Faith, Universal and Particular

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Pharaoh has two dreams: one about seven lean cows eating seven fat ones, another about seven scorched ears of corn devouring seven healthy ones. He senses their significance and asks his Sages to interpret them. None can. His cupbearer then remembers the young man he met in prison who was so accurate in interpreting dreams. He had asked him, once he had regained his freedom, to campaign for his release, but he had forgotten to do so. Now he remembers him. Joseph is brought from prison, smartened up, and presented to Pharaoh. Immediately on hearing the nature of the dreams, he understands what they mean, and tells Pharaoh. There will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of devastating famine.

On the surface, this is a conventional story. A person wrongfully imprisoned wins his freedom. A young outsider proves wiser than the established Sages of a great court. More significantly, given the parameters of biblical narrative, a simple believer in the God of Abraham beats the priestly elite of Egypt at their own game. The term used for the Sages whom Pharaoh consults is chartumim. Almost certainly it refers to an official class of adepts, decoders of divine mysteries, specialists in the occult, who read omens and interpret dreams.

The technical term for this kind of dream interpretation is oneiromancy, the practice of divination through dreams, seen as messages – usually warnings – sent to the soul by the gods or the spirits of the dead. It was widely practised in ancient Egypt, Greece and Mesopotamia. Dream decoders in those societies had high status, were close to rulers and their courts, and wielded considerable influence. It is no accident that the two interpreters of dreams in Tanach – Joseph and Daniel – do so in alien environments, Joseph in Egypt, Daniel in Mesopotamia / Babylon. While the Torah attaches significance to dreams (not least to those of Joseph himself) it regards dream-divination as an essentially pagan practice associated with magic and myth. That is why the Torah goes out of its way in the accounts of both Joseph and Daniel to emphasise that they sought their interpretations, not from the occult arts, but from God Himself.

There are, however, beneath the surface, more profound motifs at play. I want, in this essay, to examine one of them which has immense implications for Judaism as a whole. Three times the word Elokim appears in Genesis 41. The first is when Joseph explicitly disavows any personal skill in interpreting dreams:

“I cannot do it,” Joseph replied, “But God [Elokim] will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.”

The second and third are uttered by Pharaoh himself, after Joseph has interpreted the dreams, stated the problem (seven years of famine), provided the solution (store up grain in the years of plenty), and advised him to appoint a “wise and discerning man” to oversee the project:

The plan seemed good to Pharaoh and all his officials. So Pharaoh asked them, “Can we find anyone like this man, in whom is the spirit of God [Elokim]?” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God [Elokim] has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge of my palace . . .”

What is going on here? Pharaonic Egypt was not a monotheistic culture. To the contrary, it was a place of many gods and goddesses – the sun, the Nile, and so on. To be sure, there was a brief period under Ikhnaton (Amenhotep IV) when the official religion was reformed in the direction not of monotheism but of monolatry (worship of one god without disputing the existence of others). But this was short-lived, and certainly not at the time of Joseph. The entire biblical portrayal of Egypt is predicated on their belief in many gods (against whom God “executed judgement” in the days of Moses and the plagues). Why then does Joseph take it for granted that Pharaoh will understand his reference to God – an assumption proved correct when Pharaoh twice uses the word himself? What is the significance of the word Elokim?

As we have noted elsewhere in these studies, Tanach generally and the Mosaic books specifically have two primary words for God, the four-letter name we allude to as Hashem (“the Name” par excellence) and the word Elokim. The Sages understood the difference in terms of the distinction between God-as-justice ( Elokim) and God-as-mercy (Hashem). This led them to their famous comment on the opening words of Torah (“In the beginning, Elokim created . . .”), namely that God initially sought to create the world under the attribute of justice, but discovered that it could not persist by justice alone. Therefore He combined justice with mercy and compassion. This alone allows humanity to survive.

The philosopher-poet of the eleventh century, Judah Halevi, proposed a quite different distinction, based not on ethical attributes but on modes of relationship – a view revived in the twentieth century by Martin Buber in his distinction between I-It and I-Thou. Halevi’s view was this: the ancients worshipped forces of nature, which they personified as gods. Each was known as El, or Eloah. The word “El” therefore generically means “a force, a power, an element of nature.”

The fundamental difference between those belief-systems and Judaism was that Judaism believed that the forces of nature were not independent and autonomous. They represented a single totality, one creative will, the Author of being. The Torah therefore speaks of Elokim in the plural, meaning, “the sum of all forces, the totality of all powers.” Elokim is an abstract noun meaning “all that exists, and every cause that shapes their interactions, under the aspect of the single creative force that brought them into being.” Moving from the ancient to the contemporary world, we might say that Elokim is God as He is disclosed by science: the Big Bang, the various forces that give the universe its configuration, and the genetic code that shapes life from the simplest bacterium to homo sapiens.

