Friday, January 25, 2008

Yitro (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives to this blog at February 2006.

“Make No Graven Images”

In this weeks parasha the account of the Exodus reaches it climax with the revelation at Mount Sinai and the presentation of the Ten Commandments—a kind of summa bonum of the most basic moral and religious laws, seemingly too familiar to all to require any comment.

The first and in some ways most fundamental mitzvah of all is the prohibition against idolatry (there is some dispute among the commentators as to whether the opening verse, “I am the Lord your God…” is itself a mitzvah or a kind of prelude to the mitzvot themselves; as Ramban puts it: “First accept My kingship, and then accept My edicts”), which in some ways is seen as defining a Jew—“Whoever denies idolatry is called a Jew…” (b. Megillah 13a)—and as encompassing all the other commandments.

The striking thing about this commandment is the plastic, concrete nature of the gods whose adulation is proscribed. Immediately following the general rule, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3)—which is indeed interpreted in the halakhah, in the Talmud Sanhedrin and in Rambam, as referring to an inner acceptance of their divinity—there comes a prohibition against making any images, whether sculpted or two-dimensional, followed by the proscription against worshipping them, or prostrating oneself before them. It would seem that there is something about the sheer tangible, tactile nature of images that is somehow particularly seductive and appealing to the human imagination, and for that very reason dangerous. Or, taken from the other end: there is something about the abstract nature of the idea of God as unseen and unseeable (“no man shall see me and live”) and, if we accept Rambam’s philosophy, incorporeal and wholly transcendent, that is difficult for the ordinary person to accept. There is a human urge to create a carnal god: this is an element in the attraction of Christianity and also, lehavdil, of rebbes and teachers who are embellished with legend and made semi-mythic figures even during their lifetime, not to mention after their deaths.

The problem is that the nearly axiomatic connection between imagery and idolatry no longer seems to hold. Clearly, there is imagery without idolatry, and it would seem that there can also be idolatry without imagery. In today’s world, plastic art serves expressive or decorative functions which have nothing to do with worship of the objects or living beings thereby represented. In practice, Jews did and do engage in various forms of art—at times avoiding the direct representation of living things, or in some cases the representation of human beings, specifically (viz., the famous 13th century “Bird’s Head Haggadah”), but only rarely going to the extremes of Islam, which permits only abstract geometric forms in their mosques or homes. Photographs of revered rabbis or of family events are today commonplace in even the most strictly Orthodox circles, as are paintings. Some pietists may make a bow towards halakhic restrictions by making slight alterations in the human figure, such as chipping off a bit of the nose of a statue or a relief—but by and large art is accepted on its own terms. (Albeit this past summer I saw the handiwork of a zealous young rabbi who rather brutally sawed off a pair of wooden lions from an old-fashioned ark decoration—one that had been in this synagogue for over half a century, and that did not seem to disturb his highly learned, distinguished rabbinic ancestors. Indeed, even the Vilna Shas, the standard edition of the Talmud, has a pair of lions standing guard on the portico that graces the title page of each volume.)

The inverse of this question is: can there be idolatry without imagery? What kinds of behavior or attitudes in our own world may be seen as prohibited by dint of idolatry? If this is such a central theme in Judaism, surely it cannot have become a dead letter simply because fetishism as such, the worship of images, is more or less extinct in those parts of the world where most Jews live. (Imagery is still commonplace in areas where Hinduism and Buddhism, or “pre-modern” animism, are still dominant, just as there are statues of Jesus, Mary and the saints in Catholic churches; but these are really taken more as objects of meditation than as divinities. Indeed, it has already been argued by Yehezkel Kaufmann, in The Religion of Israel, that the ancient Canaanites weren’t fetishists in quite the ways the Bible thought—but that’s a whole other issue).

This problem already vexed Hazal when they said: “Whoever is angry… Whoever is haughty… is as if he worshipped idols.” That is to say, making one’s own ego the center in an absolute way, such that one forgets others, is a kind of idolatry. This may be seen as part of a larger overall trend among the Sages to place greater emphasis on the inner life. Thus, idolatry becomes defined more in terms of the psychological act of accepting another god, rather than upon purely external behavior, as expressed in words, gestures, or rituals of sacrifice or obeisance.

The question then becomes: how far may the definition of idolatry be pushed? Surely, political totalitarianism may be seen as a form of avodah zarah, as in the cult of Stalin, called “Sun of the Nations” in Communist Russia, whose embalmed body (together with Lenin’s) was treated as a shrine. The same holds true for the cult of the leader in North Korea. But is there some rule of thumb, some algorithm, that can sharply define and delimit the realm of idolatry? Some contemporary thinkers have suggested that any ideology or idea that is taken as an ultimate value is idolatry. Does that mean that one ca speak in any more than a metaphorical way of the worship of money as idolatrous? Of power? Of sex (which, coming full circle to the ancient Canaanites, some moderns treat with awe and reverence, in near religious terms)? What about a “fan,” who “idolizes” a certain movie or rock star? Some take it with a certain note of irony, or “camp,” that neutralizes it (e.g., in Star Wars and Hobbit or Simpson fans, who know that it’s a kind of make-believe escape from humdrum life), but what of the cult of Elvis Presley, with pilgrimages to Graceland? And what about addictions?

