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Progressive Theology (Bo – 01/20/18)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Progressive Theology
Jewish theology is never safe. Understandings that persevered for generations can quickly go by the wayside. Take the famous verse in our Parsha, Exodus 11:4 as an example:
ספר שמות פרק יא
ד) וַיֹּאמֶר משֶׁה כֹּה אָמַר יְדֹוָד כַּחֲצֹת הַלַּיְלָה אֲנִי יוֹצֵא בְּתוֹךְ מִצְרָיִם
ה) וּמֵת כָּל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבְּכוֹר פַּרְעֹה הַיּשֵׁב עַל כִּסְאוֹ עַד בְּכוֹר הַשִּׁפְחָה אֲשֶׁר אַחַר הָרֵחָיִם וְכֹל בְּכוֹר בְּהֵמָה
“And Moses said, ‘So says God, at midnight I will go through Egypt, and every firstborn in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, to the firstborn of slaves and all first born animals…”
Biblical Scholar, Richard Elliott Friedman notes a metamorphosis in the way this verse has become interpreted: “I am going out through Egypt.” YHWH Himself. Later Jewish tradition, presumably unable to bear the thought of God personally passing through Egypt and causing the deaths, introduced the horrible concept of the “Angel of Death.” But there is no such thing as an Angel of Death in the Bible. The text is explicit that God personally passes through Egypt…”[1]
I wrote to Professor Friedman to ask him his source on this matter, and he replied with the following:
In the “Golden Haggadah” (a Haggadah from medieval Spain) it says as follows,
“The heartless Pharaoh still refused to free the Israelite slaves. So God, brought about one last plague, which was so terrible that it was certain to persuade Pharaoh to let his slaves go. That night, God sent the angel of death to kill the firstborn sons of the Egyptians. God told Moses to order the Israelite families to sacrifice a lamb and smear the blood on the door of their houses. In this way the angel would know to ‘pass over’ the houses of the Israelites. This is why the festival commemorating the escape from Egypt is known as Passover.”
Although I highly respect Professor Friedman, I’m not sure I agree with him here. In our Haggadot, it clearly says, that God alone performed the miracles that gained our freedom:
הגדה של פסח
וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ יְדֹוָד מִמִּצְרַיִם, לֹא עַל יְדֵי מַלְאָךְ וְלֹא עַל יְדֵי שָׂרָף וְלֹא עַל יְדֵי שָׁלִיחַ. אֶלָּא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בִּכְבוֹדוֹ וּבְעַצְמוֹ. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, וְעָבַרְתִּי בְאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בַּלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה וְהִכֵּיתִי כָל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מֵאָדָם וְעַד בְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל אֱלֹהֵי מִצְרַיִם אֶעֱשֶׂה שְׁפָטִים אֲנִי יְדֹוָד:
“And G-d took us out of Egypt, not by way of an Angel, nor a fiery Angel nor any intermediary, rather The Holy One, Blessed Be He, by Himself and in His Glory.” Our Haggadot clearly sticks with the original story, unpleasant or not.
While I’ll admit, that the Talmud at times says that God has an Angel of Death that does the dirty work of ending life, it also claims that God sometimes ends life through a “Kiss.”
So, I’ll leave this issue as one unresolved. But there are many instances where Jewish theology has radically changed, for there is a progression in Jewish thought. Ideas that were agreeable 2500 or 2000 years ago, have been rejected or changed over time.
I believe this is the process of progress when it comes to religion, spirituality and belief. In Jewish ideology, it’s part and parcel of our heritage to reinterpret scripture to fit our values.
Two thousand years ago, the rabbis reinterpreted scripture to say “an eye for eye” doesn’t mean blinding the offender, rather forcing him to pay the loss of the worth of the eye. Many times the Talmud will contradict something stated explicitly in the Torah. I always thought this to be strange. Isn’t the Deity capable of saying, “The value of an eye for an eye?” If that’s what God meant, why wasn’t it simply stated that way? Rather, “an eye for an eye” was acceptable at one time, and when it was no longer acceptable, the rabbis through textual gymnastics, were able to show that there’s another way to interpret these words.
Nowadays, with the scientific understanding that homosexual behavior is an inborn, natural aspect of humanity, we reinterpret the ancient prohibitions on these practices as well. Reform and Conservative Judaism has already done this, and it seems even Orthodoxy is heading there as well.
Sometimes, I shake my head at the Torah readings and wonder why we’re reading them, they’re either irrelevant or total politically incorrect. Yet, it’s all part of the progress. In many cases the Torah was extremely progressive for its times, and in some cases the reading stresses our need to continue the process of progress.

[1]Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah (Kindle Locations 15603-15609). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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