As I noted on Monday, I was gratified that a number of those who heard my drasha this past Shabbat morning asked me to publish it. Since I speak from notes it was necessary for me to rework it a bit to be in a readable form, but here it is. I also want to thank Rabbi Yechiel Greniman of Jerusalem whose d’var Torah last week pointed me towards some of these sources.
Rabbi Ben Hollander’s 14th yahrzeit was this week. Ben was a Conservative rabbi who taught at the Reform seminary in Jerusalem and belonged to an Orthodox synagogue. He came to the United States to teach frequently and he was the first person Keleigh and I had as a dinner guest after our marriage when he did a scholar-in-residence gig in Baltimore. I refer to him as “Ben” and not “Rabbi Hollander” because that is how he insisted his students refer to him and it’s hard for me to think of him any other way.
Ben made aliyah because he passionately believed in making Israel the type of society which was envisioned by the Torah, one with respect for the precious individual humanity of each person as created in the image of God. He was a master teacher of Bible and was for many years the TA at the Hebrew University for the renowned Prof. Nechama Leibowitz.
After his death a book was published of his divrei Torah and it was only after I bought the book that I learned I was quoted in it and I am still not sure how that happened. But in a sermon once in Connecticut I quoted his openness to seeing different sides of the question -- he was asked about his position on a controversial issue and he responded “I have an opinion but I don’t agree with it.”
In his dvar Torah for this week's parasha, he points out that the sin of the golden calf is not really one of pagan worship in the classical sense. He says: “Off hand , one thinks of it (the sin of the golden calf) in terms of idolatry…Yet the immediate cause of their act is the absence of Moses. (See Ex. 32:1) …The calf would seem to be a substitute, not for God, but for Moses.” They replace “…a living, speaking man, a teacher and leader who interacts with them...” (and sometimes scolds them!) with “an inanimate object of metal, around whom they can invent a cult of their own devising”. They show a desire for control and certainty, a very common human weakness.
After this Moses has what I can only consider a meltdown and he wants out of his position as leader of the Israelite nation unless he can see God’s face. He is refused with the words “For no man can see me and live”. It is not that God has no face or form, Ben says, but rather that He is “too awesome, too holy, too wholly other” for a mortal being to see Him…”
In comparing the two, Ben comments: “…what have these two scenes in common? It seems to me that the fetishist (he who demanded a material, golden calf for leadership) – on his primitive, gross corporeal level, and Moses in his refined, spiritual, mystical level, both make the same error. Both are preoccupied …with what God is. But there is something even more essential…to “know” the living God by living a godly life, a life dedicated to realizing the vision of God’s holiness in the world through acts of goodness, justice and kindness to one’s fellow human beings”.
In the Torah narrative, Ben points out, the content of Moses’s experience of the Divine is perceiving His compassion. God’s forgiveness, patience, God’s “attributes of Mercy ''. And it is with this very same insight, Rabbi Hollander tells us, that the great Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, ends his “Guide to the Perplexed.” Although the work is a theological discourse on profound subjects of theology, and how to attain “knowledge of God”, “he ends the entire work by stating that true knowledge of God lies not in intellectual or mystical apprehension of the Godhead, but in imitating God’s ways in the ethical sense” (Guide, Vol. 3, 54 ).
“For let him who glories take glory in this: that he comprehends and knows Me, that I am the Lord, who performs love, justice and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I take delight, says the Lord” (Jeremiah, 9:23)
We can’t know what God really is but we can learn how to be Godly. When we treat each other poorly in disagreeing over matters of theology or policy, we undermine the whole point of what we are trying to do as Jews. The key is menschlichkeit above everything else.
As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office. Although I am working primarily from home, I am happy to meet you at the synagogue by appointment.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian