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JUDAISM AS AN
A LIVING TRADITION can provide a person with a critical perspective on contemporary social reality by pointing to alternative possibilities and by providing a sense of distance that enables one to evaluate current beliefs and practices. Being anchored to a tradition that predates modernity, such as Judaism, gives one access to an alternative vision of human possibilities. It thus counteracts the ideological prejudice of modernity that equates "the now" with "the good," and "the latest" with the important and valuable.
Yet, tradition is itself challenged when people become aware of new values and possibilities in the surrounding culture, which invariably affect their moral intuitions and attitudes. Morality does not develop in abstraction from the lived reality into which human beings are born. Our moral sense and conscience are nurtured by lifebe it social, economic, or culturaland not necessarily by books and formal education.
I myself feel this kind of paradoxical relationship to modern culture, this complicated alternation between attraction and repulsion, affinity and estrangement. On one level, I embrace modern culture; on another level, I am often critical of and repelled by it. I relate to modernity with both openness and reservation. Both moves define my soul. I am very deeply rooted in the classical talmudic tradition, which was perpetuated in the modern world by the yeshiva (talmudic academy) Torah culture. I thus can be a kindred spirit with the Orthodox Haredicommunity in Jerusalem, the "black hat community" who have chosen the culture of the shtetl over modernity. At times, I can truly say that I share their love of and devotion to Torah, their music, their spiritual yearnings. Yet, at other times I can join the ranks of the Zionist rebels who have rejected traditional Judaism. My soul moves in multiple and diverse directions.
While this phenomenon is a natural consequence of the interaction of different cultural traditions at any time in history, the modern situation makes a person particularly susceptible to the destabilizing effects of competing cultures and values. The modern world, as distinct from some other periods of human history, is characterized by a widespread ambiguity of moral insights and attitudes. Conflict and disagreement characterize the domain of values and human options. There is hardly any universal consensus about moral beliefs and judgments. There are deep conflicts among individuals and cultures about the meaning and role of gender, of family, and of the political, legal, and religious institutions of modern life.
This situation differs dramatically from the medieval world, where Aristotelian philosophy was considered the most perfect intellectual tradition available to human beings. Maimonides felt no qualms about reinterpreting all anthropomorphic biblical texts as metaphors because of his belief that corporeality was incompatible with what the unity of God entails. He would have been prepared to reinterpret the biblical story of creation if Aristotle had provided a valid demonstrative proof for the eternity of the universe.
For if creation in time were demonstratedif only as Plato understands creationall the overhasty claims made to us on this point by the philosophers would become void. In the same way, if the philosophers would succeed in demonstrating eternity as Aristotle understands it, the Law as a whole would become void, and a shift to other opinions would take place. (Guide of the Perplexed, II:26)
Our moral discourse today is filled with ambiguity, conflict, and uncertainty. And this is what makes the issue of reinterpretation of the tradition in light of modern moral insights so problematic. Ethical dilemmas in the modern practice of medicine, for example, indicate the uncertainty and indeterminacy of applying the values of respect for human life and dignity in concrete situations. How does one measure "quality of life"?
Even though we lack intellectual certainty, I would argue that our situation is not unique or without precedent in the history of the Jewish tradition. The interpretive tradition, which defined Judaism in the past, was acquainted with ambiguity and controversy. In fact, rabbinic Judaism can best be described as a bold interpretive culture amidst disagreement. I shall discuss this claim on two levels: the legal and the theological. The former involves halakhic thought and practice, Judaism's central concern as a religious and cultural phenomenon, while the latter relates to a theology of history, or more precisely, a theology of exile.
How does the tradition understand exile, and how can it respond to Zionism, a movement aimed at overcoming the reality and psychology of exile? After explaining the meaning of Judaism as an interpretive tradition from both legal and theological perspectives, I shall defend my characterization of the rebirth of the State of Israel in terms of "covenantal renewal" and of other such concepts that, I believe, reflect the deep structure of Judaism.
