A Brief Note on the Curse of Infamy – Parsha Ki Tavo

There is an almost desperate tone to the message Moses seeks to impart to the Children of Israel, which is recorded in Parsha Ki Tavo. Simply, obey the law and be blessed; fail to heed the word of God, disobey the commandments and decrees, and be cursed. The entire discourse is titled the Tochacha, the Admonitions. This Parsha is the second record of Admonitions in the Torah and this iteration parallels the one recorded in Parsha Bechukotai. The first version is written in the first person; it is God who is the source; here, Moses is speaking.

The Tochacha is written in a very bombastic manner with lurid descriptions of the fate that awaited those that failed to hearken to the voice of God. They, declaimed Moses, would be struck down “with swelling lesions, with fever, with burning heat, with thirst and with sword”.  Their “carcasses would be food for every bird of the sky and animal of the earth” and most pointedly “[They would] betroth a woman, but another man will lie with her; you will build a house, but you will not dwell in it; you will plant a vineyard, but you will not redeem it”.  These passages are “the hail and brimstone” of the Torah.

Torah commentators note that the first iteration of the Tochacha foretold the destruction and dispersal of the Judeans by the Babylonians in 586 C.E. The second pronouncement foreordained the Roman and Byzantium reigns over Jerusalem. Undoubtedly, with the fullness of time, Rashi, Rambam and other exegetes would have call to nominate and absorb future plights to animate the Divine rage. A short list would include the massacres in the Rhineland carried out by the Crusaders, the Spanish and Portuguese expulsions, the Chielminicki massacres, the Kishinev pogrom, and the Shoah

The Tochacha of Parsha Ki Tavo contains a curse that had not been uttered in the earlier iteration, and which stands out from the other imprecations: “You shall become a consternation and source of amazement, a byword, and an adage and topic of conversation among all the peoples to which the Lord will drive you”. The Israelites and their successors would be viewed in a negative fashion by the nations of the world; the curse of infamy.

The Roman historian Tacitus in The Histories, Book V, (c. 110 CE) wrote the most detailed account of the Jewish people, extant in classical Latin literature. Tacitus expressed amazement about the Jews. He wrote “This worship, however introduced, is upheld by its antiquity; all their other customs, which are at once perverse and disgusting, owe their strength to their very badness. The most degraded out of other races; scorning their national beliefs… they regard the rest of mankind with all the hatred of enemies. … This flattery is not paid to their kings, or this honour to our Emperors.  …The Jewish religion is tasteless and mean”. Tacitus’ odious observations were later reflected in the anti-Jewish screed of the early Church and in many of the edicts against Jews from the early Fourth Century, and even until today.

The Church, once triumphant, decreed that Jews should live in “a state of humility and servitude” to bear witness to the second coming of Jesus. This theological attitude in turn fed popular stereotypes that depicted Jews in a repugnant fashion. Legislation confining Jews to ghettoes, setting them apart by dress and ritual public debasements, while severely limiting their social and economic activities, also fed the notion that Jews were not only damned, but were also dishonest and disloyal. Popular culture fed on and fed this hate. For example Chaucer portrayed Jews as cold blooded killers of children and Shakespeare brought to the stage that ugliest of stereotypes: the Jew as a heartless usurer preying on the flesh of gentiles, a motif later adapted by Charles Dickens.

Arguably, the Jews have fared no better in modernity. The Jew became a byword for evil; he was caricatured to embody physical traits that suggested deformity and expressed venality. By the 1930’s, Jew hate had penetrated many parts of civil society; they were the object of derision from the right and the left, in academic societies and professional organizations, amongst aristocracy and the working class. Anti-Semitic writings became common-place; high art was replaced by cartooning with the image of the Jew purposely made grotesque.  Capitalists accused the Jews of fomenting communism; the communists denounced the Jews as bourgeois. Incredibly, anti-Semitism even arose in places were there were no Jews. 

The Jew in the modern age had become the common enemy of mankind. Recent experience has stripped the veneer of anti-Zionism and revealed it to be yet another example of Jew hate, that Jews and the Jewish State are not part of the community of man.

Perhaps the malediction of infamy has been fulfilled – from being a source of astonishment and a proverb, the nation had become a topic of conversation. Or, as more likely, it is not the Children Israel that has been cursed, as much as those that have chosen to rally around the banners of hate, depraved ideologies, and shameless hypocrisy.

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