Wednesday, 30 Sep 2015

Written by Gershon Silins

This week is Shabbat Chol Hamo’eid Sukkot, the Shabbat that comes in the middle of this complex holiday. It is complex in part because virtually everything you can say about the holiday has to be qualified with “…but,” followed by an exception to what was just said. Sukkot is a seven-day holiday, but… it is celebrated for eight days in the Diaspora, but… most progressive Jewish streams celebrate it for seven days. At the end of the seven-day period is a separate holiday, Shemini Atzeret, and the day after that is called Simchat Torah, but … in Israel, where the holiday is celebrated for seven days, Simchat Torah occurs simultaneously with Shemini Atzeret. The second through seventh days of Sukkot (but … the third through seventh days outside Israel) are called Chol HaMoed. These days are considered by halakhah to be more than regular weekdays but … less than festival days. In practice, this means that all activities that are needed for the holiday—such as buying and preparing food, cleaning the house in honor of the holiday, or traveling to visit other people’s sukkot or on family outings—are permitted by Jewish law. But… activities that will interfere with relaxation and enjoyment of the holiday—such as laundering, mending clothes, engaging in labor-intensive activities—are not permitted. Even the main symbol of the holiday, the sukkah, is a double meaning in and of itself. It is a place we are to dwell in during the holiday, but it is specifically designed not to be dwelling place; it cannot be a permanent structure, and you have to be able to able to see the stars through the roof. And so forth. Anyone looking for a clear and distinct setting forth of just what the holiday is will be in for a disappointment.

The traditional Torah reading for Shabbat Chol Hamo’eid is Exodus 33:12-34:26. This passage is, unsurprisingly, a curious one. It recounts the most revelatory moment in the biblical story, the actual meeting of man and God. Moses, fresh from smashing the tablets of the law, is commanded to station himself on a rock; God will place Moses in a cleft in the rock and shield him with a hand as God passes by. Moses will see God’s back; God’s face must not be seen. God commands Moses to carve two tablets of stone like the first.

A second set of commandments. How curious that is. The question arises, was the second set of commandments identical to the first, and if different, how and why? The commentary on this verse in the Conservative Movement’s Chumash “Etz Chayim” makes a remarkable assertion: it says, “The first set of tablets was fashioned by God alone. Moses passively received them. The second set will be a joint divine-human effort. This second set was written with a greater knowledge of human weakness, at the hand of an imperfect human being, rather than by a perfect deity.” The Torah is circumspect as to the exact details of the new set of commandments. The tablets are like the first, and God will write the same words on the new tablets. We are told what God said to Moses, and we are told that Moses wrote on the tablets “the terms of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.” But what God tells Moses here is not the text of the Ten Commandments that we ordinarily call by that name, which appear in the Torah in two different versions, one in Exodus and one in Deuteronomy.  What we have here is very different; it has been called “The Cultic Decalogue,” commandments that relate to the specific cultic responsibilities of the Jewish people; they include the observance of the Pilgrimage Festivals; they are outlined here (according to tradition) to distinguish what the Jewish people should do, as against what they did do in worshipping the Golden Calf. In the context of the Torah’s narrative, it is, of course, possible that God gave the cultic responsibilities to Moses orally at this point, but that the tablets bore essentially the same commandments we know from Exodus and Deuteronomy. But even if they were indeed the same words, they are different from the first ones in an important respect: God, Moses, and the Children of Israel now awaiting the presentation of the new law, all know what just happened. The inscribed law may not have changed, but all the parties to the covenant have changed radically. Moses has become a furious and violent leader in defense against an uprising, the people have changed from a stiff-necked people to a rebellious one. And even God appears to have been surprised at what happened. God commanded Moses to write down the same words but … everyone who heard them had changed, so the words were no longer the same. And the universalism that some see in the Ten Commandments is balanced by the Cultic Decalogue we see here, which defines and separates the Children of Israel from all other people. We are thrust into unavoidable complexity, just when we had reason to hope for unequivocal divine authority. Even if we were to assume that everything in the Biblical text happened just as the Torah describes it, we are still faced with a crucial uncertainty.

This leads us to a further question: should we assume that everything in the text happened the way the Torah describes it? A few years ago, there appeared in Tablet Magazine an article about a website called “Virtually all of the stories in the Torah are ahistorical,” declares a manifesto posted on this site. “Given the data to which modern historians have access,” the essay explains, “it is impossible to regard the accounts of mass Exodus from Egypt, the wilderness experience or the coordinated, swift, and complete conquest of the entire land of Canaan under Joshua as historical.” Surprisingly, this is an Orthodox site, dedicated to biblical scholarship. The idea that the Torah might be a manmade artifact has long been considered to be a shocking assertion, not just to Orthodox Jews or Fundamentalist Christians, but also to many Jews who are associated with Progressive or non-Orthodox movements. How can the Torah be morally compelling if it wasn’t written by God? Yet here, even the Orthodox world is dealing with this question in what appears to be an authentic and honest way. Like us, they have to live with radical uncertainty, and the requirement that we take responsibility for our own ethical choices. And that, to me, is the place where the divine and the human can perhaps be said to meet.  

Gershon Silins LBC Rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.