Of the men who have imitated Moses recently, not all have done it unconsciously. In the speech which he delivered to the striking garbagemen in Memphis, Martin Luther King said it was possible that he wouldn’t live much longer, but he didn’t mind, because he had “been to the mountaintop,” and he had “seen the Promised Land.” Recordings indicate that the audience in that church knew what King was referring to and accepted his metaphor. A few days later, he was murdered, but though he was promptly idealized, he has not actually been idolized much.
By way of contrast, in a culture so distant from, even hostile to, the Bible, as the one in China, the leader survives to see his plan’s for his people presumably realized, and begins to be assimilated to the godhead before he dies. His survival and deification are at odds with what is known about Moses, yet, like Moses, Mao is revered by his followers as a teacher, a revealer and instiller of transforming, liberating ideas and rituals, which are re-taught and policed by a priestly cadre that he had no choice but to create.
The priests may seek to petrify or pervert the leader’s teachings. They may fail at their duty and permit backsliding. Then he gets restless in his place between heaven and earth, and enlists faithful zealots to keep his revolution pure; at such times the dramatic memory is constantly invoked of the trek through the wilderness, where enemies and temptations had to be overcome, during which slavish habits were painfully discarded. The parallels multiply—it is not hard to be enchanted by them. Instead of unwieldy tablets, there is a handy pocket book containing the teacher’s sayings, published in editions of tens of millions and treated like a magic object.
No need—is there?—to belabor the point. The scene is crowded with would-be Moses personalities. Their proliferation in cultures where the Bible was a foreign graft suggests that the figure of the paternal yet liberating lawgiver is transcultural. Whether these prominent men are monstrous or laughable, benign or very deadly, must be judged by the individual case. What they plainly have in common is their effort to be different from old-style tribal or clan chieftains; they rule more than one tribe or clan, and upset some, though by no means all, traditions. They strive to be different from the garden-variety tyrant who relishes power for its own sake—they are altruistic and self-sacrificing. Their activity must not reflect mere ambition or energy; it must be possible to picture it in the service of something larger, possibly an ideology, preferably the nation. The leader hates to be regarded as just another robber or psychopath on a grand scale. He hankers to combine, as Moses is said to have done, the roles of activist and thinker.
If the Mosaic model is mainly favored in other than Western societies, nevertheless the personality of Moses continues to be of interest to people who have inherited what used to be called Judeo-Christian culture, who live in democracies, who are governed by unremarkable party men and technicians, and who may profess a healthy distrust of charisma. Because their culture is disarrayed, and they are liable to feel demoralized, the figure of the man without whom it is impossible to imagine that culture having come to be, takes on some morbid interest. What was Moses like? Popular imagination in the West is entertained by personalities and biography; since Freud, intellectuals too can admit they want to know a writer, a thinker, an artist, no matter how great or how long dead, personally, relieved of his mysteries, full-face, life-size.
The actors who have played Moses in the movies have squared off and displayed profiles worthy of glamorous presidential candidates (recall Charlton Heston). The latest Moses, Burt Lancaster, is also handsome and mesomorphic; at times, however, his face becomes mild and beautiful, his blue eyes turn from metallic to liquid, and theoretically that should give him some advantage over his two-dimensional predecessors.
In fact, Lancaster comes across as a rather kindly, somewhat bewildered figure in Moses the Lawgiver, a six-hour movie made for television, which was broadcast in weekly segments last summer on CBS and an edited version of which, under the title Moses, has now been released as a feature-length film. Apparently he decided to play his star part with a sense of burning dignity. He tries to move slowly, as if feeling his age and grappling with concepts (at sixty, Lancaster is blessed with a springly athlete’s body). He often knits his brows. Deep intensity, strong intellect, separation from his people, the capability to be cruel, are seldom the effects that he achieves. So far as it leaves an impression, Lancaster’s performance makes Moses look like a likable contemporary carried along by events he can’t understand. He doesn’t look as if he could have written the Law. And when Dathan and the rebel priests accuse him of being a “murderous trickster,” there seem to be no grounds for it.
Anthony Burgess, who wrote the screenplay, probably didn’t intend that accusation to sound gratuitous. The Moses in his script speaks informally, like anyone today, and he has his moments of vacillation where he goes in and out of focus, but he can be resourceful, menacing, and sardonic: “I’m sick of you all!” he snarls. “To make the world took six days; to make laws for the Israelites may take much longer,” he quips on his way up to Mt. Sinai. All in all, this Moses is probably meant to be heroic. He chooses life as against the death-principle of Egypt. Hearing a voice, he frames laws sanctioning and sanctifying the right life and forces them down the throat of his fickle, gifted people, having asked them first, rhetorically, whether they chose to accept the Law and the Covenant that goes with it. Meanwhile, he leads them back to a homeland they are bound to recover violently.
Burgess seems to have familiarized himself with some of the scholarly disputes, selecting here and there without excessive thought to unity. The Israelites try to do away with Moses in the desert. The idea of the one all-powerful God is actually a revival of an Egyptian heresy. The voice that speaks to Moses from the Burning Bush identifies itself as the same that spoke to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses is a Hebrew child saved from drowning, as the Bible says. Yet in the best modern manner, conforming to enlightened understanding of religious experience, the disembodied voice on the soundtrack when Moses kneels before the bush is Lancaster’s own, speaking in a lower register.
