Thursday, July 07, 2005

Hukkat (Archives)

"…To atone for the sin of the calf”

The Torah portion entitled Hukat is divided into two sections of totally differing nature. The opening chapter (Num 19) is the famous chapter of the Red Heifer: a legal section, describing the procedure to be used for ritual purification of contamination by contact with the dead. An untouched heifer with pure red hair was slaughtered outside of the Temple precincts (at the crest of the Mount of Olives, according to tradition), burnt together with cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet, the ashes dissolved in water, and the water sprinkled upon those who had been rendered impure. Beyond the seemingly “hocus pocus” aspect of this ritual (see the next section and the midrash in Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Parah, as well as the discussion in Urbach’s Hazal, pp. 83-84 and 329-330), it is noted for involving an innate paradox: the very heifer which was intended for purification rendered all those who engaged in the various stages of its preparation ritually impure (albeit for only one day).

Rashi, in his commentary here, following a regular verse-by-verse elucidation of the laws of the heifer based upon standard Rabbinic sources, cites an entire allegorical homily from the Yesod by Rabbi Moshe ha-Darshan of Narbonne, one of the early leaders of French Jewry and a noted midrashic compiler, whom Rashi revered as an important teacher and source of the tradition. The gist of this section is that the ritual of the heifer was intended to atone for the sin of the Golden calf. What does this mean? Why the need for atonement? The question is rightly asked: if tumah is not a sin, but a technical, halakhic state, mitigating against an individual entering the Temple, etc., what has a ritual intended to affect purity have to do with “atonement,” and specifically for the sin of the Golden Calf? Why does this ritual and no other effect purification? (Phil Chernofsky posed this question recently in his popular “Torah Tidbits.” This law, by the way, is why halakhically observant Jews do not go up to the Temple Mount, or at most, according to some views, only to certain peripheral parts of it; because in the absence of the ashes of the Red Heifer all Jews are considered ritually impure)

And if so, already, why shouldn’t it relate to the sin of Adam and Eve? After all, death is part of the human condition, going back to the first human being. Moreover, Adam and Eve were specifically told by God, apropos of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, “on the day you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17; cf. 3:3). True, it is a commonplace of liberal Jewish apologia that, unlike the Christian Churches, we do not interpret this episode as describing some cosmic, “original” sin. Nevertheless, there are various midrashic notions, such as that of zohamat hanahash, “the pollution of the serpent,” that would suggest that Adam’s sin changed things in a fundamental way. Why, then, is the contamination resulting from death connected with atonement for the Golden Calf?

All this can perhaps be dismissed as so much fanciful creation of the midrashic imagination, a “just-so” story prompted by the similarity of the calf and the heifer in color and species. But if Rashi took the trouble to quote it at length, and to make the unusual move of giving a second verse-by-verse run-through of the entire section (something he otherwise does only in vv. 32-40 of the Song of Moses, Ha’azinu, in Deut 32), this would certainly suggest that he at least thought there was more to it… What, and why?

In general, the Golden Calf is seen as the primal sin in Jewish tradition; a kind of cosmic rift within the Bible (even in the purely literary sense, as I have commented earlier). It is axiomatic among the Rabbis that the sin of the Golden Calf is one that requires constant atonement by Israel, collectively. It, more than Adam’s sin, is seen midrashically as the “original sin” in Judaism (certainly, as I have mentioned, it serves as the locus for the central act of forgiveness and divine mercy). Why? In essence, the sin of the calf was not so much about idolatry, as it was about the need for some concrete, corporeal, intermediary symbol or reminder of the Divine presence. The stern, austere demands of iconoclastic monotheism were simply too much for the people, in the same way as the various conflicts between Moses and the people in the recent chapters of Bamidbar are ultimately about the one, central fact that a certain type of sustained toughness and maintenance of vision in the face of difficulties was just too much for the people. The kernel of all this is rootedness in the flesh, not as something sinful in itself, but as that which, when not animated by the spirit, by the sense of some transcendent purpose, quickly reverts to pettiness, to fearfulness, to squabbling, etc. And what is death, if not the departure of the animating spirit, of that which makes us alive and vital and creative and capable of soaring to spiritual heights, leaving an inert mass of dead flesh? (The Rav, in his “Eulogy for the Talner Rebbe,” speaks of death as the “hideous darkness… grisly and monstrous,” making a mockery of all human aspirations). Hence, the confrontation with death, with the dissolution of life, with the resultant questioning of all that makes us human, prompts a reevaluation of the old question of the balance between body and spirit—and the act of purification, of catharsis and working through of this seering confrontation, also confronts us with the age-old sin of the Golden Calf.

