Moses: Introduction

As many commentators have noticed over the centuries, despite various modern emendations and loose translations of the Haggadah, Moses' name does not appear in the Passover Haggadah at all. A fascinating omission of the name of the man who in the biblical account was the star of the show. Reasons galore have been put forth for this omission in the Haggadah, but rather than dwelling on them now, I would like to look at the development of Moses in Jewish culture. This lecture is meant to coordinate with the period of Passover and Easter, not to mention the appearance of the film, Prince of Egypt, which I have yet to see, a time when discussions of both Moses and Jesus is common in the air.

Before beginning with the biblical account I must state emphatically that the purpose of this lecture is not to discover the historic Moses, whether he existed or not is not the point of the presentation. What is important is the way in which later generations of Jews saw him. Therefore, when comparisons to other cultural developments are made, particularly Christianity, while I am well aware that the biblical (Old Testament) text preceded developments in Christianity and western culture, the point of the lecture is to show how later Jewish developments may have been influenced by the surrounding culture.

Moses in the Bible

Four of the five books of the Torah, which is also called the Five Books of Moses, deal almost single mindedly with the on going communications between God and Moses. These appear in the form of narratives-in which Moses often plays the leading role, laws, poetry, religious experiences, and what the text explicitly identifies as prophecy. While Moses does not appear at all in the book of Genesis, at the beginning of chapter two of the book of Exodus we meet the story of his birth, youth, early adulthood, and summons by God.

The biblical narrative in chapter two of Exodus raises several problems: 1) Who were the unnamed parents and sister of the boy who is born here-could a daughter of Levi, Jacob's son, have lived so long? 2) Where did that sister come from, and later a brother? It seems that the parents had just got married and conceived their first child when his older sister shows up? 3) How did Pharaoh's daughter, also unnamed, know she had found a Hebrew baby in the river-chapter one seems to have ended with Pharaoh having declared that his people should throw every boy born to them into the river (vs. 22.)? 4) Was not Pharaoh as wise as his daughter to detect a Hebrew baby (or serious promiscuity on the part of his daughter who shows up with a young baby?) 5) Doesn't the baby seem to grow up pretty quickly here, going from sucking at his mother's breast to killing a man?

At the biblical level of the narrative, such details don't seem to matter. The purpose of the story appears to get the story moving. Not only is the life of Moses telescoped, but the entire period of history of several hundred years is reduced to a few verses. The narrative is skeletal, yet compelling.

The narrative continues: In chapter 3 Moses experiences divine revelation at the burning bush. In chapter 4:24-26, in the story of the bridegroom of blood, it seems that God tried to kill Moses, but he is saved from this by the blood of the circumcision of his son performed by his wife, Tzipporah, and thrown at his feet, one of the last things they would do together, since she does not appear regularly at his side (Tzipporah was no Sarah Netanyahu who has been surgically attached to her husband's side), perhaps raising the possibility, that they actually separated, see Exodus 18:1-4. As Moses worked to liberate his people he also received commandments (Exodus 19-20), visions of the divine (Exodus 24:10), advocated a cleaving to the divine (Deuteronomy 4:4), wrote some or all of the Torah (Deuteronomy 32:46), and died "by the mouth of the Lord," before reaching the promised land (Deuteronomy 34:5).

Moses in the Midrash

Subsequent readers of the Bible were not willing to accept the biblical author at his brief, somewhat cryptic word, especially regarding the leading law maker, prophet, and mystic. To see how rabbis answered the questions raised by the biblical text, we'll look at some passages in Midrash Rabba, part of a collection of rabbinic teachings on the Torah and Megillot, that is the Torah readings for shabbat and the scrolls read on the major holidays. Edited somewhere between the seventh and twelfth centuries, Shemot Rabba, on the book of Exodus, in the land of Israel in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic, gives us an ideal window on to the development of Jewish culture. (Following the practices of this course, I will stick as close to possible to the readings in Leviant's Masterpieces of Jewish Literature, occasionally translating on my own slightly. Leviant is borrowing from the full English edition of Midrash Rabbah, still available in hard copy and on CD-ROM, first published by the Soncino press during the 1930s. In this work the chapters and verses are those of Midrash Rabbah. Biblical verses are written in all capital letters with the biblical citation following in square brackets. We begin on page 120 of Leviant, Chapter 1, section 18 of Rabbah, referring to Exodus 1:22).

