Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Ki Tisa (Torah)

The Epiphany in the Cleft of the Rock

In his introduction to the volume on the Book of Numbers in the New JPS Torah Commentary, Jacob Milgrom (citing the work of Newing) refers to the structure of the Hextateuch—the Five Books of the Torah plus the Book of Joshua—as a “grand introversion.” This pattern may perhaps best be described as an expanded “chiasm,” or ABB’A’ pattern—a form which appears frequently in the Bible, in which two elements are crossed in inverse order. Milgrom points out a series of pairs of incidents or subjects, throughout the length of the Hextateuch, arranged symmetrically around a central point, like an ascending pyramid, described schematically as ABCDEFGXG’F’E’D’C’B’A’. This structure creates a sense of balance, suggesting a certain schema moving, first “from slavery,” and then “to freedom,” and focusing attention on the central point in the schema.

Thus, this ouevre begins with the promise of the land to Abraham in Genesis 12, and concludes with the fulfillment of that promise in Joshua 13-24; circumcision appears in Gen 17, and recurs in Joshua 5; the sea is split in Exodus 14-15 , and the Jordan River is split in Joshua 3; there are descriptions of wanderings in the wilderness coupled with incidents involving water, manna, and quail in Exodus 15:22-17, and the same, in reverse order, in the Book of Numbers; the sacred architecture of the sanctuary is planned and described in Exodus 25-31, and is constructed in Chs. 35-40. As we approach the center of this entire structure, we discover that the central drama of the breaking of the covenant and its renewal is framed on either side by laws concerning the Shabbat (Exod. 31:12-17 and 35:1-3); finally, at the very center (according to this schema), we find the epiphany to Moses in Exodus 33 and 34:1-10.

For our purposes, we shall bracket or ignore possible objections to this theory: first, the assumption that the Hextateuch is the defining unit of the collection, rather than the Pentateuch, as in traditional Jewish teaching; second, the possible “fudge factor” involved in deliberately excluding or ignoring two major sections or “wedges,” on the grounds that they are either late or irrelevant—namely, the pre-history of mankind before Abraham in Genesis 1-11, and the entire book of Deuteronomy which, with its lengthy rhetorical rationale and recapitulation of the law by Moses, is defined as a “renewal of the covenant.” What we find most striking about this scheme is that it focuses upon the theophany to Moses in the cleft of the rock, rather than upon the revelation at Sinai, as the heart or focus of the entire first section of the Bible.

What could such a reading mean? I have always been fascinated by Parshat Ki Tisa: not only because of the sin of the Golden Calf which lies in its center, but equally by the aura of mystery surrounding the scene in the cleft of the rock. Exactly what happens here, and what is its significance? I will present two rather different reflections.

On one level, the dialogue between Moses and God recorded in Exodus 33 may be read as a discussion of the limits of human religious knowledge. The people, barely three months out of Egypt and less than six weeks after experiencing the direct revelation of God’s presence, commit the unspeakable sin of making a Golden Calf -- on the face of it, a reversion to paganism and idolatry (on which more later). Moses intercedes on their behalf, praying (and, according to the midrash, arguing, cajoling, beseeching, bargaining) to God to forgive them. At first God agrees to, essentially, give the people one more chance, but stipulates that He Himself will not go with them, because they are stubborn (the phrase am keshei ‘oref, “a stiff-necked people,” is repeated here three or four times within the space a few verses), and might destroy them in His anger at their first false move. Instead, He will send “ a messenger” (33:2) to take them into the land He has promised them. Moses accordingly relocates the Tent of Meeting, in which he meets God face to face, outside of the camp.

But that is not enough. Moses insists that God accompany the people with His own presence: “make known to me your ways” (33:13): that is, if I have “known you by name,” show your involvement with the people in your covenantal name of HVYH by accompanying them “personally.” (We must add here that we do not know what “being accompanied by God’s presence” means; I can only read this text as speaking in metaphor, alluding perhaps to esoteric secrets of Gods’ nature. What is clear from the context is that it was a matter of the deepest importance to both the people and to Moses.) Here, God once again relents and says “my face will go with you, and I will lighten your burden” (v. 14).

