The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty
Then Moses said to the Israelites, “See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and he has filled him with the spirit of G-d, with wisdom, understanding and knowledge in all kinds of crafts – to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic craftsmanship.” (Ex. 35:30-33)
In last week’s and this week’s sedra we encounter the figure of Bezalel, a rare type in the Hebrew Bible – the artist, the craftsman, the shaper of beauty in the service of G-d, the man who, together with Oholiab, fashioned the articles associated with the Tabernacle. Judaism – in sharp contrast to ancient Greece – did not cherish the visual arts. The reason is clear. The biblical prohibition against graven images associates them with idolatry. Historically, images, fetishes, icons and statues were linked in the ancient world with pagan religious practices. The idea that one might worship “the work of men’s hands” was anathema to biblical faith.
More generally, Judaism is a culture of the ear, not the eye (for a more nuanced view, however, see Kalman Bland, ‘The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual’). As a religion of the invisible G-d, it attaches sanctity to words heard, rather than objects seen. Hence there is a generally negative attitude within Judaism towards representational art.
There are some famous illustrated manuscripts (such as the ‘Bird’s Head Haggadah’, Bavaria, circa 1300) in which human figures are given bird’s heads to avoid representing the full human form. To be sure, art is not forbidden as such. There is a difference between three dimensional and two dimensional representation. As R. Meir of Rothenburg (c. 1215-1293) made clear in a responsum, “There is no trespass [in illustrated books] against the biblical prohibition… [illustrations] are merely flat patches of color lacking sufficient materiality [to constitute a graven image].” Indeed several ancient synagogues in Israel had quite elaborate mosaics. In general, however, art was less emphasized in Judaism than in Christian cultures in which the Hellenistic influence was strong.
Positive references to art in the rabbinic literature are rare. One exception is Maimonides who, in the fifth of his Eight Chapters (the introduction to his commentary to the Mishneh tractate Avot) says the following:
If one is afflicted with melancholy, he should cure it by listening to songs and various kinds of the melodies, by walking in gardens and fine buildings, by sitting before beautiful forms, and by things like this which delight the soul and make the disturbance of melancholy disappear from it. In all this he should aim at making his body healthy, the goal of his body’s health being that he attain knowledge.
The very terms in which Maimonides describes the aesthetic experience make it clear, however, that he sees art in strictly instrumental terms, as a way of relieving depression. There is no suggestion that it has value in its own right.
The strongest statement of which I am aware was made by Rabbi Abraham ha-Cohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of (pre-State) Israel, describing his his time in London during the First World War:
When I lived in London, I would visit the National Gallery, and the paintings that I loved the most were those of Rembrandt. In my opinion Rembrandt was a saint. When I first saw Rembrandt’s paintings, they reminded me of the rabbinic statement about the creation of light. When G-d created the light [on the first day], it was so strong and luminous that it was possible to see from one end of the world to the other. And G-d feared that the wicked would make use of it. What did He do? He secreted it for the righteous in world to come. But from time to time there are great men whom G-d blesses with a vision of that hidden light. I believe that Rembrandt was one of them, and the light in his paintings is that light which G-d created on Genesis day. (Jewish Chronicle, 9 September 1935)
Rembrandt, as is known, had a special affection for Jews (See Michael Zell, ‘Reframing Rembrandt’, and Steven Nadler, ‘Rembrandt’s Jews’). He visited them in his home town of Amsterdam, and painted them, as well as many scenes from the Hebrew Bible. I suspect that what Rabbi Kook saw in his paintings, though, was Rembrandt’s ability to convey the beauty of ordinary people. He makes no attempt (most notably in his self-portraits) to beautify or idealize his subjects. The light that shines from them is, simply, their humanity.
It was Samson Raphael Hirsch who distinguished ancient Greece from ancient Israel in terms of the contrast between aesthetics and ethics. In his comment on the verse, “May G-d enlarge Japeth and let him dwell in the tents of Shem,” (Gen. 9:27) he comments:
The stem of Japheth reached its fullest blossoming in the Greeks; that of Shem in the Hebrews, Israel, who bore and bear the name (= Shem) of G-d through the world of nations… Japheth has ennobled the world aesthetically. Shem has enlightened it spiritually and morally.