Here we are told that Pharaoh indeed tried to kill not only the Hebrew babies but Egyptian ones as well (question 3 above). A reason is given in the form of a story: His astrologers told him that soon a savior of the Hebrews would be born and they were not sure if he would be Hebrew or Egyptian. This story explains why the biblical text seems to indicate that Pharaoh wanted to have all the babies who were born thrown into the Nile. The parents of the Egyptian babies as would be expected objected to such a request because it seemed to defy logic-why would an Egyptian save the Hebrews?

At section 19 the midrash deals with the first and second questions above by suggesting that in chapter 2 of Exodus the boy's parents were not married for the first time, but for the second time. The passage here does not mention the full version of the story that the parents, here named as Amram and Yocheved, had been married but felt obligated during the period of Pharaoh's persecution to separate so as not to endanger any children. According to the full version it was their daughter Miriam who convinced them that by doing so they may be saving endangered males, but preventing daughters to be born. So, as we are told here, they followed her advice, reunited and conceived another child, bringing us from the rabbinic imagination back to the biblical text. Amram and Yocheved's older two children are also mentioned by name here: Miriam and Aaron. Their dancing at their parents' second wedding is linked to a verse in Psalms 113:9, "As a joyful mother of children," always a cultural tour de force when the rabbis can link an apparently unrelated verse, usually in the Writings, often in Psalms, to an event in the Torah. Such a textual play both shows off their mastery of the texts and enhances the interrelatedness of the entire biblical corpus.

The midrash does not want to slide past the biblical fact that this woman may have been an actual daughter of Levi one of Jacob's sons. It thus posits that she was 130 years old, and refers us to Numbers 26:59 which says explicitly twice that she was Levi's daughter, born to him in Egypt, married to Amram, and the mother of Aaron, Moses, and Miriam. Rather than following a harmonizing route such as explaining that the Hebrew bat-levi could mean that she was a woman of the tribe of Levi, the Midrash works towards a miraculous route. Not only was Yocheved very old, but, they explain the word "daughter" as meaning that she became young again.

The midrash continues in this miraculous vein. In explaining Exodus 2:2, "the woman conceived and bore a son," as meaning that both her pregnancy and birth were painless, emphatically stating that she as a righteous woman she was exempt from the punishment of painful childbirth imposed on Eve by the Bible in Genesis 3:18.

The miraculous characteristics attributed to Yocheved almost match those attributed by Christian tradition to the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, who through her merit was able to overcome sin of Eve, and who, according to Catholic tradition, conceived and delivered Jesus in a state of virginal purity, a feat that the rabbis now attribute to Yocheved, the mother of Moses.

Lest the subtlety of the midrash is lost on its readers or my reading appears too forced, the next sentences heightens the comparison. When the biblical text at 2;2 describes the baby born as good, the rabbis offer a number of interpretations for that word. Rabbi Judah's comment that Moses was fit for prophecy elevates him to a level of pre-natal spirituality not found in the biblical narrative itself about Moses or any other prophet. The comment passed on in the name of other rabbis indicating that Moses had been born circumcised nicely explains not only how Pharoah's daughter may have identified him as a Hebrew baby but brings to the narrative a degree of androcentric, theological polemic as well. Such a comment indicates that the preferred status, "good," is circumcised, circumcised is male, and male is the gender of God, reflecting one tradition (of many, see my first lecture) that the male was born in God's image. All together these comments add to Moses a closer relationship with God than the average human enjoyed. The superhuman, spiritual qualities of Moses are heightened in the next comment in the midrash that says that when Moses was born the whole house became flooded with light, a phenomenon enhanced when the text connects the word good, tov, with Genesis 1:4, "God saw the light and it was good."

This line of argument reminds me of many walks through the medieval sections of art museums all over the world where the birth of Jesus is marked with great light and many halos. I think that what is happening here is that the Jews, writing substantially later than the early Christians, are working to elevate Moses to a Jesus like figure. This line of development continues at section 24 (page 122 in Leviant) commenting on "and she opened and she saw it the boy." The midrash trys to say that the apparent duplication of pronouns here means that in opening the ark Pharoah's daughter saw two things, the boy accompanied by the divine presence, overlooking the fact that the word for divine presence, shekhinah, is feminine and the extra pronoun here is masculine. In this manner the midrash links the infant Moses with the divine presence, a presence that is not readily apparent in stories about him in the Old Testament but is part of the New Testament accounts of the conception and birth of Jesus.

By the way, in the New Testament when Joseph, Mary's husband found out that her wife was with child of the Holy Spirit, he considered divorcing her, a further parallel between with the midrashic account of the life of Moses.

At this point in the development of the midrashic biography of Moses appears one of the most well known stories about Moses, so well known that many kids who have learned it, like the story of Abraham breaking his father's idols, think it is in the biblical text itself. At section 26, p. 123, is the famous story of the burning coal. In short, after the baby is weaned, Pharaoh's daughter brings him home and he delights everybody there, including Pharaoh. When the kid starts taking off Pharaoh's crown and putting it on his own head, his magicians became suspicious of the aspirations of the child. Some wanted to kill it and others felt the baby had no sense yet. Fortunately, Jethro, Moses' future father in law, happened to be on the scene (see Exodus 18 for an amazing seen between Moses and Jethro) and he proposed a test of the boy. The boy would be given the choice of gold or a buring coal, choosing the gold would indicate he had sense and could be killed. The child reached for the gold, but angelic interference pushed his hand towards the coal which he put in his mouth and burned.

This story, in addition to highlighting Moses' angelic support at a time of temptation (see for example some of the stories of the tests Jesus endured in chapter 4 of Luke), wonderfully solves two problems in the biblical narrative: 1) As we saw above, how could Pharaoh have accepted his daughter's bringing home a baby? 2) How could the greatest prophet according to the text of the Torah itself (Deuteronomy 34:10) also be heavy of tongue and slow of speech (Exodus 4:10 and 6:12). Now we know.

The point of reading midrash is not to see it as supplementary facts or wild inventions, often decried by students driven by a sense of non-religious fundamental loyalty to the pristine preservation of the text, usually one they have never read. Midrash constitutes answers to unstated questions. Generations of traditional students, when reading Rashi's precise of the midrash in his medieval Bible commentary, were trained to ask, "What is bothering Rashi?" In other words, what is the problem in the biblical text?

The story of the burning coal, by the way, also appears in Josephus' retelling of the Moses story in his Antiquities of the Jews (2:201-237). Because of the early appearance of this story, like the idol smashing story, which appears in the intertestamental book of Jubilees (chapter 12), several observations can be made: 1) The no matter when the midrash was edited, some of the stories at least in it have ancient roots. 2) Despite the convincing case I may have made about these midrashim representing a Christian polemic, if they are older than Christianity, then it raises the possibility that these stories do represent a Jewish influence on Christianity.

Moses in the Piyut

As we have seen in several previous lectures, the map of Jewish cultural development includes the complex creations of the earlier Hebrew poets from Palestine, often dated from between the fourth and seventh centuries of the common era. Just prior to that period, from around the third to the fourth centuries arose a form of poetry known as Hekhalot Hymns. This very early form of Hebrew poetry was connected with the larger phenomenon known as Hekhal literature, from the Hebrew word for palace, in this case referring to the heavenly palace. This literature describes in depth the structure of the seven heavens and the ways to address the heavenly beings in order to attain the spiritual and material blessings over which they presided. Some of the most famous works of this genre included Sefer Harazim, a second or third century Hebrew magic book, written in Hebrew that closely approximates that of the Mishnah, and Sefer Enoch, which represents a milestone in the development of Jewish mysticism.