THE TEXT AS THE WORD OF GOD
The idea of love of God is often contrasted with the legalism of "Pharisaic Judaism" in terms of the spontaneity and passion associated with the religious experience. The terms religious and halakhic are thus differentiated with reference to whether God or law is at the center of one's religious concerns. Before evaluating this religious stereotype, I would like to draw attention to Psalm 119, where God and the word of God are often indistinguishable. The writer's love for and worship of God are channeled toward God's commandments.
I have turned to You with all my heart;
do not let me stray from Your commandments. (10)
I am racked with grief;
sustain me in accordance with Your word. (28)
I shall have an answer for those who taunt me,
for I have put my trust in Your word. (42)
Do not utterly take the truth away from my mouth,
for I have put my hope in Your rules. (43)
Teach me good sense and knowledge,
for I have put my trust in Your commandments. (66)
Those who fear You will see me and rejoice,
for I have put my hope in Your word. (74)
May Your mercy reach me, that I might live,
for Your teaching is my delight. (77)
I long for Your deliverance;
I hope for Your word. (81)
I will never neglect Your precepts,
for You have preserved my life through them. (93)
I am Yours; save me!
For I have turned to Your precepts. (94)
My flesh creeps from fear of You;
I am in awe of Your rulings. (120)
I rise before dawn and cry for help;
I hope for Your word. (147)
According to the letter and spirit of this text, the word of God is interchangeable with God. Torah, therefore, conveys the immediacy of God's presence, as if it were an incarnation of God's will and love. The language of worship, which in other biblical contexts is directed toward God,
Pour out your heart like water before the face of the
Lord; lift up your hands (se'i kapaiyich) toward him for
the life of your young children. (Lamentations 2:19)
is here directed, with no less intensity, toward the commandments:
And so will I lift up my hands (ve'esa kapai) unto Your commandments, which I love; and I will meditate on Your statutes. (Ps. 119:48)
This perspective is necessary for an understanding of the passional religious dimension of rabbinic culture. When you learn Torah, you "meditate" on the divine word, you, so to speak, suspend belief in the written medium separating you from the author of the word and imagine yourself talking with and hearing God directly. You therefore experience the existential immediacy of being in the presence of God. The author of this psalm relates to the word and to the law in the same personal and emotive language that religious poets usually reserve for impassioned references to God. The speaker feels "hope in the word," is "comforted" and "revived" by God's laws, and is able to "rejoice in," "delight in," and "love" the commandments.
The word, then, at the deepest, most fundamental level of Torah culture, embodies the living reality of God. Rejoicing in the word is rejoicing in God. And, contrary to the standard interpretation of Paul's description of mitzvah and Halakhah (Jewish law), the phrase that best describes the essence of rabbinic religiosity is not the "burden of the law" but "simcha shel mitzvah," the joy of mitzvah. As in Psalm 119, the law was not considered to be a burden in any pejorative sense, because it mediated and expressed God's love and concern. In the daily liturgy, Jews declare, "You have loved the house of Israel with everlasting love," and then proceed to substantiate this theological statement with "You have taught us Torah and precepts, laws and judgments." The prayer then concludes with
Therefore, Lord our God, when we lie down and when
we rise up we will speak of Your laws, and rejoice in the
words of Your Torah and in Your precepts
God's love is embodied in the giving of the Torah. Torah and mitzvot convey divine love and are thus a source of joy and comfort. One of the first benedictions traditional Jews say every morning refers to their being commanded "to be engaged in the words of the Torah," and, following that, they express this hope:
Lord our God, make the word of Your Torah sweet in our mouth and in the mouth of Your people, the house of Israel, so that we and our descendants and the descendants of Your people, the house of Israel, may all know Your name and study Your Torah for its own sake. Blessed are You, O Lord, who teaches the Torah to Your people Israel.
"Learning," the talmudic involvement with the interpretation of the law, is misrepresented by such derogatory labels as "pharisaic legalism" or "rabbinic casuistry" that totally ignore the phenomenological experience of fascination with and rejoicing in the richness and complexity of the divine word and, by implication, of the divine reality. The biblical text is understood to contain multiple layers of meaning and subtlety. Torah, no less than nature, conveys the immensity and richness of the divine reality.
It is no wonder, therefore, that not only the semantic significance of the words themselves but also their syntactic and even their physical form became objects of interpretation. Rabbi Akiva was noted for his imaginative, ingenious interpretations not only of the meaning of the words and sentences of the biblical text but also of the tagim (crownlets atop the Hebrew letters) and the ethim (particles of speech indicative of the objective case).
This seemingly extreme example of rabbinic biblical exegesis was not the result of a philological obsession but reflects the specific religious context in which the biblical text was understood. Rabbi Akiva read the Bible as an intimate love letter. He read and reread the words; he, so to speak, felt the parchment and examined the handwriting, the shapes of the letters, and the marks on the page, always looking for signs and clues to hidden meanings and secret messages.
To use modern terminology, the medium became a part of the message, conveying the rich and subtle complexity of the divine word. Consequently, the term legal text only partially and incompletely describes the text that the Torah scholar scrutinized. Even today, in yeshivot, academies of Torah learning, the student sings the words of the text and, on the holiday of Simchat Torah, dances ecstatically with the scrolls of the law. Enigmatic legal cases and narratives are recited with a characteristic chant and bodily sway as the talmudic student struggles to decipher the mysteries of the divine text.
In order to understand this interpretive tradition from within, one must go beyond its hermeneutics and methodologies to the distinctive mode of consciousness of this text-oriented worldview, where the presence of God was filtered through an engagement with the words of Torah.
It is highly significant that the most mystical and religiously impassioned figure of this tradition, the person who claimed that the love poem Song of Songs was the Holy of Holies of the Jewish canon, the man who later died a martyr's death while proclaiming, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One," was that same hero of the interpretive tradition, Rabbi Akiva. In this tradition, textual analysis and interpretation are informed by the same religious ethos that produced heroic commitment, devotion, piety, and mystic passion.
One can try to explain the inner religious and theological significance of such a culture at this stage of Jewish history by saying that despite the reality of defeat and exile, rabbinic Judaism refused to succumb to the sense of being abandoned by God. Instead, it created a culture that gave meaning to the idea of continuous revelation. In contrast to Martin Buber's notion of spontaneous, existential encounters with the eternal "Thou," rabbinic "formalism" counteracted God's apparent absence from history by turning the text into a carrier of God's ever-present concern. In the interpretive tradition, God never abandons you, because His word is always with you.
When ten people sit together and occupy themselves
with the Torah, the Shekhinah [divine presence] abides
among them, as it is said: "God stands in the godly
congregation." (Ps. 82:1) Whence do we know that the
same applies even to five? ... Whence do we know that
the same applies even to three? ... whence do we know
that the same applies even to two? ... Whence do we
know that the same applies even to one? It is said: "In
every place where I have My name mentioned I will
come to you and bless you." (Mishnah Avot 3:7)
INTERPRETATION AND CONCEPTS OF GOD
If, as I have just tried to show, the reality of God is mediated by Torah study, then there is bound to be a relationship between your approach to interpretation and your conception of God. How you relate to the text is affected by how you relate to God. And if interpretive strategies are in some ways outgrowths of a person's conception of God, then one would expect to discover that the same fundamental religious paradigms that inform one's approach to God and revelation also inform one's approaches to human understanding and textual analysis.
The organizing metaphors that filter and shape one's sense of the Divine also influence the epistemology and hermeneutics that inform one's reading of the biblical text. The scope of my claim will extend beyond the literary and legal levels of the reading of texts to the broader area of the "reading of history," an area of life no less affected by these same modes of thought and experience.
The biblical narrative of Abraham is, for example, a source of two different organizing images of God. (The worldview that evolved with the appearance of political Zionism is, as I shall argue later, a third option, which is both opposed to and continuous with these fundamental motifs in the Jewish tradition.) There are thus two classical models of religious consciousness that can claim the biblical narrative of Abraham as their source. The first is expressed in the bold conversation between God and Abraham concerning the divine decision to destroy the city of Sodom:
Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?
What if there should be fifty innocent within the
city; ... 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? (Gen.
