Revelation and Law: Elijah and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi

Haim Watzman

When do religions based on text and revelation turn fundamentalist and extreme? When their adherents take their holy books and divine messages to be sources of infallible wisdom that needs no human mediation. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and other creeds can all inspire their adherents to take individual responsibility for weighing competing moral values, but this requires that the community of believers understand that the practical application of religious values “is not in heaven.” In other words, they must realize that revelation and holy texts cannot be understood and used without placing them in dialogue with the real world that we confront in our everyday experience.

At his weekly Shabbat afternoon lecture last Saturday, Rabbi Binyamin Lau cited an aggadah—a rabbinic homily—from the Jerusalem Talmud (Chapter 8, page 5d). (The following thoughts are my own, not Rabbi Lau’s.)

A man named Ula Bar Kushav was sought by the Roman authorities for some unnamed crime. He fled to Lod, then (the early third century CE) an important city in Judea with a large Jewish population. The Romans surrounded the city and demanded that the Jewish community turn over Bar Kushav. If he were not turned over, the Romans would raze the entire city.

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Is God a Republican?

Poor God. You created the world, you are the power and glory, but everyone thinks you’re a Republican.

But the association of the Most High with the most right-wing doesn’t stand up to philosophical scrutiny. Conservatives, after all, love order. They want today to be like yesterday, and tomorrow to be like the day before yesterday.

But then they’ve also got this all-powerful God who, they believe, intervenes in their lives, in politics, and in everything else on a daily, ongoing basis. But wait a minute–if God is constantly intervening in the world, that means the world operates according to God’s will, not according to any established laws. A world ruled by an omnipotent, interventionist God would, on the face of it, be totally unpredictable. Tomorrow would most certainly not be like today.

That’s not a very conservative proposition.

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