Thursday, April 9, 2015

Blog against Theocracy

Image via Walking the Berean Road.

Avivah Zornberg's The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodos, which I was talking about the other day, introduces the problem of God's use of a plural form in Genesis 1:26, "Let us make man in our image." It's not some kind of royal we, which hadn't been invented back then. What is is? In a midrash, Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman imagines Moses as he is taking God's dictation of the Torah, complaining (it's lovely to me what a kvetch Moses always is with the Lord) that the line will be an occasion for miscreants to deny God's singularity:
Master of the Universe, why do You give heretics an opening of the mouth (pichon peh)? God answered, Write, and whoever wants to read wrongly will read wrongly. God went on: Moses, from this human being that I have created I will raise superior and inferior descendants If a superior considers consulting with an inferior, he may say, "Why do I need to consult someone less important than I?" Then he can be told, "Learn a lesson from your Creator who created upper and lower worlds, but when He came to create the human being, he consulted the angels."
So maybe he and the angels created humanity together, God generously inviting his inferiors to share their dumb ideas about how to bring it off. Or maybe there's some other reason for the plural, because this comment doesn't at all close the issue, especially since the plural shows up in other passages where the angels wouldn't seem to have a role (the name Elohim is itself, of course, plural in form though mostly construed in the singular in the text).

Zornberg comments, on the first part of God's answer,
"Write, and whoever wants to read wrongly will read wrongly." There is no way of sealing the text against misinterpretation; even more, the question of will, of desire, is relevant to interpretation. The reader of this text, or of any text comes with a grid of prejudices and expectations....
Turning back now to the Exodus narrative, we can say that God's hardening of Pharoah's heart may indeed open the mouths of questioners, in the process creating counterworlds, counter-narratives that are never finally harmonized with the master-narrative.
One religion-positive reason to reject theocracy is that religion doesn't provide answers, only an endlessly unfolding proliferation of questions. It's a second opinion by definition, never assertion, always criticism. When you use your sacred text the way the Taliban or the Family Research Council use theirs, as a code giving a straight-up solution to every moral problem, you're doing it wrong.

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