“I have chiseled out a law, I have issued a fiat, and one is not to question it..”

Hukat occupies a central place in much of Orthodox polemics and homiletics as the source for accepting the law categorically, absolutely, even when it flies in the face of human reason. It is almost seen, at times, as a Jewish version of credo qua absurdum est: “I believe because it is absurd.” This is even implied in the title: Hukat, “the ordinances of the Torah.” The laws of the Torah are conventionally divided into two groups: hukim and mishpatim, “ordinances” and “laws”: the latter are those that square with human reason, similar to legislation that we might find in civil society or basic humanistic moral principles. The former, the hukim, transcend human reason, are “above the intellect,” cannot be understood. In addition, of course, the chapter of the Red Heifer seems particularly remote from logical ways of thinking, making no sense in terms of our ordinary experience; moreover, the internal paradox within its laws (“contaminating the pure and purifying the contaminated”) lends it a further component of paradox and illogic.

Rashi, quoting the midrash, refers to the hukim as “those things about which Satan and the nations of the world taunt Israel, saying ‘Why do you need these commandments.’” He goes on to quote God’s proclamation: “I have chiseled out a law, I have issued an edict, and you are not allowed to ponder after it [i.e., to question it]” (based on Yoma 67b. A close reading of the various midrashim in this vein, and the subtle differences among them, including an analysis of precisely which mitzvot are called ”hukim,” would make an interesting study, but is beyond the ken of this framework).

This is often read as a call to serve God purely as an arbitrary legislator, and to see the Torah as ultimately His arbitrary, divine fiat. But things are in fact more complex than that. The Rambam treats this subject in the three separate halakhot that serve as the peroration for three books of his Mishneh Torah (Meilah 8.8; Temurah 4.13; Mikva’ot 11.12). His answer is subtly nuanced and complex. On the one hand, a person may not make his acceptance of the Law dependent upon his ability to understand the reason for the particular mitzvah or the mitzvot in general, or its fitting into his conceptions of reason. In this respect, they are indeed “the edicts of the king,” which are to be accepted as a binding, heteronomous imperative. On the other hand, a person should always seek out the meaning of the mitzvot, trying to understand them insofar as his intellect is capable of doing so. (Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether Maimonides’ interpretation of gemara in Talmud Torah 1.12, as reflecting upon the inner structure and meaning of the law, including Ma’aseh Merkavah and Ma’aseh Bereshit, the secrets of the Divine Chariot and the Acts of Creation, does not include within its rubric reflection upon ta’amei hamitzvot as well—but that is a whole other issue.).

The issue of ta’amei hamitzvot is also a central one in the commandment of shiluah heken, the sending away of the mother bird (Deut 22:6-7). Here, we deal with the opposite pole, so to speak: the Midrash relates the story of a young man who climbed a tree, at his father’s request, to chase away a mother bird, and in the course of doing so fell and died. How can it be, said Elisha ben Abuyah, that he should die while performing two commandments of which it is said “that your days may be long”? The midrash concludes that one should not put God to the test in such a way; for similar reason, one does not say in prayer, “Your mercies extend to the bird’s nest,” because one is thereby “making God’s edicts into mercy,” i.e., reducing the mitzvot to human, almost sentimental terms (see Mishnah Berakhot 5.3; b. Kiddushin 39b).

