Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Mishpatim (Midrash)

“These are the Laws”

Unlike the parshiyot read thus far, at this point we turn to the more strictly legal sections of the Torah. (I do not include under this rubric Exodus 12, “Hahodesh hazeh lakhem,” usually considered the “first law” of the Torah, because that appears within the context of a narrative description of events, and grows out of it.) Interestingly, the midrash offers here allegorical or other homiletic interpretations of these legal sections, going beyond the narrowly juridical concerns of the peshat to more general issues, or to symbolic and/or spiritual readings. Years ago, during the early years of the “Jewish counter culture,” which were the first gleamings of what might be called today’s neo-mystical Judaism, this section was seen as a great “comedown” from the heights of the mystical epiphany of Sinai; as if the Israelites woke up the next morning and found an irritable, petty-minded old man grumbling at them: “don’t forget to do this rule and that rule…”

Yet, if the midrash seeks allegorical meaning in these chapters, it sees the laws as a necessary complement to the sweeping grandeur of the Ten Commandments (“The Torah was given in the morning, and the laws in the evening“: Exod Rab. 30.11). Then, too, one must remember that there are other, halakhic midrashim devoted to the detailed exposition of the laws per se, leaving the aggadists free to elaborate more fanciful, sweeping midrashim. Perhaps these latter were intended more for the ordinary folk who came to synagogue on Shabbat than for the scholars and their disciples, who engaged in the arduous intellectual task of working out the practical applications of the law in detail in the Beit Midrash.

A (belated) word about the structure of the midrashim in Exodus Rabbah. The first fourteen chapters of Shemot Rabbah take the form of a consecutive, verse-by-verse series of midrash on the text of Exodus 1-9; most scholars consider this a more ancient layer of the midrash, more or less contemporaneous with Bereshit Rabbah,. From the beginning of Parshat Bo (Exodus Rabbah 15-52), each chapter of this midrash contains a group of midrashim focused on the opening verse of the Torah reading alone, based on the divisions of the ancient Palestinean triennial cycle. Thus, for example, in this week’s section we find three chapters: Ch. 30, on Eileh ha-Mishpatim (“These are the laws”; Exod 21:21); Ch. 31, on Im kesef talveh et ami (“If you loan money to your countryman”; Ex 22:24); and Ch. 32, on Henei anokhi sholeah malakh (“behold, I send an angel”; Exod 23:20). There are some scholars, such as Jacob Mann (The Bible as Read and Preached in the Ancient Synagogue) who think that these midrashim, with their petihtot, provide useful clues as to the readings customary in those days, including forgotten haftarot. In any event, it is generally held that this section was compiled, or even written in part, at a later date—Geonic, or even early Medieval—than many of the others in the Midrash Rabbah collection.

Torah as Mother and as Daughter

We shall now turn to one of the midrashim on the opening verse of our parasha. The chapter is read here symbolically, as alluding to the relationship between God and Israel, through an allegorical reading of several of the specific laws in the first section—that of the Hebrew man-servant, maid-servant, etc. Exodus Rabbah 30.5:

Come and see how praiseworthy this section is. How many parshiyot [specific sub-sections] there are in it, and with how many proscriptions did the Holy One blessed be He command Israel in this chapter: “When you buy a Hebrew servant…” [Exod 21:2]; “When a man sells his daughter as a maidservant…” [ibid. v. 7]; “One who smites his father…” [ibid., v. 15].

And what have they to do with one another? The Holy One blessed be He said to Israel: I purchased you in Egypt by means of the ten plagues that I showed, as is said, “Wonderful are Your acts; my soul knows right well” [Ps 139:14]. Just as you were commanded not to make your brother work [as a servant] more than six years, for I created the universe in six days, therefore I gave you six years during which you are allowed to work with a Hebrew servant.

The connection between the six days of Creation and the six years of labor of an indentured servant is rather obscure. The connection, beyond the number six itself, seems to be the act of engaging in productive labor.

“And when a man sells his daughter as a maidservant”—I had one daughter, and I sold her to you; and you do not take her out, but keep her imprisoned in a box: “she shall not go out as do the man-servants” [Exod 21:7]. Treat her with respect, for you took her captive from Me, as is said, “You have ascended on high, you have taken captives” [Ps 68:19]. And David praises: “Praise be the Lord, for it is good to sing to our God, for it is pleasant” [Ps 147:1].

