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Hineni, Here I Am, as the Foundation of Ethics: Thinking in Jewish 42

Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: “Moses, Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.”
Exodus 3:3-4 (Jewish Publication Society translation)

Hineni, Here I Am, as the Foundation of Ethics: Thinking in Jewish 42

Hineni, Here I Am, as the Foundation of Ethics: Thinking in Jewish 42

The appearance of the response to God of “Here I am” (hineni) is not the first time this word is used in the Torah, nor is it the last. Every time it is used, however, the implication is the same; the responder, in this case Moses, responds to God without reservation, with a sense of obligation born of a duty to service to the Absolute Other. This raises the question as to exactly what is this Absolute Other to which one senses an obligation to be of service? The answer to this question is not simple, but it is quite easily digested if one thinks of the Absolute Other as ineffable, indescribable in human terms. Emmanuel Levinas relates this Other to the boundless infinity which bookends human life; even life in general. The sense of obligation one recognizes with the utterance of hineni is, in truth, related not to the Other but to the other that one senses and engages as a representation of, a reification of the Other in the person of the other.

How is this possible? If one thinks of the absolute uniqueness of each and every human being that is, has been or ever will be then any encounter with the other mirrors, though does not quite reach the level of, an encounter with the Absolute Other. It is through the uniqueness of the other that one connects to the Other. This relationship, then, is the foundation of the fundamental ethical obligation that one has with regard to encounters with the other.

Like the biblical encounter with the Other, nothing occurs until the Other calls to the self. In our ethical interactions with the other, it is necessary to wait; to offer oneself to the other through a pronouncement of readiness and then waiting for the other to call out in need. Once the call is heard, a state of proximity between self and other exists in which the self answers the call without reservation and without expectation for reciprocation. In one’s relationship with the Other, one’s response must be without reservation or expectation for reciprocation as well. It is a fundamental human response to the call of the Other mirrored in the fundamental ethical response to the call of the other.

Ethics, in this sense, does not begin with moral action or with any expectation. Ethics begins with a single realization that I am, in truth, my brother’s keeper. I have a fundamental ethical obligation to act for the welfare of the other without reservation or expectation; in doing so I create a simulacrum of the relationship between the Other and myself, a counterfeit, if you will, of the uniqueness of the very infinity from which I came to the very infinity of the very death to which I must necessarily go. Living in the world, encountering the uniqueness of the other, is as close as I am able to come to defining the Absolute Other. It is my human responsibility for the other which trumps the intervention of the infinitely unknown Other as a palpable connection to my own humanity; it is the responsible life that forms my definition of the Other.

Paying Attention to Language: Thinking in Jewish XXVI

Moses received the Torah at Sinai and handed it down to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly. The latter said three things: Be patient in administration of justice; develop many students; and make a fence for the Torah.
Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 1, Mishnah 1

Paying Attention to Language: Thinking in Jewish XXVI

Paying Attention to Language: Thinking in Jewish XXVI

The Jewish world was fundamentally altered during the late stages of the Second Temple period, the Roman occupation of Palestine and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. During the last phases of the Second Temple there were several competing Judaisms, including the Pharisees, the Essenes and any number of mystical, messianic cults that were an integral part of the Jewish World. The destruction of the Temple was, however, a death blow to the Temple sacrificial cult where the blood of animals afforded the giver of the sacrifice absolution from his or her sins. In the days following the destruction of the Temple, the various Judaisms began to form more permanent structural and theological attitudes. Christianity went in one direction while the birth of Rabbinic Judaism took a completely different turn. While both of these Judaisms used specific language to make their case, I wish to concentrate on the language of Rabbinic Judaism most clearly revealed in the Mishnah quoted above.

One of the problems the Rabbis had to deal with was the issue of continuity, how were they in a direct and unbroken lineage from Moses to the present day. Moreover, they had to wrestle with the problem of how their writings fit into the lineage of the revelation at Sinai. To help explain the latter problem, the Rabbis of the Mishnah, Tosefta, and the two Talmuds engaged in the fantasy of the two Torahs; the written one and the oral one. But what gave the oral Torah authority? The answer devised was simple; it too was revealed to Moses at Sinai. That brings us to the issue of proving lineage from Moses to the present day to which the Rabbis answered that the Torah was revealed to Moses by God himself (both oral and written) and passed on in a direct lineage to us making us the recipients of the revelation. Implied here is that so long as the Torah is passed down, studied and understood by following generations, the lineage remains intact. The language used is self-serving in the sense that it supports the contention of the Sages that they are the true and only recipients of the Torah because they are a part of that succession. The problem with self-serving language, however, is that it simply doesn’t stand up to that which is now understood about the historical development of the Jewish people. It fits into a neat package, almost a marketing package, that solipsistically turns in on itself to prove its very existence but this vision fails when subjected to a deeper understanding of the times.

The second half of the Mishnah raises other kinds of questions. Much of the Mishnah, the redaction of Jewish Laws attributed to Judah ha’Nasi (Judah the Prince) deals with the underlying structure of solving legal problems that arise from time to time. It is much like a casebook in law. The first instruction, to be patient in the administration of justice implies that the “oral” Torah is a work in progress, not a fixed document revealed to Moses at Sinai and passed on as described in the first part of this Mishnah. The implied flexibility in the application of the law suggests that the law as “oral” Torah was not revealed at all but hammered out by human beings to meet the needs of the day.

The instruction to make a fence for the Torah is also related to the very idea that where a vague commandment is made in the written Torah, it is the job of the oral Torah to both describe how one complies with the commandment but also that this description must take on a more or less conservative modality in the sense that anything that appears to be like the commandment is also either forbidden or required in order to be sure that the commandment itself is fulfilled. The fence could not have been revealed at Sinai because only through the discourse of debate among learned Sages could the fence be built. Another reason to reject the very notion of the two Torah fantasy. The language reveals a deep discord between that which is and that which is to be accepted as a fundamental belief without questioning the validity of the claim.

The instruction to develop many students is a practical one. The more students one develops, the more likely it is that the message will be preserved. Interestingly, some modern day research suggests that these Sages, the Rabbis of the Mishnah and other documents, had only a handful of students, perhaps no more that 15 to 20 at any given time, perhaps even fewer. In this context the 12 disciples of Jesus actually makes some sense. The idea that one develop students is one that preserves the message while providing for the possibility of new interpretations as new problems are faced. This language is practical; it also implies that the “oral” Torah was not a revelation but, rather, a growing body of literature redacted to compliment the written Torah itself.

The language of the Sages, the Rabbis writing the core documents of Judaism outside of the Torah and the Tanakh, is contradictory. On one hand it suggests a direct revelation from Moses to the present day while on the other it seems to support the idea that the authors recognize their own role as interpreters, authors, and commentators making the written Torah come to life. I do not find this unusual. These kinds of contradictions are found in all religions because they otherwise their beliefs could not be explained. Stories are created to respond to that which we don’t know but I find in far more interesting to uncover the fundamental truths contained in the stories while not being concerned about who or what put them out for public consumption.

Harold Bloom and the Torah’s Authorship: Thinking in Jewish XXV

Harold Bloom and the Torah's Authorship: Thinking in Jewish XXV

Harold Bloom and the Torah’s Authorship: Thinking in Jewish XXV

Harold Bloom is an American Literary Critic, a scholar of Shakespeare and a professor of English Literature. Among his scholarly projects is a strand of religious criticism that includes The Book of J, that can be summarized as follows:

In The Book of J, he and David Rosenberg (who translated the Biblical texts) portrayed one of the posited ancient documents that formed the basis of the first five books of the bible as the work of a great literary artist who had no intention of composing a dogmatically religious work. They further envisaged this anonymous writer as a woman attached to the court of the successors of the Israelite kings David and Solomon — a piece of speculation which drew much attention. Later, Bloom said that the speculations didn’t go far enough, and perhaps he should have identified J with the Biblical Bathsheba. (from Wikipedia, March 28, 2013)

Ever since Spinoza published his Theologico-Political Treatise in 1670, a work in which he questioned inconsistencies in the biblical texts, European scholars began to uncover specifics of biblical authorship. Five classes of authorship surfaced based on any number of factors including stylistic language use to, in some cases, the naming of God. Grouped as E, P, D, R and J. E refers to passages using the plural name for God, Elohim. P refers to the priestly class author thought to be responsible for much of the book of Leviticus and the last part of Exodus. D, refers to the author of the book of Deuteronomy. R references the redactor of the five books of Moses into a single reasonably coherent narrative. Finally, J refers to the author referencing God as YHVH (mistranslated as Jehovah by 19th century CE German Christian biblical scholars).

The redactor of the Torah, the R author, makes his presence known after the remnant of Israelites return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile to rebuild Solomon’s Temple. The R author weaves together a generally coherent story, fitting in pieces of the other authors, sometimes seamlessly and other times awkwardly, thereby making the Torah the central document of Jewish historiography. Just one of Bloom’s examples helps us understand the task of the redactor. When we first meet Abraham, the patriarch of the Jews, he is introduced by the J author as Abram which, according to Bloom translates as “exalted father.” Later in the narrative, God tells Abram that he shall no longer be called Abram, rather his name shall now be Abraham. Bloom tells us, along with other biblical scholars, that Abraham is introduced by the P author and translates as “father of a host of nations.” The redactor’s task was to take two disperate story lines and weave them together into a single and believable story.