Yet as we see from the case of Bezalel, Judaism is not indifferent to aesthetics. The concept of hiddur mitzvah, ‘beautifying the commandment’, meant, for the sages, that we should strive to fulfill the commands in the most aesthetically pleasing way. The priestly garments were meant to be ‘for honor and adornment’ (Ex 28:2). The very terms applied to Bezalel — wisdom, understanding and knowledge – are applied by the Book of Proverbs to G-d Himself as creator of the universe:
The law and the Lord founded the earth by wisdom;
He established the heavens by understanding;
By His knowledge the depths burst apart,
And the skies distilled dew. (Proverbs: 3:19-20)
The key to Bezalel lies in his name. It means, ‘In the shadow of G-d’. Bezalel’s gift lay in his ability to communicate, through his work, that art is the shadow cast by G-d. Religious art is never ‘art for art’s sake’. Unlike secular art, it points to something beyond itself. The Tabernacle itself was a kind of microcosm of the universe, with one overriding particularity – that in it you felt the presence of something beyond – what the Torah calls ‘the glory of G-d’ which ‘filled the Tabernacle’. (Ex. 40:35)
The Greeks believed in the holiness of beauty (Keats’s “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”). Jews believed in the opposite, hadrat kodesh (Ps. 29:2), the beauty of holiness. Art in Judaism always has a spiritual purpose, to make us aware of the universe as a work of art, testifying to the supreme Artist, G-d himself.
Excerpt from The Faith Lectures – Revelation – Torah from Heaven – 26th March 2001:
Now let us move on to the positive point. I want to begin with an extraordinarily powerful and enlightening paragraph from the great 19th century Jewish historian, Heinrich Graetz. Listen very carefully to what he says:
“The pagan perceives the divine in nature through the medium of the eye and he becomes conscious of it as something to be looked at. On the other hand, the Jew conceives God as being outside of nature and prior to it. The divine manifests itself through the will and through the medium of the ear. The pagan beholds his God; the Jew hears Him.”
That is, I think, a wonderfully perceptive remark which must set us now on the trek to discovering what is Judaism. Incidentally, that analysis is carried out by lots and lots of people and I don’t want to quote them all. Life’s too short.
So you have, in other words, two kinds of culture. You have the culture of sight. You have a culture of sound. You have a culture in which the central intellectual act is seeing – the Greek theoria means ‘seeing’. Theory is something you see. Or the Latin – idea. You know how you go – round the corner from you is a video shop? The word ‘video’ – the ‘v’ is a soft consonant which gets dropped. It comes from the same word as ‘idea’. And idea is something you see. Greek culture is a sight-oriented culture. Judaism is the paradigm of a ear-oriented culture in which the primary act is not seeing but listening.
Now what does a visual culture produce? Statues. Paintings. Architecture. Sculpture – and spectator sports. The most dignified of which (I dare not say anything about football because my team always lose whenever I do.) – but theater. Theater. Drama. In other words, those are the visual arts and of all of those, in every department, Greek culture reached a pinnacle that has rarely if ever been surpassed. They were the greatness of Greek culture.
In Judaism, where’s the art? Where’s the architecture? Where are the paintings? Where’s the drama, the theater? There isn’t any. And this is fascinating because this shows us that Judaism is a culture not of the eye but of the ear. And it is not just, as you might think, because the third commandment prohibits the making of graven images. It is not just that. It goes much further. It goes into the very texture of biblical narrative.
Let me ask you a question. What did Abraham look like? Anyone know? Tall? Short? Fat? Red hair? What did Moshe Rabbenu look like? We haven’t got a clue!
You know that, as Eric Auerbach pointed out in a very famous essay he wrote called “Odysseus’s Scar” which is in his book called ‘Mimesis’. Homer is full of vivid descriptions of the surfaces of things. You see, when you read Homer.
But when you read Tenach, you don’t see anything very much. The text is what he calls “fraught with background.” Anything interesting is left out of the text and you have to supply it from your own imagination. The Jewish text, the biblical text, is fraught with background. Or let me give you a different point. In other words, the prohibition against graven images even applies to visual descriptions in Tenach. You never get a description of somebody unless it is strictly necessary for the narrative. When do you need to know that somebody is beautiful? When somebody might threaten to take his wife and kill him – or to explain how come they fell in love at first sight. So we discover that Sarah was beautiful; that Rivka was gemilut chassidim; that Rachel was beautiful. But beyond that, ‘beautiful’? What does that tell you? We still don’t know what color was her hair.
