THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Shemot – פרשת שמות
December 29, 2018 – כא טבת תשעט
This essay is dedicated in memory of Avi Berkovitch Z”L.
Believers the Sons of Believers
At the burning bush, Moses was reluctant to accept God’s mission for him as Israel’s redeemer. He questioned, “What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me, but say: The Lord did not appear to you (Exodus 4:1)?” To placate him, God gave Moses three signs with which to prove his status as a Divine appointee: 1) Moses would turn his staff into a snake. 2) Moses would put his hand into his bosom; upon his removing it, it would be encrusted with snowy scales. 3) Moses would take water from the Nile, pour it on the ground, and have the water turn to blood.
Upon his arrival in Egypt, Moses (through Aaron) relayed to the Israelite elders God’s promise of redemption and performed the signs in front of the people. The people believed and accepted Moses as the Heaven-sent agent of their liberation from bondage.
Resh Lakish said that he who suspects an innocent person of wrongdoing is himself stricken with bodily affliction (Shabbat 97a). Resh Lakish mustered proof for his claim from the story of Moses. In response to Moses’ doubts about whether the Israelites would believe his claim to have communicated with God, God responded: “The Israelites are believers the sons of believers; whereas you, Moses, will ultimately not believe.” That the Israelites themselves were believers is explicit in Scripture: “And the people were convinced. When they heard that the Lord had taken note of the Israelites and that He had seen their plight, they bowed low in homage (4:31).” That the Israelites were the descendants of believers is proven from a verse depicting Abraham’s reaction to the Divine promise of progeny. “And because he put his trust in the Lord, He reckoned it to his merit (Genesis 15:6).” That Moses himself would later stumble in matters of faith is clear from God’s admonishment of him and Aaron at the Waters of Strife (“Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people (Numbers 20:12)”). That Moses was afflicted in a bodily manner is evidenced by the second of the three signs; Moses was temporarily stricken with leprosy.
Maharsha questioned the fairness of the Talmud’s criticism of Moses. Was a prophet to take for granted that his audience would necessarily accept the truth of his prophecy on the basis of mere words and without corroboration through accompanying signs? Certainly not. Moses did not deny that the Israelites would eventually believe him. He was simply concerned that in case they expressed initial doubt he could prove his legitimacy with wondrous signs. Moreover, how does the story actually prove that the Israelites were believers? Exodus 4:30 reports that Moses performed the signs in the presence of the people and 4:31 records that the nation believed in Moses’ mission. Manifesting belief after having witnessed miraculous feats is hardly an impressive display of faith.
Maharsha defended the criticism of Moses by carefully parsing Scripture and by citing the Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 5). Moses erred in not accepting unreservedly God’s promise: “They will listen to you (Exodus 3:18).” The words ושמעו לקלך imply that Moses’ voice alone would be sufficient to convince the Israelite masses; no signs or wonders would be needed. Furthermore, the Israelites were believers the son of believers, in that each generation passed along to its successor the coded language formulated by Jacob and to be used by God’s agent at the hour of redemption. The secret code – Pakod Yifkod – was passed from Jacob to Joseph to Asher to Serach bat Asher, who was still alive upon Moses’ return from Midian (see Genesis 50:24). Exodus 4:31 states that the people believed in Moses’ mission after hearing that God “had taken note” פקד of the Israelites. Upon hearing the correct password, the people, predisposed toward belief, accepted Moses as God’s emissary; the supernatural signs were of little or no consequence.
Does a broad reading of Scripture confirm the Talmudic claim that Israelites are “believers the sons of believers”? The answer is a most definite “no.” Moses described the Israelites’ initial refusal to go up and take possession of the Land of Canaan this way: “You did not put your trust in Him לא האמנתם לו and did not obey Him (Deuteronomy 9:23).” Throughout the Book of Kings, the text chastises many generations of Israelites for failing to heed the word of God as mediated through the prophets, e.g., “But they did not obey; they stiffened their necks, like their fathers who did not have faith in the Lord their God (II Kings 17:14).” The generation of unfaithful fathers is a reference to the sin of the Golden Calf (Metzudat David).
The Psalmist is to the same effect: “They did not put their trust in God כי לא האמינו באלקים, did not rely on His deliverance (Psalms 78:22).” Radak explained: The Israelites believed neither that God could provide them with meat in the Sinai desert nor that He could successfully usher them into the Promised Land. The Psalmist continues: “They went on sinning and had no faith in His wonders (78:32).” The verse alludes to the episode of the spies, Korach’s rebellion, and the uproar at the Waters of Strife. Psalm 106, which presents a thorough historical overview of ancient Israel, similarly condemns the nation for its lack of belief. “They rejected the desirable land, and put no faith in His promise (106:24).”
None of the above instances can, of course, be described as atheism. Rather, the Israelites were faulted for insufficient devotion to Y-H-W-H, the national Deity of Israel to whom they owed allegiance. They lacked faith in His promises, transgressed His commandments, or strayed from monolatry by expanding their roster of worshipped deities to include those of neighboring peoples.
The Scriptural passage that most approaches a description of atheism is אמר נבל בלבו אין אלקים (Psalms 14:1 and 53:2).” The literal translation of the verse is: “The benighted man thinks ‘There is no God.’” However, because of the scholarly consensus that avowed atheism has no place in the Scripture, the Jewish Study Bible’s primary rendering of the operative clause is “God does not care.” The skeptic of antiquity did not necessarily deny the existence of God the Creator, but could easily fathom that the Creator takes little interest in the affairs of man and does not punish evildoers for their sins. In that vein, the Psalmist wrote “The wicked, arrogant as he is, in all his scheming thinks, ‘He does not call to account; God does not care (10:4).’”
The Talmudic sages and medieval commentators were loath to apply even a non-literal reading of Psalm 14:1 to Jews. Rashi read the verse as a reference to Titus, the Roman general who destroyed the Second Holy Temple in 70 CE. The Aggadic account of Titus’ entry into the Temple precincts has him slashing the veil separating the Holy from the Holy of Holies. Blood spurted from the curtain, leading Titus to believe that he had slain the God of Israel (Gittin 56b). Other commentators understood “the benighted one” to mean Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who destroyed the First Holy Temple in 586 BCE. The Midrash posited that the benighted one was Esau (Midrash Tehillim 14). Psalm 14:1 states that the non-believer avows heresy in his heart בלבו, and behaves poorly, without fear of Heavenly retribution, but does not express his heterodox views openly. Esau was similarly two-faced, reserving his worst thoughts and sentiments for the private domain (see Genesis 27:41 for Esau’s internal resolve to kill Jacob ויאמר עשו בלבו).
The sages were willing to concede that some Jews deny even the most basic tenets of Jewish theology. Still, the sages preferred not to expressly state the nature of the heresy. The worst non-believer is classified as a כופר בעיקר “denier of the essential principle.” The essential principle being denied is never precisely identified, though presumably it was the existence of God or His Oneness (Tosefta Shevuot 3:6).
The sages, themselves devout Jews thoroughly convinced of the truths of Jewish belief, were hesitant to accept that other people might, after sober philosophical reflection, reject traditional doctrine and espouse atheism. The sages theorized that people who exhibit repugnant character traits (e.g., who neglect Torah study, despise others, hate scholars, and interfere in the ability of others to practice religion) will eventually come to reject belief in God as means of justifying their abhorrent behavior (Sifra Behukotai 2). The sages similarly argued that the idolatrous Jews of antiquity knew the inefficacy of foreign worship; they practiced idolatry because it conveniently provided “religious” cover for them to engage in lewd sexuality and illicit intimate relationships (Sanhedrin 63b). Put simply, the rabbis posited that only bad people come to reject faith, and they do so either because they are inherently bad or because they wish to obtain pseudo-intellectual excuse for their awful conduct.
In the Greco-Roman era, several of the great pagan thinkers, including Apollonius Molon, Pliny the Elder, Apion, and Tacitus (Histories 5:5), accused the Jews of atheism. The charge stemmed from two phenomena.
(1) Unlike heathens who worship graven images, the Jews claim to worship an invisible Deity. Gentiles, already predisposed not to like Jews, doubted the sincerity of Jewish professions of faith. Unable or unwilling to comprehend the worship of an Entity lacking physical representation, expositors of classical anti-Judaism accused the Jews of believing in nothing. Psalm 115, likely written during the Seleucid period in connection with the Hasmonean victory, expresses Jewish frustration with gentile skepticism about Jewish belief. “Let the nations not say, ‘Where is their God?’ when our God is in heaven (115:2).”
(2) Unlike polytheists of all stripes, Jews refused to participate in the civic religion of the Hellenistic and Roman Empires. Such refusal was in keeping with the Torah’s strict ban on foreign worship. That such recusal from civic religion might foster anti-Semitism and endanger Jewish lives is evident from Haman’s words to Ahasuerus as he tried to convince the Persian king to authorize genocide. “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws (Esther 3:9).” Apion advanced a similar argument in the first-century CE debate over whether the Jews of Alexandria were entitled to the rights of citizenship. “If the Jews be citizens of Alexandria, why do they not worship the same gods with the Alexandrians? (Josephus, Against Apion 2:6).”
In modern times, it is often argued by anti-Semites that Jewish atheism is a factor in undermining the Christian-moral foundation of Western Civilization. In defending against this calumny, Jews have to deal with several uncomfortable facts. Jews, more so than the adherents of any other major religion, have, since the Enlightenment, turned against their inherited faith’s traditional beliefs and have been drawn, in disproportionate numbers, to the leading ranks of the camp of non-believers. Though Judeo-Bolshevism was an anti-Semitic canard created by the White Russians and adopted by the Nazis, it is undeniably true that Marx and many of the leading Communist ideologues were of Jewish descent. Of the Four Horsemen of Modern Atheism, two are of Jewish descent – Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Several boutique denominations of Judaism expressly deny belief in a personal God (Reconstructionism) or any higher power (Humanistic Judaism). Reform, the numerically dominant denomination in American Jewish life, was, in the mid-20th century, rife with atheism at its Cincinnati rabbinical school.
Are Jews, in fact, “believers the sons of believers”? That proposition does not appear to be true outside small enclaves of intense piety. Nevertheless, Resh Lakish cannot be faulted for his overly positive assessment of the Israelites. He knew from personal experience that a return to faith is possible. In our own time, we often see that Jews who once espoused hyper-rational viewpoints and assertively rejected theism do return to their spiritual roots.