Sunday, February 9, 2014

Against Fundamentalism (Portion Ki Tissa)

The tablets [of the Law] were inscribed on both sides, front and back. The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.
                        (Exodus 32:15-16)

I recently saw a car bearing a bumper sticker that decreed: “God said it.  I believe it.  That settles it.” 

Thankfully, our tradition does not think of Torah in this way. 

As this week’s portion, Ki Tissa, describes the tablets that Moses carries down from Mount Sinai, it goes out of its way to note that they were inscribed on both sides, front and back.  While one could take this literally, most of our commentators prefer to read this metaphorically.  The eighteenth century Chasidic commentary, Tiferet Uziel (by Rabbi Uziel Meizels, a student of the Baal Shem Tov) notes: “There are reasons to interpret a passage in Scripture to say ‘Pure!’ and reasons to interpret the same passage to say ‘Impure!’ and many similar cases.  This is the writing ‘on both sides.  One person’s view may differ from a friend’s as widely as possible but ‘both are the words of the living God.’”

Both sides—directly opposing views and interpretations!—are the words of the living God!  This is the theology at the heart of Judaism.  Our tradition stridently rejects the notion of “God said it.  I believe it.  That settles it.”  For us, serious Jewish commitment and love of Torah do not entail fundamentalism.  Indeed, the roots of this notion that “both are the words of the living God” point to an imperative to respect and listen seriously to views other than our own.  The phrase goes back to the ancient Talmudic debate between Hillel and Shammai, who famously disagreed about almost everything.  The Talmud notes that in virtually every case, we follow the path of Hillel.  As Tractate Eruvin 13b famously explains: “A heavenly voice declared: ‘The words of both schools are the words of the living God, but the law follows the rulings of the school of Hillel.’”  And why does the school of Hillel win this dispute?  The text answers: “The disciples of Hillel were gentle and modest, and studied both their own opinions and the opinions of the other school, and humbly mentioned the words of the other school before their own.”

In other words, the best and truest faith is that which denies the arrogance of certainty and acknowledges the importance of understanding views other than our own. 

Our Torah is written in a way—“on both sides”—that invites and encourages loving debate and respectful differences of opinion.

Thank God.

Or, as my bumper sticker might read: “God said it.  Let’s discuss and debate it—and so learn from it, and from one another.”  (I may need a bigger bumper. . . )

No comments: