The origins of the American Republic are, where are they? Lots of places. The political thought of 17th– and 18th-century Britain. In the Dutch republic. In the Italian Renaissance. In the minds of some geniuses tired of being taxed, censored, and silenced. In the fed-up Minutemen. In the Classical world— in Athenian democracy and Roman law. And in the Bible. Most of the former in this provisional list have a largely non-religious character; but the basis of Biblical ideas about the human polity is the Covenantal relationship with the one true and sole God, the Creator, Master of the Universe. Human beings are innately free and dignified with relation to each other, not because of an abstract social contract, but because we all belong equally to God and nobody else can claim ownership of us, or absolute power over us. I think that firm belief in God is the heart of liberty, the center of the whole American project. Without it, nothing can hold together and all will crumble and fall apart. We are in danger of this happening now; and if America, this bastion of freedom, is lost, then the tyranny of alien powers will be unchecked and a great darkness will descend upon the entire world. But with our Biblical foundation intact, the Republic can live on, and grow, and have a bright future.
Biblical thought is not rooted in the superiority of human reason, the remote prospect of human perfectibility through social engineering, or the promise of paradise on earth thanks to scientific discovery or the energy unleashed by free enterprise. The Bible addresses the heart and soul. It insists on the origins of reason in the irrational, or the supra-rational. And this is paradoxical: Biblical imperative issues from the unseen to command all the visible world. To those for whom it is the foundation of their faith and learning, it is not just a book or even the Book of books. This uncanny book is a living companion that is inseparable from one’s existence, one’s sense of identity and one’s understanding of reality. Let me discuss first something of the what and the how of the Bible, and the experience of living with and in it; and then we’ll carry on to the Republic it helped to shape, the one Ben Franklin warned people to take care of or lose, as he emerged from the Constitutional Convention, and what the Bible meant to that Republic.
Before we embark on a very long and discursive conversation together, may I try to justify what I am doing here and the way I propose to go about it? There are at least two kinds of essay. There is the sort you learned to write in school: in the first paragraph, state the argument you intend to make. In the middle of the essay, provide a logical chain of that argument, supported at each point by evidence. In the final paragraph, bring together in a clear summary what you have argued, and announce your proven conclusion. This is the expository structure refined by English essayists, particularly in the 18th century. And then there is the primordial essai, the genre invented by Michel de Montaigne, whom Shakespeare read and admired. It is just that, an “attempt”, an experiment even, personal and discursive, learned and rambling, with a thesis and focus but without a necessarily hard and fast conclusion: the author raises questions and attempts to address them in a friendly way, bringing in both his own life experience and the various learned books he has read. Montaigne was a versatile man, a contradictory figure in some ways: it seems that on his mother’s side his forebears were Sephardic Jewish refugees from the Inquisition; but he was a French aristocrat of leisure and was raised speaking Latin as a native tongue. He was thus an unusually erudite man of means able to observe life without conforming to its demands. It all made him a bit of an outsider, an eccentric, an individualist. It is not at all difficult to imagine him as a sui generis Torah commentator or idiosyncratic Hasidic rabbi, ruffling feathers. More a Harold Bloom than a T.S. Eliot, more Melville than Henry James, more Hart Crane than Robert Frost, more Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce than, I don’t know, whatever wealthy people who eat white bread and belong to fucking country clubs think humor is. Montaigne was more Biblical, in his free, humane, exploring way than he was hieratically Egyptian or Sumerian (we’ll explore presently the contrast between ancient Israel and its stolid, imperial neighbors). Michel de Montaigne’s essays inspired Ralph Waldo Emerson, too; but he can get kind of stuffy. Michel, and not my high school English teachers or the Boston brahmin, is my guide, for better or worse; and that is why we will ramble and digress, citing Talmudic texts, visiting old friends in late-70s London, and arguing about Plato all together as we go.
1. The Bible and What It Is, and How It Works.
The Bible as Christians understand the name has two parts, the New and Old Testaments. This is a familiar and widely-used designation but it is not an entirely neutral one: its terminology can presuppose that the “New” has improved upon, superseded, or even replaced the “Old”. This would imply that Christianity is somehow better than the Judaism from which it emerged, which is reasonable enough for the adherent of a new and different religion to believe. Why follow it otherwise? Yet there is the possible and deprecatory corollary that the older parent faith is obsolete, and those who adhere to it, even when it has been replaced, must be obstinate or blind. The implications of this replacement theology are dark indeed: we know where the hatred led that it had engendered. Most Christian denominations today are cognizant of the evil of that hatred and hold that the Covenant never departed from Israel. We can speak of an ecumenism, a Judeo-Christian tradition. It is possible today to include Islam in that ecumenism: the three faiths constitute the Abrahamic religions.
In this discussion I will follow one strand, and mean by Bible the “Old” Testament, properly called the Hebrew Bible. The framers of the American Republic and their predecessors were not Jews, however. They were all, in the parlance of today, pale skinned northern European Protestant heterosexual men. For the purposes of political thought, they were interested more in the society and governance of ancient Israel, than in the society in which the Gospels took shape. The events of the New Testament took place when Jesus, his fellow Jews, and the Land of Israel— the Romans were to rename it “Palestine” a century later, as an insult to its native inhabitants— were under brutal imperial occupation and had no say in how they were ruled. The political world of Christ’s day might interest them only insofar as it resembled the iniquitous colonial rule of King George III.
The book called the Hebrew Bible, which is more properly a collection of books, is vastly longer and more varied in content than the Christian scripture. The New Testament, for its comparative brevity, is of course extremely rich and powerful. It is so familiar to us that sometimes we may forget how mysterious it really is. It contains a number of theological letters (the Epistles, which is Greek for “letters”) and an apocalyptic text (the Book of Revelation), but its core consists of four biographies of one and the same Man. Three— Matthew, Mark, and Luke— are very similar to each other, and comprise thus the Synoptic Gospels. The fourth, the Gospel according to John, is quite different. Still, why tell the same story four times? Obviously an enormous amount can be said of this scripture; only it is not my present focus. Hopefully I’ll have more to say about it another time. There’s no man who’s ever lived who not only commands our interest, but personally invites our company, the way Jesus Christ did and does. I do not know whether Jesus was God incarnate; but His powerfully Messianic teachings illuminate the Bible that He knew and taught. Had He never lived, it is unlikely the Bible would ever have become the great and universal light that it is. Probably Judaism would not have evolved the way it has, either. Although I write here as an observant Jew, from the standpoint of that experience, this is not a matter of exclusivity. To the contrary, this is a conversation in which all Christians, Muslims, and thoughtful people of good will have a part.