In the “Sunday Times” this week, apparently Cleopatra was short, fat and ugly but she was seductive anyway. One way and another, Jewish culture is so non-visual that we don’t know what anyone looks like. Walter J. Ong – who is not a person you may have read but who has written some wonderful books, one called ‘Orality and Literacy’; another even better called ‘The Presence of the Word’ – points out that sight deals in surfaces whereas sound deals, at the literal and metaphorical sense, with interiors.
What, for instance, do we see when we look at somebody? Obviously the most important thing we look at is their face. But what other clues do we have about their identity, their class, their lifestyle? Their clothes. Now, could you please, with the exception of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, give me a list of occasions where clothes appear and play a role in the book of Genesis?
Esau – Jacob dresses up in Esau’s clothes. Joseph – the brothers take his cloak and spill blood on it and they say he has been torn by a wild beast. Joseph in Egypt – [interjection] – they dress differently? Well where do clothes occupy a central part of Jews in Egypt? The story of Joseph. You remember? When Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce him and she runs away and he has her dress in his hands – No, sorry! She is holding onto his garment and he runs away. And she says that see, this is proof that he tried to rape me.
Any further example? Tamar dresses up as a prostitute.
Now what is common to all those four occasions? The answer is clothes deceive! (a) It wasn’t Esau; it was Jacob. (b) Joseph hadn’t been killed by a wild animal. (c) Joseph hadn’t attempted to rape Potiphar’s wife. (d) Tamar was not a prostitute. All of those are used to deceive. Good, bad, it doesn’t matter. All of those were used to deceive. Sight does not reveal the truth. It reveals the opposite of the truth.
Now what is the Hebrew for a garment? Beged. What is the Hebrew for betrayal? Oshamnu, bagadnu! Now just look at that! The very word that means ‘clothes’ means ‘betrayal’! In Judaism, it is not what you see that tells you what there is. It is what you hear – and that is all. If you rely on sight, you’ll get it wrong.
What are we supposed to look at to get it right? Tzitzit. Ure’item oto uzechatem. Yes? Tzitzit are about seeing. And does anyone know what is the beginning of the sedrah in which tzitzit function? Shlach lecho – which is about the spies. And the same word is used. Yes? Ure’item et ha’aretz – that is the motif word. “And you will see” – that verb occurs only three times in the Torah, twice in this sedrah. It says about tzitzit – ure’item oto – “and you shall see them.”
The spies saw and they drew certain conclusions. They were the wrong conclusions. You know what they saw? Listen to this. If you ever need a defense of taking Judaism seriously, here it is. You remember that among the many things that Moses told the spies to do, he said look at the cities. Uma he’arim asher-hu yoshev bahena habemachanim im bemivtzarim. Go and look at the cities and see if they are open or fortified. And they came back and they say, vehe’arim betzurot me’od – we saw extremely well-fortified cities. In Dvarim Moses adds the touch that they were fortified up to the very heavens. So what did they do? They concluded that if the cities are strong, therefore the people are strong. That was the conclusion.
You know what Rashi says? Im bemachanim heim yoshvim – if they live in open cities – siman hu shechazakim heim – it is a sign that the people are strong because they don’t need to barricade themselves behind great defenses. They are quite sure that if anyone attacks them they will win. If bemivtzarim heim yoshvim, siman hu shechalashim heim – this is a sign that they are weak if they live behind walls.
Therefore, the spies saw – but what they saw wasn’t there. They saw a strong people, but it was actually a people who were terrified.
And I just add, as my commentary on Jewish life, that do not think that those who live behind high walls, a self-imposed ghetto, are necessarily the strongest Jews. The strongest Jews who those who are able to live without those high walls. Confident in their faith they can engage in dialogue with other people’s faith – or other people’s culture.
Anyway, there it is. Sight does not tell you the truth. What about the other senses? Look at this. I want to give you an essay on the other four senses. We’ll take sight out of the picture because the person concerned is blind. Here is Isaac and he is about to bless his son. What senses does he use? First of all he uses taste. Give me some of this venison that I associate with you. I want to taste what I like about you. Then – touch. He feels the garment. And then – smell. Re’ach bni. “See, the smell of my child is like the smell of a field which God has blessed.”
