Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Yitro (belated)

[my emphasis]
[Zvi Zohar] The Torah portion of Yitro is read on Shabbat...SOME BELIEVE THIS IS THE VERY ESSENCE OF revelation: To give people clear, authoritative instructions about what constitutes the good and how they should behave. By this approach, until Torah was given at Sinai, human beings had only their flawed, subjective perception of the good; the limits of the human conscience were revealed generation after generation, from the failure of Adam and Eve through the evil of the Egyptians who threw Israelite newborns into the Nile. And then the event at Sinai provided certainty: revelation in place of conscience, Torah instead of human morality. Since then, a Jew knows what to do, not because his understanding led him, but because "so decreed His wisdom, may He be exalted," to paraphrase medieval Jewish philosophers.

But a careful reading of the Torah itself, particularly the portions of Yitro and Mishpatim, points to a very different, much more complex relationship between reason and revelation.

The voice from within the burning bush promises Moses this confirmation of the truth of his mission: "This shall be your sign that it was I who sent you: When you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain." The detailed negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh focus on the specific conditions under which that divine worship in the desert would take place. At most, the march into the desert might be expected to lead to a theophany, a meeting with the Divine. There's no suggestion that at Sinai, God will reveal a grand system of commandments and laws.

Neither does Moses seem to expect any such revelation. His actions in Exodus 18 show that he believes that the fulfillment of God's will requires an ongoing connection with Him: "the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God." In other words, only a prophet can act as judge. God's will is revealed to the judge-prophet bit by bit, ad hoc, in relation to the specific cases that arise. A retrospective reading of earlier chapters shows just that to have been the case. Thus, the idea of the Sabbath was revealed to the Israelites only when questions arose concerning the supply of manna (16:22-30).

Jethro teaches Moses that it's possible to separate the creation of a norm and its implementation [Jethro, who speaks as priest of Midian - as a historical propounder of subjective, 'merely human' ethics and norms - offers the very counsel that leads to Torah entering history at all]. Moses can stand "before God" and bring the laws and instruction in advance; applying the law will be the job not of prophets but of scholars and sages. But such a revolution required the agreement of another side: God. So Jethro sums up, noting this condition: if appropriate judges are appointed, "and God commands you, you will be able to bear up, and all these people will go home in peace" (18:23). Moses agrees and what of God? He, too, accepts Jethro's advice! Immediately after the theophany at Sinai, He transmits to Moses a large code of law, saying, "These are the rules you shall set before them" (21:1) that is, before the judges you have appointed, and before the people.

A God who gives instruction in the form of Torah is a God who sees human beings as capable of applying His laws and judgments not by communicating constantly with Him, but by using the wisdom, reason and integrity present in human beings who were created in His image.

But there are always Jews who have a hard time living with that reality; they long to run their lives according to the "direct" will of God, not according to human reasoning about His will. Today, at the end of the 20th century, supposed options for direct access to "divine intent" proliferate from kabbalistic seers, from rabbis claiming infallible knowledge of the Torah (da'as Torah), and from other "authorities" who claim heavenly certainty, beyond reason. It simply galls them that the Holy One, blessed be He, accepted [gentile...] Jethro's advice.

Excerpted from The Jerusalem Report. Jerusalem: Feb 15, 1999. pg. 28

I think this scenario goes splendidly with the supposition that the Avot authored works that were established in the Torah under the "general editorship" of HKBH - Moshe Rabbenu was seized under nevuah and engaged in "automatic writing", which accumulated until the end of the desert period; previous legislation was done directly by Moshe prophetically determining between Israelite tribal legal precidents became, under Yitro's counsel and HKBH's Command, the establishment of these laws as the new normative structure of Israelites. Diverse Prophetic narratives and oral 'codifications', etc, became unified, intertextually, as one document. An oral 'counter' to the stalwart fixity of Textual Torah was had in the Oral Law. Determination under the appointed decisors (who were many, and diverse in degree of knowledge) and Oral Torah both mediated between Written Torah materials that indeed were previously disparate, and formerly did have multiple temporal 'sources' [The Avot, writing from their settings] - but are now, since Sinai - in the fullness of text, oral and lived tradition - one derech.


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