Mishpatim: Torah MiSinai is only one half of the conversation

In parashat Yitro is the climactic coming together of God and the Israelite people as three months after the dramatic exodus from Egypt following signs and wonders, the people are encamped at the foot of Mt Sinai and Moses and God encounter each other once more in order to create the agreement that as long as the people will obey God’s voice and keep the covenant, then they will be God’s special treasure among all the peoples of the earth, and shall become a kingdom of priests to God, and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:5,6). A period of purification is followed by the majesty of the presence of God, and the words of God are declaimed amid black smoke, thunder and lightning, terrifying the people who declare their willingness to accept the covenant but ask for Moses to be their representative and for them to keep well away from whatever is going on.

The relationship is consummated with words, called in Hebrew the Asseret haDibrot, the Ten Statements, which function essentially as the paragraph headings that prescribe the boundaries and the requirements of the relationship.

Like any new relationship, each side views the other as pretty wonderful, there is no need immediately to get into the gritty details of the red lines and the expectations that will make living together successful or not. But soon of course those realities set in and the couple have to ‘talk tachlis’. Hence the detailed miscellany of laws in the following chapters, including a whole sidra named ‘mishpatim’: the laws and rules of the relationship.

This year, I was especially drawn to thinking about the authority of the rules – who gets to decide what they are, who gets to change them, and to ask – how does the relationship evolve?

In Exodus 24 we have insight into the beginning of the ‘tachlis period’. Moses is to come alone to God. There has been some etiquette about introducing the leaders of the people further up the Mountain, but now Moses tells the people all God’s words and the people answer in unified response “all the words which the Eternal spoke we will do”. Then Moses writes down all the words of God (it is not clear where he does this), after which he builds an altar representing the entire people and there is a sacrificial rite, followed by this information “And Moses took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people; and they said: ‘All that the Eternal has spoken will we do, and we will understand.’ (24:7)

What is this Book of the Covenant? Why does Moses follow his reading – and the people’s oddly worded response – with a ritual where he takes the blood of the previous sacrifice, sprinkles it on the people and tells them ‘Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Eternal has made with you in agreement with all these words.’ We now have a Book of the Covenant (Sefer ha brit) and Blood of the Covenant (dam ha brit) and then suddenly we are in a vision, as the 70 plus elders of Israel find themselves at a feast where they see God standing on a clear sapphire pavement.

Just as suddenly we are out. God tells Moses ‘Come up to Me into the mount and be there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, and the Torah (teaching) and the commandment (mitzvah)(, which I have written, that you may teach them.’ (v12)

What are these tablets of stone, the Torah and the Mitzvah that Moses is to teach? How do they fit into the covenant? Why then does Moses stay on the mountain after this for forty days and nights, hidden in cloud, leaving his people leaderless and frightened and alone?

The text, like the top of the mountain, is opaque. We cannot understand the encounter, only know that there was indeed such a moment that cemented the relationship between God and Israel, a relationship that might go through many rocky patches and many silences, but which will never actually break. We have a brit, a covenant, and we are tied to each other for eternity.

But what are the parameters of the covenant? What do we have to do? What will we come to understand? And while the existence of the covenant is unchanging, the conditions have clearly developed and altered.

The Talmud sets out the traditional position of the verse asking: What is the meaning of “And I will give you the tablets of stone and the law and the commandment, which I have written so that you can teach them”? “Tablets of stone”-these are the Ten Commandments, “the law” -this is the Torah, “the commandment”- this is the Mishnah,” which I have written”- these are the Prophets and the Writings, “that you may teach them”- this is the Gemara. And it teaches that they were all given to Moses on Sinai (TB Berachot 5a).

This passage is frequently cited as the proof text of Torah miSinai – that God gave to Moses everything that would become Rabbinic Judaism in later years. Either it was given at Sinai or it has no authenticity runs the argument. But surely this cannot be a literal reading of the biblical text, nor a complete reading of the Talmudic one.

The phrase Torah mi Sinai is found only once in Talmudic texts – in the introduction to the Mishnah of Pirkei Avot, where we are told “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it Joshua. Joshua transmitted it to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise many students, and make a protective fence for the Torah.”

It is found not at all in Bible, and indeed while the seeds of the idea of divine revelation encompassing the whole of what became Rabbinic/Halachic Judaism can be discerned, they are only in the later books of Chronicles and of Ezra and Nehemiah, books which are generally seen as being written only in the 5th/4th Century BCE. These books use the words haTorah / Torah while earlier books refer always to Torot, a plurality of teachings. The Book of Nehemiah even refers to Ezra reading In the book, in the Law of God, (BaSefer, b’torat Elohim) distinctly; and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading. (8:8,18), and also” Ezra the scribe [was asked] to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which the Eternal had commanded to Israel”, and so clearly by the early Second Temple period there was a tradition of a Mosaic/divine book of Torah, which is variously described as being the Torah of God or the Torah of Moses, something unknown in earlier biblical texts.