Moses, because the intimate connections he had with the deity in the biblical text, is singled out in several Hekhalot hymns for similar supernatural skills. In Moses the Messenger by Yannai (T. Carmi, The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, pp. 219-220), with a Hebrew title that cites an expression explicitly from chapter 3 of Exodus, Moses is miraculously transported with his flock to the site of the burning bush, with the desert turning green as he passed (making him an early Zionist as well). He is turned into an angel and he is taught magic secrets of fiery visions by God, moving the events of the divine relation at the burning bush from the ground to the heavens. In addition to the theological level where Moses is presented in many terms very similar to those in which Jesus appears, there is a cultural level to this piyut. It is an alphabetical acrostic with each line beginning with the next letter of the alphabet and the end of each hemistich rhyming. Kallir took the theme of fire further in his poetic adaptation of Exodus 3:2 in which an angel of the Lord appeared before Moses in a burning fire. In this work, on p. 221, in which every line starts with the word fire, the next word begins an alphabetical acrostic covering the entire alphabet in Hebrew (For further piyutim on Moses, see pp. 238-239, 241-244, 246-247, 266-274).

Moses in the Middle Ages

During the middle ages, as Jewish literature became more expansive, so too did the role of Moses. He, like Jesus and Mohammed, became widely associated with magic. One Jewish magic text, which may have roots as early as the fourth century, that circulated was known as the Sword of Moses, based on his last words in Deuteronomy 33:29 (the text and translation is available in Moses Gaster's Texts and Studies.

In Kabbalah, medieval Jewish mysticism based on the Zohar, a thirteenth century commentary on the Torah that ultimately roots Kabbalah in the teachings of Moses, Moses is depicted as having married the divine presence, the Shekhinah. Thus, like Jesus, Moses is portrayed as a man of God on intimate terms with the deity, seen as being consummated by their speaking together, face to face, Exodus 33:11. Moses, however, was not adulterous in this union with the Shekhinah since he had ceased to have relations with his wife. For further discussion see Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, pp. 199f, and 226f.

Moses remained the measure of all things Jewish. In assessing the contributions of twelfth century the philosopher and legal writer Moses Maimonides to the eighteenth century Moses Mendelssohn, each generation noted that "From Moses to Moses there was none like Moses."

Moses in the Modern Period Two of the classic creations of twentieth century Jewish culture, written by two well identified by non-believing Jews focussed on Moses in terms of the discourse of changes in values in modern Jewish life not necessarily connected with religion.

The first was by Ahad Haam, (One of the People) the pen name of the Hebrew writer, cultural Zionist, Asher Ginsberg (1856-1927). Often identified as the "agnostic rabbi," Ahad Haam's essays and editorial guidance shaped a generation of Jews seeking enlightenment, modernization, and national identity. Throughout his career, for which he was professionally employed by the Wissotzky Tea Company, Ahad Haam served as a cultural, spiritual critic of both Theodor Herzl's political Zionism and Mica Yosef Berdycewski's call for a Nietzschean transvaluation of Jewish values. One of the joys of learning to read modern Hebrew is the ability to read Ahad Haam's lucid essays and to help Hebrew students along many versions of his works have been prepared with vowels, vocabulary lists, and explanations. But since much of his work has been translated, the novice can easily find a pony for many of his essays. His essay Moses, written in 1904, appears in Leon Simon translation of Selected Essays, published many times by the Jewish Publication Society, and in Al Parashat Haderakhim 211ff, in Kol Kitvei 342ff.

As we have mentioned on several occasions the current theme of the relationship between history and memory, a reading of Ahad Ha'am's can contribute much to this discussion. He begins with a condemnation of the attempt of historical writers to locate the concrete historical reality behind what he calls historical images of national heroes, what we may now call memories. His example is a compelling one, the imaginary Young Werther of Goethe's literary imagination had a much greater impact on the course of many generations of readers, some of whose literary excursions ended with suicide, than an actual German who lived during the same period. In this sense Werther was real and the actual German was as if he had never lived. He thus dismisses any attempt to locate the historic Moses as simply of antiquarian interest which pales before the image (the memory) of Moses which comes to his mind each time he reads the Passover Haggadah. Moses not only led us for forty years in the desert but for thousands of years in the deserts, forming the deepest aspirations of the people.

He then turns to analyze what are the actual qualities of Moses and asks who is he an ideal for the Jewish people. Ahad Ha'am then rules out-perhaps somewhat tendentiously and dismissively-- Moses as a warrior, statesman, and lawgiver, settling on identifying Moses as a prophet. A prophet is defined as one who can only tell the truth, an extremist, committed to absolute justice.

