Literary Voice as an Expression of Theology: The Examples of Deuteronomy and Lamentations

The book of Deuteronomy is unique among the five books of the Torah in that much of it is written in the first-person singular. The book is essentially a speech crafted and delivered by Moshe, with the imprimatur of God. As a genre, it is different from the rest of the Torah, which can largely be divided into the categories of narrative, law or poetry. While Deuteronomy contains all of these components, it also functions as a kind of sermon, rooted in the subjective, personal voice of Moses, that is intended to inspire and strengthen the Jewish people as they enter the land of Israel. The genre and perspective of the Deuteronomy is also interwoven with its message. There is an earthly nature to the book as a whole – it is practically oriented and interested in the human institutions necessary to interpret and actualize God’s covenant in the land of Israel. As Moses says toward the end of the Book (30:11-14):

 .כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם–לֹא-נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ, וְלֹא רְחֹקָה הִוא. לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא:  לֵאמֹר, מִי יַעֲלֶה-לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ, וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ, וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה.וְלֹא-מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם, הִוא:  לֵאמֹר, מִי יַעֲבָר-לָנוּ אֶל-עֵבֶר הַיָּם וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ, וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ, וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה. כִּי-קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר, מְאֹד:  בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ, לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ.

“This Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens (לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא) that you should say, ‘who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it.’ Neither is it beyond the seas, that you should say, ‘who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it.’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to observe it.

Deuteronomy in Rabbinic Literature

The Talmud in Tractate Megillah (31b) gives Deuteronomy a halakhic status that is slightly different from that of the rest of the Torah. The Talmud says that the klallot, the curses, in the rest of the Torah are spoken in the plural, from Moses and God in unison, while the curses of Deuteronomy are spoken by Moses himself. Thus they are interpreted so as to have a less stringent halakhic status.

This kind of distinction could easily lead one believe that Deuteronomy is on a lesser plane of holiness than the rest of the Torah. Perhaps it is for this reason that both Maimonides and Nachmanides take care to emphasize that even though Deuteronomy appears to be authored by Moses, it is in fact the word of God. Yet Rashi, as well as the Talmud in Tractate Megillah, look at Deuteronomy differently, and maintain that it is the inspired composition of Moses himself.

Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin, the 19th century Hasidic Rebbe and Jewish thinker, seemed to come down on the side of the Talmud and that of Rashi – i.e., that Deuteronomy is of divinely inspired human origin. Yet, counterintuitively, for R’ Tzadok, the fact that it is spoken by Moses actually adds to its holiness rather than detracting from it. In his commentary on Deuteronomy, R’ Tzadok quotes a legend about the “Yid HaKadosh,” the “Holy Jew,” Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak of Peshischa, who used to read a section from Deuteronomy every single day of the year. This “Holy Jew” used to say that Deuteronomy was his “Mussar Sefer,” something that was more effective for him as a tool of moral instruction than any other book of mussar, and perhaps even other books of the Torah. R’ Tzadok explains that ideas heard from live authorities are more powerful than the kind of detached information one normally encounters in books.

Certainly, we encounter Deuteronomy as a written text, and reading it is not precisely the same thing as hearing it from a live authority. But for R’ Tzadok, the subjective individual voice of Moses that emerges from Deuteronomy is precisely what makes the book “alive.” This is a part of R’ Tzadok’s larger worldview in which the oral Jewish tradition, the Torah she Baal Peh, has theological significance that is in some ways even greater than that of the Torah she bi Khtav, the Biblical tradition. Deuteronomy, for R’ Tzadok, is in a kind of liminal space between the two. It represents the birth of the Torah she Baal Peh, as Moses is interpreting God’s commandments in his own idiom and using his own intuition to guide him. As a man, Moses is able to speak to society in clear and direct terms. While the perspective of any human being is necessarily far more limited than that of God, for R’ Tzadok there is a special power to the human voice that enables it to more easily penetrate the human heart.

James Michener’s Deuteronomy

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While R’Tzadok’s theology is quite radical in certain ways, he is not alone in his reading of Deuteronomy. And decades later, from a very different perspective, one non-Jewish novelist echoed this perception. In The Source, James Michener’s great novel about the various levels of history uncovered at a fictional archeological dig in Israel, the leading American archeologist finds himself baffled and intrigued by Jewish history.  One day he asks his Israeli counterpart to explain the tenacity of the Jewish people to him – what exactly kept them clinging to their faith and longing for their land, for so many years, despite unthinkable adversity and infinite opportunities to assimilate? The Israeli archaeologist says, if one really wants to understand the Jewish spirit, the only thing to do is sit down and read the book of Deuteronomy five times through:

“It’s the great central book of the Jews and if you master it you’ll understand us…Deuteronomy is so real to me that I feel as if my immediate ancestors- say my great-grandfather with desert-dust still on his clothes- came down that valley with goats and donkeys and stumbled onto this spot.”

