'Now when Pharaoh let the people go, G-d did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for G-d said, "The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt." So G-d led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.'
So begins this week's sedra. On the face of it, it is a minor detail in the larger story of the exodus. Yet it is the key text in one of the most fascinating chapters in medieval Jewish thought. The man who wrote it was Moses Maimonides, in his great philosophical work, The Guide for the Perplexed.
The context in which it occurs is deeply controversial. In The Guide, Maimonides poses a fundamental question. Why, if the sacrificial system is so central to Judaism, were the prophets so critical of it? He does not ask a second question, but we should: if sacrifices are the primary form of worshipping G-d, how did Judaism survive without them for 20 centuries from the destruction of the Second Temple until today?
Maimonides' answer is that sacrifices are secondary; prayer - the uniting of the soul of the individual with the mind of G-d - is primary. Judaism could thus survive the loss of the outer form of worship, because the inner form - prayer - remained intact.
Maimonides recognises that this idea is open to an obvious challenge. If sacrifices are secondary, and prayer primary, why did G-d not dispense with sacrifices altogether and immediately? His answer - it was, and remains, deeply controversial -is that the Israelites of Moses' day could not conceive of the form of worship that did not involve sacrifice. That was the norm in the ancient world. G-d is beyond time, but human beings live within time. We cannot take ourselves out of, say, the 21st century and project ourselves a thousand years from now. Inescapably, we live in now, not eternity.
This leads Maimonides to his fundamental assertion (The Guide for the Perplexed, III: 32). There is no such thing as sudden, drastic, revolutionary change in the world we inhabit. Trees take time to grow. The seasons shade imperceptibly into one another. Day fades into night. Processes take time, and there are no shortcuts.
If this is true of nature, it is all the more so of human nature. There can be little doubt that from the outset, the Torah is opposed to slavery. The free G-d desires the free worship of free human beings. That one person should own and control another is an offence against human dignity. Yet the Torah permits slavery, while at the same time restricting and humanizing it. Looking back with the full perspective of history, we know that slavery was not abolished in Britain and America until the 19th century - and in the case of America, not without a civil war. Change takes time.
This leads to a deeper question. Why did G-d not circumvent human nature? Why did He not simply intervene in the human mind and make the Israelites of Moses' day see that various practices of the ancient world were wrong? Here, Maimonides states a truth he saw as fundamental to Judaism. G-d sometimes intervenes to change nature. We call these interventions miracles. But G-d never intervenes to change human nature. To do so would be to compromise human free will. That is something G-d, on principle, never does (One might object: what about G-d 'hardening Pharaoh's heart'? To that, Maimonides had an answer - in Hilkhot Teshuvah 6:3 - but it does not concern us here).
To put it simply: it would have been easy for G-d to create a billion computers programmed to sing His praises continually. But that would not be worship. Freedom of the will is not accidental to human existence as Judaism conceives it. It is of its very essence. Worship is not worship if it is coerced. Virtue is not virtue if we are compelled by inner or outer forces over which we have no control. In creating humanity G-d, as it were, placed himself under a statute of self limitation. He had to be patient. He could not force the pace of the moral development of mankind without destroying the very thing He had created. This self limitation - what the kabbalists called tzimtzum - was G-d's greatest act of love. He gave humanity the freedom to grow. But that inevitably meant that change in the affairs of mankind would be slow.
Maimonides proof-text is the verse with which our sedra begins: 'Now when Pharaoh let the people go, G-d did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines'. G-d feared that, seeing war, the Israelites would panic and want to go back. Why did G-d not put courage into their hearts? Because G-d does not intervene in human nature. Maimonides, however, goes further. It is no accident that the generation that left Egypt was not the generation to cross the Jordan and enter the promised land. That privilege belonged to their children:
It was the result of G-d's wisdom that the Israelites were led about in the wilderness until they acquired courage. For it is a well-known fact that travelling in the wilderness, deprived of bodily enjoyments like bathing, produces courage . . . Besides, another generation arose during the wanderings, that had not been accustomed to degradation and slavery. (Guide, III: 32)
In other words: it takes a generation born in freedom to build a society of freedom:
It is hard to overemphasise the importance of this insight. The modern world was formed through four revolutions: the British, the American, the French and the Russian. Two - the British and the American - led to a slow but genuine transformation towards democracy, universal franchise, and respect for human dignity. The French and Russian revolutions, however, led to regimes that were even worse than those they replaced: the 'Terror' in France, and Stalinist communism in Russia.
The difference was that the British and American revolutions, led by the Puritans, were inspired by the Hebrew Bible. The French and Russian revolutions were inspired by philosophy: Rousseau's in the first, Karl Marx's in the second. Tenakh understands the role of time in human affairs. Change is slow and evolutionary. Philosophy lacks that understanding of time, and tends to promote revolution. What makes revolutions fail is the belief that by changing structures of power, you can change human behaviour. There is some truth in this, but also a significant falsehood. Political change can be rapid. Changing human nature is very slow indeed. It takes generations, even centuries and millennia.
The shape of the modern world would have been very different if France and Russia had understood the significance of the opening verse of Beshallach. Change takes time. Even G-d himself does not force the pace. That is why He led the Israelites on a circuitous route, knowing that they could not face the full challenge of liberty immediately. Nelson Mandela called his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom. On that journey, there are no shortcuts.
How The Jews Invented Hope
The Jewish Chronicle April 2008
Why are we here? Why are we Jews? Why does the world need - if indeed it does - a Jewish presence, a Jewish voice?
Thus far in these articles I have touched on some of the problems facing Jews in the twenty first century: the transformation of the Jewish situation since the millennium, the new anti-Semitism and the growing de-legitimation of Israel. I have spoken of the challenge of society-building in Israel, and of the engagement of Judaism with the 'wisdom' - the sciences and humanities - of the world.
In none of these, however, will we succeed unless, transcending them all, we have a clear and compelling sense of Jewish purpose, strong enough to motivate successive generations of young Jews to live Jewish lives, form Jewish families and have Jewish children. Jewish identity is not mere ethnicity, habit or nostalgia. These things do not last, certainly not in an age as secular and anti-traditional as ours. Rely on them and we will find increasing numbers of Jews drifting away. Those who remain will turn ever more inward into highly religious enclaves with less and less involvement in the world.
My own view is that Judaism is a faith, and an utterly distinctive one, quite unlike the secular culture of ancient Greece or the contemporary West, the world-denying mysticisms of the East, even Judaism's daughter-monotheisms, Christianity and Islam. Judaism really is different, and in this last essay I want to say how. What follows is a personal view, but it comes from a long listening to the voices of our tradition. It also explains why I chose to call this series, 'Future Tense' - not just because the Jewish future will be tense.One of the most formative moments in the history of Judaism came in the encounter between Moses and G-d in the burning bush. Moses asks G-d what name he should use when people ask him who He is. G-d replies enigmatically, in a phrase that occurs nowhere else in Tanakh: Ehyeh asher Ehyeh.
Non-Jewish translations read this to mean, 'I am what (or who, or that) I am.' Some render it, 'I am: that is who I am', or 'I am the One who is'. These are deeply significant mistranslations. The phrase means, literally, 'I will be what I will be', or more fundamentally, G-d's name belongs to the future tense. His call is to that which is not yet. If we fail to understand this, we will miss the very thing that makes Judaism unique.
Consider the structure of biblical narrative. In literature there are many kinds of narrative but they all have one thing in common, what Frank Kermode called 'the sense of an ending'. They reach closure. Some end with 'they all lived happily ever after'. We call these fairy tales. Others end in death and defeat. We call them tragedies. There are other types, but they all have a beginning and an end. That's what makes them stories.
