Friday, March 24, 2017

"As Gods": Mishkan as Creation Redux - Torah portion Vayakhel-Pekudei

The Torah portion begins with Moses gathering all of Israel together and saying, "These are the things that YHVH commanded to make." But rather than start right in with the list of items, as we'd expect, Moses interjects:
"Six days shall project-work (melacha) be done, and on the seventh [it] will be holy for you, a complete desisting (shabbat shabbaton) for YHVH; anyone who does project-work on it will be put to death." (Ex 35:2)
About on the translation "project-work" for the word melacha: There is melacha, and there is avoda, both being forms of "work." Avoda refers to work in the sense of service, or servitude, from the word eved, "servant." Melacha, on the other hand, is work pertaining to a particular project, a mission. It's related to the word malach, an emissary, angel, one who is dispatched on a mission. In this case, the melacha is the work associated with Israel's project of building the Mishkan, the mobile temple. Not insignificantly, melacha is also the term the Torah uses to describe the work involved in the primordial project of creating the world.

Mishkan and Creation parallels

The restrictions of Shabbat are, in the rabbinic tradition, tied directly to the "thirty-nine melachot," distinct activities of project-work involved in the construction of the Mishkan. That is the work from which Israel desists in the wilderness on the seventh day. But this was a one-time project from thousands of years ago. Why should this specific set of creative work activities be enshrined for all subsequent generations as the work to be abstained from on Shabbat?

In short, it seems that the Mishkan is considered to be Israel’s “act of creation.” And so just as the Creator desists from the work of creation on Shabbat, so too does Israel desist from its work of creation on Shabbat.

The rabbinic tradition draws numerous parallels between the ma’aseh bereshit (act of creation) and the ma’aseh haMishkan (act of building the Mishkan). One instance regards the verse:
בְּיוֹם כַּלּוֹת משֶׁה לְהָקִים אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן
"On the day Moses finished erecting the Mishkan" (Num 7:1)
The Midrash Tanchuma says about this verse that the word et (את) is written to include the creation of the world (as in אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ).

The Midrash Yalkut Shimoni states, "We find that the Mishkan was weighed against the act of Creation."

Regarding Betzalel, who was placed in charge of designing the Mishkan, the Talmud (Berachot 55a) states, "Betzalel knew how to arrange the letters through which the heavens and earth were created."

Additionally, Midrash Rabba explains in one place, "Worlds were created and destroyed repeatedly, until finally ours was created and allowed to stand." And elsewhere it states, "Moses set up the Mishkan and took it apart seven times [on each of the seven days of inauguration] until finally he set it up and allowed it to stand."

Furthermore, the the Midrash in several places lists correspondences between components of the Mishkan and the creation narrative. Each comes up with a different set of correspondences. I've also come up with my own set, which not only provides a conceptual match between the days of creation and the components of the Mishkan, like the Midrash does, but also matches them in precise sequential order, according to Genesis 1 and Exodus 37.

Day One, Item One - Light and Ark

Before the "light" of Day One, the world is darkness and chaos. Light is symbolic of order, of life and creativity. The entire creative process is thus powered by that initial "light."

The Ark of the covenant is likewise the central component which the entire Mishkan is built around. The Ark is itself described a source of power, even a dangerous object (killing Aaron's sons, Lev 9:24; dispersing enemies, Num 10:35; killing Uza,  II Sam 6:7; "Ark of [God's] power," Ps 132:8). And the Jerusalem Talmud (Yoma 5:3) understands the word aron (ארון, Ark) as in fact stemming from the word ohr (אור, light).

Other rabbinic references to "light" relating to the Sanctuary: The Midrash Tanchuma explains why the windows in the Temple were narrow toward the inside and wide facing outward - "So that the light should go out from the Temple and illuminate the world." Bereshit Rabbah states, "From the place of the Temple, the light is created." And the Torah itself is called "light" (Prov 6:23), and that Torah, divine instruction, is understood to emanate from the Holy of Holies, the place of the Ark (Ex 25:22, Micha 4:2).

Day Two, Item Two - Firmament and Ark Cover

The firmament is the separator between the lower water (seas) and upper water (clouds). Likewise, the Ark Cover with its Cherubs acts as the separator between the Ark below and the Clouds of Glory above. In fact, the space above the Cherubs is explicitly referred to in Ezekiel (10:1) as the rakia, "firmament."

Ezekiel itself provides another example of the linkage between the creation and the Mishkan/Temple. His Chapter 1, the vision of the Throne of Glory of creation, is recapitulated in Chapter 10, this time about the Temple. Aside from referencing firmament, Ezekiel recognizes the Cherubs to be the “Chaya” that he saw at the Kevar river, i.e., in his first vision (see Ez 10:15). R. Bachye on Exodus 25:18 discusses the parallels between Ezekiel's two visions.

Day Three, Item Three - Land/Produce and Table/Showbread

The land houses the produce, just as the Table houses the Showbread.

Also, it is the produce of the land which is used to make the Showbread. The Midrash Tanchuma Buber offers this parallel as well.

Day Four, Item Four - Luminaries and Menorah

Both the luminaries and the Menorah provide visible light in the everyday usable sense, as opposed to the primordial light of Day One, or the symbolic "light" of the Ark.

There are seven branches in the Menorah, and the rabbinic tradition recognizes seven primary celestial luminaries, these being the sun, the moon and the five planets easily visible to the naked eye: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. (See Tanchuma Buber, which cites this Mishkan-creation parallel.

Additionally, there is a relational correspondence between creation days One and Four, and Mishkan items One and Four. On Day Four, the primordial light of Day One is channeled into practical use by the celestial luminaries, which use light to form times and seasons. Item Four, the Menorah, is conceptualized in rabbinic literature as channeling the "light" of the Ark.

The Talmud (Megila 21b) says of the seven lamps of the Menorah that the outer six (i.e., their wicks) faced the center “western” lamp, and the western lamp faced the divine presence resting on the Ark. Whereas the other lamps burned out over-night, the western lamp (fueled by the divine presence) is said to have stayed lit until the following afternoon, with the same amount of oil (Shabbat 22b).

Day Five, Item Five - Fish/Birds and Incense Altar

Again, this is a relational correspondence, between creation days Two and Five, and Mishkan items Two and Five. The fish and birds of Day Five relate back to Day Two, occupying the lower and upper waters respectively. Likewise, Item Five, the Incense Altar, relates back to Item Two, whereby the smoke from the incense is used to block the Ark Cover. This was done on Yom Kippur to protect the High Priest from the Cloud of Glory which rested on the Ark Cover.

Day Six, Item Six - Beasts/Humans and Outer Alter

Beasts such as cows, sheep and goats are the ones that provide the primary animal sacrifices made on the Outer Altar.

