Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Whose Torah is it anyway? / Parshat Yitro

Whose Torah is it anyway? Parshat Yitro describes the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, beginning with Aseret ha-Dibrot (the Ten Commandments). When the Ten Commandments are displayed in the public square, you can be sure hackles will be raised, and protests will follow. For Jews, there is the additional concern that many people claim Hebrew Scripture as theirs and interpret it outside the framework of Judaism, in another religious setting. In fact, the version of the Ten Commandments usually erected in public places in this country is not as Jews understand them to be. Is this a problem?

With Parshat Yitro, we reach the climax of the Exodus story.

Having journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain, and Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples.’” (Exodus 19:2-5)

The people spend three days preparing themselves to encounter God. Amidst thunder, lightning, and smoke, trumpets blaring, the mountain smoking and trembling, God speaks. Parshat Yitro enumerates the Ten Commandments (they are re-iterated in Deuteronomy chapter 5 in parshat V’etchanan) and closes with God’s instruction to build an earthen altar and offer there a sacrifice.

We might think that God intends Torah to be the exclusive property of the Jewish People. A famous midrash, oft quoted, contends that God sought to give it away to other peoples and only settled on Israel because they were the only ones who would accept it:

When God who is everywhere revealed himself to give the Torah to Israel, he revealed himself not only to Israel but to all the other nations as well.

At first God went to the children of Esau. He asked them: “Will you accept the Torah?” They said right to his face: “What is written in it?” He said: “You shall not murder.” They replied: “Master of the universe, this goes against our grain. Our father, whose hands are the hands of Esau (Genesis 27:22), led us to rely only on the sword, because his father told him, ‘By your sword shall you live’ (Genesis 27:40). We cannot accept the Torah.”

Then God went to the children of Ammon and Moab and asked them: “Will you accept the Torah?” They said right to his face: “What is written in it?” He said: “You shall not commit adultery.” They replied: “Master of the universe, our very origin is in adultery, for Scripture says, Thus were both the daughters of Lot with child by their father (Genesis 19:13). We cannot accept the Torah.”

Then God went to the children of Ishmael. He asked them: “Will you accept the Torah?” They said right to his face: “What is written in it?” He said: “You shall not steal.” They replied: “Master of the universe, it is our very nature to live off only what is stolen and what is acquired through assault. Of our forebear Ishmael, it is written, and he shall be a wild ass of a man: his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him (Genesis 16:12). We cannot accept the Torah.”

There was not a single nation among the nations to whom God did not go, speak, and, as it were, knock on its door, asking whether it would be willing to accept the Torah. At long last God came to Israel. They said, We will do and hearken (Exodus 24:7). Of God’s successive attempts to give the Torah, it is written,

The Lord came from Sinai;
He shone upon them from Seir;
He appeared from Mount Paran,
And approached from Ribebot-kodesh,
Lightning flashing at them from his right. (Deuteronomy 33:2)

(Sifre Deuteronomy 343)

Given that everyone else rejected Torah, and only Israel accepted it, does it belong to Israel alone?

Midrash Tanna debe Eliyyahu offers a stunning commentary on the Giving of Torah. It begins with part of the verse from Psalm 19:5.

He placed them in a tent for the sun… (Psalm 19:5)

A parable: There was a mortal king who kept precious stones and pearls of purest ray in his palace, and the people of the kingdom offered to buy them for a goodly sum. The king told them: I will let you buy them; not, however, to be hidden away for the exclusive use of one people, but open to all the peoples of the world. Likewise, when the Holy One, may God’s great name be blessed forever and ever, gave the Torah to Israel, God meant it to be left open for all the peoples of the world, as it is said, I have not given it in secret (Isaiah 45:19). (Tanna debe Eliyyahu, chapter 2)

Torah is not to be hidden away in arks and study houses, but brought into the bright sunlight and shared with others. Its wisdom is God’s gift (or, if you prefer, the Jewish People’s gift) to the world. Doing so, of course, opens it to other interpretations, and sometimes they make us uncomfortable. But truth to tell, there is just as much diversity of opinion concern the meaning of Scripture within the Jewish community, and we have learned to see that as machloket l’shem shamayim, argument for the sake of heaven.

Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael goes even further, suggesting that Torah is, in a sense, hefker (ownerless property and hence available to all):

Had the Torah been given in the Land of Israel, the Israelites would have told the rest of the nations that they have no portion in the Torah. Now that the Revelation was given in an open, ownerless, public space which is accessible to every human being, let anyone who wishes to accept it come and take it. (Mekhilta, Bachodesh)

Rather than fighting the interpretations of others, we would do well to join their conversation and share our wisdom with them.

Last month, two people in Cartersville, Georgia got into a heated debate about the proper interpretation of the Ten Commandments that turned into a slugfest when Carolyn Unfricht slammed Daniel Camarda’s face with her Bible. Camarda responded by throwing Unfricht across the room. Police report that both were “highly intoxicated”—apparently not high on “The Word.” In addition to giving them Scripture, perhaps we should teach them the principle of machloket l’shem shamayim, an argument for the sake of heaven.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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