Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey

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"This clarion call to rethink our moral and political behavior examines the idea of conscience and the role conscience plays in our relationships to government, law, ethics, religion, human nature and God - and to each other. From Abraham to Abu Ghraib, from the dissenting prophets to Darfur, Rabbi Harold Schulweis probes history, the Bible and the works of contemporary thinkers for ideas about both critical disobedience and uncritical obedience. He illuminates the potential for evil and the potential for good that rests within us as individuals
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Overview

"This clarion call to rethink our moral and political behavior examines the idea of conscience and the role conscience plays in our relationships to government, law, ethics, religion, human nature and God - and to each other. From Abraham to Abu Ghraib, from the dissenting prophets to Darfur, Rabbi Harold Schulweis probes history, the Bible and the works of contemporary thinkers for ideas about both critical disobedience and uncritical obedience. He illuminates the potential for evil and the potential for good that rests within us as individuals and as a society." By questioning religion's capacity - and will - to break from mindless conformity, Rabbi Schulweis challenges us to counter our current suppressive culture of obedience with the culture of moral compassion, and to fulfill religion's obligation to make room for and carry out courageous moral dissent.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In this articulate and cogent treatise, Schulweis, longtime congregational rabbi and founding chairman of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, argues that acts of disobedience can be appropriate and moral when law violates conscience. Referencing the Midrash, Bible and Talmud, he argues that both the popular understanding of God as a being who cannot be contradicted and of Judaism as a religion that requires uncompromising obedience to authority is mistaken. Throughout Jewish history, he explains, rabbis have created ingenious legal maneuvers to eliminate laws they found unconscionable, such as making capital punishment so difficult to implement that it became obsolete. Furthermore, God's engagement with humanity, most famously his interaction with Abraham before he destroys Sodom, indicates a willingness for confrontations promoting morality and righteousness. Schulweis's broad knowledge is evident as he intersperses biblical anecdotes with philosophical theories, as is his ability to make his thesis relevant by including material on the Holocaust and references to Abu Ghraib. Whether religious or not, readers concerned with the culture of mindless complicity will find this volume revealing and enlightening. (Nov.)

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From the Publisher

"Remarkable…. Eloquently makes the case that faith can never be passive; it must assault our conscience and push us to do right."
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president, Union for Reform Judaism

“Clearly reveals a new depth of understanding of the gift of partnership in creation afforded by God to His beloved children through the exercise of moral consciousness and 'fear of God.'”
Archbishop Hovnan Derderian,Armenian Church Western Diocese

“Learned and thoughtful … demonstrates that conscience constitutes the vital core of Judaism, challenging us in our complacency and inspiring us to transform morality into deeds.”
Professor Susannah Heschel, author, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus

“Calls on us to recognize that sometimes the promptings of our conscience are more authentically the voice of God than the words of our tradition.”
Rabbi Harold Kushner, author, When Bad Things Happen to Good People

Beverly Hills Courier - CONNIE MARTINSON

It doesn't take a genius to figure out when one receives a letter from a charity informing one that whether they had two million or ninety million invested with Madoff that something is wrong with our world. One of the wisest men I have met, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis has written "Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey"(Jewish Lights $19.99). It is pertinent today as it is in discussing the Old Testament.

Oddly enough, Hebrew had no word for “conscience”, modern Hebrew has the word “matzpun” which is derived from the Hebrew “tzafun” which connotes hiddenness. The major question Schulweis addresses is “What is the appropriate response to divine laws that run against the grain of conscience? He points out Abraham’s dialogue with God over God’s intention to kill all of Sodom. God is not the implacable authoritarian commander whose plans cannot be questioned. Rabbi Schulweis points to Moses convinces God that the second commandment to visit the sins of the father on the next generation was wrong. As we talked, I did ask Rabbi Schulweis, “Does God have a conscience?”

In the light of torture at Abu Ghraib in our days, one can use the question, “Must an immoral law, divinely given, be observed?” God’s Law or Halacha must have conscience, and yet changing times can have their affect. By what sort of logic are divine laws overturned? In the case of a wife suspected of adultery, she was to drink the waters of bitterness and hear the priest give a horrible curse. If she was guilty, her body would swell and her thighs would “fall away”. To change a bad law requires compassionate conscience and moral courage.

Conscience allows us to tell truth to power, which is the irony that Eli Weisel’s Foundation should have lost so much money in the Madoff debacle. Where were those who questioned the man’s investing policies who did not speak up? Does greed overcome conscience? He quotes Thomas Malthus and Herbert Spencer that attend the voice of conscience and our economy will be drained and our energy exhausted.

