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Reform Voices of Torah - Eikev 5768
Rabbi Jonathan E. Blake
New Words Inscribed On Old Tablets
Parashat Eikev presents itself as a sermonic address by Moses to the Israelites, whose principal theme is a reaffirmation of the Sinai covenant. At the center of this address, Moses narrates a version of the events that transpired at Sinai: how he went up the mountain for forty days and forty nights to retrieve God’s tablets; how, upon descending, he encountered the molten calf and in his rage smashed the tablets; how—putting his anger aside—he convinced God not to destroy the people, despite their defiance.
“Thereupon the Eternal One said to me,” Moses continues, “‘Carve out two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to Me on the mountain; and make an ark of wood. I will inscribe on the tablets the commandments that were on the first tablets that you smashed, and you shall deposit them in the ark.’” (Deut. 10:1-2).
Commenting here, the 13th-Century Spanish exegete Nachmanides (RaMBaN) interprets Moses’ meaning: “‘After I cast myself down [in supplication] before the Eternal One for forty days and forty nights, [God] was acquiescent to me that that I should write the second Tablets. However, the first ones were the work of God, and “the writing was the writing of God” (Ex. 32:16), whereas with these, God instructed me that they should be hewn by my hands, and the writing should be like the original writing which was by God’s finger.’” (Nachmanides ad loc., translation by J. Blake, emphasis added).
Nachmanides is clear: God inscribed the first set of Tablets; but a mortal, Moses, carved the second. God specifically charged Moses to make the second tablets like the first, but Moses would guide the chisel. Human hands would now reify God’s thoughts.
Moses’ tablet-making provides an apt metaphor for our own religious enterprise.
Reform Judaism recognizes the age-old impulse in Judaism not only to preserve ancient wisdom but also to apply mortal hands to its evolution. That a text or tradition must undergo scrutiny in every age is a standard cherished in Reform Judaism. Each new generation inscribes its wisdom on the tablets of the old. Text and commentary, intertwined one after another, constitute the warp and woof of our Jewish tapestry.
In some cases we have deemed ancient laws outmoded and thus dispensable. We have, as it were, smashed old tablets. Such trends we can observe even in the Bible itself. It is clear, for instance, that when the Torah says, “Parents should not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents: one shall be put to death only for one’s own crime” (Deut. 24:16), this ruling “indicates the need for counteracting certain then-prevailing conditions [the likes of which the Bible elsewhere records]” (Plaut, p. 1340). The Torah demolishes old norms of collective punishment and inscribes in their place a new principle.
Rabbinic literature is littered with the detritus of Biblical dicta no longer functional. Rules pertaining to the sacrificial cult, for instance, are explained away as impossible to implement so long as the ancient Temple lies in ruins and the priesthood remains relegated to ceremonial functions.
Reform Judaism has also smashed once-sturdy tablets. In November of 1885, Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler of New York convened a delegation of Reform rabbis with Isaac Mayer Wise presiding. At this meeting in Pittsburgh, the leaders adopted a seminal text (now informally known as the “Pittsburgh Platform”). The following passage illustrates how Reform Judaism, at certain stages of its development, has unabashedly rejected old norms:
“We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.”
Sometimes, it should be noted, we have put the pieces of the old tablets back together again! Witness how many Reform Jews of late have adopted Jewish dietary practices and the wearing of tallitot, kippot, and even tefillin in sharp distinction to the 19th-century attitudes espoused above!
Evoking Moses on the mountain, our ever-evolving faith has also seen fit to inscribe new meanings upon old tablets. The ancient Rabbis famously interpreted the Bible’s harsh “eye for an eye, life for a life” legislation of retribution (lex talionis) to mean that a person would owe money for inflicting a wound (“an eye’s worth for an eye,” etc.)—but that God forbid one should pay with his limb or his life for an injury! This radical re-interpretation of Biblical law is a hallmark of the Rabbinic imagination.
So too in Reform practice. These words from another gathering of Reform rabbis, again in Pittsburgh, in 1999, speak to our endeavor: “We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these mitzvot, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times.”
In particular, our Movement’s egalitarian emphasis has made it necessary to write a new layer of sacred interpretation upon the old norms. We embrace ceremonies to welcome baby girls into the covenant of the Jewish people, the ordination and investiture of women as rabbis and cantors, and the newly published The Torah: A Women’s Commentary which exemplifies our thoughtful interweaving of ancient concerns and modern demands.
There are no stone tablets anymore. We have only parchment scrolls and fragile books—all deservedly revered for the wisdom they offer. But they don’t get the last word. By engaging in Torah study you become part of the story. You, dear reader, are already participating in the next chapter, soon to be written upon the old.