Monday, October 26, 2009

"He suspended the mountain over them like a barrel"
R. Daniel Gordis from here;

"In the famed sugya in which God suspends Mount Sinai over the heads of the Jews assembled around it, the Gemara asserts that the original circumstances of the covenant at Sinai may well have been coercive, thus rendering the "contract" null and void. If that is the case, what authority does the Torah — and by implication, the entire halakhic system — have over us? Rava's celebrated response is crucial, not only for what it says, but for what it does not say and also for what it implies.

When R. Aha bar Ya'akov asserts that God's suspending the mountain over the Jews offers a legitimate reason to reject the halakhic contract (which could then have been accepted under duress), Rava responds that Sinai is not the enduring reason for the contract's validity [and therefore I don't not think the Kuzari's argument for Torah from Sinai must be treated as enduring - within it is a very sound, textual argument for the account of the experience at Sinai, details of the revelation aside for later, derivative arguments]. Rather, he asserts, the halakhic contract is still in force because in the days of Esther the Jews accepted the arrangement once again (kiyymu v-kibbelu). On the surface, Rava's response simply asserts that although the circumstances of Sinai may have been coercive, Jews subsequently invested the tradition with authority when they accepted it "anew" at the time of Ahaseurus [and again, in a sense, in the time of Ezra, when it was again received - and subsequent in more recent history; see below]. On that level alone, it is an interesting claim for the rabbinic tradition to make.

But Rava's prooftext is significant in additional ways which are easily over-looked, for what is most important is what he does not say. Within his response is the subtle claim that theological arguments for the authority of halakhah do not matter. What matters, he suggests, is the [preternatural?..] power of the tradition to make Jews Jewish — the unique power possessed only by halakhah to infuse the lives of Jews with Jewish resonance and passion. Although Rava does not use such language, the sugya contains a variety of subtle suggestions that this is the point he wishes to make.

The fact that the verse cited is from the book of Esther has profound implications. Not only does Rava himself not inject the issue of God into his discussion of the authority of the tradition, he selects a prooftext from a biblical book well-known for its glaring omission of God's name. Could the implication be that God's [open, miraculously apparent] authority in the creation of the covenant is secondary to the spiritual needs and desires of the people? [with this language, he's kind of losing me, but it picks up later on].

If we are willing to hazard an affirmative answer to that question, other issues arise immediately. Just what are those needs and desires? Would it be pushing this sugya too far to remind ourselves that one of the central themes of the book of Esther is assimilation? The names of the two primary Jewish characters, the fact that they hide their Jewishness, and the fact that Esther "marries" a pagan king all attest to the centrality of this issue.

Could it therefore be that Rava was suggesting in part that the reason for our communal acceptance of the covenant must be not a theological argument, but the deep-seated sense that without a unique pattern of Jewish behavior we will ultimately blend into the larger culture that surrounds us? Could he similarly be arguing that Jewish life without a sense of partnership with God as expressed through command cannot arouse the mesirut nefesh - which we will here call devotion — necessary for sustaining proud, committed Jewish life? Is it possible that Rava chooses a book whose central theme is assimilation because he wants to argue that without halakhah at the core of its communal ethos, Judaism simply cannot survive?

We will never know how far Rava would have been willing to "push" the significance of his choice for a prooftext. But even if that argument is not Rava's, it virtually beckons to the leadership of Conservative Judaism today. For it suggests that what effectively justifies the tradition and motivates our attachment to it is not "authority" in the sense that we have traditionally used the term, but "power" in the sense of the mystery, joy, and belonging that halakhic living adds to our lives. Ultimately, when we set aside nizhuni banai for kafa aleichem et ha-bar ke-gigit, we move our arguments for halakhic commitment from claims of legitimacy to claims of relevance. It is ashift, in other words, from historico-theological arguments to personal, spiritual claims about the religious power of a traditional Jewish way of life and the unique ability of that way of life to perpetuate Judaism as we know it.