Rabbi Schulweis told me about his foundation, the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, dedicated to the study and recognition of the phenomenon of Christian rescuers and to raise funds so that in their waning years they have some security, recognition and material help. So far thy have given help to over 2,000. He includes in the book the remarkable help given to the Jews in the Holocaust by diplomats who gave over and above documents to rescue them from the Naziis. Among those mentioned are Aristides de Sousa Mendes of Portugal and Sempo Sugihara of Japan.

Rabbi Schulweis ends the book with the thought that we are frozen in the overwhelming bias toward the duty to obey without question. A fact that has led us to war in Iraq and blind belief in an economic fantasy led by a duplicitous Pied Piper.

Jewish Media Review - Dov Peretz Elkins

This remarkable study constitutes a profound and stirring call to action in our troubled world—from one of America's great religious leaders.

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, one of the most respected spiritual leaders and teachers of his generation, has been a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California, for close to forty years. He is the founding chairman of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, an organization that identifies and offers grants to those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews threatened by the agents of Nazi savagery. He is also the founder of Jewish World Watch, which aims to raise moral consciousness within the Jewish community. Synagogues and other religious institutions are now supporting this effort across the country. He thus has sterling credentials to present a study on "Conscience" in the Jewish and general traditions.

In his Introduction, Rabbi Schulweis writes that “conscience may be understood as the hidden inner compass that guides our lives and must be searched for and recovered repeatedly. At no time more than our own is this need to retrieve the shards of broken conscience more urgent.”

His clarion call to rethink our moral and political behavior examines the idea of conscience and the role conscience plays in our relationships to government, law, ethics, religion, human nature and God—and to each other. From Abraham to Abu Ghraib, from the dissenting prophets to Darfur, Rabbi Harold Schulweis probes history, the Bible and the works of contemporary thinkers for ideas about both critical disobedience and uncritical obedience. He illuminates the potential for evil and the potential for good that rests within us as individuals and as a society. By questioning religion’s capacity—and will—to break from mindless conformity, Rabbi Schulweis challenges us to counter our current suppressive culture of obedience with the culture of moral compassion, and to fulfill religion’s obligation to make room for and carry out courageous moral dissent.

The author draws from a wide range of biblical, Talmudic, midrashic, as well as secular sources to make his point. While revering tradition, he holds that there are times when the wisdom of our conscience is more authentically the voice of God than the words of our tradition. A bold affirmation of God’s gift to humans to think through issues and follow our own heart, at the same time as we honor our past.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president, Union for Reform Judaism, expresses his reaction to the book by calling it, correctly in my view, “remarkable”, and writing the Schulweis eloquently makes the case that faith can never be passive; it must assault our conscience and push us to do right.”

Rabbi Schulweis’ leadership in the Jewish world, in word and action, has made him one of American Jewry’s great luminaries. We are all indebted to him for producing this ground-breaking statement on a major ethical and theological issue.

The Jewish Week - Steve Lipman

A new take on the oldest Jewish book—a woman's perspective—is the Jewish Book Council's pick of the year.

"The Torah: A Women's Commentary" (URJ Press), edited by Tamara Eskenazi and Rabbi Andrea Weiss, was announced this week as winner of the Everett Family Foundation's Jewish Book of the Year Award.

"The Torah," which emphasizes Jewish women in the Bible and offers a women's perspective, is the first such collection of scholarship and commentary on Jewish scriptures written by women in several countries and in Jewish denominations.

"No one questions why women should read a Torah commentary written by men," Rabbi Weiss wrote in The Jerusalem Post last year. “For the longest time, that is all we had. The new commentary does not seek to supplant existing Torah commentaries, but to supplement them, adding an array of new voices to our collective conversation about the Torah.”

Benny Morris's “1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War” (Yale University Press) won the Gerrard and Ella Berman Memorial Award in the history category, and the two other books about Jewish women and the Torah—“A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book” (Spiegel & Grau), edited by Aliza Lavie, and Esther Takac’s “Genesis—The Book with Seventy Faces: A Guide for the Family” also won JBC awards.

Other winners included “The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews” (Palgrave Macmillan) by Father Patrick Desbois and “Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey” (Jewish Lights Publishing) by Rabbi Harold Schulweis.

The authors of those books and 14 others will be honored March 5 at the Center for Jewish History.