The three senses other than sight. Did they tell him the truth? What told him the truth? Hakol kol Yaakov. “The voice is the voice of Jacob.” If only Isaac had listened to the voice instead of using the senses of smell, touch and taste, he would have got the right answer. He hears hakol kol Yaakov. – “The voice is the voice of Jacob” – but then he ignores it. You will understand, apart from anything else, this is a little drama about how it is sound and not sight that generates truth in Judaism.
Let me, incidentally, while we are at it – this is such a powerful tool for understanding things. I will just mention one thing very quickly. Sight cultures and sound cultures generate different ethical systems. What ethical system is associated with a sight culture? It is what anthropologists call a ‘shame culture’. What is associated with a culture of sound is what is called a ‘guilt culture’.
Shame is the terror we have of being seen by others in a situation that is unworthy of us. Guilt is the inner voice. Greece, of course, was a shame culture. Judaism is a guilt culture. Look, that’s what we have mothers for, isn’t it?
So, now I will show you something which I didn’t see anywhere at all. Here it is. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and they eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Aytz hadat tov vera. And everyone asks – in fact it is the question Maimonides asks right at the beginning, Chapter 2 of The Guide of the Perplexed – What is so bad about eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge? Surely that is the highest thing we should aim at – to know the difference between good and evil? How can that be a sin?
However, I want to suggest here, using this new device: what was it that happened as a result of eating the fruit? First of all, what was the fruit? Ta’avah he laynayim. It was something you looked at and couldn’t resist. It was desirable to the eyes. What then happens after they eat the fruit? Vatifakachnah aynay shnayhem. The eyes of both of them were opened and they felt shame. Before then, arumim hame velo yitboshashu – before then they were naked and they were not ashamed.
Now you see what is actually going on in the story of Adam and Eve. It wasn’t that they acquired the knowledge of good and evil. It is that they acquired the wrong kind of knowledge of good and evil; that associated with sight rather than sound. That which looks nice instead of God’s voice. They move from a culture of the ear – which is the Jewish culture, to the culture of an eye which is the pagan and Greek culture.
With this we come to the extraordinary idea of revelation in Judaism which still, I must admit, fills me with wonder and awe. In the ancient world, the world of myth, the world of paganism and including the world of Greece, there was no problem about revelation. No problem at all. Because the gods were eminently visible. You couldn’t spend five minutes without bumping into one of them. Here it is. Where is God? It’s the sun. It’s the moon. It’s the stars. It’s the sky. It’s the wind. It’s the rain. It’s the storm. It’s the sea. The gods are anything but remote. They are right there, all around you. And the dividing line between the gods and nature on the one hand, or between gods and human beings on the other, is fuzzy at best. There is no problem of revelation.
The problem of revelation occurs only with the birth of Judaism, of radical monotheism, when God all of a sudden transcends the universe and is no longer seen in nature but wildly beyond. At that moment there is a crisis. Here it is in one of its most beautiful expressions, Psalm 8:
When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers.
That is pure monotheism. This is monotheistic metaphor which is so radically different that the most supreme thing you can see is only the work of “Your fingers.” And then he asks, ma …ben-adam ke tifkedeinu – what then is man that you are mindful of him?
This extraordinary thing. Or when Isaiah says, hashomayim kisi veha’aretz hadom raglai. “The heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool.” This is the radical moment in which God is no longer in nature but worldly and totally beyond it. What on earth contact can we make with this being immeasurably vast and, above all, invisible?
The answer is a truly radical answer. There was – and many of you will know more about this than I do, so correct me if I get this wrong – a very great mathematician, I think in Cambridge, in the 1940’s or 1930’s, called Alan Turing. Have you heard of him? Alan Turing was one of the first theoreticians of the computer. Turing, as well as drafting something called the Turing machine which sort of heralded the concept of software also was interesting in the question of artificial intelligence. At what point does a computer become an intelligent life form? This has been a big subject for the last 20 years; he was the first to raise it. He constructed something called “The Turing Test.” What is The Turing Test? It’s very simple. It says that if you can hold a decent conversation with it (presumably during krias haTorah), then that is intelligent life form. If you go and speak to this thing – in other words, if you are typing in stuff and stuff is coming back to you and after five or ten minutes of conversation you cannot tell whether that is a human being or a computer, then you have artificial intelligence. That computer has suddenly become a person.
Now I don’t think we are there yet, are we? We have cars that talk back to you and goodness knows what nowadays, but I think we can tell the difference. Anyway, there it is. Turing told us that fundamental thing. What is essential to our concept of a person is conversation – or what I have called during these lectures ‘dialogue’.
Dialogue is the essential meeting of one self and another self; of one person and another person. Essential to that moment is communication: words spoken; words heard; words responded to. That to and fro which creates conversation which is the single, most fundamental test of personhood that we know of. Therefore, here is a Jewish understanding a long, long time ago – many thousands of years ago – that the definitive moment at which two selves, two persons touch and relate to one another, is when they can speak to one another and listen to one another and respond to one another.
In other words, the great insight of Judaism, having said that the most radical thing about Judaism is that God is a person – that I have told you in all the other lectures – the most radical thing is to draw the inference that if God is a person, then that which is holy is language. That is how God reveals Himself. That is when God reveals Himself. Not as a force or a power or a big ‘It’, or a concept. But when God reveals Himself as a person it is when God speaks. It is through speech, language, words that that point – heaven and earth – touch. Through words. And no religion, I think, has been more fascinated, or indeed attached a higher significance to words so that even very secular Jews have become our major theoreticians of language in the past century. People like Wittgenstein, Lévi-Strauss, Chomsky, George Steiner, etc. etc. That is through words. Through words God created the world. Vayomer elokim yehi – And God said, “Let there be” – and it was. Through words, human beings create order. The first thing Adam does is name the animals. The beginning of taxonomy, of classification, the beginning of human domination of nature. Through words. Adam relates to the first ‘other’ in history, the first significant other. Zot ha’pa’am – This time [I have found] Etzem mi’atzamei – bone of my bone Basar mibasari – flesh of my flesh
And it is through words that society is built. You remember this incredible satire on the pretensions of human civilization. The Mesopotamians on a plain in Shenaar create a major technological breakthrough. What is the breakthrough? They create bricks. The first artificial building material. Hava nilveno levaynim. And immediately through this technology they say, We can storm the heavens. Let us make a tower. And you know that lovely joke there in the Torah. They are building this tower which reaches to heaven. I think before airplanes you couldn’t really get the point of this joke. But here it is. You know, God says, let us go down and have a look. They are building this tower to heaven and God is taking out his magnifying glass and saying, let’s have a look at this thing! And what does God do? He shows them that that which is really creative is not technology but language. He takes away their language. They can’t do any more. That is kedushat halashon.
And now we can say – and here I am going to say it in one paragraph but, please, this is another book. Here it is.
We can now map Judaism on the logical geography of world religions. There are basically two religious moments. East and West. Whatever. I don’t want to generalize. Either there are people who think that God is objective, in other words out there. Or God is subjective, in other words in here. These are the two basic things. Either we will find God in the universe out there, or we will find God in the soul in here. The objective as against the subjective.
Judaism says neither. Judaism says both of those are secondary. Where do you find God? In the arena not of objectivity nor of subjectivity but inter-subjectivity. And that is the realm of language, where two persons – both of whom have an inner life – communicate with one another. Language is the place of inter-subjectivity. And I don’t know of any other religion that locates itself in that arena.
What, therefore, is distinctive of Judaism is that God speaks and, through speaking, enters a dialogue with mankind. That is the first belief of Torah min hashomayim; words are holy.
Now let me ask you some simple questions. What does the third movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in A Minor, Opus 130 mean? Can you imagine if I had put up here a canvas by Mondrian? What does that mean? Or – Napoleon’s Russian campaign. What does that mean?
The answer is that these questions are questions that we cannot answer. We haven’t got a clue what an answer would be. We don’t even know where to look.
Then, however, when we discover that Beethoven (you’ll forgive my German, I never learned any) – that when Beethoven wrote over that movement “Das heilige danke…” and when he writes at a certain point “Neue Kraft gefühlen” – “A song of God and thanksgiving” and “Feeling new strengths”, and you suddenly understand that that is Beethoven’s recovery from an illness and you suddenly feel, oh, now I can understand what that music means.
When Mondrian puts under that dazzling canvas “Broadway Boogie-woogie” you suddenly see what he’s getting at.
You want to know the meaning of Napoleon’s Russian campaign? You read ‘War and Peace’ and you know at least what Tolstoy thought it all meant.
Without words there is no such thing as meaning. And that is why the soul in itself, the universe in itself – are not a place to find meaning. It is only when we have words that we can give meaning to anything. We could not read meaning out of creation. The Gemara says that if the Torah had not been given we would have learned industry from the ant, modesty from the cat. But the truth is that if the Torah had not been given, we could equally well have learned cunning from the fox, scavenging from a wolf, violence from a tiger. The universe does not contain meanings on the face of it.
