The Seeds of Democracy

Vayak-hel By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Feb 25, 1995 / 5755 | Torah Commentary

The Hertz Humash often confronts us with bones of contention long buried. Written in the interwar period by the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, Joseph H. Hertz, the first graduate of the Seminary in 1894, it resonates with the echoes of Christian biases and Jewish anxieties stirred up by the Jewish struggle for equal rights in the nineteenth century. A fine example is to be found in this week’s parasha on Exodus 35:34, where Rabbi Hertz writes: “The opinion is often expressed that there is no art in Judaism; that the Jew lacks the aesthetic sense; and that this is largely due to the influence of the Second Commandment which prohibited plastic art in Israel (p. 376).”

A long line of pseudo-scholarship lies behind this once regnant view. Werner Sombart, a respected German economic historian at the turn of the century, speculated in his widely read book, The Jews and Modern Capitalism (1911) that the lack of visual imagination in Judaism is due to the wilderness habitat in which its scripture was conceived. The austere drabness of the surroundings gave rise to a rational and abstract mindset better suited for calculation than depiction. This was the deepest reason, Sombart believed, that Judaism, and not Protestantism as Max Weber had argued before him, gave rise to capitalism.

To counter this perception of Judaism, with its implied denigration, Jews, both Zionists and non-Zionists, turned to collecting and studying the specimens of Jewish art that survived the ravages of Jewish history. A profusion of Jewish museums, including that of the Seminary, quickly appeared to assemble the rediscovered artifacts of Jewish creativity. In 1906 Boris Schatz, the Zionist sculptor of the Bulgarian court, founded his Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem to forge a distinctively Jewish style. Deliberately naming his school for the master builder of Moses’s Tabernacle, the name “Bezalel” affirmed for Schatz the antiquity of the artistic enterprise in Judaism.

And yet we know next to nothing about Bezalel from the Torah. Unlike Aaron, he is not a member of Moses’s family, but hails from the tribe of Judah. In fact, his associate, Oholiab, hails from the northern tribe of Dan, and one is again struck by a subtext that hints at the rift to come between the kingdoms of Judah and Israel that could only be healed by a central sanctuary sacred to both.

The midrash fills the void as it ponders the significance of Bezalel’s non-priestly status. As usual, its point of departure is a textual rub, in this case the superfluous word “be-shem, by name.” The verse reads, “And Moses said to the Israelites: See, the Lord has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah (Exodus 35:30),” and would have made perfectly good sense without the phrase “by name.” Its presence begs for comment and accordingly the midrash elaborates, “You will generally find that people are called by three names. One is given them by their parents. One, by other people. And one that they acquire wholly on their own. Take note that Bezalel received the call to build the Tabernacle because of the good name he had acquired.”

The key proof-text that the midrash brings to support this nugget of prudential wisdom is taken from Ecclesiastes 7:1, “A good name is better than fragrant oil,” which in Hebrew rings with alliteration. The midrash then proceeds to offer a series of examples to reinforce the proof-text, ending with the daring declaration that merit acquired is superior to status inherited: For example, the oil by which Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, were anointed as priests did not protect them from death when they violated the sacred space of the Tabernacle (Leviticus 10:1-3).

If Hertz read the concerns of his day into the biblical text, the Rabbis did no less. Midrash opens up the Torah even as it hallows it. The canon never fully closes. In this instance, the Rabbis seized the figure of Bezalel to deliver a brief for a new type of religious leadership which is strictly non-hereditary. They recast him as the exemplar of a meritocracy in which ability is not to be denied. That is the essence of the religious revolution wrought by the Rabbis after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans. The priestly class was deposed and heredity ceased to be a valid basis for exercising religious authority. The most important name that will adorn us is the one that we achieve for ourselves by dint of talent and hard work. The others—status, class, wealth—are all bestowed on us at birth. Though not insignificant, they should not be decisive.

For the Rabbis, Bezalel becomes a paragon of religious individualism. His selection by God is not arbitrary. God imbues him “with a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge in every kind of craft… (Exodus 35:31), precisely “because he has already attained so much on his own. In the words of the midrash, God dispenses divine wisdom only to those who are first touched by human wisdom. A good merchant puts wine only into a container that has all along been used for wine. As non-priestly upstarts, the Rabbis celebrate Bezalel as an anticipation of a system where status is a function of learning rather than birth. With the end of the Temple, the Rabbis transformed Judaism from a hierarchical religion into one inspired by democratic values.

In the same vein, they deduced from the case of Bezalel the far-reaching principle that a leader is never to be imposed on a community without prior consultation. The force of the word “see” in the verse quoted above (Exodus 35:30), when Moses addresses Israel, implies a request for public approval of a divine recommendation. “Is Bezalel acceptable to you as the master builder of the Tabernacle?” Only then does he begin his work. The ultimate authority of the leader derives from the consent of the governed. To invoke God’s name is simply not enough.

The treatment of Bezalel by Jewish exegetes illustrates the fascinating truth that the history of Jewish Bible commentary is a window on Jewish history itself.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of commentary on Parashat Va-yak·hel are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.