There is also the association of "earth," soil. The Altar in the Mishkan is filled with earth (Ex 20:20).  Day Six describes the “earth” bringing forth creatures. The name Adam (אדם, lit. “earthling”) itself comes from the word adama (אדמה, earth), which may also relate to dam (דם, blood). In the sacrificial procedure, blood is sprinkled on the Altar.

Completion of Creation / Completion of the Mishkan

As we alluded to above, both the work of creation and the work of the Mishkan are described as "melacha," and the Torah uses similar language with regard to the completion of that work:
וַיְכַל אֱ-לֹהִים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה
"And E-lohim completed, on the seventh day, the melacha that he did" (Gen 2:2)
וַיְכַל משֶׁה אֶת הַמְּלָאכָה
"And Moses completed the melacha" (Ex 40:33)
Day Seven is Shabbat, which corresponds not with any particular component of the Mishkan, but with the Glory of YHVH entering the Mishkan.  As soon as Moses completes the work, the Mishkan is filled with the Glory of YHVH, making it kodesh, as alluded to earlier on:
וְנִקְדָּשׁ בִּכְבֹדִי
"[The Mishkan] will become kodesh with my glory." (Ex 29:43)
In the same way, as soon as the work of creation is completed, the seventh day becomes kodesh:
וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ
"And E-lohim blessed the seventh day, and he made it kodesh." (Gen 2:3)
Finally, both Shabbat and the completed Mishkan are understood as being imbued with the divine presence. The very next verse after the completion of the Mishkan describes the Cloud covering the Mishkan, and the Glory of YHVH filling it from within.

Likewise, the rabbinic tradition sees Shabbat as ushering in the divine presence. This is made explicit in the liturgical hymn "Lecha Dodi" of Kabalat Shabbat. The preliminary verses speak about receiving the presence of the “bride," the pnei Shabbat, and in subsequent verses, the theme transitions to the idea of Israel receiving the presence of God, the pnei ha-Shechina, in the Temple.

 *        *        *

That the rabbinic tradition sees a link between the creation and the Mishkan is irrefutable. Ezekiel saw it as well. And it is possible that it was a conscious, deliberate feature of the Torah text itself. As we saw, Genesis 1 and the Mishkan account even share similar terminology, most notably "melacha."

There also does seem to be significant precedent in the ancient world of people modeling their temples based on their conception of the cosmos. Against that backdrop, we might even expect the Mishkan to be built as a microcosm of creation.

So I hold it out as a possibility that the specific set of correspondences I cited above between days of creation and items in the Mishkan may have been part of the intent of the Torah text. (From a Source Criticism point of view, both Ex 37 and Gen 1 are from the same "P" source.) But even if it's not intrinsic to the text, it's a fairly strong drash.

We started with the question of why the work of the Mishkan is prohibited on Shabbat. The answer is that the work of the Mishkan is parallel to the work of creation. In both cases, Shabbat represents desisting from those works, as well as the divine presence entering upon completion.

On Shabbat, we acknowledge both the creation and Mishkan aspects. In Kiddush of Friday night, Shabbat itself is called a "remembrance of the act of creation" as well as a "remembrance of departing Egypt." The latter is a reference to Israel desisting from the work of the Mishkan.

So here's my takeaway for all this. The Torah describes humans as being created in the "image of God." It also says that when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, humankind became "like gods." So the act of building the Mishkan is not simply a means of channeling the divine presence. It's also symbolic of our status as creators. We literally fashion a microcosm - a "small cosmos." We recapitulate the act of creation ourselves. We don't just do "avoda," the labor of a servant. We perform "melacha," creative work. And this is representative of the sacred task set forth for humankind: to initiate projects, undertake creative endeavors, build and experiment, bring forth new ideas, new life, and seek to make order out of chaos.

Much of the above is adapted from my book Ohr HaShachar.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Lassoing the Golden Calf - Torah portion Ki Tisa

Bronze bull, Samaria, c. 1200 BCE
When I go through the Golden Calf narrative through the end of Exodus 34, I tend to find myself fairly disoriented. It's a seeming jumble of retribution, beseechment and forgiveness which I have a very hard time getting straight in my head. So for my own purposes (and I hope it will help you as well), I'm going to outline the events in order, just to give a bird's eye view. Then I'll identify the narrative oddities I find so confusing, followed by a few thoughts on that. After that, I'll mention the source-critical approach and how that (at least for me) doesn't address the narrative confusion. And I'll wrap up by bringing up some more thematic questions about the Golden Calf itself. No "sermons" in this piece, no tidy answers. Mostly a lot of questions. But sometimes it helps just to organize what you don't know, "lasso the calf" as it were.


The following covers the Golden Calf episode through the end of the portion (Ex 32-34):

1. GOLDEN CALF - Moses gone, the people demand Aaron to make them "gods to go before them," and then declare about the calf that "these are the gods that brought you up from the land of Egypt," after which Aaron makes a festival to YHVH around the calf (Ex 32:1-6).

2. YHVH'S THREAT - YHVH tells Moses that the people have made a molten calf and that he wants to destroy them. (32:7-10)

3. MOSES BESEECHES - Moses beseeches on the people's behalf, and God relents (32:11-14).

4. MOSES DESCENDS - Moses descends with the tablets, Joshua hears the sound of war, Moses says he hears singing, no mention of the calf. (32:15-18)

5. SMASHES TABLETS - Moses sees the people's revelry with their molten calf and gets angry, smashes the tablets, turns the calf into powder and makes Israel drink it, then chastises Aaron. (32:19-25)

6. SLAUGHTER OF 3000 - Moses calls up those people "for YHVH," the Levites respond, slaughter 3000 kinsmen, and receive a blessing. (32:26-29)

7. MOSES BESEECHES - Moses tells YHVH that the people made a calf and asks for forgiveness or else that YHVH wipe Moses out of his book. (32:30-32)

8. YHVH SMITES - YHVH says those who've sinned will be wiped out, that he'll send his angel to go before the people, then smites the people with a plague. (32:33-35)

9. ANGEL TO LEAD - YHVH tells Moses to lead the people, that he'll send an angel to drive out the Canaanites but won't go himself lest he destroy the people. The people mourn, and YHVH tells Moses to tell the people it's because YHVH will destroy you otherwise. The people depart Horev. (33:1-6)

10. MOSES' TENT - Moses would pitch his tent outside the camp, YHVH's cloud of glory rested on it, Joshua stayed inside, and the people would bow in reverence. (33:7-11)

11. MOSES BESEECHES - Moses demands that YHVH himself bring them to the land, YHVH agrees. (33:12-17)

12. REQUEST TO SEE YHVH - Moses asks to see YHVH's glory, and YHVH says he'll pass by Moses in the cleft of a rock. (33:18-23)

