Thursday, March 20, 2008

Rami on the First Commandment

OK. I don’t want to get sidetracked either, and I suspect that our perspectives will become clearer as we progress. But I do appreciate hearing what you had to say about the issues I raised.

Before taking up the first bit of text, though, let me remind our readers that our conversation is not meant to be scholarly or academic. We are two persons of faith sharing with one another, and with you by means of your comments, what meaning we find in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. OK, let’s begin.

The Jewish numbering of the Ten Commandments differs from the Christian, though we ultimately deal with the entire text of Exodus 20:2-14. Whereas you begin with the command against idolatry, we begin with the affirmation of God that precedes it. So, if it is OK with you, let’s start with Exodus 20:2, and then move on to the issue of idolatry.

20:2 says, “I am HaShem, your God, Who has taken you out of Eretz Mitzrayim, from the house of slavery.” I left some of the text untranslated because these words are key to understanding the inner meaning of this commandment, and the conventional English translations don’t do them justice.

“HaShem,” The Name, is one of two standard euphemisms for the Four-Letter Name of God: Y-H-V-H. The other is “Adonai,” Lord. Most Bibles prefer Lord, but this is very misleading. Notions of God as King and Lord promote a patriarchal, hierarchical, and military bias that has more to do with the political structure of the time the text was written (or translated), than it does with the nature of God.

At the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:14), when Moses asks God’s Name, which is to say when Moses asks God to reveal the true nature of divinity, God replies, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh,” mistakenly translated as “I am that I am.” “I am” implies that God is static, fixed, unchanging, whereas “Ehyeh,” which literally means “I will be” reveals God as dynamic, fluid, changing. God cannot be fixed in form or concept. In other words, whatever your theology, the only thing you can certain of is that God is not that.

The Hindus have a wonderful Sanskrit phrase for this: “Neti Neti; Not this, Not that.” Whatever you think God is— God isn’t. God cannot be reduced to ideas about God. Which of course leads us to the second commandment regarding idols. But let’s wait on that for a moment and continue with our current text.

In the first commandment God says, “I am the Unfixed, the Unconditioned, and the Unconditional. I am the Always Becoming; I am Change. I brought you out of Eretz Mitzrayim.” Eretz Mitzrayim, the Land of Egypt, is a pun in Hebrew that means “the narrow places.” God not only liberated us from Egypt in the past, God frees us from the narrow places of our lives in the present. God is the power that liberates us from the bondage of certainty, fixed forms, fixed ideas, etc., but only if we have enough faith in God not to define God. The First Commandment as I understand it is the challenge of Neti Neti: to free ourselves from all ideas about God that we might experience the liberating power of God.

4 comments:

LCR said...

Mike & Rami,

Thank you for the invitation to read along as you two dialogue together. I may not comment often but I promise I will be reading every post.

Rami, I like your "I WILL BE" rendering of YHWH, and your commentary on why it is preferred over the ususal "I AM" rendering.
The idea of a "becoming God" should challenge all of us to take a fresh look at scripture.

jonmsweeney said...

I've always appreciated the idea of Ehyeh, as distinct from Christian translations. "I will be who I will be."

We know/don't know God at one and the same time.

And this relates to our spiritual lives, as well, I think. Just as we know/unknow God, we do not exactly know ourselves in God's eyes, either. This is one of the mistakes of so much spirituality these days: we assume that a spiritual life is all about light when it is actually about light/darkness. In other words, who we think we are is not who God thinks we are.

Mike Smith and Rami Shapiro said...

Thanks for participating in this. Please share the blog with others; the more people commentating the more interesting this will be.

I wish I could promise that Mike and I will always have the time to respond, but that would be unrealistic. But we will read them all, and, if we do find a publisher for this (Jon, do happen to know a publisher?) we will do our best to use these comments as sidebars to broaden the conversation and further engage the reader.

Rami

AaronHerschel said...

I only have a moment to commment, but I just wanted to say this. While I have no objection to your interpretaation of Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, I am particularly attached to the English "I am that I am." I think the elusive grammar here embeds an important element of the I/thou relationship. To borrow from Coleridge: "[the imagination is] the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and is a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM." And vice versa, I might (heretically) add. Thus the devine and the human echo and recerate each other.