uziel (One of the Tanaaim of the Talmud, possibly ever earlier than Unkelus), Rashbam (12th century) follows a similar approach, the cantillation marks for the words suggest a pause between the words “no/not” and “his sons” with the word Lo, marked by a Tipcha. Malbim (19th Century) takes the commentary into a completely different direction, which also does not follow the approach of God disowning His children.
15.    Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 32:5 and 6
16.    Deuteronomy 32:6

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