13. CARVE TWO TABLETS - YHVH tells Moses to carve two tablets (like the first), which YHVH would write on, and to come up to Sinai the next morning, which Moses does. (34:1-4)

14. YHVH REVEALED TO MOSES - YHVH descends, passes by Moses, and declares his attributes of mercy-but-yet-not-erasing-sin. (34:5-8)

15. MOSES BESEECHES - Moses again asks YHVH to lead the people himself. (34:9)

16. COVENANT - YHVH responds by setting forth a covenant of Ten Statements (Ritual Decalogue). (34:10-26)

17. TABLETS OF TEN STATEMENTS - YHVH tells Moses to write the Statements of the covenant, and after 40 days not eating or drinking, "he" (Moses, YHVH?) writes the Ten Statements on the tablets. (34:27-28)

18. MOSES' VEIL - Moses descends with the tablets, the skin on his face beaming, which frightened the people, so Moses wore a veil from then on when speaking to them. (34:29-35)


After getting a more concise picture of events, I realized what was bothering me about the text:
  • Moses beseeches YHVH not to destroy the people (#3), and yet he gets angry (#5) and seemingly on his own accord (no order from YHVH issued) commands the slaughter of 3000 people (#6).

  • YHVH relents about destroying the people (#3), then smites them with a plague (#8).

  • YHVH tells Moses that the people made a calf (#2), then Moses tells YHVH that the people made a calf, as if YHVH didn't know (#7).

  • Moses is told about the calf (#2) and yet seems not to know about it when talking to Joshua (#4).

  • Moses AGAIN beseeches YHVH not to destroy the people (#7), yet right AFTER slaughtering 3000 people (#6).

  • YHVH says he won't lead the people (#9), yet the next part deals with YHVH regularly appearing at Moses' tent, albeit outside the camp (#10).

  • YHVH agrees to lead the people instead of sending an angel (#11), yet Moses feels the need to ask again (#15).

  • Moses is told that YHVH would write on the tablets (#13), yet later (see 34:27) the verse on the face of it might imply that Moses wrote them (#17).


It occurs to me that a number of these difficulties relate to a specific section of text, my #2-3 above (Ex 32:7-14), and if we were to just take out that section, it would clear a lot of things up. Without it, Moses would come down from Sinai, not knowing what was going on, making his conversation with Joshua make more sense. Then he'd be legitimately shocked and angry upon seeing the people with the calf, as opposed to having already been told by YHVH about it and begging forgiveness for it. In that context, it would follow that he'd smash the tablets, and command the slaughter of the perpetrators. Again, we wouldn't have Moses seeming not to know what's going on after he was already told, later telling YHVH about the sin after YHVH already told him about it, and so on.

Now, we're still stuck with Moses asking for YHVH's forgiveness after he'd already slaughtered 3000 people. But one could argue that he was begging YHVH not to destroy ALL the people - after all, he'd already killed the perpetrators themselves. However, YHVH subsequently sends a plague against the people, which would be odd if the perpetrators had already been done in. I'm not sure how that resolves, unless the kinsmen the Levites slaughtered were of their own tribe, and YHVH struck the other tribes, or unless the 3000 didn't represent all the perpetrators, but was more of a retaliation. What's not plausible is to say that the plague was a collective punishment (i.e. more widespread than just the transgressors), since 32:33 makes it explicit that YHVH was going to strike only the perpetrators.

So while there are some other narrative difficulties, by taking out Ex 32:7-14 at least the story would be considerably more comprehensible.


But what does it mean "if we took out" a section of the text? I use that language because Biblical scholarship asserts a number of sources in the text. In the narrative I've outlined, chapters 32-33 are generally attributed to the E source, with 34 attributed to J followed by P (starting at 34:29). Often times, the text flows smoothly when you take out source X that's sitting in the middle of source Y, because Y1 is then "reconnected" with Y2. Point being, I'd expect Ex 32:7-14 to have been that "source X" sitting in the middle of "source Y," since it seems to be interrupting the flow and causing contradictions in the text. Yet the scholarship consensus (at least as articulated by R. E. Friedman) attributes all of chapter 32 to the E source.

In fact, if anything, the source-critical divisions here feel awkward to me. Themes in the E source are picked up and addressed explictly in the J source. For instance, Ex 33 (E source) says that YHVH would "pass in front of Moses." In Ex 34 (J source), YHVH in fact "passes in front of Moses." In Ex 33 (E source), YHVH says he won't be in their midst and lead them. In 34 (J source), Moses begs YHVH to stay in their midst and lead them. (Granted, it's the second time Moses makes this request, and after YHVH already agreed to lead them, which if they were two different sources might explain that redundancy, but what I'm pointing out here is the continuity of the theme.) Also, YHVH refers to Israel as a stiff-necked people in 32:9, 33:3, 33:5 (E source), and Moses' plea to have mercy on them in Ex 34:9 (J source) picks up on that same "stiff-necked" language, and refers to their "sin." There's nothing in the J story (that I've identified) which indicates any major "sin" or the need to forgive a stiff-necked people. It follows from the Golden Calf story, which is supposedly from a different source.

R. E. Friedman (The Bible with Sources Revealed, note on p. 176) explains that the redactor of the text "may have merged the J and E accounts," meaning that at one point there were two full stories, but they simply edited out the redundant parts. Hard to say. Sometimes source criticism has a lot of explanatory power. But in this case, and I admit to being a layman here, I can only say that where I "expected" there to be a switch in sources, there isn't. And were I didn't expect it, there is.


Besides the issue of trying to make chronological sense of the story, there are a plethora of interesting questions about the Golden Calf narrative itself. First off, what did the people think they were accomplishing? Moses leaves, so make a molten god to lead them? They would want a calf to lead them, but YHVH sending his angel to lead them is a cause for mourning? Plus, there's a whole connection between this story and 1 Kings 12:28, where Jeroboam sets up golden calves in Beit El and Dan, and says "Behold your gods, Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt," which is nearly verbatim what's said in the Exodus Golden Calf episode. There's the aspect of the plural "gods" used in the story, as opposed to "god." There's the question of how the people would declare this calf the god(s) "that brought you up out of the land of Egypt" (Ex 32:4), when immediately before they referred to Moses as "the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt" (Ex 32:1). Even the switch from "us" to "you" - it's all ripe for investigation!

But time being short, I'll leave that investigation for another time.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Priests and Mudbloods - Torah portion Tetzaveh

Genealogy of Egyptian High Priests at Memphis, 946-736 BCE.
Tetzaveh is the first Torah portion which is primarily about the kohanim, the priests.  The entire Israelite nation is called a "kingdom of priests." Yet even these "priests" have their priests. The Israelites are bound by restrictions, a set of strict laws. Yet the kohanim have even further restrictions. The Israelites are "chosen" from among the nations (Deut 7:6, 14:2). Yet the priests are chosen from among them (Deut 18:5, 21:5).

Likewise, the Torah talks about "seed" largely in relation to Israel - that the patriarchs' seed will be like the stars of the heaven, that the land of Canaan is promised to their seed, that the seed of Israel should not be given to the Molech (sacrificed by fire), etc. And "seed" is also used to describe the priestly lineage within the lineage of Israel:
וְהָיְתָה לָהֶם חָק עוֹלָם לוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ לְדֹרֹתָם
"And it shall be for them a perpetual statute, for [Aaron] and his seed, for all their generations." (Ex 30:41)
Only unlike the Israelite nation, which while having its basis in "seed" also accepts proselytes, with the priesthood, there's no conversion. You're either born into it or you're not. It's seed all the way.

I'm a kohen myself, part of the priestly lineage. But I have to say that the idea of "bloodlines" doesn't particularly resonate well to my modern, Western, democratic, post-Enlightenment ears. Shouldn't we choose the best person for the job? Why should someone be "born" into it? Haven't we moved past the idea of "noble" or "privileged" classes and into the age of meritocracy? Even children grasp this idea. It's one of the main themes of Harry Potter, fighting against the idea that only "pure bloods" should be taught magic, that people from outside the noble bloodlines are "mudbloods" who need to be expunged from the magical world. It's not the family you were born into but what you do with your life, the choices you make, that counts. This is modern moral literacy 101!

So how do we understand Judaism's placing stock in genetic descent? Once again, I think we have to first put it in perspective and look at the historical context. For millennium upon millennium, dynastic rule and succession were the way societies around the world functioned. Chinese dynasties go back over 4000 years. Egyptian dynasties over 5000 years. You had the ruling "house," i.e. the family. In monarchic Israel, it was (largely, or at least in principle) the house of David. In modern-day England, Queen Elizabeth II is from the house of Windsor.

And hereditary succession was not only the case for the sovereign of the state, but also for priests. In Egypt for instance, there were established priestly families, the office handed down from father to son. In a few cases however, the pharaoh appointed someone not of the traditional lineage to the office, and this was the cause of considerable consternation within the old priestly families.

Families, bloodlines, classes - the noble aristocracy and the various strata of classes underneath - this was the way of the civilized world up until very recent history. You were born into whatever class you happened to be, and - with very few exceptions - that was it. Granted, we still have de facto "classes" in the Western world, based on wealth. Yes, "privilege" based on family, ethnicity, etc. is still an issue. And all you have to do is look at the Bushes and Clintons of the world to know that it's not all meritocracy - the dynastic model still puts up a venerable fight. But still I think it's fair to say that the depth of the class system of even 200 years ago would seem totally foreign to modern Western sensibilities. For us, if upward mobility is limited by who or where a person is "from," that's considered an embarrassment. It's something wrong in the system that needs to be corrected.

And yet... It's not exactly accurate to say that the idea of aristocratic family lines is something modern people eschew. There's a mystique around the British royal family, around celebrity families, and of course political dynasties. What is it about royal or quasi-royal lineage that catches people's fancy? Is it the name itself, e.g. anyone named "Kennedy"? Is it the physical family resemblance? A sense of tradition and continuity? A desire to recapture the past? Is there in fact something deep within the human psyche, maybe rooted in evolutionary psychology, that longs for an "elite" within the clan, those to whom we can only look in admiration but never hope to be a part of themselves, maybe analogous to God? (Or possibly the opposite - maybe our conception of God is analogous to a venerated upper class to which we submit ourselves as humble subjects.)

A friend recently related to me the "yichus" (blood relations) of someone he knows - the great great granddaughter of such-and-such Hasidic rabbi on one side, the great niece of such-and-such Torah scholar on the other. Like I say, I understand the mystique factor. But other than that, why should the fact of someone's birth family be in any way significant? I suppose beyond mystique, or mysticism, there's also a rational, straightforward significance to descending from a "prominent" family - expectations.

When someone grows up in a "house" (i.e. an aristocratic family dynasty), there is a built-in expectation from birth of taking one's place in that family's legacy. People can be groomed psychologically and behaviorally throughout their lives to become leaders or fulfill a certain role.

Similarly, the priests of ancient Israel were sequestered and instructed from their youth. They were bred to fulfill their role as kohanim. And that training, that instruction, from a very early age, makes an indelible impression on a person. Almost as if they seem "inherently" suited to lead in that way. Only in all probability, it's largely a product of grooming and acculturation rather than DNA.

And when you think about it, grooming priests (or anyone) from birth based on family is possibly a more efficient alternative to a merit-based system. Imagine having to individually gauge the "merit" of every small child in a society for a job they won't take on until adulthood. It's much easier to simply designate a certain group of people to take on the role of priesthood, since they have to be conditioned from their youth. It also manages expectations - both the expectations of those filling that role, as well as those not filling that role, so that (in principle) there's an agreement as to who's doing the job, and you're not having to manage constant coup attempts. So on multiple levels, hereditary succession of the priesthood probably made sense.

Nowadays, in the diminished role that kohanim play, it's not a particularly controversial issue. Priests have some additional halachic restrictions, get the first alliyah to the Torah, do the priestly blessing. But they have no "power" per se. The hereditary aspect, while decidedly non-democratic, is fairly benign. It serves as a link to the past and offers the hopeful sense that the "seed" lives on.

That's what I suppose I would take from this. Yes, we've largely moved on from hard and fast class distinctions and bloodlines dominating our leadership roles. Which is a good thing. Within that context, to the extent that people find it intriguing, awe-inspiring, nostalgic or otherwise psychologically satisfying, there's a place for a little aristocracy. As long as people aren't prevented from being upwardly mobile. As long as it doesn't draw too much of a society's attention or resources. As long as the out-group isn't looked at as "mudbloods." As Jews, too much emphasis on yichus is a corruption of values.

I'll close with a well-known Mishna:
רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר, שְׁלשָׁה כְתָרִים הֵם, כֶּתֶר תּוֹרָה וְכֶתֶר כְּהֻנָּה וְכֶתֶר מַלְכוּת, וְכֶתֶר שֵׁם טוֹב עוֹלֶה עַל גַּבֵּיהֶן
"Rabbi Shimon says: There are three crowns - the crown of Torah, the crown of Priesthood, and the crown of Kingship, but the crown of a Good Name is above them all." (Avot 4:13)
In other words, the highest honor we should accord people should not be based on birth, and not even on the amount of knowledge they've accrued, but on their positive actions in the world.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Does God need a House? - Torah portion Teruma

"House of YHVH" ostracon c. 800 BCE
The obvious answer to most modern religious believers is clearly an emphatic no, God does not need a house. In standard Jewish theological terms, God has no "needs." God is whole and perfect. Not only does God have no physical body to "reside" anywhere, but God is infinite, existing in all places at all times. In fact according to the Maimonidean school of thought, God is so ineffable that one cannot even speak about what God "is," only what God is "not."

