Political And Religious Power

The debate over how Moses killed the Egyptian has implications for the Jewish response to political and military power.

Commentary on Parashat Shemot, Exodus 1:1 - 6:1

Moses, who had grown up in Pharaoh’s palace, chances on a horrifying scene of injustice, an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. Moses does not act impulsively, but rather looks about, to see if there is someone else to save the Hebrew slave. Seeing no one, Moses feels compelled to intervene and kills the Egyptian.

The tradition has difficulties reconciling the image of Moses as the teacher of Torah with Moses as a man of force. This is reflected in the following discussion. One rabbi tells us, “Moses struck the Egyptian with his fist and killed him.” But the other sage explains, “Moses overpowered his enemy by uttering God’s name.”

These two different interpretations reflect a debate with profound contemporary implications: Should the Jew respond to enemies with physical force or rely upon God to save the Jewish people from destruction?

Dependency Upon God

For 1800 years, rabbinic Judaism in the face of exile and political powerlessness developed a rich and creative culture of learning, piety and prayer. Covenantal consciousness was nurtured primarily by a sense of dependency upon God and patient waiting for the “appointed time,” when God would redeem us from the suffering condition of exile. To assume power was to rebel against God–we were, so to speak, to use God’s name.

The political renewal of the Jewish people in this century challenges this understanding. The existence of the State of Israel and the radical shift from political powerlessness to power prevents Judaism from being exclusively described as a culture of learning and prayer. We now must bring covenantal consciousness beyond the circumscribed borders of home and synagogue into the realm of power and politics.

The rabbis cited above saw Moses as either using force or using God’s name. Our challenge is to integrate the two–to be passionately concerned about the moral/covenantal quality of our army and our politics–to develop a sense of covenantal holiness in an unprecedented moment of Jewish power.

Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

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