B'haalot'kha: Spiritual Authority in Judaism

By David Hazony
Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Is anything touchier in Judaism than the issue of authority?

Orthodoxy, which once lived off a dynamic mix of communal and family traditions, rabbinic debates, and spontaneously emerging practices, has in the last century hardened its stance, subordinating all of life to the dictates of "rabbinic authorities."

Reform Judaism, for its part, makes a big deal of having overcome classical authority, discarding the Bible's legal system in favor of the spiritual and moral inspiration to be found in the prophets.

This week's Torah reading addresses the question of authority head on—and through the person of Moses himself. The answers are unlikely to please either camp.

For Moses, the Israelites are both a nation and a religion, couriers of both a constitutional regime and a unique spiritual, philosophical outlook. Both have their origins in God, but the pathways of understanding them could not be more different.

In politics, Moses affirms his place as the undisputed ruler, lawmaker, judge, and military commander. Every challenge to his political authority is rebuffed with overwhelming, often miraculous force—whether it's the Levites he enlists to help destroy the Golden Calf and kill a few thousand celebrants or the careful deployment of earthquakes to swallow up the rebellious Korah and his followers. This week, approached by well-meaning Israelites who were impure during Passover and hence unable to bring sacrifices, Moses consults with God alone to issue a ruling, allowing them a Paschal do-over.

In law, then, there is no authority but Moses. In matters of the spirit, however, Moses' message seems dramatically different. Indeed, this week's reading also includes what may be the most important incident in the whole Bible addressing the issue of spiritual authority: the story of Eldad and Medad.

Earlier in the Torah, God tells Moses that the spirit of prophecy will not descend solely on him but on the "seventy elders" as well. Yet now, when Moses attempts to assemble them at the Tabernacle, two of the elders rebuff his call, instead choosing to "prophesy in the camp." When Joshua asks Moses whether they should be imprisoned for their insubordination, Moses' response is stunning:

Do you envy for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put His spirit upon them!

We don't know what, exactly, prophecy was, or what its equivalent is today. But clearly, according to Moses, the central spiritual truths can come from anyone, anywhere. And so, throughout the Bible, we discover prophets emerging from all walks of life, requiring no official recognition of their qualifications. To the contrary, their importance often lies in their defiance of the conventionally accepted authority of both kings and priests.

Nor do we know the contents of Eldad and Medad's prophecy. What they said was presumably important, but more important was their right to say it—on their own, without the approval of any other human being. Not only does Moses refuse to punish Eldad and Medad, he holds them out as an example, a model.  

Why the distinction between political and spiritual authority?

Human beings need law to survive. We need courts and police, we need coercion to enforce a minimal standard of behavior. The talmudic rabbis caution Jews to pray for the welfare of the state, for without it, "man would eat his neighbor alive." Laws, moreover, must be fair and right if we want to create the conditions in which humanity can thrive. And so, God Himself gives such laws through His servant Moses.

But where our spiritual lives are concerned, authority takes a very different form.

Legal and political authority implies deference to an authority. When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, all they had was self-abnegation in the face of tyranny—authority at its disfigured extreme. The result was a band of sniveling, whining, scarcely-human ex-slaves who kept looking back longingly at the "flesh pots" of Egypt, chafing at the challenge to create a new world, eventually dying in the desert because of their inability to muster the resolve needed to enter the Promised Land.

The whole purpose of the Exodus was to make men out of these mice, a task ultimately left to the next generation. For this they needed laws—laws grounded in God's morality, laws that could make them not only into free individuals but also into a great nation. But to see the point of the Bible as beginning and ending in law is dramatically to distort the text. Why, if the only real issue were law, would we need all those prophecies, psalms, proverbs, and stories?

Moses' dramatic democratization of spiritual truth should not be confused with relativism. The point is not that everyone has his own wisdom and his own truth, but that real wisdom and real truth can emerge from anyone. The aim of that wisdom and truth is to enable humans to go beyond the minimal conditions of survival, beyond law, even beyond freedom. The aim is holiness: an apprehension of what it means to have been created in the image of God.

This duality is the key to understanding the religious whirlwind that began with the Bible and took flight with the ancient rabbinic tradition, where legend and law, aggadah and halakhah, danced together like twin stars spinning around each other in a galactic gravitational fit, generating a swirling sea of opinion, ruling, storytelling, and perception. The same rabbis who transformed biblical law into a vast array of precedent and living legal discourse also taught that the wise person is "one who learns from every man."

This spiritual tussle lay at the heart of ancient Judaism. What is left of it today?

David Hazony is author of The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life, recently published by Scribner.


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