Given that there was no prior revelation instructing Abraham about the meaning or the rules of applying the concepts of innocence, guilt, and justice, Abraham must be seen as appealing to some generally accepted moral mode of discourse that allowed, or rather, compelled him to exclaim: "Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?"
Abraham's appeal to principles of morality and compassion reflects his overwhelming sense of their inherent normative force and validity. He can judge God's intended actions without "quoting scripture" or authoritative tradition because of a deep intuitive sense of justice and love, which neither God nor human being may violate. While for some the Christian "natural law" tradition is helpful in explaining such theologically independent moral intuitions, I maintain that the text itself reveals the integrity and consistency of Abraham as a deeply religious and ethical personality. The words "Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes" (18:27) are not those of a Promethean challenger to God but of a lover of God, a humble and reverent religious personality with a strong sense of moral autonomy. In this context, moral autonomy is not an expression of hubris or of the need to assert human independence, but is compatible with and integral to a religious consciousness that believes that the God you worship would never violate your fundamental moral intuitions of justice and of love.
This biblical paradigm contrasts dramatically with another narrative account of Abraham, which presents a radically different model of the meaning of religious life and of human understanding and independence. After being promised by God that his desperate hope for an heir would be realized"None but your very own issue shall be your heir" (Gen. 15:4); "Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac; and I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come" (17:19)Abraham is told: "Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights which I will point out to you" (Gen. 22:2). Offering no explanation, let alone justification, God orders Abraham to forget past promises, hopes, and natural expectations and to sacrifice his beloved son: his long-awaited heir and the carrier of his legacy and covenantal history. Does the divine command not violate Abraham's moral intuitions, his fatherly sensibilities and feelings, and even God's own promise?
Given the earlier account of Sodom, one would have expected Abraham to respond by pleading for the life of his innocent child. Instead he is silent. He expresses no argument, or even a request for an explanation, let alone a justification. He simply obeys without uttering a word. His response is one of total submission and unconditional surrender. According to the rabbis, Isaac also knew about his intended sacrifice, and he too went along compliantly.
The God of Abraham, therefore, takes two very different forms in the book of Genesis: a God who demands total surrender to His command and a God who invites independent moral critique and judgment. These two paradigms have informed religious life as well as interpretation and exegesis throughout Jewish history. For many teachers from the time of the Talmud to the modern period, including Yeshayahu Leibowitz and my own teacher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the akedah, the binding of Isaac, was the dominant paradigm of religious life and thought. For them, the survival and continuity of the tradition require the unconditional surrender and loyalty that the akedah represents. To be claimed by God, I must be willing to sacrifice my intellect and intuition, to give up everything I know and cherish as a human being, in deference and obedience to the word of God.
Contemporary critiques of those who appeal to moral considerations in questions of religious practice and change often invoke an akedah mode of reasoning, arguing (or implicitly presupposing) that religious life would lose all credibility if submission and surrender were any less than total. The belief that "if you change anything, everything will collapse" owes its logic and conviction to the silence of Abraham in the binding of Isaac story.
Yet, Abraham, in pleading for Sodom, felt that God was not beyond his own understanding of moral argument and persuasion. This other paradigm, therefore, says: "Bring your moral intuitions, your subjective sense of dignity and justice into your understanding of the reality of God." Not only does it not threaten or undermine religious consciousness, but it is actually necessary for recognizing the validity and applicability of the divine command.
INTERPRETIVE STRATEGIES AND THE RELIGIOUS IMAGINATION
Echoes of the two religious models derived from Abraham's two responses to God in the Sodom and the akedah narratives are discernible in different interpretive strategies in the talmudic tradition, as for example in the following interpretive analysis of the biblical law of the stubborn and rebellious son:
If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his mother and father shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town and the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, "This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard." Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid. (Deut. 21:18-21)
The Talmud in Sanhedrin (72a) reads this text with the kind of free, seemingly playful, yet intensely serious attention I described at the beginning of this essay. At what point, the rabbis ask, does one become liable as "a stubborn and rebellious son"? In other words, what exactly did the guilty son described in Deuteronomy do? He was, they answer, citing the words of the parents in the above text, "a glutton and a drunkard." He ate this kind and amount of meat; he drank wine of such and such a vintage. He had, as they then proceed to describe, the biblical equivalent of a serious teenage alcohol and drug problem. His sin, in other words, was not total rebellion but a destructive addiction to eating and drinking and to related delinquent behavior.