Read the Spirit

We told you so — and early, too! We just got word that on March 9, the beloved writer and sage Rabbi Harold Schulweis will be honored at the Jewish National Book Awards as the prize winner in the category "Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice." Bravo to the rabbi, who is in his 80s and gave the world this very important little volume at precisely the moment when we all need to hear this tough piece of spiritual wisdom.

If you missed it, go back and read our Conversation With Rabbi Schulweis on "Conscience." Or, visit the Jewish National Book Awards site to look over the other winners for the publishing year of 2008. There's a free PDF file you can download to read about all the winning Jewish books — and finalists as well. Or, visit the Web site of Jewish Lights publishing, where Jewish Lights founder Stuart Matlins was an important creative force in getting this particular volume on "Conscience" to readers — just when we all need it most.

Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues - Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh

There are few Progressive rabbis writing today anywhere in the world who can equal Harold Schulweis for integrity, honesty, clear-sightedness and common sense. In Conscience, Schulweis has carefully crafted a wonderful book on conscience and conformity.

Conscience is divided into eight sections: Conscience Confronts God, Human Conscience and Divine Legislation, Conscience and Covenant: Vertical and Horizontal, Against Conscience, Witness to Goodness, The Conscience of an Anti-Semite, Cultivating Conscience and The Bridge Across the Rivers of "Either- Or". Each section is subdivided and through the sub-sections Schulweis develops his theme with specific examples.

Starting from exploring the key biblical relationships with God of Abraham and Moses, and the rabbinic approach to halakhah, Schulweis considers the nature of the covenant between God and Israel, whether it is a horizontal one, requiring give and take on both sides, or whether it is a vertical one where God dictates and Israel does what it is told! Chapters 5 and 6 are in many ways the most fascinating, notably the latter with its case studies of convinced anti-Semites who nevertheless risked everything in Nazi-occupied Europe to save Jews.

In chapter 7, Schulweis considers some of the recent stains on America's reputation, such as the torture and inhuman treatment by American troops of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, but disappointingly ignores the even viler excesses of the Bush regime such as the suspension of the Geneva Conventions for detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and the outsourcing of torture.

What is also missing from this otherwise superb book is any mention of the tension between the dictates of one’s Jewish conscience and a desire to support the State of Israel and the actions of Israeli governments and the Israeli military. I read Conscience against the background of the assault on Gaza and this seemed a huge lacuna.

PW Religion BookLine

In this articulate and cogent treatise, Schulweis, longtime congregational rabbi and founding chairman of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, argues that acts of disobedience can be appropriate and moral when law violates conscience. Referencing the Midrash, Bible and Talmud, he argues that both the popular understanding of God as a being who cannot be contradicted and of Judaism as a religion that requires uncompromising obedience to authority is mistaken. Throughout Jewish history, he explains, rabbis have created ingenious legal maneuvers to eliminate laws they found unconscionable, such as making capital punishment so difficult to implement that it became obsolete. Furthermore, God's engagement with humanity, most famously his interaction with Abraham before he destroys Sodom, indicates a willingness for confrontations promoting morality and righteousness. Schulweis's broad knowledge is evident as he intersperses biblical anecdotes with philosophical theories, as is his ability to make his thesis relevant by including material on the Holocaust and references to Abu Ghraib. Whether religious or not, readers concerned with the culture of mindless complicity will find this volume revealing and enlightening. (Nov.)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781580233750
  • Publisher: Jewish Lights Publishing
  • Publication date: 9/15/2008
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 160
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, one of the most respected spiritual leaders and teachers of his generation, has been a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California, for close to forty years. He is the founding chairman of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, an organization that identifies and offers grants to those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews threatened by the agents of Nazi savagery. He is also the founder of Jewish World Watch, which aims to raise moral consciousness within the Jewish community. Synagogues and other religious institutions are now supporting this effort across the country.

Rabbi Schulweis is the author of many books, including: Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey (Jewish Lights), Approaches to the Philosophy of Religion, For Those Who Can't Believe, Finding Each Other in Judaism, In God's Mirror, and two books of original religious poetry and meditation—From Birth to Immortality and Passages in Poetry. His Evil and the Morality of God is regarded as a classic.

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Read an Excerpt


CONSCIENCE

The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey


By Harold M. Schulweis
JEWISH LIGHTS Publishing
Copyright © 2008

Harold M. Schulweis
All right reserved.



