Moses at the Millennium

By Wolf, Arnold Jacob | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Moses at the Millennium

Wolf, Arnold Jacob, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

A GENERATION AGO MOSES SEEMED TO BE A REAL person in a real historical setting. Even his name was Egyptian. His story fit the archeological assumptions of the time. Great scholars like William Foxwell Albright and Nelson Glueck believed that the Bible was a trustworthy guide to the early history of Israel, even as far back as Abraham, our progenitor. But faith in the historicity of the Bible has been eroding since their time. More recent scholars are inclined to agnosticism; some even date the formation of the Torah narrative as late as Persian or even Greek times. Not much is left of the historical Moses.

But it was never the "historical" Moses who really counted for Judaism. Not who Moses was but what Moses signified and taught was always the crucial issue and it still is.

Martin Buber, whose book on Moses remains the best we have, still held on to a kind of quasi-historical figure, modified by interpretation, but not mythicized. The narratives of the Torah constituted for Buber a saga, not precisely fact but also not essentially mere myth.

[The Torah] is historical because it derives from historical connections and sets off fresh historical connections. When faced by such tales it is wrong to talk of a "historization of myth"; it might be preferable to describe them as a mythisation of history, while remembering that here, unlike the concept familiar in the science of religion, myth means nothing other than the report by ardent enthusiasts of that which has befallen them. And it may very well be doubted whether, in the last resort, the report of an unenthusiastic chronicler could have come closer to the truth. There is no other way of understanding history than the rational one; but it must start off with the overcoming of the restricted and restrictive ratio, substituting for it a higher, more comprehensive one. (Buber, 17)

Others of our authors are less interested in history; they seek to explain Moses as a profoundly psychological type or as a crucial figure in the continuing dialogue of the West with Egypt and all it stands for. The late Daniel Silver traced Moses through Jewish literature, and the Egyptologist Jan Assmann now gives us something of the ongoing dialogue of Europe with its putative Egyptian roots. Thomas Cahill offers us an ethnic hero to make jews feel proud, as he did the Irish in a previous book. Dan Cohn-Sherbok has selected passages from the Torah of Moses that edify and delight us, in a little book that is better than it looks. Levi Meier gives us a traditional Moses with self-help trimmings. Jonathan Kirsch presents the Moses of Jewish scholarship and legend re-told briskly and winningly by a fine journalist who knows the secondary sources fairly well.

Moses brings out the best in his interpreters (Buber, Kirsch) and the worst, exemplified by the late social scientist Aaron Wildavsky's misconceived political Moses, or David Baron's ludicrous, if not completely mistaken, Moses with an MBA.

Behind most of these books looms the shadow of Sigmund Freud, whose last book, Moses and Monotheism, still haunts his successors. Freud knew that his reconstruction of the prophet's career was only a "historical novel" and that it would offend most Jews and many others, especially as it appeared precisely when the Nazis were trying to destroy the jews. But it was important to him to declare that Moses was not really a "Jew" but an Egyptian, and that Hebrews murdered him. Perhaps he was claiming that German Jews like himself were really Germans, though he hardly improved the image of his community in asserting that the Jewish people began as a murdering horde. His disciple, Robert Paul, corrects details of history but accepts the bizarre theory essentially as Freud presented it sixty years ago.

There can be no question that the only figure in the Torah equal to the titanic role he is to play is the myth of Moses. He is the first and greatest of the prophets, and it is to him that God reveals the Law that rules the Jews (and the Christians) to this day. …

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