This idea is seized upon by the Rabbis who took for themselves the right to decide not only what the texts would mean, but also used it to assert their authority and control over the people. Hence we have the midrashic text in Leviticus Rabbah (5th Century) ““everything an experienced pupil might ever say to his teacher was revealed to Moses at Sinai.”, and the more worrying Mishnah Sanhedrin (10:1) “…These have no share in the World to Come: One who says that [the belief of] resurrection of the dead is not from the Torah, [one who says that] that the Torah is not from Heaven, and one who denigrates the Torah..”

Why did they do this? Was it in order to emphasise the authenticity of their authority post Temple, against the Karaites and the Sadducees and those who wished to continue Priestly authority? This would certainly make sense as they were reinventing what it meant to be Jewish after the central worship authority had disappeared, and a multiplicity of rival claims may have spread the Jewish people too thinly to survive.

But we are in a different world, where literary criticism and scholarship that takes into account the context of a text mean that we can see that Torah miSinai cannot be a literal description of our foundational texts. Even Maimonides, who famously enshrined Torah miSinai into his thirteen principles of faith, would surely have framed those principles differently in modern times, (And one must also take into account the context of those principles that became Yigdal – he was responding to Islamic claims about the superiority of its revelatory texts).

Whatever the Torah of Moses /the Torah of God means, for which the shorthand remains “Torah miSinai”, it has become a barrier for the Jewish people rather than an enabler. People who have good academic understanding in the secular world find the notion of one book literally given at one time on a desert mountain to be improbable, which means that the world of scriptural literalists tries to keep modernity away from ‘their’ Jews, with terrible consequences often. People who seek to understand the text differently are shunned or worse, treated as if they are no longer Jews. And then there is the halachic process, which from being a dynamic and responsive practice has become solidified and deeply unhelpful often, simply because there is nothing ‘miSinai’ that pushes for change.

I love the idea of God speaking with Moses in the presence of the entire people, and that being an inspirational and creative moment that energised the ongoing relationship of God and the Jews. But I hate the idea that the route to the relationship is held in the hands of people with little understanding of modernity or the modern Jewish people and State, who try to excommunicate anyone who challenges or brings in modern ideas from the Covenant and the peoplehood.

It is time to reclaim Torah MiSinai, to go back to that moment where the whole people heard and said, we will do and we will understand, and while they may have deputed Moses to negotiate the contract on their behalf, did not abdicate their own responsibility for being part of the development of what the contract would mean over time.

_Moses_on_Mount_Sinai_Jean-Léon_Gérôme_-1895-1900

Parashat Behar:different kinds of deception and the obligation to avoid them

In sidra Behar we find the source texts for the prohibitions against two different kinds of deception – ona’at mammon and ona’at devarim. The verb ona’ah literally means “to overreach”, and describes the act of wronging another by selling an article for more than its real worth, or conversely, by purchasing an article for less than its real worth.

              The proscription is based on the verse in this sidra (25:14) “when you sell anything to your neighbour, or buy anything from your neighbour, you shall not deceive one another”. Talmud (Baba Metzia 49b) specifies what level of price variation is valid and what is not. For the merchants among us, it is deemed permissible to make a fair profit (seen as charging less than one sixth above the accepted price), but it is not permissible to overcharge and deceive a customer.
              The ban on verbal deception arises from a statement three verses later where we read (25:17) “Do not deceive one another but fear your God, for I the Eternal am your God”. Since the previous verse explicitly mentions monetary deception, the rabbis decided that this verse must refer to another kind of fraud – that of verbal dishonesty. The Mishnah (Baba Metzia 4:10) tells us “Just as there is deception in buying and selling, so too there is deception in words”
              The example that is given is the raising of the expectations of the merchant that he has a sale when the person posing as a buyer has no intention of such a transaction, something I suspect we may all have been guilty of doing, when we look at an item on the High Street but then go on to buy it on the internet at a discounted rate. But of course verbal dishonesty is a great deal more than the behaviour of people around a transaction and I find it curious that the Talmudic tradition stayed so close to the mercantile metaphors.

