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Nietzsche and Moses’s Stutter

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg

The tendency of meaning to burn out of language is a constant theme in Nietzsche’s writings. Here lies the paradox of the stammer:

May your virtue be too exalted for the familiarity of names: and if you must speak of her, then do not be ashamed to stammer of her. Then speak and stammer, “This is my good; this I love; it pleases me wholly; thus alone do I want the good. I do not want it as divine law; I do not want it as human statute and need: it shall not be a signpost for me to overearths and paradises. It is an earthly virtue that I love: there is little prudence in it, and least of all the reason of all men. But this bird built its nest with me: therefore I love and caress it; now it dwells with me, sitting on its golden eggs.” Thus you shall stammer and praise your virtue.

To speak publicly of one’s “virtue” is to vulgarize its precious idiosyncrasy. Nietzsche’s solution is: “Speak and stammer.” In a valuable essay, “Moses the Modest Law-Giver,” Julie E. Cooper extends this notion to the issue of Moses’ stammer. Personal and inexpressible, his Revelation must not be travestied by easy utterance. The stammer, here, is part of the message; the hesitation, the halting delivery, the “fundamental inhibition of expression,” convey the excess of revelation. They may also convey the ambivalence of the prophet before the overwhelming influx of revelation. Fear and desire may create a dumbfounding conflict.

The role of prophet or poet holds at its heart the paradox of speaking the unspeakable. While language is necessary for life within a stable social order, there is always “a loss involved as the multiple possible ways of experiencing the world are narrowed and channeled into what can be said.”

A certain kind of reticence, or circumspection, therefore halts the true prophet, faced with the inscrutable God, whose revelation must be narrowed into what can be said. In a moment of pure desire, Moses asks God, “Let me see please Your Glory” (33:18). God denies his request and grants him only a vision of His “back”:

“You cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.” And God said, “See, there is a place near Me. Stand on the rock and, as My Glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock, and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove My hand and you will see My back; but My face may not be seen” (33:20–23).

God’s face cannot be seen by human eyes, but His “back,” the traces of God’s presence in the world, can be glimpsed after He has passed by. One of the Hassidic masters of the nineteenth century, R. Mordecai Yosef Leiner, known as Mei HaShiloach, reads the reference to God’s “back” as a temporal reference to the past—to that which has passed and gone. Moses is given insight into past history, into processes already under way. But to see His face, or Presence, would mean to read God’s meanings in the present moment: this is beyond human understanding.

But this, precisely, is what Moses desires: to fathom God’s ways in real time. So the Talmud describes his desire at this moment: “Moses said in God’s presence, ‘Master of the Universe, why do the righteous suffer, and the wicked prosper?’” This is the radical question, the core problem of souls. In a moment of divine favor, this is Moses’ request, Let me see Your face! But God answers inscrutably: “The righteous who suffer are not perfectly righteous; and the wicked who prosper are not perfectly wicked!” In spite of the unique intimacy between Moses and God (“He spoke with Him face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” [33:11]), a full revelation of divine meanings is withheld from him.

God is inscrutable on this most painful of human questions. Moses, in particular, is haunted by the unintelligible world into which he has been—twice—born. His life is, in some obscure way, a metaphor for that of the people to whom he is strangely attached. Why is he chosen? Why are they chosen, for genocide and for redemption?

Emmanuel Levinas, the French Jewish philosopher, remarks on the choice of Moses:

The language of the Old Testament is so suspicious of any rhetoric which never stammers that it has as its chief prophet a man “slow of speech and of tongue.” In this disability we can see more than the simple admission of a limitation; it also acknowledges the nature of this kerygma, one which does not forget the weight of the world, the inertia of men, the dullness of their understanding.

Moses is chosen because of his disability, which conveys not only his own limitations but also the human resistance to revelation. This resistance implies that the messenger will himself be afflicted by a sense of the clogged medium in which he has to speak. The language of the prophet will reflect this stalled experience; he will express himself through indirection.

Moreover, as Cooper argues, a kind of tragic realism requires the prophet to keep in mind the unredeemed nature of the world. An inherent silence will haunt the precipitations of speech. The most enlightened of human beings is nevertheless illumined only intermittently. This is Maimonides’ image for the philosopher’s experience of Revelation: like lightning flashes, truth appears and disappears. A literary modesty must therefore mark his utterances.

Even Moses, for whom these flashes appear continuously, hides his face when God first speaks to him. Even he has imperfect access to God. Maimonides refers to the light that later irradiates Moses’ face. It too is a subtly broken light: pulses, rays, rather than a direct energy. Both his reception and his transmission of the law have this intermittent though dense quality. The truths that God would reveal are always indirect, with gaps and silences built in.

From Moses by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg lectures on the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic thought at academic, psychoanalytic, and Jewish educational institutions around the world. In 1995 she received the National Jewish Book Award for Genesis: The Beginning of Desire.

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