Thursday, February 16, 2006

Yitro (Midrash)

The Unity of Opposites

This week’s Torah portion, which describes the seminal event of the entire Torah, the Revelation at Sinai, provides a rich vein for theologians, commentators, philosophers, and midrash authors (albeit, rather surprisingly, the Midrash Rabbah contains a relatively small quantity of material on this parasha). The introductory verse of the Ten Commandments, “And God spoke all these things…,” prompts a series of midrashim on the “allness,” the inclusivity, of God’s words, as of His own being and “personality.” Thus, Exodus Rabbah 28.4:

“…all of these things, saying” [Exod 20:1}. That He does everything in a single moment: He at once deals out death and life; He smites [with illness] and heals. He hears prayer—of a woman on the birthing stone, of those who descend to the sea, of those who travel in the desert, of those imprisoned in prison; of one who is in the East, in the West, in the North, in the South—all at one moment.

The central idea expressed here is the unity of opposites within God’s manifestations. First of all, in life itself: He is the author of life and death, of sickness and health; He has created a world that is rich in both joy and sadness; in pleasure and suffering. Because he is God, He embraces all of this reality so filled with paradox and contradictions, and it is His nature to transcend them and to unite them within His own unity. And indeed, in later Jewish thought—in certain schools of Hasidism, for example (e.g., that of R. Aharon of Starosielce)—it is emphasized that these contradictions only exist from our own perspective as human beings, as mortal beings living inside physical bodies, but that on the level of Divine reality all is harmony.

Brief digression: Regarding this point, I’d like to add here an insight concerning Psalm 90, “A Prayer of Moses, the man of God.” This is one of the psalms recited every Shabbat in Pesukei de-Zimra and, according to tradition, is one of a group of psalms composed by Moses. The heading is unusual: throughout the Torah, and in later Jewish tradition, Moses enjoys the appellations “prophet,” “Teacher” (Moshe Rabbeinu), “servant of the Lord,” or “My servant,” but is only called ish ha-Elohim, “the man of God” in a handful of other places (most notably in his final blessing of the people in Deut 33:1, and posthumously in Josh 14:6, Ezra 3:2, 1 Chr 23:14, and 2 Chr 30:16). The phrase is otherwise used mostly of the early prophets, particularly Elijah and Elisha, of the anonymous prophet who chastises Jeroboam in 1 Kings 13, and in a smattering of other places (my thanks to Prof. Yairah Amit for her assistance in locating these sources).

The theme of this psalm is the utter transience of human life (“like grass, which flourishes in the morning… and fades and withers in the evening”; vv. 5-6), in dramatic contrast with the eternity of God (“before the mountains were brought forth, and before the earth was formed…”; v. 2). The ethical message drawn from these facts is that mankind must learn to accept their mortal condition (“Teach us to number our days”; v. 12) and to rejoice and be glad like (or maybe even: in) “our days of affliction.” Perhaps, by way of derush, one could say that the sense of the heading is that the man Moses had the rare ability to fully accept his mortality, and to see the world as God Himself sees it—in the grand, long range perspective in which the brevity and insecurity of individual human life is no longer a source of pain and tragedy, but simply accepted “philosophically.” And it also says: “he forms light and creates darkness…” [Isa 45:7]. He likewise transforms dust into man, and turns him again into dust, as is said, “He turns deep darkness [or: the shadow of death] into morning” [Amos 5:8]. What is meant by “into morning”? As it was at the beginning.

The verse quoted here from Isaiah is the classic rejection of dualism in Jewish thought. It continues “…I make peace and create evil; I the Lord do all these things.” One senses that this midrash may have been written, first and foremost, to refute dualism, rampant both in Isaiah’s day, with the nascent Zoroastrian religion of Persia, and in Hazal’s time, in the various mystery and Gnostic religions which drew a sharp dichotomy between the good but hidden God, and the Creator Demiurge, source of the material world with its inherent evil. Against these, and their intellectual heirs down to modern times, Judaism firmly insists that the One God is the Author of All.

At the beginning what does it say? “And all the water that was in the Nile turned to blood” [Exod 7:20]. And He returned and turned the blood back into water. Living flesh was made dead [i.e., leprous], and dead flesh was restored to living. The staff was turned into a serpent, and the serpent was turned back into a staff; the sea was turned to dry land, and the dry land was again turned into sea. And it also says, “He calls to the waters of the sea and pours them out upon the face of the earth, the Lord is His name” [Amos 5:8 = 9:6].