Ahad Ha'am then singles out for attention Moses' intervening on behalf of the oppressed: the Hebrew slave being beaten by the Egyptian, the two Hebrew slaves fighting, and Jethro's daughters being bullied at the well, the only three events that the Torah mentions from Moses' adult life until he was 80 and stood before Pharaoh. He moves quickly past the events of Sinai and Exodus and focuses on the task before Moses to reeducate the Hebrews from their slave mentality during their long trek. Here is classic Ahad Ha'am. Slowly he moves from a general consideration, the relationship between history and memory, to a specific topic in Jewish history which he explores with some originality infusing in with the new categories of Jewish nationalism, Moses as a prophet, and then he gradually shifts to address the issues of his time, which we can sense will have to do with the transition of Jews from their slave mentality. Just as one of the beauties of an ancient piyut is how the poet will fit original readings of biblical texts into the prescribed format of acrostic and rhyme, the beauty of an Ahad Ha'am essay is how he will move the discussion through the standard categories of general, Jewish, and reach a critique of contemporary Jewish life at the end of the essay.

Here Ahad Ha'am quotes the Kabbalists who said that Moses was reincarnated in every generation. The spark of prophecy motivated the Jews, a people who never lived in the present, towards a vision of a better future. A pessimist he defines as someone who thinks about the present, an optimist, the future. In this essay he refers obliquely to an unspecified time in the modern period when the Jews lost all, even their past, by devoting their attention to the present instead of the future.

The second important contemporary reading of Moses is Moses and Monotheism by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), an essay written in Austria, after the rise of the Nazis in Germany, published the year he died, translated into English in 1955. As is well known Freud represents not only an isolated Jewish genius, whose face yet again graced the cover of Time magazine, but a generation of alienated Jews functioning, as both individuals, as well as a social group, such as in fin de siecle Vienna. His particular contribution was in the area of psychoanalysis, which like many Jews who were both marginal to their own community as well as to the general community, developed a new field of investigation.

Our interest is not on the historical truth of Freud's work but the processes which went into producing it and the impact which it had. The second question, which is dedicated to answering first, is easier to answer. For sixty years now Moses and Monotheism has attracted a great deal of attention. One of the richest recent studies on the subject was produced by the Jewish historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, first in the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis in 1989 and then in a book length study.

In short Freud argues that Moses was an Egyptian, compares the trials of Moses to other heroes, including Jesus, and he gave the Egyptian religion, including circumcision, to the Jews, a people that Freud does not speak kindly of, especially rabbinic Judaism. He then asserts, based on clues found in the Prophets, that the Jewish people murdered Moses, a foreign tyrant. He both casts aspersions on the Church for its violence and presents Christianity as progress of Judaism, referring to the latter as a "fossil."

One of the most profound contributions of this essay, I think, is Freud's notion that antisemitism is based on small differences rather than on fundamental ones (p. 116), what he calls elsewhere, the narcissism of small differences, that antisemitism has been based on jealousy which the Jews evoked by asserting their chosen status, and that antisemitism involves anti-Christian sentiments as well.

Like Ahad Ha'am, Freud also spoke of memory in his essay on Moses, but he spoke of memory as an inherited quality, in almost a Lamarkian sense of the transmission of acquired characteristics (as we all learned in high school this is the view that giraffes have long necks from reaching for tall trees, 127-128).

Freud accomplishes several important things here. He both undermines Judaism as a religion but explains his own continued feelings, and those of many others, towards it.

In a word, which is all the time I have left, Yerushalmi's essays serve to highlight the Jewish aspects of Freud, including a newly discovered title page of Moses and Monotheism on which the work is called a historical novel and a Hebrew inscription on a book given to Freud by his father which Yerushalmi carefully parses.


Moses is very much a creation of Jewish collective memory in every generation. The biblical text may be the wine skin but each generation fills it with new wine made from grapes in its own local vineyard. Finding the historical Moses would be meaningless to so many millennia of history. Seeing how each generation created its image of Moses shows us how Jews created Jewish culture.





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30 Aug 2005 / 25 Av 5765 0