What a Rabbi Learned at Catholic Mass

Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD

Professor, Rabbinic Studies
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD, is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature and former Chair of the Department of Rabbinics for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She also enjoys serving as the Ziegler School’s faculty advisor for “InterSem,” a dialogue program for students training for religious leadership at Jewish and Christian seminaries around the Los Angeles area. Dr. Labovitz formerly taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. Prior to joining the faculty at AJU, Dr. Labovitz worked as the Senior Research Analyst in Judaism for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and as the Coordinator for the Jewish Women’s Research Group, a project of the Women’s Studies Program at JTS. Rabbi Labovitz is also preparing a teshuva (rabbinic responsum) for consideration by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly on whether a person who is unable to fast for medical reasons may nonetheless serve as a leader of communal prayer on Yom Kippur.

posted on February 29, 2016
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

For twenty-fours this past Sunday and Monday, I had the privilege to help staff (as the faculty advisor for the Ziegler School), at the annual "InterSem" retreat, a program in which students training for the rabbinate and cantorate, ministry, priesthood, and other forms of religious leadership at schools around the greater Los Angeles area gather for inter-religious dialogue and relationship building. As part of our time together, each of the three broad faith traditions (Judaism, Catholicism, Protestant, and Christianity) holds a worship service, attended by all participants.

The retreat always takes place on a Sunday and Monday in mid-February, and this year, as it sometimes does, it fell during the time of year observed by the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations as Lent, a forty day period leading up to Good Friday and Easter. The Catholic seminarians therefore opened their service with a song entitled "The Glory of These Forty Days." A quick Google search revealed that this is believed to be a very early Christian hymn, sometimes attributed to Pope Gregory I who lived in the 6th century of the common era (or to a contemporaneous author), translated from Latin into English in 1906 by Maurice Frederick Bell. One verse in particular immediately jumped out for me when I heard it:

"Alone and fasting Moses saw
The loving God Who gave the Law;
And to Elijah, fasting, came
The steed and chariots of flame."

As the service continued, I was struck again when the lectionary readings (a set selection of passages from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament chosen for a given week or time of year) were presented. In fact, both the Catholics and the Protestants (following, on this occasion, the rites of United Methodist Church) read the same lectionary readings for this past Sunday, including a passage from the book of Luke (9:28-36) known as the Transfiguration. The passage begins (28-30):

28 " About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. 29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. 30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus."

Once more, a connection is drawn between Moses and Elijah: the disciples have a vision of these two figures of prior Jewish history conversing with Jesus. But why did this attract my attention as it did?

Why? Because I had already been looking at our own "lectionary" readings for this week, while considering what I might write for this drash: Exodus 30:11-34:35, and a portion of a chapter 18 from the Book of Kings I (Ashkenazim begin at the start of the chapter and S'faradim at verse 20, and all read to verse 39). Or in other words, Parashat Ki Tissa, and the corresponding haftarah, this week, our parashah is quite long and content-filled, including topics such as instructions for a census of adult Israelite men conducted by means of a half-shekel contribution by each of them as "the Lord's offering," continued instructions for furnishings of the Sanctuary and how (and by whom) they are to be made, Shabbat, holidays. Much of it concerns the events surrounding the creation of the Golden Calf: Moses' first assent up Mount Sinai to receive the stone tablets of the Torah, the fears of the people and the demand to make a tangible God, Aaron's submission to their demands, Moses shattering the tablets when he discovers the people engaged in idolatrous rites, punishment for the people who worshipped the calf, Moses' intercession to keep God from wiping out the entire nation, and the giving of new tablets. The haftarah, meanwhile, describes a dramatic confrontation between Elijah and "prophets" of the Canaanite God Ba'al, who had the patronage of the Israelite king of the time, Ahab, and his wife, Jezebel. Elijah challenges the Ba'al worshippers to a contest, to take place on Mount Carmel: each group would prepare a sacrifice, and call upon their deity (or Deity) to bring down fire to consume the offering. Of course, while the Ba'al worshippers try all sorts of extreme measures, nothing happens, but even though Elijah inundates his offering with water he is still successful: "The fire from the Lord descended and consumed the burnt offering…; and it licked up the water…" In the moment, all the people present cry out, "The Lord alone is God, the Lord alone is God."

Since for most the Jewish year – with the notable exception of the time just before and following Tisha b'Av – the passage from the Prophets chosen as a haftarah is meant to complement and reflect on some aspect or theme of the parashah. It is always a worthwhile question to ask just what that link might be on any given week, and what we might learn from it. Here is what Professor Michael Fishbane, author of the commentary to the haftarot in Etz Hayim (547-8), has to say about this week's pairing:

"These readings…join two moment of betrayal in ancient religious history: The apostasy of the people before the Golden Calf in the wilderness and the later worship of the Ba'als of the Land. Both required the intercession of a leader to restore true worship. Both Moses and Elijah ascend a mountain and zealously fight apostasy…Both are the agents of a covenantal affirmation by the people…, and both force the people to make a choice for God and to destroy the sinners."

