The Polarities of Judaism

Ki Tissa Shabbat Parah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Apr 13, 2004 / 5764 | Torah Commentary

The instructions of God to Moses concerning the building of the Tabernacle culminate with the command to observe the Sabbath. Holiness in time follows holiness in space. As the Tabernacle constitutes a sacred space in which the nearness of God is a felt experience, so the Sabbath is a portion of the week set apart to admit God into our lives. Whereas the holiness of the Sanctuary is sharply delimited and restricted in access, that of Shabbat is universally accessible. The Tabernacle is a public space, the community’s link between heaven and earth, administered by a priestly hierarchy and subject to laws of purity. The Sabbath is democratic, a temple in time for every member of the community. If the coordinates of existence are space and time, God’s presence must manifest itself in both; for God is the creator of all that exists. It is precisely the polarity of Sanctuary and Sabbath that does justice to the fullness of God’s being, even as it satisfies our human need for both a public and private exposure to God’s beneficence. The momentary sense of holiness that overcomes one within the multitude of worshipers in the courtyard of the Tabernacle needed to be complemented by a prolonged experience of the holy in the seclusion of one’s home and family.

As Rashi makes clear in his inimitable commentary on the Torah, the command to desist from work on Shabbat took precedence over building the Tabernacle. To imbue the individual with a spark of God’s holiness outranked the goal of erecting a public emblem of God’s indwelling. Historical circumstances would eventually destroy the two Temples which followed the Tabernacle. The Sabbath, on the other hand, imprinted in the cosmos by the pattern of creation, was a permanent fixture of Jewish consciousness. The Sabbath would be a more enduring sign of the covenant between God and Israel than the edifices of sacred space. The ultimate haven of God’s indwelling was to be the human heart, which, alas, had to be rehallowed painstakingly with every new-born child.

The polarity of Sabbath and Sanctuary is not the only one alluded to by our parashah. A remarkable passage in the Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim 3:2 focuses on another aspect of Shabbat, namely what happens to the person who violates the sanctity of the day. According to the Torah, the punishment is death (Exodus 31:14). Interpretively, the Rabbis nullify the human enforcement of this injunction, leaving the matter in the hands of God. But clearly, to work on Shabbat is a grave offense. Yet, elsewhere in the Torah, God specifically commands that in the Tabernacle the daily morning sacrifice is to be offered also on Shabbat, indeed doubled from one yearling lamb to two (Numbers 28:9). The routine of the cult was not to be broken by the prohibition to perform work on the Sabbath.

The contradiction prompts the Yerushalmi to cite yet other examples of discrepancies in the Torah. For instance, the Ten Commandments appear twice with intermittent differences. In reference to the fourth commandment, the book of Exodus uses the verb “Remember (zakhor) the Sabbath day (20:8),” whereas the book of Deutoronomy employs the verb, “Observe (shamor) the Sabbath day (5:12).” Similarly, in reference to the ninth commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” the two books diverge in the specific term used for “false”, with Exodus 20:13 using the Hebrew sheker, and Deutoronomy 5:17 using the a word of similar meaning, shav. In translation the difference is lost.

More substantive is the tension between the two laws pertaining to a man’s relationship with his sister-in-law. In the chapter dealing with forbidden sexual unions, the book of Leviticus delivers the unequivocal prohibition, ” Do not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife (18:16)”. However, Deuteronomy legislates a striking exception; that in the event the brother should die childless, the remaining brother is obligated to marry his widow in order to sire a son that would bear the name of the deceased “that his name may not be blotted out in Israel (Deuteronomy 25:5-6).”

Though the Yerushalmi points out still other contradictions, I have mentioned enough to show its acute awareness that inconsistencies abound in the Torah. For the last two hundred years, the penchant of modern scholarship has been to explain these discrepancies in terms of multiple sources. That was not an option for the Rabbis, given their axiomatic belief in the divine authorship of the Torah. What that tenet did for them, however, was to push them to a deep theological insight. The contradictions originated with God. In one and the same verbal communication, God transmitted a commandment and its opposite or some variation thereof, “What is impossible for the [human] mouth to say or the [human] ear to hear.” Repeatedly, the Talmud insists both versions were enunciated simultaneously. In other words, the fullness of God’s revelation can never be perceived through a single lens. For depth vision we need two lenses. Polarities in tow are the only way to approximate the profundity of God’s will.

By insisting on the divine authorship of the entire Torah, yet acknowledging its many divergences, the Rabbis depicted the deep structure of Judaism as a profusion of polarities. The prism of the human spirit refracted the undifferentiated light of God into a rainbow of colors. Or, in the words of Scripture with which the Talmud draws this analysis to a close: “One thing God has spoken; two things have I heard (Psalm 62:12).”.”Behold, My word is like fire – declares the Lord – and like a hammer that shatters rock (Jeremiah 23:29)!”

Put differently, the pervasive parallelism of biblical poetry, in which the second line is rarely identical with the first, finds its halakhic and theological counterpart in the polarities that reverberate at the core of Judaism.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Chancellor Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Ki Tissa are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld