In Search of The­o­log­i­cal Mod­esty: Bib­li­cal Lessons

William Liss-Levin­son
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By – November 2, 2015

It is a giv­en that Torah study is for all, not just rab­bis. It is also a giv­en that con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish life has been rad­i­cal­ized and hijacked by var­i­ous groups claim­ing to own the Truth.” 

It is there­fore refresh­ing to read this slim vol­ume by a learned lay­man con­tain­ing pro­found insights on var­i­ous Torah texts with the express pur­pose of val­i­dat­ing a theo­cen­tric Judaism that embraces mul­ti­ple truths and per­spec­tives. This col­lec­tion includes pithy lessons from twen­ty-three week­ly Torah read­ings demonstrat­ing bib­li­cal mod­els for humil­i­ty and tol­er­ance. The kab­bal­is­tic notion of tzimtzum (con­trac­tion) can help us con­tract our own pres­ence to allow oth­er points of view, and the Eden expe­ri­ence of naked­ness can help us see our own and each other’s vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and per­haps be embar­rassed; Cain’s act of mur­der depicts self-delu­sion, and the Tow­er of Babel teach­es us about lost poten­tial; Jacob’s lad­der shows us that we must ascend, Joseph teach­es us about the ease with which events can be for­got­ten, and Moses demon­strates a call to action against social injustice. 

Build­ing the sanc­tu­ary has mul­ti­ple lessons: sac­ri­fices chal­lenge us to become clos­er to God, tzara’at points out the need for spir­i­tu­al advi­sors, and holi­ness means imi­tat­ing God’s ways. Judg­ing oth­ers is fraught with per­ils and abus­es, a cen­sus implies that we all count, and Pesach Sheni shows that there are sec­ond chances for missed oppor­tu­ni­ties and demon­strates the humil­i­ty of Moses’ lead­er­ship. Liss-Levinson’s analy­sis of the Korach is spot-on, as is his exam­i­na­tion of the talk­ing snake and Bilaam’s don­key. The poten­tial dan­ger of zealotry, the beau­ty of free will, and the cloudy and smoky aspects of rev­e­la­tion illu­mi­nate our need to meet the dai­ly the­o­log­i­cal chal­lenges we face, hob­bled as we are like our patri­arch Jacob. 

The neces­si­ty to relate to each oth­er free from tri­umphal­ist ani­mus, the­o­log­i­cal arro­gance and polar­i­ty is teased out from the bib­li­cal text in a con­cise and eas­i­ly read­able for­mat. In Search of The­o­log­i­cal Mod­esty is a wel­come addi­tion to the debate pre­sent­ed with­out ran­cor and with great insight.

Relat­ed Content:

Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

Discussion Questions