After slave generation
Gets troublesome rules
Moses continues his instructions to the people as they prepare to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land. One particular commandment – and this isn’t the only place it appears – is quite troublesome:
You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.
What are we to make of this instruction to destroy the sacred objects and places of other faiths? We would condemn such behavior, but our scripture commands it. As this week’s haiku suggests, this commandment must be understood in the context of the time during which it was given.
The people about to enter the land are the first post-slavery generation. The previous generation, former slaves who by now have died, spent decades in the desert complaining, even wondering if it was worth being redeemed. How would the choices of the children of slaves be influenced by what they heard from their ancestors?
One of the most important commandments – arguably the most important for Jewish identity – is to worship Adonai, the One God. In Torah we find many warnings against even co-mingling with others who might worship differently than we are instructed.
Living among others – perhaps even seeing the places where others worship – was seen as a threat to the ability of the first generation of Jews after Egypt to survive as an “am chofshi b’artzeinu” – a free people in our own land.
Things are different today. Centuries of living as a (mostly) free people in many lands means we don’t worry as much as Moses did about the temptation to worship with other faiths and abandon Judaism.
An example of how we handle such concerns today can be found in the interfaith outreach initiatives of the Reform Movement. Instead of abandoning those who marry outside the faith we welcome them, making it possible for their children to remain connected to the faith of their Jewish parent through education, holiday observance and Jewish life cycle celebrations.
Instead of becoming an insular community that doesn’t engage with others, we work with congregations of other faiths for social justice in our communities.
Today we don’t ensure our survival through the destruction of the sacred places of other faiths, as commanded in this week’s portion. Thousands of year later, we survive through the strength of our own faith.
Image by elPadawan via Flickr
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