On paper, Burgess’s eclectic Moses gives some promise of being formidable. But though Burgess appears to have been genuinely interested in the leader’s personality, he also had to be professionally intent on writing a fast-moving, episodic entertainment covering most of the epic ground: his audience demanded that. Moses the Lawgiver is just the first of a string of Bible spectacles that are going to be turned out by an Italian company with American money, and televised internationally. (Jesus of Nazareth, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, is next.) Spoken in English, dubbed and/or subtitled in many languages not excluding Japanese, these movies are being counted on to reach hundreds of millions of viewers. The large audience is curious about personality, conceived of as gossip or “human interest”; but it wants action too. Much of the focus on character, and whatever rigor and imagination Burgess wished to bring to bear in drawing Moses, must be sacrificed in translating the script into good mass entertainment.
To a producer having this kind of appeal in mind, casting Lancaster makes sense. Viewers are more comfortable with a star they know. Lancaster’s face commands instant recognition, making the great antiquity being depicted less savage and strange. To use unknowns, as Pier Paolo Pasolini did in The Gospel According to St. Matthew, is risky business. Carrying logic further, it was also right to cast Anthony Quayle as Aaron, Irene Papas as Zipporah, and Ingrid Thulin as Miriam, no matter that Moses and his relatives appear to have nothing in common, not even a family resemblance. Thulin, her hair dyed Semitic-black, sings Miriam’s song of triumph in a Swedish accent; Quayle enunciates superbly, and sometimes manages to convey a weak and pragmatic Aaron; Papas wears her patented Greek-widow mask. It would have taken a director with other ambitions, in control of considerable skills, to break through these stars and make their talents work dramatically. Gianfranco de Bosio, the main director of Moses the Lawgiver, who has experience mostly in staging operas, did not live dangerously with his actors and actresses. Following Burgess, he provides a short glimpse of Moses crawling into a sleeping bag with Zipporah, but there is so little heat or awareness between Lancaster and Papas that this scene too leaves a small impression.
An opera director can be trusted to set up scenes as if posing principals and chorus. Moses, the leader, stands before the people to mediate between them and God. Lancaster, who furrows his forehead but never stammers, tells them, “You are free men . . . free even to make a Covenant with God.” The crowd he addresses is small, not your huge mass; experts now estimate that the number of people leaving Egypt was about five thousand. “Will you make that Covenant?” he asks, and the crowd responds hesitantly in the affirmative, smelling trouble. Before and after the Law is handed down, de Bosio supplies illustrations of each of the Ten Commandments in the act of being violated by the Children of Israel, with an Italian emphasis on adultery. These scenes too are rather static. Nevertheless, by repetition, Burgess’s point tends to be driven home that the Children of Israel and their leader have an uneasy relation.
Occasionally, de Bosio does pull off a kinetic scene. The riot around the Golden Calf by a troupe of Israeli dancers moves. De Bosio has several crisp cuts in Pharaoh’s palace and in the desert when the Israelites war with the Amalekites. These underline the heaviness, the dutifulness of the rest of the six hours. Everything is there except Balaam’s ass. The attempt to cram everything in can be traced to Burgess’s script. The hodgepodge qualities of Moses the Lawgiver are no doubt also due to the fact that it was interrupted by the Yom Kippur war. A second director, James Hill, was brought in for continuity and transition scenes, in order that the production might be finished not too far behind schedule. Hill, who made the animal movie Born Free, has a more ingenious touch than de Bosio; the contrast jars.
On the other hand, the decision to make the movie in the Sinai and the Negev was a lucky stroke. The modest, conscientiously-researched costumes, the suggestively-detailed instead of grossly-didactic renderings of Pharaonic grandiosity and death worship, help remove Moses the Lawgiver a distance from the usual, campy Hollywood treatment. The play of light on the dunes and rock of the original wilderness makes the most important difference, however. This is a “set” in the notable meaning, an environment that can change those who find themselves in it.
Previous Exodus movies gave no hint of connection between the psychic happenings that befell Moses and the people, and the landscape they experienced them in. The Exodus used to be shot in the Mojave Desert, a convenient locale, precinct of cowboys and Indians, not forsaken by God, not inhabited by Him. Remote-location equipment has been miniaturized and perfected since the days of Cecil B. DeMille; improvements in lenses, cameras, film, and laboratory processes make Technicolor seem crudely innocent. That is one of the reasons the desert is so much more present in Moses the Lawgiver than in The Ten Commandments. Is it also because something peculiar abides in the Sinai-Negev? The wilderness photographed in Moses the Lawgiver by the chief cameraman, Marcello Gatti (who photographed Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers), strongly suggests that this particular stretch of nature might have moved a susceptible man to thoughts he had never had before. Even in the confines of a TV screen, the desert here is without limit and the opposite of dead or monotonous. De Bosio, the director, was not up to exploiting this potential in full or relating his actors to it, especially Moses. But there are some good moments, and one stupendous shot, lasting five seconds at most, of a priest blowing the ram’s horn at dawn—the blasts echo along the granite cliffs, as if man and rocks were in dialogue.
In his new book about Moses, the English literary critic David Daiches concentrates on the man’s role and accomplishments, and steers clear of imagining his face or proposing to delve into the recesses of his character.1 For Daiches, Moses is a “community legislator.” It was in the desert that he got an idea about communal law, and it was there that he passed it along:
Something happened at Sinai in which Moses and lawgiving were involved. By a study of the way in which the traditional accounts of that event were preserved and eventually written down we can try to discern the outlines of the character of the man Moses and of the special nature of his contribution to the laws and customs of his people. Further than that we cannot go.