I find this interpretation envigorating in the same manner I find a useful insight from Alan Yuter's review of T. Ross's "Expanding the Palace of Torah";

TR is the first Orthodox theologian to apply critical method in her search for truth and to write an apologia for its use. Her boldest effort lies in her adoption of Process Theology, a literal Protestant modernist theology that views God as a process in the mind of humans and not necessarily as an external Being. The first Jewish writer to adopt this position is the Conservative/Reconstructionist Rabbi Harold Schulweis, whose theology is incompatible with Orthodoxy in any of its current manifestations [that last bit reveals more of R. Yuter than I think he means to, but he's well known for shooting - and writing - from the hip].
Nevertheless, TR's efforts ought not to be dismissed with haste. Pope Benedict's recent Jesus of Nazareth, the work of an intensely devoted believer who concedes the merits of academic criticism, argues that revelation is an unfolding of truth in divinely inspired narratives revealed in historical and social contexts. Therefore, if TR makes the Schulweis/Reconstructionist claim that God is only and limited to the interior sense of divine presence, she would have placed herself outside the pale of the classical Jewish Tradition. But if she contends that this interior sense is how God is approached by finite humans but does not exhaust the infinitude of divinity, she would be well within the Tradition. Given her work on Rabbi Kook, a fair reader is constrained to make the more generous reading.

R. Yuter suggests that, despite Ross' controversial and seemingly unjustifiable claim for a Jewish Process Theology (though it can obviously apply to other suppositions in engaging critical scholarship), if she FIRST assumes God's Omnipotence and then suggest that He Chooses to reveal Himself to man by that means, she may not be deviating terminally, or even significantly - from a Covenant tradition that is filled with such willed choosing on the part of the Divine; He chooses to work with and through a particular universe and it's laws, one from among others He'd Created, He covenanted with the nefesh'ed creations therein, and individual humans He'd met over time and ultimately with a people He freed therein though laws He'd selected, etc.

With "kafah aleihem", it would seem that, as with "not being in the fire", but in the still small voice; or after setting fire to His altar in the face of the Ba'al worshippers, but then telling His prophet not to affix significance to the miraculous - He shows Himself to be beyond the necessity of showing "power" - by not choosing the most blatant, obvious and compelling means of revelation - even discounting the miraculous within the miracle-filled narratives themselves!

And so with theological arguments; He will not grant certainty to the the human justifications of history or authority deriving from human perceptions of the Divinely-initiated event of revelation - no matter how true and valid the Event behind them may be as empirical, historical occurrence. He almost seems to chose evidence be presented in a way that requires a covenantal community, one that fractals new contexts made up of "covenant-stuff", (as with the rise of science in the Biblical west, of egalitarianism and democracy in the United states under Biblical/Jewish influence in Joshua Berman's new book). It almost looks that He wants that the perennial 'proofs' or evidences people derive and make for His existence and relevance be, in the language of Joshua Golding - "rationally defensible" rather than "rationally compelling" - so as to not limit our freewill, and engagement with the Truth-bound Tradition that is the doorway, among many Tradition-bound truths - as profound as they may be.

One could argue with the secularists that making any significant decision based on anything less than 'reasonable' certainty is crazy - He might agree. Limiting, but not eliminating, the force of the religious proofs would militate that we really think and ask our way through to whatever basis for ethical actions and set aside (but not discard..), the theological foundations. We can then point to the considerable, but not compelling, case for the validity of the Jewish way of life, Made "independent" from Sinai (according to R. Gordis' presentation), a Divinely-received Torah from bequithed generation to generation, in that the Divine in and among us as a people, Receives Torah each generation. He Spoke unspeakable power to choosing, to covenanting, grants meaning to the divinely-human capacity for choosing, and growing cumulatively from the community setting over millenia after millenia - though Giving and Receiving may not occur in their fullness at the same time.

As with the times of Esther and Ezra (both under Persian rule?..), it would seem those communities who *choose* Judaism in every era are those ones who give rise to the next era - and currently it indeed seems to be those communities who go by the communal moniker "Orthodox" - since so few observant Conservative Jewish kehillot can collectively maintain the necessary scale and "breeding population" to make a future for 'themselves'. I personally do not think they are going their struggle alone - metaphysically speaking. They really are something of a righteous remnant to my mind and heart.

I think this goes far in answering the challenge posed to a life of believing observance that is made by religious coercion, the compelled observance which caused such an exodus after Emancipation, depicted in Albert Baumgarten's, "Two paradoxes: reflections on history and belief", Judaism, Summer-Fall, 2004


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