These are all complex and subtle questions. The halakhah tends to be very practically oriented in its definitions, inducing its rules from specific cases, rather than deducing them from first principles, making it difficulty to construct certain answers to quasi-philosophical issues such as these. But while I have no simple “yes/no” answers to the above questions, surely they ought to be on the agenda of any thoughtful Jewish religious person.

YITRO: Moses and the Positive Other

Yitro occupies a special place in the Jewish calendar as that parasha in which we read of the revelation of Torah; so much so, that we often tend to skim over its opening, title chapter (Exodus 18). There are several problems raised by this chapter. First: Why is it located here altogether? It somehow seems out of place. We are told that Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro, heard of the miracles God had wrought and came to visit him. They talk, they offer a sacrifice and eat festive meal; Yitro offers Moses practical advice about the administrative and judicial arrangements—the need to decentralize authority, to set up a hierarchical system so that Moses need deal with only the most difficult cases; let whatever can be adjudicated by others, be done so. The feeling one gets here is of a leisurely, relaxed mood, of “ordinary” time, that surely sharply contrasts with the intense preparation for the Revelation, condensed into a few short days, that began immediately upon them pitching camp opposite the mountain. Thus, both Rashi and other commentators suggest that this visit in fact occurred some time during the long winter or early spring they spent at Sinai: after Ma’amad Har Sinai, after the incident of the Golden Calf, after the first Yom Kippur and the Divine reconciliation that signaled. (But see against that Ramban’s rather difficult view, which insists on the textual and chronological order being one and the same.)

But there are other textual problems, which I shall only briefly mention in passing: How does this chapter connect with the visit of “Hovav” or “Reuel” described in Numbers 10:29-34? Why does he have so many names anyway (assuming he was the same person; perhaps Moses married several women, and had several fathers-in-law?). And what about Moses’ marriage, anyway? Does the phrase “after he sent her away” in verse 2 imply that he divorced Zipporah? Or simply that, following Aaron’s advice, he felt there was no point dragging her and the children along for the difficult tasks that awaited him in Egypt, the confrontation with Pharaoh, etc.? And what about Numbers 12, where Miriam was punished for gossiping about “the Kushite woman” whom Moses had taken, which a midrash, based upon a quite plausible line of argument, sees as referring to his divorcing her (or perhaps merely separating from her, seeking constant purity from sexuality)?

When all is said and done, how are we to characterize Yitro anyway? I would like to suggest four titles or honorifics that may be given him: (1) The first ger zedek—that is, the first convert to Judaism; (2) The first organizer/administrator, viz. the advice he gave to Moses about running his judicial task; (3) The first Bedouin tracker, who was asked to serve as “our eyes” becase of his superior knowledge of the desert (Num 10:31); (4) The first shver or father-in-law, or at least the first such seen as a positive figure (as opposed to, e.g., Yaakov’s cheating, devious father-in-law Lavan or, later on, Saul, the maniacal jealous king whose daughter David married). The father-in-law—son-in-law relation is a central Jewish pattern. There are innumerable examples in which the ties between prominent rabbis and scholars and their outstanding students were cemented by the latter marrying the former’s daughter. Thus: the Bah (Bayit Hadash: R. Yoel Sirkes) and the Taz (Turrei Zahav: R. David Halevi Segal); the sixth and seventh Lubavitcher Rebbes; the Nazir (R. David Hacohen) and Rav Shlomo Goren; Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein; Rav Moshe Feinstein and R. Moshe Tendler, etc. This pattern is known even in non-Orthodox Jewry: thus, Reconstructionist Jews joke about their own “holy trinity”—the father-in-law, the son-in-law, and the ghost writer (Mordecai Kaplan, Ira Eisenstein, and Max Kohn).

But most important, I would call him “the Positive Other.” Judaism is filled with negative examples of figures encountered in the non-Jewish world: Esau, Amalek, Pharaoh, Balaam and, some would say, even Job (in the midrash). Here, Yitro appears as the positive Gentile: a decent human being who appreciates God’s miracles. This encounter may be plausibly read as representing the idea that not only Israel, but also the world, through Yitro, recognize the Exodus and the epiphany at Sinai as positive manifestations of God’s presence and activity in the world and, more specifically, of God’s redemptive hand in the history of Israel.

Two significant incidents about Yitro. The first, a midrash in Sotah 11a and Sanhedrin 106a which speaks of Pharaoh taking counsel with three advisors as to what to do about the threat posed by a savior due to be born to Israel. Balaam approved Pharaoh’s genocidal program; Job remained silent; and only Yitro protested and fled.

Second, Yitro’s first meeting with Moses took place against the background of social justice, viz., Moses’ saving his daughters from the shepherds who ordinarily used their superior physical strength to push them away from the spring at which they watered their sheep (Exod 2:16-21). What impressed Yitro was the stranger’s decency and his willingness to intervene on behalf of a bunch of strangers in the name of what was right and just.


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