tradition and tolerance
Jewish tradition ascribes a number of miraculous qualities to the two tablets of stone that Moses brought down from Sinai bearing the Ten Commandments. According to one tradition, the letters were carved right through the stone and the words could be read from both sides. According to another, the letters made the stones lighter and not heavier. These traditions give the Ten Commandments a mysterious, other-worldly quality. But they also convey some striking ideas about the role of tradition and values in our society…
The two tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written are described in the Bible as being written “on both of their sides”. The Talmud (Tractate Shabbat) suggests that this unusual wording means that the letters of the text were carved right though the stone from one side to the other. (The Talmud adds that one aspect of this remarkable phenomenon, was the fact that the central pieces of the letters samech and final mem – both closed circles – remained suspended miraculously in place.) But most miraculous of all, observes the Talmud, the words and sentences carved right through the stones could be read equally well from both sides.
The image of the letters of the commandments being readable from both sides carries with it a powerful message of tolerance. Even the holiest and most central principles of our tradition can, it suggests, be looked at from different perspectives. For Israel, a society comprising groups with a wide array of priorities and agendas, the image suggests that even when considering our most closely held values, we should always consider that there may still be another way of looking at things, as equally legible and valid as our own.
The second mystical quality ascribed by tradition to the tablets, suggests another approach to our heritage which goes hand in hand with the first.
The second tradition about the tablets is brought in the Medrash Tanchuma , which teaches that the letters on the tablets made them lighter. Indeed, when Moses, coming down the mountain, saw the Children of Israel worshipping a golden calf, the Medrash states that the letters ‘flew off’ and the tablets became too heavy for Moses to carry, so they fell to the floor and smashed.
The notion that the letters themselves made the tablets lighter to carry finds a parallel in a description of the aron kodesh , the ark in which the tablets were carried by the Israelites though the wilderness, Describing the ark, the Talmud ( Tractate Sotah ) notes that “it carried those who carried it”.
It seems that these traditions are suggesting that, far from being a burden which pulls us down, our heritage actually helps us in carrying other burdens. This idea was very beautifully expressed by Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, commenting on the phrase ‘ol hamitzvot’ – ‘the yoke of the commandments’. We tend to think of a yoke as a heavy burden on our shoulders, says Hirsch. But in fact a yoke is actually a light length of wood which helps us carry heavy burdens, much heavier in fact than we could carry without it.
Taken together these two traditions about the Ten Commandments, suggest an important message for Israeli society at large. On the one hand, they teach us that maintaining our heritage is not a burden, but in fact a tool that helps us in confronting greater burdens and challenges. But at the same time, they remind us that in looking at this heritage, no-one can claim to have a single authoritative interpretation; like the other side of the tablets, another viewpoint may be reading the tradition just as clearly as we do.
In others’ words
“Amongst ourselves, also, conciliation and unity do not yet exist. The internal controversies in Israel are increasing. The split between religious and secular has increased dangerously. Difficult developments may take place, and have already done so on this background. Not everyone in Israel understands the need for tolerance and bridging the gap. And for this purpose there is a need for thought and deliberation, which are not always available. “On both sides there are people of Torah and work, intellectuals and good fighters, but there are others also. I wish to remind the secular people, that religion is not only extremism, coalition considerations and religion coercion. I wish to remind the religions people that secularism does not necessarily mean vacuity and crime. Above all, I should like to say that the various groups in our people are entitled to live in their own way and according to their beliefs, and each must honor the other and allow others to live their own lives. These problems must be solved at all levels of society. The term tolerance must be restored to its proper place in our scale of values.”
Speech by President Ezer Weizman on being sworn in for a second term as President of the State of Israel, May 18, 1998
On a lighter note
“I don’t care what denomination in Judaism you belong to, as long as you are ashamed of it.”
Rabbi Irving Greenberg, President of Jewish Center for Learning