Sunday, December 30, 2007


Shemoth Blogging

The degree to which how one views the theology of the J-source sure is affected to a great degree by whether one is primarily influenced by Judaism or by Christianity, don't it? Even if the original source-theorists claimed to be secular and independent minded scholars, one cannot help but marvel at the degree to which their view of how the J-source conceived of Hashem was influenced by a Christian or possibly even a Gnostic view of what the "Old Testament God" was like.

OTOH, when we Jews think of Hashem qua the identification with the Tetragrammaton, we tend to think of the burning bush (in this last week's parsha), don't we? We tend to view the idea of a God with an ineffable name as being a divinity quite the opposite of the demiurge, as has been explored by Fromm, Runes, et al.

I guess it just goes to show the importance of one's biases in shaping supposedly "objective" opinions: even the most "objective" scholars cannot help but display their background and prejudices.

Meanwhile, the Ashkenazic Haftarah is a most interesting part of Isaiah. Proto-Isaiah has this interesting manner of repeating his prophesies as he imagines them being heard by his contemporaries, viz., as baby talk. In this week's Haftarah, the baby talk is "laws to laws, laws to laws; measure to measure, measure to measure". Isaiah notes that some people hear the message of the Bible, and -- whether they embrace it as the fundamentalists do or reject it as the new-atheists do -- only think about the laws and measures as if they were baby talk.

They miss the message of why we need laws and measures to help us on the right path: we may talk about random acts of kindness, but really acts of kindness sometimes need care and thought. And the road to hell is paved with the best intentions, as the saying goes. But God, in love for us (as the prayer indicates) has given us a path (halacha) to live in the right way.

And the obligations without measure are listed in Mishna Peah somewhere. Inexplicably (or perhaps if I studied more Talmud, I'd understand why), commentary on this is located in Tractate Shabbos (127a?). Anyway, most Jewish prayer books will have this in the morning blessings as the study to do in order that your prayer before studying Torah (which you should make every morning as you never know when you'll study Torah) is not in vain. Interestingly, the Torah per se read here is from Leviticus. Talmud Torah (the study of Torah) shows how what seems to be a very outdated cult really leads to ideas that help us live as righteous people even to this day.

Meanwhile on the subject of Talmud and those measures which redeem us: Kinyan Torah, in describing the virtues of the scholar (which are the highest virtues according to Kinyan Torah), points out that, of all things, citing sources leads to redemption ... and cites Esther's citation of Mordechai as its exemplar.

Interesting to ponder, ain't it? Isaiah's baby talk about laws and measures and the various little things we do to build a society are really what saves us. Do we really need to worry about the name of God, which we ought not to pronounce anyway lest we take that name in vain? Or is what is more important noticing the ever burning bushes around us and realizing that we always could be on sacred ground and that all those measures and laws are important. Or as Talmud puts it, discussing another verse from Isaiah, the children, who study God's word, are the builders who shall experience peace.

Because through this study, they will accept and fulfill the obligations without measure so their reward will be without measure, even if it be hidden, they shall be fortunate. As the Talmud puts it (and I'll not attempt to translate): v'Talmud Torah K'neged Kulam.


Shemoth, of course, means "names". Many, especially during periods when we Jews have been oppressed and struggled to maintain our existence, have pointed out that the list of names that begins this parsha (and the Book of Shemoth, or Exodus), points to the degree to which, even in the face of oppression, the Hebrews in Egypt maintained their identity. OTOH, we also note the presence of Egyptian names (Moses, Pinchas) even amongst the leadership of the Hebrews, which should tell us that we should not completely exclude but rather embrace elements of the larger culture that lead us Jews in better directions.

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