I’d like to connect this discussion, once again, to the last two weeks’ discussion about the role of the intellect, post-modernity, etc. Essentially, my position is in many way very old-fashioned; I don’t care much for the present Zeitgeist, and find myself liking it less and less as time goes on. One of my aims in Hitzei Yehonatan is to try to develop an intelligent mode of discourse about the various challenges to Jewish faith presented by modernity, and in the course of doing so to elucidate and formulate more clearly to myself as well my own positions on various issues. I find a grave lack of such intelligent discussion in the self-described ”frum,” “Torah world,” which tends to be marked by a cloying, pietistic, ingrown style of rhetoric and thought.

“As it is written in the Book of the Wars of the Lord”

Between Chapter 19 and Chapter 20 of the Book of Numbers, we have a “fast forward” of 38 years. More important, in these two brief chapters we find yet another perspective in the composite portrait of the people of Israel. Having read a formal, schematic portrait in Chs. 1-8 of an amphictony of tribes arranged ever so symetrically around the Ark of the Lord; and a catalogue of human vices, failings and shortcomings in the “murmurings” chapters (Chs. 11-17), we now turn to a portrait of Israel as a warrior people, advancing confidently, vigorously, circuiting the land of Canaan to find an appropriate point from which to begin their entry into and taking possession of the land. On the way, they encounter various peoples, such as Edom and Moab, who do not have the decency to even allow them to a pass through and sell them a bit of water and food; ultimately, they encounter Og king of Bashan and Sihon king of the Amorites who actively engage them in battle, and are roundly defeated. En route, there are a series of interesting vignettes, and snatches of ancient, warlike poetry, taken from the “Book of the Wars of the Lord,” or from the ”saying of the ballad singers”: quotations and bits of song from ancient, long forgotten books. The entire section has a unique, archaic atmosphere, filled with echoes of ancient warfare among desert tribes.

A few vignettes. After the murmurings, it is Moses’ turn to be punished. First of all, the incident of the well, which ceased to yield its waters after Miriam’s death, and the order to Moses to speak to the rock that it might yield its waters. Moses impetuously smites the rock with his staff, an act for which he is punished by being told that he will not be permitted to enter the land but must die in exile, “because you did not sanctify me among the Israelites” (20:12). A bitter pill, and one that has elicited much and lengthy commentary—but this subject is for another time (those interested in delving into this further are referred to Nehama Leibowitz’s chapter on this problem in her Studies in Bamidbar and/or the commentaries of Ramban, Sforno, Hizkoni, and Ibn Ezra on these verses).

An interesting sidelight to this passage. Rashi, on verse 20:1 (quoting Moed Katan 25, comments that, unlike the case with Aaron and Moses, it does not state that Miraim died “at the mouth of the Lord,’ i.e, by the divine kiss, even though she did so, “out of respect toward the One on High.” I find this very strange, assuming as it does the reality of the anthropomorphic image of God; as if God were a man , for whom it would be improper to kiss a strange woman, rather than Him transcending gender, and certainly sexual desire. Moreover, even if we do accept this imagery, surely God would be seen as a father, seeing Miriam as one of his daughters.

The incident of the brass serpent (21:6-9). There is something very raw and almost “primitive” here. The people begin to die of a plague, as punishment for a renewed round of murmuring against God. Here, unlike the earlier cases the people immediately repent (“we have sinned”; v. 7); and Moses molds a brass serpent, which he holds aloft so that people may see it and be healed. Interestingly, this selfsame serpent was kept for centuries, and turns up again in 2 Kings 18:4 in the court of Hoshea son of Elah, until whose days it was revered as locus of magical powers or even a demi-god.

The war with Og and Sihon is actually an important motif in biblical history, seen as emblematic of God’s redemptive acts on behalf of Israel. It is invoked in the historical summary in Deuteronomy, in the Book of Joshua, in Psalms 135 and 136, and elsewhere. A humorous side light; a “tall story,” if you will, about Og king of Bashan. Og is described elsewhere as having been a veritable giant; Deuteronomy 3:11 takes the trouble to describe the dimensions of his enormous iron bedstead. In the early days of the State of Israel, when there were few tall people to be seen, anyone more than six feet tall was likely to followed through the streets by gangs of urchins calling out “Og king of Bashan.”


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