The same idea, of God’s manifestations in opposites, is also expressed in His actions, such as the miracles recounted in the earlier chapters of the Book of Exodus.

And it is also thus with the commandments: “Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it” [Exod 20:8], and “On the Sabbath day [you shall offer] two yearling lambs” [Num 28:9]. It is commanded: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife” [Lev 18:16], and “when brothers dwell together…” [Deut 25:5]. And all of them were said at one moment. This is: “And God speaks all these things, saying…”

Finally, the midrash touches on the problem of the seeming contradictions in the laws of the Torah per se. Thus, in one place the Torah commands us to rest from all labor on Shabbat, while elsewhere it orders the [forbidden labor] of slaughtering animals within the context of the Temple service in Shabbat; it defines sexual relations between a man and his brother’s wife as incestuous, and elsewhere mandates that same act in the case of levirate marriage, when she is left as a childless widow. The Rabbis found a fairly straightforward answer to such dilemmas through the application of hermeneutic principles which established a clear order of priority among conflicting rules—e.g., in this case, that explicit positive commandments override the Sabbath and incest prohibitions.

“And They Envisioned you in Old Age and in Youth”

Come and see that the attributes of the Holy One blessed be He are not like those of flesh and blood. A king of flesh and blood cannot make war, and [also] be a scribe and a teacher of school children. But the Holy One blessed be He is not so. Yesterday at the Sea He made war, as is said, “The Lord is a man of war” [Exod 15:3] and it says, “with His power He calmed the sea” [Job 26:12]. And today at the Giving of the Torah He came down to teach Torah to his children. And thus it also says, “For God is exalted in His power, who is a teacher like him?!” [Job 36:22]. This is: “And God spoke all these things.”

This midrash, Exod. Rab. 28.5, continues the theme begun in the previous section in which God transcends the law of contradiction, but this time with respect to God’s character or image. Unlike human beings, who can be either mighty warriors or gentle, soft-spoken teachers, but not both—certainly not simultaneously (see b. A. Z. 17b)—God manifests Himself in varied and different faces. (Some years ago Art Green wrote an excellent study of these midrashic images, “The Children of Israel and the Sea,” with their frank anthropomorphism, suggesting that these two, in particular, are central archetypes for God’s epiphany to Israel, which are often played off against one another: the Sea and Sinai, associated in turn with the Song of Songs and the Ten Commandments.)

The multitude of images in which God is depicted is the central theme of the ”Song of Glory,” or An’im Zemirot, recited in many congregations at the end of Shabbat morning prayers. This hymn describes the role of imagery in our praise of God, explaining that all of the numerous images used in the Bible and the aggadah are not meant to be taken literally, but are linguistic devices for bringing the world of God closer to human comprehension. “They [the early prophets, etc.] described You by way of parable in many visions, but You are one in all images… They saw You in old age and youth, and the hairs of Your head as hoary white and youthful black…. Old age on the day of judgment, and youth on the day of battle….” This hymn is often misunderstood: a rationalist acquaintance of mine refused to recite it on the grounds that it was “Kabbalah,” reveling in the multitude of images for the divine. Yet in fact the approach it presents is the very quintessence of Maimonideanism.

The question regarding the midrash discussed above is whether it in fact envisions the varying portrayals of God as metaphor, or as expressing the actual reality of God—i.e., that He embraces contradiction? That is, that He is literally both “man of war” and a compassionate elder sitting in judgment.

The anomalies and misfortunes of human life, with the contradictions these imply regarding the Divine running of the world, are a constant source of religious doubt and disbelief. Some months ago, a particularly witty member of the agnostic, empiricist branch of my extended family forwarded an item from a journal called The Onion which argued that God suffered from “bipolar personality disorder”—as if this were somehow a reductio ad absurdum of the “misguided” belief in a merciful, beneficent God. In my reply, I wrote:

In fact, the Jewish tradition (and other religious traditions, certainly those of the Far East) has expressed rather similar ideas, albeit in more dignified and semi-mythical language. What is all the talk, both in the Talmuds and Midrashim, and later on in Kabbalah, about the interplay between Hesed and Din, between Divine compassion and Divine severity, if not something very similar? But truth be told, the more sophisticated layers of the tradition—for example, medieval philosophy and Kabbalah (an important aside: I suspect the significant difference between these two approaches lies not so much in their theology and beliefs about God as in their approach to language. The former claims that one cannot talk at all about that which is unknowable; hence Maimonides’ “negative theology.” The latter talks about it in symbolic, suggestive, allusive, mythic language, that in a round-about way helps the one receiving it to intuit certain truths) and their classic Rabbinic forerunners—agree that God does not have a personality in the human sense, but the Bible and aggadot and so simply use such language to convey certain ideas about God to ordinary people. ‘The Torah speaks the language of man.”

