Merry Wonderer of the Night

Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8

By Daniel M. Jaffe

Published September 23, 2005, issue of September 23, 2005.
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Marla’s Catholic husband, Billy, sometimes reads the Torah to understand her values. And now, just as they’re slipping into bed, he mentions this week’s portion, Ki Tavo. “It just sounds so… so Christian,” he says. “I figured the Jewish version would be different from what I was taught, but it’s the same: If the Hebrews disobey the Lord’s rules, then ‘The Lord will cause thee to be smitten before thine enemies… and thou shalt be a horror unto all the kingdoms of the earth.’ And the Hebrews’ numbers will be diminished; they’ll be scattered around the world, and subjected to vicious enemies. Kind of sounds like a prediction of all Jewish suffering to come.”

“It does,” she says softly, “doesn’t it?”

“It also makes Jewish suffering seem like the Jews’ own fault.”

“What a horrible thing to say.” Her voice is flatter now. “That’s not like you.”

“The portion reads that way, though. It reinforces what I’ve heard some people say over the years — that the Jews are destined to suffer. Biblical prophecy. The result of disobedience. The Wandering Jew and all that.”

Marla sits up. “Shame on you!”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t parrot that stupidity.” His thin finger soothes her bangs.

Marla lies down on her side, breathes deeply. “I guess I should apologize for getting knee-jerk defensive. After all, some of the Hebrew prophets said the same thing.”

“I disagree with them, too,” he says. “Yes, the majority of Jews stopped observing all the ancient rules, and yes, the Jewish people have suffered throughout history. But one development hasn’t necessarily caused the other.”

“No, of course not.” Marla always has viewed the Torah in historical context. So many ancient rules were obviously designed to insulate the Hebrews from non-monotheistic religions and to establish ethical values. But the world has changed, those ethical values have become universal. Doesn’t that mean that many of the Torah’s rules have grown obsolete? Doesn’t every nation’s laws evolve over time as the society matures? Isn’t her progressive approach to Judaism — emphasizing compassion and good deeds over prayer and ritual — part of that evolution? Volunteer work feeding the homeless; private morning meditation instead of synagogue prayer; interfaith Seders acknowledging all forms of oppression, whether Jewish or not. Much more important than lighting Sabbath candles or giving up bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches, right?

“Actually,” Billy says, “even the observant get persecuted. I don’t think Hitler asked his victims whether or not they worked on Saturdays.”

Marla finds this historical fact perversely comforting in the context of their conversation. But she’s troubled by a new thought, and rests her head on Billy’s shoulder. “What if,” she whispers, “what if we accept the possibility that the Torah’s curse is real? Then couldn’t it follow that Hitler was some divine agent fulfilling biblical intention? In ancient Egypt, it was the Angel of Death killing Egyptian firstborns; later it was Hitler against the Jews?”

“That’s outrageous!”

“I’m just playing devil’s advocate. And what if divine punishment is truly collective, not individual? So that all Jews suffer for the sins of some.”

“You think?” Billy asks. “Then tell me how many New York Jews have to eat shrimp before Brooklyn gets… pogrommed? A hundred? A thousand? And what does your argument imply about the Orthodox — that their observances don’t count toward redeeming the Jewish people?”

“I know it’s all superstition, this curse business. Yet at the same time,” she says, following an idea, “if we value certain teachings of the Torah, like those about being good to other people, can we dismiss other parts of the Torah just because we don’t want them to be true?”

“Listen,” Billy says, “how often did the nuns in Catholic school warn that if I didn’t do this that and the other, I’d go to hell? Every organized religion predicts dire consequences for disobedience.”

“You’re right,” she says, feeling a chill, nodding against his shoulder. Of course Billy’s right. Because if he’s wrong, if Jewish straying and disobedience have actually been the cause of persecution, or a contributing factor, then she — who does not keep kosher, who does not observe the Sabbath, who intermarried — then she has not, in fact, been helping Judaism evolve into a more progressive, humanistic tradition. No, if the curse of Ki Tavo is real, then Marla has been part of the historical cause of Jewish suffering.

“I’m sorry I brought up the whole subject,” he says.

“Hold me, Billy.” Marla presses close against him. “Just hold me tight.”

Daniel M. Jaffe, author of the novel “The Limits of Pleasure” (Haworth Press, 2001), lives in Santa Barbara, Calif.

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