Moses now modifies the terms of his request, going one step further: “show me your glory” (33:18). Not merely “knowledge,” but “seeing”; not only “your ways,” but also “your glory.” God accedes to this request only in part. First He states: “I will let all my goodness pass before you, and will call upon the name of the Lord before you, and I shall be gracious to whom I am gracious, and merciful to whom I am merciful,” but then immediately adds, lest Moses think that there is to be a full epiphany of the Divine glory, that “you may not see my face, for no man may see me and live” (vv. 19-20). But then, in a kind of compromise, He adds: “When my glory passes by, I shall place you in the cleft of the rock (a sheltered hiding place among the rocky crags of the desert; compare Samson’s dwelling place in the “cleft” of Etam in Judges 15:8)—and you shall see my back, but my face you shall not see.“ Moses is not granted the mystic vision of the secret of God’s “face” or the “glory” of God as He is “in Himself.” He is only allowed a kind of peek, of a strictly limited type. The Talmud states, rather arcanely, that Moses was only allowed to see “the knot of God’s tefillin.”

What Moses is granted is a moralistic sort of epiphany: certain theological knowledge concerning the nature of God’s behavior, and especially his quality of forgiveness, writ large in the “thirteen qualities of mercy” that are presented in the next chapter (34:6-7). (These form a leit-motif in all Jewish penitential prayer, being recited repeatedly on fast days, throughout the Selihot season, and on Yom Kippur.) It seems that what one is meant to draw from this a spiritually austere, “Litvak,” anti-mystical message: the proper concern of the religious human being is not knowledge of God Himself, but of his ways—his ethical qualities, his capacity for forgiveness and mercy and compassion. This, because the first rule of religious ethics is imitatio dio, “imitation of God.” Our interest in the nature of God is not aimed at mystical, esoteric knowledge, but at ethics: we desire knowledge of God so as to imitate his ethical way in our own lives, here on this earth. A noble, humanistic sort of message.

But wait. Are the “knot of the tefillin,” the “rear side of holiness” (ahoraim dekedusha), a matter for ethics alone (to be translated in the sense of “God’s reflection in the human world”)? Or is there something more? The mystical vision is limited, not because man’s proper place is with the ethical, but because God is so ineffable, transcendent, frightening, that this is all that man can perceive—in any event, without dying or going insane (compare “the four who entered Pardes” in Hagiggah Ch. 2). The vision of Ezekiel seeing the Divine chariot, the “Merkavah”—the spinning wheels upon which were the faces of a man, a lion, a bull, and an eagle… and above it, the figure of a man disappearing in the mist and the clouds—comes to mind.

There is also another way of reading this story; but in order to do so, we need to return to the story of the Golden Calf itself, and the dialogue between Moses and God that ensues.

The Sin of the Golden Calf

Het ha-Egel, the sin of the Golden Calf, has a powerful resonance in Jewish thought, be it in Midrash, in traditional exegesis, or in the Musar and Derush (ethical-homiletical) literature. One might even say that it occupies a place in Jewish mythology roughly corresponding to that of Original Sin in Christian doctrine. The difference is, of course, that the sin of the Calf is not an individual one, but The Sin, with capital letters, of the Jewish people as a whole, betraying the Sinai covenant only weeks after it is made. The figure that constantly recurs in this context is that of the unfaithful wife: the smashing of the tablets is, in one widespread reading, the tearing up of the marriage document —either in anger, or in a quick-witted move by Moses to diminish the people’s culpability.

Yet, interestingly, in much of the discussion of the sin of the Golden Calf among midrashic authors and medieval exegetes, there is a strong tendency to say that the sin was not “real” idolatry, but something else of lesser severity: perhaps a misunderstanding or misapprehension on the part of the people, either of the situation or of what the Torah required of them. Perhaps we can understand it in the following way: When God gave the Torah to the people through Moses, he expected them to keep it with loyalty and devotion and love and enthusiasm, as dedicated servants, former slaves who knew they owed everything to their Divine liberator. Perhaps he even expected the type of commitment we described last week in our discussion of prayer and avodah: the highest, most sublime level of religious awareness and consciousness.