That Moses actually lived and should be given the credit for promulgating laws and for beginning to form a nation out of a wandering group of ex-slaves, Daiches considers settled and proven, even though the biblical account is riddled with mythological and contradictory elements that “no historian could accept.” Daiches is rational, modern. He relies on evidence from linguistics, textual analysis, archeology, philology, anthropology, and so on, to assure his readership beyond a reasonable doubt that Moses “was a real person.” Daiches tells what John Bright, H. H. Rowley, Martin Buber, and other reputable scholars and commentators have had to say about Moses and what he did. Moses was not a superman or a saint, and Jews have never believed he was; the Mosaic concept of God was different from the heretical sun-worshipping monotheism of Pharaoh Akhnaton; the Mosaic Law, based on absolute commandments attributed to God, departs from the Code of Hammurabi, based on social utility. So Daiches keeps the record straight, and puts each important episode, miracle, and idea into the context of a secular explanation, anticipating questions and patiently answering them:
With respect to Moses it is impossible to say how much of the Law associated with his name derives in any significant way from him, how much was modified or codified by him and how much was taken over by him as traditional—or indeed how much traditional material ignored by Moses remained alive and was later absorbed into the Mosaic code. But it was Moses who gave the Law a new and special kind of authority by delivering it not only as the commands of God, but as the commands of the God of nature and of history who had by covenant made himself the melech (king) of Israel, and whose divine-royal edicts were in an absolutely unique category. To ask such a question as, “Did the historical Moses really believe that he was delivering to his people laws revealed to him by God?” is to show a certain naivete about the nature of belief and of tradition.
Daiches instructs his readers gracefully and relatively painlessly—this is, after all, also a picture book, large but not oversize, that would rate a place on coffee tables had it been produced with more attention to lushness and graphic unity. The well-known paintings and statues by Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Doré, Dali, and others are here, and photographs of the landscape, flora, and fauna of Sinai. Some of the illustrations are extremely fine, others acceptable, a few perfunctory, some poor. There is no danger of the words becoming caption material. Daiches’s text is the thing.
It might be said that it is sensible to a fault, that his approach and cast of mind are too steadily reasonable, that he is unable or determined not to entertain difficult or provocative ideas which could better explain some matters. Daiches seems aware of this, and occasionally draws back from the brink of an empirical fallacy, choosing a subtler path. For example, although he takes many of the Mosaic regulations to be simply hygienic, regarding the taboo on pork, Daiches doubts that this was a public-health measure designed to protect against trichinosis; it ought to be understood, he says, as another of the disciplines imposed on the people when they accepted the Covenant, another symbol of election and of difference from surrounding peoples, some of whom are known to have worshipped the boar.
In this case, at least, Daiches might have been advised to stay empirical. As W. F. Albright, in a work not cited by Daiches, wrote:
The common explanation for the biblical legislation concerning pork—that it was not eaten because it was sacred among pagan peoples—is sheer nonsense. The pig was sacred in certain places and periods, but large and small cattle were even more generally sacred. . . . If there were any doubt about the empirical explanation, it should be removed by the fact that both the hare and the hyrax . . . were also prohibited. This can be explained only by the fact that both animals are carriers of tularemia.2
But more often, Daiches is overly reasonable. “The story of Pharaoh’s ordering that every newborn Hebrew child should be cast into the river can be no part of the original story of the Exodus and of Moses’ part in it,” he remarks. “It makes no sense to diminish the number of your slaves this way.” He does not recall that Pharaoh made the Hebrews slaves because he was frightened by their “growing numbers.” Only after bondage had failed to curb breeding did the killing of the male children begin. Readers of this book are spared being confronted directly with the possibility of something so unreasonable and “modern” as genocide. The irrational, crazily inefficient aspect of genocide as state policy is beginning to be understood but is not yet widely appreciated, in spite of studies of the Third Reich and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag books—in fact, the contradictory aim of the apparatus is to work the slaves to death. In a study of Moses, to avoid this is to turn away from dark avenues of conjecture: if Moses was born during a state-inspired mass murder, how might this have altered his self-perception when he discovered who he was, and how would his people have looked on him, seeing that he was not only an Egyptian prince, but in all probability one of the very few Israelite males of his generation?
Daiches shuns “amateur psychoanalysis.” He prefers not to speculate on Moses’ mental make-up and deals with the subject only so far as he must report what the traditions have to say about it. Moses was meek, yet immovable; stern, fierce, yet compassionate; a genius about society, yet a loner:
Moses, as the biblical account repeatedly emphasizes, was a man who found his deepest insights in solitude. Here then is another paradox about him: he was essentially a community legislator and as such left an indelible mark on the character and thought of his people, but the nature of the legislation he promulgated for the community was revealed to him in mystical isolation.
Daiches understands that this isolation was not only psychological, but geographical, and he pinpoints it on the map:
Whether Moses’ experience in Midian represented in some way a picking up of the threads of an ancestral Hebrew cult, half forgotten during the long Hebrew residence in Egypt, or whether it represented a quite new kind of spiritual intuition, connected or unconnected with the simple Midianite culture, there can be little doubt that the tradition of Moses fleeing from Egypt to undergo some kind of inward transformation alone in the desert is absolutely central to the Moses story and must represent a basic truth.
And Daiches suggests to his gentle reader that the time they spent wandering in this territory with their leader was crucial for the liberation of the Israelites:
A people that has been delivered from the power of a despot to become an independent group wandering on their own is not likely to accept tamely the authority of any new leader. Having learned to hate despotism, they are suspicious of any form of authority. They will take nothing on trust. Everything must be demonstrated.
Apartment dwellers are not apt to take seriously prose concerning the metaphysical properties of the desert, celebrating the impact of desert life on manners and morals: it was done to a turn in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which everyone has read or heard about, and from which, of course, a movie was made. To write, as Daiches does, “The land of Midian’ to which Moses fled . . . represented . . . a simple way of life and a stern desert moral code in sharpest contrast to the cosmopolitan syncretic polytheism of the Egypt he had grown up in,” is to offer the reader something he seems to have been in safe possession of before. Unluckily, the poorest photographs in Daiches’s book are those of the wilderness.
A stronger writer, or one to whom the lyric comes naturally, or who writes out of experience, may still move the civilized city man with a bit of nature writing, but only slightly, vaguely. T. E. Lawrence is a case in point. Martin Buber, in his book on Moses, is another:
[Moses and the elders] have presumably wandered through clinging, hanging mist before dawn; and at the very moment they reach their goal, the swaying darkness tears asunder (as I myself happened to witness once) and dissolves except for one cloud already transparent with the hue of the still unrisen sun. The sapphire proximity of the heavens overwhelms the aged shepherds of the Delta, who have never before tasted, who have never been given the slightest idea, of what is shown in the play of early light over the summits of the mountains. And this precisely is perceived by the representatives of the liberated tribes as that which lies under the feet of their enthroned melech.3
Buber understands, more than that, he sees, the connection between the vision of nature afforded “primitive” men, and their religious experience. Something that commences as an impression on a sense organ passes off into the ineffable, if the man is prepared to let it. Buber’s language, which is trying to draw a picture here, becomes sweetly exalted coping with something that can’t be described.
Can a photograph, or a group of photographs, do better? Partly it depends on how the viewer’s imagination is used to operating, whether it is more open, alert, and active than his imagination as a reader. Furthermore, no photograph is guaranteed to catch the energy that is in an object, a combination of natural forms, or a place. When it comes to the locale where Moses had his visions, some photographs may have an edge over a thousand words, however. The coffee-table albums on the Sinai produced since the Israelis conquered it in the Six-Day War have many brilliant and arresting illustrations; the pictures, like the undistinguished, melodramatic prose that accompanies them, concentrate on sites associated with the Exodus, Lawgiving, Wandering, and Approach to Canaan.4 These volumes are chronologically organized; relevant verses from the Bible narrative are quoted conspicuously, as it were to authenticate the pictures. The multiplication and preoccupation of these albums is a sign that the Sinai is not-so-dimly apprehended as the womb or crucible, or other some such original container, of Jewish nationality.
Christians, too, have been attracted by Sinai. There is a large 19th-century literature by English and French travelers who detoured en route between the pyramids and Jerusalem. A couple of years before the Six-Day War, when the area was closed to Jews, a team of American archeologists inventoried, restored, cleaned, and for the first time properly photographed the icons and paintings at St. Catherine’s monastery, reputed by Christian tradition to be built on the spot where Moses had his first vision. The illustrations in the book which came out of this expedition are astonishing.5 Most are inspired by the New Testament, but there is one representation by an anonymous Byzantine artist of Moses untying his sandals before the Burning Bush. This picture is more than a thousand years old and it radiates a spectrum of vivid color. Moses has the rosy face and wispy beard of a flower child. It is a most elegant visualization of the great image-hater. Its beauty is tremendously pleasurable, finally peaceful and soothing; purporting to depict Moses at the turning point of his life, it seems misleading, for the fearful element is missing.
The most useful picture book for those looking for Moses in the Sinai desert is a collection of black and white plates by the Israeli archeologist and photographer Benno Rothenberg.6 The photographs were taken during the five months when the Israelis held the Sinai in 1956-57. Except for a short supplement telling where each picture was taken, there are no words. Most of the pictures are from the southern one-third of the peninsula: not from the dunes and strategic passes that are in the news, but the mountainous interior that has no military, economic, or political importance. In these pictures there are some ruins of human handiwork, but no human figures. It is impossible to describe the photographs; every simile is inexact. To say that the inanimate forms, in which immense force appears only tenuously bound, resemble sculptures, is to put things the wrong way around; it is rather toward this ideal of materialized energy that sculpture strives, falling short. To compare the compositions of cloud, shadow, rock, surreal oases, and cold, crystal-clear winter light to a dream where random elements somehow belong together, is also unsatisfactory, too tame; the elements cohere in these pictures threateningly, as in a nightmare.
The effect of Rothenberg’s pictures is frightening. To study them awhile in quiet solitude is to begin to lose familiar bearings. This is good when trying to imagine what might have happened to Moses in this region. But even sympathetic fear can’t bring the whole man back to life.
Buber, who said that his purpose was to describe Moses “as a concrete individuality,” added that it was impossible
to submit a consecutive record of the course of events; for what is provided in its sole source, the biblical narrative, deals for the greater part with only two incidents: the Exodus and the camping at Sinai. To these are added an introductory legend regarding the previous history of Moses, and a number of more or less fragmentary reports of post-Sinaitic events. It is impossible to produce a historical continuity out of these disparate saga complexes.
This is one of the reasons—not the most important—why it may be futile to ask for a life-sized Moses, and why every attempt so far to give us one has been disappointing. Even if Moses the Lawgiver had realized the best potential of Burgess’s script, uninterrupted by ads for toothpaste and cars, it would have left Moses a mystery, and failed to make dramatic sense of his whole life. The gaps in the biblical narrative that Buber alludes to are also necessarily gaps in the life of Moses, since the national adventure is continuous with his life as long as he lives. To fill in the gaps so that national and personal history coalesce, and what is imagined doesn’t suffer from invidious comparison with the Bible, would take imagination, respect, wit, knowledge, and stamina greater not only than what Burgess, writing against production deadlines and the imperatives of show business, could hope to muster, but what Thomas Mann himself, with all the time in the world and only himself to please, would probably not have been capable of.
Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers is the most nearly successful attempt to flesh out a biblical story. Where the Bible is silent, Mann provides chapters full of curious, plausible detail, and where he returns to the basic narrative, he makes speech and motivation “modern,” without, however, trivializing character or depriving the story of dignity. Over all this, his idiosyncratic imagination broods playfully, pompous and ironical.
The novelists who have had the bravery to try the same thing with Moses have not been in Mann’s class (Sholem Asch, Howard Fast, etc.). It is tempting to speculate what Mann might have been able to do with Moses, to wish that he had had the time to try (it would have made a natural sequel) and to wonder why he didn’t choose Moses in the first place. A possible answer to the last question, it should be fairly clear, is that Moses is too large, important, serious, intimidating a figure for a writer as ambitious and wary as Mann to encompass. Mann chose well. Joseph is no great man, not in the Bible, and not in Mann’s version either. His story is that of a clever young man growing up to responsibility and humility and pride—it could be a Bildungsroman—while the doings of his relatives could comprise a family chronicle.
As tradition has always had it and most scholars have lately been agreeing is probable, Moses thought up the Law. This alone makes him so formidable that typically the effort of writers, poets, and other artists to imagine him has exposed more about their limitations than it has revealed about their subject. For all but a few, it is actually foolhardy to imagine Moses. What attitude to take, and how to make it stick? Delightful storytelling is out of place but tempting to try, worshipfulness is cloying but hard to resist especially as Moses ages, irony is equally irresistible for some, and denigration has its attractions for the resentful. None of these attitudes will really do. The typical approach to Moses, as in Burgess’s script for Moses the Lawgiver, wavers among the first three.
The artist imagining Moses would have to have, in addition to the talents and equipment listed previously, a spacious, unifying idea that would be much more than a patch on his subject. Michelangelo imagined a human colossus in the act of turning his head to glare at something. A remarkable idea is not enough, however—Freud’s Moses and Monotheism comes to mind for example. In this book Freud, who said he wrote it as a poet, not as a scientist, gives the impression of kidnapping Moses. True, he doesn’t intend to tell who Moses was (besides an Egyptian) but rather to propose what function his alleged murder by the Israelites had in the origin of the collective neurosis of the Jews. In the process of making his case, Freud renders the historical Moses a figure as flat as any on the wall of an Egyptian tomb.
One of Freud’s pupils, Theodore Reik, wrote his own book on the Sinai revelation, and in it he respectfully and briskly rejected the possibility that Moses was Egyptian.7 He allowed by implication that the embarrassment aroused among professional Bible scholars by Freud’s performance was understandable and not just the reaction of guild-members whose turf had been invaded. Reik, more familiar with the Bible and the scientific sources than Freud was, also produced a work that has its place in the realm of simile: Sinai is like something else. Reik’s thesis is that whatever happened in the desert, it was experienced by the Jews as a puberty rite like those undergone, for instance, by teen-age aborigines in the Australian bush and observed by anthropologists. For Reik, the great conceptual novelty introduced by Moses was not any full-blown monotheism, but the idea of a God who can’t be represented in an image. In this Reik may well be correct, but actually the man Moses and the concepts attributable to him are not Reik’s main concern. His principal desire is to make the Exodus and Sinai events “intelligible in the perspective of depth psychology.” Because for him the hero and subject of these basically universal events is the Jewish people, not Moses, Moses need not come to life or be considered too closely. He remains secondary, standing out no more than “a figure in the foreground of a bas relief.”
What then would the hypothetical artist, equal to the task of bringing Moses to life, have to do? In order to make of Moses “a concrete individuality,” from whom sparks appear to fly, he would have to be made to stand out in three dimensions in the very center of things, of course, and the artist’s unifying, seemingly simple idea about him would have to be startling but could not be specious or far-fetched. There would have to be a basic respect working for the biblical text, for its plain meaning and for the wide but not infinite range of its possible implications. The artist would also have to restrict himself to one or two scenes from the overcrowded life of his subject.
It happens that some of these qualities attach to Arnold Schoenberg’s opera, Moses and Aaron. Composed in the early 30’s and never finished, it is sometimes highly praised, but seldom performed, due it is said to its extreme difficulty.8 In the opinion of George Steiner, Moses and Aaron is “a drama of non-communication, of the primal resistance of intuitive or revealed insight to verbal and plastic incarnation.” This would make it modern to begin with, for unlike our ancestors we take the isolation of each in his body with his thoughts for granted, unresigned to it, continuing to suffer. The opera’s composition in the twelve-tone scale makes it modern as well, not simply technically. The sounds are those of enervation, of emotion warped and unbalanced struggling against being magnetized by madness. Moses himself is possessed by something. Schoenberg got no further than the end of Act Two, and at that point his Moses cries out despairingly, “O word, thou word that I lack!” He is “slow of speech”—exactly as he reminds God that he is in the Bible. Schoenberg takes this impediment literally, using it as a unifying dramatic device and a symbolic expression of the peculiarity of Moses’ thoughts, which distance him more than usual from others and place him in danger of losing his mind.
Moses speaks, he is never required to sing. Designated a bass, he is to break his teeth painfully on each hard German word, while Aaron flows along in a relatively easy tenor, traducing the message of the Law. The device is startling. Much depends on the actor or “singer” playing Moses, of course, but even from Schoenberg’s scenario alone (written in blank verse), without benefit of music, voices, or set, one can begin to understand the antagonism between Moses and his brother, and the epochal meanings in his earliest dialogue with God.
There are, indeed, only two scenes in the opera as it exists—the Burning Bush and the Golden Calf. In an important sense, therefore, Schoenberg doesn’t invent anything. The burden of the first scene is the reluctance of Moses to obey the divine call; of the second, his anger and despair at his people’s inability to live by the Law, and Aaron’s complicity. It is like that in the Bible. While making up his own words in a language of Exile and providing music that resonates with the anxieties of an age of masses and machines, newspaper headlines and radio static, Schoenberg returned and stayed close and faithful to the Bible. He modernized, but did not psychologize away—the voice that Moses hears in the first scene is God’s, not a projection of Moses’ mind, disordered by the desert sun.
If the Moses of this opera is not just “hearing things,” and the presence of God is supposed to be real, then the admiration and pity aroused might be said to be similar to that produced by classical tragedy. This presents a problem. Is Moses a tragic figure in the Bible, and did Schoenberg mean him to be tragic? It is a commonplace that there is no tragedy in the Bible (because God is just), and that tragedy is alien to the Jewish tradition and the Jewish religious experience. Moses and Aaron does not reflect or comment on that experience from the outside; it identifies and locates itself within it, being the work of a believer—Schoenberg, a Jew by birth who had become a Christian, composed it after converting with great seriousness back to Judaism. It is hard to answer whether he meant Moses to be tragic, for the work is unfinished; if the biblical account itself were to stop after the Golden Calf episode, we would have a very different Moses. But Schoenberg’s Jewishness may help to clarify something crucial about the nature of the mania that seems to possess his Moses.
A weird passage (Exodus 4:21-6) tells how, after the dialogue at the Burning Bush, Moses is attacked in his sleep and Zipporah saves him by circumcising their son. The scene was duly filmed in Moses the Lawgiver, where it was weird, slightly funny, and nothing more. “You have become a bloody husband unto me,” the Bible has Zipporah say. Scholars have wracked their brains, some have gone to ethnological extremes, trying to explicate this episode. As Buber understands it, Moses is not attacked by a demon, but by God, “because the man’s devotion to Him after his resistance has been surmounted does not appear full enough.” God claims “the entirety of the one He has chosen; He takes complete possession.”
This accords with what is still to be encountered among some of those whom we would confidently and respectfully call “God-fearing” if that state of mind didn’t seem queer and old-fashioned: people with it have a unity, calmness, and stability of consciousness, and their will power is enhanced, as if it had completely surrendered to or been taken over by something exterior to themselves and unselfish. In Christian terminology this is the state of grace, epitomized in the lives of the saints.
The Bible says that Moses spoke with God directly, that in this he was unique, but there is no intimation that as a result he became superhuman or even a saint. His consciousness and personality are not suddenly and permanently unified by the Burning Bush dialogue. He is liable to suffer tormenting doubts and moments of despair. The outrageous humor of the biblical account, that has Moses and God continually nagging at each other like parents shifting the blame for the way the children are turning out, underscores the point, that Moses is denied peace of mind almost as long as he lives. This chronic uneasiness that the Bible insists on throws doubt on whether Moses was possessed by God as Buber, the theologian, characterizes such possession.
Like its competing pseudo-discipline psychiatry, theology deploys a lingo notorious for subjectivity and imprecision, and loaded with ill-concealed judgments of value. For a theologian, possession by God, impossible to define so that the non-believer will understand, is obviously a desirable thing, and the man thus possessed is considered to know the highest truths and enjoy the best mental health imaginable. For a psychiatrist, obligated by his training if not by his nature to believe that religion is an illusion without much of a future, anyone who comes and says that God has spoken to him, and means this literally, can hardly be said to be sane or healthy. Modern men of the West—those who are apt to have a sneaking curiosity about Moses—are a natural prey to the second (the psychiatric) prejudice, without, however, necessarily accepting the pejorative charge attached to “not sane.”
But the doctors of divinity and psychiatry seem to agree when it comes to differentiating true or godly from bogus or demonic possession, and sanity from various states of mental illness. God claims “the entirety of the one He has chosen,” says Buber. In this emphasis on integrity Buber has much in common not only with Gentile theologians, but with most psychiatrists. Paul Tillich defines demonic (undesirable) possession as an “attack on the unity and freedom . . . of the personality . . . [it is a] cleavage of the personality.” The definitions of health and disease put forward by nearly all psychiatrists of the rationalistic school have sounded similar themes: i.e., the highest stage of maturity, the ideal if by no means most pleasant state of mind, consists in the submission of the undivided consciousness to the demands of the reality principle—such a state corresponds to freedom. Over against this, immaturity or disease consists in being divided against oneself, and indulging in comforting illusions.
The doctors agree that sanity and divine possession are both indivisible, but disagree on what these states of mind should be made of. Their disagreement is nothing less than the old one over reality and how it can be known. The argument has traditionally been carried on by professional philosophers; in our own day, in a far less orderly, less self-conscious, less self-confident fashion, it is worried over by nearly everyone who thinks. Has the flower child here, beatific as the Buddha with or without drugs, attained to a precious unity of consciousness, or enslaved himself to illusions which, on dissipating, will make him a candidate for suicide?
Moses, at any rate, would be out of character with a smile on his face, even the deepest, most “inscrutable” smile. He seems characteristically to be troubled, disturbed, angry, “mad.” He is not of one piece, he is not at peace. It is questionable, also, whether “God-fearing” applies to him—not only does he talk with God, he talks back. Among the other Hebrew prophets, only Jonah refuses outright to heed the call, and when he tries to escape, he does it without a word. Moses is, to put it mildly, very strange this way. Since his concepts and accomplishments are undeniably great, his strangeness accords well with a fallacy popular among the stupid and the highly intelligent, which has hung on from olden times to the present: i.e., that geniuses are out of their minds.
