…This feeling of wonderment is the source and inexhaustible fountain-head of his desire for knowledge. It drives the child irresistibly on to solve the mystery, and if in his attempt he encounters a causal relationship, he will not tire of repeating the same experiment ten times, a hundred times, in order to taste the thrill of discovery over and over again….The reason why the adult no longer wonders is not because he has solved the riddle of life, but because he has grown accustomed to the laws governing his world picture. But the problem of why these particular laws and no others hold remains for him just as amazing and inexplicable as for the child. He who does not comprehend this situation misconstrues its profound significance, and he who has reached the stage where he no longer wonders about anything, merely demonstrates that he has lost the art of reflective reasoning.
[Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography, NY, 1949, pp 91-93]
In this week’s parasha we find a fascinating passage concerning Moshe’s descent from Sinai. We are informed that Moshe decided to cover his face with a mask after realizing that his facial skin had become radiant causing people to withdraw and not dare approach him (Shemot 34: 29-35).
What is utterly surprising, however, is that contrary to common belief, Moshe walked daily throughout the Israelite camp with his mask on, as long as he did not speak with the people. But once he had to speak to them he deliberately took it off, revealing his luminous face. Instead of accommodating them by making it easier to approach him, it seems that he wanted to bring them into an altogether different spiritual setting before repeating the words of God as he had heard them. By taking off the mask he exposed them to this divine radiance, which caught them by complete surprise. The purpose, then, was to catch them off guard.
Human beings can quickly become desensitized to even the most astonishing stimuli once they get used to them. The wonder will wear off. For Moshe’s radiance to have an ongoing effect it had to be hidden so that when he would reveal his face the Israelites would be deeply moved by its luminance. Only under those conditions could they fully appreciate and value God’s words. Otherwise even the words of God would become mediocre. Familiarity breeds contempt.
Religion is the art of knowing what to do with wonder. To ensure that it does not fall back into complacency, it must never become everydayness. In fact, this has become one of the greatest challenges to Judaism in the last few hundreds years. While in the days of Moshe and the prophets Judaism was experienced as a majestic representation of the new, and with deep religious excitement, over the centuries this wonder has been replaced by a devastating familiarity. Judaism has put on a permanent mask that is never removed.
By thoroughly misunderstanding what life is all about and believing that we have solved most problems concerning the mystery of life, we have become mentally shut off from the possibility of the extraordinary and unprecedented. We have deadened our capacity to be surprised.
With the passing of time, we have turned Judaism into an institution, a dogma and a ritual into which everything needs to fit neatly. But Judaism is really about an upheaval in the soul and the need to break with all sorts of idols. To live with spiritual trepidation in which man realizes that he was created from dust but has the capacity to reach Heaven. Whether or not man succeeds will depend on his ability and willingness to stand in awe.
We have turned Judaism into a religion that comforts but does not challenge. We have made it into a lame doctrine in which the courage to shatter callousness has been sidetracked. It has been transformed into a sweet and comfortable religion in which man can slumber and never wake up.
Today’s Judaism has paradoxically made modern man believe that divine revelation is impossible. How, after all, can it claim that the Divine can enter our world when it has utterly rejected the notion that surprise is the great spiritual mover for authentic religious life? How can one uphold a belief in the revelation at Sinai when one simultaneously has bought into a spiritual stagnancy by thinking that scientific investigation is all there is and wonder is no longer to be part of our experience? Revelation is based on the notion of infrequency. Its authenticity and truth is to be found in its being different from all other experiences. Its uniqueness is that it cannot be compared to any other event. It is sui generis. Once we attempt to explain it, it has lost its very purpose and essence. If we extinguish the spark of its singularity it is reduced to insignificance.
Wonder is a problem for the law. The application of law would be much easier if the world was stagnant and consisted of endless repetition. The real difficulty arises when the sudden and the unconventional appear. Such moments take the law by surprise. Definite judgments become irrelevant since they cannot cope with the new and the unprecedented. In such cases the lawmakers are forced to leave their comfortable ivory towers. Either they admit that the law has nothing to contribute, or they become inventors and show that the law leaves room for the wholly unprecedented and the notion of wonder.
This is the great challenge for today’s halachic authorities. Are their decisions made in a sterile vacuum in which every surprise is ignored and even suppressed? Or are they made to stimulate a religious condition in which man will live in a state of great awe through which he can grow and feel halacha’s inner spirit? Are today’s halachic decisions transformative, or the reverse? Shall we have prophetic halacha or petty halacha?
What we need is a new approach to halacha. We have to re-create it so that it again becomes the manifestation of holy deeds that generate wonder in every part of our lives.
It may be time for rabbis to invite religious thinkers who still see the wonder of Judaism and can help them decide correctly before genuine religiosity is suffocated.
We need people who can teach us to take off our mask – which by now has merged with our skin – and show us the original glow of God’s word, as Moshe did.
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