But what God didn’t bargain for is that people are… well, people. Their “true” concerns are: getting up in the morning and knowing that they have something to eat, both for themselves and for their women and children; shelter, to keep warm in the freezing cold of the desert night, and to hide from the blazing heat of the midday sun; security, from wild beasts and snakes and other people; to occasionally lie with a woman and otherwise have a good time—perhaps to get up and dance and sing, or to sit around the campfire telling stories… So it was with them, and so it is, for all our vaunted modernity and technology and “21st century,” with us today.

Into all this came Moses with his God and his revelation. The people saw the thunder and lightning and experienced something overwhelming—but exactly what that something was they might be hard put to explain, exactly. They were, in fact, so overwhelmed that each time they heard God’s voice they “jumped backwards” twelve mil—twelve kilometers. And after the first two commandments they said, “you speak with Him, for otherwise we will die—and afterwards you can tell us what he said” (based on 20:16). The true, full revelation was essentially to Moses, who quickly assumed the role of intercessor (thus Maimonides in Guide for the Perplexed, II.33, albeit far more elegantly expressed). And, to the people, the identity of God and of Moses were all muddled together in a vague sense of awe and reverence and holiness—of the presence of the numinous—which translated itself into what was considered sacred.

Is it not always thus with holy men, with prophets, with those blessed with mantic powers? Pay a visit to the grave of the Baba Sali in Netivot, or to Meron on Lag ba-Omer, or to any other holy grave, or think about the ubiquitous photographs of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe or other tzaddikim—and reflect how easily pious, Orthodox Jews cross the boundary from reverence, to outright adulation and near-worship of a mortal human being. Popular religious sentiment can be fickle, but deeply emotional. Moses was the beloved leader, who had given them the courage to break away from the bonds of Egypt in the first place; to defy their slave-masters by tying up the lambs next to their doors for four days, then instructing them to slaughter them and sprinkle the blood on the doors and not to be afraid; to pack all their belongings, with the kneaded matza cakes on their shoulders, and to simply walk away from Egypt. And he too was the central figure on that great and awesome day in the desert when they heard God’s voice, and it was he who sat there to interpret it for them. So when, as the Torah tells us, “Moses tarried to return”: he didn’t come back when they expected him—perhaps, one midrash says, by only a few hours, and no doubt due to a faulty calculation on their part—they started to worry. “For this man Moses, we don’t know what is become of him” (32:1, 23).

This being the case, they needed someone or something else to… not so much to teach them or to guide them, but to symbolize the presence of what they had come to think of as the Divine. It is clear from the text that the mood in the camp was one of total confusion. Note Aaron’s words: “I took the gold and threw it into the fire, and out came this calf” (32:24). No one seems to have shaped it; it wasn’t the result of any premeditated plan; it just happened. To change our terms of reference, we can imagine something like that happening at an orgiastic party where everybody was stoned—on drugs, on drink, on the rhythm of the music, from the motion and dancing and the sense of breaking away from everyday routine. “These are neither shouts of victory, nor cries of defeat, but sounds of ‘answering’ [or: singing]” (v. 18)—that is, a hubbub of totally undisciplined voices.

Aaron’s role here is interesting. His position is open to interpretation: one can see him as an unscrupulous compromiser without any real, rock-bottom religious principles, prepared to “sway with the wind,” adjusting himself to the people’s whims and to the zeitgeist; or as a very shrewd leader, who knows that sometimes a leader has to be sensitive to the mood of the people, and how ready or unready they are to accept the more harsh and difficult demands of the Torah, and with only half an eye turned toward the Talmud and poskim (a Shlomo Carlebach type?). But there is a fault in such people. He is described as ohev shalom verodef shalom— “loving peace and pursuing peace.” The danger is that in seeking peace one may cast certain principles aside, so much wanting to see the good in ones fellow that one becomes incapable of seeing serious, even fatal shortcomings and knowing when to say “Stop!” It seems significant that his grandson Pinhas (Phinehas) becomes the symbol of the opposite extreme, that of the zealot (as we shall see and elaborate when we get to the portion bearing his name).

