Tuesday, February 21, 2012

"Phony theology?" Really? Read again / Parshat Tetzaveh - Shabbat Zachor

Last week we all witnessed the spectacle of a serious candidate for the Republican nomination announce on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that the Democratic president of the United States operates by “some phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible.” Rick Santorum’s attempt to explain and mitigate the offensive sting of his ill-advised words helped little. Beneath them lies the arrogant and hubristic claim to have a lock on God. Santorum knows God; he knows the “correct” interpretation of the Bible; and above all, he knows how the Bible should steer American policy. Anyone who thinks differently has a “phony theology.”

So, you know the Bible, Mr. Santorum? I suspect that you’re actually clueless. Let’s examine with text in hand. This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Tetzaveh, is usually read on Shabbat Zachor, the shabbat prior to Purim. On the surface, we might think that the connection between Tetzaveh and Purim is clothing since Tetzaveh is virtually all devoted to the vestments and ordination of the priests, and Purim is celebrated in costume. But it’s far deeper, and contrasting the two reveals far more.

Parshat Tetzaveh tells us that the High Priest wears elaborate vestments (breastpiece, ephod, robe, fringed tunic, headdress, and sash -- Exodus 28:4). You can’t miss him. His tunic is trimmed with little golden bells. Torah explains: Aaron shall wear it while officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before the Lord and when he goes out… (Exodus 28:35). In addition, the High Priest wears a headpiece of pure gold engraved with the words kodesh l’Adonai (“holy to God”), reminding everyone that the priest is set aside for service to God.

The Mishkan (Tabernacle) is God’s dwelling place on earth. God’s presence wholly and palpably fills the space:
When Moses had finished the work [of the Tabernacle] the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon in and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. (Exodus 40:34-35)
Here in the Book of Exodus and elsewhere in Torah, we find a theology of a God who requires complete devotion, obedience to Torah, and daily sacrifices. The people live by God’s Torah and when those who interpret it -- the priests -- are stymied, they consult the oracular urim v’tumim and God supplies an immediate answer in real time. In return, God protects the people. This is a theology of a God who is immanent, active, involved.

In contrast, God is nowhere mentioned in Megillat Esther. Not once. Not even a cameo appearance. Mordecai and Esther do not consult God. They do not expect God to save them from the genocidal machinations of King Achasuerus’ prime minister, Haman. Mordecai tells Esther that she -- and not God -- is the only hope of the Jews. Esther conceives a plan to save her people without consulting God or priests. Here is a theology of a God who is not a player, who is hidden.

Which is the “real” biblical theology? Is God immanent and active, or transcendent and hidden? Can we set America’s policies -- national and international -- by “biblical theology”? (Clearly, we ought not, but it should be clear that we cannot.)

The Rabbis struggled with God’s absence in the Book of Esther. In an attempt to prove that God is at least in the background, in b.Chullin 139b they ask: Where is there reference to Esther in the Torah? Their answer: v'anochi hasteir astir panai ba-yom ha-hu - “I will surely hide my face on that day” (Deuteronomy 31:18). In other words, God works behind the scene. God’s presence is implicit in his absence. And indeed, many experience God that way. But this is a far cry from the theology of Exodus.

The God of Exodus is exceedingly powerful and redeems Israel from slavery, parts the Reed Sea, and brings them to Mt. Sinai. The God of Esther may dwell in the heart and mind, but does not actively interfere with history in order to save Israel. Those are wholly different ideas about the nature of God. The Rabbis make a nice attempt to reconcile the discrepancy between the theology of Exodus and the theology of the Book of Esther. But it’s just that: an attempt to reconcile the two because, in truth, they are entirely different.

So, Mr. Santorum, which is the “real” biblical theology? Are you qualified to pass judgment? Or do you just use religion -- and your sanctimonious presumption of a monopoly on truth -- to bash your political opponents?

The genius of Torah and indeed all of Tana”kh (Hebrew Scripture)-- like the genius of Talmud -- is that it scrupulously and consciously preserves differing opinions, perspectives, and experiences of God. There is no imperious claim to one truth. Torah -- both Written and Oral -- nurtures a quest for holiness that has gone on from generation to generation for more than 3,000 years. It invites us to join the ongoing conversation.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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