Tetzaveh: Discernment and Reason

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tetzaveh

Your bleary-eyed commentator has just returned from the
Rabbinical Assembly convention in Washington, D.C., which, except for
an ice-storm mishap or two, was a good few days of learning and
hearing interesting things from interesting people, including some
high governmental officials. The most prominent person who addressed
the Assembly was the Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts,
who spoke only briefly, but who did in the course of his comments
compare the work of a judge to the ancient leadership model found in
this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh. (Somebody on his staff must have
a good working knowledge of Conservative Judaism, because he mentioned
Louis Finkelstein and Solomon Schechter, too.)

Among other comparisons, Justice Roberts noted that Aharon, the
ancient High Priest, had recourse to a way of divining God’s will in
matters of where judgment was difficult:

“You shall place the Urim and the Tummim into the choshen of judgment
so that they will be over Aharon’s heart when he comes before the
Lord, and Aharon will carry the judgment of the Israelites over his
heart before the Lord at all times.” (Shmot/ Exodus 28:30)

Scholars disagree about what exactly the “urim and tummim” were, or
what they looked like, or how they were placed in the breastplate of
the High Priest, or how they were used, but the general idea is that
they were small objects which when used in a certain way revealed
Divine truth- they were a kind of oracle for tough cases. Justice
Roberts noted that today, judges do not have and cannot claim Divine
truth and therefore must be exceedingly careful in their reasoning and
research. Presumably, there is no other way to render judgment in a
secular and pluralist society.

I appreciate his point, and would agree that even in religious
matters, the human judge must not claim perfect understanding of the
Divine will, but must instead make a well-reasoned case based on
precedent, context, and evaluation of our best current knowledge. (I
think I just gave you a shorthand definition of Conservative Judaism.)
Yet as a matter of religious perspective, I would not agree that there
is an ontological distinction between human reason and “revelation” of
spiritual truth. We certainly don’t have anything like the “urim and
tummim” anymore, yet reason itself is often understood as the meaning
of “tzelem Elohim,” or being created in the Divine Image.

When human beings sit down to humbly deliberate, and use the gift of
rationality to inquire into important questions, and bring various
disciplines (including religious values and traditional teachings)
into the process of discernment, then I would argue that we are, in
fact, engaged in a process of ongoing revelation. We may not have the
utter certainty that Aharon did when he consulted the “urim and
tummim,” but the gift of reason is no less a gift from God, and no
less a part of a mature religious perspective.

Shabbat Shalom,


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