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A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community

Parashat R'eih 5765
Mahar Hodesh
Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17
September 3, 2005     29 Av 5765

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow, JTS

Megiddo, an archaeological tel in Northern Israel, is situated at the crossroads of an ancient trade route. Indeed, it was the nexus in power struggles among the Canaanites, Egyptians, Israelites, Assyrians, and Babylonians. As such, Megiddo is a site of great biblical significance, especially in the context of this week's Torah reading, Parashat R'eih. II Kings relates how King Josiah (639-609 BCE), who was one of the figures responsible for centralizing Israelite religion, was killed by Pharaoh Necho II. Accordingly, at the core of our parashah, we read of the sweeping legislation regarding the centralization of the Israelite sacrificial cult. Deuteronomy 12:4-6 teaches, "Do not worship the Lord your God in like manner, but look only to the site that the Lord your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation, to establish His name there. There you are to go, and there you are to bring your burnt offerings and other sacrifices, your tithes and your contributions, your votive and freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks." Though we know historically, attempts to centralize Israelite worship were carried out during the reigns of Kings Hezekiah (late eighth century BCE) and Josiah, the reason behind such centralization eludes us as modern readers of Torah. Why is centralization of Israelite religion so critical to its message? Would it have not been more beneficial to continue nurturing multiple devotional sites as existed all over the Land of Israel?

The JPS Torah commentary offers three approaches to understanding this critical turn in Israelite history: religious, political, and theological. First, Maimonides argues that centralization of sacrificial worship was connected to God's desire to minimize and eventually curtail animal sacrifice. Maimonides, like other Jewish thinkers and scholars, believed that sacrifices were part of the ultimate transition to a community of prayer. As such, Deuteronomy proscribed altars scattered throughout the land — limiting sacrifices to one sacred locale. Second, one discovers the notion argued by many biblical historians. Both Hezekiah and Josiah sought to consolidate the devotional site for the sake of economic and political gains. Hezekiah "sought to secure loyalty of the Judahite countryside to Jerusalem in the face of Assyrian aggression." And Josiah, for his part, desired to seize control of the agricultural bounty "from the rural Levites so as to use it for royal purposes such as defense." Third, and most compelling, one finds theological underpinnings to Deuteronomy's pronouncement. Dr. Moshe Greenberg writes that Deuteronomy rejects a multiplicity of devotional sites precisely because it is inherently pagan. Multiple sites could easily lead one to conclude that the Israelites pray to a panoply of gods. Centralizing Israelite worship then represents a paradigmatic shift that came to reflect monotheistic belief.

Judaism today reflects both a sense of core and periphery. While we continue to pray, turning to the sacred core of Jerusalem, we locate ourselves in the periphery — multiple places of worship — within our own communities and around the world. This tension, between center and satellite, is one of rootedness and creativity. While the core nourishes our roots, the periphery plays the vital role of expanding our canopy. May we learn to gracefully and creatively navigate the space between these sacred precincts.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz

The publication and distribution of "A Taste of Torah" commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.