This week, we begin studying the fifth book of the Torah, Devarim, which is also the name of this week’s portion. It was the custom of our ancestors to name books and Torah portions after the first word or phrase of the text and Devarim, “words,” is actually shorthand for the first phrase in verse 1:1 “Eleh HaDevarim asher deeber Moshe el kol Yisrael,” (These are the words which Moses spoke to all of Israel).
This first portion of Devarim is actually a prologue to the remainder of the book. The portion’s text is an abbreviated recap of life for the Israelites since leaving Mt. Sinai, a cliff notes version of historic events that they experienced during their years in the wilderness. In this prologue, Moses is trying to reinforce two lessons learned by the Israelites during their wanderings that he wants them to take with them to the new land: trusting and obeying G-d leads to success, and mistrusting and disobeying G-d leads to failure. The rest of the book highlights their shared history together since Sinai as experiential proof of the validity of that concept.
These lessons are consistent with biblical Judaism, which is based on what the Israelites experienced rather than what they believed, i.e. events rather than ideas. For most of history Jews have accepted the Torah as a true historic record of biblical events. It did not matter whether or not we each personally witnessed those events; our ancestors had experienced them, so we trusted their explanation of them as true acts of G-d.
When the first verse of Devarim reads, “Eleh HaDevarim asher deeber Moshe el kol Yisrael,” (These are the words which Moses spoke to all of Israel), Jews have historically understood that phrase to mean that Moses actually spoke to the entire people and that his words were recorded exactly as he said them.
Only in recent history, when the scientific expectation of objective proof became the standard for truth rather than someone’s personal experience and opinion, have we Jews developed the expectation of a belief in G-d. Why? Because we had to answer the question “If I can’t prove Moses actually spoke those words to all of Israel, can I still embrace what they teach me?”
Today, while many Jews still accept the Bible as factual proof of G-d, there are plenty of Jews who say that they do not believe in G-d precisely because they cannot objectively prove the Bible stories are true. Perhaps more importantly, though, there are many more Jews who believe in G-d regardless of whether the Bible is actually true or not. Some personal experience in their own life has affirmed their faith, and the truth of the Torah is not the focus of their beliefs but a forum of study for the behavioral expression of their beliefs.
Those believers are embracing Moses’ lessons from this portion for our own time; trusting in G-d is the most faithful thing a Jew can do, regardless of biblical proof, and ignoring G-d, regardless of biblical proof, is the most myopic.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)