Hashem is a word of different logical form. It is, according to Halevi, God’s proper name. Just as “the first patriarch” (a generic description) was called Abraham (a name), and “the leader who led the Israelites out of Egypt” (another description) was called Moses, so “the Author of being” (Elokim) has a proper name, Hashem. The difference between proper names and generic descriptions is fundamental. Things have descriptions, but only persons have proper names. When we call someone by name we are engaged in a fundamental existential encounter. We are relating to them in their uniqueness and ours. We are opening up ourselves to them and inviting them, in readiness and respect, to open themselves up to us. We are, in Kant’s famous distinction, regarding them as ends, not means, as centres of value in themselves, not potential tools to the satisfaction of our desires. The word Hashem represents a revolution in the religious life of mankind. It means that we relate to the totality of being, not as does a scientist (seeing it as something to be understood and controlled) but as does a poet (standing before it in reverence and awe, addressing and being addressed by it).

Elokim is God as we encounter Him in nature. Hashem is God as we encounter Him in personal relationship, above all in that essentially human mode of relationship that we call speech, verbal communication, conversation, dialogue, words. Elokim is the aspect of God to be found in creation. Hashem is the aspect of God disclosed in revelation.

One of the most striking features of Judaism is the tension it embodies between the universal and the particular. The Torah begins with characters and events whose significance is that they are universal archetypes: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, the builders of Babel. Their stories tell us about the human condition as such: obedience and rebellion, faith and fratricide, hubris and nemesis, technology and violence, the order God makes and the chaos we create. Not until the twelfth chapter of Bereishit does the Torah turn to the particular, to one family, that of Abraham and Sarah, and the covenant God enters into with them and their descendants.

That duality and its sequence – from the universal to the particular – is not marginal to Judaism. One might almost call it the basic structure, the depth grammar, of the Jewish mind. Two examples will illustrate the point.

The first is Birkat Hamazon, “Grace After Meals.” The first paragraph is completely universal. We speak of God who “feeds the whole world with grace,” who “provides food for all creatures” and who “feeds and sustains all.” The second paragraph is saturated with singularity. It talks of the things that are specific to Judaism and the Jewish people: the “land” (Israel) He has given us as a heritage, the history of our ancestors (“for having brought us out . . . of the land of Egypt and freed us from the house of bondage”), the “covenant” (brit) He has “sealed in our flesh,” and “Your Torah which You have taught us.” These are not universal. They are what make Jews and Judaism different.

The second example is the blessings we say before the Shema, morning and evening. In both cases, the first blessing is universal. It speaks of nature and the cosmos, light and darkness, and the cycle of time as it moves from day to night or night to day. There is nothing here about Jews and Judaism, Israel and its covenant with God. The second paragraph, however, is about the special relationship between God and Israel. In exquisite poetry it speaks about the love of God for this people, and the expression of that love in the Torah He has given us. Here prayer rises to heights at once poetic and passionate. This is the supreme language of I-Thou.

The duality has legal-theological expression in the form of two covenants, the first with Noah and all humanity after the flood, the second with Abraham and his descendants, given detailed articulation at Mount Sinai and during the wilderness years. On the one hand there is the Noahide covenant with its seven commands: not to murder, steal, commit adultery, blaspheme, worship idols or practise needless cruelty against animals, together with a positive command to establish a system of justice. These are the minimal and basic requirements of humanity as such, the foundations of any stable and morally acceptable society. On the other is the richly detailed code of 613 commands that form Israel’s constitution as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Not only is the duality worked out in the form of law and ethics, covenant and command. It is also expressed in Judaism’s dual epistemology, its twofold scheme of human knowledge. This was given lucid expression in a Midrash: “If you are told, ‘There is wisdom [chochmah] among the nations,’ believe it. If you are told, ‘There is Torah among the nations,’ do not believe it.”

Torah and chochmah are both biblical categories. Torah is to be found primarily in the five books of Moses generically known by that name. The primary text of chochmah, wisdom, is Mishlei, the Book of Proverbs, but it is also to be found in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) and Job. The word chochmah appears 37 times in Proverbs, 18 times in Job and 25 times in Ecclesiastes – and only 35 times in the rest of Tanach.

The difference between them is this: Chochmah is the truth we discover; Torah is the truth we inherit. Chochmah is the universal heritage of mankind, by virtue of the fact that we are created in God’s “image and likeness” (Rashi translates “in our likeness” as “with the capacity to understand and discern” ). Torah is the specific heritage of Israel (“He has revealed His word to Jacob, His laws and decrees to Israel. He has done this for no other nation”). Chochmah discloses God in creation. Torah is the word of God in revelation. Chochmah is ontological truth (how things are); Torah is covenantal truth (how things ought to be). Chochmah can be defined as anything that allows us to see the universe as the work of God and humanity as the image of God. Torah is God’s covenant with the Jewish people, the architecture of holiness and Israel’s written constitution as a nation under the sovereignty of God.