ISBN: 978-1-58023-375-0



Chapter One Conscience Confronts God

I would rather be called a fool all my life than be called a godless man Jot one moment. -Akabya ben Mahalalel, FIRST-CENTURY RABBINIC SCHOLAR

Some questions cut to the very core of faith. What is the appropriate response to divine laws that run against the grain of conscience? If biblical or rabbinic laws violate our personal moral sensibilities, are we left only with the alternative either to obey the revealed law or to shunt aside our mettlesome conscience? Must an avowedly immoral law, if claimed to be divinely given, be dutifully observed?

We have learned how to accommodate biblical cosmology and anthropology to Newton and Darwin, but the contradictions between law and conscience prove more troubling. The clash of divine law and morality confronts the believers' basic spiritual and moral rationale, the role ascribed to God as Sovereign Commander, and the degree of responsibility assigned to humanity. Is the human agent the servant or colleague of the divine authority? In this chapter, we will discuss the biblical precedent lot humanity's interactions with God and our conflicts between divine law and human conscience.

Abraham and Moral Audacity

My earliest and lasting impression of the conflict between the word of God and the conscience of man began with Abraham's confrontation with God as depicted in the Bible.

The encounter between the father of the Jewish people and the God who has chosen him forecasts the role of moral conscience at the heart of the divine-human dialogue. That God would intend to visit judgment on the entire population of Sodom and Gomorrah is for Abraham grievously unfair:

Abraham came forward and said, "Will You sweep away the innocent among the guilty? What if there should be fifty within the city; will You then wipe out the place, and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" And the Lord answered, "If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake." (Gen. 18:23)

The overture to Abraham's robust altercation with God is introduced by God's self-revelation:

Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him. (Gen. 18:17)

God, who reveals his design to destroy the cities of sin, feels it necessary to explain this motivation so that Abraham may know how and why God functions in history. God's "justice and righteousness" are the crucial moral predicates that inform the character of moral conscience in this story.

Once God reveals these moral traits, God is open to human moral critique. Without understanding God's justice and righteousness, Abraham would have no alternative but to listen, heed, and quietly obey his Master's voice. With the self-revealing attributes of God, however, Abraham is empowered to measure God's design with the rod of God's own morality. God is not enmeshed in a veil of inscrutability, but is open to reciprocal exchange. The powerful bilateral dialogue that ensues is the matrix of multiple negotiations and altercations between a people and their God.

In the Abraham encounter, God is far from an implacable authoritarian commander designing plans that dare not be questioned. Abraham enters the throes of history as a divinely blessed moral hero. The event at Sodom introduces a paradigmatic model of behavior for a patriarch, prophet, and sage whose moral dissent against authority-human and divine-will not be dismissed as acts of treason against God. To the contrary, as we will see repeatedly in other divine-human conflicts, God not only accepts human moral criticism, but also is augmented by it. The theological implications and moral consequences of such a reciprocal dialogue affect Jewish belief, practice, and temperament.

We are conventionally raised to believe that Jewish faith demands unwavering obedience to the law and the law-giver. That attitude tends to cultivate a temperament of compliance and passivity. For conventional thinking, "talking back to God" smacks of heresy. But a significant genre of religious, moral, and spiritual audacity toward the divine authority-chutzpah klapei shmaya-finds a place of honor in Jewish religious thought.

By "spiritual audacity" I do not mean what is commonly referred to as chutzpah. Spiritual audacity against God is not belief mocked. Chutzpah is usually associated with contrariness, the kind of nerve told of the young man who, having murdered his parents, pleads for clemency on the grounds that he is an orphan. Spiritual audacity, by contrast, confronts authority with awe and respect. It appeals to an authority within authority, to conscience shared by divine believers and the Supreme Commander, and to the godliness within God.

Moses Nullifies God's Law

God's "justice and righteousness" are no more hidden from Moses than they were concealed from Abraham. One striking rabbinic legend imagines Moses's displeasure with an important segment in the second commandment. For Moses, that God should visit "the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation" (Exod. 20:5) is an unacceptable form of group punishment akin to the morally indiscriminate punishment of Sodom. Challenging God's pronouncement of the punishment of the sons for the sins of the fathers, Moses argues with God, against God, and in the name of God. Moses engages God with fierce moral logic:

Sovereign of the Universe, consider the righteousness of Abraham and the idol worship of his father Terach. Does it make moral sense to punish the child for the transgressions of the father? Sovereign of the Universe, consider the righteous deeds of King Hezekiah, who sprang from the loins of his evil father King Achaz. Does Hezekiah deserve Achaz's punishment? Consider the nobility of King Josiah, whose father Amnon was wicked. Should Josiah inherit the punishment of Amnon? (Num. Rabbah, Hukkat XIX, 33)

