The Book of Devarim–also known as Deuteronomy–presents us with a paradox. This book is completely Moses’s words: It is his valedictory speech to the Israelites and at the same time the divine word of God. How can both of these things be true?
This question is thrown into further relief when we contrast various narratives and mitzvot that appear in Devarim with those which appear earlier in the Torah. An obvious example is the conflicting accounts of the Spies, but it is true about mitzvot as well. Take Shabbat. In Shemot, the purpose of Shabbat, as given in the Ten Commandments, is theological: Remember that God created the world. Here, however, the purpose is a this-worldly social justice concern: to remember that we were slaves and to give a day free from labor to our slaves and animals.
So which version of events is “right”? The early books, or Deuteronomy? God’s version or Moses’s? And if the different version found here is a product of the act of retelling, how is it still considered divine?
Sfat Emet has a brilliant insight into this problem. He states that the first four books of the Torah–Genesis through Numbers–are Torah she’bikhtav, the Written Torah, the direct word of God. This was the Torah of the Wilderness. For those forty years, the people were disempowered and lacked independence. God provided all their needs and directed them what to do, where to camp, and when to move. It was a life of the Written Torah – of God’s explicit command and the people’s (struggle with) obedience.
This contrasts to the reality once they entered the land. They became an independent people. They had to build their society and plot their future. They had to till the land and provide their own needs. They had to engage in the complexity and challenges of a real life lived in a land–their land–and not in the Wilderness.
For this generation it was not the Written Torah which governed their lives, but the Oral Torah. It was the obeying of God’s word, yes, but with themselves as partners, not just as obey-ers. To be a partner is to take the absolute, unchangeable, divine word of God and to interpret it and apply it to the messy reality and new circumstances that you are dealing with. It is taking the heavenly, and bringing it down to Earth.
Devarim stands between these two realms. It stands between them in a very literal sense: The people are practically out of the Wilderness and are standing on the cusp of entering the land. More importantly, it does so in a theological sense. If the Wilderness is the Written Torah and the Land of Israel is the Oral Torah, then the current liminal reality embodied in the Book of Devarim is, for Sfat Emet, the sha’ar hamechabram, the “gate that connects them.” For Sfat Emet it is the Oral Torah because it is Moses’ retelling of the Torah, a retelling that is shaped, even if only on a subconscious level, by the imminent reality, by imagining an empowered people in their own land. And it is the Written Torah, because, in the end, God declared that these words were divine and that they are just as much part of the Written Torah as all the earlier Books.
For most, inspecting the two different narratives of the story of the Spies or the two different emphases of Shabbat leaves us with a choice of how to see Devarim. “Choose!” We would say. “It is either one or the other. Either Devarim is a reinterpretation of the Divine word–it is the Oral Torah–or it is directly the divine word, the Written Torah.” The Rabbis, not surprisingly, put their weight behind this second choice. Shamor vi’Zakhor bi’dibbur echad–“Observe” and “Remember”–from the two versions of Shabbat—were said simultaneously in one divine declaration.
For Sfat Emet, though, it is not one or the other of these options; it is both. It is in this book that the two possibilities merge. It is the liminal space—the gate—where the Written Torah and Oral Torah become one.
The combination of the Oral and the Written is an essential spur and reminder to poskim. It is the job of poskim to be part of the community who expands and applies the Oral Torah, who translate theory into practice and written law into our lived lives. Knowing how the Oral Law and Written Law can meet and become one, we poskim are spurred to engage in this holy task of partnering with God. At the same time, we take heed, knowing that this partnering can only happen if the Oral Torah is truly anchored in, and derived with integrity from, the Written one. Without this, there is no gate to connect them. Being ever-present in this gate is the true task of the posek.
This is the philosophy that guides us. Here at YCT, we recently launched a Kollel for Contemporary Halakhic Studies, which spent a month of intensive learning on the topic of disabilities, with our fellows bringing that learning to answer specific and real-life halakhic questions from that arena. Can some with dementia participate in a zimmun or receive an aliyah? How does a rabbi decide between accommodating the many or the few? Can sign language be considered a halakhic form of speaking?
Our entire learning was guided by two principles: the obligation to maximize equal membership and participation–that our psakim should not marginalize or push people out of the community–and to be firmly anchored in the texts, the precedents, and the integrity of process. This bringing together of the Oral and Written Torah is the holy task of our poskim and truly, of all of us.