Frequently called “the repetition of the Torah” (Mishneh Torah) in rabbinic literature and the “the second law” in the Greek and Latin translations, the fifth and last book of the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy, comes to us in the form of Moses’ long farewell speech.
Facing a new generation, a new leadership, and a new land, the man who led Israel out of Egypt and through the desert recapitulates its past history.
The immediate question, of course, is: Was it necessary to repeat what was already said in the previous books, that judgment had befell the generation delivered from Egypt due to its rebellious behavior? That no one from that generation would enter the promised- land and that only their children would inherit it?
The answer is yes. Deuteronomy came to answer the question: “Why have these things happened to us? What has to be done not to repeat past mistakes?”
The answer came in the form of a radically new vision of religion and society. Presented as a continuation of the past, Deuteronomy’s new vision of religion and society abrogates and transforms the previous Torah texts.
On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this Teaching. (Deuteronomy 1: 5)
Moses interpreted the Sinai covenant to the new generation about to cross into the land. He does not offer a new law, but by recapitulating what has happened since Sinai, he seeks to apply the law to the unique situation facing Israel’s new generation.
“Deuteronomy,” says Bernard M. Levinson, professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at the University of Minnesota, “is, on the one hand, among the most radically innovative literary units in the Hebrew Bible and, on the other, among those that most loudly silence the suggestion of innovation.” Having to confront one of the central problems in the history of religions: the justification of innovation, Deuteronomy authorizes the radical cultic and legal transformation found in its pages by disclaiming their innovative force.
This is a typical response of institutionalized religion. Keeping forms that contain substantial differences from previous ones requires creating the appearance of continuity.
The book of Deuteronomy concern is how to actualize the covenant to a new generation, a new leadership, and a new land.
Psychologists have long noted that people generally dislike drastic change. Rapid social change causes a widespread loss of certainty about the meaning and purpose of life.
In fact, the Hatam Sofer, the nineteenth-century Central Europe rabbi considered to be at the root of many of the extreme exclusionist positions adopted by what has become known as “Haredi”- “Ultra-Orthodoxy” Judaism-coined the slogan that “the Torah forbids anything new in every place.”
Yet, as the Book of Deuteronomy shows, corrections, development, and changes, are the engine of any vital and long-lasting religious culture. “Orthodoxy,” even “tradition,” are in many cases nothing more than smokescreen labels disguising ideological positions that, under the pretense of returning to original religious positions that have been distorted, try to stop self-corrective changes in religion.
For Deuteronomy making the old cultic and legal traditions relevant for a new generation was basic. Still, as Professor Levinson says: “Deuteronomy is also a deeply traditional text that, more than any other book of the Hebrew Scriptures, provides the foundation of Judaism. The religious conviction that God made a covenant with Israel at Sinai and that the Torah embodies the terms of that covenant.”