Here, the Torah is described as God’s own daughter, whom He has sold to Israel. This motif is a well-known one, which may explain why the midrash does not even trouble to explicitly state the equation, “daughter = Torah”; compare the midrash on next week’s portion, where God is a king who has given his daughter, the Torah, to Israel in marriage (Exod. Rab. 33.1). The custom of storing the Torah scroll in a box, the Aron Kodesh, is seen here at once as an act of imprisonment and as a sign of respect for its “feminine” modesty. This is intriguing, and reminiscent of the aggadot stating that Jacob’s daughter Dinah was kept in a box after the Shechem incident so that she would not be seen by prying, lascivious eyes. In the second half of this passage, the Torah is described as having been taken captive! (see the aggadot in which Moses ascends on high and takes the Torah almost by force, to the displeasure and jealousy of the angels; b. Shabbat 89a)

R. Shmuel said: The Holy One blessed be He warned them, using an inference “from minor to major” (kal va-homer). For there are many proscriptions here, such as “He who smites his father and mother [shall surely die].” Said the Holy One blessed be He: Ham the father of Canaan did not smite [his father], but merely looked [i.e., at his nakedness; a reference to the story of Noah, who became uncovered in his drunkenness: Gen 9:20-27], and now he and his children are slaves for ever; One who curses and smites his parents, all the more so! And who were these? This refers to the ten tribes, who did not wish to take upon themselves the yoke of the Holy One blessed be He, and Sennacherib came and exiled them. This may be compared to a king who had ten sons, and they rebelled against him and nullified ten of his edicts. He said to them: Just as you nullified mine, so shall I send the fly and he will take recompense against you. So did the ten tribes rebel against the Holy One blessed be He and negate the Torah, of which it is said, “They spoke falsely of the Lord, saying ‘It is not so [or: Not He!]’” [Jer 5:12]. So He brought against them the Fly, as is said, “the Lord will whistle for the fly” {Isa 7:18]—That is Sennacherib.

Thus, if Israel nullify the mitzvot it is as if they cursed their father and mother. Their father is none other than the Holy One blessed be He, as is said: “And now, O Lord, You are our father” [Isa 64:7]. And their mother is the Torah, as is said: “And do not abandon the Torah/teaching of your mother” [Prov 1:8]. And they were raised at Sinai, as is said “By the way of wisdom I have taught you” [Prov 4:11].

Here the sense of familial intimacy is continued: alongside God the Father, we have the Torah as mother. (Is this a precursor of the female figure of the Shekhinah which was later to play such a central role in Kabbalah? Arthur Green has recently published a pair of studies, in Hebrew and English, concerning the relationship between the figure of the Shekhinah in Spanish Kabbalah and that of Mary in medieval Christianity—i.e., just about the same time period. Can it be that both these figures reflect a certain universal human insight, depicting a certain aspect of God as nourishing, feminine, motherly, inviting a child-like dependence on our part? In any event, such an image of Torah is far removed from its depiction as no more than a codex of law, and shows the emotive, intimate sense that Jews feel regarding the Torah as a nourishing source of life—an idea that repeats itself over and over again in the Midrash and elsewhere, in numerous different forms and nuances. In this connection, I am reminded of an extraordinary statement once made by Rav Soloveitchik during the course of a shiur, translating this image into concrete, human terms: “There is a privilege given to those who learn Torah, not experienced by other people: they are able to be in communion with their mother even after she has died.”

I cannot say that I commune with my mother posthumously through my Torah learning, but I certainly do so with her own late father. This week [in 2006] marks the 70th Yahrzeit of my maternal grandfather, Rabbi Abraham Naftali Gallant (Galante), rabbi of a large congregation in the Bronx, early Zionist activist, and outstanding preacher in New York Jewry of the 1920’s and ‘30’s, who departed this life on 29 Shevat 5696. Even though he died over a decade before my birth, I often feel, when studying one or another of the nine volumes of derush which he left as his literary legacy, that “his lips speak to me from the grave,” and I have thereby come to know him better than any of the other grandchildren.

A Dialogue Among Romans

Now and again one encounters in the Talmud and Midrash conversations between the Sages and various non-Jewish personalities—Roman rulers, matron ladies, and ordinary folk—that reveal the attitude of the Jewish intelligentsia to the social and intellectual world “outside.” The following conversation between Aquilas (later known as Onqelos, author of the authoritative Aramaic Targum on the Torah) and the emperor Hadrian in fact focuses on the unique connection of the Torah to the Jews alone. Exodus Rabbah 30.12:

Another thing: “These are the laws.” It is written there: “He tells His words to Jacob, [His ordinances and laws to Israel, and He has not done thus to any other nation]” [Ps 147:19].

Aquilas once said to the emperor Adrianus [Hadrian]: I wish to convert and to become an Israelite. He said to him: You wish to join that nation?! How I have shamed them, how many of them I have killed! Do you wish to link yourself to the lowliest nation in the world!? What have you seen in them that makes you wish to convert?

He said to him: The smallest one among them knows how the Holy One blessed be He created the world, what He created on the first day and what He created on the second day, how long it is since the world was created, and upon what the world stands; and their Torah is true.