Bloom argues that the bulk of the Torah, especially the narrative stories (as separated from the priestly legalisms mostly found in Leviticus) may be attributed to a brilliant author of the stature of Homer, Shakespeare and Tolstoy and further argues that J was likely an aristocratic woman living in the time of Solomon’s Temple (the First Temple) in the 10th Century BCE. He makes this bold claim based on the use of language and the characters emphasized in her writings. Bloom makes the point that J was not interested in priests, rites of sacrifice or temple cults, rather her emphasis was on heros, great people, men and women, who collectively were the soul of the Israelites. That her stories do not show up in the writings of P written some six-hundred years later during the time of the Second Temple and are repeated without much accuracy or passion by the D author shows a reluctance of the redactor (likely the scribe Ezra) to emphasize the strength of J’s authorship, cannot hide the force of the metaphor of the patriarchs, the story of Joseph, and the heroism of Moses as they mirror that of David and Solomon of her own time.

Bloom argues that J was the first author of the Torah, that her stories contain powerful irony and characterizations. Abram and Sarai, Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, Joseph, Tamar and Moses all appear as real and flawed human beings. God himself takes on a role that is also distinctly one of a God in crisis, always wanting to do the right thing but, just as the humans he presides over, cannot help but expose his own flaws.

By the time of Ezra and the destruction of Herod’s Temple in 72 CE, the power of J’s authorship was watered down by the E, P and D authors as well as the redactor’s need to present a post exilic metaphor of utopian perfection. Bloom’s artful analysis brings the richness of J back to life and, unless you cannot give up the ghost of the revelation at Sinai, makes one think carefully about the way one must and should read Torah in the present day. Bloom’s book is an ethical journey through a speculative fictional reading of the Torah, one that makes perfect sense in helping one to understand the many contradictions explicitly contained within the text of the Torah itself. It is a must read.

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Three Problematic Texts: Thinking in Jewish XX

Three Problematic Texts: Thinking in Jewish XX

Three Problematic Texts: Thinking in Jewish XX

There are three problematic texts I wish to discuss. Job, Jonah and Kohelet. Each of these texts, most likely written during or just prior to the Hellenistic period in the Levant, approach the problem of God in similar ways. Job and Jonah turn the same question upside down while Kohelet simply views the problem of God in the light of pure skepticism. Job, a righteous man, is debased by an all powerful God who acts capriciously taking away everything to see if Job will curse him. Sure, in the end the redactors of the text create a happy ending and Job gets back everything he lost in double measure, but the text raises questions of the capricious nature of Godly promises. Jonah looks at the same question turning it on its head. In Jonah, God is angry at his prophet who is unwilling to test the power of God existentially by refusing to carry out God’s instructions. Escaping to the sea, Jonah is sacrificed by the pagan crew of the boat upon which he travels. Once again the ending belies the intent of the story, that an all powerful God is also not bound by promises or covenants. In Kohelet, the question of God is put in terms of whether or not the intervention of human beings can influence the regularity of nature  or is the whole of nature (God) both fixed and immutable.

Taken together, these three texts are problematic. Foremost is the question of God’s capricious nature. If, in fact, God can make a promise which God himself does not intend to keep then trusting in God is unwarranted and perhaps even unnecessary. Promises that are made carry the weight of ethical actions, compliance is a moral and ethical and even a legal obligation. If human beings are expected to be bound to their promises, all the more reason God, acting as a primary exemplar, should be obligated. But, apparently God doesn’t think so. For Job, a righteous man, God, on a bet, deprives him of everything: wealth, friends and family. This act is capricious in the sense that as a righteous man Job follows all of God’s commandments, lives up to his obligations under the covenant between God and the Children of Israel, but God doesn’t see fit to honor his end of the obligation that he, himself, entered into with Moses at Sinai. Rather he breaks the covenant and punishes Job, a righteous man, who, even in the face of extreme punishment, refuses to curse God.

Jonah points to a different characteristic of God’s capriciousness. In this case, Jonah, a prophet of God, cannot bring himself to carry out the instructions of God to go to a place and warn the people there of God’s anger. Instead, Jonah attempts to escape to the sea where, in his anger with Jonah, God causes a great storm nearly sinking the boat upon which Jonah is escaping. The sailors on the ship identify Jonah as the problem and offer him up as a sacrifice by throwing him overboard; God sees this and in spite of the fact that the sailors are Gentiles (in this case idol worshipers) God stops the storm. Once again the redactors of the text create a happier ending by saving Jonah and allowing him to complete his assigned mission but that part of the story was likely added at a later date as the book of Jonah was being considered for inclusion in the Tanakh. Here, the message is that the covenant is breakable by God and only by God even though Jonah is frightened and unable to do his assigned duty. To read this any other way is to do an injustice to Jonah. How many of us could, for example, hear the call of God as Abraham  heard the call to sacrifice his own son to God and actually go so far as to be perfectly willing to carry out the command.  The only fair reading of Jonah is to assign to God a capricious need to reject the covenant he himself created when it suits him rather than being careful to abide by that very covenant when it is most difficult to do so.