Jews and an increasing number of Bible scholars call the Hebrew Bible the Tanákh, an acronym formed from the original Hebrew names of three groups of books: the Torah (“Teaching”: the Five Books of Moses, or Pentateuch),Nevi’im (“Prophets”), and Ketuvim (“Writings”: various historical and other books, including the Psalms and the Song of Songs). Sometimes the word Torah is used of the whole Tanakh. Although religious Jews believe that the entire Torah, both the written text and the massive oral commentary on it that constitutes the Talmud (“Learning”), was given to Moses on Mount Sinai, most scholars find that different books entered the corpus at different times and were redacted to produce a fixed canon. There were a number of whole books and various shorter texts— the Apocrypha and various writings found among the Dead Sea Scrolls for instance— that were popular to varying degrees but were not included in the canonical, or authorized text of the Bible. What it included or excluded and why raises a lifetime of questions. God said “I Am That I Am.” Well, this Masoretic text (MT; from Hebrew masóret, “tradition”), the canonical Bible, Is What It Is.
It coalesced over many centuries but was finally and fully fixed, many maintain, only in the second half of the first millennium AD, that is, over five hundred years after the Life of Christ. The Biblical texts of the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls, found in and around Wadi Qumran in the Judaean desert, date from the third century BC to the first century AD. They differ in wording in places from the MT but are not at real theological variance with it. About three quarters of the poems that comprise the Book of Psalms were, as we can see from the Qumran scrolls, in the same order as in the Psalter of the MT. The Hebrew Bible that Jesus knew, read, and expounded upon with authority— and to Him it was, indeed, the only Bible— was thus not materially different from the later MT.
The MT consists of 24 books, the number corresponding to that of the Homeric corpus: the Iliad and Odyssey have 24 books each. Perhaps this coincidence is fortuitous. 24 is twice twelve, and the months and other things followed the duodecimal system then and now. But I do not think it is mere chance. Jews and Greeks shared more of each other’s culture back then than either would care to admit. For instance, a pre-Masoretic Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek at Alexandria in the third century BC for the use of various Jewish communities around the Mediterranean that did not know Hebrew at all. This massive book, the Septuagint (meaning “[translation of the] Seventy”, since pious legend tells us seventy scholars labored individually, yet miraculously produced identical renderings) is a reminder that neither Israelite nor Classical culture existed in isolation from the other. In a way, Christianity is the marriage of Judaism to Western Classical culture, with universality as the offspring.
It’s important to note that Philo of Alexandria, a Greek-speaking Jewish philosopher from Alexandria who was a contemporary of Christ, considered the Bible in both letter and spirit the foundation of a polity. He explains Moses to his Gentile audience as a nomothetes, “lawgiver”. Josephus, writing in Greek in the late 1st century AD, calls the Jewish people a politeia, or republic, in which sovereignty is in the hands of God; the Covenant is thus the Divine constitution of a society. To the readers whose expectations he knew, Biblical society was of particular interest in that they regarded it as a republic of a unique kind. This is what made it relevant to them: it addressed not only a small tribe, but all humanity with its universal principles and claims. I’ll consider further questions of universality, of Jew and Gentile, presently. Suffice it to stress for now that cultural interchange and mutual influence were then and are now the rule, not the exception, in civilized human life. This is significant to the present discussion because the ideas of the Hebrew Bible of the Jews were in at the beginning of modern European and American political thought, all of which was done by Christians. And those ideas, neither usurped nor plagiarized, but shared and developed, for the benefit of all, have remained vital to it.
For observant Jews, the Bible is a living thing, a life companion. At the center of communal synagogue prayer on Shabbat, the Sabbath (literally, “[day of] rest”), is the reading of the Torah (“Teaching”), which means in this case the Pentateuch (Greek, “Five Books”): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Torah that must be used for the public reading is a very imposing physical object. It is not a codex, that is, our standard bound book of stitched pages, but takes the more archaic form of a scroll. Each of the two ends of the heavy scroll of parchment is affixed to a wooden roller. The Torah commands attention visually as the center of worship and indeed it is a very expensive item indeed: the text must be handwritten in neat columns in kosher ink on kosher parchment, without any spelling error or even one broken or improperly formed letter. And the scribe must be trained and ritually pure. The scroll itself is swathed in a covering of embroidered velvet, which is protected by a silver shield. The tops of the rollers are capped by tall silver crowns, and the Torah scroll is kept in the Holy Ark at the wall of the synagogue facing Jerusalem. The Ark of the Covenant, which was kept first in the Mishkan (“Tabernacle”), then in Solomon’s Temple, contained a written document, too: the Ten Commandments. Although the golden cherubim on top are awesome (God spoke to Moses between their bowed heads) and, yes, the Ark looks numinous and imposing in that Indiana Jones movie, basically the Ark of the Covenant is a BOOKCASE. It is important for what’s in it: two inscribed tablets of stone.
Before the Ark in the synagogue stands a broad reading table, the bímah. (The ancient Greek word bōmos is probably related to the Hebrew, as are a number of other such very old terms, suggesting a long contact between Israelite and Hellenic cultures going back a millennium before even the Septuagint.) The Armenians, who are the oldest Christian community on earth, still use the Hebrew word bema, designate a priest k‘ahana from Hebrew kohen, and call Friday and Saturday urbat‘ and shabat‘— the former from Aramaic arvita, “eve [of the Sabbath]” and the latter from Hebrew Shabbat. The older and closer to the Middle Eastern heart a Christian culture is, the more of the Judaism of its early founders it tends to keep warm within it.
The following seven paragraphs describe what a Torah is made of, the way it’s used in the liturgy of a synagogue, and how it becomes a fixture of one’s life. Gentle reader, it may be more information than you feel you need. If you’re intrigued, read on; if not, skip down to “Phoenician Byblos…” and you’ll still be okay.
The Torah is chanted aloud from beginning to end, in weekly sections, from year to year in an annual or triennial cycle. Chanting from the scroll requires special training: written Hebrew has consonants only (try this: t s nt sy t rd wrttn hbrw hs cnsnnts nly), and the careful, calligraphic script on the scroll has neither the auxiliary vowel points that are sometimes added to help a reader, nor the marks of cantillation, which differ for each word. The reader must both pronounce and sing every word correctly, and a learned member of the congregation stands to his side following the chant with a printed, vocalized text for accuracy. It is forbidden to touch the words of the Torah with one’s fingers: the reader holds a small silver rod with a tiny pointing hand at its tip, the yad, that he moves above the words as a guide. When the Torah scroll is re-clothed in majesty and returned to its Ark, the little yad is draped by its chain under one of the Torah’s crowns.
Each weekly portion (parasha, plural parashót) of Torah is divided into seven subsections, called aliyot (singular,aliyá). The latter word means literally “ascent”: an adult male member of the congregation is chosen for the honor to rise up to the bima, ascending from this world to a higher one. He chants a blessing before and after his portion, touching and kissing those lines on the scroll with one of the four corner tassels of his voluminous striped prayer shawl, the tallit. (The Bible contains a commandment to surround oneself with four fringes at the four points of the compass, hence the tallit.) The congregation is expected to have studied the text and to follow the reading in printed volumes of the Torah equipped with both vowel signs and cantillation marks: these volumes, which in America usually have a facing-page English translation, contain also the ancient Aramaic translation of the Hebrew text by Onqelos and the eleventh-century word-by-word commentary of Rashi (Rabbi Shim‘on Yitzḥaqi)— the latter in a different form of the Hebrew alphabet than the text of Scripture. On Shabbat one must thus hold both the heavy Torah and the prayer book, the Siddur. It’s all about a book, a heavy book, and its commentaries, hard to read, requiring continuous and dedicated study from early youth. Different languages, difficult scripts. This is one intellectually demanding religion. And the most sacred object of the Temple was a text. It was chiseled on two stone tablets in, again, a book box– albeit one with cherubim on the lid and supernatural powers above and within.
The synagogue is thus as much a study hall as a place of worship: books and more books are its main furnishing. Some scholars divide religious practice into two parts: drōmena, Greek for “things done”, i.e., ritual actions (consecrating wine, performing a sacrifice, etc.); and legomena, “things said”, i.e., the verbal sung and spoken liturgy. There is little in the synagogue on Shabbat of what might be called ritual: no act of sacrifice, no sacred meal, no choirs or orchestras, not even any clouds of incense. The Temple of Jerusalem had all of these, and the theater of the drōmena was awesome to behold, hear, and taste; but the synagogue, which came to be the center of the faith after the Temple’s destruction, replaces most of that with legomena— with words to pray and books to study. The result is an ethical life inseparable from contemplation, interpretation, and argument: the senses and reactions move both inward, to thought and feeling, and outward to debate, discussion, and practical application. This is not a recipe for quietism, just the contrary: the 613 Commandments in the Torah are mostly about how to live and what to do. To do the right thing, it is necessary to be in the habit of thinking about how best to fulfill those Commandments. Faith is not placed in invidious competition with works, as in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. By the act of acceptance of the Covenant, faith is taken for granted. The question is what one does and how one lives with that faith.
The weekly rhythm of Shabbat, with the Torah portion at its center, provides the temporal pulse of Jewish life, and constitutes the basis of learning. Torah commentaries are the beginning and end of sacred literature, are very numerous, and are generally organized according to the order of the weekly parashot. Religious Jews often use the name of the weekly parasha plus the year of Creation as a system of everyday calendrical dating. It may be 7 February 2021 in the cold, dark outdoors, but here inside where it’s bright and warm, it is Parashat Mishpaṭim 5781.
Following the reading of the Torah, a man grips the two handles of the rollers, opens the scroll so that at least three columns are visible, and then raises it aloft and turns slowly round, while the congregation point their little fingers towards it and sing “It is the Tree of Life to those who hold fast to it, and those who support it are made happy!” Then another man (yes, it’s all men: women pray on the other side of a partition and may not take a direct part in any aspect of the service) dresses the scroll in its splendor— velvet cover, shield, pointer, crowns— and it is returned to the Ark. During the procession many congregations sing the twenty-ninth Psalm. The literary source of this astonishing poem seems to be a Ugaritic hymn of the second millennium BC to a supernatural hero, a storm god whose might shakes the mountains and shatters cedars, in whose abode all the cosmos cries glory, glory. (Ugarit was an ancient kingdom at Ras Shamra, Cape Fennel, on the north Syrian coast.) Before and after the Psalm, the Jews of Yemen, a region of south Arabia, cry out over and over “The Lord shall reign forever, your God, O Zion, from generation to generation, Halleluyah!” The service is both numinous and intimate, awesome in its antiquity and might yet familiar in one’s innermost soul with all the flavor of childhood and home.
And all of this is repeated every week, as well as on major holidays with some variations, year after year, throughout one’s entire life. Unlike many religions, which have priests to do the ritual heavy lifting, Judaism is not a spectator sport; and the title Rabbi designates not “priest” but “teacher”. All men are expected to be able to take part in all aspects of synagogue worship, and to know the Book. At thirteen a Jewish boy becomes a Son of the Commandments (Bar Mitzvah), not by entering puberty, learning how to drive, or becoming eligible for military service, but by demonstrating his ability to chant a portion of the Torah correctly. Thereafter, every day except Sabbath and holidays, he can be counted for the minyan, the quorum of ten adult males required for the full service, and must tie to his arm and forehead boxes (tefillin, phylacteries) containing small scrolls of passages from the Torah. Like the Torah scroll, these must also be properly written by the scribe, on parchment; and affixed to every doorpost is such a little scroll (mezuza), usually in an ornamental metal case, which every person kisses upon entering or exiting.
Thus the Torah manuscript is not just read: it is worn on the body, it is part of the furnishing of the home. The Rabbis comment that God wrote the Torah about two thousand years before the Creation of the Universe. He made this world, they add, solely so that Israel might study it. (As we shall see presently, He likes to have our company when He studies. One is supposed to have a study companion here on earth, too.) God is seriously insistent about this. At Mount Sinai, when He offered it to the Children of Israel, He held a mountain over our heads as unsubtle encouragement to accept it. Had we refused, not only would He have dropped the mountain; He would have destroyed the entire world (other galaxies included).
The above is not intended to overwhelm. Nor do I mean to impress upon you, O hapless reader, the sheer volume of our comprehensive and complicated customs, rules, and rituals. If you read this far you’re not altogether fed up yet, anyway, I hope. My description barely scratches the surface! It is a preamble to a minute discussion of one part of one book of one section of the Hebrew Bible. But I am trying to explain how and why one might be wedded for nigh on three millennia to such minute, involved, far-reaching, passionate discussions. These conversations can yield interesting results. I’m obsessed with such conversations. I would like you to get involved, to become obsessed. The People of the Book really are obsessed with books, with this book, that book, all of them connected one way or another to The Book. Biblion just means “book” in Greek. You knew that. It comes from the place name Byblos in Phoenicia, the region just north of the Land of Israel and just south of Ugarit, where that precursor to Psalm 29 was sung aloud in intolerably savage joy to the young hero striding across thrashing forests and storm waves. (The name of Byblos in Phoenician was Gubl. It’s just as well we use the Greek name of the town, otherwise the Holy Scriptures might be called the Gooble… or, horrors, Google!)
