The Bible’s New Attitude Toward Slavery

In the first part of the book of Exodus, after centuries of slavery in Egypt, God rescues the Israelites amid miracles and wonders. Their freedom, however, is not an end in itself but a precondition of their true national calling: the worship of God. Thus Moses first leads the Israelites not to the Promised Land but to Mount Sinai, where God reveals Himself and gives them the Ten Commandments. In this week’s Torah reading of Mishpatim(Exodus 21-24), which follows immediately thereafter, the Israelites are given the outline of an entire legal system, complete with instructions on tort law, financial regulations, the prohibition on witchcraft, and the agricultural holidays—a first taste of the legislation that will take up much of the remainder of the Pentateuch.

It is surprising, then, that Mishpatim, which inaugurates the legislative portion of the book of liberation, begins by speaking of slavery: “When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment.” This topic consumes the first 27 verses of the parashah, which in itself suggests just how far the Israelites have come: from being slaves themselves in a foreign land to being prospective owners of slaves in their own land, governed by their own laws.

At a glance, it might even seem that the oppressed have become, or are about to become, the oppressors. Yet a closer look shows that the placement of this passage is neither haphazard nor contradictory but instead forms a crucial link between the narrative and the legal segments of Exodus—beginning with the very first verse, which mentions not just slavery but also emancipation…

The full essay is posted in Mosaic Magazine

 

Leviticus, Leonard Cohen, and the Paradox of Rest

The final two Torah portions of Vayikra/Leviticus, Behar and Behukkotai, conclude a book largely oriented around rituals relating to the Mishkan or Tabernacle of the desert, the template for the future Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Many of Vayikra’s laws concern purity and impurity as they pertain to sacrificial worship in the Mishkan. Yet, the book’s final chapters extend this concern outside the precincts of the Mishkan, to encompass the sanctity of time and of place more broadly. The beginning of Parshat Behar discusses the sanctity of time in regard to the seventh day of each week, the Sabbath, the day of rest. Then, using similar language, the text introduces Shemitah, the requirement to allow the land of Israel to rest every seventh year. In fact, the language of “rest” punctuates the entire ending of Vayikra. Immediately when the Israelites enter the Land of Israel, God ordains that the land itself will observe a “sabbath of the Lord” (this referring to Shemitah).

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The commandment to rest, both individually and nationally, does not appear for the first time in Vayikra. Both the commandments of Sabbath and of Shemitah appear earlier in Shemot. A comparison of the respective presentations of these commandments in each book sheds light on the paradox at the heart of what it means for the Jewish nation to rest as a society founded upon God’s order.

Read the full article in The Lehrhaus

The Problem with the Tablets

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“For Cecil B. DeMille,the revelation at Sinai was a purely solitary affair. Charlton Heston’s Moses ascends the mountain on an individual spiritual quest; he hears the Ten Commandments as the Israelites are preparing to worship the golden calf. The scene certainly captures part of the biblical narrative, but it ignores entirely the collective and communal aspect of the moment, as well as the tension between the people’s desire for direct knowledge of God and their quite correct fear of what such knowledge entails. It also ignores the all-important prelude to the revelation: the covenant between God and Israel, for which Moses is nothing more than a go-between.”

For the full article, see this week’s Mosaic Magazine.

 

 

Judaism as a Visual Religion: Reflections on the Tabernacle and “The Temple”

The Book of Exodus contains some of the most fundamental religious-historical narratives of the Jewish people. However, as significant as these narratives clearly are, the book’s largest component verse-wise describes a detailed set of instructions for how to build, and then the actual construction of, the Tabernacle, or Mishkan.  The looming presence of the Mishkan in such a central text, with its gold, precious gems and other valuable materials, challenges certain medieval and/or modern assumptions about Judaism. Judaism has come to be conceived of as a religion of ideas, a textual rather than a visual tradition that is more concerned with matters of the spirit than physical decoration and embellishment.

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The erection of the Tabernacle and the Sacred vessels, as in Exodus 40:17-19; from the 1728 Figures de la Bible

Continue reading “Judaism as a Visual Religion: Reflections on the Tabernacle and “The Temple””

The Midwives of Parshat Shemot

“You drew me from the womb, made me secure at my mother’s breast. I became your charge at birth; from my mother’s womb You have been my God”

(Psalm 22:10-11)

The very beginning of the book of Exodus is literally “teeming” with fertility, birth and abundance. In the book’s opening verses, curiously, images of inexplicable procreation go hand in hand with extreme suffering. The Passover Haggadah tells us that the story of the exodus is one that begins in “disgrace” and ends in “praise.” Yet in the beginning of Exodus we see a kind of dialectical back-and-forth between blessing and oppression that is a challenge to comprehend.

Continue reading “The Midwives of Parshat Shemot”