Search This Blog

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Shavuot Sermon 5770

Dvar Torah For Shavuot, Day 1, 5770.

As enigmatic and mysterious as the story of the Sinai revelation is, the content of that revelation –what we call the Ten Commandments- is equally puzzling and mysterious. Consider just a few examples of its enigmatic nature. The first “commandment” is not a commandment at all, but a kind of preamble to the other commandments. In it, God self-identifies as the Redeemer Who took the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery. The last “commandment” does not prohibit behavior, but feelings: you are forbidden from covetously desiring what others have. Finally, these commandments are not even identified as such, but as devarim or dibrot, words or utterances of God, even though functionally they are clearly mitzvot: binding commandments and obligations.

This first morning of Shavuot, I want to focus with you on one of these ten divine utterances that I find most interesting. Let’s look for a moment at the second commandment, specifically the first part of it. Please open Humash Etz Hayyim to page 443, at verse 3:
לא יהיה לך אלהים אחרים על פני:
You shall have no other gods beside Me.

In his classic listing of all 613 commandments, Sefer HaMitzvot, Maimonides lists this one as the very first negative commandment, and as the one that is the anchor for all the others: “By this prohibition, we are forbidden to believe in, or ascribe deity to, any but God, exalted be He. It is contained in His words…’You shall have no other gods beside me.’” What I find troubling about this second of the ten commandments, at least as it is stated by Maimonides, is that –like the prohibition against coveting- it seems to be about what a person thinks or believes, not about what a person does. It does not necessarily possess any behavioral content. Maimonides himself acknowledges this when he teaches elsewhere (MT Hilchot Teshuva ch. 3) that a person who believes in the existence of many gods or deities is branded a min, a heretic who is denied access to the world to come. Implicit in his teaching is the recognition that a traditional court of Jewish law could not punish such a person, mi shum she lo asah maaseh: he or she has not actually done anything prohibited, only thought or believed something that is presumably unacceptable.

The sages of the early rabbinic period, who preceded Maimonides by many centuries, offer a more concrete, behavioral interpretation of this prohibition. They translate “other gods” to mean literally, “the gods of other people”, or “the gods who become like others to their worshippers by being proven worthless,” or even “the gods who transform their worshippers into the other—someone who becomes less than human through enslavement to idolatry.” In other words, God is not prohibiting a personal belief, feeling or thought as much as prohibiting active physical and emotional servitude to false deities. What counts for the sages is the behaviors of false servitude that lead to the spiritually enslaved mentality of false servitude.

Another refreshing way of understanding this second of the Ten Commandments is that it is not a commandment at all, but a promise or a reassurance concerning the results of faith. The popular Hasidic Torah commentary, Noam Megadim explains our verse by first referring us to the very last commandment: do not covet. The author of Noam Megadim asks, how is it that God could require us not to covet? We may not want to feel covetous feelings, but they will sweep over us anyway, against our will. His answer? Do not covet is not a prohibition but a promise: if we follow the first nine commandments and align ourselves with a life of holiness in God’s presence, we will be able to master (not extirpate) that covetous impulse that often results from our belief that we are the center of the world and that we have coming to us everything that we want. So too, “You shall have no other gods besides Me.” Read in a creatively literal way, the Hebrew of our verse can be understood as God saying to us : “You will not have any other gods.. as long as you are in the presence of PANAI, My face.” That is, as long as we discipline ourselves to keep God’s face – God’s immanent presence- right before us, the other false gods won’t become our gods. What gods in particular is the Torah speaking about here? Other human beings who try to coerce a person of faith into embarrassed conformity to their views of the world and perspectives on life: they assume a kind of god-like mastery over many a person who is seeking a life in God’s presence but who is made to feel stupid, backward, or humiliated because he or she dares to embrace a life of religious values and consciousness.

I am no fan of extremes, whether they be of the religious or the secular variety, and I certainly have no use for the way that extremists of either camp carry truth with a capital T in their pockets, attempting to denigrate others who do not share their worldviews. Like you, I am terrified by the way a small but virulent group of young Muslims are using Islam as the match that lights weapons of terror and mass destruction against innocent human beings. Admittedly in a different way, though with growing concern, I fear how growing number of secular thinkers are reacting to religious extremism. Rather than focus critically on what has become corrupted and dangerous in organized religion, they are throwing out the spiritual baby with the political bath water by condemning all religious faith, all religious community and values, and all mention of God, as backward and toxic. With an almost puritanical fervor borne of understandable fear, they are developing a rhtetoric of anti-religion that is just one more false god seeking to cow adherents of religious tradition into silence by branding all of us adherents of dangerous fundamentalism. They do no justice to the wisdom and insights of millennia of religious teaching and quest; they also do no justice to the billions of truly decent human beings whose decency derives in great part from religious living.

The teachings of the Noam Megadim are especially applicable in responding to both forms of extremism. To religious extremists we need to say: “Your fervor for God needs to be balanced with respect for God’s laws that require you to treat all of God’s creations with respect.” To secular extremists we need to say: “Your fervor for law and freedom needs to be balanced with a humble recognition that these great traditions of law and liberty have their sources in the even greater traditions of religion.” To ourselves, as religious modernists seeking to contribute spiritually and morally to promoting peace and human rights, we need to say: place the God of peace and justice before you every day; make God –however you understand God- the basis of your decision to live in the world and better it; and recognize that, all the false gods of human arrogance and contempt notwithstanding, you have nothing for which to be ashamed, when God is facing you.