Exodus XXX,11 to XXIV
By Morty Breier
February 22, 2003
We are at the heart of the Old Testament. God calls Moses up to the mount and we are privy to a conversation between God and Moses and, as you can well imagine, God does most of the talking. For being late by one day of Moses’ forty days on the mountain, the Israelites build a golden calf, worship it and party the night away. Moses, with righteous indignation, throws the God writ stone tablets of “The Law” down, breaking them. The calf is destroyed and 3000 Isrealites are slaughtered for this transgression. Moses returns to Sinai and God inscribes “The Law” once again on a second set of tablets. The Israelites, with fear and trembling, awe and atonement, seeing Moses’ radiant face as he descends from the mount, submit to the rules of the covenant and sign on to being a priestly people.
This is a very meaty part of the Old Testament. Dramatically incandescent, the action and emotions move between God and Moses, between Moses and the Israelites, between the Israelites and God. Moses is at his regal best. He is literally aglow with the righteousness of HaShem’s presence. God, the old man, is a stern father, demanding obeisance, reverence and compliance, promising both reward and punishment. The Israelites, like a school of fish, are swept by emotional reactions: disappointment, confusion, fickle worship, bacchanalian abandon, abject fear, recrimination, atonement, awe and mourning.
Ancient ethical transactions and hoary contractual responsibilities are evoked by HaShem: “shall be cut off from his people” “atonement for thy souls” “that they die not” “anoint and sanctify” “perpetual covenant” “and there fell that day three thousand men” “a stiff-necked people” “I am a jealous God” “not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.”
What exactly shall we make of these invocations and commands, we, living in the twenty first century, inheritors of a history rife with radically changing worldviews, later constructs continuously superseding earlier verities? Our orthodox tell us that nothing can supersede the word of God, and the Torah is the word of God. Our intellectuals tell us that the words represent humanity’s earliest attempt to codify the rules of human consciousness, the rules of nation building, of morality and ethics. Our neighbors tell us this early attempt was superseded by later, more enlightened attempts by Christ, by Mohammed, by John Smith. Enlightened souls tell us we each, regardless of any distinctions, are potential Buddhas, they tell us that being Jewish is no advantage. Our nation’s founding fathers tell us we are all equal under God, the law and each other’s consideration, and that what you believe, or who you believe in, is not pertinent.
When I was living in an Ashram, some ten years ago, and I was asked to devote myself to the Swami, I noticed that I had the option of looking at him as an enlightened soul who could teach me about spirit and how to achieve higher consciousness or I could look at him as a Jewish guy from Chicago, younger and less accomplished than me. It seemed to be my choice because he seemed to turn into the person I took him for.
Swami, when looked at by me as an enlightened soul, would evoke such devotion in me that tears would run down my cheeks and my heart would readily open as he spoke. When, on the other hand, I looked at him as a Jewish guy from Chicago, I could see all Swami’s faults, the marks of his upbringing, his ego-centered character, his narrow minded judgments, the theatricality of his position. I found that it was to my advantage to see him as an enlightened soul, one I could learn from, one who opened my heart. I told him I would try, playing his devoted disciple to begin with and later, hopefully, getting there, the fake it till you make it principle. He accepted me on those terms in the beginning, but, after a year, he saw that I had not overcome the less flattering view, and we parted ways.
The Torah is like that. It has two possible origins and its wisdom or lack of it comes in two possible flavors: one tribal and one universal.
I don’t think that any twenty-first century worldview can abide a God who belongs to one tribe, speaks in that tribes language, converses with that tribe’s elders, makes an exclusive covenant and declares all other belief systems, ways of worship and spiritual wisdom traditions misguided. I don’t think that any twenty-first century world view can abide a God who literally writes or speaks or makes clouds or requires the following of precisely articulated ceremonial laws about incense and wash bowls, about ritual and inner sanctums.
It’s too tribal, too hocus pocus, too much like the Wizard of Oz. There is much of such theatricality in the Torah. These elements sound to me like an effort at making a rowdy bunch of former slaves into a people by convincing them that they are chosen of God and need to bend to tribal law because they originate with that God. Every tribe, nation, ethnic group and peoples have such a story. And they all use smoke and ritual to evoke the holy feeling necessary to those hoary myths. The Hawaiians chant it, the Jews daven it, the American Indians dance and drum it, the Hindus chant it. Their origin stories all sound childish to us. So does ours to them. Much of the Old Testament, when I read the text, is tribal. I try to discount these parts. I do not live in a tribal society, nor do I want to, nor do I want my neighbors and fellow citizens to.
At this time in our human history we understand that the truth comes in many forms and that many practices lead to better human understanding. Our goal is inclusiveness, not exclusiveness, our world is multi-faceted not single minded. Our reality is formed out of global inputs from many many sources: science, philosophy, history, physics, psychology, economics, music, art, politics, as well as the various wisdom traditions and their offerings.
Did HaShem really create a world in which the developmental story line, the part that we are heir to, from the Big Bang to me and you, should be abandoned because the essential truth has already been stated in the Torah, a document some two to three thousand years old, unsupersedable, end of story? I don’t believe it. We are a work in progress, our worldview continuously unfolding, our understandings being gradually refined and deepened our scope of inquiry expanding. God writes Torah in real time. You are looking at God’s Torah, the reality that surrounds you. It is a world with a story, we are all part of that story and, at the same time, are witnesses to its telling.
Then there is the wisdom of the Old Testament, wisdom, I believe, drawn from enlightened human beings who, tapping into the God within and the God without, discerned certain features of the human landscape, human consciousness, human frailties and moral equations that indeed may be universal and timeless, independent of narrow tribal features and ancient obsolete world views. The problem always is teasing these universal truths out of the tribal narrative.
“The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty…” That’s a God I could learn from. The principle that lawfulness, the giving of “The Law,” is the foundation of the universe and the foundation of any human society is surely a truth that I resonate strongly with, and I can read the myth of law giving, Moses on Mount Sinai, as an insight into this fundamental verity.
In general righteousness, fairness, honesty, gratefulness, loyalty, compassion, love, mercy, forgiveness and devotion are all spiritual qualities I can emulate. And deception, cruelty, fickleness, stubbornness, ignorance, hate and brutality are all human qualities I would like to be warned against. I love when the Old Testament points out the rewards of the former and the consequences of the latter. But, in all truthfulness, I find that many of these distinctions are the product of my own worldview, or the refined worldview of the rabbis who later commented on the Torah, or who, from a modern perspective, presently comment on it, rather than the Torah’s explicit view as a stand-alone narrative composed of words that are essentially context and developmentally defined.
In this section alone all kinds of severe punishments are mentioned for ceremonial infractions that perfectly fit the dictum “cruel and unusual” intolerable in a society that tries to let the punishment fit the crime. 3,000 people are slain for a piece of sculpture that was politically incorrect. Whole goyishe tribes, God promises, will be slaughtered and displaced to make room for Jews, God sanctioned ethnic cleansing.
And all this along with the story of how the first group of humans who both individually and collectively accept the principle of a unified universe ruled by law, and who apply that principle to their own nationhood, as they submit to being unified and ruled by a humane and righteous set of laws. From the ridiculous to the sublime, that’s us folks. Thanks.