As to Kohelet, the text questions the ability for human beings to know the wonders of God. Nature has its predictability while God is totally unpredictable. The righteous often suffer while the wicked often thrive, and if nature is truly predictable then what is the point of being righteous? While Kohelet never questions God’s existence, he does question the need for worshiping that God who has clearly no tolerance for ethics or morality.

Given that the redactors of both the Jewish Tanakh and the Christian Bible felt the need to include these books as part of the scriptures, one must ask why? Did not the editors of these two bodies of scriptural literature see the problematics involved with these three books? I think they did or, even if they didn’t, they should have. To create a picture of a God that is not bound by the promises that God is said to have made, to project a God whose capricious nature curses the righteous and rewards the non-believer, to understand God as rewarding the wicked while punishing the righteous as well as being unable or unwilling to allow for intervention in natural affairs, is to call into question the very nature of that God and to call into question the need for human beings to worship him. To my mind, these three books, taken as examples of a single problem, point toward the response-ability of human beings as tied directly to the random nature of the Universe in which we reside. God is made entirely irrelevant even where fairy tale endings are attached to make the text more palatable.

The Oral Tradition in Judaism and Why it is Without Historical Merit: Thinking In Jewish XIX

The Oral Tradition in Judaism and Why it is Without Historical Merit: Thinking In Jewish XIX

The Oral Tradition in Judaism and Why it is Without Historical Merit: Thinking In Jewish XIX

The company line is that the Torah was revealed to Moses as Sinai who conveyed it to Joshua; Joshua conveyed it to the Elders; the Elders to the Prophets; and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly. (Avot 1:1) This line of reasoning makes a distinction between the Written Torah including the Pentateuch and the other books of the Hebrew Tanakh (bible) and the Oral Torah, the line of halakhah (laws) that binds one to the mitzvot (commandments) of Judaism. The reasoning is that the Written Torah and the Oral Torah were both revealed to Moses at Sinai, even events in the Written Torah that had not yet occurred and interpretations of the halakhah that had not yet entered the realm of possibility. In order to get to this position one must jump through a whole variety of hoops that complicate rather than simplify the story itself.

One such hoop is a story from the Talmud which goes something like this. When Moses died and went to heaven God told him of a great rabbi that was to arise in the future, Rabbi Hillel. Moses asked God if he could meet Hillel and God told Moses to turn around. Moses now stood in the Academy of Hillel who was lecturing about the law in the front of the room while Moses was on a back bench. Moses, however, was quite confused. He recognized nothing of the teachings coming from Hillel when, all of a sudden, Hillel was interrupted by a student asking, “From where do these ideas come, Master?” Hillel responded, “They were revealed to Moses at Sinai.” Moses was satisfied.

Interesting little story but hardly proof. The language appears to acknowledge the disconnect between a revelation that is said to have occurred and the interpretation of the meaning of that revelation during a period of time when the whole of Judaism is in a state of flux; the core of belief and atonement was gone because the Temple no longer existed and the Rabbis were struggling to create a world in which atonement was even possible. Christians, as they diverged from Judaism abandoned atonement and turned toward salvation but the Rabbinic movement in Judaism, the authors of the Mishnah and the two Talmuds took a different path; theirs was to create a world frozen in time, a world in which Temple practices were still acknowledged as important even though they could not currently be practiced. It was the Rabbis who developed the strategy that their interpretations were part of the direct lineage from Sinai to the present day.

To claim that orality was equal to the written word is to make a bold but unsubstantiated claim. It seems that the rabbis recognized this as they mused about Moses visiting Hillel’s Academy. The fact that Moses himself was confused by the teachings that he could not understand seems to be an acknowledgement that the Rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmuds had moved beyond the Sinai revelation and now, in order to accomodate the changes brought on by the destruction of the Temple decided to create a strong link back to Sinai through the oral tradition they, themselves, wrote down in Avot.

I think that a more reasonable explanation is available. Teaching itself is an oral correspondence between teacher and student. But orality alone doesn’t fix learning in the student any more thad studying a text without a teacher explains the nuances of the text to the novice. No, both are required. The presence of the text and the dialectic that comes from understanding the text are both a crucial part of learning for both teacher and student. The insistance that the tradition is purely oral is also belied by the fact that the Rabbis felt compelled to produce so much writing that sprang from the oral tradition. The Mishnah and Talmuds accompanied by Midrash and the Tosefta make up far more writing than is contained in the Written Torah.

I prefer a more rational, contextualized explanation for the Oral Torah, one that considers the times in which the bulk of the texts were written, the social and political tensions that were felt by people as well as the practical understanding one has about teaching and learning and the relationship of text to orality in that relationship to come to a more rational understanding of how one should understand how and why the tradition came about.

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