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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat Yitro 5761
Exodus 18:1-20:24
February 17, 2001    24 Shevat 5761

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

My father had a mind that reveled in philosophy. Maimonides, Spinoza and Kant were his lifelong companions. As a kid absorbed by sports, I knew their names almost as well as those of Sid Luckman and Joe DiMaggio, though their stats were harder to come by. I often saw my father pore over an old edition of Samuel Ibn Tibbon's 13th century Hebrew translation of Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed, written in Arabic. And in 1960 he brought a copy of Solomon Munk's mid-19th-century French translation based on the Arabic original which Munk had discovered.

I suspect my father would have preferred to see me get my doctorate in Jewish philosophy rather than Jewish history. He had a limited tolerance for the attention to detail required of serious history. His mind soared to contemplate ultimate questions; mine enjoyed grappling with the minutia of a fragmented past. When we came to speak of Judaism in his later years, we would usually meet on his turf.

In truth, however, theology and history in Judaism are inseparable. It requires a convergence of both domains to appreciate the revolution that the Torah effected with its new conception of God. What is the nature of the deity who issues the Ten Commandments which we read this Shabbat? My father would have liked that question. As for my answer, I formulated it, alas, long after he was gone.

The key to the Decalogue is its preamble: "I'm the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, the house of bondage (Exodus 20:2)." By this point in the narrative that statement seems little more than a prosaic summary of what is well known. Israel would never have been sprung from slavery without the remarkable intervention of God. Our obligation to heed the commandments to come is grounded in that indebtedness. God's claim on our loyalty rests on the miracle of the Exodus.

But there is more at stake here than divine self-interest, a demand for repayment. The preamble heralds a radical shift in the locus of God's presence. The God of Israel is to be found in the course of history and not the contours of nature. The world of polytheism rejected by the Torah personified natural phenomena into individual deities with specific functions -- Baal as the god of rain, Astarte, the goddess of the evening star and Poseidon, the god of the sea. Because the underlying phenomena remained the same, the gods became transmutable: to enter another nation's pantheon required no more than a change of name.

The God of Israel, in contrast, is the God of history who presides over nature as well as human events. This is the force of the fourth commandment which proclaims God as the author of creation. In observing Shabbat, we acknowledge creation as an act of history executed by a sovereign without bounds. All that exists derives from a single and unfathomable divine being. Nature, however, enchants us into thinking of multiple seats of power, none supreme and all ensnared by the same inexorable, impersonal fate that governs human destiny.

The gods of nature are immanent; the God of history is transcendent. The essence of biblical monotheism is less about numbers than power. God is omnipotent, beyond fate and totally free. The Torah shares an elaborate sacrificial system with its non-monotheistic neighbors, but its meaning has been altered. Sacrifices are no longer conceived of as nutriments for the divine to be eaten in consort with the humans who offer them. When Jethro joins Moses, Aaron and the elders of Israel in a burnt offering, the Torah stipulates that it was consumed in a festive meal "before God," not with God (Exodus 18:12). The change in preposition hints at the upheaval in theology.

Unlike sacrifices, magic of all sorts is repudiated by the Torah. God is not susceptible to coercion. Magic propitiated because it provided the gods with a measure of human assistance against the common, overriding danger of fate. Magic was too integral a part of idolatry to be redeemed.

Nature also was regarded with deep suspicion and reserve. As the seed bed for idolatry, that is, revering something less than the ultimate source of all being, nature could only divert and confuse. It was surely not home to other deities. The prohibition against graven images excluded the world of nature from the realm of the holy. To associate God with any natural form would soon sever the symbol from what it stood for, ending up in worship of the symbol itself. The genuine experience of God did not lie in gazing at the sun or the stars, but in recalling the miracles which punctuated the emergence of Israel into nationhood.

Hence the God behind the Exodus is the God beyond nature. History is the realm in which the wonders of God are to be witnessed. It is no accident that the Hebrew words for wonder (peleh, nifla'ot) in the Tanakh generally refer to God's interventions in history rather than handiwork in nature. In the Song at the Sea, which celebrates the failure of Pharaoh to thwart the Exodus, Moses exults: "Who is like You, O Lord, among the celestials; who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders (oseh feleh) (Exodus 15:11)." Or in Psalm 78:11-12 and Psalm 98:1 the wonders invoked are clearly divine acts of beneficence for Israel.

To be effective over time, miracles must be remembered. Without memory, faith will wane. Psalm 78 is a bitter poetic rendering of the miracles wrought by God for Israel at the Exodus and in the wilderness. Yet, they are quickly forgotten, bringing Israel to spurn God's commandments. Eruptions of divine frustration and punishment follow human infidelity.

Beginning with Shabbat, the holy days are turned into moments of historical commemoration to reinforce memory. As Shabbat recalls creation, Pesach recounts the Exodus, Sukkot, survival in the wilderness, and Shavuot, eventually, the giving of the Torah at Sinai. The natural origins of these harvest festivals are devalued. Similarly, the synagogue liturgy become freighted with historical references: the daily recitation of the Song at the Sea and the frequent mention of the Exodus. The memory of past instances of divine compassion nurtures the hope for the appearance of others. History encapsulates the promise of redemption.

In sum, the Decalogue offers a lens on the deep structure of biblical monotheism and of later Judaism, indeed of Christianity and Islam as well. With the rejection of nature as the matrix for experiencing the divine, history served to encompass the encounters of Jews with a Supreme Being of cosmic and ethical proportions. Remarkably, it is a shift that has survived the ravages of exile, persecution and even the Holocaust.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Chancellor Schorsch's commentary on Parashat Yitro are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld