Interpreting God’s Voice
Modernity erupted in Jewish history in 1782 in the garb of midrash. That year Naftali Herz Wessely, a disciple of Mendelssohn, published a Hebrew tract called Words of Peace and Truth. Aimed at the rabbinic leadership of the Ashkenazic world, it delivered a brief for the validity of secular education. A new era of political inclusion was dawning for European Jews which would require of them a far greater command of the language and culture of the country in which they lived.
Specifically, Wessely proposed a few years of general education to precede the start of the traditional religious curriculum. He hailed the worldliness of Sephardic Jewry both past and present and summed up his case by quoting from the Midrash the following indictment: “Any scholar [of rabbinics] who lacks knowledge is worth less than a carcass [the ultimate source of impurity].” Wessely’s audience felt the barb and reacted with fury. They did not deem themselves a font of misguided faith because they spurned gentile knowledge. Some two centuries later, this very issue remains the great divide separating the enclaves of ultra–Orthodoxy from the rest of world Jewry. In a religion that has long sanctified study, the most divisive questions will always be educational in character.
The original locus of Wessely’s quotation is on the opening words of Leviticus: “The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying.” In context, the passage bears a surprisingly different import from his own willful misreading. The midrash notes the redundancy of the two verbs (“called” and “spoke”) and posits two divine acts: first calling Moses, and only then addressing him. It is a gentle midrash in praise of Moses’s good manners. Now that the Tabernacle is finished, we would expect Moses to enter it at will. Not only did he construct it, but no human being was closer to God. His faith wrought miracles, vanquished Pharaoh, and earned him the right to speak with God face to face. And yet, Moses waits outside the Tent of Meeting until invited by God to come in. That is the force of the verb “called.” Familiarity did not breed disrespect or arrogance on the part of Moses, which prompted the midrash to draw the larger lesson that “any scholar who lacks good manners (da’at) is worth less than a carcass.” While the word da’at carries more than one meaning, here it definitely denotes good manners and not knowledge, making of Moses also a paragon of proper social conduct. Wessely only harmed his cause by perverting the text.
I like the Hebrew name of this third book of the Torah – Va–yikra, “And the Lord called.” Judaism in particular and religion in general are the human response to the divine voice that pervades the universe. When Abraham Joshua Heschel titled his endlessly rich philosophy of Judaism God in Search of Man (1956), he meant to stress the human propensity to turn away from God. Awash in the grandeur and mystery of existence, we choose to focus exclusively on ourselves and shun the sense of awe and wonder that point to ultimate meaning. Va–yikra stands for the heart of the religious struggle – the interaction between divine pathos and human recalcitrance. But, in those pristine moments of undisturbed listening, what do we really hear? In a fascinating essay, Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, reflected on Israel’s experience at Sinai. Nothing could be clearer than the Torah’s account; nevertheless, rabbinic opinion differed about what Israel actually heard. Some rabbis felt that God communicated all of the Ten Commandments to the entire nation, whereas others suggested that after the first two, Israel was overcome by fear and begged Moses to receive the rest alone. Moses suddenly became both the medium and the message of the divine voice. Scholem then adds a comment rife with paradox, from an early Hasidic master, Rabbi Mendel of Rymanov, who died in 1814. All that Israel heard at Sinai was the first letter of the first word of the first Commandment, that is, nothing more than the silent aleph of anokhi, “I am (Exodus 20:2).” “To hear the aleph“, comments Scholem, “is to hear next to nothing; it is the preparation for all audible language, but in itself conveys no determinate, specific meaning. Thus, with his daring statement that the actual revelation to Israel consisted only of the aleph, Rabbi Mendel transformed the revelation on Mount Sinai into a mystical revelation, pregnant with infinite meaning, but without specific meaning.”
Revelation as unformed language, as pure, divine presence is also alluded to by the opening word of our parashah. If you look carefully at the printed Hebrew text, you will notice that the aleph of Va–yikra, the last letter of the word, is diminutive in size. That tiny aleph, which appears in all Torah scrolls as well, prompted the midrash to reflect on the fine line between authentic and inauthentic revelation. In the case of Balaam, the gentile prophet hired by Balak, the king of Moab, to curse the Israelites, the Torah used the verb vayikar (from a different root) to describe God’s revelation, suggesting that God just happened to appear to Balaam (Numbers 23:4). What separates Va–yikra from vayikar orthographically is only the letter aleph, and a minuscule one at that, and yet that silent letter is the difference between design and happenstance, or, as the midrash puts it, between a divine communication in fully formed words and one that comes in disjointed syllables. Again, we confront the paradox of a distinction without much difference. Truth is separated from non–truth by the most slender of margins – an inaudible letter.
In responding to God’s voice, we cannot escape the need to interpret what we hear. Human beings are the filter through which revelation passes. In 1925, Franz Rosenzweig wrote to Martin Buber, “The only immediate content of revelation…is revelation; with va–yered (“he came down,” Exodus 19:20) it is essentially complete, with va–yeddaber (he spoke Exodus 20:1) interpretation sets in, and all the more so with anokhi. ” It is for this reason that education, civility, and character are so vital in the formation of religious leadership for they determine how the experience of God will be mediated to a community less than perfect. God’s word withers in a spirit of intolerance and fanaticism. The ancient prescription of Ben Zoma in the Teachings of the Sages (4:1) has lost none of its relevance: Judaism seeks to nurture leaders who are open to learning from others, in control of themselves, content with their lot, and respectful of their fellow human beings.