When God meets us halfway
by Jhos Singer
Shabbat Shalom Chaverim,
One of the less savory fixations in Jewish culture is the notion that there is an “authentic” Jewish life, practice, or knowledge. The dominant attitude has been that anyone wearing a black furry hat, silken coat, breeches and a long beard is more “authentic” than anyone with a pony-tail, t-shirt, and lip gloss; that Hebrew is more “authentic” than any other language (except Yiddish, maybe, and that is only in some quarters); and that Israel is more “authentic” than any other land.
After twenty years in the field, a Master’s degree in Jewish Studies under my belt, and having raised three lovely Jewish adults, I have to say that I find this line of thinking tiresome. As it turns out, Chassidic garb is merely a simulacrum of the fashion of 17th century Polish nobility; Talmud was largely conveyed and preserved not in Hebrew but in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the 2nd -5th century rabbis; rabbinic Judaism was formed in Babylon while Jewish culture came alive in Al-Andalus, Germany, France and America. That said, the myth persists that some ways of being Jewish are better, superior, and yes, more “authentic”, than others.
I would argue that authentic Judaism requires that we grapple with the tradition while forging a partnership with God. And this week’s Torah portion, Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23), gives us a strange and problematic, but kind of wonderful, proof text.
Moses and God are up on Mount Sinai having a chat about how to get the Jewish project started. God offers a 4-point plan for the opening ceremonies:
And the One said to Moses, “Go to the people, and sanctify them today and tomorrow, and have them wash their clothes, and be ready by the third day; for the third day the One will come down in the sight of all the people upon Mount Sinai. And you shall set boundaries for the people roundabout saying, ‘Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edges; whoever touches the mountain shall surely die. Do no let even a hand touch it, lest they be stoned or thrown down; whether animal or person, they will not live, but upon an extended blast of the shofar they may ascend the mountain.’” (Exodus 19:10-13)
1) Sanctify, 2) do laundry, 3) wait 3 days, 4) don’t touch the mountain. You would think that God’s word and instructions are about as authentic—and therefore immutable—as it gets. But, no:
Moses descended the mountain to the people. He sanctified the people and they washed their clothing. He said to the people, “Be prepared after a three day period; Do not touch a woman.” (Exodus 19:14-15)
Do not touch a woman? Where’d he get that? And furthermore, Moses never says, “Do not touch the mountain.” (For the moment, let’s ignore the implied sexism—that’s another drash.) You’d think God would have been furious at Moses. Nope. Instead of punishing or reprimanding him, God calls another meeting:
And the One descended upon Mt. Sinai, to the top of the mountain, and the One called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. (Exodus 19:20)
What a beautifully simple image, the two of them meeting half-way….
It seems to me that from the get-go, Judaism has thrived on calls and responses. Ideas arise, evolve, mutate, and adapt; practices form, evolve, and die. The Torah offers concepts that are pulled, twisted, and stretched like silly putty. And rather than being chided, we are met atop mountains, in the belly of valleys, at the edges of cliffs, and in the middle of the sea. In those places of transition and danger, heartbreak and revelation, we are not alone. Even in the midst of life’s most kaleidoscopic adventures, God is with us—meeting us half way, our partner in the discovery of truth. Judaism demonstrates that what is most authentic to one generation may be false to the next; what is genuine to one is fallacious to another. Change is stability, stability is change. But finding the truth is an eternal pursuit.
May this gift of Shabbat give you time to embrace and celebrate your authentic relationship to Torah, community, and the world at large. And may you never be alone.