Phoenician Byblos was an early center of literacy and book production. Phoenician and Hebrew are so close as to be mutually comprehensible. It’s said that our cousins the Phoenicians invented the alphabet. I think we did, but no matter: the Greeks sailed southeast across the Mediterranean, learned it from them, added separate characters for vowels, and jump-started Western civilization. The Book, every letter of which has scores of meanings, whose gates of interpretation are fifty! I’m going to be looking very closely indeed at one particular weekly portion of extreme importance and ask some questions about its puzzling and even discordant structure, and get from there, with your patience and indulgence, to some observations about what a republic is, what intrinsic human dignity is, and how the idea of America itself got going.
The very name of this country in Hebrew suggests it is supposed to be something different and special. The United States is called Artsot ha-Brit, “The Lands of the Covenant”. Other countries are just transliterated: Qanada, Meqsiqo, Angliyah– or bear the names of Biblical places, such as Sefarad and Ashkenaz, Spain and Germany. The Hebrew language, in a unique gesture of respect, recognizes American exceptionalism. These lands— states— are gathered together for the sake of one Covenant for all, not by reason of a common language or color blood ties or ancient history or connection to ancestral soil.
2. A Diversion, in which we visit the Heavenly Academy.
We need a break here. Let’s stroll down a side road, with a story. We’ll come back to the main point soon enough, and the story will have helped. When one was a student in England many years ago, one was introduced to a homeless young Orthodox Jew (complete with black suit and hat, white shirt that often needed laundering, scraggly beard, moustache, and angry eyes) named David, or as we say in Yiddish, Dóvid. Dovid was introduced to me by a social worker friend named Marv who had lived in the UK for some years already but hailed from San Francisco. I used to joke with Marv over Shabbat dinner that he must be the only unmarried heterosexual man from the City by the Bay. A philatelist pores over details of rare stamps that are invisible to the untrained eye; a record collector prizes dusty 78 r.p.m. disks that the uninitiated might relegate to a box in the basement. Marv was a connoisseur of people: others might dismiss somebody like Dovid as an unwashed eccentric, an abrasive fanatic, but Marv had the insight to appreciate, to treasure such a rare soul. And unlike a stamp or a record, a person has an infinity of depth for one patiently to discover, and Marv’s genius was to listen, to honor, to respond. I think this is what love is.
Marv himself was unkempt and not easy to appreciate upon a first impression, and those first impressions matter. Women tended to shun him and he never married. This loneliness destroys a person, and Marv was hurt all his life. But he had San Francisco, and it was his home from birth to death. I do not believe that the country where I live is home, or has been for a very long time. We all have our sorrows. When we returned from Britain to the States I used to visit him in northern California as often as twice a year. We walked, from the ocean beach through Golden Gate Park to Haight-Ashbury, through the Presidio and across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito. We spent long evenings in City Lights bookstore channeling the Beat poets; and at night I’d fold out the sofa and watch the fog make a Japanese painting of the trees. “The West is the best, get here and we’ll do the rest,” Jim Morrison chanted. I got here, but only in old age, with Marv already gone to the Otherworld. And God knows what the West is doing. Life often has the taste of ashes. But back to Marv’s friend, Dovid.
Dovid was very learned, and though he had no fixed abode of his own he was welcome in homes all over the vast capital to engage his hosts in a discussion of Torah and Talmud. He would knock on my door unannounced, I would put together a more-or-less kosher meal (eggs, green onions, some bread) and then he and I would talk Torah all night, till the time came for the dawn prayer, Sháḥaris. The proprietors of many London synagogues had given Dovid a key, so he could study or just kip (Brit for “lie down and sleep”) wherever he found himself. On that morning we walked from my apartment at 3, Netherhall Gardens (a stone’s throw from Sigmund Freud’s final refuge after he fled the Nazis in 1938) down the steps to Finchley Road, bypassing the Tube (Subway) station and ducking into an alley, then a yard, and suddenly one was standing in a shtibl— a little tumbledown wooden synagogue with velvet-curtained Ark, carved lions rampant, bima, benches, lamps, a simple sink and shlissel (double-handled cup) for washing, and sagging shelves of old and much-thumbed sefórim (holy books) that could have been teleported by time machine from prewar Poland to 1970s London. (Okay, will you get to the point already? Yes, yes, but be patient and enjoy the ride, we’re in a year already deep in that blessed past backward and abysm of time when a happier planet thrived without cellphones or laptops, and anyway in my story it’s still early morning.)
Dovid was resourceful: once he needed to consult a manuscript at Oxford, which is about fifty miles and change from London, but did not want to pay the high fare of intercity transit. He figured out a way to make several transfers and take a last, metropolitan bus to the end of the line. He alighted there, crossed a plowed field, and came to a road where the remotest Oxfordshire bus took him, probably with another handful of transfers, to the doors of the Bodleian Library. That journey, with its interval in the peaceful no-car’s-land of the English countryside, has always had for me a magical or dreamlike aspect, like the cupboard to Narnia, the homemade rocket to the surprisingly close mushroom planet Basidium, or Madeleine L’Engle’s tesseracts. (A Wrinkle in Time, which I first read as a boy and still read in bed as an older man, seems better than much of the solemn foolery that passes as sophisticated fiction for adults.) But all that is but a preface, gentle reader, to what follows. (You mean there’s more? A preface to an aside, in between a preface and the main point of all this? You must be putting me on! Oy!)
For there was another time when Dovid wanted to go to Antwerp, across the North Sea in downtown Belgium, to do I forget what, but it must have been to look at some rare and choice séfer (holy book) or consult a learned Rabbi. Again, ferry and train fares to the Continent were prohibitively expensive. Now, by way of background (not irrelevant to our main purpose, as it happens): when Jews die physically and (hopefully) ascend to Heaven, what our enfranchised souls do there, after taking a couple of spins and enjoying being sixteen again, is to study at the Academy On High, Hebrew Yeshiva shel Ma‘ala. It is also called in Aramaic Metivta de-Gan ‘Eden, “The Garden of Eden Academy”, but in English that sounds like an expensive boarding school, with itchy socks, navy blue blazers and escutcheons on the breast pocket, compulsory chapel, dismal, noisy meals, and muddy, brutish games. Let’s stick to the Hebrew name. God, Whom I imagine seated at the head of a very long table strewn with heavy tomes and scrolls, including books that don’t exist here, not even in Antwerp, presides over the Academy and enjoys the study of His Torah with His friends– Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Hillel, Rabbi Akiva, Jesus Christ, the Prophet Muḥammad (peace be upon him!), Maimonides, the Ba‘al Shem Ṭov, Spinoza, Freud, Marx, Allen Ginsberg, the Piaseczner Rebbe, the teachers I miss, my Grandmas, both of them, Grandpa from Tetouan who studied Maimonides and is now sharing a joke in a whisper with Maimonides, and my friend Marv, Marvin Langsam, who to me was just Moshe when we poured the wine and cut the challah on Friday night in London, in Cordoba, in Madrid, in Toledo, in San Francisco, in Sonoma, may his memory be a blessing, a tsaddik– a righteous man.