Into this fray, Moses brings a simple message to God. “Give them another chance; forgive them. That’s just how people are—fickle, easily disappointed, easily prone to following their basest emotions in a crisis, especially if there is no strong leader around.” It is interesting that the conventional image of Moses in Western [i.e., Christian] art is of an angry, stern, unbending leader, who hurls the tablets to the ground in a fit of fury and rage. By contrast, the Midrash paints Moses as a tender, loving, fatherly figure, who stops at nothing to convince God to repent. The Midrash devotes two lengthy chapters (Exodus Rabbah 43-44) to the arguments put forward by Moses in this attempt at persuasion.

Which returns us, nearly, to our original question. What kind of lesson of compassion does God give Moses when he “reveals” the thirteen attributes of mercy? Moses already knew full well the supreme value of compassion, of mercy, forgiveness, etc. Perhaps, indeed, the chapter needs to be read differently. God is simply proclaiming to Moses “for the record”—for future generations, and for the present—the fact that He relents of His fierce anger, and that Moses was right all along. To understand this, we need to return to the very beginning; to the story of the Flood and the verses that frame it in Genesis 6:5 and 8:21. Originally, God saw mankind as utterly perverse, degenerate and generally no good: “all the impulses of the thoughts of his heart are only evil all the day.” But after the Flood, and after Noah offered the sacrifices, God somehow relented. Something tender inside Him, as-it-were, was moved: He saw people as frail, weak, almost child-like: “for the impulse of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” Therefore, he concludes, it is not fitting to wipe him out; rather, He must find another way for dealing with the weakness and flaws in humankind’s character. In our chapter, too, God starts out filled with anger. Having made a covenant with his chosen people, with the descendants of his beloved followers, the three patriarchs, each one of whom was a truly remarkable moral and spiritual figure, it seemed only right that their great-great-grandchildren be held to the same high standard. Yet things didn’t work out that way. Somehow, through the dialogue with Moses, God came to see things differently. I believe it was Buber who once said that all knowledge is dialogic: that a person can only learn, can only break out of his own ingrained patterns of thinking and reacting, through a situation of dialogue, of speaking to and interacting with the other. The radical message here is that even God, so to speak, only learns dialogically. Through dealing with the sin of the Golden Calf, and with the dialogue with Moses that ensued, He realized that He needed to change the rules of his interactions with the Jewish people (and presumably, by extension, with mankind generally).

There is, of course, a major, profound problem here for those who believe in a Maimonidean, Aristotelian God, unchanged and unchangeable, the embodiment of eternal perfection, etc. But it is clear that the biblical and/or midrashic God is quite different, clearly possessing a personality and the ability to change and, if one can dare to say such a thing, to grow. But all that is another discussion. In conclusion: the Torah relates two revelations, two kinds of theophany: that of Shavuot, and that of Yom Kippur. (There is a strong Rabbinic tradition that the scene in the cleft of the rock took place on Yom Kippur: the first 40 days from Shavuot ended with the smashing of the tablets on the 17th of Tammuz; the next 40 days, of Moses’ beseeching forgiveness, ended on Rosh Hodesh Ellul; a third group of 40 days, during which he received the Torah a second time, ends on Yom Kippur). The revelation of Shavuot is one of sternness, of apodictic, unconditional commands, given with the name Elohim, leaving no room for human failure. The revelation of Yom Kippur is one of love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness, rooted in the sacred name HVYH: that there is room in the world for both man and God to change and repent of their former ways. The location of Exodus 33 in Milgrom’s “grand introversion” suggests that the latter revelation is the greater one.

“No man can see me and live”

Last year we discussed, at length, the overall significance of the chapter of the Golden Calf, and the covenant of Divine compassion which ensued (what I described as the “Yom Kippur faith” as opposed to the “Shavuot faith”; or “Sinai” vs. “the covenant in the cleft of the rock”). This year, I wish to focus more upon the specifics of Moses’ conversation with God at the end of Chapter 33 of Exodus which is, as I see it, the central mystical text in all of the Five Books of the Torah. The conversation consists of two, clearly distinct sections. In the first part, 33:12-16, (which really continues the ongoing conversation being from 32:30), Moses speaks as the leader of the Israelite people, as their defense attorney, calling on God not to punish them or abandon them. Indeed, there are numerous midrashim, spread over three chapters of Exodus Rabbah (42-44) and elsewhere, attempting to reconstruct the arguments presented by him.

