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The anxious society

02 August 2013

Jonathan Magonet continues a series on the Torah

Deuteronomy 28

SOME of the most disturbing passages in the Hebrew Bible occur in the verses that we read from the end of the book of Deuteronomy.

The basis of the relationship between the Israelites and their God is the covenant. A covenant is at one level a legal contract between two partners. So the obligations of the two partners have to be detailed, but also the penalties that will apply if these obligations are not met. In two places in the Torah, a series of increasingly more severe penalties are spelled out if Israel fails to live up to its obligations. We find them at the end of Leviticus, and here.

All that the Israelites own, their homes, their crops, their families, will be damaged or destroyed or taken from them with violence. As the final blow, they will be sent into exile from their land. What happens to them in exile is described in Leviticus 26.36-37: "As for those of you who are left, I will send faintness into their heart in the lands of their enemies; and the sound of a driven leaf shall chase them; and they shall flee, as one flees from the sword; and they shall fall when no one is pursuing them. And they shall stumble, each person over his brother, as if before the sword, when there is no one pursuing; and you shall have no power to stand before your enemies."

In Deuteronomy 28.66, a further dimension is added: "And your life will hang there before you, and you will fear night and day, and have no trust in your life. In the morning you will say, if only it were evening, and in the evening you will say, if only it were morning, because of the fear in your heart that you fear, and because of the vision before your eyes that you see."

This picture of a debilitating fear that makes life unbearable, and positive action impossible, has been at times the fate of the Jewish people in their experience of exile. But it has also universal resonance. Throughout history, and throughout the world today, because of government suppression or civil war, political extremism or urban brutality, private vendettas or family violence, people know only too well the terrors described in these verses: the fear of the threat of violence even when it is not actually present. To those kinds of fear we now witness, on a growing scale, a new element: the random murders and maiming of innocent people by terrorists.

What is needed is a consistent attempt to build bridges between the different communities within our society. One approach is through interfaith dialogue. It was once seen as an interesting but peripheral activity for a few interested people; today, as a growing movement, it has to be recognised as an essential tool in the safeguarding of civil society.

It works alongside other activities that encourage people to meet across boundaries at a deeper level of understanding and respect. Such activities will not remove the threat of terrorism. But, by promoting and extending this kind of dialogue, we prevent our becoming the psychological victims of terror.

Moreover, we come to see who are our true "brothers" and "sisters" in the pluralist societies that are emerging in Europe. The warnings in Leviticus and Deuteronomy of a society disintegrating out of anxiety then cease to be just a threat to be feared. Instead, they become a challenge to be overcome.

This is the second of four edited extracts from A Rabbi Reads the Torah by Jonathan Magonet (SCM Press, £19.99 (CT Bookshop £18); 978-0-334-04913-5).

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