Two thousand years ago, the Hellenized Philo wrote that Moses was “possessed.” He meant that Moses, like an oracle, lost his senses at crucial moments and became a passive, ecstatic tool of the gods or God. Jewish tradition does not accept this, however; even its reputedly most mystical, least rational, sources are firmly on the other side. The Zohar follows Maimonides when it says that all the prophets except Moses got the message incompletely, dimly, because in an ecstasy; Moses received it “standing and with all his senses unimpaired.” In fact, Ezekiel, Daniel, and others testify to experiencing abnormal bodily states (shaking, sweating, fainting) and hearing God in visions, dreams, and riddles. None such are reported in connection with Moses. In the passage that tells of his face “shining,” dazzling the people who looked at it, it is clear that this is not the effulgence of ecstasy, but a result of having been exposed to God, like a sunburn.
The face of the false messiah Sabbatai Sevi is reported by someone who saw it to have been “like the face of Moses which was like the face of the sun.” This was when the unfortunate Sabbatai was in one of his manic moods. Observers, sympathetic and unsympathetic, say that something seemed to take Sabbatai over. For the Jewish commentators, such a loss of consciousness has always been, at the least, a warning sign, and, for some, definite proof that the prophet is “false”—speaking in the name of demons or only pretending to have received God’s word. On a merely occupational level, the pagan oracle, the seer, prophesies out of an ecstasy, and needs to induce it in himself in order to do his thing. In sharp contrast, even the biblical prophets who testify to ecstatic experience do not speak of it as a precondition, but rather a by-product of being in contact. The prophets—Moses is recognized as the father or ideal type—rarely have recourse to drugs or chanting (Samuel is an exception) or other stimuli, and they are not known (except Elijah) for going out into the desert on purpose like hermits and working themselves into a state alone in the middle of nature.
Yet Moses suffers this chronic division between belief and doubt, and he sees a bush burning in the desert. Is he sane? “The scientific hazards,” a theologian has warned, “involved in the attempt to expose, on the basis of literary remains, the subconscious life of a person who lived thousands of years ago are so stupendous as to make the undertaking foolhardy.”9 The temptation is hard for modern people to resist. We know that some sorts who seem to have had a family resemblance—perhaps as bastards do—to the prophets, were insane. Sabbatai’s biographer, using historical materials and rigorous methods, declares “with almost absolute certainty that Sabbatai suffered from a manic-depressive psychosis.”10 Another reason for psychologizing, of course, is that prophets can be frightening. To make a diagnosis on him may just as effectively neutralize Moses as imagining that he is Burt Lancaster. “The tendency to treat the prophet as a candidate for hospitalization . . . makes us inattentive to what is essential and creative in the prophetic consciousness.”11 The insight has been put into words before. “They call me mad,” Jeremiah complained.
A finding of insanity doesn’t necessarily disqualify the prophet in everyone’s eyes, however. Insanity always has its partisans, whose influence is spread through the atmosphere. The same modern man who might say Moses made it up to impress the Israelites, or, if forced to admit that is unlikely, says Moses must have been cracked, is not really sure in his heart whether madness might not be the most authentic, sincere, and admirable response that anyone, and especially a great man, could have to the world, then and now.
In Schoenberg’s opera, the idea that Moses fixes on actually consists of four ideas so closely interrelated that they become one for the prophet: God is, He is inconceivable, He has chosen the Israelites, and it is the greatest of evils to try to make an image of Him. Since Moses is not just a writer or an adviser or gadfly to politicians, but preeminently the prophet who is a politician/legislator/judge himself, as well as an abstract thinker, he must convey the idea-cluster to the people and see that they hold to it. The people are not up to their task. The split in Moses between belief and doubt is caused by the gap between the perfection of the idea and the unworthiness of the Israelites.
In the Bible, this psychic wound torments Moses each time the people fail, and above all when Aaron makes them the calf. But it is partially healed by time, to such a degree that Moses dies easy, having given the Israelites his blessing. On the basis of the biblical account, too, a case can be made that from the abstract principles of the First and Third Commandments (the existence of God and the ban on idols) the Second Commandment follows (“No other gods before me”), and that from the Second Commandment flows the rest of the Law, the practical, down-to-earth, ethical directives. In fact, arguments have been elaborated over the years, not by believers alone, to the effect that justice-hunger is impossible without belief in the existence of one invisible God. More radically, it has been suggested that freedom and sanity are not to be attained or retained in the absence of such a belief.
If Schoenberg was persuaded by such interpretations, he didn’t show it explicitly; his Moses is not preoccupied with ethics or justice, and he is interested in freedom only slightly. Immediately in the first scene of Act One, the voice says from the Bush, “You must set your people [Volk] free.” The implication is that the idea, not their leader (Führer is the word Schoenberg used) will liberate the people; but the implication and the concern with liberation are fleeting and they are not picked up again. It is the pure idea of the First and Third Commandments of the Law that possesses Moses. When he hears from the voice that “your people are the chosen ones before all others,” it is clear to him that this election is to the service of the idea. Even before the calf is made, Moses has few illusions: election will be a burden. But he doesn’t care, as long as the burden is carried. His suspicions are alerted, he begins to feel the maddening pain, when his brother describes election as a happy event and condition. “I love this humble folk,” Aaron sings later, after Moses has destroyed the idol. “I live just for them/and want to sustain them.” To which Moses replies, “My love is for my idea./I live just for it! . . . They must comprehend the idea! / They must live for that end!”
Does their leader believe that the Israelites forfeit the right to live if they don’t “live for that end”? Is he ready, eager, to see his Volk destroyed if they let him down? There is no question of such a mad reaction by Moses, not in the Bible, and not in Schoenberg’s opera. In the Bible, Moses executes the ringleaders, then intercedes with God to give the people another chance—and if not, let Moses be “blotted out.” In the opera, Moses is not shown interceding. His despair is complete, deeper than in the Bible, yet it doesn’t touch the people’s right to live. He curses the idol, not the people.