Though the Sages valued Torah above all else, they had a high regard for chochmah. They instituted a special blessing for chachmei umot olam (“the Sages of the nations” or, as the Singer’s Prayer Book puts it, persons “distinguished in worldly learning”): “Blessed are You . . . who has given of His wisdom to flesh and blood.” Consistent with the pattern established in the Grace after meals and the blessings before the Shema, the Amidah speaks of universal wisdom (“You favour man with knowledge and teach mankind understanding) before it speaks of the particular heritage of Israel (“Bring us back, O our Father, to Your Torah”).

So there are the universals of Judaism – creation, humanity as God’s image, the covenant with Noah and knowledge-as-chochmah. There are also its particularities – revelation, Israel as God’s “firstborn child,” the covenants with Abraham and the Jewish people at Sinai, and knowledge-as-Torah. The first represents the face of God accessible to all mankind (creation); the second, that special, intimate and personal relationship He has with the people He holds close, as disclosed in the Torah (revelation) and Jewish history (redemption). The word for the first is Elokim, and for the second, Hashem.

We can now understand why it is that Bereishit works on the assumption that one aspect of God, Elokim, is intelligible to all human beings, regardless of whether they belong to the family of Abraham or not. So, for example, Elokim comes in a vision to Avimelech, king of Gerar, despite the fact that he is a pagan. Abraham himself (defending the fact that he has told a half-truth in calling Sarah his sister) says to Avimelech, “I said to myself, There is surely no fear of God [Elokim] in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.” The Hittites call Abraham “a prince of God [Elokim] in our midst.” Jacob, in his conversations with Laban and later with Esau uses the term Elokim. When he returns to the land of Canaan, the Torah says that “the terror of God [Elokim]” fell on the surrounding towns. All these cases refer to individuals or groups who are outside the Abrahamic covenant. Yet the Torah has no hesitation in ascribing to them the language of Elokim.

That is why Joseph is able to assume that Egyptians will understand the idea of Elokim, even though they are wholly unfamiliar with the idea of Hashem. This is made clear in two pointed contrasts. The first occurs in Bereishit 39, the passage that describes Joseph’s time in the house of Potiphar. The chapter consistently and repeatedly uses the word Hashem in relation to Joseph (“Hashem was with Joseph . . . Hashem gave him success in everything he did”), but when Joseph speaks to Potiphar’s wife, who is attempting to seduce him, he says, “How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against Elokim.” The second lies in the contrast between the Pharaoh who speaks to Joseph and twice uses the word Elokim, and the Pharaoh of Moses’ day, who says, “Who is Hashem that I should obey Him and let Israel go? I do not know Hashem and I will not let Israel go.” An Egyptian can understand Elokim, the God of nature. He cannot understand Hashem, the God of personal relationship.

Judaism was – and to this day remains – unique in its combination of universalism and particularism. We believe that God is the God of all humanity. He created all. He is accessible to all. He cares for all. He has made a covenant with all.

Yet there is also a relationship with God that is unique to the Jewish people. It alone has placed its national life under His direct sovereignty. It alone has risked its entire being on a divine covenant. It alone testifies in its history to the presence within it of a Presence beyond it. As the Russian (non-Jewish) thinker Nicholas Berdyayev put it in his The Meaning of History:

I remember how the materialist interpretation of history, when I attempted in my youth to verify it by applying it to the destinies of peoples, broke down in the case of the Jews, where destiny seemed absolutely inexplicable from the materialistic standpoint . . . Its survival is a mysterious and wonderful phenomenon demonstrating that the life of this people is governed by a special predetermination, transcending the processes of adaptation expounded by the materialistic interpretation of history. The survival of the Jews, their resistance to destruction, their endurance under absolutely peculiar conditions and the fateful role played by them in history: all these point to the particular and mysterious foundations of their destiny.

As we search in the 21st century for a way to avoid a “clash of civilisations” it seems to me that humanity can learn much from this ancient and still compelling way of understanding the human condition. We are all “the image and likeness” of God. There are basic, non-negotiable principles of human dignity. They are expressed in the Noahide covenant, in human wisdom (chochmah), and in that aspect of the one God we call Elokim. But there are many ways, each distinct and unique, in which different cultures and civilisations define their relationship with the Author of all being. We do not presume to judge them, except insofar as they succeed or fail in honouring the basic, universal principles of human dignity (the sanctity of life, the integrity of the family and property, the fundamentals of justice and so on). We as Jews are (or should be) secure in our relationship with God, the God who has revealed Himself in the intimacy of love, whose expression is Torah. The challenge of faith in its particularity and universality is therefore today what it was in the days of Abraham and Sarah: to be true to our particular heritage while being a blessing to others, whatever their heritage. That is a formula for peace and graciousness in an era badly in need of both.

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