And yet this Torah portion describes the plans for what sounds like an abode for God, the Mishkan or mobile sanctuary. The purpose of the Mishkan is stated explicitly at the start of the instruction:
"Make for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them." (Ex 25:8)
And again toward the end of the instruction:
"And there I will meet with the children of Israel, and [the Mishkan] will be sanctified by my glory... And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will be their God." (Ex 29:43, 45)

So despite our notion of God being omnipresent, the Torah speaks of God "dwelling" with the Israelites, in and by way of the Mishkan. This sanctuary (whether the mobile Mishkan or permanent Temple in Jerusalem) is explicitly referred to as the "house of YHVH" three times in the Torah itself:
"The choicest first-fruits of your land you should bring [into] the house of YHVH your God; you should not cook a kid in its mother's milk." (Ex 23:19)

"The choicest first-fruits of your land you should bring [into] the house of YHVH your God; you should not cook a kid in its mother's milk." (Ex 34:26)

"You should not bring the wages of a harlot, or the price of a dog, [into] the house of YHVH your God for any vow..." (Deut 23:19)

(No, that wasn't a misprint. Exodus 23:15-19 and 34:18-26 are parallel passages, with certain parts repeated verbatim.)

All told, the phrase "house of YHVH" occurs over 100 times in the Bible, including in several often-recited verses in Psalms:
אַחַת שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת יְ-הוָה אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית יְ-הוָה כָּל יְמֵי חַיַּי
"One [thing] I have asked from YHVH, which I will seek after - that I may dwell in the house of YHVH all the days of my life..." (Ps 27:4, L'David, said in Elul-Tishrei)
שְׁתוּלִים בְּבֵית יְ-הוָה בְּחַצְרוֹת אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ יַפְרִיחוּ
"Those who are planted in the house of YHVH, in the courtyards of our God, shall flourish." (Ps 92:13-14, Mizmor Shir of Shabbat)
נְדָרַי לַי-הוָה אֲשַׁלֵּם נֶגְדָה נָּא לְכָל עַמּוֹ. בְּחַצְרוֹת בֵּית יְ-הוָה בְּתוֹכֵכִי יְרוּשָׁלָ‍ִם הַלְלוּ יָ-הּ
"I will pay my vows to YHVH in the presence of all his people. In the courtyards of the house of YHVH, in the midst of Jerusalem, praise YH." (Ps 116:18-19, part of the Hallel prayer)

And of course the Temple Mount is known in Hebrew as Har Habayit, lit. "the Mountain of the House." Suffice it to say, whether or not God "needs" a house, the Temple is certainly referred to as God's house. What do we make of that?

I think the place to start is to recognize that modern-day or even Medieval Jewish theology does not necessarily express the same concept of God as understood by the ancient Israelites. First off, the Biblical God is anthropomorphized as having hands, arms, feet, face, eyes, nose, etc., as ascending and descending, walking and hovering, and as having emotions such as anger and regret. Also, there is Biblical and archaeological evidence that monolatry (worship of God while acknowledging the existence of other gods), and not strict monotheism as we understand it today, was a common or even dominant worldview in ancient Israel, at least at earlier stages. Which is not to cast aspersion on our Israelite forebears. They were simply affected by the world they inhabited, just as we are. In the same way, we have to understand the Torah's temple-orientation in the historical context that it was formulated.

All peoples in the Ancient Near East had gods. And gods all had their temples, their houses. In some cases, such as Beit Shemesh ("the house of Shemesh," the sun goddess), the sanctuary or house of the god became the place name proper. The temple and its proceedings were seen as a means of gaining favor in the eyes of the god, who if all went well would be persuaded to reside with the people and thus bestow them with blessings. Proper "care" of the gods required daily offerings. Did the god "need" these offerings? This is a bit of a supposition, but I would guess that if we took a poll of Ancient Near Eastern pagans, they would balk at the idea that their god would starve to death if not "fed," or would be suffering out in the cold if not "housed." But these things were necessary, again, in order to earn the presence and blessing of the god. The god is a sort of monarch, and the monarch must have a suitable abode, one which bespeaks their honor and power.

Such is the world that the Mishkan and Temple were created to function in. While Israelite temple ritual certainly had its own distinct "spin" to it, there was a great amount of overlap with neighboring cult practices. For one, the layout of the Israelite sanctuary, with its outer altar, antechamber and holy of holies, mirrored those of Canaanite and other adjacent cultures. Israelite burnt sacrifices and peace sacrifices would have been familiar to their neighbors. The Torah describes a fire from God "consuming" (i.e. eating) the sacrifice on the altar (Lev 9:24, Jud 6:21, 1 Ki 18:38 and others), about it being God's "food" (Lev 3:11, Num 28:24 and others), and the smell of the sacrifices being a "satisfying aroma" to God (Ex 29:18, Lev 23:13, Num 15:3 and others). This kind of language doesn't come out of theological treatises about God's infinite nature. It reflects a widespread expectation that your god must be fed and sheltered. To neglect to do so would have been a religious affront!

So even going back to ancient Israel, I would venture to guess that they did not believe that God "needed" a house. Rather, they needed God to have a house in order to do what was "proper" for one's God. What's more, they needed God to dwell among them and bestow upon them the blessings of fertility, crops, rain, success in their battles, and so on. And in the ancient world, that meant you needed to build God a fitting residence and offer God the choicest of your food. For Israel, it also meant behaving in a holy manner, following divinely-given instructions, and - importantly - not straying after other gods.

Of course, only part of that comports with the modern concept of God. We don't live in a world where God is expected to have a house or daily food offerings. Modern "houses of God" are not quasi-palaces with throne rooms where God the monarch is understood to reside, but rather places where people gather together to worship God. That is the standard model today.

But again, does God "need" worship? No, in theological terms, a singularly perfect and infinite God does not need anything. The tradition does however speak of the idea of God "desiring" the prayers of the righteous, and certainly Halacha mandates daily prayer, but ultimately the idea - just like the original concept of the Temple/Santuary - is that our prayer should benefit us.

We ceased living in a Temple culture some 2000 years ago. And some would say that in the post-Enlightenment age of increasing secularization and orientation toward science and technology, the prayer/worship culture is also on its way out. People are discovering alternative modes of spiritual expression and community building that speak to their modern individual needs and aspirations. Where does that leave prayer and shul? I think it's much like a great deal of Judaism today. Practices that when  originally instituted were more natural and intuitive, reflecting the wider society and where people's general mindset was at the time, don't necessarily "cease to exist" just because we've changed. Instead, these practices become even more "Jewish." They turn into rituals which make us religiously and culturally distinct, and as such they function to bolster our religious continuity and identity. Prayer and shul are like lighting Hanukkah candles or holding a Passover Seder. They're "Jewish" things to do. Prayer in shul has its unique tempo, melodies, movements, and messages - like a series of slightly changing mini-musicals that we play out over the course of the day, the week, the year.

So I suppose the challenge for Judaism is to strike the right balance between ritual that we keep because it keeps us Jewish, and practices which speak authentically to our needs, which are truly relevant in ways that challenge us to grow and develop, and which inspire and reinvigorate our sense of national purpose. One could answer simply - let the Jewish stuff be Jewish, and let everything else be the "extracurriculars" we engage in. The risk there is that participating in Judaism because it fosters Jewish continuity, or because we enjoy the familiar cultural Jewish "shtick," or even because we "have to," is not as compelling as taking part in an activity because it's understood as having inherent value, because it's something we would want to do anyway. So we'd probably be better served if we managed to inject more authenticity, in the modern, 21st Century sense, into our Jewish practice. What and how? That's another question!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Slavery and the Eternal Law conundrum - Torah portion Mishpatim

Protesting child slavery, 1909 labor parade, NYC
The Torah portion opens with a set of laws about the treatment of Hebrew slaves: How long does a slave stay with you before he goes free? What happens if he's married when he comes into servitude? What if a man sells his daughter into slavery? (Ex 21:2-11) And further on: What happens to a slave-owner if he strikes his slave and the slave dies, or doesn't die? What if the slave's eye is blinded or tooth gets knocked out? (Ex 21:20-21, 26-27)

This is all part of what scholars refer to as the Covenant Code, the laws given to Moses at Sinai. There are other collections of laws in the Torah pertaining to slavery. One is Lev 25:39-46, another is Deut 15:12-18. I'm not getting into the issue of comparing these codes. (If you're interested, here's one analysis.) Instead, I want to talk about the fact of the Torah containing laws about slavery at all.

Though before I even go there, I might pose the question: Do we really even need to talk about this? After all, the Torah was written at a time when slavery was an economic and social reality, and clearly laws had to be put in place in order to address that reality: Slaves needed to be treated fairly, and everyday brutality toward slaves needed to be combated. People needed to know that even if a slave was financially-speaking their "property," he/she wasn't theirs to abuse.

Also, it's not as though the Torah was propounding a "philosophy" of slavery. Contrast that with say, Aristotle, who accepted the idea of "natural slavery":
“From the hour of their birth, some are marked for subjection, others for rule... And it is clear that the rule of the soul over the body, and of the mind and the rational faculty over the passionate, is natural and expedient.” (Politics 1:5)

“It is clear, then, that some men are by nature free, and others slaves, and that for the latter, slavery is both expedient and right.” (Ibid., 1:13)

Here's the thing though. There's the question of not "promoting" slavery per se, and legislating more humanitarian practices toward slaves. That's all well and good. But how about abolition?

At the tender age of 22, when I experienced my first in-depth exposure to Orthodox Judaism, I recall asking some believing folks I'd met: "What about slavery?" Meaning, how could the Torah allow it? And when presented with answers about protecting the rights of indentured servants and slaves, I retorted:
"But why doesn't the Torah simply say, 'Thou shalt not keep slaves'?"
Yes, slavery was a fixture of ancient society, an intractable institution. But so was idolatry. And the Torah managed to forbid that, as part of the ambitious task given to the Israelites of being a holy nation, a nation of priests. So why not abolish slavery as a nation? How difficult would that really have been for them, especially after having been slaves themselves in Egypt? Can you imagine what a shining example that would've been for humanity? All the suffering and brutality throughout the millennia that could potentially have been avoided?

I don't remember the response. (Which happens often. When you have a strong enough question, that's what you tend to remember, not people's answers.) In any case, here I am revisiting the question nearly 25 years later. My thoughts on it? I think it's a fair question vis-à-vis standard Orthodox philosophy, but a non-question in terms of the Torah itself. Let me explain.

I posed my "Thou shalt not keep slaves" challenge against the background of assumptions held by the Orthodox people I'd met. One of those assumptions is that the Torah's laws are eternal. Therefore they must be every bit as relevant to us nowadays as they were to those early generations who first heard them. So at least in terms of the law, there is nothing the Torah would have written any differently if it were given in our generation.

But the notion of an "eternal law" is, I believe, a grave mistake. Yes, it sounds pious. It even sounds logical. After all, if God is going to write a book, it should convey laws that have a shelf life of "forever," shouldn't it? No, I don't think that's realistic or necessary to posit.

First off, the laws of the Torah do not sound particularly eternal. In fact, they positively scream out: "Ancient Near East." And it's not just concerning slavery. Think about levirate marriage, or not allowing a witch to live, or how many sheep to offer as a sacrifice, or redeeming your firstborn male donkey, or giving the first of your wool to the priest, or not erecting a pillar for purposes of idolatry, or the laws of the Sotah, or not making oneself bald on behalf of the dead, or not uttering false prophecy, or stoning and burning as capital punishments. Examples like that go on and on. And that's not even getting into parallels within Sumerian, Babylonian, Ugaritic, and Akkadian law codes.

Which is not to say that there aren't things we can learn from some of these laws today. There are. It's not to say that there aren't ways we can extrapolate from these laws to things which are more directly relevant to us today. There are. But is there any doubt that they were written for the ancient world, addressing their specific set of concerns? Is there any doubt that if the Torah were written today, to address our specific concerns, that its laws would be formulated radically differently?

Why give us laws about sheep when we could have laws about organ donation, or blood-alcohol levels, or abortion, or artificial life support, or firearms ownership, or the colonization of planets, or cloning, or consuming trans fats, or social media and texting, or the right to privacy, or intellectual property, etc.? There are countless areas of immediate concern to us that an "eternal law" would presumably need to address.

The Torah presents the laws of slavery in "casuistic" (conditional, case law) terms, as in, "When you will acquire a Hebrew slave, [then do X]." And we no longer have those conditions, thankfully, so we no longer apply the law. The same could in theory have been done for laws whose conditions didn't exist yet at the time the Torah was first given, but which would come into play some millennia down the road. But the Torah wasn't written that way. It was written for its time.

But then what do we say about phrases in the Torah like chok olam ledorotam, "an everlasting statute for their generations"? Doesn't that sound as if the Torah is presenting its laws as eternal, as equally relevant to all generations?

Since we're talking about slavery, let's ponder the phrase eved olam (Deut 15:17, see also Ex 21:6). Is that to say the person is meant to be an "eternal slave"? Even beyond their death? After the sun turns into a red giant and consumes Earth? No, it means "continually," "in perpetuity." As opposed to a temporary situation. As opposed to a "horaat shaah" (temporary decree). Chok olam ledorotam then implies in perpetuity, i.e. until it ceases to be relevant.

But did the Torah possibly mean: Keep these laws as long as they make sense to you; after that, change them as you wish? No, I think that would be dishonest to say as well. However, to be fair, there is no law ever given which explicitly stipulates a finite shelf life like that. It's just assumed that people will adjust their laws and conduct according to the needs of the time. And we have. Think of the sweeping reforms of Chazal, the sages of the Talmud. Such is the purpose, and process, of Halacha. Torah is a living, breathing thing. The practices of the patriarchs and matriarchs would have been foreign to King David, as King David would've been to Ezra, Ezra to the sages of the Talmud, they to Medieval Jewry, and they to us.

Also don't forget that we live in a time of unprecedented accelerated change. At the time the Torah was given, it would have been entirely reasonable to think of a law being perfectly relevant "forevermore."

There's no such thing as a "perfect law for all time." Because people change, and law is designed to bring stability to society, and you will not have societal stability and cohesion if the law does not comport to some degree to where people are at.

Aside from distorting reality and making the Torah into something it's clearly not, the other problem with asserting "eternal law" is that we then have to jump through hoops to explain why the laws of slavery are likewise "eternal" on some level. If we say that they were meant to address life in the Ancient Near East, and have nothing to do with us today, that there is nothing whatsoever "ideal" or "eternal" about those laws, that's a much stronger moral position.

Which also explains why I view "Thou shalt not keep slaves" as a non-question in terms of the Torah itself. Because to expect that the Torah should have "seen ahead" to days of abolition and emancipation is asking way too much of the Torah! The laws of the Torah were no doubt formulated in an attempt to create a set of best practices for the various situations that presented themselves at the time. And that, incidentally, is precisely what we all need to do today - deal as best we can with what is in front of us.

In fact, we might even call that very principle a "rule for all time."

Friday, February 17, 2017

Ten Commandments vs. Aseret Hadevarim - Torah portion Yitro

If you're reading the text of Exodus 20 straight, without any preconceptions and without thinking you had to divide verses 2-13 into ten distinct laws, you'd most likely never assume that "I am YHVH your God" is, by many people's interpretations, a command.

First off, in the traditional parsing of verses, it's not even a separate verse:
I am the YHVH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the home of slavery; you should have no other gods before me. (Ex 20:2)
Though to be fair, verse 12 contains 4 commandments. And verses 7-10 encompass one commandment. So you can't look to the verse as a unit of measure for a commandment here.

But even in the traditional paragraph spacing (petuchot and setumot), "I am YHVH" is grouped with the commands relating to idolatry, i.e. with no break in between, whereas there is a space between all the other commandments. (Interestingly though, there's also a space between "Do not cover your neighbor's house" and "Do not covet your neighbor's wife," making ten separate paragraph sections in total, albeit not matching the traditional Jewish division of commandments.)

Point being, completely apart from the fact that "I am YHVH" doesn't have the wording of a command, neither the verse nor the paragraph particularly lends to the idea that it should be counted as a separate commandment.

And then there's the fact that there are numerous other places in the Torah where "I am YHVH" appears - 4 additional instances of "anochi YHVH" (like our verse) and 28 times as "ani YHVH." Some of these instances even mirror the "who brought you out" language:
"I am YHVH, who brought you out of Ur Kasdim..." (Gen 15:7)

"I am YHVH, and I have brought you out from under the burdens of Egypt..." (Ex 6:6)

"I am YHVH, your God, who has brought you out from the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan..." (Lev 25:38)

"I am YHVH, your God, who has brought you out from the land of Egypt, from your being slaves..." (Lev 26:13)
And if we say a comparison only applies if "I am YHVH" comes in the context of law and/or covenant language, the last two above verses appear at the end of sections detailing specific laws and speaking in general about keeping "my laws and statues."

Sometimes "I am YHVH" is used as a signature at the end of a legal passage, as in, "Keep my statutes and rules that a person will do and live by them, I am YHVH." (Lev 18:5) Sometimes, as in the Ten Commandments passage, it's a preamble, an introduction.

Scholars talk about "I am YHVH" following the structure of Hittite vassal treaties, where the ruler identifies himself and his deeds as an introduction and justification for the binding legal covenant that follows. And like the two tablets, two copies of the covenant are made - one for the ruler, the other for the vassal.

Like so many other instances of "I am YHVH" throughout the Torah, it appears (if you didn't know anything to the contrary) that "I am YHVH" in the Ten Commandments text is providing a justification for the covenant to follow.

And indeed Jewish tradition is divided as to whether "I am YHVH" should be included as a separate commandment. Some, notably Maimonides, say yes. Others, such as R. Shimon Kiyara ("Behag," Ba'al Halachot Gedolot, 8th C.) and Abarbanel, say no.

For traditional Jewish commentators who don't count "I am YHVH" as a separate command, how do they get 10 commandments? Well, the Torah actually refers to "ten statements" (aseret hadevarim), not "ten commandments." So they can simply take the first statement, "I am YHVH," as an axiom rather than a command, making it 1 axiom plus 9 commandments, totaling 10 statements. There have been others in history who don't count "I am YHVH" and yet still find ways of counting 10 "commandments," but I haven't seen this from traditional Jewish commentators, with the possible exception of Philo ("possible" meaning he's not really a traditional commentator in the rabbinic/Talmudic sense). If anyone has info to impart on this issue, please let me know.

And while we're on the subject of the "ten statements," there are three places the phrase "aseret hadevarim" appears in the Torah. The first is:
"And [Moses] was there with YHVH, forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread and he did not drink water, and he wrote upon the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten statements. (Ex 34:28)
At the beginning of this chapter, Moses is asked to carve two tablets like the first which he broke. And what words, what covenant, was written on the originals?

The first time the tablets are mentioned is Ex 24:12, where Moses is simply told that he'll be given "tablets of stone, and the Torah and the mitzva that I have written." So no hint there about their specific content. The next time is Ex 31:18, where Moses is actually given two "tablets of stone, written with the finger of God." (Note: This is already a full 11 chapters after the Sinai covenant, which had no mention of "tablets," or "ten statements" for that matter.) In Exodus 31, Betzalel and Oholiav are appointed as master craftsmen to supervise the building of the Tabernacle and its vessels. But in the five verses immediately preceding the giving of the tablets, the discussion is about keeping the Sabbath as an "eternal covenant."