Schoenberg’s Moses is not identical with the biblical Moses, but his ability to make this distinction, draw this line, even in the depths of despair, gives him an important quality in common with the hero of the original story. If the prophet wanted the people to be destroyed completely, we would be obliged to pronounce him insane, however that term is defined. Unlike Jeremiah or Ezekiel, Moses never threatens such a thing. Instead, he banishes the Golden Calf, with such ease and certainty that the reader or listener cannot fail to be impressed. Something steady and undivided remains at the center of Moses’ personality even after doubt has permanently claimed its portion.
Note the reason, in Schoenberg’s opera, that Moses curses the idol. Not because the demonic is made visible in the calf, because nature-cult and animal-worship splinter the personality with their dialectic of enthusiasm and exhaustion, frenzy and bafflement, producing social instability. No such involved, utilitarian thinking. Moses banishes the idol simply because it is forbidden by God. The doubt that tortures him does not affect his religious beliefs.
Without the motive of religious belief, the opera would not have half the force it does. The belief was evidently Schoenberg’s own, carefully thought-out, irrational, by no means anti-social, but as solitary in its feeling as the individual genius alone. The implications of this belief are at odds with the more comfortable notion, familiar to us, whereby sanity in geniuses is measured by the practical use to which we can put their illuminations. Moses might have heard voices, according to the functional view, but he wasn’t insane, because he wrote up durable guides to conduct. Like most other definitions of sanity, this one is socially-determined, arbitrary; it has no application to Schoenberg’s hero, who offers only the idea, but who, despite painful disharmony, does not seem to the listener to be out of his mind. In today’s jargon, Schoenberg’s tortured Moses is paradoxically “together.” One listener who has been struck by this hears the source of it in the twelve-tone series:
Since the baroque age, the triad has signified divine harmony; but with Schoenberg it is the reverse: the intervals and sound-combinations that fall pleasingly on the ear belong to the sensuous world; they symbolize the falling-away from God. God in His infinity, on the other hand, is symbolized by sound-combinations which, according to traditional harmony, have to be considered as dissonances. But they are not dissonances.12
One would have to listen to the opera many times before venturing to say whether this is true or only declarative. Perhaps the twelve-tone combinations do eventually transcend dissonance. What is indisputable after a single hearing is that the opera, dissonant from moment to moment, has an internal consistency and an overall integrity.
However, if Moses offers only the idea, ignoring justice and national liberation, and if the opera ends with him in despair and the tablets smashed, is it justified to call Moses and Aaron a religious work within the Jewish tradition? Some critics have tried to interpret the opera as an allegory, with Moses-the-artist facing the Philistines, or, alternatively, the distance between Moses and the Israelites symbolizing the gap there will always be between the artist’s ideal conception of his project and his work as it actually turns out. Schoenberg vehemently rejected these twists. He insisted that the “subject” of Moses and Aaron was what it plainly appeared to be, and that “its treatment belongs entirely to the realm of the philosophy of religion.” But Schoenberg need not be taken at his word. The fact is, his Moses is not the romantic artist, the ego expanding to fill the universe. Though Moses says “my idea,” he does not believe he created it or owns it; he is the mediator of it, altruistic, self-less. If this makes him other than human and living for us, nevertheless it does square with the Moses of the Bible. More important, the opera is extremely orthodox in the following respect—in it the epochal meaning of the events in the desert, mediated by Moses, is that from the time of these events onward, the Jews (the ex-Israelites) are marked to bear tangible witness to an abstract idea.
But does the figure of Schoenberg’s Moses give the listener the impression of coming to life, as the central personage in a biographical drama is supposed to? No matter who is speaking the role, it seems the answer will be no. This isn’t a failure; Schoenberg did not intend biography. “My Moses is like Michelangelo’s,” he wrote to Alban Berg without false modesty. “He is not at all human.” Schoenberg’s hero hasn’t got the complement of small touches and homely foibles that scale the giant-size figure down to life-size, endearing him to us, giving him the likeness of common humanity. This Moses has a terrible, sublime simplicity; he is the essence of a man possessed by the inexpressible idea of God, rather than the portrait-from-life of such a man. He is the creature of Schoenberg’s imagination, which was compelled to express religious belief in music and words. He is not a throwback to three thousand years ago; neither is he one of us.
1 Moses: The Man and His Vision, Praeger, 264 pp., $19.95.
2 Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (Humanities Press, 1968).
3 Moses, the Revelation, and the Covenant (Harper & Row, 1968).
4 See, for example, In the Footsteps of Moses, by Moshe Pearlman (Crowell, 1973).
5 The Monastery of Saint Catherine and Mount Sinai, by George H. Forsyth and Kurt Weitzmann (University of Michigan Press and Harry Abrams, 1973).
6 God’s Wilderness (Nelson, 1962).
7 Mystery on the Mountain (Harper & Row, 1959).
8 The opera is available on records in two performances, one with the Austrian Radio Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Gielen (Philips, 670084) and a new release with the BBC Symphony, conducted by Boulez (Columbia, M233594).
9 The Prophets, by Abraham J. Heschel (Burning Bush Press, 1962).
10 Sabbatai Sevi, by Gershom Scholem, translated by R.J. Zwi Werblowsky (Princeton University Press, 1973).
11 Heschel, op cit.
12 Schoenberg’s “Moses and Aaron” by Karl H. Wörner, translated by Paul Hamburger (London: Faber, 1963).