How Many Moshes Can There Be? – On Machloket in Parshanut
by Francis Nataf
Was Moshe a great leader? Many readers assume he must have been but a simple reading of the text can show that this great teacher and prophet suffered many leadership setbacks in the desert. In his recent book, Moses and the Path to Leadership, R. Zvi Grumet argues that Moshe was, indeed, a great leader as our initial religious intuition might suggest. However, despite Grumet’s display of unusual religious depth in his highly innovative and independent analysis of Moshe’s life, I remain unconvinced, which in turn raises a fundamental question of pluralism in Torah commentary.
Grumet is a veteran Jewish educator who has been teaching Tanakh to a wide gamut of appreciative students for several decades. For all those familiar with his unique approach, this book has been long overdue and is hopefully only the first of many more. Going from oral presentations to a written format will now also afford his ideas to gain wider exposure among the many Tanakh aficionados still unfamiliar with this work.
Moshe’s Leadership Ability
I find Grumet’s shiur-length micro-analyses to be impeccable but remain unconvinced by his larger overall narrative, which lacks the requisite evidence to shake me from my own understandings about Moshe as a leader. To give an example of the former, Grumet’s identifying Moshe’s request to open up the earth under Datan and Aviram as a response to their rejection of Israel as a land that swallows up its inhabitants (he gives good reason to connect them to the spies who are the ones that actually make this specific assertion) seemed unusually insightful. Another fascinating observation is his pairing up of Moshe’s renditions in Devarim of how lower judges were added (1:6-19) and the story of the spies (1:19-46). Grumet masterfully shows how the structure of these two recountings is strikingly similar, the crucial difference being in the outcome of what happens when the people listen to the leader (the addition of judges) versus what happens when the leader listens to the people (the sending of the spies). Insights like these come from attention to details many have overlooked, such as his insistence that we note the important thirty-eight year silence in the middle of the Book of Bemidbar.1 It also comes from his willingness to suggest completely new answers to what others have already looked at.
Regarding the larger picture, Grumet introduces the book by telling us that he finds “it difficult to accept that the Bible would have become the most popular and revered book in history if it were filled with weak and flawed characters who served as pathetic heroes.” Rather, he continues, “if the Bible presents Moses as a great man, then he must be one, despite what a superficial reading of the text would suggest.”
Grumet treats us to a sophisticated and artful reading, which sees Moshe as growing in his leadership skills as time goes on, and views Moshe’s inexperience as a major reason for his early mistakes. These early errors include his “overreaction” to the golden calf and his silence in the face of the spies’ report. These very mistakes, however, serve as a laboratory for learning, which Grumet shows Moshe doing en route to becoming a “good to great” leader by the end of his tenure. While such a reading has its strengths, at the end of the day, I find it hard to accept.
Granted, Grumet is not the first to see Moshe in this way, but it is not just a superficial reading of the text that makes us question his approach. (As I will discuss later, I am far from being the first Orthodox reader to see Moshe in a different light.) After all, the forty year trek in the desert is hardly the story of unmitigated successes, marred as it was by successive complaints, rebellions and setbacks. One might argue that this was not Moshe’s fault – and that could well be true – but I find it difficult to take the primarily negative evidence that exists in the text and turn it into a model for successful leadership.
If, as Grumet would have it, Moshe really does end up learning how to become an extremely effective leader, why is God so unwilling to rescind the decree against him in order that he help the Jews settle into the land of Israel? From the perspective put forth in the book, it is hard to understand God’s reasoning for not letting the Jews’ top leader use his hard-won skills for this critically important task. In other words, Moshe’s fate becomes, not only tragic, but also mysterious. Moreover, there seems to be too large a portion of Moshe’s leadership activities in his final year where he does not shine, when according to Grumet, he should already have known better. Hence one would have expected Moshe to confront the threats of the Moabite women and the new demand for water with much more self confidence and, ultimately, with success. While Grumet is aware of Moshe’s later failings, his explanations for them seem to be an overly creative attempt to deal with inconvenient data.
Perhaps Grumet is unconsciously trying too hard to create a model of a successful leader that he is sure must be there. I am in complete agreement and even salute his assertion that we trust the Bible’s integrity. Yet somehow he makes a jump that if Moshe was a great man and also served as a Jewish leader, then he must have been a great leader as well. Moshe was above all a great teacher and a master prophet. Yet it is far from clear that he was ever fit to be a leader in the classical sense of the word, something which only became necessary once the Jews moved towards being a nation like all others with the sin of the spies.2
On some level, Michael Walzer (with whom I have other disagreements) gets this right in pointing out that it is really God and not Moshe who is the leader in the Jews’ forty year journey in the wilderness.3 Likewise, for Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Moshe’s lack of strong leadership skills are actually an additional proof that the whole Exodus could have only been orchestrated from Above (a claim sometimes made about the leadership in contemporary Israel as well!).4 It is obvious that for Hirsch, as for us, this does not make Moshe a weak character. Moshe’s greatness does not mean that he needs to be great at everything.
What Isn’t Pshat?
My disagreement with Grumet leads me to further analyze my own vision of the multiplicity of pshat-based analysis of Tanakh. Rabbinic textual interpretation has great affinities with contemporary views that there is more than one valid reading of any given text. Therefore, I grapple with what it means for me to “disagree” with the grounded interpretation of a skilled contemporary commentator.
On some level, living with more than one interpretation is an excellent exercise in quintessentially Jewish thinking. After all, the idea that there can be more than one valid understanding seems to be borne out by the famous rabbinic pronouncement of elu ve’ elu5 and by similar statements in Talmud and Midrash. But that does not mean that we are expected to relate to opposing positions with the same existential engagement as to our own. We are supposed to take on intimate engagement with our own readings of Torah. Even more generally, I am not sure that one can surgically divide between one’s self and one’s understanding; but I am sure that this is not meant to be the case in Torah, where one’s self and one’s argument should meld into one. Sometimes, we believe something is truer because it is truer to who we are.
Getting back to my own disagreements with Grumet, the question ended up becoming whether both readings are possible and whether my preference for one over the other is because it is better supported, or simply because it resonates more broadly with me. If the latter, then disagreement may not be the right word. Rather, it is more a question of differing orientations.
If, on the other hand, I feel that one reading is better supported, at what point does the weaker reading become untenable? In other words, multiplicity of meaning is not the same as a text’s infinite flexibility. (This is a common mistake some critics make about Postmodernism, thinking that it is a free for all, where anything goes.) In the case of Grumet’s thesis, it would no doubt be too strong to say that it lacks the support to make it reasonably possible. Still, I would like to see him try harder to work out the kinks in order for me to be more convinced of his reading’s validity, even if I doubt that I will ever be won over to accept it as my own.
The Tapestry Trap
Finally, there is one more aspect of Grumet’s book that makes me ponder about the state of contemporary Parshanut. Grumet admirably wants us to appreciate the bird’s eye view which he proposes to give in his overview of Moshe’s biography. Hence, in his introduction he criticizes others for looking at smaller vignettes and not putting together all of the pieces. His critique is correct and yet, ironically, his own analyses are more convincing specifically on the vignette level. Perhaps it is the nature of the beast and the reason why classical commentators refrained from these types of overreaching analyses. That is to say that the more information one tries to subsume in one’s analysis, the more room there is for error.
Here too, one needs to be careful. We find some of the greatest classical commentators sometimes weaving highly coherent tapestries by giving answers that don’t provide the best possible explanation for specific data. This is because specific data can actually be misunderstood if it is not read in the larger context. These sorts of tapestries have become stock-in-trade for most commentators today, such that most studies will appropriately look at challenging verses or scenes in a larger context in order to explain them. In spite of this having become common, Grumet is correct that it is rare to find treatment of a more extensive character like Moshe in toto. But the fact that it is desirable doesn’t necessarily mean that it is possible. The Torah may not be interested in giving us access to the requisite information for such an analysis.
All of my reflections aside, the bottom line is that Grumet dazzles the reader with brilliant new insights in the clear and organized manner that he has used for so long in the classroom. I can only imagine that any lover of Bible commentary will delight in the new possibilities opened by many of his fresh and creative readings of the text. Bible teachers, in particular, will see how to work with the text in a clear and cogent fashion while making it come vividly alive. That there is room to disagree with some of Grumet’s views actually makes the book even more interesting as a living laboratory for participatory parshanut, an endeavor clearly dear to both of us and, more importantly, to so many of our students.
Grumet compellingly suggests that the anomalous placement of the rite of the red heifer in the gap between the stories from the first two years and the stories from the last year is actually meant as summarizing the purification process of those middle years. ↩
Indeed, Netziv sees Moshe as a fit leader only early on, when the Jews are privy to God’s completely miraculous supervision, i.e. when the Jews don’t really need a conventional leader. See Ha’amek Devar, Bemidbar 20:8-12 and Devarim 1:37. ↩
In the Shadow of God: Politics in the Hebrew Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012). ↩
Commentary on Shemot 4:13, 6:1. ↩
Eruvin 13b. This is, at least, how it is understood by the French rabbis cited by Ritva ad. loc. and interpreted to be the position of Ritva himself by Moshe Halbertal in People of the Book (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), pp. 63-65. See, however, Moshe Sokol in “Theoretical Grounds in Tolerance,” Dissent and Democracy, ed. Moshe Sokol (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aaronson, 1998), who only dates back such an approach to Maharal. ↩