This sense of immediacy is what R’ Tzadok is pointing to when he says that Devarim is the greatest book of mussar, and that it reaches the heart directly.

The Deuteronomy/Tisha B’Av Connection

Many reasons have been suggested for the juxtaposition of Parshat Devarim with Megillat Eikha, the Book of Lamentations, since it’s the Torah section that we read every year before Tisha B’Av. The famous connection is the appearance of the Hebrew word “eikha” in both texts. Also, the destruction of the Temple commemorated on Tisha B’Av seems to be the negative realization of the warnings and rebukes laid out in Deuteronomy.

rembrandt_-_jeremiah_lamenting
Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem (Rembrandt, 1630)

Yet, with the help of Rabbi Tzadok, there is another way to look at Parshat Devarim as an entry point to Tisha B’Av, and that relates to what Deuteronomy is doing on a literary level. 

The Book of Lamentations and Deuteronomy share the deliberate use of the first person perspective. The third chapter of Lamentations, which begins with “Ani HaGever,” “I am the man,” explores the destruction of Jerusalem in a startling and unique first person voice. Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom notes that only in the third chapter of Lamentations does the possibility of teshuvah, repentance, appear for the first time in the book. Traditionally, we understand that Jeremiah the prophet narrates all of Lamentations. However, it is only when he relinquishes the omniscient narrative voice, and assumes a limited first-person perspective, that the reader is introduced to the possibility of change and of rekindling a connection with God.  

Moreover, while R’ Tzadok speaks of Deuteronomy as being the beginning of the Oral Torah, there was another moment that initiated Rabbinic Judaism as we know it: the destruction of the Temple. R’ Tzadok is generally interested in the phenomenon of human beings reaching for God even when God is painfully distant.  By championing Moses’ subjective first-person perspective in Deuteronomy, R’ Tzadok offers us a useful framework to apply to Tisha B’Av and to the diasporic experience more generally. When we read Lamentations, we mourn the suffering that was. Using Deuteronomy as our guide, we might also consider the ways in which we, as fallible human beings, with limited perspectives who no longer have direct access to God’s word, might begin to enact the covenant here on earth. It is not an ideal circumstance, but perhaps Deuteronomy, more than any other book of the Torah, offers a path for how that might take place.

 

Adapted from a Dvar Torah delivered at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, NJ in the summer of 2015.

 

2 thoughts on “Literary Voice as an Expression of Theology: The Examples of Deuteronomy and Lamentations

  1. Thanks once again for your thought-evoking essay.
    In my view, on the one hand, the first-person perspective in the books of Moshe–specifically Deuteronomy–and Jeremiah go far in allowing the reader to personalize the contents of these biblical works. The self-conscious human perspective allows us to more readily identify with these individuals and imagine how we might have responded to the situations in which they found themselves, and thereby appropriate such books as Mussar works, in the words of R. Tzaddok.
    But then again, these two men are held to be prophets to whom God appeared at certain moments in their lives (Exodus 3; Jeremiah 1) and that, when they were not simply conveying scripts supplied to them by the Divine, were minimally powerfully Divinely-inspired in their words and actions. Given that God no longer directly appears to human beings, nor performs overt miracles (a time that is categorized traditionally as “Hester Panim” [the hiding of the Face]), can the absolute religious certainty that informed these individuals, be even minimally accessible to us? While we can assuredly believe that God actually appeared to the likes of Moshe and Jeremiah, will we today be able to actually empathize with them in any meaningful manner, as we read their important works, even when they are written from a first-person perspective?
    The Talmud (Bava Batra 12a), in the name of R. Avdimi DeMin Chaifa, states: “A scholar is superior to a prophet” which is usually understood to connote that whereas the prophet is “reduced” to relatively passively presenting God’s ideas, the scholar must extrapolate truths by his own devices. Perhaps, even when reading the works of Moshe and Jeremiah, we have to function more like scholars than prophets in order to truly benefit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for these thoughts! I find it interesting that R’ Tzadok does not say that the human nature of Sefer Devarim makes it more “relatable” in any way, it’s not about empathy its about rhetorical power. Their immediacy is what makes them “alive,” but not necessarily more human if that makes sense…

      Like

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