Now consider Genesis. The Jewish story begins with G-d's call to Abraham to leave his land, his birthplace and his father's house to travel 'to the land that I will show you.' Seven times G-d promises Abraham the land, yet he has to haggle with the Hittites to buy one small plot in which to bury Sarah. Jacob and his family are forced into exile in Egypt. Genesis ends with the promise unfulfilled.
Then Exodus begins. G-d calls Moses to lead the Israelites back to freedom and the promised land. Now, we feel, the story is about to reach closure. But it doesn't come. Instead, a journey that should have taken days lasts forty years. In the final scene of Deuteronomy, we see Moses, still on the far side of the Jordan, granted only a distant vision of the land. Again, the natural ending is deferred.
Tanakh as a whole ends, in II Chronicles 36, with the Israelites in exile again, this time in Babylonia, and Cyrus giving them permission to return. We are almost back where we began, in the same region from which Abraham and his family first set out.
I know of no other stories that have the same form, namely a beginning but no end. We would not think of them as stories at all, were it not that we know the ending. It has been there since the beginning: G-d's three promises to Abraham, of children, a land, and an influence on humanity such that 'through you all the families of the earth will be blessed'. So there is an ending, but it is always beyond the visible horizon. The Jewish story ends, as Moses' life ended, with a glimpse of the land not yet reached, a future not yet realized.
The same is true of Jewish belief. Judaism is the only civilization whose golden age is in the future: the messianic age, the age of peace when 'nation will not lift up sword against nation' and 'the Lord shall be one and His name One'. This ultimately was the dividing line between Judaism and Christianity. To be a Jew is to reply to the question 'Has the messiah come?' with the words 'Not yet.' In the fine phrase of Harold Fisch, the Jewish narrative is 'the unappeased memory of a future still to be fulfilled'. Why? What does this tell us about Judaism?
At the heart of Judaism is a belief so fundamental to Western civilization that we take it for granted, yet it is anything but self-evident. It has been challenged many times, rarely more so than today. It is the belief in human freedom. We are what we choose to be. Society is what we choose to make it. The future is open. There is nothing inevitable in the affairs of humankind.
The ancients believed that human destiny lay in the stars, or blind fate, what the Greeks called ananke. Spinoza argued that our lives are governed by natural necessity. Marx claimed that history was determined by economic interests. Freud held that human behavior was shaped by unconscious drives. Neo-Darwinians argue that we are governed by genetic codes hardwired into our brains. Freedom, in all these theories, is an illusion.
This view is challenged in the opening chapters of the Bible. For the first time, G-d is seen as beyond nature, creating nature by a free, uncoerced act of will. By creating human beings in His image, He bestowed something of that freedom on us. Alone among created life forms, we too are capable of being creative. Biblical narrative is the ongoing drama of human freedom.
The first four narratives are tragic. First Adam and Eve, then Cain, abuse their freedom. That is then repeated on a global scale by the generation of the Flood and the builders of Babel. People use their freedom to transgress boundaries or deprive others of their freedom. So a new beginning becomes necessary.
Abraham is told to leave all the things that constrain freedom - our land, birthplace and father's house - and begin a new kind of life in covenant with G-d. Genesis is about that covenant as it affects individuals and families. The rest of Tanakh is about the covenant as it applies to the life of a nation. The Jewish story, still unfinished, is about the journey from multiple forms of slavery to what Levinas called 'difficult freedom'. Torah is the template of responsible freedom, our constitution of liberty.
Freedom, implies Genesis, is intimately related to language. G-d creates the world with words, and His first gift to humanity is the gift of speech. We know that other life forms - primates, dolphins, even bees - have rudimentary forms of language. But there is one form unique to human beings. The Torah signals this by making it the first word G-d speaks: Yehi, 'Let there be'.
Human beings are the only life form capable of using the future tense. Only beings who can imagine the world other than it is, are capable of freedom. And if we are free, the future is open, dependent on us. We can know the beginning of our story but not the end. That is why, as He is about to take the Israelites from slavery to freedom, G-d tells Moses that His name is 'I will be what I will be.' Judaism, the religion of freedom, is faith in the future tense.