Secondly, history does not bear meanings on the face of it. Do you really think the Egyptians saw yetziat mitzrayim [the exodus from Egypt] in the way we did? Or to give that lovely description of history by Joseph Heller author of ‘Catch 22’ who defined history as a “trash bag of random coincidences blown open by the wind.”
In other words, without words nothing conveys meaning. That is why I say that revelation is the belief in Judaism, not one belief in Judaism. We believe in creation. We believe in redemption. We believe, in other words, in God in nature, God in history.
But if we did not have the Torah we could not even arrive at the concept of creation because nature does not carry a meaning on its surface. If we did not have the Torah as history, we would not understand redemption because there is no unequivocal meaning of history. That is why Torah is essential to meaning because Torah locates kedushah in language.
I quote a lovely sentence of that great writer Paul Johnson who said at the beginning of his ‘History of the Jews’ that, “The Jews stand right at the center of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of a purpose.”
That is because Judaism holds what is fundamentally holy is not a place, a person or a power. What is fundamentally holy is words. God’s speech to us and our response to God. Meanings lie in language. We would not find them anywhere else. That is why Judaism is the supreme example of a religion of language and, therefore, of meaning.
If we do not find God in the Torah, we will not find Him anywhere else.
I challenge anyone to oppose that.
In Torah, God speaks to man and asks ayeka? Where are you? We speak to God and ask God – Where is He? And in that dialogue between earth and Heaven, Judaism lives.
And now I can begin to answer the question. What is Torah min hashomayim?
I said to you in a previous lecture that we have three metaphors. The Bible uses three metaphors to describe our relationship with God, each of which is necessary. Because each of which captures something that the others do not.
Metaphor 1: Adon and eved. Master and servant. As when God says, ki li bnei yisrael avadim, avadei hame. The Children of Israel are My servants. That is, God is the mo’ach, the owner, the supreme power, and we are His subjects. That is number one. Number two, the image of husband and wife, that wonderful image in Isaiah, in Jeremiah, above all in Hosea. Ve’erastich li le’olam. I will betroth you to Me for ever. And, finally, beni bechori yisrael. God is a parent, we are His children.
Those are the three metaphors. And each metaphor gives us an understanding of what is Torah min hashomayim.
Here is the first one. Husband and wife. Let us take husband and wife. I said to you in a previous lecture that marriage for Judaism is the supreme example of a relationship which binds us to somebody else while respecting the dignity and independence of that other person. It is a covenant not of power or manipulation but of love. Now, when you get married, you use language in a special way. Here it is. When I say the following words, “I promise” – what am I doing? I am not merely describing a promise, I am making a promise. It was J. L. Austin, the Oxford philosopher, who called this “the perfomative utterance.” Speech used to create something and specifically to create a moral bond. As a husband does to his wife under the chuppah and says, Harei at mekudeshet li betabat zu kedat Moshe beYisrael – that is doing a marriage. It is not talking about it, it is doing it. Doing things with words. The first fundamental proposition of Torah min hashomayim is that at Mount Sinai God said Harei at mekudeshet li – Behold you are betrothed to Me as a people and this will be your marriage contract. The Torah is the marriage contract between God and the Jewish people.
The Torah is not just a book. It is functionally equivalent to a wedding ring. In other words, so long as we have it, God is still bound to us and we are bound to Him. That is the first metaphor. Husband and wife.
The second metaphor is a political metaphor. God is master, we are His servants. (I’ll make this very short.) The Torah is exactly to the Jewish people what the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of America is to the United States. The Torah is as adon and eved, the written constitution of the Jewish people as a nation under the sovereignty of God and that is the Torah. It is a constitutional document, a political document, the first ever written constitution of any country whatsoever. That is the whole Torah, the five books of Moses, all of which fit exactly what George Mendenhall has discovered is the treaty formula in the ancient Near East. The whole Torah is a constitutional document establishing us as citizens of the Republic of Faith.
