The book of Deuteronomy stands apart from the four books of Moses that precede it. Our Torah narrative began with the creation of the world in the book of Genesis and the journey of our patriarchs and matriarchs. It then dramatically crescendoed in the book of Exodus with freedom from slavery in Egypt and continued with the years of wandering in the desert in the book of Numbers. Why then was the book of Deuteronomy necessary at all?
It is generally accepted among scholars that Deuteronomy was written during the reign of King Josiah. He ruled the kingdom of Judah from 640 to 609 BCE. His reign coincided with the contraction of the Assyrian Empire and preceded the rise of the Babylonian Empire. During this brief period of increasing autonomy, the kingdom of Judah exercised a level of self-governance to a point where centralization of authority became necessary.
In Parshat Re’eh it states, “look only to the site that the Lord your God will choose amidst all your tribes as God’s habitation, to establish God’s name there. There you are to go, and there you are to bring your burnt offerings and other sacrifices, your tithes and contributions herds and flocks.” (Deut 12: 4-7).
The scribes and officials in Josiah’s court attempted to mandate the centralization of worship in Jerusalem. In order to legitimize Josiah’s political innovations and invoke traditional authority for their implementation, they wrote the above verses and others like them into the Torah narrative, attributing them to Moses. This was an important development. In antiquity, a Temple was not only the centre of the sacrificial cult. It was the focus of political, legal and economic activity as well. As the kingdom of Judah expanded, the need for a central religious and governmental centre became increasingly necessary. By attempting to limit the places where the sacrifices were performed to only one location, Josiah and his scribes, unwittingly, began a process that would revolutionize our tradition. It is possible to argue, as many do, that the centralization of the Temple sacrifices raised the importance of the Temple in Jerusalem.
While there is truth to this claim, Professor Jeffrey H. Tigay has interestingly stated that by eliminating sacrificial alters in villages and main towns across Judah, reliance on the sacrificial cult was minimized. It would have been impossible for most people to make regular trips to Jerusalem to perform these sacrifices. By not being able to offer them regularly at a local alter, the sacrifices would slowly cease to be a regular form of worship for the majority of Judeans.
Concurrently in Judea, there developed an interest in the law (Torah) and interpretation of the written word. This tradition would eventually replace the centrality of the Temple as the main vehicle for the continuation and evolution of our religious tradition. After the destruction of the first Temple, the early Scribal, Pharisaic and later Rabbinic tradition all served to ensure that Judaism evolved from a local sacrificial cult to a religion and ethical system that has inspired people and communities around the world in their struggle for justice, self-determination and equality before the law. It passionately addresses these important pillars of our tradition. The Temple, no longer physically standing in Jerusalem, has been transformed, reimagined to be both that sacred place within our hearts and Gaia, this beautiful life giving planet of ours that we are called to care for and to protect, now more than ever!
Rabbi George Mordecai