The powerful man of the world can only see the mean and subjugated political situation of the Jews. His nephew Aquilas, by contrast, was presumably an intellectual, a man of spiritual curiosity, who appreciated the philosophical and cosmological knowledge to be found among them. Does this reflect a more general valuation of Judaism among the ancients, at least among “thinking Gentiles,” as possessing certain esoteric secrets? Clearly, the Biblical teaching of Creation was something special. It would be interesting to know how widely the Bible was known in the non-Jewish, Greco-Roman world. Perhaps only after Christianity became a Gentile religion? In any event, it is interesting that Aquilas wished to learn Torah, first of all, because of the unique knowledge it contains. It is instructive to compare this to the motivations of the three gerim in Shabbat 31a who came to Shammai and then to Hillel.

He [Hadrian] replied: Go and learn Torah, but do not have yourself circumcised. He replied to him: even the wisest man in your kingdom, and an elder who is one hundred years old, cannot study Torah unless he is circumcised. As it is written: “He told his words to Jacob, His ordinances and laws to Israel, and He has not done thus to any other nation” [Ps 147:19]? And to whom? To the children of Israel.

The conclusion of this passage raises another issue: the exclusionary motif in Torah, the almost axiomatic sense that it is not for non-Jews, but that “a Gentile who studied Torah is culpable of the death penalty” (b. Sanhedrin 59a; Rambam, Melakhim 10.9). There is actually a double problematic involved here: that of proselytism, the suspicion of proselytes and the tendency to discourage conversion to Judaism; and the intellectual-spiritual engagement of non-Jews in Jewish teaching without any intention of conversion, roughly corresponding to what is known today as “inter-faith dialogue.” The free presentation and discussion of religious ideas with others seems on the whole to be alien to the world of Hazal. Contrary to the nineteenth century motif of liberal Judaism, in which Israel had the task of being a “light to the nations,” throughout most of its history Judaism has been largely ingrown, keeping to itself and treasuring its Torah as being for itself alone. Any hopes of spreading its knowledge of God to other peoples is largely reserved for the eschatological future. “Then”—and only then—“will the Lord be One and His name One,” and shall “the world be filled with knowledge of the Lord, like waters flowing to the sea.”

Constraints of time prevent me from dealing with this important issue at length. Clearly, we live in an age in which there has been a sea-change in the relation of Jews to the non-Jewish world, and in which even so seemingly conservative figure as the late Lubavitcher Rebbe could launch a campaign to actively teach the universal moral principles of Judaism—the Noachide Code—to non-Jews. A discussion of how far these limits may and should be pushed must be left for another occasion.

Generosity in Loans and Imitatio Dei

Exodus Rabbah 31.1, taking off from the law applying to creditors, draws a comparison between God’s waiving the culpability of sinners, the desired attitude on the part of a creditor.

“If you loan money to my people” [Exod 22:24]. It says there, “Goodly is the man that is generous and lends, he conducts his affairs with justice” [Ps 112:5].

There is no person who is not in debt to God, but He is generous and compassionate and forgives the earlier things, as is said, “Do not remember against us our early transgressions” [Ps 79:8]. This may be compared to one who borrowed money from the dynastos [money-lender] and the latter forgot about it. Some time later he came and stood before him, and said to him: I know that I am in debt to you. The latter replied to him: Why have you mentioned that old debt? I have already erased it from my heart.

So is the Master of the World: the creatures sin before Him, and He looks and they do not repent, and he forgives them, one sin after another. And when they repent, they come and mention the debt they originally had. And He says to them, “Do not mention the former things” [Isa 43:18].

From whence do you know that if a person turns and repents, even if he has performed numerous transgressions, they are turned into virtues? As is written, “When the evildoer repents of his evil and does justice and righteousness, he shall live by it“ [Ezek 33:19]. None of the transgression he did shall be remembered against him. Therefore He warns regarding the poor man: “do not be to him as a creditor” [Exod 22:24]. Do not make him stand naked, “For when he cries out to Me, I shall hear him” [ibid., v. 26]. And so too David says, “They cry out, and the Lord hears” [Ps 34:18].

What stands out here are two things: the comparison of sin to monetary debt, and the consequent call for compassion, in imitation of God’s qualities. Although the law here only says that one should “not act like a creditor,” returning the garment taken as pledge when needed at night, and not standing on ones formal rights overly much, between the lines the complete forgiving of debts is implied here as a possibility. This is in sharp contrast to the old Protestant ethic of “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”—abstemious, eschewing a sense of mutual responsibility and caring between people, with each man to himself. Unfortunately, such attitudes have come increasingly to the fore in the harsh capitalistic economic environment prevalent in recent decades world-wide.


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