Not in the heavens. On Parashat Netzavim
I don’t care about archaeology. You heard me well. I don’t care if there are no historical pieces of evidence that, one day in the Bronze Age, twelve tribes of descendants of slaves assembled on the bank of the Jordan River to listen to a long speech given by a very old former Egyptian prince, Moses.
I don’t care about the historicity; frankly speaking, it has been quite an improbable event. I don’t think anyone could physically stand for hours and hours while Moses was giving the long speech that later became the Book of Deuteronomy.
I am more interested in, and I think there is much more to learn from, the content of such a book, the recapitulation of historical events and the moral teachings we can learn from that accounts.
If you take the Biblical account literally -as almost no Jew does- you have to believe that Moses gave a long speech to educate the people before they took possession of the land through a war of conquest. And that long speech later became the Book of Deuteronomy.
This is already a very important teaching. Even in extreme situations, like war, we must follow moral standards. Even in war, there must be morality.
Again, let me repeat: the Torah is not a history book. We don’t care whether the events described in the text took place. What matters is that Jewish civilisation has been built around that text, the Jewish values around which that civilisation has been built.
I’d like to point out two of the moral teachings from the Book of Devarim, or Deuteronomy, that speech of Moses.
First of all, the very context. The Israelites stand, Moses said, not only at the beginning of the conquest. They have in front of them a choice. They can follow ways of justice and compassion, and build a society around those values. Or they can transgress the Divine Law. Return to idolatry and set up a society similar to the society they have left, based on slavery and abuses. And we, descendants of these Israelites, often have the same choice in front of us — which sort of society we want to build, based upon which values.
Let me be more specific and introduce a passage from this week’s Torah portion and another powerful teaching. [Dt 30:11–14] “For this Law which I command you this day, it is not too baffling for you, neither is it beyond reach. It is not in heaven[…] Neither is it beyond the sea […] No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, to observe it”.
לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא “Not in the heaven”. The Torah is not a set of observances impossible to follow or a set of incredibly demanding rules that only exceptionally gifted individuals can follow. Most importantly, “the Torah is not in the heavens” means that it is up to us humans to put it into practice and work out our interpretations. It is our duty to discover the meaning of the Torah through open and unrestricted discussions, which can be found in Rabbinic literature.
We own the Torah. It’s up to us to find a way to follow its rules. God gave the Torah to human beings. God trusts the human beings.
And now let me get back to some years, 1884. It was in Italy at the time of Emancipation. Jews were free to move away from minor centres and relocate to the largest cities.
Many small provincial communities in the Centre and Northern Italy suffered depopulation. Those communities followed traditional Orthodoxy. The rule was to hold a public service and read from the Torah, a minyan, the presence of 10 adult males, was required.
But having a full minyan was increasingly difficult on Shabbat and almost impossible on weekdays. Either because emigration or because the unification of Italy has opened new opportunities to entrepreneurial folks like Jews always are. So people travelled, opened new businesses and guess what, they did not go to shul (how familiar is that…)
Then, an idea occurred to the very Orthodox senior Rabbi of Mantua. Mantua was one of those depopulating communities. There is a wonderful synagogue in Mantua, and the whole city, a Renaissance jewel, is worth a visit. It’s a World Heritage Site. And being Italy, the food is just delicious.
Let me repeat: It was 1884. And the Rabbi was the strictly Orthodox Marco Mordechai Mortara. He proposed to reduce the required number of adults for a public service to seven. He also proposed including women in the minyan. at a time when even the most radical Reformers in Germany or the USA did not even dare to conceive such radical innovation.
Why did Rabbi Mortara make such a bold proposal? Because without public reading, the Torah, our wonderful and ancient Scrolls, will suffer physical damage! The climate is humid. If you have ever been to Milan in the Summer, you’d agree with me, And Mantua is worse. The parchments can degenerate easily if they are not exposed to light.
The minyan rule is ancient and established, so reasoned Rabbi Mortara, but it derives from an interpretation of the ancient text that can be over-interpreted, with benefits for all the community. Rabbi Mortara went back to the origin of the rule, and -erudite as he was- he pointed out that there was room for flexibility.
Remember the passage? לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא “Not in the heavens”. The Torah has been given to human beings with the permission and the skills to interpret it, to make it alive, and -as is the case for too many Torah Scroll around the world- not to let our Sefarim to wilt.
When Rabbi Mortara published his article, there was an ongoing debate among Italian Rabbis about innovations (and else) in a post-Emancipation world.
Scholars believe that a consistent part of Italian Jewry had embraced the ideals of Reform Judaism, but that’s another matter, although I pride myself on adhering to that interpretation of the minyan rule.
And I know that someone is wondering why I am focusing on those old Rabbinic intricacies, a minor episode in Jewish history, on the verge of the New Year. There is a war in Ukraine. There are mass revolts and mass repression in Iran (not that our friends at Yachad took notice…). The Far Right is about to reap its largest electoral success in Italy.
The thing is: that autocrat in Russia who is sending people to die in Ukraine and to murder civilians there, does not care about the rule of the Law. The venerated Rabbi Mortara did. He took that decision looking for precedents in the sources. He did not put himself above the Law.
The Iranian women who are taking the streets these days, rebelling against the Ayatollahs and their Medieval regime… claim equality. This is what Italian Jewry could have achieved had the proposal of the old and wise Rabbi Mortara met the approval it deserved.
It cannot be a coincidence that so many Italian Rabbis of that generation had professional experience as teachers in the State’s girls’ school. The better-paid positions of teachers in boys’ schools were, for some reason, available to Catholic teachers only… Those Rabbis knew how stupid it was to deny women full civil rights, including voting rights.
And last but not least, I think to these enlightened 19th-century Rabbis, for a good reason. Their faith in humanity and their reverence for a religious tradition that so much empowered human beings. I know that they belong to a better Italy. Better than that arrogant populistic motley crew who most probably will win the elections tomorrow.
Our religious tradition had been passed to us by spiritual giants; this should be for us a source of inspiration and a reason for hope. And hope is what we need next year.
Shanah Tovah. Keep the candle burning.
[After the racial abuses I have been subjected t, I commit to talking as much as possible about the history of Italian Jewry. We are not gangsters.]