Trained to view God as an unyielding authoritarian proclaiming immutable commands, we might expect that Moses will be severely chastised for his defiance. Who is this finite, errant, fallible, human creature to question the explicit command of the author of the Ten Commandments? The divine response to Moses, according to the rabbinic moral imagination, is arresting:

By your life Moses, you have instructed Me. Therefore I will nullify My words and confirm yours. Thus it is said, "The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers." (Dent. 24:16)

Far from being chastised by God, Moses is rewarded by having his own human critique recorded later in the sacred text in Moses's own name. "As it is written in the book of the Law of Moses, as the Lord commanded, swing 'The father shall not be put to death'" (Num. Rabbah 19:33). The God of the sages does not merely ordain; God also listens. Even after God passes judgment, God allows humans who have been endowed with the moral competence and courage to challenge the Sovereign Deity-to instruct.

God's openness to human critique is reiterated throughout the rabbinic stories of disputations between God and Jewish religious heroes. For example, in protest against God's threatening imprecations toward those who worshipped the golden calf, Moses argues against God's punitive intent: "Sovereign of the Universe, how can Israel realize what they have done, seeing that they have been raised in Egypt?" Moses reminds God that the Ten Commandments were not given to the Children of Israel, but to Moses himself, and that therefore the Children of Israel should not stand in violation of the law. It is Moses alone who may be judged culpable. Hearing the argument, God concedes, "By your life, Moses, you have spoken well" (Exod. Rabbah, Ki Tissa 47:9).

In yet another biblical episode, elaborated by the rabbinic commentary, Moses defies God's command to make war with Sihon, a people who have not interfered with Israel (Deut. 2:34). Moses is explicitly commanded by the Supreme Commander to make war, but he disobeys the divine order and instead sends messengers to proclaim peace to Sihon. God's enthusiastic approving response to Moses's violation of the command declares, "By your life Moses, I shall cancel my own words and proclaim yours." The lesson: people of faith may intercede and divine imperatives are subject to correction.

Rabbinic midrashim of dissent are numerous and religiously significant. These midrashim, or rabbinic parables, are elaborate metaphors and legends that fill the moral lacunae of biblical narratives, unburdening the believer from a submissive reading of scriptures and a subservient stance toward the Sovereign Commander. In midrash, God hears moral arguments and cancels decrees. In this way, the biblical text is not the last but the first word of God. The Bible is not a closed book, but open to the multiple interpretation of its sages. Embedded in the sharp divine-human exchange is the presence and power of conscience to refine the law.

Moses Cites Scripture to God

God is not alone. God needs the human being. The human being is God's closest and indispensable ally. The divine and the human are morally co-related. God intervenes on behalf of humanity, and humanity intervenes on behalf of God. In a compelling midrash based on a biblical narrative, God is furious at the people of Israel for worshipping the golden calf at the toot of Mount Sinai. Angered, God exclaims, "Now let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them" (Exod. 32:9). In the interpretation of the Talmud (Berachoth 32a) and midrash (Exod. Rabbah 43:3-4) Moses hears God's odd expression "Let Me alone" as a cue for Moses's active intervention. Who is there to restrain God but the human listener? Moses's action toward God is analogous to a man seizing the garment of his fellow and declaring, "I will not let you go until you forgive and pardon me." In the same way, Moses prayed before the Holy One to save his people, "until a fire seized him" (Exod. Rabbah, Ki Tissa 42:9, and B. Berachoth 32a). The confrontation is reminiscent of Abraham's critique of God's intention at Sodom and Gomorrah. Here Moses pleads that it would be a profanity for God to attack Israel.

The ideal prophet, sages declare, "defends Israel before God and God before Israel" (Mekilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Pischa 1). The ideal prophet is Jeremiah, who defends the "son" (Israel) before the "father" (God), and defends the "father" before the "son." For Moses, conscience is the intermediary between God and Israel. Throughout his career, Moses places himself in the middle, defending both the dignity of God and the dignity of God's people. Moses is no sycophantic follower. Moses admonished God because of Israel and reproached Israel because of God. To Israel, Moses said, "Yon have sinned a great sin," and to God he said, "Lord, why does Your wrath wax hot against Your people?"