But then, asks one of the talmudic teachers in rhetorical fashion,
It has been taught: R. Jose the Galilean said: Did the Torah decree that the rebellious son shall be brought before beth din [court] and stoned merely because he ate a tartemar [weight measure] of meat and drank a log [liquid measure] of wine? (Sanhedrin 72a)
In contrast to a biblical text that could be taken to mean that parental control over children was as absolute as over property and other possessions, the rabbis, in light of their assumption that parental authority over children must be limited, insist that the law in question be justified by weightier reasons than parental prerogative or by gluttony and drunkenness. The talmudic discussion continues:
But the Torah foresaw his ultimate destiny. For at the end, after dissipating his father's wealth, he would [still] seek to satisfy his accustomed [gluttonous] wants but, being unable to do so, would go forth at the crossroads and rob. Therefore the Torah said, "Let him die while yet innocent, and let him not die guilty." (72a)
Although an earlier opinion had invoked an akedah mode of argument"it [the text] is a divine decree"to rule out an interpretation of biblical law that went beyond its literal meaning, this opinion alludes to suggestive aspects of the language of the text to bring broader social and moral considerations to bear on the issue at hand. First, the precise wording of the question: "Did the Torah decree that the rebellious son shall be brought before beth din" indicates the existence of a changed biblical social reality where parental authority was no longer absolute and independent of social institutions such as the courts ("They shall say to the elders of his town"). This requirement stands in sharp contrast to the situation described in Genesis, where Judah, when learning of his daughter-in-law Tamar's alleged harlotry, proclaims: "Bring her out, and let her be burned" (Gen. 38:24). Judah's paternal status gave him the peremptory authority of "judge and executioner" over his family. By drawing attention to this subtle exegetical point, the talmudic interpreter adopts a strategy aimed at deriving a morally defensible interpretation from an otherwise morally questionable biblical law.
According to the talmudic reference to the dangerous nature of the delinquency in question, the crime for which the son was so severely punished was not only rebellion against parents but also what were believed to be the inevitable consequences of his current behavior. He is so addicted to his destructive habits and way of life that it is better for him to die now, while still relatively meritorious, than later, after he becomes a compulsive thief, murderer, and enemy of society. It is not, therefore, parental authority that is being so zealously protected but the social fabric of society.
This interpretive strategy is then extended to argue that only if the son's habitual behavior is of the type and intensity that invariably leads to the aforementioned criminal consequences is the law implemented. Here, then, is an interpretive move that preserves the legislative force of the text but shifts the context and meaning of the law away from the authoritative hierarchy of the family to the broader framework of social order and welfare. A third and more radical interpretive strategy makes the implementation of the law virtually impossible:
There never has been a "stubborn and rebellious son" and there never will be.... R. Simeon said: "Because one eats a tartemar of meat and drinks half a log of Italian wine, shall his father and mother have him stoned? But it never happened and never will happen. Why then was this law written?That you may study it and receive reward." (71a)
The talmudic discussion supporting this remarkable conclusion consists of a series of legal qualifications making implementation all but impossible. Both parents must be present at precisely the same time, each must resemble the other in voice, in height, and in other ways that stretch the probability of implementation toward the zero point. Finally the law is declared to be a theoretical case worthy of jurisprudential analysis ("Study it and you will receive reward"), but as a law to be implemented, never!
There are, then, three different responses to a text that was considered prima facie morally problematic. One teacher said categorically: "This is what the text says and this text is the authoritative word of God. Therefore, put aside your moral intuitions." The second view mitigates the dissonance between our moral intuitions and our commitment and love for the text by shifting the point and rationale of the law from parental authority to the order and welfare of society in general. The third interpretation moves the problematic law out of the realm of actual practice. The stoning of the stubborn and rebellious son, like several other "difficult" cases of biblical law, never will be (and never were!) implemented, even though they warrant careful analysis and discussion.
These different interpretive strategies reflect different evaluations of the relative weight of traditional texts compared with our own moral intuitions and with our understanding of the particular social reality in which Torah law is to be implemented. Some talmudic teachers felt that the authority of the family was primary and that punishing such a child was both feasible and justified. Others felt that rebellion within the confines of the family was not currently a threat to society in general and that parents should not have authority over the lives of their children.
It is clear that this law was not universally regarded to be a potentially "bad law," yet it was sufficiently controversial and problematic to inspire a rich diversity of interpretive possibilities. Those who chose to neutralize the practical impact of this law realized that their position was not self-evident or without legitimate alternatives. Other moral arguments had to be taken into accountfor example, those that focused on the dangers to the family unit and to social stability, pointing to the relationship between the weakening of parental authority and the erosion of social order and stability.
One should bear in mind that we are dealing with a traditional society where reverence for parents was compared and even equated with reverence for God. The logic of "spare the rod, spoil the child" coupled with a family ethic based on a disciplined, hierarchical parent-child relationship (you weren't allowed to sit in your parents' regular seats or to interrupt them when they spoke) must have created a strong case for linking parental authority with the stability of the social and theological superstructures.
Yet, there were others who were willing to compromise on the formal conditions of respect for parents by allowing individual choice to determine how parental authority would be expressed. There was a legal opinion that permitted a parent (but not a king) to forgo the honor due him or her, mochel al kvodo, thus giving parents the freedom to determine the amount of formality and authority in their relationship with their children. In other words, the interpretive strategies that emerged in response to the law of the "stubborn and rebellious son" probably reflect the same social and moral attitudes and opinions that must have informed other discussions about the nature and future of the family during the talmudic period.
And yet, I am suggesting that these talmudic scholars allowed themselves the right to interpret according to their judgments, knowing full well that their views were less than necessary and self-evident and that there were risks in accepting the positions they advocated. It is often instructive to characterize the full implications of an argued point of view by clearly specifying the implicit risks they entail. In our case you could say that one groupthose most inspired by an akedah religious mentalitymight have warned against the danger of undermining divine authority, while their opponents might have argued, in the spirit of Abraham's defense of Sodom, that the punishment did not fit the crime. The strict traditionalists might have shot back: "How dare you question God's wisdom?" only to be countered by an equally earnest statement of religious commitment: "God's laws must reflect, in some way, my understanding of reality and morality. Not sacrificing what I believe to be fair and just is not a violation of my belief in God or in divine authority. My moral intuitions have been nurtured by the study of Torah!"
TOLERANCE AND AMBIGUITY IN THE INTERPRETIVE TRADITION
In contrast to the Bible, the Talmud is filled with disagreements and differences of opinion. The Talmud itself was aware of the problem this might create for people seeking religious certainty.
"The masters of assemblies": these are the disciples of the wise, who sit in manifold assemblies and occupy themselves with the Torah, some pronouncing unclean and others pronouncing clean, some prohibiting and others permitting, some disqualifying and others declaring fit.
Should a person say: How in these circumstances shall I learn Torah? Therefore the text says: "All of them are given from one Shepherd." One God gave them; one leader uttered them from the mouth of the Lord of all creation, blessed be He; for it is written: "And God spoke all these words." Also make your ear like the hopper and get yourself a perceptive heart to understand the words of those who pronounce unclean and the words of those who pronounce clean, the words of those who prohibit and the words of those who permit, the words of those who disqualify and the words of those who declare fit. (B.T. Hagigah 3b)
There is a beautiful metaphor in the Tosefta that describes the kind of religious sensibility the Talmud tried to nurture: "Make yourself a heart of many rooms and bring into it the words of the House of Shammai and the words of the House of Hillel, the words of those who declare unclean and the words of those who declare clean" (Sotah 7:12). In other words, become a person in whom different opinions can reside together in the very depths of your soul. Become a religious person who can live with ambiguity, who can feel religious conviction and passion without the need for simplicity and absolute certainty.