Torah Portion of the Week: Nothing Personal

Parashat Tetzaveh.

The erection of the Tabernacle and sacred vessels, from 'Figures de la Bible' (1728).

The Torah does not present God. He simply appears in the first verse of Genesis – “When God began to create heaven and earth” – and the assumption is that the reader already knows who he is. Although the Torah is a narrative, and not a list of principles of faith, it’s a narrative that is intended to teach readers a specific way of living and to impart meaning to that way of life, one in which God plays a central role. Thus, among other things, interpretations of the Torah are an attempt to understand its concept of God.

The classic study on this subject is Yehezkel Kaufmann’s “The Religion of Israel.” Kaufman argues that the principal difference between biblical monotheism and polytheism, which characterized the faiths of other ancient peoples, does not lie in the number of gods, but rather in the fact that the quantitative difference expresses a distinction in substance. According to Kaufmann, whereas other peoples identified nature’s forces as divine, the biblical religion was unique in conceiving God not as part of nature, but rather as standing above, as its creator.

Like mortals, the gods of polytheism are subject to what Kaufman calls “the metadivine realm” – that is, nature’s laws, which include the life cycle of birth and death, physical and emotional needs, and the impact of various divine forces. None of the gods has absolute control over reality; each of them is engaged in power struggles with other gods and must cope with life’s circumstances. In contrast, the biblical God is the one who determines nature’s laws and is thus above them. He has no rival god to contend with him or to limit his powers.

Not only are the gods’ powers limited by other gods; mortals too know that the gods are subject to the laws of the metadivine realm; thus, a mortal who practices magic and has expert knowledge of these laws can influence the gods and change reality contrary to their will. In Kaufmann’s view, biblical ritual is in essential opposition to magic because it is based on an effort to satisfy and a direct appeal: Mortals seek to appease God through their actions, and turn to him in their prayers in the hope of persuading him to treat them favorably. Since the biblical God is not subject to nature’s laws, he is free to decide whether to accede to a mortal’s request.

Last week, we discussed the chapters on the Portable Tabernacle, one of the Torah’s versions of God’s revelation on Mount Sinai. In this version, Moses does not receive God’s laws on Mount Sinai but is instead given instructions for the Tabernacle’s construction. God informs Moses that only after the Tabernacle is erected will he meet with Moses there and transmit the laws to him. This week’s reading, Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10), is a continuation of that narrative.

From a broader perspective, the Tabernacle chapters belong to a narrative thread that extends through the entire Pentateuch, which biblical scholars term the “Priestly Source,” because of their hypothesis that its intensive focus on the sanctuary and on sacrificial rituals can be attributed to priestly circles.

Does the theology of the Tabernacle chapters confirm the distinction Kaufman makes regarding biblical rituals? In considering this question, we should mention here Israel Knohl’s book, “The Sanctuary of Silence: The Priestly Torah and the Holiness School.” Knohl notes a fascinating linguistic phenomenon that characterizes the Tabernacle chapters in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers: The activity that occurs within the context of the sanctuary’s rituals is not directly attributed to God. In other words, although God dwells in the sanctuary, it is unclear to what extent – if at all – he is involved in what occurs there.

Here is an example from this week’s reading: God commands Aaron and his sons, who will soon be appointed priests, to wear linen breeches when they officiate in the sanctuary. The instructions – which God conveys to Moses – include a grave warning: “They [linen breeches] shall be worn by Aaron and his sons when they enter the Tent of Meeting or when they approach the altar to officiate in the sanctuary, so that they do not incur punishment and die” (Exod. 28:43). The violation of this instruction will lead to the deaths of Aaron’s sons, but the text deliberately refrains from directly attributing these potential deaths to God: Aaron’s sons will simply “incur punishment and die.”

Later in the Tabernacle chapters, in Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47), this potential danger becomes a reality: Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, commit a ritualistic sin and immediately die: “And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord” (Leviticus 10:2). This phrasing is remarkably similar to the description of the acceptance of an offering two verses earlier – “Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar” (Lev. 9:24) – and is very different from the phrasing used in the Bible to describe another death that is the consequence of a ritualistic sin: “The Lord was incensed at Uzzah. And God struck him down on the spot for his indiscretion, and he died there” (2 Samuel 6:7).

Uzzah’s death is described in 2 Samuel as the result of God’s rage and is explicitly attributed to God. In contrast, the deaths of Nadab and Abihu are depicted as an automatic result of their actions. Priests are expected not to appease God but to comply strictly with protocol. Any deviation means death; God, however, is not directly involved in the demise of any priest who has not rigidly followed protocol.

According to Knohl, this meticulous distinction in phrasing attests to an abstract concept of God that is characteristic of Priestly literature – a concept similar to that advocated by Maimonides. This idea, argues Knohl, appeared early in Israel’s history, and represents a departure from the anthropomorphic images of God that are predominant in biblical literature. It is phrased not in philosophical terms but is rather presented through the literary techniques available to the early Israelite priests – first and foremost through the eschewing of any attribution of physical actions to God.

Another possibility is to view the sanctuary’s rituals as magic or theurgy: as the performance of specific rituals that are beneficial to God and to mortals, but that do not require, or even allow for, God’s direct involvement. While Knohl compares priestly theology to Maimonidean thought, it can also – and perhaps even more convincingly – be compared to kabbalistic thought.

In any event, the picture emerging from the Tabernacle chapters demands that we qualify Kaufmann’s sweeping distinction. The formalization of the relationship between God and Israel through the medium of the sanctuary transforms ritual into a system based on fixed laws, not on interpersonal appeals: Instead of pouring their hearts out before God, mortals obey the law, while compliance or noncompliance leads to a result that is seemingly unconnected with any of God’s decisions.

All biblical quotations are taken from the JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published 1985.