At the end of Chapter 33, Moses presents God with two requests. The first, “make known to me your ways” (v. 13), is really a natural continuation of his role of defender of the people. What it means is, “explain to me the way You operate in the World” what Maimonides calls “God’s attributes of action.” But behind this is Moses’ deeper concern: “Prove to me that You really act toward this people in a loving, compassion way.”

After receiving a satisfactory answer to this last question (v. 17), he turns to a personal request, expressing his own most intimate spiritual longing: “Show me Your glory” (v. 18). Here, Moses articulates the deepest wish of the religious adept, the ultimate striving of the mystic: to see the Divine face; to have a direct experience of God’s essence. The answer comes in three distinct parts, delineated from one another by the opening word vayomer, “and He said.” Verse 19 is seemingly a continuation of the earlier line: “I will pass all my goodness before you… and I shall be gracious to whom I shall be gracious, and show mercy to whom I shall show mercy.” Here, kavod seems to be taken as tantamount to God’s ethical or relational qualities in reference to Israel (albeit Maimonides, in a difficult passage in Guide I.54, says that “all my goodness” means that He showed Moses all of goodness to be found in Creation).

Verse 20 is seemingly a rejection of his request: “You cannot see My face, for no man can see My face and live.” Virtually every spiritual tradition contains severe warnings about the dangers of mystic revelation. This is not only a matter of making it forbidden fruit, of establishment types guarding the set forms and institutions of religion against the anarchistic impulse likely to be released by free-flowing mystical experience. Rather, there really is something awesome, terrifying, threatening the very integrity of the human personality, in the situation of direct confrontation with the Godhead. There are certain experiences that may endanger, not only a person’s sanity, but his very life. From the “four who entered Pardes” of Tractate Hagiggah, to the hippies who “blew their minds” with psychedelic drugs in the ‘60’s and on, there are records of such things actually happening. Again, in the language of some Medieval Kabbalists such encounters are described as being so enticing, so attractive, that the person’s soul “forgets to return to his body,” resulting in “death by the kiss.”

But then vv. 21-23 represents a partial reversal. Moses is told nevertheless that: “There is a certain place with me… And when my glory passes by I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with my hand… and you shall see my rear.” The Sages interpret “my rear” as “the knot of the tefillin” (Berakhot 7a). What can this possibly mean? The Rabbis depicted God, too, as wearing tefillin. Whether on man or on God, the tefillin, specifically those worn on the head, represent a certain effusion of glory, a symbolic representation of the highest layer of the personality (which, in human beings, is also the point of connection with the Divine). In the Kabbalah, this is connected with the highest sephirah, that of Keter, the Divine “Crown.” The “knot “ of the tefillin, which nestles in the back of a person’s neck, represents that which is more tangential, which partakes only indirectly in the glory of the “face.”

The message here is that a human being—even one on the highest possible level of spiritual consciousness and even prophecy, as was Moses—can only perceive a slight, tangential edge of the Divine fulness. There are aspects of the Divine which are revealed, and there are many more which are hidden, which are beyond comprehension, or even apprehension, by a mortal being.

The Rabbis, in the above-mentioned aggadah, debate whether Moses’ last wish was in fact granted or not. Their answer, one might say, as usual, is ambiguous. Some say yes; others say not. A rather curious, related midrash, states that when Moses first encountered God at the burning bush He was prepared to reveal to him all of His secrets, but Moses was too frightened, too overwhelmed; now that Moses, having achieved a certain spiritual maturity, was ready and willing, God was not. As if to say, there are certain things in which there are no “second chances” (Exodus Rabbah 45.5).

