Tradition Today: Whatever happened to Moses?

It is always striking to read the Haggada at the Seder and realize that Moses is not there.

April 2, 2010 16:21
Tradition Today: Whatever happened to Moses?

moses.88. (photo credit: )


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It is always striking to read the Haggada at the Seder and realize that Moses is not there. Here we have the story of the Exodus, complete with verses from the Torah’s account plus extensive rabbinic comments, and the hero of the story is missing. The Exodus without Moses is like Hamlet without the prince. Or is it?

The Sages who created the Haggada certainly were aware of the role that Moses played. It is detailed in the final four books of the Torah again and again. Yet if they deliberately left him out they had a reason. In the first place they are asserting that the real hero is not Moses, it is God. The Haggada emphasizes that in such passages as “I and not a angel, I and not a fiery angel, I and not a messenger. I am the Lord. I am He and no other.”

Furthermore they were concerned lest the figure of Moses be turned into an object of adulation and even idolatry. The Haggada was created in the days of early Christianity, which venerated and worshiped a human being not merely as a messiah but literally as a god.

In taking this attitude toward Moses the sages were simply following the lead of the Torah, which portrays Moses as a man, faults and all. In the final chapter of Deuteronomy, it says, “He [God] buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, near Beth-peor; and no one knows his burial place to this day” (Deut. 34:6). Why? The Torah has no reluctance about telling us where other great figures were buried – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, Aaron. Why not Moses?

Is it not because there was a danger of turning Moses into an object of worship? After all, Moses was, in the Torah’s own words, unparalleled: “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses – whom the Lord singled out face to face, for the various signs and portents that the Lord sent him to display in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his courtiers and his whole country, and for all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel” (Deut. 34:10-12). Such a description could be interpreted as stating that Moses was more than human. Therefore the need to avoid turning his grave into a sacred shrine.

Unfortunately what the Torah and the Haggada teach us about the adulation of human beings has not always been heeded. All too often religious leaders, rabbis, have been raised to a status which is little less than divine. This tendency was seen in Hassidism when it first arose in the 18th century and was one of the reasons that it was opposed by many religious leaders. They saw that the rabbi, a figure honored for his scholarship and knowledge, was being replaced by the rebbe, who ruled as a king with a court and followers, a person who could do no wrong and to whom magical powers were frequently attributed. We have seen how this led eventually to the creation of yet another false messiah.

But Hassidism is not alone in this. The adulation given in North African circles to some rabbis in their lifetimes and the way in which their graves turn into pilgrimage sites is no different. Kabbalistic rabbis cast spells and have developed their own courts. This has led to terrible abuses by unscrupulous charlatans who prey upon vulnerable people in desperate need of help. Politics has been affected as well when thousands of people are willing to cast their ballots for a rabbi and grant him the exclusive right to decide how their elected representatives will vote.

This has spread even further into the “Lithuanian” community, those who reject the ways of Hassidism. There too we see rabbis elevated into the status of people whose word cannot be questioned, who rule whole communities of devoted followers. And even in the more modern religious Zionism model, this elevation of rabbis, yeshiva heads, has become more and more popular. We have seen the dangers of this as well.

All of this is a distortion of the role of the rabbi. The institution of the rabbinate, unknown in biblical times, developed after the return from the Babylonian exile. It began with scribes who were experts in interpreting the words of the sacred Scripture. In a sense they replaced the prophets. There was no need for people who could speak in the name of God when we had God’s word and God’s laws in the books of the Bible. What was needed instead were people who understood that word, could explain it and who could apply the laws of the Torah to the needs of the community.

Eventually these people, drawn from every segment of the population, not restricted, as were the kohanim, to one group, became known as rabbis. They became the religious leaders of the people Israel. That which distinguished them from others was their knowledge and their ability to teach and decide matters of Jewish law and practice.

The rabbis saw themselves as following in the footsteps of Moses. They designated him, anachronistically, as Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our rabbi. Not Moshe Adoneinu or Moshe Meshiheinu. They knew that he was just a man whole faults are put on display in the Torah and are spelled out and criticized in rabbinic commentaries. Such a man could be “our rabbi.”

Perhaps it is time for all segments of Judaism to remember that model. It is the model that gave us Hillel, Rabbi Akiva, Maimonides, the Gaon of Vilna and, more recently, rabbis Joseph B. Soleveichik, Emanuel Rackman, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Louis Jacobs and Leo Baeck. These were men who were honored and respected, but not worshiped. Their word was studied and taken seriously, but one could argue and disagree with them. Nor were they venerated as anything other than great rabbis and teachers. A return to the proper understanding of the role and person of the rabbi will benefit us all.

The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.

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