Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Emor (Midrash)

“The sayings of the Lord are sayings”

Unlike most of the midrashim we have studied thus far, the connection between Parsha Emor and its midrashic text seems very tenuous. The section opens with a series of homilies based on a verse from Psalm 12, whose connection to the Torah portion is not explicated until the end of the fourth derasha. The central theme uniting these, as well as many other derashot of the parsha, is that of purity—a central element both in the Temple service and in the religious standing of the priests, who are the subject of the first half of the parsha. Leviticus Rabbah 26.1:

“Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron” [Lev 21:1]. R. Tanhum son of R. Hanilai opened: “The promises of the Lord are pure promises” [Ps 12:7]. The promises of the Lord are promises, but the sayings of flesh and blood are not promises. Such is the way of the world: A mortal king visits a kingdom, and all the people of the kingdom praise him and their praises are pleasing to him. He tells them: Tomorrow I will build you public buildings and bathhouses; tomorrow I will put in an aqueduct. So he goes to sleep and does not wake. Where is he and where are his promises? But the Holy One blessed be He is not so: rather “the Lord God is true” [Jer 10:10]. Why is He true? Because “He is a living God and the Eternal king’ [ibid.]

This section is based upon interpretation of the first three words of the verse taken by themselves, as if an independent phrase, without the adjective “pure.” We have here a meditation on human mortality, as against God’s eternity. I find this interesting: one could just as well have found here a bitter reflection on the unreliability and even treachery of human promises: after all, a king or powerful person does not have to die so as to fail to fulfill his promises; he can as easily renege without being held accountable by anyone—as indeed happens every day. But here it is God’s eternity, rather than His moral qualities, that assure His keeping of promises.

“Pure.” R. Yudan said in the name of R. Zadok: R. Yitzhak and R. Berekhia in the name of R. Eleazar, and R. Jacob of Kfar Hanin, and some say in the name of R. Joshua b. Levi: We find that the Holy One blessed be He added eight letters, so as not to utter an unseemly thing, as is said: “from the pure animal, and from the animal that is not pure” [Gen 7:8; i.e., rather than saying “impure”]. And elsewhere He added two or three words to the Torah so as not to utter the word “impure.” It says there: “from all the pure animals take seven pairs of each, the male and its mate, and from the animal that is not pure…” [ibid., 7:2]. It does not say “impure” (ha-teme’ah), but rather, “that is not pure” (asher lo tehora hi)….

The “purity” of God’s words is expressed in His avoidance of unseemly language; various examples of places in which the Torah uses circumlocutions, which are far wordier than a straightforward expression would have been, are given. Interestingly, these do not relate specifically to sexual matters, that area in which euphemisms are most often encountered in our own society, but refer to the term tamei (“impurity”) itself.

The issue of euphemisms is an interesting one. During the 1960’s, there was a widespread feeling among many in our generation that there was something hypocritical about insisting on euphemisms to refer to, e.g., sexual or scatological matters. It was seen as a way of pretending that certain things didn’t exist, of avoiding realities one preferred not to think about. In demonstrative defiance of convention, many young people, both men and women, used the traditionally taboo “four letter Anglo-Saxon words,” seeing this as a sign of liberation, freedom, and frankness. More than a few children of the ‘60’s have carried these norms into middle age.

Traditionally, Judaism eschews vulgar or unclean speech, known as nivul peh: “A person should never let a contemptible thing (davar meguneh) come out of his mouth”; “Everyone knows to what end a bride enters the huppah, yet anyone who makes a coarse joke about them is held accountable.” If this law is not brought in the halakhic codes, it is because the point was felt to be self-evident. Children of the ‘60’s might do well to reflect upon these passages, and consider why the Rabbis felt that not everything that can be expressed, ought to be expressed—or should at least be talked about with a certain delicacy and reticence. There is an entire world-view, and not necessarily one of Victorian hypocrisy, implicit in the idea that “There are things for which modesty/concealment is coming.” The tacit assumption, I think, is that human dignity is enhanced by not dwelling upon the purely bodily aspects of life; as we shall note next week, b”n, in our discussion of the concept of holiness, a major school within Judaism sees holiness as achieved by a certain separation from or transcendence of the corporeal aspects of life. Our midrash concludes with further examples of this type, noting particularly the order in which the Torah lists the kosher and unkosher “signs” of such creatures as the camel, the badger, and the pig (Lev 11:4-7). It then continues, in the next section:

§2. R. Yossi of Milhaya and R. Yehoshua of Sikhnin said in the name of R. Levi: In the days of David there were small children who before they had tasted of sin knew how to expound the Torah, providing 49 reasons to render things impure and 49 reasons to render them pure. And David prayed on their behalf, as he said, “You, O Lord, protect them” [Ps 12:8]. Preserve their Torah in their hearts. Yet after all this praise they went to war and were defeated! But, because there were talebearers among them they fell. This is what David said: “my soul is among lions” [Ps 57:5]. [There follows a passage about various figures from David’s entourage, such as Abner, Doeg, Ahitophel and others, portrayed as learned men tainted by treacherous interpersonal behavior]

On the simplest, most straightforward level, purity refers to the ritual-halakhic structure surrounding the Temple precincts, Temple offerings and, by extension, the treatment of everyday foodstuffs and vessels used with them. The laws of purity and impurity, which occupy an entire order of the six orders of the Mishnah, are extremely complex and even abstruse; in the Second Temple days and for about a century thereafter, they were among the central subjects studied in the Beit Midrash, and proficiency in Seder Toharot was seen as a hallmark of true erudition (“Akiva: go learn Nega’im and Ohalot!”) It was an important area of everyday observance, and meticulousness attention and commitment to its details was one of the main areas in which the circles of the pious, who voluntarily took upon themselves Temple-like stringencies in everyday life, were distinguished from the masses of the ignorant (see Mishnah Demai 2.3). Legend had it, as above, that in ancient times even the smallest schoolchildren had a breadth of knowledge in this area that was later forgotten by even the most learned.

But the real point of this passage is something else: the importance of proper speech, of avoiding talebearing and gossip. The generation of David, learned and pious and careful as they were about ritual matters, fell in battle—taken as a clear sign of Divine displeasure—due to their unethical behavior towards one another. This is in striking contrast with the generation of Ahab, who, notwithstanding their idolatrous and pagan ways, exhibited solidarity and compassion for one another.

At that time David said: What is the Divine presence doing upon the earth! “God is uplifted beyond the heavens” [Ps 57:6]. Remove your presence from among them!

But the generation of Ahab, all of whom were idolators, because there were no talebearers among them, went out to war and were victorious. This is what Obadiah said to Elijah: “Has my master not been told what I did when Jezebeel killed all the prophets of the Lord… [and I hid them] and feed them bread and water” [1 Kings 18:13]. If bread, why does it mention water? To teach us that it was more difficult fur them to bring water than it was bread, [because of the drought]. And Elijah proclaimed at Mount Carmel, “I alone remain as a prophet of the Lord” [ibid., 23]. And all the people knew, and the thing was not made known to the king…

That is, the entire people knew the secret of the hundred prophets who were hidden by Obadiah, and no one leaked it to the king, who would have killed them. Here, we find a preference for the ethical, the interpersonal, over the theocentric religious dimension (see on this below). The midrash continues with a discussion of the figure of the serpent, interpreted as a symbol of the evil tongue.

§3. Said R. Tanhum b. Hanilai: Two passages Moses dictated to us in the Torah, and they are “pure.” And by whom were they given ? By the tribe of Levi, of whom it is written, “Silver refined in a furnace in the ground” [Ps 12:7]. And it is written, ”For He shall sit like a refiner, and a purifier of silver, and He shall purify the sons of Levi” [Mal 3:3]. And which are these? That of the red heifer [Num 19] and the chapter of the dead [Lev 21; i.e. of priestly restrictions on contamination with the dead.]

This passage, yet another in the series of midrashim based on Psalm 12, is rather obscure. What is the criterion for those passages which Moses “dictated,” as against all the other passages in the Torah? Apparently, the common denominator is that these were transmitted by Moses, not in his own name nor in that of himself and Aaron alone, but through the intermediacy of others—whether addressed to the priests, as in this chapter, or to Aaron in conjunction with his son Eleazar, as in the red heifer chapter. And, as if to emphasize the importance of purity, these passages focus specifically upon the laws of purity—i.e., how to attain purity after contact with death, or the priestly law of maintaining distance from death, which forms the opening theme of the weekly portion of Emor.


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