It Was All Revealed at Sinai

A third midrash in this series interprets the word “all” in this verse to imply that the revelation at Sinai as such was all-inclusive, embracing not only the specific commandments revealed at that occasion, nor even the text of the Five Books alone, but everything that would come to be known under the broad rubric of “Torah,” including words that would not be articulated until thousands of years hence. Exodus Rabbah 28.6:

Another thing: “And God spoke all these things saying.” R. Yitzhak said: That which the prophets are to prophesy in the future in each generation they already received at Mount Sinai, as Moses said to Israel: “For he who is standing with us here today before the Lord our God, and he who is not here with us today…” [Deut 29:14]. It is not written “standing with us today,” but “with us today”—this refers to the souls who are to be created, who have no concrete existence, of whom it cannot say “standing.” For even though they were not present at that hour, each one received that which was his.

This is a well-known idea: that the souls of all future generations were at Sinai, and at the covenantal ceremony that accompanied Moses’ valedictory to the people, described in Deuteronomy 29.

It also says, “The burden of the word of the Lord to Israel by the hand of Malachi” [Mal 1:1]. It does not say “ in the days of Malachi” but “in the hand of Malachi.” For the prophecy was in his hand from Mount Sinai, but until that hour he was not given permission to prophesy. Similarly Isaiah says: “from the time that I was there” [Isa 48:16]. Isaiah said: from the day that the Torah was given at Mount Sinai I was there and I received this prophecy. But “now the Lord God has sent me and his spirit” [ibid.]. Until now he was not given permission to prophesy. And not only did all the prophets receive their prophecy from Sinai, but even the Sages who appear in each generation, each one received his at Mount Sinai. For it also says: “these things the Lord spoke to your entire congregation… a great voice that did not cease” [Deut 8:19]. R. Yohanan said: One voice was divided into seven voices, and they were divided into seventy languages. R. Simeon ben Lakish said: that from it all the prophets who were to arise prophesied. The Rabbis said: that it did not have an echo.

The idea of the Revelation echoing down through subsequent ages is seen as being implied in the phrase “a great voice that did not cease,” at least in some readings. (R. Yohanan and the Rabbis take it in different directions, and some read “velo yasaf” in a precisely opposite sense: that it did not continue).

R. Shmuel bar Nahmani said in the name of R. Yohanan: What is meant by “The voice of the Lord is with strength” [Ps 29: 4]? Is it possible to say such a thing?! And even with regard to a single angel, there is no person that can withstand [hearing] his voice, as is said, “And his body was like beryl… and the sound of his words was like the sound of a multitude” {Dan 10:6]. And the Holy One blessed be He, of whom it is written, “Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?” [Jer 23:24], does He need to speak with strength? Rather, “The voice of the Lord is with strength”—with the strength of all the voices. And this, according to R. Yohanan. And the following verse supports him: as is said: “The Lord has given the word, those bearing the tidings are a great host” [Ps 68:12].

This midrash conveys the idea that the Torah entails far more than the Five Books of the Mosaic revelation per se, but has indefinitely expanding boundaries. This approach is widespread in Rabbinic thought, and lends itself to two diametrically opposed lines of interpretation. One, which might be called the “fundamentalist” reading, says: yes, there is an expanded “canon.” It includes not only the Torah, but the other books of Scripture, the Mishnah, the Talmud, and some say also the Midrash, the “Hidden Torah”—i.e., Sefer ha-Zohar and other esoteric books that were conveyed by way of mouth among a select few over the millennia—and even “whatever a venerable sage shall innovate in the future.” But, in the end, it is a canon: once given, it is essentially immovable, unchangeable. There is just that much more material which we must treat with awe and reverence, and that many more things we are obligated to do, on the basis of one or another source.

A second reading is what might be called the open-ended, expansive reading of Torah. If what the prophets and the ancient Sages received was part of Torah, than so are the hiddushim of later generations, down to our own day. In this sense, the Torah is a kind of joint creation of God and man. This view is found, not only in modernist reform movements, but also in much of Hasidic thought. (See, especially, Sefat Emet and his development of the relationship between Written and Oral Torah, and the crucial role played in this process by hiddushei Torah.)


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