Deuteronomist Theology: A Katrina Test Case

In almost every portion of Deuteronomy we read an impassioned expression of a unique theology. Boiled down to its barest essence, it can summed up as follows: “You’re about to enter the Land. Just follow my laws and you’ll be fine. But break them (particularly the ones about serving other gods) and you’ll be very, very, very sorry.”

This week’s portion, Parashat Eikev, is no exception:

If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Eternal you God and serving God with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your grain and wine and oil – I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle – and thus you shall eat your fill. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the Eternal’s anger will flare up against you, shutting up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Eternal is assigning to you. (Deuteronomy 11:13-17)

I know that many regard the theology of Deuteronomy, with its image of a threatening God and its simplistic “play by my rules and no one gets hurt” message to be painfully primitive –  even morally problematic. To a certain extent I would certainly agree. However I would also add that Deuternomomistic Theology can not so easily be dismissed.

Let’s use a very recent incident: namely, Hurricane Katrina – as an example.

Following this tragic disaster, it wasn’t long before religious fundamentalists piously proclaimed Katrina to be “God’s judgement” upon the “moral sins” of New Orleans (or in some cases, America at large).  This literalist interpretation of the Bible; this victim-blaming for moralistic/political purposes represents the theology at its very worst – and I have no trouble saying so.

However, while this theological approach might fall short as a way to explain random natural disasters, it does serve an important purpose in a different regard: it provides an important reminder of collective responsibility.

After all, beyond all the nasty divine threats in Deuteronomy, there is a more profound underlying message: in society, our choices matter. Regardless of what we believe about God, we cannot ignore the message that our collective actions have very real consequences for ourselves and our world.

So, for example, while many of us refuse to accept that Katrina was a punishment for homosexuality, et al, we cannot deny that much of this tragedy was indeed a result of human failure: for example, the failure of our government to heed reports recommending the repair of decrepit levees, the failure of local, state and national agencies to respond to the disaster promptly and properly, the failure of agencies to keep their promises to aid in rebuilding efforts, etc.

At the end of the day, Deuteronomy’s theology is rooted in the concept of covenant – and more specifically, covenental responsibility. Even if we don’t agree with the literal terms of this covenant as understood by its ancient Near Eastern author, we can still uphold the its essential ideal:

Unless we take our collective responsibility to one another and our world seriously, we may well “perish from the good land” upon which we live.


Life at the Margins: Shavuot and the Queer Experience

A lovely Shavuot drash by my friend and colleague Rabbi Josh Lesser, of Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta – a Reconstructionist community founded by gays and lesbians:

What queer person cannot relate to Naomi’s fate at one time or another? Feeling lonely, without family, without support and without a clear picture of the future – surely many of us remember a time like that. If we are lucky like Naomi, that reality changes. When she encourages her daughters-in-law to return to a more certain future with security and promise one daughter-in-law, Ruth, stays and pledges an oath of fidelity inextricably binding her life to Naomi’s forever, giving us one of the Torah’s most poignant examples of a family of choice. Her pledge is so complete that some people question if there was more than a mother-daughter bond, but rather that of a life partner. Indeed many people, lesbians and straight folk alike, use Ruth’s pledge as part of their life-long commitment to each other. The text does not answer what their relationship is, but the question itself is important and allows us to wonder. To me, the even more powerful message is that through this pledge, the future changes, a future that will eventually lead to the messianic age.

This transformation is the most queer part of the text. It is this pledge of mutuality and shared destiny in the face of the unknown that enables what is clearly a path of despair and hopelessness to be transformed so powerfully that it produces the seed of the messianic line. Through a series of events, some even say through God’s hand, Ruth meets Boaz, a kinsman of Naomi. He admires her dedication to Naomi and offers them support and comfort. Eventually, Boaz decides to join their family of choice from which an offspring emerges beginning the Davidic messianic line. Here we see that God can be powerfully known and experienced through a relationship. If that is not a revelation as profound as Torah, I do not know what is. It is often through selfless giving that God is known as powerfully as if the earth was shaking and thundering. Even more revealing for queer folks is that this relationship occurred in the margins. The central elements of this story take place in Moab, a questionable place at the time, and in the fields – a place of danger and transition. The central players are likewise marginal: widows, older people and strangers. And yet, here in the margins, godliness manifests. Ruth is a testament to everyone that God’s presence resides in those places society shuns or pities.