Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Hukat (Torah)

“…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 Miriam 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.”

The Murmurings: A Postscript

I would like to briefly return to the last three Torah portions—Beha’alotkha, Shelah lekha and Korah—and the rebellions and murmurings that dominate them. These three seem like a veritable catalogue of human failings and shortcomings. True, the Israelites’ wanderings through the wilderness begin on an affirmative note, under the beneficent guidance of the Almighty: guided by the pillars of fire and cloud; eating manna from Heaven and drinking water from the miraculous well of Miriam; encamped in a sacred four-square formation around the Tent of Meeting; and summoned together by the clarion call of the shofar blast. Indeed, the “generation of the wilderness” is repeatedly mentioned by many Hasidic and other writers, most notably Sefat Emet, as an archetype for those enjoying an almost Edenic existence. But then things rapidly degenerate: they complain about the food, remembering with nostalgia the fish, the garlic, the melons, the spices, the gourds in Egypt. You could say that they were the founders of gastronomic Judaism: Moshe Rabbenu forgot to bring the right kind of kugel, herring and whiskey for the Great Kiddush, and he never heard the end of it! (One is reminded of the Kotzker, and his demand for uncompromising honesty: “I don’t want a crowd of Hasidim barking for food like dogs, but a dozen knees that have not bent the knee to Baal!”) This is followed in short order by the incident of the spies, in which the people are overtaken by fear of the unknown, and by Korah’s rebellion, the archetypal case of the demagogue who wins a following using simple, populist arguments to play on the inevitable frustration with almost any leadership—but who is in fact motivated by his own egotistic desire for power, influence and wealth.

I won’t go into detail, as we have discussed all this in the past (see below), but would like to dwell for a moment on the story of the spies. Why were the spies taken as the paradigm of the “bad guys” in the Humash? The traditional midrashic interpretation is that they were delitorin, “talebearers,” people who were somehow moved by evil intention from the very outset, to badmouth Eretz Yisrael and dissuade the people from wanting to enter the Land. But were the really moved by deliberate bad intent, or simply by fear?

Ultimately, it seems, the Torah does expect human beings to overcome their human weaknesses; on some level, its demand is that people be “different”; that we conquer our deepest fears and somehow transcend and transform even our most basic, ingrown faults—beginning with something as basic as fear. Thus the spies, even if they were “genuinely” frightened by the people they saw in Canaan, were somehow culpable.

We find painted here in stark, dramatic colors the age-old conflict between the uncompromising, idealistic leader, who seeks to impart a pure, undiluted teaching, and the masses, with their mundane, down-to-earth needs, concerns, fears and worries. Dostoevsky, in his famous chapter of the “Grand Inquisitor,” shows a religious leader of the opposite ilk—consciously feeding soothing, comforting, undemanding lies to his flock. The alternative there is not, as often thought, an agnostic or atheistic message, but a message in which the True Teaching (in that case, Jesus returned to life, seeing the elaborate pomp and ceremony and hierarchy of the medieval church) demands human strength and daring, moral power and courage, not weakness. Very much like Kotzk (or Nietzsche), or “the Holy Rebellion” of religious Zionism, creating a new, powerful, confident breed of Jew. And Moshe Rabbenu was the first of that type.

Are things ever really different? The present “post-modern” age, with all its rhetoric of individualism, of personal rights and “growth,” is as prone as any time in history to mass movements, of people following just about anyone who comes along with a strongly delivered, clear-cut message, no matter how patently false, illogical or even immoral it may be. Strong-minded, charismatic “gurus” are bound to find a following.

But, on the other hand, doesn’t the Torah also contain a message of leniency, of Divine forgiveness and understanding for human weakness, delivered again here: “I have forgiven as was your word”; “God, compassionate and forgiving”; etc. (See my discussion of the “Covenant of the Cleft of the Rock” and the contrast I draw between the “Shavuot revelation” and the “Yom Kippur revelation” in HY I: Ki Tisa, now also on my blog).

Thus, on another level, we also learn from these portions the power of fear and these other elemental emotions, as something experienced by all people at one time or other. In this context, I would like to share an important insight I have recently gained about the profound divisions within our country, that have reached new depths of bitterness and hostility with the plan for disengagement from Gaza, scheduled for implementation later this summer. I am not going to talk here about the substance of the plan, and its pros and cons, per se, but only about the aspect of the tensions that it, and the whole issue of the “territories,” have generated over the past three-plus decades.

It occurred to me, thinking about the just-mentioned parshiyot, that both sides are ultimately moved by the same motivation, albeit filtered through different interpretations of what is likely to happen—namely, fear. Both sides fear what will happen if what they advocate isn’t done: the Right fears escalation of terror if the IDF leaves the pressure cooker called the Gaza Strip; while the Left fears an escalation of terrorism, cooling of support from our allies in America, further estrangement from Europe, and possibly a full-scale war with the Palestinians and at least some Arab states, if we don’t disengage.

Of course, all this is cloaked in the language of values: the sanctity of the Land vs. universal democratic values and human rights and the revulsion at what is seen as colonialism; one side sees the other as “anti-Jewish,” while the other sees the former as “anti-democratic” or even “fascist.” But the dispute is as much about how one reads the map as to what the Arabs “really” think. How will they react to disengagement and the dismantling of settlements? While they take it as a positive sign of willingness to compromise and of desire to make a real, lasting peace, or as a sign of weakness? Both views can invoke partial factual support for their position, and both are incomplete and selective in the information they choose to regard as relevant.

But secondly and perhaps more important, both are based on a reading of the future—which is always a calculated risk. No one knows for certain what future will bring. (Nor can the other side know either: Abu Mazen, Muhammed Dahlan, the new Hamas leaders, may know what they think in their innermost heart, but they cannot know how the dynamic of conflicting forces will play out within their own divided society.) How, as the proverbial example used in Chaos Theory has it, will the flapping of butterfly wings over the Pacific affect the climate in Kentucky? The conclusion I draw from all this is that the bottom line is not some kind of facile, saccharine “unity,” such as advertised in occasional TV jingles and posters, but that everybody in Israel must at least learn to disagree with the other in a respectful, human way, and to acknowledge the good faith of those on the “other side”—that hose who hold a diametrically opposed position are not evil or defeatists, but fellow Jews trying to deal, as we are, with fears and anxieties in face of a future that, by its very nature, like any future, is uncertain.

To return to today’s psalm: we must relearn the value and joy of fellowship, even with those with whom we disagree about what we think of as the deepest existential issues—a kind of hineh mah tov umah na’im shevet ahim gam yahad. (Incidentally, this is sorely needed even in the most literal sense: the divisions cut deep even within families. I recently heard of a certain Shalom Akhshav [Peace Now] activist, who happens to have grown up in my old neighborhood, who literally refuses, on principle [!] to visit his sister and her husband at their home because she lives in a West Bank settlement.) Perhaps a bit of humility, based on the awareness that only He who Knows the Secret Things knows how the conflict with the Palestinians will play itself out, and who was “right,” is in order all around.

The Bronze Serpent, and other Anomalies

It’s interesting that the “color” of Parshat Korah is sky-blue (tekhelet)—the color of the garment that, according to the midrash, Korah and his cohorts wore as part of their protest against the leadership of Moshe Rabbenu. The dominant color of Hukkat, on the other hand, is the “red” of the red heifer —really, a kind of rust-colored orange-brown (see the photo we sent out with our Purim humor issue). I find this interesting in light of the use of these two colors to symbolize the two opposing political camps in Israel now—those for and against the Disengagement from Gaza, planned to occur just over a month from today. One group ties orange ribbons or pieces of cloth to their cars, their houses, clothing, bags, kippot, women’s head-coverings…. in short, wherever possible; while the others wear blue and white, to symbolize their loyalty to the decisions of the government.

On a more serious level: I find it strange that in this portion, God Himself commands Moses to make what amounts to a fetish—to make a bronze serpent (how different is that from the Golden Calf?), to place it on a staff where it will be visible far and wide, and for the people to gaze on it, so that it may heal them from the venom of the real serpents that had bit many of them (Num 21:6-9). True, our tradition states that the intended purpose of this metal serpent was a spiritual-religious one—that the people should raise their eyes on high to God and thereby “submit their hearts to their Heavenly Father” (m. Rosh Hashanah 3.8). It would almost seem that the prohibition against imagery is not so much that there is something inherently evil or pagan therein, but that all depends on the will of God. (After all, the cherubim, located in the Holy of Holies, were a pair of humanoid images of some sort—some say, scandalously so; while the “sea of Solomon,” i.e., the huge water laver in the First Temple, was supported by twelve cast meal statues of bullocks.)

The interesting thing is that, over the course of time, the brazen serpent did in fact become an object of fetishistic worship. Thus, we read in 2 King 18:4 that Hezekiah needed to pulverize it, together with the other pagan artifacts in Jerusalem, because the people made offerings to it.

What is the conclusion to be drawn from all this? One might say: that something that once served a holy purpose can easily become detached, in the popular mind, from its original purpose and become a fetish. This is, in fact, precisely what Rambam (Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim, Ch. 1) said was the origin of the earliest idolatry: originally people merely showed respect and homage to the sun and stars and moon, created by God as sublime cosmic beings to serve Him, but later they began to idolize them as Divin entities in their own right.

One sees this in Jewish religion even today: for example, in the cult of graves, and in the notion among many that one ought make every effort (including borrowing money) to journey to the graves of saints—in Ukraine, in North Africa, in the United States—because the souls of the tzaddikim buried there alleged have special powers to intervene with God on one’s behalf. Moreover, even the halakhah itself can be related to in a fetishistic manner: It’s hard far me to define exactly when this is happening, but I feel that this too often happens. Too often, I see my fellow Orthodox Jews subjugating themselves to the mitzvot, to the Shulhan Arukh, and forgetting God and forgetting love of their fellow in the process. The mitzvot become treated as end in themselves, rather than as the path that leads up the mountain: that the Torah is a ladder with its base on the ground, but its head reaching to the heavens.

Hukat (Haftarot)

“Jephthah the Gileadite was a Mighty Man of Valor”

Last week’s haftarah contains a verse in which Samuel lists various figures sent by God to “deliver Israel from all their oppressors”: Yerubaal, Bedan, Jephthah and Samuel (1 Sam 12:11). As we already noted last week, the verse is filled with difficulties: Yeruba’al is an uncommon variant on Gideon, an undisputed hero and model of personal humility; the identification of Bedan is problematical, the name appearing nowhere else: speculations as to his identity include Samson, Barak, and/or Deborah. But the question that puzzles us here is why Jephthah (Yiftah) was included in Samuel’s “short list” of great judges. This problem will lie in the background of our discussion of this week’s haftarah.

The story of Yiftah appears in Judges 11-12:7; our haftarah contains the first 33 verses of the former chapter only—itself an interesting choice, as we shall note later. Chapter 11 is divided into three scenes. Verses 1-11 describe Yiftah’s choice as leader: as Gilead’s illegitimate son by a “harlot woman,” his brothers had disowned him and even sent him away due to the taint of bastardy attached to him. In exile in another place (named, perhaps ironically, “the land of Tov”), he gathered around himself a group of bandits, “good-for-nothings,” and made a name for himself as a fighter. In time, the king of Ammon began to threaten Israel, specifically the settlers in the mountain country of Gilead, and his kinsmen suddenly remembered Yiftah, who had a reputation as a more capable military leader than anyone else around. Yiftah calls them to task for their hypocrisy: “you hated me and banished me; why do you come to me now when you’re in trouble?” (v. 7). They don’t really answer him, but seem to shamefacedly admit the truth of the accusation by their silence: yes, they do need him, and willingly agree to Yiftah’s condition that they make him their leader thereafter.

This little vignette is very true to human nature, pointing out in sharp relief the foolishness and hypocrisy of a pride based upon circumstances of birth. Yiftah is clearly a superior and talented individual, but under ordinary conditions, his brothers were able to reject him because he was not born to a respectable, sanctioned marital union, but was rather a living reminder of their father’s peccadillo. As soon as troubles began, and they needed his talents (was there already such a thing as a jaded, effete aristocracy in those long ago days, in the rough and tumble surroundings of the Bashan and Gilead steppe country?), they felt no shame in calling on him for assistance.

The second scene depicts Jephthah’s confrontation with the Ammonites: first in a lengthy conversation, in a last minute attempt to dissuade them from waging war (vv. 12-28); thereafter, on the battlefield (vv. 29-33). The conversation is interesting, and is strikingly reminiscent of the situation in which the modern State of Israel finds itself today with its neighbors, in part even regarding the identical territories. Ammon claims that Israel took these lands away from them at the time of the Exodus; Yiftah replies that they did no such thing. Rather, Israel approached the territories of Edom and Moab peaceably, asking leave to pass through and to purchase water and other supplies for money. This plea was rejected; thereafter, when they confronted Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites and of Heshbon, the latter initiated hostilities, and were soundly defeated. (All of these incidents are described in our Torah portion, in Numbers 21; hence, the choice of this passage, in which these events are recapped, as this week’s haftarah). Yiftah concludes by stating that “the Lord our God has caused us to inherit these lands”—i.e., by providing us with military victory; sarcastically suggesting to them that “Let Kemosh your god give you to inherit what he will” (23).

The implication is clear: there is something disingenuous in an aggressor invoking principles of rightful ownership after he has lost a war, having brought the problem on himself by his own hostile behavior. A colorful contemporary Hebrew expression refers to such a person as a Kozak nigzal (“a robbed Cossack”)—i.e., a person known for living by brigrandry and violence, who plays the (putative) victim when it suits him.

Yiftah’s Daughter

The final and best-known scene from this chapter occurs when Yiftah returns home. Just before the battle, Jephthah had made a vow in which he promised that, if he returns home victorious, “the first thing that comes out of my gate of to greet me… I shall give as an offering to the Lord,” doubtless imagining some domestic animal (vv. 30-31; Yairah Amit notes that there is something superfluous in this oath, as by that point he must have already felt assured of victory, as we are told in the immediately preceding verse that “the spirit of the Lord had come upon him”). When he comes home, he is greeted by his only child, a nubile daughter, who greets him “with drums and dance.” He immediately realizes his fatal foolishness: “I have opened my mouth to the Lord” (patziti pi, a phrase implying careless, ill-considered speech). What is interesting here is: first, that even a vow that unintentionally results in human sacrifice is seen as irreversible; and, second, the daughter’s total, passive acquiescence. All she asks is a respite of two months to “descend upon the mountains” (this must refer to the slopes beneath the steppe-lands where they lived) during which she will “bewail her virginity” with her girl-friends (v. 37). Later, we are told, the daughters of Israel commemorated her by keening for Yiftah’s daughter four days every year.

The difficulty with this story is, quite simply, how Yiftah could perform such a cruel and inhuman act? Was there truly no recourse of any sort by which to nullify a vow with such harsh consequences? The Midrash suggests that the halakhic institution of hatarat nedarim did in fact exist as an option, but the pride and stubbornness of both Pinhas and Jephthah, the sacred and secular leaders of the people, respectively, prevented its being carried out. On another level, this suggests the enormous awe and even dread in which an oath or vow taken in the name of God was held in that age. Perhaps this is analogous to the numinous power associated with the ark of the covenant, a major leit-motif in Judges and 1 Samuel (see my discussion in HY II: Shemini). If so, the story of Bat Yiftah may be viewed as a kind of female counterpart to the Binding of Isaac. The elements of humble submission to God, of pious acquiescence to the inexplicable Divine will, are much the same—although here the fateful event was precipitated by a foolishly worded oath, rather than by the inexplicable Divine fiat. And perhaps that makes all the difference: rather than a “Knight of Faith,” like Abraham, Yiftah comes across as a reckless fool.

But there are possible alternative lines of interpretation. The text does not explicitly state that she was sacrificed: it pointedly avoids saying “he offered her up as a burnt- offering,” saying only that she returned after two months and “he carried out his vow on her” (v. 39). Some commentators—Radak and the Metzudot—suggest that she became a kind of nun, and remained a life long virgin. The emphasis on her virginity in both vv. 37 and 39 is interesting. The point seems to be that she died (whether immediately or many years later) without realizing her destiny as a woman, as a wife and mother, and this was the essence of her tragedy (“to bewail her virginity”). This is diametrically opposed to the later celebration of virginity in Christianity.

A secondary problem: why does our haftarah omit this interesting story? It concludes with v. 33, describing Yiftah’s victory in battle—but not without mentioning his vow, leaving it as a kind of “teaser.” In general, the selection and editing of the haftarot involve many interesting problems. By whom were they formulated, and when? The Babylonian Talmud discusses the choice of haftarot for the various festivals (Megillah 30b), but there is no specific discussion there of the week-in-week-out haftarot for the regular Torah portions. There are several similar places, in which a narrative is truncated in what seems to be the middle (cf. the haftarah for Tazria). Is this a kind of self censorship of things that were considered unseemly? On the other hand, there are quite a few places where we find stray, disconnected verses added at the end of certain haftarot, at least in certain rites. Why? There are many unclear facets to the haftarah cycle; during the course of my studies of them this year, it has become increasingly clear to me that a full and thorough study of these questions is a desideratum.

Hukat (Midrash)

Is there Animism in the Torah?

I have always found the second half of this weeks’ parsha (Numbers 20:14-22:1), dealing with the events of the final period before the arrival of the Israelites at the steppes of Moab, particularly strange. These chapters are infused with an archaic atmosphere, of ancient tribal wars and of a world in which inanimate objects—springs, rivers, and hillsides—seem alive with vital energy. I often ask myself the question what they are doing in the Torah altogether; they seem sui generis, utterly different from everything else in the Torah, both that which precedes it and that which follows.

Four passages, one narrative, and three short snippets of poetry, particularly exemplify this mood. I refer to: the story of the bronze serpent (Num 21:4-9); the snip of poetry about the brook Arnon, taken from the “Book of the Wars of the Lord” (vv. 14-15); the Song of the Well (17-20); and the quotation from the “bards” or “parable sayers” about the conquest of Heshbon (27-30).

1. The Bronze Serpent

At a certain point in their travels the people become impatient, and begin to complain against Moses and God. Although this is a new generation, largely born in the wilderness, their behavior is strikingly similar to the rebellions and grumblings described earlier in the book—especially to the story of the quail, of Kivrot ha-Ta’avah (11:4-34), in which the people griped about food. (As anyone who has ever been in a summer camp, a boarding school, or an army knows, this is a universal focus of discontent in large groups, often substituting for other, deeper sources of disquietude). In any event, God sent poisonous serpents against the people, many of whom died; they came to Moses, admitted their sin, and asked him to pray on their behalf; God then instructed him to make a brazen serpent, to place it on a high pole, so it would be visible everywhere, and promised that whoever looked at the serpent would be healed and live.

The problem is that all this is very reminiscent of sympathetic magic, whose central idea is that “the fate of an object or person can be governed by the manipulation of its exact image” What, then, is it doing in a fiercely monotheistic, anti-pagan and anti-magical book like the Torah? This is in fact the same idea as underlies sticking pins in a voodoo doll to injure a person, and many other magical and superstitious practices, ancient and modern. There also seems a certain kinship to totemism, or fetishism: the use and adoration of images to represent various forces of nature which, according to Emil Durkheim, was the earliest form of primitive religion. Serpents, in particular, were also used in the ancient world as a symbol of healing: thus, the Greek god of healing, Aesculapius, assumed the form of serpent; the winged snake entwined around a staff, the caduceus, has been a widely-used symbol of the medical professions from antiquity down to modern times, e.g., in the symbol of the US Army Medical Corps.

Alternatively, the use of the bronze serpent may be understood as a kind of homeopathic healing technique, perhaps based on the belief that a small quantity of material from a poisonous serpent could heal. Such remedies were known in ancient Egyptian culture. But that approach too was not without an element of magical thinking, which was contrary to Judaic approaches (see Ibn Ezra on 21:8, and Ramban on 21:9).

Indeed, this problematic aspect of Moses’ serpent came to the fore later on, during the period of the Israelite monarchy, when it became a popular object of folk worship, “Nehushtan,” to whom the people offered incense, until King Hezekiah finally destroyed it (2 Kgs 18:4). The process involved here seems to have been a move from seeing the object as symbolizing a certain power or idea, to seeing the physical object as itself embodying that power itself. This is, in fact, the precise process involved in the origin of idolatry according to Rambam’s explanation in Hilkhot Avodah Zarah, Ch. 1.

Not surprisingly, a central motif of the the midrashim and other Rabbinic comments on this subject relate to the ethical or theocentric interpretations of this incident. Thus, Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3.8 (parallel to Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Beshalah, Amalek, §1) says the following:

“And when Moses lifted his hand, Israel were victorious, and when he let down his hand Amalek was victorious” [Exod 17:11] And do Moses’ hands make war or break war? Rather, to teach you that so long Israel looked upwards and subjugated their hearts to their father in heaven, they would win, and if not, they would fall.

Similarly: “And the Lord said to Moses, make yourself a serpent and place it upon a pole. And whoever is bitten shall see it and live“ [Num 21:8]. And does the serpent give life or death? Rather, to teach you that so long as Israel look upwards and subjugate their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they are healed, and if not, they wax ill.

We have here a clear move from magical, quasi-pagan interpretation to the ethical: the serpent (and, in the first case, Moses’ upraised hands at the battle with Amalek) were a religious-educational tool, guiding the people towards reverence for and faith in the one true God.

The midrash on our parsha does not directly relate to the question as to why Moses made a metal image of the snakes, but rather why He sent them in the first place. It is nevertheless interesting, and indirectly sheds light on our problem. Numbers Rabbah 19:22:

“And the Lord sent among the people the burning serpents” [Num 21:6]. Why did He see fit to punish them with serpents? Because the serpent initiated [the practice of] evil speech first and was cursed, and yet they did not learn from him. The Holy One blessed be He said: Let the serpent come, who initiated evil speech, and punish those that speak evil, as is said, “he who breaks through a wall shall be bit by a serpent” [Eccles 10:8].

The serpent is seen as the very archetype of the misuse of speech, hearkening back to the primeval serpent in the Garden of Eden, who misled Eve, and through her Adam, by the use of speech. He was the first one to use speech for crafty, devious ends: to lead people astray without actually lying; to drive a wedge between those who had been friends and lived in harmony; to deliberately arouse suspicion of others within the human heart. “Evil speech,” lashon hara—in the sense of malicious, destructive speech, as opposed to idle rekhilut, “gossip,” which is also condemned, albeit not to the same degree—is a central theme both of the Midrash (see, e.g., Lev. Rab. 26.2) and of Jewish moral writing generally. The great moralist of late Eastern European Jewry, R. Israel Meir ha-Kohen, “the Hafetz Hayyim,” who is perhaps still remembered by some elderly people alive today, devoted his major work to the laws of evil speech. It would seem that Hazal condemned lashon hara so strongly because it is a uniquely human sin. More so than such “gross” sins as bloodshed and sexual licentiousness, it entails the perversion or misuse of the uniquely human faculty of speech, which may be used to elevate human life by communicating with others, sharing wisdom and knowledge of the world, its Creator, and of the significance and purpose of human life.

Another thing. Why did He punish them with serpents? Even if the serpent eats all the dainties in the world, they turn into dust in his mouth, as is said, “the serpent’s bread is dust” [Isa 65:25]. And these [i.e., Israel] eat the manna, which is transformed into many different delicacies, as is said: “and he gave them their wish” [Ps 106:15]; and it says: “these forty years the Lord your God has been with you, you have lacked for naught” [Deut 2:7]. Let the serpent come, who eats many kinds of things, and in his mouth they are one taste, and punish those who eat one thing and taste in it many things.

In this section, the sin of the people is not the malicious, destructive one of sowing discord by speech, but simple ingratitude: lack of appreciation; grumbling for no good reason; failure to be aware of the positive side of life. As we mentioned earlier, food often serves as a focus of complaints when people feel empty, dissatisfied, vaguely unhappy about their life for no definable reason. The image of the serpent’s food turning “to dust” (which is, by the way, is a midrashic “adaptation” of the verse in Isaiah, from a messianic vision—i.e., that no creature need fear being bitten and eaten alive by a snake—to a description of present actuality) is a powerful one, making the serpent into a living symbol of the moral turpitude involved in ungratefulness.

“The fiery serpents”—that burn the soul [i.e., poison the person]. R. Yudan said: “the fiery serpents”—that the cloud used to burn them up and make of them a boundary for the camp. To inform you that the very miracles that the Holy One blessed be He made for them, He turned against them.

The Serpent and the Heifer

It is instructive to examine the problem of magic, raised in relation to the bronze serpent, by comparing a midrash relating to the earlier part of the parsha, concerning the red heifer (parah adumah). Numbers Rabbah 19.8:

A certain pagan asked Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai: these things that you do [i.e., the ritual described in Numbers 19] seem like magic. You take a cow and burn it and pulverize it, and then you take its ashes, and if one of you has been contaminated by contact with the dead you sprinkle two or three drops on him, and you say: You are clean. He replied to him: Have you ever been possessed by an evil spirit? He replied: No. Have you ever seen a person who has been possessed by an evil spirit? He said to him: Yes. And what did you do to him? He said to him: We bring certain roots and burn them underneath him, and we throw water on it, and it [the spirit] flees. He said to him: Let your ears hear what your mouth says. So too this spirit is also an impure spirit, as is written: “and I shall also cause the [false] prophets and the impure spirits to pass away from the land” [Zech 13:2]. We sprinkle the purifying water, and he flees.

Astonishingly, R. Yohanan seems to accept the pagan’s argument, and to agree that the ritual of parah adumah is comparable to various procedures known in the pagan world for the exorcism of evil spirits. The argument seems to be that all these practices are legitimate and have some quasi-natural basis; just as they exist in pagan culture, so too do they have their counterpart in Judaism. He even invokes a proof text from Zechariah to confirm the reality of “evil spirits.” Of course, the line between what we would call “magic” and what was considered in those days as “science” was rather hazy; in any event, there was widespread acceptance of the scientific or material culture of the day by Jewish sages. (It has been suggested that the varying attitudes to astrology among the rishonim, the medieval European sages, was based upon the general acceptance of its scientific, empirical validity by most of the surrounding culture; Rambam’s opposition to it, as almost a minority of one, was perhaps based on a differing scientific purview.)

After he went on his way, the disciples turned to him [R. Yohanan]: Our Master, you have dismissed him away with a straw. What can you tell us? He said to them: By your lives, the dead body does not contaminate nor does the water render pure. Rather, thus said the Holy One blessed be He: I have hammered out a statute, I have ordered an edict, and you are not allowed to question it, as is written: “this is the statute of the Torah” [Num 19:2].

But all the above is only “on the face of it.” Rabban Yohanan had given the pagan an answer he didn’t really believe in, as a purely polemical move, but his disciples remained deeply troubled by the implications of the question: are there really mitzvot of the Torah that contain magical elements? He is quick to dispel any such thoughts, just as the mishnah rejected a magical explanation of the effect of the bronze serpent: the mitzvot are the expression of the Divine will. But there is an important difference in the two answers: in the former case, the gesture of looking up to the serpent was seen as based upon the moral, educational lesson to be derived therefrom; here, the ritual of the heifer is seen as totally inscrutable, as an expression of the Divine Will, to be obeyed without necessarily having any understanding or providing any rational explanation for them. (This is of course a central theme in contemporary Orthodox polemics. I have discussed various aspects of this issue in some detail in previous years; see HY I: Shelah Lekha, Korah, Hukkat).

But there is yet another twist to this discussion:

And why are all the sacrifices male, and this one female? R. Aibo said: This may be compared to the son of a maidservant who soiled the palace of the king. The king said: let its mother come and clean its filth. Thus said the Holy One blessed be He: Let the heifer [i.e., an adult cow] come and atone for the act of the Calf.

Here, the law of the heifer is no longer treated as a divine fiat, but as a religious symbol: as an act of atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf. This is in itself interesting: the incident of the Calf is seen by the Midrash and much of Jewish thought as the paramount sin in Israel’s history, requiring constant, ongoing atonement, even generations later (see my discussion of this motif in HY I: Hukkat). Interestingly, Rashi has a separate, second, symbolic commentary on the meaning of this ritual, “based upon R. Moshe ha-Darshan.” In any event, it is interesting that a symbolic approach to religious ritual, rather than invocation of arbitrary authority, seems to have the last word, at least here.

2. The Song of the Spring

The second puzzling passage in this Torah portion is the “Song of the Well” (Num 21:17-20): a brief song addressed to a well, perhaps the well that accompanied them in the desert in supernatural manner.

The animistic belief in a numinous power vested in springs and rivers is well known and documented for the ancient Near East. The 19th century Semiticist, W. Robertson Smith, notes that “springs are viewed as seats of spirits and the peasant women ask their permission before drawing water.” But animism clearly does not figure in the Bible; monotheism, by its very nature, has no room for such a multitude of demi-gods, spirits, and jinns. Thus, the call to the well must be seen as no more than rhetorical flourish, a poetic metaphor.

But this passage, even if not motivated by pagan or animistic ways of thinking, is puzzling because, like the other two brief bits of poetry in the same chapter, to be treated presently, it does not seem to convey any special “religious” message. Rather, all three passages represent secular, possibly heroic, celebratory poetry, of noble deeds. Thus, this song celebrates those responsible for the well (“the well; it was dug by the princes, carved out by the nobles of the people…”)—either those who physically performed the digging, those who financed it, or the leaders of the people, the elders who sponsored and initiated this project. Rashi, following Targum Onkelos, says that this refers to Moses and Aaron. Our midrash, on the other hand (Num. Rab. 19.26), is puzzled by the absence of any explicit mention of either God or Moses. This poem was nevertheless considered significant religiously: it was sung in the Temple every third Shabbat afternoon, alternating with the two parts of the Song of the Sea (see Rosh Hashana 31a).

The word mehokek used here refers to those who hold the staff—i.e., the leaders: either those who hold royal power (as in the enigmatic blessing given to Judah in Gen 49:10), or the lawgivers and teachers of Torah, as in the Targumim and the tannaitic midrash. The Dead Sea Scrolls, in Damascus Covenant (CD vi 2-11), sees it as both.

The well itself also serves as a powerful symbol of Torah. Jacob Milgrom mentions a panel at the Dura Europos synagogue (3rd century CE)—a kind of visual midrash, if you will—in which the well, located in the middle of the camp, divides into twelve streams, bringing water directly to each of the twelve tribes.

In any event, water was a major preoccupation in ancient times due to its scarcity in desert and semi-desert climes, and its vital importance for all life. The disputes between Isaac and the Philistines over the ownership of wells, their being filled in and reopening (Gen 26:15-22), come readily to mind, as does one of the stories of the naming of Beer-sheva, the oasis of water in the midst of the desert (ibid., 32-33). Perhaps there is also an internal connection in our parsha itself between the Song of the Well and the account of Moses seeking water and hitting the rock (20:1-12). This story, which follows on the heels of the death of Miriam, relates in turn to the tradition that a miraculous well traveled through the desert with Israel thanks to her merit, disappearing upon her death (Rashi ad loc.; Ta’anit 9a).

Water is a serious concern in the Middle East in modern times as well, albeit not couched in spiritual terms. A major water concession was an important component of the peace treaty with Jordan; the issue of subterranean aquifers will doubtless be one of the serious issues with the Palestinians, if we ever get to the point of even entertaining the possibility of harmonious relations; Israel is plagued by serious water problems right now, for which no one in the government seems willing to take responsibility; in this last case, there seems to be an excess of “faith” that everything will work out (“yihyeh tov”—the all purpose Israeli answer).

The association of the well with Miriam is intriguing. There seems to be a deep symbolic connection between wells and femininity. Sefat Emet (Hukkat 5649, s.v. ba’inyan) draws a comparison between the Song of the Sea, uttered in response to the overt miracle of the splitting of the Reed Sea, which the Israelites triumphantly crossed as free men; and this song, which alludes to a hidden, subtle, unobserved sort of miracle. “Satim vegalya.” There are hidden processes involved in the underground flow of water that sustains life; may these be connected, associatively, with the eternal feminine? This contrast between revealed and hidden likewise relates to the contrast between Shabbat and weekday, between revealed, written Torah and Oral Torah—the latter reflecting labor in Torah, the Torah “written on a person’s limbs,” the Torah as a field of mutual human/divine creativity.

3. Is it not written in the Book of the Wars of the Lord?

The passage in 21:14-16 quotes an otherwise unknown book called “The Book of the Wars of the Lord.” Ibn Ezra suggests that this, like Sefer ha-Yashar mentioned in Joshua 10:13 and 2 Sam 1:18, was an ancient book containing songs celebrating Israel’s early victories. Both titles were later used by classical rishonim—Ramban and Rabbenu Tam—as titles for their own halakhic works, but that is of course a horse of an entirely different color.

One interesting reading gives this passage a more religious sense, but requires reworking of the traditional Masoretic vocalization: “the Book of the Wars: The Lord came in a whirlwind [sufah] to the wadi of Arnon…” etc. Here vahev is interpreted as a rare verb, meaning “to come.”

4. The Saying of the “Bards” or “Parable Sayers”

The last of these brief poems, 21:27-30, concerns the conquest of Moab, and is quoted as something said by the anonymous moshlim—the “bards” or “parable sayers.” The term mashal is used for a wide variety of short sayings: from pithy folk maxims (Milgrom gives the examples of 1 Sam 24:14 and 1 Kgs 20:11) and mocking, taunt songs against an enemy, as in Isa 14:4; Micah 2:4, through to parables, proverbs, riddles, and allegories. Thus Samson is asked a mashal, Jotham’s parable in Judges 9 is called such, but so also are Balaam’s poems (“and he lifted his parable and said”), Job’s discourses, and of course the contents of the Book of Proverbs.

The interesting thing about this poem is that it does not describe Israel’s conquest of Sihon at the time, but hearkens back to the Amorites’ earlier defeat of Moab, the original inhabitants of this territory. The legitimacy of the Israelite conquest of Heshbon is a motif repeated several times in the Bible: in Jephthah’s justification of the Israelite presence there (Jdg 11), in Jeremiah 48, and elsewhere (cf. Num Rab 19.35; Hullin 60b). The difficulty is that it would have been unjust for them to conquer this territory directly from Moab, as Israel was commanded not to harass Moab (Deut 2:9); instead, the Amorites took it from them at a certain stage, and in the desert period Israel conquered it from them in turn.

An Afterword on Statutes

As mentioned earlier, the chapter of the red heifer (better, simply: “cow”) is frequently invoked as the example par excellence of the ultimately inexplicable nature of the laws of the Torah, and the need to observe them with an attitude of acquiescent obedience, as Divine edicts (hukim).

My way of looking at this today is that the perception of mitzvot as “above human understanding” is an important moment in religious experience, but not the whole of it. The tendency today in much of Orthodox education to stress the element of submissiveness, of accepting authority, of the arbitrary nature of the Torah, seems to me problematic. There is also room for human creativity, for understanding, for the cultivation of a Torah-informed human ethical conscience that interacts with the received halakhah. Rav Kook wrote that that which contradicts natural morality cannot be the true Torah teaching; a contradiction between the two is a sign of the need for further examination and deeper understanding of one or the other—or perhaps both. There is nevertheless a bottom line, that on a certain level our commitment to Torah is not axiologically dependent upon our own understanding.

It recently occurred to me that there is yet another way of looking at this issue. The emphasis on Torah as hukkim can be seen as implying a certain valuation of innocence, of simplicity, of walking with God with an uncomplicated wholeness (if need be, a kind of “second naivete” à la Foucault): holekh tamim as a kind of counterpoint to an excessive sophistication, to over-intellectualization of life. Medieval Christianity celebrated the figure of the “holy fool”; there seem to have been similar elements, at least in early Hasidism.

All this is especially important in the context of the Jewish people, whose culture has long tended to overemphasize “head stuff” at the expense of other qualities. My ex-wife introduced me to the wonderfully ironic expression used by German Jews, “ein Normalisch Jüdisch wünderkind” (“a normal Jewish wonderchild”)—as if to say, it is only normal and expected for a Jewish child to be bright (and think of the burden this puts on the merely average!). At times this obsession with brains is almost pathological—especially among modern Jews, who abandoned religion and translated the value of Torah study into secular terms: the celebration of intelligence, knowledge and culture per se. As a youth, I knew assimilated European Jews who seriously thought that we are the chosen people because “we’re smarter than everybody else.”

Early Zionism, with its celebration of a healthy body, of hard physical labor, of a closer relation to nature and the outdoors, was one kind of reaction against this. The emphasis on temimut, on a kind of simplicity and straightforwardness in ones way of standing before God, may be seen as a certain religious reaction to this. Besides everything else, the dispute between Hasidism and Mitnaggedism was waged over the issue of book learning, of head-oriented piety vs. a more emotional, integral, simpler, wholistic service of God.

It is important for bright people in particular to seek simplicity, due to the danger of worshipping their own intellectual powers in an almost idolatrous way. This is my reading of Shlomo Carlebach—the central choice that fixed his life trajectory was the choice of the emotional qualities above intellective ones. A brilliant yeshiva student, an iluy, he left all that behind to become a Jewish minstrel, a teacher of the heart, speaking a very simple, direct language (of both words ad music), without serpentine, dialectic complexities.

To conclude with Midrash: several of the midrashim relate to the figure of King Solomon, “the wisest of all men,” whose braininess was his downfall. Thus, Sanhedrin 21b:

R. Yitzhak said: Why were the reasons for the Torah not revealed? For in two passages the reason was revealed, and the greatest person in the world stumbled therein. It is written: “He should not have too many wives [that they not lead his heart astray”; Deut 17:17]. Solomon said: I can have many wives, and they shall not lead me astray. And it says, “And in Solomon’s old age his wives led his heart astray [after other gods, and his heart was not whole with the Lord”; 1 Kgs 11:4; see ff., 5-10, about his building them pagan temples and altars close to Jerusalem]. And it is written “He should not multiply horses [and not return the people to Egypt”; Deut 17:16]. Solomon said: I shall multiply, and I shall not return the people. And it says, “And his chariot went out from Egypt… ” [1 Kgs 10:29]

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Hukat (Hasidism)

The Social Ethics of Mysticism

The opening section of our portion is most often invoked to teach the transcendent nature of the Torah and mitzvot: hukkim, pure expressions of the Divine will, unfathomable to the human mind. Here, R. Nahum of Chernobol draws some interesting social implications from a mystical perception of Torah. From Meor Einayim, Hukat, s.v. zot ha-torah:

“This is the teaching: When a man dies in a tent…” [Num 19:14]. And our Rabbis said: “the Torah is only sustained by those who kill themselves over it” [Berakhot 63b].

The introductory verse and Rabbinic dictum, as far as I can tell, is brought to provide a connection between personhood and the Torah as such.

For it is known that there are sixty myriad letters in the Torah, and corresponding to them are sixty myriad soul roots; for even though there are in Israel so-and-so many souls, in all events the sixty myriad roots are the essence, and the rest come from division of the sparks. And each person in Israel has a letter in the Torah, and the Torah and the Holy One blessed be He are one [Zohar Hadash III:403a]. And this is the Divine portion that is within each man, and it is literally that selfsame letter from which stems the source of his soul. And the letter brings down upon the person an abundance and holy vitality.

And one must know that the letter resides within a person’s mouth, and each letter is composed of the entire Torah. Hence the entire Torah is within a person’s mouth. For is not a Sefer Torah that is missing a single letter unfit, and is not considered a Torah for this reason: that each letter is considered a Torah, for all of them to combine together.

As we noted in our discussion for Shavuot, the correspondence between the Torah and the human body and/or the totality of souls of Israel is a common one in Kabbalah and Hasidism. This, coupled with the correspondence between God and Torah, implies that each soul/letter represents the portion of the Divine found within man. Moreover, since the whole is made up the sum of all its parts, each individual part is indispensable for the unity and integrity of the whole, as illustrated by the law that a Torah scroll missing one letter is pasul (unfit); thus, each part contains within itself, in a sort of microcosm, the essence of the whole. (In the same way as, to use an example from modern genetics, each cell of the human body has the DNA of the entirety; e.g., a bit of my toenail also has the genetic material that gives me brown eyes).

And all of ones service of God consists of this: that a person must draw close to his root, that is, to the Torah, which is an entire level composed of 613 mitzvot. And a person is also composed of 248 limbs and 365 sinews, as is known. And in the same way that, if one letter of the Sefer Torah is incomplete [it is unfit], similarly our Rabbis said that “whoever loses a single soul from Israel is as if he lost an entire world” [Sanhedrin 37a]. And to the contrary: “Whoever sustains [one soul]….. is as if he sustained the entire world.” And understand this.

Therefore before every prayer we say, “Behold, I accept upon myself the positive commandment of ‘You shall love your fellowman as yourself’” [this recitation is a widespread Kabbalistic and Hasidic custom]. For all is total unity, in the same way as the Torah is called Torah when all of its letters are combined together. Thus, even if he sees in his neighbor some bad thing, he should hate the evil that is within him, but he should love the holy part very much, as he does his own soul. For the Baal Shem Tov, may his soul rest in the heights, said that the perfect Tzaddik, in whom there is no evil, does not see the evil in any other person. But one who sees evil in his fellow, the matter is like one who looks in a mirror: if his face is dirty, he sees the like in the mirror, but if his face is clean, he does not see any fault in the mirror. As he is, so does he see.

And this is, “You shall love your fellowman as yourself” [Lev 19:18]. “As yourself”: meaning, that if a man knows of some evil within himself, he does not hate himself for that reason, but he hates the evil within himself; so too regarding his neighbor, for in truth all is one. For does not his fellowman also have a portion of God above, just like him, and does not he also have a letter in the Torah?…

In brief, unitive consciousness leads to love of the other. The “negation of the self” taught in Hasidism is not only a kind of mystical self-abnegation attainable in practice by a few adepts, but has implications for ordinary social interaction: a negation of the ego, a letting go of personal ambition and wishes and wants and “looking out for number one” as the central maxim in life, even a certain blurring of the boundaries between self and others. There are many Hasidic stories illustrating the idea that one should feel the pain of one’s fellow as his own, and of holy men who did so in fact.

Martin Buber in his day wrote at length about the social ethics of Hasidism, even describing the movement as “Kabbalah made Ethos.” He saw the social structure of the community of Hasidim, centered around the Rebbe, as central: the sense created thereby of mutual bonding, of mutual responsibility and caring and giving; the life of the collective expressed and renewed by the regular gatherings for prayer and at the tish, to hear the Tzaddik “saying Torah.” (Interestingly, the term “kibbutz,” used in Israel for the collective farms that played an instrumental role in building the state and which for many decade symbolized the Israeli ethos, is taken from the lexicon of Bratslav Hasidism.)

All this is in sharp contrast to the view, widely-held in the contemporary world, of life as competition, as a struggle for survival. Our society is largely based on individualism, on perception of the other as rival. Individual qualities such as wealth, beauty, glamour, are extolled by the media. It is assumed as almost axiomatic that everyone wants to be rich; that wealth, and the consumption of products that money can buy, is the ultimate source of happiness. It would seem that the competitiveness of Western society has worsened in the past twenty or thirty years, in almost every arena of life; in retrospect, the communal moment in the hippie counter-culture of the ‘60s seems to have been no more than a colorful, rather eccentric flash-in-the-pan.

On a more subtle, refined level, these attitudes are reflected in other aspects of our culture. The attitude to death: i.e., the unwillingness to accept our own mortality, which was somehow more natural in traditional societies and religions, is a byproduct of the present Western emphasis on individualism. It is also reflected in the at times excessive value placed upon creativity, upon the uniqueness of each person above all else (positive values in themselves!), produced by a certain type of middle-class child raising, particularly prevalent among Jews, which may end in people incapable of real sharing or relationships with others.

Where is Judaism located in relation to these cultural modes? There are two schools of thought. Some claim that Judaism is most similar in its ground values to Protestantism. There are those who find a common ground in Biblical religion, drawing a connection among monotheistic faith, the celebration of reason and ethics, and scientific progress (thus a recent book by John Hully, entitled Comets, Jews & Christians; Scientists & Bible-Believers). Interestingly, too, we find two classical works of modern sociology connecting the rise of the capitalist ethic with either Protestantism or Judaism, respectively: to wit, Werner Sombart’s The Jews and Modern Capitalism, and Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In a similar vein, Prof. Ruth Wisse, in a recent interview in Ha-Aretz, denigrated Levinas’ stress upon the concept of the Other as a key to Talmudic ethics, because in her view Judaism teaches “competitiveness.” That a generally thoughtful and intelligent woman could write such arrant nonsense boggles the imagination.

Alternatively, there are those who compare Judaism to the mysticisms of the Far East, with their teaching of a consciousness that transcends the individual. Certainly, there is much in Hasidism that seems far closer to the latter. Although I cannot discuss this point in depth at this point, it certainly seems a fruitful avenue of thought to be pursued, as a useful corrective to the pan-Western, “Protestant” line of thought mentioned earlier. Even Rabbinic Judaism was, in Max Kadushin’s memorable phrase, “a normalized mysticism”—meaning, that a person works and lives in the world, but a part of him sees the most significant part of his/her life in the transcendent dimension. (Ultimately, of course, Judaism is unique unto itself, and not to be viewed as essentially a “cousin” or “sister” to any other faith or system.)

I believe that the severe problems confronting the contemporary family are based upon the same excessive individualism, which make it impossible for more and more people to open their selves to even one other person in love and intimacy. A friend of mine told a revealing story of a confirmed bachelor who declared that his unwillingness to marry was because, “that would mean I would have to support a total stranger for the rest of my life.” Everywhere one hears of men afraid of commitment, or holding to unrealistic images of perfection in what they seek in a partner. The ethos of sexual permissiveness in general society allows them to find succor of sorts in non-binding relationships or one-night stands. Pressures upon women, both economic and cultural, to invest much of their energies in demanding careers, diminish their own availability for relationships and later for devotion to family. Interestingly, whereas for some the model of marriage and sexual love is of “the two of us against the cruel world,” in the above teaching of R. Nahum, the family would be paradigmatic of a larger, more all-encompassing love: the individual opening himself up, albeit in less intense and intimate ways, to all members of his community, and even of Klal Yisrael.

I would place much of the blame for this on the concept of Homo Economicus: on the view that economic interests are central for all social and cultural interactions. The nineteenth century fathers of modern socialism taught that the contradictions of advanced capitalist society would ultimately lead to its breakdown. What we are seeing today is how the contradictions of our society are reaching down to the most intimate unit of society and of civilization—the family. What is called for is a renewal of fellow feeling, of the sense of mutual responsibility and the creation of community, and not the pursuit of individual fulfillment and genius. How that is to be done in the face of enormous obstacles and overwhelming cultural, political, economic and even technological factors is, of course, a very difficult question; but all that we hold precious depends upon the answer.

On a local level, the fact that the level of social inequality in Israel has grown by leaps and bounds over the past quarter century, transforming it from one of the most egalitarian societies in world to one of the least so, is a cause for grave concern. I believe that the country is far less Jewish as a result, no matter how many yeshivah bakhurim there may be, or how many government officials pepper their conversation with “be-Ezrat ha-Shem.”

The halakhic concept of tzedakah is profoundly different from “charity,” even if it is often translated as such (a sin of which I have myself been guilty at times, simply for convenience and brevity). Charity implies a certain idea of “noblesse oblige,” of pity and compassion for those less fortunate than the giver, tinged with a certain subtle feeling of superiority. “These poor people are not like me and mine, who know how to get on in life.”

Tzedakah, by contrast, is “righteousness”—from the same root as tzedek, “justice”—that is, one is giving others that which is rightfully theirs. A human being, just by virtue of being a human being, is entitled to basic minimum life needs: food, shelter, clothing, etc. By giving tzedakah, one is setting right a certain imbalance in the world. See on this especially Parashat Behar, with the institution of the jubilee year where, periodically, the accumulated process of social injustice is set right, and each person returns to that which is rightfully his. Thus see Lev 25:13: “each person returns to his inheritance”; that is, to that which is rightfully his.

Three Meditations on Pesukei de-Zimra

I would like to present some further thoughts about Pesukei de-Zimra, the “verses of Song” that serve as a kind of introduction and spiritual/emotional preparation for the central part of Shaharit (Morning Prayers) on both weekdays and Shabbat. I first discussed this in a long essay in honor of my father’s Yahrzeit in HY II: Ki Tetsei. Recently, in HY IV: Pekudei, I reconsidered some of the issues involved. This week’s parsha, with the Song of the Well and other fragments of ancient song, seems a suitable time to present a few miscellaneous thoughts about certain specific parts of this section of the liturgy. At the risk of sounding excessively “New Age,” I would like to share some meditations or thoughts I have found it helpful to keep in mind for various sections of Pesukei de-Zimra.

1) Pesukei de-Zimra opens with the blessing Barukh She-amar. This blessing is sui generis in Jewish liturgy in that, before the standard opening formula of Barukh atah Adonai, it contains a series of a dozen or so short phrases beginning with the word Barukh: “Blessed be…” These enumerate ion the things for which we praise God. The opening phrase, “Blessed be He who spoke, and the world was,” seems a key to all religious feeling, and for that matter all philosophy. God spoke—and the world was. Why is there Being at all? The very fact that anything IS, is in itself a source of inconceivable wonder. Why should there be a world at all? Why is there not simply eternal nothingness, darkness, an absence of all chemical, biological, or physical activity?

Physicist Gerald Schroeder, in his book The Science of God, notes that the very fact that there are atoms at all, that during the “Big Bang” (assuming there is any reason why such an event ought to have happened at all), positive and negative charges did not totally neutralize one another; that during the first millionth-of-a-second, at super-white heat, fusion took place creating the carbon atoms that would later be necessary as building blocks of all organic life—all this is a great wonder.

2) The liturgy requires us to recite Ashrei (Psalm 145) three times daily. The tendency to recite this psalm on automatic pilot, rushing through its words, is very common, nay, all but ubiquitous in most synagogues I know. And yet, our Sages stress its great importance, saying that whoever says it three times daily performs a meritorious act, and is assured a share in the World to Come.

I have found it useful to sit down for Ashrei and to pause briefly, perhaps taking a breath, between each individual verse. Ashrei was placed before Minhah as a kind of meditation; as a fulfillment, however small, of the idea of a moment of “sitting” or just “staying” in silence prescribed by Hazal before prayer. The awareness of the words, through simply slowing down, may have a profound affect upon one’s davening as a whole.

3) The final section of Pesukei de-Zimra is interesting. First, at the end of the core of this section, i.e., the six final psalms of the Psalter (145-150), each of which begin and end with Halleluyah, one repeats the final verse: “Let all that has breath praise the Lord; Halleluyah!” One can imagine here the entire cosmos praising God: a kind of Nishmat or Perek Shirah writ small (the latter is an ancient work recording the songs recited by each creature in praise of God). This is followed by a conflation of the concluding verses of each of the first four “books” of Psalms (i.e., Pss 41, 72, 89, and 106; the division of the psalms into five books, like those of the Torah, is very ancient). This is in turn followed by a verse from 1 Chronicles 29:11, seen by Kabbalah as the source for the seven lowest sefirot, the “tools” used by God for channeling His infinite abundance within a finite universe (“Lekha Hashem ha-gedulah….”; “To You, O God, pertain greatness, and might,” etc.).

This is in turn followed by an interesting verse from Nehemiah 9:6, too often overlooked: “You alone, O Lord, are God: you made the heavens and the heavens above the heavens and all their hosts; the earth and all that is upon it; the sea and all that lives therein…” We have here a picture of the three divisions of the universe: the earth’s surface, and that which is above and below: the worlds of mammals, birds, and fish; those realms depicted in the first to third, and fourth to sixth, days of creation. But then, “and You provide life to them all.”

If the mystery of Being implied in Barukh She-amar is a quasi-philosophical issue, too abstract to feel in a concrete way, that of Life, pulsing at very instant within ourselves and within all that surrounds us—people, animals, trees, bushes, insects—is a profoundly existential one. God is the force giving life to all. This verse easily elicits thoughts of the Divine life pulsing within us in every heartbeat, in every breath we take. Without His vivifying touch, there would be naught but death and desolation and eternal stillness and silence.

Hukat (Rambam)

Hukim: Reason and Beyond-Reason

The commandment of parah adumah, the red heifer used for purifying those contaminated by contact with the dead, is the paradigm of a hukkah, a religious law that has no reason—or at least not one within the ordinary purview of human understanding. This concept is often invoked by Jewish moralists and philosophers to indicate the heteronomous nature of the law of the Torah in general—i.e., that it is external to the human being, his reason and consciences, and must be obeyed simply because such is the Divine will.

But is this in fact the case? Maimonides deals with the ramifications of this problem in the series of three passages with which he concludes those three books of the Yad that deal with the system of animal sacrifices offered in the Temple. First, Hilkhot Me’ilah 8.8:

8. It is fitting that a person contemplate the laws of the Holy Torah and comprehend their full meaning in accordance with his ability. And if there is some thing for which he does not find a reason and whose cause he does not know it should not be trivial in his eyes, lest he presume to break through to the Lord… [after Exod 19:21]; and his thought concerning them should not be like his thoughts in mundane matters.

The essential idea here is that, while it is desirable that a person attempt to understand the rationale for the mitzvot, his observance should not be contingent upon his understanding their reason, being personally convinced of the “legitimacy” of the mitzvah, or being able to “connect” in a personal way. He goes on to prove this point by means of an analogy from the laws concerning trespass against holy things, with which the Book of [Temple] Service concludes:

Come and see how strict the Torah is with the matter of trespass. For if sticks and stone and dirt and ashes become hallowed once the name of the Master of the Universe has been called upon them, [even] by means of words alone, so that whoever treats them in a mundane matter and trespasses regarding them [i.e., uses them for personal benefit], even inadvertently, requires atonement; how much more so is this true regarding the commandment that the Holy One blessed be He has legislated for us, that a person should not rebel against them it simply because he does not know their reason. Nor should he heap up words that are not so upon the Lord, and not think in them as he does in secular matters.

For it says in the Torah, “You shall observe all my statutes and all my ordinances, and do them” [Lev 19:37]. Our Sages said [in Sifra, ad loc.] that this verse is meant to teach that “observing” and “doing” apply equally well to the statutes as to the ordinances. The sense of “doing” is well-known—namely, that he should perform the statutes. And “observing” means, that he should be careful regarding them and not imagine that they are of lesser importance than the ordinances.

At this point, noting the distinction between “statutes” and “ordinances” (which he goes on to define more sharply), he cites a Rabbinic halakhic midrash proving that the reference to both types of law in the verse quoted here demonstrates that both types are equally binding and that both have an equal claim upon our allegiance. This is so, notwithstanding the possible objection that the hukkim do not seem to make any sense.

Now, the “ordinances” refers to those commandments whose reason is well-known and the benefit of whose performance in this world is self-evident, such as the prohibitions against theft and bloodshed, and the honoring of parents. And the “statutes” refer to those commandments whose reasons are not known. Our Sages said: I have decreed statutes for you, and you have no permission to question them. And a man’s [evil] impulse troubles him regarding them, and the nations of the world reprove us concerning them, such as the prohibition of the flesh of swine, or of meat in milk, and the law of the heifer whose neck is broken, and the Red Heifer, and the scapegoat.

From the definition of the two types it is clear that only the hukkim need to be accepted upon Divine authority alone; the mishpatim coincide with the human being’s innate sense of fairness, justice and morality, so that there is presumably no particular difficulty in applying one’s mind, heart and conscience to their understanding and implementation.

The distinction itself is a classic one in Jewish thought, that hardly originated with Rambam. Before him, Saadya Gaon divided all the commandments into mitzvot sikhliyot—“intellective” or rational laws; and mitzvot shimi’yot—“laws that were heard”—i.e., laws received from Sinai, or through tradition—meaning, that they could not have been derived through human intellect alone.

Even earlier, this distinction is found in the Talmud itself. In the course of a sugya dealing with the sa’ir ha-mishtaleah—the “scape-goat” sent into the wilderness on Yom Kippur to atone for the sins of the entire Jewish people (a mitzvah which, alongside the Red Heifer, is most often cited as paradigmatic of the hukkah)—we read the following beraita, cited in b. Yoma 67b:

Our Rabbis taught: “You shall perform my ordinances” [Lev 18:4]—those things that, were they not written, they ought by rights to have been written: namely, idolatry, sexual licentiousness, bloodshed, theft, and cursing God’s name. “And you shall guard my statutes” [ibid.]—those things that Satan reproves; namely: the eating of swine, [not] wearing lindsey-woolsey, the removing of the shoe of the levirate wife (halitzah), the purification of the leper, and the scape-goat sent into the wilderness. Lest you say, these are acts of emptiness, the Torah says, “I am the Lord”—I have legislated them and you are not permitted to question them.

What is the common denominator of those laws described as hukkim? Rambam lists a potpourri of laws that have no particular or obvious reason, and which are most often held to ridicule by the Gentile nations—such as the laws of kashrut, or various rituals that seem particularly bizarre. Those listed in the Talmud all entail some paradox or internal contradiction: the Red Heifer “renders the impure pure, and the pure impure”; the law of levirate marriage transforms what is ordinarily an act of incest (brother-in-law with sister-in-law) into a mandated commandment; shaatnez (lindsey-woolsey) is overridden in the case of tzitzit; and so on.

The mishpatim, by contrast, seem to coincide with natural law, being derived either from the innate makeup of the human conscience, or being the inevitable results of reflection on the matter. Interestingly, the list of laws described by our Talmudic passage as mishpatim seems to coincide almost completely with the seven Noachide commandments, which we suggested elsewhere might be viewed as a Judaic counterpart to the “natural law” concept of Christian moral thinkers (see our discussion of this, and of the entire problematics surrounding Rambam’s view on it, in HY V: Noah). Rambam, in the Eight Chapters, suggests that the reaction of the human being is in itself a sure indicator of which law belongs to what group. A rational man will not have any inclination to violate those laws that accord with reason; the hukkim, on the other hand, which are admittedly arbitrary, tend to evoke rebellion and refusal to accept them easily. Hence, the presence of the Yetzer Hara, the “Evil Urge” (brought by Rambam as an alternative reading to “Satan” in the Talmudic passage) is in itself a sign that a given law is a hukkah.

We now return to Rambam’s presentation in Hilkhot Me’ilah:

How much David was pained by the heretics and the pagans who mocked the statutes! Yet the more they hounded him with false questions, which they raised in accordance with their limited human intellect, the greater his devotion to the Torah. As is said, “Evil men weaved falsehood against me, but I guarded your statutes with all my heart” [Ps 119:69]. And it says there concerning that matter, ”All your commandments are faith, they pursue me falsely, help me” [ibid., v. 86]. And all of the sacrifices belong to the class of the hukkim. Our Sages said that the entire world is sustained by dint of the sacrificial worship. For by performing the statutes and the laws the upright merit the life of the World to Come. And the Torah gave precedence to the commandment regarding the statutes, as is said, ”And you shall guard my statutes and my laws, that a person shall do and live by them” [Lev 18:5].

Dedication to the hukkim is thus seen as a particular sign of love and devotion to the Torah.

I would like to return to the last sentence of the beraita from Yoma, “Lest you say, these are acts of emptiness (tohu), the Torah says, ‘I am the Lord’—I have made an edict and you are not permitted to question them.” This seemingly innocuous sentence opens an entirely new line of thinking. The argument that these laws are hukkim is seen here, not as an invocation of Divine fiat, a celebration of the irrationality of the Torah laws and a call for squashing human reason but, on the contrary, as an answer to the rational person who entertains the thought that “these are acts of emptiness.” To the criticism an intelligent person might bring that, “these rituals are a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, with neither rhyme nor reason,” the response is, “I have made an edict”—that is, the argument that God has legislated the hukkim and that they presumably embody Divine wisdom and authority is itself the best answer. Not magic, but commandments given by the Transcendent God, whose reason is beyond our fathoming. (For an interesting midrash that develops this approach more fully, see Numbers Rabbah 19.8, which we brought in HY III: Hukkat).

A commonly-heard view in contemporary Orthodoxy asserts that the mode of religiosity implied by the notion of hukkim embraces nearly all aspects of Judaism, in which an almost quietistic sense of submissiveness to the Divine will is seen as the ideal. Some thinkers of this school call for total suppression of human moral sensitivity, conscience, feeling, mind, intellect, etc., before the overwhelming holiness and awesome power of the Divine. The emphasis is on the law as totally external to man, on the one hand; and of man’s creatureliness and fallibility, on the other. Hence, legislation about the social order, or those that emerge from human reason or conscience, are dismissed as secondary to Divine fiat.

This approach is especially strongly felt in Hasidism and in other mystical approaches to Torah, which at times put forward a kind of quietism or determinism, a sense that everything that man does is “beshert”—predetermined (thus, for example, the rabbi of Izhbitz in his book Mei Shiloah, which is popular among many today). Not only the halakhah, but even those personal ethical decisions that a person makes in life that do not fall easily under any particular halakhic category, are also seen in this light.

But even rationalist, modernist streams invoke such ideas at times. Thus, for example, Rav Soloveitchik spoke more than once of how, in principle, even the mishpatim are ultimately experienced by the Jew as hukkim; that is, while the civil laws of the Torah are seemingly rational, based upon human ethics and reason, ethical understanding and insight, and in terms of their subject matter and even much of the contents of the law similar to secular law codes, our allegiance to them is rooted in the fact that the source of authority is ultimately God, and that in studying even such secular matters as the laws of “two men who grasped garment” or “a bull that gored a cow” we “rendezvous” with the Shekhinah.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz also had a strong “voluntaristic” element in his approach to law. He constantly referred to the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, as a paradigm for the nature of halakhah. Human reason and conscience, and certainly any value given to human needs and wishes, are abandoned where halakhah is concerned. To worship or to serve God means—to perform a given act because God commanded it or, more precisely, because in doing one demonstrates submission to God. He downplayed the role of kavvanah, inner spiritual intention in tefillah; if God had commanded us to read the telephone book or to recite gibberish instead of the Shmonah Esreh, we would do so.

Yet it is by no means clear that this is the only, or even the predominant view, in classical Judaism. I was recently privy to a forthcoming paper by Yitzhak Benbaji, a researcher at the Shalom Hartman Institute, who asserts—and brings substantial proof to support this claim—that traditional Jewish thought did not require man’s absolute submission to the arbitrary Divine will, but saw the moral law as an autonomous realm, which God Himself is bound to honor. The Sages often evoked reason, and not only tradition, in their halakhic argumentation.

If so, why is the heteronomous nature of the law so strongly emphasized in the contemporary discussion? One explanation relates to the defensive posture of Orthodoxy in modern world. Much of the Jewish people today lives outside of the halakhah; moreover, the main practical differences between observant and non-observant Jewry seems to lie precisely in those areas that cannot easily by explained by reason, at least at first blush, and which often involve no little sacrifice. Some examples that readily come to mind are: kashrut, with the social awkwardness and inconvenience it involves (at least for those living in the Diaspora); the numerous particular details of Shabbat observance (as opposed to the beautiful general concept); the laws of family purity, with the insistence on mikveh; the arbitrary-seeming marital restrictions imposed upon kohanim (descendants of the ancient priestly family); even the fact that a religious divorce writ (get) is sine qua non for the termination of marriage, and that its absence taints any new relationship the woman may undertake with the stamp of adultery. While good reasons may be found, and have in fact been articulated, for all these things, they ultimately demand a commitment born of a certain degree of “blind” acceptance of the authority of the halakhah, arbitrary and “meaningless” as it may at times seem.

On the other hand, a certain optimism about human beings and the power of human reason, that had dominated Western culture from the Renaissance on, had the lie put to it by the events of the twentieth century. Not only the horrific destruction and warfare wrought by modernity, but the fact that seemingly rational and sublime ideals—e.g. the universal economic equality and building of a just society that underlay communism—proved catastrophic. Many of us grew up with the feeling that the human ability to dominate and control the environment far outstrips both our wisdom or our moral sense—and that hence, “There is none on whom we can rely, but our Father in Heaven.”

All this led many to fall back on faith; to create an either-or dichotomy: either humanism or theocentrism; either rational ethics and autonomous, informed ethical decision-making, or total surrender to God. And yet, in the end such a dichotomy is a false one. The lesson gleaned from Rambam’s presentation is a kind of synthesis: the commitment to the Torah and its laws must be a priori; but one’s mind may and should continue to be active, both in seeking out ever deeper levels of understanding of the reasons for the mitzvot, and in applying the general rules of the halakhah to the specifics of our own, often complex, actual situation. This is, perhaps, the deeper meaning of the Rabbinic adage, “a Sage is preferable to a prophet”—that is, given that in our day no human being has a direct pipe-line to the Infinite One, we have no alternative but to rely upon human wisdom, understanding and intuition (both or own and that of those with greater experience and learning) to deal with the dilemmas presented by life, both to the individual and to the community. (The alternative, which is appealing but ultimately dangerous, is the cult of personality: to say that the Divine will is channeled to us through the “great sage of the generation”—be it Rav Zvi Yehudah Kook, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Ovadiah Yosef, Rav Schach, etc.)

But unlike some prophets of a “modern” religious sensibility, who would advocate expanding the role of human reason and human community indefinitely, I would not dismiss the concept of hukkah too lightly. In the end, in the performance of a mitzvah there is a sense of mysterium tremendum; that one is confronting, not only the grandeur and mystery of the cosmos, but also that of the Divine law. There is an element of the holy to the process of Divine service, a sense of mystery and of the uncanny that demands that the law be somewhat opaque, that one knows that it has depth upon depth that cannot be fully comprehended by facile, humanistic, liberal ”explanations,” or dismissed as outmoded folklore or relics of ancient times. Regarding the mitzvot as hukkim implies, in the end, an attitude of reverence, of standing before something that is bigger than oneself.

The Depths of the Mitzvah: An Object Lesson

Rambam goes on, in the peroration to the next book of the Yad, to elaborate and provide a concrete illustration of the principle explained in Me’ilah 8.8: namely, that while observance may not be made contingent ab initio upon understanding of ta’amei ha-mitzvah, the rationale of the commandments, one is not only permitted to engage in this enterprise, but it is a good thing to do so, and even a kind of religious imperative. It seems to me that he certainly would include it under the rubric of gemara, of reflecting upon and understanding the underpinnings of the halakhic system, as he defines it in Talmud Torah 1.9 (see HY V: Shavuot), because doing so strengthens one’s faith in the wisdom contained in the Torah.

Here, he provides a concrete example, taken from the law with which he concludes Sefer Korbanot, to illustrate how a seemingly technical halakhic regulation is filled with profound understanding of human nature, shrewd understanding of psychology, moral lessons, etc. The context is the law, whose scriptural source is Leviticus 27:31-33 (appropriately enough, the very last law in Vayikra, the biblical “book of sacrifices”), against substituting one animal for another once it has been consecrated as a Temple sacrifice. Hilkhot Temurah [Laws of Exchanging] 4.13 (I have omitted the initial sentence, which is excessively technical for our purposes):

Even though all the statutes of the Torah are edicts, as we have explained at the end of [Laws of] Trespasses, it is fitting that one should contemplate them and to provide a reason for whatever you are able to do so. For our early Sages said that King Solomon understood most of the reasons for all the laws of the Torah.

It seems to me that when Scripture said, “And it and its substitute shall be holy” [Lev 27:33] this is similar to the matter of which is said: “And if the one sanctifying it shall redeem his house, he shall add a fifth of the money of its valuation to it” [ibid., v. 15]. The Torah penetrated to the end of man’s thought and to the limit of his evil inclination. For it is man’s nature to augment his property and to take pity on his money. And even if he took a vow and sanctified something, he may recant and [try to] redeem it for less than its value. Hence the Torah said that if he redeemed it for himself he shall add a fifth [of its total value]. Similarly, if he sanctified an animal, [conveying upon it] sanctity of its body [kedushat ha-guf; an halakhic concept], perhaps he will recant, and since he cannot redeem it, he will replace it with one that is of lesser value. And if he were to be given permission to replace the bad with the good, he might exchange the good for the bad, and say that it is good. Hence Scripture closed all these options to him so that he cannot exchange it, imposing a penalty upon him if he does exchange it, saying “it and its substitute shall be holy” [ibid., v. 33].

And all of these things are made so as to turn his [natural] impulse and to improve his character. And most of the laws of the Torah are naught but counsel from afar from the Great One of Counsel, to improve character and to straighten all of the actions. And it likewise says: “Have I not written to you words of admonition and knowledge, to show what is right and true, that you may give a true answer to those who sent you?” [Prov 22:21-22]

I cannot analyze this passage at any length, but the essential point is clear enough: even such seemingly “technical” details as when and whether one may substitute or redeem one sacrificial animal for another are based upon a profound understanding of human nature, and are designed to implant within the person sublime traits—generosity, willingness to forego his own interests, to transcend petty self-concern. In his words, “to improve character and to straighten all of the actions.” The third passage in this series (Mikvaot 11.12), concerning the meaning of ritual purification through immersion in water and the moral lesson to be derived therefrom, has already been discussed earlier this year (see HY V: Tazria-Metzora).