Thirdly, the most poignant of all. God as a Father, as a parent. What happens to parents? They have to learn that sometime or other kids are going to leave home. And what do you give them? First of all you have got to give them space. But, secondly, you give them a reminder that even though you and I are going to be living a long way apart, I want you to remember me – namely – a letter, something or other. That is the third definition of Torah min hashomayim. It is God’s letter to us. His way of saying while our paths may diverge, there may be times when I am a long way away – read this letter I have written you and then I will be there with you. That is the most poetic concept of Torah min hashomayim – God’s letter as parent to a child.
That is how Jews survived for 2,000 years in exile, without ever once feeling abandoned by God because, so long as the Torah was with them, God was with them. That was His letter. That was the kol gadol velo yasaf – the great voice of Sinai that never ended. And that was the drama of the kol demama daka. That voice that we could hear if we listened hard enough. Wherever they were in Eastern Europe, in Spain, in Yemen – wherever they were, when they read Torah they heard the voice of God and they knew we were together.
That is the three meanings of Torah in Judaism. It is not a conventional text at all. The Torah is not like a book you find in a library. It is (1) Like a photograph or a letter from a father to a child, (2) the wedding ring between husband and wife, and (3) the constitution which forms Israel as a nation under the sovereignty of God.
What all those metaphors have in common is that they establish a relationship between God and His beloved, if sometimes obstinate and thoroughly wayward, people. That is the meaning of Torah min hashomayim. The words through which God binds Himself to a people and the people bind themselves to God. What is Torah? Torah is the world we enter when, through an act of active listening, we hear the voice of God.
In other words, to put it more accurately, the real principle should not be called ‘Torah from Heaven’. The principle should be called ‘Heaven from Torah’.
That is what Torah min hashomayim is. Holy words, the words in which God binds Himself to us. But I have to just tell you that there is another act of this drama and it will be all skewed if I don’t tell you this. Here it is.
You know that in general in Judaism there is a move, across time, from God being very active and the Israelites being very passive to the Israelites becoming active and God being further away in the scene. That you will see, whichever perspective you look at. But if you look at the various convenants you will see it very simply. What were the first covenants God made with Noah, with Abraham, with Jacob? In those three cases it is God who is doing all the talking and Noah, Abraham and Jacob do not have to do very much. Look at the later covenants – the one made by Joshua, in Joshua Chapter 24. Or by Josiah. Or by Ezra, when they came back from Babylon. Who was taking the initiative? Human beings. God does not play a part in that at all. So there is a move from God’s action to human action, and here in the middle is Mount Sinai. When God speaks and the people answer and that covenant could be formed only through mutuality.
So we move from a world in which God speaks to a world in which there is dialogue between God and humanity, to a world in which human beings speak and God listens but He doesn’t speak. This gave rise to the most extraordinary drama of all. We know that, over time, it may have taken as long as a thousand years, Tenach was canonized. First the Mosaic books. Then the prophetic books. And then the Ketuvim. And that took centuries and centuries to happen.
But what then happens is that when the biblical canon is closed, when we have a book called Tenach and there are going to be no more additions, the whole of Judaism moves into a new key. What does it move from? It moves from revelation to – What do the rabbis do? Interpret. So Judaism shifts from revelation to interpretation. From divine speech to human decoding of that speech. From passive recipient to active interpreters. And that is the change from the world of the prophets to the world of the sages.
It is that point, when God has moved back to allow space for man to grow, that the human role in revelation takes on its greatest dignity. And you know how it takes on its greatest dignity? I have to tell you the story even though you all know it by heart, the story of the tanur shel achnai. In Baba metzia, daf nun tes, amud beis it goes as follows.
In the old days people cooked outside – if you lived in Israel. I don’t advise this in England. They cooked outside. You probably know, because we are getting near Pesach and koshering, that you cannot kosher an earthenware vessel and you cannot purify one either. What do you have to do with it? You have to smash it. Now imagine the following situation. Here you are, living in Israel, you have got a nice cooker outside in the courtyard and if a dead insect falls in it, it is tameh, it is impure so you have got to smash it. Even if somebody is trying to cook a meal, you have to keep smashing the oven and get another oven. I mean, it’s crazy! So somebody invented a labor-saving device called ‘the pre-smashed oven.’ Brilliant thing! It came in pieces. You put sand between the pieces. You made it. If it was impure you took it apart again and you put it together again. A pre-smashed oven.
Rebbe Eleazar said, “Great!” The other sages said, “No! Too easy. Forget it.“ And you know that there was then a major debate. Rebbe Eleazar said, “I’m right! Believe me, Reb Eleazar ben Hircanos. I’m not a shlemiel! I’m right! If I am right, this tree will prove it.” And the tree that was in the courtyard shot into the air, one hundred feet – and some say four hundred feet!
