Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Terumah (Rambam)

The “Chosen House”

This week’s parsha begins a new section in the Book of Exodus, devoted to the second major theme of this book: the construction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, the forerunner of the Temple in Jerusalem. This is a subject to which Maimonides devotes extensive space in his Mishneh Torah; three of the fourteen books—Sefer Avodah, Sefer Korbanot, & Sefer Toharah (The Book of [Divine] Service; The Book of Sacrifices; The Book of Purity)—are devoted either directly to the laws governing the construction and Divine service in the Temple, or to the laws of ritual purity that are a prerequisite for its proper functioning. This entire group of books is a hallmark of Rambam’s code; the other major halakhic codes, such as Hilkhot ha-Rif, Tur, & Shulhan Arukh, all omit these laws, confining themselves to those laws that are more immediately applicable to Jewish life in the Diaspora.

Interestingly, Rambam prefers the term Beit ha-Behirah (“the Chosen House”) over the more usual Beit ha-Mikdash (“Temple”). The term itself comes from the Book of Deuteronomy: “the place which I shall chose that My Name shall dwell there,” but it’s not clear precisely what idea Rambam is conveying by his own preference for this usage. Perhaps the idea of Divine choice of this site as fir His own dwelling, as opposed to the more nebulous idea of holiness implied by the word Mikdash (from the root kodesh, “holy”).

Rambam’s decision to expound this subject at such length and detail stemmed from two factors: one, which we discussed a few weeks ago (HY V: Bo), a powerful messianic longing for the restoration of all the institutions of Jewish life “as of old”; second, a commitment to teaching and disseminating knowledge of “all of the Torah in its entirety” (kol hatorah kulah). As a result, if one may put it thus, he became a kind of hero and guide for those schools who were particularly devoted to the goal of Torah lishemah, the study of “Torah for-its-own sake.” In a paradoxical way, for some, the more removed from immediate practical application a given subject area was, the more valuable and precious its study became.

This approach was particularly stressed in the yeshiva of Volozhin, whose slogan was “from Berakhot to Uktzin” (i.e., to study the entire Talmud from beginning to end): in the school of Rabbi Meir Shapira of Lublin, founder of the Daf Yomi study cycle, in which one page of Talmud is studied daily, completing the entire cycle in seven years; and in that of Rabbi Chaim of Brisk. The latter was particularly devoted to the study of Rambam, and to Seder Kodashim, and devoted many of his novella to incisive conceptual analysis of the seemingly abstruse laws of sacrifice and of the laws governing the priests.

In this vast corpus, it is difficult to isolate one particular chapter or law to epitomize Rambam’s approach to Temple ritual (we shall discuss at a later date the seeming contradiction between his obvious love and fervor for the Temple worship as expressed here, and what he says in the Guide about the origin of sacrifices, where he sounds almost like an anthropologist). However, applying Yaakov Levinger’s rule about the significance of the concluding halakhah in each book as a link or transition to the next, it might be interesting to read the final section immediately preceding the beginning of Sefer ha-Avodah—to wit, the end of the laws concerning the Sabbatical and jubilee years. Hilkhot Shemitah ve-Yovel 13.12-13:

12. And why did the tribe of Levi not receive a portion in the inheritance of the Land of Israel and in its despoiling alongside their brethren? Because it was set aside to worship God and to serve Him and to teach His upright paths and righteous laws to the many, as is said, “He shall teach your laws to Jacob, your teachings to Israel” [Deut 33:10]. Therefore they were separated from the ways of the world: they do not conduct war like the rest of Israel, nor do they inherit or receive [material things] on their own account. Rather, they are the army of God, as is said, “May God bless his ranks” [ibid., v. 11]. And He, blessed be He, gives them, as is said, “I am your portion and your inheritance” [Num 18:20].

13. And not only the tribe of Levi, but every person from among the inhabitants of the world whose spirit has moved him and who understood of his own accord to separate himself and to stand before God, to serve and worship Him, to know the Lord, and he walks with integrity, as God made him, and casts off his neck the yoke of the numerous devices that people seek [after Eccles. 7:29]—He is sanctified like the Holy of Holies, and God will be his portion and inheritance for ever and ever, and he will receive in this world that which is sufficient to him, as received by the priests and Levites. For David said, “The Lord is my portion and my cup, you support my lot” (Psalm 16:5).

This passage appears to be a central one in Maimonides’ description of what he conceives as the ideal spiritual human being. What does he say, and what does he not? It is clear that the ideal person is one who is wholeheartedly devoted to worshipping God (this is the link to the Temple service and the priests, who epitomize this ideal) and to seeking knowledge of Him. The flip side of this is that he separates himself from worldly concerns, and trusts in God to help provide his material needs.

Does this mean that he does not work for a living? There are those who quote this passage to justify the “kollel” system, in which yeshiva students, including young married men, live off a combination of stipends, public charity, other family members (the proverbial working wife and wealthy father-in-law) and, in Israel, government funds obtained through the exercise of political pressure. But there are two strong arguments against such a line of interpretation. First, that Rambam was extremely outspoken and harsh, in at least two places (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3.10; Perush ha-Mishnayot, Avot 4.7), in his criticism of those who make the study of Torah a source of income. Second, one of the key phrases in the above passage is an obvious paraphrase of a verse in Kohelet, 7:29: “God made man straight [yashar: i.e., honest, upright], and they sought many devices [hishbonot rabbim; lit., calculations].” Clearly, this phrase is not directed against those who “take off” a certain part of their day from Torah study and Divine service to make an honest living, but against a kind of crooked and devious mentality, even if not technically dishonest, that is preoccupied with money and business, wheeling and dealing, and that is constantly concerned with business and its profits and losses. We can well imagine Rambam, who lived in a society populated largely by merchants and moneylenders, both in Egypt and Spain, deeply involved with money and with the worldly pleasures and comforts it can afford, issuing here a call for detachment from and renunciation of all that—a kind of asceticism, willing to be satisfied with little in the material realm, as best befitting the spiritual ideal he wished to inculcate.


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