Dealing with Bechukotai

This week there are two portions read on Shabbat Behar and Bechukotai. The second portion is the classic source for the details of the pact between Adonai and the Jewish people. In short, the Torah tells us that if we keep God’s commandments the land will be fruitful providing us with its bounty and we shall be safe and happy. On the other hand, if we do not obey God’s commandments, we will be rejected by the land and punished by God.
As modern liberal Jews, we cannot help but cringe when we read the warnings set forth in this portion. “If you reject My law . . . so that you do not observe all my commandments and you break My covenant. . . I will wreak misery upon you – consumption and fever which cause the eyes to pine and the body to languish . . .” and that is just the beginning of verse upon verse of horrifying consequences for disobeying God’s laws.
I would venture to say that we do not subscribe to a God of reward and punishment. To the extent that we believe in a God operating in the world, we certainly do not imagine a figure keeping a cosmic tally of each and every one of our misdeeds waiting to make us suffer should we break the covenant. How do we engage with this text which puts forth a view of God which is so antithetical to our modern sensibilities and values?
It would be easy to simply dismiss this problematic text, disowning it as part of our heritage. Another similar move is to historicize it, saying to ourselves that this strain of belief was a product of certain moment in ancient times which has passed. However our charge and challenge as Reconstructionist Jews is to figure out how to contend with this difficult text and, indeed, other problematic elements of our tradition. We need to figure out how to make them meaningful. This can be done either through a reinterpretation that gives such elements relevance and resonance or we can accept that there are dark strains in our tradition (as there are in all traditions) and reflect on how they might still impact on our current practice.
One example of finding relevance in this text would be to read this text metaphorically. If we think about this from a psychological perspective, we can see this text as being about being true to ourselves, it is a text about authenticity. In this light, the punishments describe the toll that is taken when we operate in ways that are not in line with our values and sense of how we want to be in the world. Acting in such a way can lead to anxiety, depression, “ruin” in ways that are emotional and sometimes truly physical.
This is merely one thought about how best to contend with such passages and I am curious to hear your thoughts. Please feel invited to respond in the comments section!

2 Comments

I think that is a great read

I think that is a great read of the passage. I was thinking about this passage and getting frustrated - Is God really nothing more than someone who gifts us toys when we play nice and punishes us when we do wrong - bad parenting! But if we, like you suggest, read God to be some inner voice, maybe the best parts of us, not following that does lead us astray. As the narrator in Pippin once said "he ran from himself which is might far to run."

I was thinking about parenting too

Thanks for your comment and for that great quote from Pippin. The metaphor of parent (specifically father) and child is one often used by the Rabbis to examine the relationship between God and the people of Israel, so it's not surprising that the reading should come up. Another way to approach this parasha is to use it as an opportunity to reflect on our own parenting. Do we find this reward and punish relationship distasteful (or worse!)? How do we measure up in our own guidance for our children? Are we making them jump through hoops or guiding them to find their own moral center? Are we giving them the tools they need to make good decisions on their own? These are all questions raised when we look at parenting through the lens of this parasha.

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