Monday, March 26, 2012

How do we know the angels were silent at Kriyas Yam Suf?

Hark! The Herald Angels Didn't Sing

Is there a more exquisite example of Jewish moral consciousness than the story of God silencing the angels at the Parting of the Sea? It goes like this: After the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea, the returning waters washed over the Egyptian chariots and horsemen drowning them all. Seeing their enemies lying dead on the shore, the Israelite erupted into song. In paradise, the angels attempted to join the celebration but were rebuked by God, who said: “The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and shall you chant hymns?”

Marvelous, is it not? What other tradition recognizes the shared humanity of its enemies? Who else, but the Jews, would pause to recall that those who would enslave, murder and main are God's creatures, too? Like you, I grew up thinking of this story as a remarkable example of rabbinic humanism. Now, I am not sure.

The story of a silenced angels is a midrash. Generally speaking a midrash is one of three things. It is either (a) something that is, or was thought to be, a historical fact; (b) an example of ancient folk wisdom or knowledge; or (c) the solution to a textual anomaly.

The typical RW Jew says this story is historical fact. He can't tell us when we received a report of what went on in heaven, but that makes no difference: The story is part of the canon so the story is true. The typical LW Jew, on the other hand, views the story as I described in my opening paragraph, ie, as an example of progressive Rabbinical thinking. Never mind that these same Rabbis also countenanced slavery, honor killings and capital punishment for thought crimes. Never mind that they believed in demons, amulets, giants and mermaids. To the LW Jew, the Story of the Silenced Angels is proof that the Rabbis were more or less modern in their thinking. Where the RW Jew romanticizes the Tradition, the LW Jew romanticizes the Rabbis.

The Talmud (BT megillah 10b) takes neither of these two approach. We're told, instead, that the Story of the Silenced Angels starts with the observation of a textual oddity, an observation attributed to Rabbi Yochanan. Exodus 14:20 says:

וַיָּבֹא בֵּין מַחֲנֵה מִצְרַיִם וּבֵין מַחֲנֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיְהִי הֶעָןָן וְהַחֹשֶׁךְ וַיָּאֶר אֶת־הַלָּיְלָה וְלֹא־קָרַב זֶה אֶל־זֶה כָּל־הַלָּיְלָה׃

The literal translation is: And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and was a cloud and darkness, and lit up the night; and the one did not come near the other all the night.

According to Rabbi Yochanan the words וְלֹא־קָרַב זֶה אֶל־זֶה [=and one did not come near the other] do not refer to the two camps, but to the ministering angels about whom Isaiah said (6:3) וְקָרָא זֶה אֶל־זֶה וְאָמַר קָדֹושׁ קָדֹושׁ קָדֹושׁ יְהוָה צְבָאֹות מְלֹא כָל־הָאָרֶץ כְּבֹודֹו׃

Instead of reading the verse "and the camps did not come near each other all night long" Rabbi Yochanan, remembering the verse in Isaiah, reads "and the angles did not come near each other (for the purpose of song) all night long" The זֶה אֶל־זֶה event, which connotes angels singing praise, did not occur all night long. (Kriyas Yam Suf took place before daybreak, and the Egyptians drowned at dawn (Exodus 14:27))

Now, to be sure, the lesson Rabbi Yochanan takes from his reading is quite similar to the lesson LW Jews learn from the story. He says his reading shows that: "the Holy One, blessed be He, does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked."

However, there is an important difference.

I believe Rabbi Yochanan arrived at his lesson because that's where the text took him. He didn't come to the text with a preconceived notion about God. Because his humanistic teaching is so radical for his time and place, I can't believe  Rabbi Yochanan was guilty of the modern crime of shoehorning a pet belief into a reading. Instead I must say that he followed his reading to its logical conclusion.

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