The friction between Spirit and Religion
by Jhos Singer
Shabbat Shalom, Chaverim—
There are two conflicting rabbinic concepts that pit the authority of the earliest generations against the wisdom of the most recent. The first, Yeridat Ha-dorot, means the descending of the generations. Basically, this mentality teaches that our earliest ancestors and teachers were morally and spiritually superior to all subsequent generations. Here’s a Talmudic chestnut illuminating this idea:
“Rabbi Zeira said that Rava Bar Zimuna said, ‘If the first ones were children of angels, we are children of humans, if the first ones were children of humans, we are children of donkeys. And I don’t mean like the donkeys of Rabbi Channina bar Dosa or Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair [who apparently had very brainy donkeys], but rather like run-of-the-mill donkeys.’ ”
Of course for every such Jewish idea there is an equal and opposite point of view, in this case: Hilchata Chivatrai, which loosely translates, “The law goes according to the last ones.” That is to say, the most recent generation has taken into consideration and synthesized all the wisdom, insight, and trends that came before, therefore yielding a more thorough rendering.
While there are many ways these two ideas are parsed, the main tension is wondering whether the greater value, authenticity, and impact derive from revelation or from accumulated insight. Did you have to be there? Or is there some refinement that comes out of time and distance? Has it been a downhill slide since Abraham, or have we been building, crystalizing, and magnifying what he started?
The week’s parasha, Va’eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35), has a refrain which started last week and continues until the Israelites finally shake free from Pharaoh. Moses and Aaron, his brother, approach Pharaoh asking that he send the Israelites out into the desert where they can connect with God. This request becomes a threat. Plagues rain down on Egypt, yanking Pharaoh every which way. He resists, relents, and reneges. And the Israelites are pretty much passive throughout the whole episode. Eventually disaster befalls Egypt, the Israelites, accompanied by a “mixed multitude” of others, break out of their bonds and a new chapter in spiritual history begins.
And every year when I, a post-modern Jewish scholar, read this section of Torah, I am profoundly aware that what I mean by “connecting with God” and what Pharaoh was being asked for are two wildly different things. It’s a place where we encounter the friction between Spirit and Religion, an articulation of the schism of a personal relationship to the Source, and a communal experience of a Deity. The metaphor of going from enslavement to freedom by way of this request is hardly lost on us, but how do we square it?
Well, maybe we don’t.
Maybe there’s room and a need for both. Perhaps it is just human nature that tries, (it seems constantly), to pit the past against the present, the individual against the collective, the inner-self against the outer-self. And perhaps it is exactly that human tendency to divide and triumph that Judaism comes to challenge with its insistence that it’s all One.
Shabbat is a gift of time to contemplate and connect; to embrace the One, the many parts, and the miraculous Wholeness; and to revel in life’s fullness. On Shabbat we are invited to be free—unattached to the approval or permission of the world’s Pharaohs. The tradition invites us to identify with the ancients while percolating their stories into new wisdom; to honor the insight of bygone generations while honing our own; and, most of all, to be at peace with the ever expanding Truth that was, is, and always will be.