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Parashat Re’eh 5783

August 10, 2023
by Cantor Robin Anne Joseph (’96)

It’s been said that one person’s religion is another person’s superstition.

So when in this week’s parasha, Re’eh, the Israelites are told to build an altar on one of the Canaanite mountains upon their entrance into the Promised Land, but not before they are told to “utterly destroy” [Deut. 12.2] the altars that are already there, well—why am I not surprised?

Both the Israelites and the Canaanites have a long relationship with mountains. And often they’re the same mountains! But the Canaanites were there first. Sacred ancient Israelite shrines were often conveniently located on the same hilltops as former (and sometimes destroyed) ancient Canaanite shrines. So, which religion is legit and which is simply superstition?

Let’s start by acknowledging the common critical understanding that “Yahweh” and “El” (among others) were Canaanite gods before they were Israelite gods (and before that, probably Levantine gods) and those gods seemed to have inhabited an altar on almost every mountaintop in the region. These gods got around. There were shrines at Dan [1 Kings 12:26-30], at Tabor [Judges 4:6,12,14], at BethEl [1 Kings 13:1], at Moreh [Gen. 12:6-7], at Gibeon [1 Kings 3:4], at Shiloh [1 Sam. 1:3]…to name but a few. And if those high places sound familiar, they should. They are names in the Bible of places of war and conflict, victory and conquest, worship and sacrifice.

These altars were commonplace, but the Bible seems to be conflicted about them. In early chapters in the Torah, our ancestors set up altars and worshipped at them in real and earnest ways [Gen. 12:6-7Gen. 28:18-22] and yet no stigmas are attached to the fact that they were probably all Canaanite in origin. But as we move through the Torah and the rest of the TaNaKh, we know that these high places were looked down upon (so to speak), precisely because before they were ours, they belonged to the Canaanites. In this week’s parasha, in order to prepare the mountaintops of Gerizim and Ebal for our rituals, we’re told to “tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.” [Deut. 12:3]

But we really didn’t. We didn’t obliterate “their name.” We hung on to it. Their El became our El. Their Yahweh became our Yahweh. Which makes all the more curious the verse, “Do not worship your God Yahweh in like manner.” [Deut. 12:4] The emphasis on “your” is mine, but then it does seem to me that this verse could be saying, “Hey, Israelites, see how the Canaanites worshipped their Yahweh? Well, this is totally not the way you all are going to worship your Yahweh.”

Here’s the plan: Keep the name; change the mountaintop. The parasha continues, “But look only to the site that your God Yahweh will choose amidst all your tribes as God’s habitation, to establish the divine name there.” [Deut. 12:5] That site will eventually be Jerusalem, the home of the One God, when there will no longer be a need for shrines—Canaanite or otherwise. And on that day, Yahweh will live solely on the mountaintop of Jerusalem, a city whose name may be derived from the Hebrew for “city of peace,” but is also a Canaanite phrase meaning “high place of the god Salem.”

In the meantime, until “God’s habitation” is a reality, the Israelites hang on tightly to their mountaintops. And eventually, King Josiah finishes off the job and destroys those “high places” throughout his kingdom [2 Kings 22-23], where gods like Yahweh, Asherah and El had been worshipped from time immemorial.

I love Judaism’s pagan roots. Superstitions and all. They are deep and hardy and have nourished the Jewish people for eons. I have no problem with our People taking a good idea and making it our own. But if the Israelites are going to appropriate another people’s culture, their religion, their high places of worship, and even their gods, then let’s acknowledge that. Let’s give credit where credit is due. Why must we “utterly destroy” that upon which we have laid our foundation?
Cantor Robin Anne Joseph (’96) teaches cantillation as part of the faculty at AJR. A musician and composer, Robin’s liturgical and folk-rock compositions can be found through Transcontinental Music Publications and OySongs and sung at a synagogues world-wide. Past-president of ARC (the Association of Rabbis and Cantors), past-president of the Women Cantors’ Network, and the current president of Kol Hazzanim—the Westchester Community of Cantors, Robin has served the congregation of Temple Beth Shalom in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY for the last 42 years.