So that is indeed a covenant, but nothing resembling "ten statements." Interestingly, Exodus 34 itself offers what scholars have identified as ten statements, sometimes referred to as the "Ritual Decalogue" (as opposed to the "Ethical Decalogue," beginning "I am YHVH"). These include an opening statement about driving out the Canaanite nations, followed by various injunctions involving idolatry, the command to keep Passover, redemption of firstborn animals, keeping the Sabbath and the Feast of Weeks, appearing before God three times a year, not offering sacrifices with leaven, offering first fruits, and not boiling a kid in its mother's milk.

In other words, sandwiched between "Carve yourself two stone tablets" and "he wrote upon the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten statements," is this whole section of various laws. Which on the face of it looks like that's what's written on the tablets!
But let's look at the second and third instances of the phrase "aseret hadevarim":
"And he told you his covenant that he commanded you to do, the ten statements, and he wrote them on two stone tablets." (Deut 4:13)
The context here is clearly the Sinai revelation: "Assemble for me my people, and I will make them hear my words... And you stood under the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire... And YHVH spoke to you from the midst of the fire..." (Deut 4:10-12)

The final instance puts it all in one verse:
"And he wrote on the tablets according to the first writing, the ten statements, which YHVH spoke to you on the mountain from the midst of the fire, on the day of the assembly..." (Deut 10:4)
To sum up, we have a set of "something important" given at Sinai, beginning "I am YHVH," and the text is fairly easily divided into 10 parts, albeit not all "commandments" necessarily. This text doesn't refer to itself as "aseret hadevarim" (the ten statements), nor is there any discussion of "tablets" anywhere proximal to this text. Later on in Exodus, we have a chapter bounded by "tablets" talk, and which refers to aseret hadevarim, whose legal content can be divided into 10 parts (the Ritual Decalogue) and is arguably what the text is referring to as being written on the tablets. However, in Deuteronomy, we have an explicit connection made between the tablets/ten statements, and the Sinai covenant (i.e. Ethical Decalogue).

Modern scholarship attempts to resolve the confusion by hypothesizing several different, individually coherent sources within the text. This is a long and involved discussion (interested readers can look here for an overview), so I'll leave it there for now.

I just want to quickly mention the photo I attached to this post. A while back we acquired a sort of "old-school" Ten Commandments wood carving. Whatever we say about the Torah text and what it originally meant, for Jewish religious and cultural purposes, this is still the "Ten Commandments," or in Hebrew, "Aseret Hadibrot." These 10, starting with "I am YHVH," are what we visualize God giving to Moses and the Israelites at Sinai. These are what we say are carved on the stone tablets. It's what we depict in the imagery found in our shuls and elsewhere. The idea of Ten Commandments from "I am YHVH" to "Do not covet," carved on two stone tablets, is taken for granted in nearly every Torah lecture you'll ever hear on the topic. Why? Because that's Jewish tradition. Judaism is not academia - it's the package of norms and thought we've carried with us across the ages. The Ten Commandments, Aseret Hadibrot, are in the realm of Judaism, and the exact identification of the "ten statements," the aseret hadevarim, is a matter of scholarship and academic debate.

Many prefer to choose one over the other, Judaism at the expense of scholarship, or scholarship at the expense of Judaism. I for one see no reason why we can't have and appreciate both.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Suspended Waters, Suspending Disbelief - Torah portion Beshalach

Visual development art from “The Prince of Egypt”
When it comes to evaluating truth claims, I admit to being a fan of rational scientific skepticism. It strikes me as the best methodology at our disposal for ascertaining factual reality.

But what does that mean then for evaluating Biblical narratives like the Parting of the Red Sea? Well, as enamored as I am of skepticism, it occurs to me that it's hopelessly out of place here. It's the wrong paradigm, the wrong set of glasses to be looking through. Because it views the Red Sea episode first and foremost as a "claim" to be scrutinized, instead of a narrative to immerse oneself in, to visualize, experience, and comprehend for its content.

Here I am ready to get into the story...
A nation enslaved. A Pharaoh so obsessed with maintaining the subjugation that he lets his own nation absorb blow after destructive blow and refuses to release his grip. He finally relents just long enough for the fledgling Israelite nation to escape. But Pharaoh and his army are soon in hot pursuit. The Israelites find themselves trapped, the Red Sea dead ahead, and Pharaoh's army behind them. Then just when it looks like the end for Israel, Moses raises his staff, and God dispatches a wind that cuts the sea clear in half. The seawater stands like a wall on two sides, creating a corridor of dry earth in between, which the Israelites follow to safety. The Egyptian army gives chase, but Moses once again stretches out his staff. The gravity-defying waters come crashing down, the weight of the sea destroying Israel's oppressors...
Saved at the very last moment! Water suspended in mid-air! The weak triumphs over the mighty. Good over evil. Several millennia later, it's no less of an epic story. Maybe even worthy of a movie or two...

That's what I want to think about when I get to the Red Sea episode. I want to immerse myself in the story - the vivid imagery, the rich tapestry of themes and ideas. I want to check my skepticism at the door, suspend my disbelief, and just go with it. And yet I find this exceedingly difficult to do. Why? Because of all the energy, the "noise," around the question: Did the Red Sea really split? The noise comes from every angle - from believers focusing on the historicity of the miracle, to skeptics reflexively rebuffing it, to rationalist in-betweeners positing that a strong enough east wind could have formed a temporary land bridge, thereby allowing the Israelites to cross the sea, etc.

Now imagine for a moment that you're in a theater watching a Superman movie. Half the audience is talking about it being a documentary about Kal-El the Kryptonian. The others are either calling the documentary folks nuts, or they're proposing theories about how Superman could fly without defying the laws of physics if in fact he utilized the Jet Stream. As for me, I'm thinking: Hey guys, I'm trying to get into the movie here! Would you please cut the chatter??

No, I'm not comparing the Torah to Superman. I'm not making claims of fact vs. fiction. In fact I'm suggesting that we leave those kinds of questions aside. I fully recognize that this is hard to manage in a world where we're incessantly fact-checking and myth-busting, where we have to worry about fake news and the proliferation of outright lies. We've grown enormously sensitive to the idea we're being deliberately duped, misled.

The reason I referenced Superman is to remind us of a different kind of mental space we can enter, where we're not so concerned with claims and counter-claims, explanations and rationalizations and debunking, where we can just concentrate on the quality of the content, and our experience of that content. Where we expend our energy focusing on the imagery, ideas, feelings and values that the text is trying to convey: The power of God. The miraculous birth of Israel. Good prevailing over evil. Never giving up hope even when it looks like there's nowhere to turn... These are themes that never get old. And many of them are themes so universal that everyone can contribute to the conversation: skeptics, believers, and in-betweeners alike.

So see you in shul. Who's bringing the popcorn?