Broken tablets are better: A non-fundamentalist Shavuot

We remember the giving of the first tablets of the Torah on Shavuot – but our inheritance is the second tablets, given only after the sin of the Golden Calf. Yes, we are inspired by the first tablets – the ideals of justice, goodness, and truth – the legacy and lifeblood of the West, of Christianity, Islam and even modern enlightenment ethics. But those ideals are preserved, in the story the rabbis tell, only in the splintered shards of the original tablets, reminders of a no-longer whole ideal. The second tablets provide an antidote to our fundamentalist urges, and serve as warning to those who, claiming to bear the absolute truth, avoid the responsibilities that come with living in an imperfect, indeed human world. Let the fundamentalists and demagogues embrace the first tablets alone; we now have the second tablets, testimony to revelation, but also to creativity and pluralism.

In the account of the rabbis, the first tablets represent immortality: ‘if not for the destruction of the first tablets,’ the sages say, ‘the people of Israel would have lived forever.’ And further, they say of that period of mythic immortality, there would have been no forgetting. In this idealized condition, there would have been no death, no forgetting, and no memory. A mythic ideal – to which our current, fallen state, after the sin of the Golden Calf, bears little resemblance. What follows as the rabbis continue their story, with the people’s sin, is the beginning of the fallen history we recognize – of death and forgetting.

In the straightforward version of the story, the revelation of the second tablets represents a falling off – with human history, now an after-the-fact concession, just a pale imitation of a former more elevated state. Yet of Moses’s act that inaugurates history and mortality, the breaking of the first tablets, God proclaims in the rabbinic story: ‘well done!’ The divine ‘well done’ attests to a different perspective – not just a reluctant acknowledgment of a new and impoverished world, but an embrace of man as human – as mortal and forgetful. The principle of ‘well-done’ – the divine approval of the destruction of the first tablets, as well as the symbol of human immortality –  combines with another principle: ‘sometimes only through the destruction of the Torah does it come into being.’ The shattering of the first tablets leads, in the end, to a greater fulfillment, to a higher end. Only by means of its negation does the Torah, as it is meant to be understood and experienced in a fallen world, come into being. In the destruction of the first tablets, and their image of a sublime but inaccessible perfection, the possibility of a new Torah emerges – a Torah accommodating the human, as flawed and forgetful.  It is to this new reality that God says ‘well done.’

The Talmud attributes the first dispute among the sages to forgetting, eliciting a third rabbinic principle – ‘these and these are the words of the living God.’ Where there is a mortality and forgetting, of distance from the sublime experience of revelation, perspectives will multiply, disputes occur. Indeed, the second tablets bring about not only mortality and forgetting, but difference – in which no single perspective fully recaptures or even represents the divine. Further, the second tablets represent a move away from creativity defined as uniquely divine to one which allows for, indeed encourages, human creativity and collaboration – where man is active participant. God instructs Moses: ‘write for yourself,’ a divine command for man to write the second tablets, to be creative.

There are those who claim that embracing different perspectives and voices, the imperatives for both memory and creativity, represents a reluctant concession to a fallen world. But for the rabbis of the Talmud, the non-idealized view of the human as mortal, forgetful, and embodying different perspectives, is in fact the ideal. Indeed, holding on to the former ideal – acting as if we already live in messianic days, and sometimes our religious and political leaders behave as such – is a betrayal of our current condition, not immortal, but imperfect. The second tablets represent the non-ideal human ideal: many voices, in the plural, participating in creative revelation. Yes, the first tablets remain, but present in our imagination only as splintered fragments. Let the fundamentalists celebrate the first tablets alone. We commemorate them, indeed our ideals are informed by them, but we celebrate, and live by the the second.

About the Author
William Kolbrener is professor of English Literature at Bar Ilan University in Israel. An international expert on the Renaissance on England, he has written and edited books on John Milton and Mary Astell. His Open Minded Torah: Of Irony: Fundamentalism and Love was published by Continuum in 2011; his The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition is forthcoming from Indiana University Press in September
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