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The Covenant renewed by study
by Gabriel Abensour

Midrash Exodus Rabbah 19:33:

“When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, ‘I punish the iniquity of the fathers over the children and over the children’s children’ (Exodus 34:7), Moses said to him, ‘Master of the world, yet there are ungodly men who had righteous children, why should they bear their fathers’ faults? Terah was idolatrous while his son Abraham was a righteous man. King Hezekiah was a righteous man, while his father (King Menahe) was an ungodly man. King Josiah was righteous, while his father Amon was an ungodly man. Is it appropriate that the righteous should be punished because of their fathers?! The Holy Father answered him: ‘You taught me something! I promise to cancel my word and replace it with yours. As it is said: ‘The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, nor shall the children be put to death for the fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin.’ (Deuteronomy 24:16). And it will be written in your name in the Torah, as it is said: ‘But the children of the murderers he slew not: according unto that which is written in the book of the Law of Moses, wherein the Lord commanded’ (II Kings, 14).

Of all the literary genres known to Talmudic literature, the Midrash is undoubtedly the most capable of making us feel the complex relationship of the Jewish sages to the holy texts and to God. This short, highly subversive Midrash is taken from Bamidbar Rabbah, a collection of Midrashim commentaries on the Book of Numbers, the final version of which seems to have been published in the 12th century, in Provence.       

           This text depicts Moses on Mount Sinai, writing the Torah under divine guidance. Here we are back to the ideal origin, to the Founding Revelation, which took the form of a sacred text. Moses writes studiously what we imagine to be the perfect, ahistorical and unchanging word of God. Genesis is over, the Exodus is well underway, and we are then at the verse: ‘I punish the iniquity of fathers on children and on the children’s children’. Moses stopped his movement, raised his pen and turned to God to question the validity of what had just been dictated to him, and which he had probably written.

           Abraham was bargaining the fate of the inhabitants of Sodom with God, the Sages, through the figure of Moses, go so far as to question the validity of his Torah: “Is it appropriate that the just should be punished because of their fathers?” Several answers exist, however. The fundamentalist would demand the submission of moral intuitions to the divine word. God has decreed it, so the mortal has nothing to add to it. Let’s apply the rule coldly, totally. The anthropologist or historian would certainly answer that the concept of collective punishment responds to a certain tribal logic, corresponding perfectly to that of the Biblical Hebrews. The literal reading, common to these two contradictory exegeses, would leave us with a text that no longer deserves to be read—temporal and outdated for the scientist, finite and absolute for the fundamentalist.

           For the Sages, on the contrary, the divine and timeless character of the text is found precisely in the act of questioning and interpretation, elevated here to a canonical rank. The Sages questioned divine logic through the figure of Moses and here they were interpreting the dissent of the text. Because in the face of the human voice, God backs off and promises to cancel his word. It is in Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah, that this promise is fulfilled: “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, nor shall the children be put to death for the fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin.”

           Did God make a mistake in judgment and then change his mind? At first glance, the answer seems positive. Yet, the essence of the divine nature does not seem to be the object of this midrash. Moreover, why would God have kept track of his error rather than correcting the verse of the Exodus? In reality, this text invites us to consider the many dissensions of the biblical text as canonical divine hesitations and above all, as a method of resolving the contradictions of the text: to treat them as moments of a continuum rather than as separate entities. God says two or three different things, and yet the Torah is One. Interpretation, not the author, is the place where the unity of the text occurs. Interpretation is the act that transforms the contradictory texts of the Torah into polyphonic texts. The sages tell us that interpretation was there from the beginning, even before the Torah was written from beginning to end.

How can we theologically justify this appropriation of the divine text by the human mind? To answer this question, it seems necessary to me to explore again the concept of the Covenant between God and Israel. The Torah emphasized the Covenant of “pieces” (Genesis, chapter 15), where God promised the land of Israel to Abraham. But in Talmudic times, Judea was occupied, Jerusalem was destroyed and its people exiled. There is then a paradigm shift, a renewed alliance, which would no longer pass through the earth. The new covenant is that of Sinai, a covenant about the Torah and not about the earth, the word and not about matter.

Many Talmudic passages depict Moses on Mount Sinai. But Moses, in the Talmud, is no longer the passive prophet writing under divine dictation. Moses questions, Moses comments. In the excerpt opening this article, Moses contradicts and takes offence. For rabbinic Judaism, the covenant of Sinai was sealed by the transfer of the Torah from God to mankind. From that moment on, the Torah is no longer God’s, but the one’s who reads it, comments on it and interprets it. Another Talmudic passage takes this idea to the extreme:

Moses commanded us a law, inherited from the congregation of Jacob (Deuteronomy 33:4): Do not read “inheritance/morasha” but “fiancée/morassa”. The fiancé, before his marriage, is permanently with his stepfather. Once married, it is the latter who comes to his daughter’s house. This was before the Torah was given to the children of Israel, as it is said: “Moses went to heaven” (Exodus 19). Once the Torah was given, the Holy One, blessed be He, asked Moses, “And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them (Exodus 28). (Midrash Exodus Rabbah 33:4)

The Torah is described here as the daughter of God, taken as a wife by the Jewish people. In Sinai, Moses ascended to heaven, to God, to ask for his hand. But once the marriage is sealed, the Torah vows its fidelity to another—it is no longer God the Father’s. When he yearns for it, it is up to him to go to the Temple or to the house of study, places where Jews study and interpret the Torah, as husbands loving their wives.

This alliance lives beyond material promises and geopolitical conditions. It lives in every study house where, for thousands of years, the Jewish people have been looking at the text, like so many acts of love and tenderness from a man to his wife.