               Verbal dishonesty is so ingrained a habit in our behaviours that we can often barely notice it, from the telling of “little white lies” through to being “economical with the actualite” in an effort to stave off embarrassment or worse. We have all learned to speak “diplomatically” or “tactically” or “strategically”. We can hide behind many a circumlocution in order not to say what should really be honestly and transparently available to the people with whom we “do business”.

I am not suggesting we all suddenly become aficionados of what is sometimes called “blunt speaking” – that is another way in which we can bludgeon the other into not taking on board the whole meaning. I am however suggesting that we look seriously at how we communicate with each other, at what we choose to communicate and to whom. To hear second or third hand about a matter that is important to you; to be the subject of gossip or speculation – even to be forced into issuing public denials; to be told that “people are saying about you…” rather than “I think…”; these are all forms of verbal dishonesty that do more than to raise expectations unfairly qua the Mishnah – they are forms of dishonesty that start to destroy the soul of the people deceived and of the people deceiving.

We are in the Omer period, a time of reflection and sombre thoughtfulness before Shavuot when we will celebrate the giving of Torah. Sidra Behar actually refers back in time to the words that Moses was given by God on Mount Sinai – in particular the Asseret haDibrot, the Ten Matters or Words sometimes called the Ten Commandments. Now would be a good time to examine ourselves and our behaviour in the light of the prohibition against ona’at Devarim – the use of words to deceive each other.    

Yitro

The sidra that contains the Asseret HaDibrot, the Ten Commandments, is named for a non Jew, a pagan priest, a man who is grandfather to Moses’ sons and who teaches Moses about the importance of Justice not being delayed. He is also the man who recognises that the God of the Hebrews is the most powerful of all gods. And yet this man walks away just before the moment when the collective People of Israel is formed by the creation of its covenant with God. He, whose name means ‘abundance’ or ‘plenty’ seems to walk out of history and yet we remember him and all he did for Moses, we honour his name in the very sidra where God meets and forms the unbreakable covenant bond with the Jewish people.  Without Yitro, his care and protection, his teaching of religious rituals, Moses may never have come to understand what he saw at the burning bush, and Israel may never have understood what happened at Sinai, and yet Yitro himself did not seem to need this relationship – as a priest himself he clearly had his own connection with God.

When God does speak to Israel, we immediately face a curiosity in the text, for the word God begins with is strange – The introduction of God to the people is with the word:  “I am”  but using a rare four letter root “Anochi” instead of the more usual word “Ani”. The Talmud has a beautiful explanation for why God is using such a strange word to introduce God to the people:- Rabbi Yochanan explains that this word must be an acronym  for Ana Nafshi Ketovit Yehovit  – which means “I wrote My very soul and gave it to you” or “I am giving you My soul in writing” (Shabbat 105a).

The Ten Commandments are neither ten, nor are they commandments. They are, as the Hebrew nomenclature makes clear to us, statements. Some of them could be understood to be commandments, and indeed the famous biblical commentator Rashi sees them as the basic categories for the 613 commandments traditionally said to be in Torah, but to see them only as demands on us would be to miss out on the richness of the event.

Traditional commentators wrestle with the notion of commandments, and what it means for our ongoing understanding of God. Some say that the word “Anochi” might be said to be a commandment (Know that I am God), but equally others claim that it couldn’t yet be a commandment, as to be commanded one must first believe in (or at least acknowledge) a commander, and the speaking of the word Anochi therefore can only be the first moment of such understanding, and therefore the prerequisite to the mitzvot. Only if one believes in the existence of God can the further teachings of God have meaning.

So ‘Anochi’ is really a portal into relationship with God, it is the liminal moment when we understand that God exists. This cannot be commanded, it must be experienced in some way by the soul who chooses to do so. A colleague told me recently that during her rabbinic training she confided to one of her teachers that she was finding herself unexpectedly moved, gripped by she knew not what. The response “If you show an interest you will be taken seriously” was, she said, the most frightening thing she ever heard, and one that has stayed with her to this day. She had entered the portal of “Anochi”, had understood that when studying Torah she encounters God’s soul in writing.

There is so much more to mitzvot than “the ten commandments”, so much more to how we are in the world than “good behaviour” or kindness or charity to others. Once you search for “Anochi” seriously, you will be taken seriously and you will see the world through different lenses and over a different timeframe.  My guess is that Yitro had already done this in his own way, he did not need Sinai, he was already in his own particular relationship with God, his life was yeter, more than enough, filled with its own meaning and understanding.  But he opened the portal for us to find our way, our Jewish way.  For each of us must find God, and make our relationship with God, in our own way, and each must understand that “Anochi” has many ways of relationship just as there are many different peoples of the world.