Children of God
This week’s reading contains an odd injunction: “You are children of the Lord your God,” it says, “You shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead.” (Deut 14:1). Ancient scholars of course knew that gashing the arms with knives or shaving off the hair at the front of the forehead were signs of mourning used by Israel’s neighbors; presumably, they were intended as a way of attracting God’s attention, just as the self-gashing prophets of Baal sought to do in 1 Kings 18:28. But what did this have to do with the opening assertion, “You are children of the Lord your God”?
One explanation held that Israelites, because of their close, daily connection to their God, did not need such acts of self-mortification to reach Him. As God’s own (metaphorical) children, they didn’t have to have recourse to such extremes. Alternately, mutilating themselves would be unfit for Israelites, since as God’s children they ought to be of pleasing physical appearance; it would be unsuitable for them to slash and deface their bodies.
Interestingly enough, however, the Rabbis offered a second interpretation of this law. The word for “gash yourselves” (titgoddedu) sounded as if it came from the same the Hebrew root as the word for “groups” (agudot). They therefore said on the basis of this verse, “Don’t form yourselves into different groups” (see b. Yebamot, 14a).
This explanation likewise works well with the first half of this verse. Since “You are [all] children of the Lord your God,” there is no basis for creating different groups among yourselves, each of them claiming its own, separate religious authority and often looking down on other Jews as “not really Jewish.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls give us a detailed picture of one such group. Its members did everything they could to distinguish themselves from other Jews. They wore special clothes, so that everyone could tell at a glance, “He’s a member of the group.” They had their own rules and standards—of ritual purity, the Sabbath, and other matters—and regarded anyone who did not observe these rules as in error. At the same time, they purposely refrained from passing on their “true” interpretations of the Torah to non-members, lest they end up doing the right thing. The reason was their anticipation of the “Day of Revenge,” when other Jews would be destroyed for their errors and members of their group alone would survive as God’s chosen ones.
That group no longer exists, but the same mentality has reemerged again and again in Jewish history. Indeed, “I’m holier than thou” is a theme reenacted today in many different contexts and milieus. The message of this week’s Torah reading is thus as relevant as ever: “Don’t form yourselves into different groups,” taking pride in your very differentness—this can’t be the message of Torah-true Judaism, since you are all “children of the Lord your God.”