Moses and Elijah… Hmmm. Jesus' disciples, those who wrote and transmitted the texts of the Gospels, Christians living on the cusp between Late Antiquity and the start of the medieval period – they weren't the only ones to perceive a connection between two of the great prophets of biblical tradition, Moses and Elijah. Rabbinic scholars such as those who chose this haftarah to accompany this reading saw it to. In fact, a long passage in the rabbinic midrashic collection Pesiqta Rabbati (chapter 2) lists an extended series of connections between the two. Not only these two events, but other episodes and acts of the two show some significant correspondences and echoes.

As the Christian hymn intuits, another possible connection that could have been made between Moses as he appears in our parashah and the life of Elijah, is a forty day journey/vigil of fasting that each undertakes just after confronting the people's apostasy, culminating in a direct encounter with the Divine on Mount Horeb, aka, Sinai: Exodus 33 and 34, and I Kings 19. So why choose the moment of confrontation as the link? Again, here are some of Dr. Fishbane's thoughts:

"In linking the parashah and the haftarah, the Sages produced a searing indictment of idolatry…Through this connection of the two texts, the Sages stress that the sin at Sinai was not only a perversion of the past but also endures as an ever present danger."

While this is certainly correct, I want to raise an additional possibility. My source is not a single passage that makes this connection, linking together Moses' act and Elijah's in the manner I am about to suggest, but rather two distinct Talmudic texts that nonetheless treat the two events in strikingly similar – and shocking – ways. In each case, the action of the prophet and leader in response to the idolatry of the people is presented as itself a radical act, one that perhaps even crosses the line into the sacrilegious. Regarding Moses:

Resh Lakish said: there are times when the nullification of Torah is its very foundation, as it is written: "[the first tablets,] which you shattered" (Ex. 34:1) – "Well done that you shattered them!" – Menahot 99a-b (and similarly Shabbat 87a and Yevamot 62a)

The passages relies on the similarity of sound between the Hebrew word for "which," "asher," and one of the words of the classic phrase by which we offer congratulations to someone who has performed a meritorious task: "yasher koach!" In other words, one could quite reasonably think that nothing could justify Moses' breaking of the Tablets of The Law that had been given by God. In a very real sense, they ARE Torah. And yet not only did Moses break them, but God congratulated him for doing so. In fact, comments the rabbi Resh Lakish, this act achieved the purpose of saving Torah!

And as for Elijah:

Come and hear: "[The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet from among your own people, like myself;] him you shall heed" (Deut. 18:15) – even if he tells you, violate one of the commandments of the that is in Torah, like Elijah on Mount Carmel – all is according to the moment, "heed him!" That case (regarding a prophet) is different, since it says "him you shall heed." But let us learn from it (about other leaders)! The safeguarding of a matter is different. – Yevamot 90b

This passage is part of a larger discussion of rabbinic power: can rabbis go so far as to suspend a biblical law when they deem it necessary? Perhaps Elijah is a model proving they can: in this case, he violated a set law that when the Temple in Jerusalem stands, as it did in his day, no sacrifices are to be offered at any other site – yet Elijah did so on Mount Carmel! Elijah, the Talmud counters, sets no precedent for the rabbis for two reasons: first because he was a prophet and thus has scriptural sanction to do as he did (while rabbis are not and do not), and secondly, because what he did was in response to a very specific, exigent situation.

Ah, but couldn't it happen that the rabbis might someday face an exigent, emergency situation in which they need to act in a way that seems contrary to Torah? Could it not happen for leaders other than Moses or Elijah that the very act that seems to nullify Torah is the one that in fact saves it, restores it, and brings the Jewish people back under its wings?

One of the things I have learned in my years as the Zeigler School faculty advisor for InterSem is that all religious leaders, of all faiths, find that religious leadership is frequently fraught, and repeatedly tests our boundaries. When do we adhere to tradition, insisting on time-honored values in the face of challenges to that tradition or to our leadership? Are there times when something that once seemed fundamental has to change, precisely to meet the needs of the time or so that what is most essential about our traditions can survive? Our rabbis, through the examples of Moses and Elijah, let us know that these questions aren't easy, but they also aren't new. Our struggles to advance God's will in the world, and those of our brothers and sisters in other faith traditions are on-going. They are the human condition. But at least sometimes, as happened for me this past week at the Catholic Mass at InterSem, we are blessed to see that we do not face them alone.

Shabbat Shalom.