A permanent, continuous Bible class cum reunion as Heaven? With all those interesting people. Sounds good to me. But to some it might not be much of an afterlife to look forward to and must sound more like an endless high school study hall. At least there is no cafeteria food and muddy games, and the reunion with all the people one misses is a hopeful touch. That doesn’t cut any ice with a character from the West Country of England in Howard Jacobson’s extremely superb and blackly humorous dystopian novel, J. He grumbles about the Jews, “And some know it’s their job to die when the time comes. It’s not as unselfish as it sounds. Their children get looked after and they go straight to heaven. Not to lie with virgins, that’s someone else. This lot go straight to heaven and read books.” Welcome to the Academy On High.
Well then, and back to our story, how was Dovid to get affordably to Antwerp? I suggested he obtain an ID card from the National Union of Students: I matriculated at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, got one, and received discounts on all sorts of travel tickets. I didn’t think Dovid was enrolled anywhere but figured he’d be resourceful. And indeed, a few days later Dovid appeared flourishing his brand-new NUS card complete with mug shot: hat, pale face, sardonic frown. And on a line below his own name, the neatly typed name of the place where he studied: the Yeshiva shel Ma‘ala. The Academy On High. And you know what, folks? I’ll be he did study there and still does.
3. In which we get back to the point, and Moses receives some advice from his father-in-law.
Back on planet earth, in California, to be precise— half a century on and six thousand miles away— my Hasidic congregation unrolled the Torah scroll on a recent, sunny Saturday morning and began the chanting of parashat Yitro— the weekly portion entitled “Jethro”. This portion contains the giving of the Ten Commandments, a special occasion, for the reading of which the congregants all must stand to attention, their children gathered round them. The weekly portions are not of uniform size but differ in length, depending on the incident or theme; and since the Decalogue is not very long, some aliyot in this most climactic of readings take up no more than a short paragraph. The whole portion is fairly short.
Our synagogue has neither collection plate nor the membership fee some Reform temples require, so for its upkeep important aliyot like this one are auctioned off to the highest bidder— understandable, but still, to me, sometimes disconcerting. I had fortified myself for the solemnity of the great event on Sinai, and against the incongruity of the auction, by reviewing the portion in some detail, over and over, the day and evening before. I pondered the text quietly as one of our congregation’s heavy hitters, a flamboyant Russian immigrant, outbid his competitors as usual. He’s a sweet guy: he gave the prized aliya to his son, a friendly, courteous boy whom our congregation has watched grow into a fine young man. Seeing Shlomi and Benyamin together makes me happy.
Here is what perplexed me about the text of the portion. It has two parts, and it is only in the second part of this brief reading that we find all the magnificent purple prose: Sinai, lightning, trumpets getting louder and louder, smoke, a Voice from Heaven, the giving of the Decalogue. A cast of thousands! Lights, camera, action! The action in the Book of Genesis takes place over centuries, moves with the deliberate speed of a geological age. Things speed up almost instantly here in the next book, Exodus. Barely is Moses out of the reed basket in the Nile than he’s become an Egyptian prince, a baffled onlooker with an identity crisis, then a political refugee, then the baffled and reluctant leader of a stiff-necked, refractory tribe whose main preoccupation seems to be pointing out his shortcomings. No wonder Papa Freud concocted the theory that Moses was an Oedipal father figure.
Years are telescoped into minutes; minutes, into the taut, telegraphic Hebrew of the text. The rag-tag nation of liberated slaves Moses has to lead has, in the course of a few months, been through the ten plagues, the hasty exodus from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, flight, manna from heaven, the first battles with the wicked Amalekites, the first internecine disputes and disgruntled protests in the desert, now stands assembled as one, crowded on the sands below the jagged clefts of Sinai. Smoke and fire wreathe the mountain. The trumpet blasts of the shofar– ram’s horn– resound louder and louder, Moses goes up into the ineffable place where God is, and the people see the divine Voice and the Ten Commandments are given. The whole nine yards.
But here’s what comes just before, the first part of the weekly reading, which gives its name to the whole parashah. It is much less rushed, much more humdrum: indeed, everything about it seems to be in deliberate contrast to what is to follow. Moses, one will recall, fled into the Arabian desert after killing an Egyptian overseer who had beaten a Hebrew slave. He was adopted by the pagan Bedouin tribe of Midian, where he married the daughter, Tsippora, of the chief, Jethro. Tsippora even bore him sons, one of whom is named Gershom, which means, as the Hebrew explains, “I was a stranger in a strange land.” (Yes, gentle reader, it is all right if you are of a certain age and are reminded at once, as I am, of Robert Heinlein’s novel, the one whose insufferable sexism and homophobia were disgusting long before anyone was obligated to deplore such prejudice. And for all its maddening faults, that unpleasant man’s brilliant novel Stranger in a Strange Land still fascinated and unsettled a generation, helping us to think of sex, of society, of being itself in ways we had not done hitherto.)
That whole earlier episode of Moses’ flight— from the totalitarian slave state and rich, perfectly regulated landscape of Egypt (there was even an instrument, the Nilometer, to measure the clockwork-like tide and ebb of the great river) into the empty, arid wilderness and nomadic society of the tribesmen of Midian— is itself curiously archetypal, a sort of marriage of the picaresque novel to the comparative anthropology of the raw and the cooked. It is literature. In fact it seems to appropriate and reverse, then expand, the plot line and material of a literary antecedent, the Pharaonic Egyptian story of Sinuḫe. The latter was a fictional Egyptian official who fled during a tense interregnum between Pharaohs. He went native, marrying a Bedouin girl and becoming a chief. But he longed for hieroglyphics and bureaucracy. He wanted to be embalmed properly upon his death. Mummy dearest, as it were. And sure enough, emissaries arrived and told him: All is forgiven! He returned happily to the land of pyramids and slave drivers, lived to a ripe old age, and was mummified, to totter happily forever after through the Western Lands of the spirits.