Later, in the aftermath of this revelation, we are told that Moses’ face shone, so much so that the ordinary people could not gaze at his face (34:29-30, 33-35). This shining evidently represents the high level of mystical insight and Divine effulgence that nevertheless “rubbed off” on him, even from this very incomplete and marginal vision of the “rear part of the Divine.”

It is nevertheless interesting that we do not have here any unio mystica. Here (and, I think, throughout the Bible) the highest level of spiritual apprehension is “seeing God’s face.” Whatever may have been the position of later Jewish mysticism on the possibility of mystical union with God (and in recent years there has been lively discussion among scholars on this point, between the position of the late Gershom Scholem and that of many of the present generation of scholars, first and foremost Moshe Idel), it seems clear that this is not an aspect of biblical mysticism.

The Golden Calf and the Tree of Knowledge

I now wish to ask a basic question which has troubled me for some years: what is the relation between Etz hadaat and egel hazahav, the Tree of Knowledge of Genesis 3, and the sin of the Golden Calf? Both of these are central sins which, especially in the mystical tradition, in Kabbalistic Mussar, require constant atonement, having left their mark upon the human being, upon the Jewish nation, for all time. The answer, it seems to me, begins with the recognition that these were not only events that happened once at a particular time in history, but archetypal events, revealing something essential in human nature.

The Tree of Knowledge represents, first and foremost, the temptation of power, of knowledge, of hubris, of “being like God.” Yet it was also necessary: without it, human beings would have had no free will, no free choice, none of the possibilities or freedom offered by moral autonomy. But it also includes Promethean temptation, the possibility of choosing rebellion against God, of violence, avarice, and unfettered lust.

The sin of the Golden Calf was, in a sense, the opposite. It was more a sin of a group, the fruit of a kind of hysteria created when many people are grouped together (see Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power). Its essential element was fetishism: that is, relating to the living God as an object. This idea is expressed with heavy sarcasm in our psalm, which speaks about how they substituted “their Glory,” i.e., the God who had redeemed them, for the image of “a cow eating grass” (Ps 106:20). There is much that is frightening, uncanny, awesome, unpredictable in the real God. Fetishism is “safe”: it turns God into an object, something that can be manipulated, harnassed to one’s own ends, unchanging, and as such a source of comfort and security. Religion as “inspiration,” as “feeling good about yourself,” as a security blanket, as a mother’s breast—not as the unknown, demanding moral challenges, life lived in the thin air of high mountains. (The dialectic between freedom and submission, between human creativity and recognizing that our humanity implies the need for certain limitations, the need for heteronomy, for Torah, is a vast subject that I hope to discuss in depth sometime in the future.)

Perhaps this aspect explains a strange anomaly. One of the more interesting characters who lived in Jerusalem was a man named Leibel Weisfisch, a Haredi from Meah Shearim, who was also a great devotee of Nietzsche. When I was young and foolish I once invited him to speak to a youth seminar about the Haredi ideology; instead, he choose to speak about “The Divine Nietzsche” (ha-elohi), as if he were a prophet. What could a pious, old-fashioned Jew possibly find in common with the German philosopher of the “death of God” and the “Superman”? Perhaps the point is this: that the God that Nietzsche rejected, against whom he railed, was not the real God, but a God of comfort and coziness, of smug, bourgeois self-satisfaction, or else of a kind of cowardly, guilt-ridden, fearful pietism. It would be interesting to read the uncompromising religious demands of Psyshcha and Kotzk against Nietzsche and Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor.”

One more closing note: my friend Yitzhak Hayut-Man suggested some interesting parallels between the two sins. The Mishkan is seen as the completion of Creation: there are certain linguistic parallels between, i.e., the language of Gen 2:1-3 and that of Exod 39:32, 42-43; there are likewise common structural elements, such as the two-fold or three-fold repetition of the basic subject matter of the narrative. But most interesting is that in both, there is a sin at the heart of it all. The Creation is from its very outset flawed; our existential situation, like the locus within which we encounter God, is not as it should be, but imperfect, damaged, not Edenic. There is no perfection, no splendid Garden of Delights. We just have to muddle through—and so too the Torah is not written for angels, but for a species of “muddlers-through.”


Post a Comment

<< Home