The sages said to Eleazar ben Hircanos, “We are talking about cookery, impurity. You think you can bring a proof from a tree? What’s a tree got to do with the argument?” So, Eleazar says, “If I am right, this river will prove it.” And immediately the river started flowing uphill. And they said, “You can’t bring a proof from a river.” So he said, “If I am right, the walls of this Beit Midrash will prove it.” And immediately the walls started falling down. Rabbi Akiva got up and said, “Walls, if two rabbis are having an argument, what has it got to do with you?” And so, out of respect for Rabbi Akiva they didn’t fall down. Out of respect for Rabbi Eleazar they didn’t stand up straight, and they remain leaning to this day.
Finally, Eleazar said, “If I am right, a voice from heaven will prove it.” And down comes a voice from heaven saying, ma lechem… Rebbe Eleazar shelo te’. bekol makom? – What have you got against Rebbe Eleazar? Surely you know that the law is like him in every case? And Rav Yehoshua stands up and looks to heaven and says, “You already gave us the Torah, Rebono shel olam and in Your Torah you wrote Lo beshomayim hi! – The Torah isn’t made in heaven! It’s made down here on earth! You’re outvoted! You and Eleazar against half-a-dozen rabbis, the half-a-dozen rabbis win.
And at that moment they outvoted the Almighty. Says the Gemara, one of the rabbis met Elijah. You know that Elijah was the guy who moved from heaven to earth. He said to Elijah, “Tell me, Elijah, what did the Almighty say when He was sitting in the heavenly yeshivah and he heard that he had been outvoted by the rabbis?” And Elijah says, Kochayich ve’omar nischoni bnei. The Almighty sat there like a Jewish father, shlepping naches. Smiling, and says, “My children are cleverer than I am.”
It is at that moment when Torah shebichtav moves into Torah she ba’al peh – the written Torah moves into the spoken Torah – when revelation moves into interpretation – that human beings reach a height and a dignity that they had never had in any other religion in mankind. And that is the key second movement of that drama. I have explained to you all along that Judaism is about making space for otherness and that is how God makes space for us. By ending prophecy, giving us the power to interpret – or, strictly speaking, at least from the eved-adon model, what Jews then become is the American Supreme Court. They are not a legislature but they are a judiciary and rabbis can interpret the written constitution as they see fit, as do Justices of the American Supreme Court.
And there it is. That is what the two movement drama of Torah from Heaven is. Therefore, I hope I have given you something of this drama, that Judaism – out of everything in this created world – says kedusha belongs to language. That the most significant religious experience is the dialogue between Heaven and earth, which we now call Talmud Torah – learning Torah. Because when we learn Torah we enter into that I/thou relationship with the Almighty. We hear His voice and we assimilate it and we interpret it.
That is why Judaism has – and I don’t know if you have ever noticed this – How many commands do we have in Judaism? Oh, the restaurant in Wigmore Street! Free advertising here! You would have thought that a religion with 613 commands has a word that means ‘obey’. The whole of Hebrew does not have a word that means ‘obey’. Did you know this? What is the verb that the Bible uses instead of ‘obey’? Lishmoa. Shma Yisrael. And you know that Shma means not ‘to obey’, it means ‘to listen’, ‘to hear’, ‘to internalize’, ‘to understand’, ‘to respond’. There is no English word that means what the Hebrew word Shma means.
The King James Bible invented a word for the purpose. They verb that they chose was ‘to hearken’. But now, nobody hearkens any more so the English translators of the Bible don’t know what to do with this verb. They don’t. I mean, they translate it as ‘obey’, but it absolutely does not mean obey. Because the Almighty never imposes himself on us. He asks us to be active shapers of His word through listening, interpreting, responding. And that is Shma. And that is why the key mitzvah of Judaism is to listen because that which is holy is sound. We are a culture of sound, not a culture of sight.
Friends, I have tried to explain to you what it is to believe in Torah min hashomayim. Or, more precisely, what it is to read Torah covenantally. To encounter Torah as a covenantal document is not to read a book. It is to be addressed. To be called. To be summoned. To listen. And to listen within those words to the kol demama daka. The voice of God, reaching us from the vastness of space and through 4,000 years of history, the voice that we hear – if only we have the courage to listen.