Throughout much of the rabbinic midrashic tradition, we meet the dignity of the believer who stands toe-to-toe with God. In one midrashic exchange, Moses addresses God as a virtual equal. God and Moses have been at each other, God arguing that Israel has betrayed the law, and Moses pleading with God in defense of Israel's innocence. The scale of justice lies evenly balanced. Moses approaches God, declaring, "You God say You will smite them, and I say pardon them." He concludes, "The matter is evenly balanced; we will see who will prevail: You, Lord, or I." Rabbi Berekya adds that God then said to Moses: "By your life, Moses, you have nullified My will and yours prevails" (Num. Rabbah 16:25 and Deut. Rabbah 5:13).

Throughout these rabbinic stories, we face a unique Jewish religions anthropology. The human being is no robotic instrument of God's play, but rather a person endowed with a dignity that encourages him or her to oppose the master, to defend the accused, and often to prevail. The human challenge receives due honor from the allegedly vanquished Deity. Such legends, canonized in the midrashic literature, break the image of the believer as a slave to the master, or the critic dismissed as a rebel without a true cause.

Moses Frees God

In a stunning midrashic reading of a biblical text, Moses astoundingly frees God from God's own vow (Exod. Rabbah 43:4). In the episode of the golden calf, God struggles with a self-made dilemma. On the one hand, God has taken an oath to destroy the Children of Israel because of their worship of the golden calf; on the other hand, God is persuaded by Moses to override that oath. But how can God violate the oath inasmuch as God is bound by the dictates of God's own words? God declares, "I cannot retract an oath which has proceeded from My mouth." Moses then appeals to God's own laws: "Did You, God, not give me the power of annulment of oaths by saying, 'When a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind his soul, he himself cannot break his word' (Num. 30:3), yet a scholar may absolve his vows if he consults him?" "Come to me." Then Moses says, "It is only right that You should annul Your own oath. You should be the first to follow Your annulment through me." God accedes to Moses's argument. Moses wraps himself in his cloak in the manner of a sage while God stands before him asking for the annnhnent of the divine vow. Moses asks God, "Do you regret now Your vow?" and God replies, "I regret now the evil which I said I would do to my people." Hearing God's response, Moses rules: "Be it absolved for You. There is neither vow nor oath any longer" (Exod. Rabhah 43:4). God has been liberated by Moses's use of God's law.

Throughout such rabbinic homilies, the elevation of the religious hero is indicative of a reciprocal divine-human relationship radically different from that of master and slave. God's dependence on humans is no denigration of God's authority but rather an elevation of God's recognition of human collegiality.

God and humankind are interdependent. The Bible informs us that when the Children of Israel sinned against God, God was offended and left the tent of Israel in anger. In sympathy with God, Moses, too, left the tent of Israel in anger. According to a rabbinic reading, Moses is rebuked by God. The Lord spoke to Moses face-to-face: "Have I not made a condition with you that when you are angry I appease you, and when I am angry, you will appease Me? Turn back, Moses, and return to the camp" (Exod. Rabbah 45:2). Here, the complementary role of God and the religious disciple is poignantly expressed. God declares, "Shall two angry faces put hot water into the drink? Have I not told you that when I am in anger, you are to placate Me, and when you are in anger, I will placate yon?" (Exod. Rabbah 45:2).

A related midrash demonstrates the loving interdependence of God and the religious hero. When Moses is about to die, God asks:

Who now will stand against Me on the day of wrath? Who shall protect Israel in the house of My anger? Who will stand up for My children ill the great end of days, and who will speak up for them when they sin? (Midrash Tanhuma, Buber, ed.)

Prophetic moral conscience does not exempt the claims of the prophet, not even the prophet of prophets, Moses himself. The prophet whose prophesies are spoken in God's name is not invulnerable to moral critique. Moreover, the prophet's foretelling and predications may be overturned.

The intertwined relationship between the divine and the human is proudly announced by the psalmist: "He, God, would have destroyed them had not Moses, His chosen one, confronted Him in the breach to avert His wrath" (Ps. 106:23).

(Continues...)




Excerpted from CONSCIENCE by Harold M. Schulweis Copyright © 2008 by Harold M. Schulweis. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 Conscience Confronts God 7

2 Human Conscience and Divine Legislation 23

3 Conscience and Covenant: Vertical and Horizontal 45

4 Against Conscience 59

5 Witness to Goodness 71

6 The Conscience of an Anti-Semite 91

7 Cultivating Conscience 101

8 The Bridge across the Rivers of "Either-Or" 109

Notes 127

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Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

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