By Dr Shaiya Rothberg
The Divine Case Against Fundamentalism
Religion is a crutch for those who cannot think for themselves. At least that is a common conception. The logic goes that we seek religious authority so that somebody else takes responsibility for our choices in life. But what if true religion is the opposite? What if God’s message is “think for yourselves!” A close reading of this week’s parasha uncovers exactly that message.
After inviting Moses into a “devouring fire” at the top of the mountain in front of all Israel, God keeps him up there for forty days and forty nights (Ex. 24:12-18). One can’t but suspect that God was aware that by the time Exodus 32:1 rolled around, the people would think Moses dead and themselves abandoned in the desert. Sure enough (and I paraphrase slightly here), “The people saw that Moses didn’t come back and so they gathered around Aaron and said ‘Get up! Make us a God!…because this man Moses, we don’t know what’s happened to him…” It is hard to believe that God was surprised.
Thinking Moses dead, the people made a calf. God’s response to the calf is more than a little strange. God says to Moses, “Now allow me to let my anger destroy them and I’ll make you into a great nation” (32:10). “Allow me”!? Since when does God, about whom it is said “God gives no account of any of God’s doings” (Job 33:13), ask permission to do anything? And one wonders whether God’s offer to make a new nation out of Moses was a test. Would Moses take the bait? In truth, Moses’ answer seems a little weak. He more or less says (Exodus 32:11-14), “God, it will be really bad for Your image in Egypt if you kill them all now.” One might have expected a more principled argument, as Avraham had raised before God at Sodom (Gen 18:23): ‘Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?’
In Exodus 32:32, after Moses had more time to think about God’s threat/offer, he revises his position. He says to God (again I paraphrase slightly): “Now, if you forgive them – great, but if not, erase me from the book that You have written!” There’s a lot of chutzpah in that statement. Moses essentially said, “Sure, you can kill them if you want, but I refuse to be the father of your new nation!” Maybe then God said to God’s self: “Finally, he’s growing a backbone! I’m not sure how much more idle talk about bad public relations I could take!”
God then seems to continue his attempt to educate Moses towards independent thinking. In Exodus 33:3, God makes it clear that while obliterating the people is off the table, God is leaving Israel and will send an angel instead. The people mourn and Moses immediately removes the Tent of Meeting (where he meets God) from the Israelite camp (33:7). But then a period of negotiation between Moses and God begins (33:12-21). Verses 33:14-15 are difficult to interpret. Following Rashi, we might render them like this: “OK”, God says in verse 14, “I agree to move back in”. “That’s good”, responds Moses in verse 15, “because if you don’t move back in, I quit!” Moses actually told God that he’d quit serving as God’s prophet if God didn’t give in to his demand! Perhaps at this point God leaned back, smiled and said, “I think he’s gotten the hang of telling Me off. Finally, the goal of this lesson has been achieved!”
Dr. Shaiya Rothberg lives in Jerusalem and teaches at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is also the chair of Haqel – Jews and Arabs in Defense of Human Rights.