Michelangelo’s Marble

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January 3, 2013
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Jeremy Kalmanofsky

“Kol Adonay Ba’Koach,” says Psalm 29, a familiar Shabbat text. “The voice of God lies in power.” But, with a small re-punctuation of the last word in this phrase — merely switching the patach beneath the bet to a shva, and removing the dagesh (the dot) from the kaf — the verse could be read, “Kol Adonay b’khoach”: “The voice of God lies in potential.”

Since the time of Aristotle, philosophers speak of the capacities inherent in people or things that can be realized in actions and motions. We speak of this in basic mechanics when we describe the potential energy of a ball at the top of a ramp, and then its kinetic energy as it is released. This idea of potentiality was translated into medieval philosophical Hebrew with the term “b’khoach,” or “unrealized, latent
capacity,” as opposed to “b’foal,” “something brought into motion or action.”

Aristotle described a block of unshaped marble as a statue in potential, just awaiting the sculptor to discover the form that would evolve out of the raw material. This expression was said to have been a favorite of Michelangelo’s. “The greatest artist has not a single idea that is not already contained in the core of a rough block,” he wrote.

I find it most fruitful to think of Torah as Michelangelo’s marble, for Torah has been an inexhaustible wellspring of meaning for Israel — not only because of the stories, commands, and teachings clearly visible on the surface, but also because of the potential wisdom and holiness inherent within the text, awaiting us artists to bring it to the surface.

There are (at least) two major approaches to Jewish religious life: conservative — that is, conserving — and progressive — that is, progressing. (These approaches are not tied to any particular denominations. They are evident across the spectrum of practice, and most people have a little bit of both within themselves. One will find conservatively thinking Reform Jews and progressively thinking Orthodox Jews. And, needless to say, one will also find Conservative Jews who view the tradition conservatively.)

From the conservative vantage point, Torah is a body of traditional thought and behavior, and Jews should preserve the tradition’s riches and transmit them to other generations. Moses received both the written and the oral Torah, the rabbis of this camp might say, and therefore we remain bound to follow the presumptively correct ways of the past. A less theologically fundamentalist version of the conservative approach might say: History commands, and the age-old customs of the Jewish people are as binding as the Torah. I imagine that every Jew finds this at least a little stirring, sensing the spirit of generations past, resurrected whenever we keep up ancestral traditions.

From the progressive vantage point, Torah will always be unfinished and ever unfolding. From this view, Jews search out the intellectual and spiritual possibilities inherent but not yet evident in Torah, and try to be artists who will shape these possibilities into new statues. And, sometimes, through moral and intellectual hiddushim (innovations), Jews shape new statutes, as well. That is, when Torah is progressively unfolded through history, the standards of behavior will change and evolve, even as societies do. Jews, from this vantage point, do not keep the ancient past alive, but rather bring the redeemed future closer. And if that requires affirming what past generations have rejected — such as homosexual love or gender egalitarianism — it is not a betrayal of the Torah, but a discovery of the long-dormant truth that has been awaiting us all along.

A historically minded student of Judaism has to acknowledge that this is certainly what has happened through the centuries. The bards who recited the Torah text to Iron Age audiences and the prophets and poets, like Jeremiah or Isaiah, never could have imagined the potential meaning that the rabbis would lay bare in their texts 750 or 1,000 years later. But those meanings were there, awaiting discovery. The sages of the Talmud never could have thought that in another 750 or 1,000 years Maimonides would draw philosophy from their work or that the kabbalists would discover mystical secrets. But those meanings were there, awaiting discovery.

And another 750 or 1,000 years later …here we are. Our world has changed beyond recognition from the world that our medieval, late ancient, and biblical forebears inhabited. And yet, when we turn to those ancient teachings, we still discover God’s voice amplified. God’s voice is audible not only in the thunderous power of a past that we are commanded to preserve, but also in the quieter possibilities of the future we might yet extract. At least for this 21st-century Jew, God’s word is found not only in its koach, with the stressed letter “kaf,” as Psalm 29 has it — that is, in the resounding “power,” the thunder and lightning the Torah describes as accompanying the clear and defined revelation at Sinai. I also strive to hear God’s voice, b’khoach, with a soft “khaf,” signifying the divine speech hiding within the Torah “in potential,” silently awaiting future interpreters who will make the possible voice fully audible.

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Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky lives in New York City with his wife and four children. He is the spiritual leader at Ansche Chesed in New York.

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