That ought to be impossible: the Torah as a whole, including the description of the moment it is being given, and all the future events it describes, came to Moses on Sinai, the true believer must believe. And God wrote it before Creation. On the other hand, a good book is not only original, it also emulates and resonates. Pharaonic Egyptian literature? Mummies, books of the dead, pyramids, goddesses shaped like cats? Excuse me? Let’s just say for now that the Lord works in mysterious ways. And then, gentle reader, consider the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, and their return after Herod’s demise. A highly durable story line indeed. Spinoza was the first to dissect the Bible with the scalpel of historical and textual criticism, and the good fathers of the Sephardic Jewish community of Amsterdam excommunicated him. Tant pis for the establishment: free speech keeps the mind alive; and society, healthy. Bring on the Spinozas.
Back to Moses’ tent. Jethro reappears suddenly here, with no preamble, bringing along his son-in-law’s apparently somewhat neglected wife and kids. It’s an awkward situation, but Moses greets them courteously, even reverentially, preparing a meal and telling his father-in-law everything that had happened after he left Midian to become the leader of a nation, confront Pharaoh, and march enchanted through a landscape of miraculous deliverance and manna falling from heaven. This leisurely, well-mannered scene reflects the laws of desert Arab hospitality down to the present day, which are expressed in the rhyming triad: salam, ṭa‘am, kalam– an unconditional and gracious welcome (now accompanied by a tiny cup of strong, bitter, coffee with cardamom, but the discovery of the use of that berry lay millennia in the future), then a generous repast (a whole roasted sheep, rather like today’s Jordanian mansaf), and only afterwards conversation about business. Jethro is pleased. But their relaxed conversation is interrupted by the appearance of the daily throng of litigants demanding justice from their leader, Moses. Many quarrelsome and eloquent Israelites, trading accusations, pointing fingers, making persuasive speeches about real and imagined slights, grievances, and pains, suing each other for hefty punitive damages! Plus ça change…
Moses has to adjudicate each and every case and consult with God about it– he explains to Jethro– and Jethro replies, quite sensibly, as any of us would, Go on like this and you’ll wear yourself out. Why not, his Midianite father-in-law proposes, instead lighten your load and ensure that all cases are heard, by delegating authority to a hierarchical chain of judges selected for their lack of avarice (Hebrew betsa‘; the same word is found in the prayer of Psalm 119:36, “Incline my heart to Your testimonies and not to avarice”). Take on only the really important cases yourself, Jethro suggests. It sounds reasonable, and Moses agrees to do it. Such delegation of functions isn’t really even that novel an idea. Moses, for instance, is a stutterer, and he’s already assigned a lot of his public speaking duties to his brother Aaron, who is a far better orator.
Delegation of authority, chains of command, district courts, circuit courts, and the Supreme Court in D.C.? It all sounds like plain common sense and old news. And why should it have to come, not from a heavenly revelation or prophetic vision, say, but from a Gentile (but soon to become Jewish) father-in-law who figured in Moses’ scrappy, fugitive past, before he confronted Pharaoh, before he led Israel through the parted waters, before he is now to hold aloft two stone tablets as his face glows with primordial radiance? Why this cameo reminder of the younger rebel-with-a-cause Moses, the interlude of workaday, sleeves-rolled-up, gavel-banging Moses, just before the big-time Charlton-Heston Moses? Does it set the stage, or build the tension— the placid, quotidian social and political routine, just before the cosmic storm?
I think it does, and I think this is why. The Ten Commandments are the most prominent, general ones of that aforementioned total of 613 scattered through the Torah. The large number suggests sufficient detail for a legal system; and the court called the Sanhedrin (from Greek synhedrios) functioned for centuries till the destruction in 70 AD of the (Second) Temple of Jerusalem. By the second century AD the corpus of interpretations and judgments elaborated by successive generations of sages and magistrates had grown sufficiently large as to require a written work of synthesis in six parts, the Mishnah; and between then and roughly the fifth century a further encyclopedic commentary on the Mishnah, the Gemara or Talmud, was compiled. The multi-volume editions of the Talmud contain additions continuing into the high Middle Ages.
Law is written; but justice is acted. A judge is expected to perform without prejudice; the profession requires experience, wisdom, and compassion, not just legal acuity. These are human qualities that cannot be fixed in writing but must be honed by the development of character, by life. The judge endowed with them must then adapt his interpretation of the law to the changing circumstances of the human condition, in every individual he encounters and situation he observes, while being aware also of the limitations of his own attitudes and biases. No two cases are the same; the evidence is always different. All this is an ideal; and too often, as we all know, justice is subverted by the bureaucratic corruption and will to power that mar our perennial predicament.
That is why Franz Kafka, a Jew from Prague who wrote in German, couches his nightmares of rootlessness, powerlessness and existential victimhood in an irremediably malign world, precisely in the terms of perverted law and incomprehensible legal procedure: Vor dem Gesetz, Der Prozess, In der Strafkolonie, and Das Urteil– “Before the Law”, “The Trial”, “In the Penal Colony”, and “The Verdict”. The law is unknowable, the trial makes no sense, the verdict is always and only conviction and never acquittal; and the condemned man is tortured to death. The university administrators and Title IX deanlets of this unhappy country must be Kafka scholars.
That is not what Jethro intended or Moses instituted, though its perversion was to be the fate of so many of Moses’ children in distant and darkening ages, of so many of us that he foresaw were to be, like his own son Gershom, Strangers in a Strange Land. Moses’ magistrates were to be uncorrupted– without avarice– and close to the petitioner– not far away at the head of the tribe. The number of stages of the judiciary, in ascent to Moses’ ultimate bench, would also, it may be argued, allow for more time per trial, and multiple appeals higher and higher against a judgment, should it be considered erroneous; that, too, might not just keep lawyers in business but work for the litigant in favor of a just outcome. Jethro is not an Israelite. He is part of a past in which Moses was a fugitive, an anomalous prince from an enslaved people. All these hardscrabble details about making the Law work have to do with the real world. It isn’t Sinai wreathed in flames. It’s a world in which people of various nations rub shoulders, a world of both natives and strangers in a strange land, people without secure social position and status.
Thus the practicality, the real-world emphasis of this first half of the Torah portion. The Sturm und Drang of the big day at Sinai in the second half of the parasha is to be followed by the ordinary work week that the first half anticipates, of which it is a reminder. The Commandments are going to have to come down off the mountain and somebody is going to have to know how to apply them practically, in a world with many different kinds of people in it. That’s why the two narratives, which could have been separated, collide or complement each other, depending on how you see it, in a single weekly reading.
The Ten Commandments distill the Spirit of the Law; Jethro anticipates the Republic that law is to govern, not mechanically, as though there were no great and moral God Who cares, but precisely in the spirit expressed on Sinai. In much the same way, the Spirit of ’76 is the American Declaration of Independence; the institutions of the subsequent Constitution are the foundation of the Republic that 1776 inspired.
In a society that lives in awareness of the Divine Spirit that quickens it, man has a moral compass: the law will not ossify and institutions will not degenerate into Kafkaesque bureaucracies. Equally, a society conscious of its obligation to put its principles into practice, knowing that God sees all and is the ultimate and all-powerful Judge of everything we do, will be afraid to pervert justice by making it the windy rhetoric of ideology, a lot of empty words covering up a sordid reality of corruption and cynicism.
What is particularly Biblical about this Republic? What sets it apart from the political models of pagan Athens or Rome? The uncompromising centrality of the presence of God does. This is where the Ten Commandments comes thundering in, with its mightiest assertion: “I am the LORD your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” That sounds, not like a command, but like a declarative statement. On the face of it, it does not order anybody to do anything. Yet I think (and Jewish exegesis holds) that it is a commandment indeed, in that it commands Israel (and all mankind) to acknowledge that there is a God, and that all the events that led them out of bondage and into liberty were entirely His doing, not our own. The world did not come into being by itself. He created it. He owns it. It is the Lord Who hardened the heart of Pharaoh, to make an everlasting example of how hubristic tyrants must fail. He, and not climate change, brought the ten plagues. He, and not weather patterns, parted the Red Sea. He does not introduce Himself here as the Creator of the Universe. The details of cosmology can come later. No, He is directly, personally involved. He is the God Who cares. What He cares about is the intrinsic freedom, dignity, and purpose of every human being. When Ben Franklin devised the Great Seal of the United States, his draft depicted the Egyptian army drowning in the Red Sea. “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God,” says the motto.
It is from that authority alone, the declaration in the First Commandment that God is real, the liberator from slavery, that the other nine Commandments draw their validation. The weekly day of rest is not a phenomenon, it’s a command. After all, there is no Sabbath in nature: sweatshop workers in smoky, industrial New York City when my Grandma was a girl were warned, “If you don’t come in Sunday, don’t come in Monday.” Give the workers a Sabbath! Thou shalt not steal? That’s not a law of economics. Tell it to the robber barons, to the cynical stock market manipulators of a decade ago, to our corrupt and greedy politicians, to the moguls of big tech today. Honor thy father and thy mother? It’s more cost-effective to euthanize the elderly. A youth culture, fashions, movies that glorify adultery and covetousness sell better, too. I have bad news for you, California: your god, money, isn’t god, God is God. Idolatry is the way of the world: ask Hollywood, where they call it “celebrity”. The way of the world is wrong. As an Islamic saying puts it, If the whole world is going one way and Ali is going in the opposite direction, you follow Ali!
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.— That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Remove Creatorand there is no self-evident truth: nobody was ever endowed with anything save the accident of life in a state of nature red in tooth and claw. And such a life was likely to be Hobbesian— nasty, brutish, and short. Then remove consent and there is no Covenant, no relationship, nothing above us but the menacing shadow of Kafka’s Das Schloss, the Castle.
As for just powers, what sort of justice in natural law is there superior to the survival of the fittest— the right of the stronger to dominate the weaker? It is possible to observe phenomena in the animal world that might support the idea of instituting human law without a scriptural basis— the sociability of elephants, the monogamy of doves, the benevolent intelligence of dolphins, and so on. However other examples could equally be adduced of feral and monstrous, “inhuman” or “subhuman” behavior. (A New Yorker cartoon put it well: a family in their car are approaching a wooded area with a sign on the side of the road that reads, “You are entering the jungle. Please observe our laws.”) The selection of principles from nature to incorporate into a human legal code would inevitably be selective, and arbitrary. There is no a priori reason in nature not to own human beings and exploit their labor without limit. A state unconstrained by the radical Biblical imperative “Thou shalt not murder” could easily end up “euthanizing” the mentally and physically infirm and the aged as “useless eaters”, and “liquidating” undesirable people deemed to be class enemies or members of lesser races as “parasites” or the like. The examples of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Maoist China in the 20th century should suffice as a warning that without God there is not and cannot be moral law. Science cannot replace religion. Science can answer the “how” questions, but not the “why” ones; and scientific answers are legitimate only if they are avowedly provisional, since new data and further investigation and experimentation may yield quite different results from the ones we accept now.
Social Darwinism and racial theory in Germany, and Marxism-Leninism in Russia and China, were malign examples of that most fraudulent of non-disciplines, “social science”. W.H. Auden stood once on the Sinai of the podium at a college commencement and adjured the robed and mortar-boarded throng, “Thou shalt not practice a social science.” The ideologies of secular totalitarianism were not intended to augment the Bible, to bring it up to date as it were, but to eradicate and replace it. They did, and turned Creation into hell, as will always, always happen whenever man turns away from our Creator and His Covenant with us.
In the Republic of Plato, Thrasymachus argues that justice is the power of the strong over the weak. Socrates counters this proposition with the argument that justice is an art that, like all other endeavors, strives for arete. This Greek word, generally rendered as excellence, is related to English “right” and comes from an Indo-European root meaning “to go”. It has the sense, thus, of the right way things are supposed to go; and Socrates says the arete of a riding instructor is to make his pupil a better horseman, not a worse one. Justice likewise should be aimed at the good, not the bad. But to understand what good is, earthly logic and the way things work in nature do not help Socrates. He must still appeal to a spiritual and supernatural standard of the good, the true, and the beautiful, which belong to another, unchanging world from which this transitory world emanates. He has to create God and the Ten Commandments for himself imaginatively, invisibly, arbitrarily, on the fly.
But ancient Israel— and thus, by extension, today’s Jews, Christians, and Muslims— has God speaking in His own voice, audibly, at the foundational moment of society. The Ten Commandments are not theories, but imperatives inscribed legibly in stone, placed in the Ark, written by hand of the parchment of Torah scrolls. The equality and innate dignity of human beings derives from our being children of the same Father.
The first mention of justice in the Bible comes in the course of Abraham’s challenge to God in Genesis, where he argues down the number of righteous men needed in order for Divine wrath to be averted from Sodom and Gomorrah. “Will the judge of the world not do justice?” asks Abraham, imputing to God an office, and an abstract principle, that have never been mentioned before. And God, who is becoming accustomed to the ways of the human beings He has made, accepts. Man teaches God about the idea of justice; and a Bedouin father-in-law teaches Moses how a system of justice operates.
At the other end of the Torah, in Deuteronomy, Moses recapitulates the Covenant and the Law, and adds that “it is not in Heaven… but very close to you”. That is, Divine revelation is in the book we hold here in our hands. We have to look within our hearts and minds, and not to shamans, to understand it— the Covenant is with us. The Rabbis interpreted this to mean that once God has given us His justice and law, it is entirely up to human beings to interpret it and to adjudicate cases. God is King: He remains supreme, but refrains from interfering in affairs that are a human responsibility. The implication that Protestant political thinkers drew from this is that once God is king, no human being should claim the “Divine right” to be a king in His place. Human kings have functions and powers delimited by constitutions; and only God can judge matters of religious belief and of conscience. The Rabbis had drawn the same conclusion: they interpreted the Israelites’ demand in I Samuel for a human king who would be like the kings of all the other nations as yet another example of backsliding into idolatry. The kings of Israel, both good and bad, are rebuked by prophets and punished by the Almighty. The Biblical record of them is not like other chronicles of the Ancient Near East: they are not sanguinary conquerors, divinized warriors, or storm gods. The Bible is not the propaganda of palaces or the province of a scribal elite: it’s the scrappy record of problems, arguments, reasoning, love, faith, and joy of a whole people who were all expected to read it and study it as their story, the messy and realistic tale of a continuing relationship, not of master and slaves, but of God and us.
Human autocracy is not merely iniquitous. It is blasphemous. Government should be republican, equitable, and in keeping with a Covenantal constitution, not arbitrary. Magistrates have the authority to rule on civil matters; God, as the sole judge of hearts, is left to rule on religious matters. The latter conclusion must lead to a society in which religious tolerance is practiced. To put it simply, human judges, themselves constrained and limited by law, can make rules about traffic lights and garbage collection, but they cannot do so about religious belief and (within reasonable limits) practice: my beliefs and conscience are my own, between God and me rather than God and the state. Eric Nelson, in his book The Hebrew Republic: Jewish sources and the transformation of European political thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), traces the development of these ideas, mainly in Dutch and English political philosophy of the 17th century.
We started out on this long essay with a thesis about the Bible, a discussion of the Bible’s centrality, with illustrations— to show how normal it is to look at the Bible minutely— and then an examination of one weekly reading in its two outwardly incongruous parts. I then tried to persuade you that the two parts really do fit together; and argued that it is important that they do, because taken together they are part of the blueprint for the kind of republic that the American Founding Fathers made. And then there were Montaignian diversions, asides, whimsicalities even. After all, we’re talking about politics and, as the German Jewish refugee philosopher Herbert Marcuse showed, to my satisfaction at least, how the personal is political.
“A republic, if you can keep it.” That early republic, when Ben Franklin made his famous warning, had a population of a bit under four million; it is now approaching a hundred times that. Such numbers are a challenge to the idea of participatory democracy; and private ownership of the media by a few tech giants makes it hard for everybody to have his or her fair say. But Ben Franklin’s America had slavery, and women could not vote: successive battles of the American Revolution have overcome those evils. And the internet does let me, for instance, speak to you in a way I could not have done two generations ago. Keeping the Republic does not mean preserving it in a display case, but working actively with it and with each other.
4. And finally.
We’ve spoken a lot about legal structures, trial procedure. It would be unfair not to mention a Greek myth about origins of the jury system. According to a story handed down to the playwright Aeschylus, the goddess Athena convened the first jury of his peers for Orestes. She cast a tie-breaking vote and acquitted Orestes, while ruling that the plaintiffs (a gaggle of female demons called Erinyes, hereinafter to be referred to as Eumenides) should receive due respect: majority rule, minority rights. It is striking that this foundation of Athenian democracy is immortalized in a play— a story that is acted out by living people before an audience who will experience a catharsis of their emotions through the drama and will talk about what they have seen and heard as they walk home from the theater. This is how you keep a republic.
Let us pay one last visit to the Rabbinic study hall, on the eastern side of the Mediterranean (or in Brooklyn, or in Heaven). Some Rabbis are debating the purity of a procedure involving sectioning the parts of an oven. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus says it’s pure. His colleagues say no. Eliezer’s pretty sure he’s right, and asks for supernatural support for his view: a carob tree gets up and moves, water runs backward, the walls of the house of study shake. The Sages are unmoved: since when do trees, brooks, and earthquakes participate in discussions of Torah law? So then a voice comes from Heaven and says “What is it with you towards Rabbi Eliezer, when the law agrees with him in every case?” The Sages retort, “It’s not in Heaven,” referring to Deuteronomy 30:12, where Moses reminds Israel that the Torah is right here, very close to us, and nobody need go to Heaven to find out about it. What the Sages mean is: You, God, have given it to us to figure it out for ourselves. Please don’t interfere.
God replies, smiling, “My children have defeated Me! My children have defeated Me.” That’s where people usually stop quoting this famous episode recorded in the tractate Baba Metsia of the Babylonian Talmud. But the Israeli-American scholar Daniel Gordis, in a recent article about a dispute between some Jewish intellectuals, discussed the rest of it, the part nobody likes to talk about. The story goes on to say that the Sages got their way but then they went much further. They “canceled” poor R. Eliezer, retroactively annulling all his legal decisions and banishing him from the society of scholars. Their victim took it hard. Crops mysteriously failed, whatever Eliezer looked at burst into flame, and finally one of his detractors, the great Rabban Gamaliel, dropped dead. R. Eliezer apparently relented after that. Clearly, the majority (who were wrong in this instance, but democracy sometimes is and one respects it anyhow) had failed to respect the rights of the minority (in this case, Rabbi Eliezer and the Creator of the Universe, who were wholly in the right in this case but were outvoted). It is the tyranny of the many, as often as of one Pharaoh or dictator, that threatens the Republic, be it Hebrew, Athenian, or American. A Republic, if you can keep it. Majority rule without minority rights, a polity without equality under law, without transparent and equitable legal procedure, without due process, without the presumption of innocence, with a racial instead of a human common denominator, a society without God at its center— that is not a Republic kept, but one betrayed.
It is free debate, in the theater and agora of Athens, in the Talmudic study hall, in Congress, the media (including the New York Times), the internet (including Facebook and Twitter), the university classroom, the café, the street corner, the dining room or backyard where friends meet and hear each other out, knowing that we are related because we were created, that will enable us to keep this Republic. I see Moses and Jethro (there, in the Study House of Heaven), and maybe with them the Master of the Universe, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, nodding and smiling at the noise of the American Republic in action, all its liberties exercised and never standing still, and saying: “That’s right! Our children have not defeated us— they have at last understood us.”
Categories: Chronicle of Current Events