Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Aharei Mot-Kedoshim (Rashi)

For more teaching on these (and the next) parshiyot, see the archives below, at May 2006.

Are the Laws of Sexual Behavior “Laws” or “Statutes”?

This week’s double parasha contains the core laws governing arayot, improper sexual liaisons: a list of prohibited relations in Leviticus 18 (Aharei Mot) and their attendant sanctions in Chapter 20 (Kedoshim). Rashi’s remarks on the introductory verse to the former of these two chapters are interesting:

Lev 18:2. “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, I am the Lord your God.” Rashi: “I am the Lord your God.” I am He who said at Sinai, “I am the Lord your God” [Exod 20:2], and you accepted My kingship upon yourselves; from now on, accept my edicts. Rabbi said: It is known before me that they shall ultimately be drawn after licentiousness in the days of Ezra; therefore I came to them with the edict, “I am the Lord your God.” Know who it is that issues an edict upon you: He who can take recompense and is faithful to reward.

Rashi picks up on the phrase “I am the Lord your God,” used to introduce this chapter, drawing a comparison to its use in the first of the Ten Commandments. This in itself is a bit strange, because the phrase is used several times before here, both in the Book of Leviticus and earlier (e.g., Exod 29:46; Lev 11:44, 45), and appears as a veritable leitmotif in the next chapter, Lev 19, the heart of the so-called Holiness Code. But one could plausibly argue that its position here, at the beginning of the chapter rather than as a festive peroration in the other passages mentioned, indicates that it has a special significance here, as Rashi elaborates. He suggests that it means here “you accepted My kingship; now accept my edicts”—the acceptance of God and of His Torah, while naturally linked, represent two separate and distinct stages in the religious covenant between Israel and god: only once God is coronated, so to speak, is it possible to speak of His authority to issue laws and edicts over the people.

Rashi continues by drawing a connection between the general concept of “edicts” (gezerot) and the specific subject of sexual laws, quoting the statement of “Rabbi” (i.e., Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi, redactor of the Mishnah) in Torat Kohanim (a tannaitic midrash) applying this verse to sexual impropriety: specifically, the taking of foreign wives during the period of the Babylonian exile, which was one of the major social and religious stumbling blocks during the period of the Return to Zion (see Ezra 9 and 10; this is in itself somewhat strange, as marriage with non-Jewish women, while hardly condoned by the halakhah, does not fall under the rubric of arayot—but we must leave that point aside.)

Two verses further along, Rashi provides a definition of this concept:

18:4. “You shall do My laws and observe my statutes, to walk in them; I am the Lord your God.” Rashi: “You shall do my laws.” These are the things that are justifiably stated in the Torah by right, which had they not been said it would be proper that they be said. “And observe my statutes”—things that are edicts of the King, which the Evil Urge challenges: Why must we observe them? And that the nations of the world murmur against, such as [not] eating swine and [not] wearing linsey-woolsey and the purifying waters [of the Red Heifer; see Num 19]. Therefore it says “I am the Lord”: I am the Lord who has made the edict upon you, you are not permitted to excuse yourselves.

The concept itself is a familiar one, elaborated elsewhere (the classic example being the chapter of the Red Heifer; see Num 19:2 and Rashi ad loc., where he uses wording similar to that used here). Essentially, mishpatim are those laws which could be derived by human reason, whose necessity would be recognized by any reasonable human being; enactments that would in some sense be seen as universal, as conforming to the inborn dictates of human conscience or “natural law.” Hukim, by contrast, are those laws that seem arbitrary, even absurd, to the human intellect. These may be laws of a ritual nature; laws whose obedience signifies, more than anything else, the human surrender of the believer to the Divine will. This is similar to the distinction drawn by R. Saadya Gaon, only a few centuries before Rashi, between mitzvot sikhliyot and mitzvot shimi’iyot: “rational commandments” and “revealed commandments.”

But there is a difficulty here. Why does Rashi seem to assume that arayot fall under the heading of gezerot? Why does he introduce the subject of gezerot specifically here, in the context of arayot? Arayot are specifically described in various places in the Rabbinic tradition as falling under the rubric of “rational commandments.” Thus, the reader using Torah Temimah will find, on the very same page as this Rashi, a quotation from a beraita in Yoma 67b giving as examples of mishpatim the proscriptions against “idolatry, arayot, bloodshed, robbery, and blasphemy.” And indeed, any fair-minded, objective observer of human society will reach the conclusion that sexual licentiousness spells trouble, and that rules against adultery, incest, and homosexuality all serve an important social function in protecting the family, which is the basic core or cell of human society. Were a society to permit adultery, people might well end up killing one another out of sexual jealousy (some hippy communes in the 1960s which tried to train people to share sexual partners and to regard jealousy as a vestige of “bourgeois morality” inevitably ended splitting up over one or another romantic triangle); were incest sanctioned, the family would no longer function as a safe unit for raising children (and it would appear that childhood sexual abuse with its dire consequences is far more prevalent than formerly suspected); etc.

Why then does Rashi classify these laws under the rubric of gezerot, in his comments on both these verses? I would like to suggest that arayot falls into an interesting place between these two categories. On the one hand, they are indeed mishpatim, rational laws, in the sense that a philosopher or jurist sitting calmly in his study would come to the conclusion that their utility and necessity are virtually self-evident. On the other hand, a person confronted with actual sexual temptation—say, a man confronted with an attractive woman, sending clear signals of sexual interest, but who happens to be married to another man—will find his Yetzer Hara strongly aroused and prompting him to go ahead and commit the forbidden act; as Rashi puts it, hukim are those “edicts of the King which the Evil Urge challenges.” In such a situation, reason is likely to prove an inadequate brake to temptation; indeed, his ratio is likely to produce rationalizations. What is needed here is “fear of God”—the feeling that there is a God above who has commanded him and judges his actions (even if he is a modern secularist who may call it “conscience,” “ethics,” “values,” “fidelity,” or “I couldn’t look myself in the mirror if I did such and such a thing”—it boils down to the same thing).

Incidentally, from a purely halakhic viewpoint, I don’t know of any practical difference if one classifies a given law or group of laws as hukim or mishpatim; it is more a matter of philosophy, of ta’amei hamitzvot, so that there is room here for ambiguity or, as I have suggested, a given type of law straddling the line between the categories.

“The righteous one is gone from the earth, and the upright man is no more” (Micah 7:2)

On Monday, Iyyar 5, R. Moshe Klibanoff departed this world. He was 80 years old. While every human being is ultimately a mystery, carrying the secrets of his life to the grave, this seemed particularly true of Moshe. There was something essentially mysterious about him. Who was he? Of what was his essence made?

I know little about the external facts of his life. He was born in New York City in 1927, to a somewhat traditional, but non-Orthodox family. He served in the US Army in Germany at the very end of the Second World War, where he evidently suffered a trauma of some sort. He studied at. At some time during this period he began to become interested in Judaism. He once mentioned that during the late ‘40s he was part of a group at Columbia College that studied Hasidism with the young Shlomo Carlebach. He came to Israel, where he made his home, in the early 1960s. Here, he studied with Hugo Bergman, and counted among his mentors both Martin Buber and, later, Reb Gedaliah Koenig, an old-time Breslav hassid from Meah Shearim who was open to teaching people from the “outside.” I don’t know if and what his profession was, nor how he made a living. When I first met him he was an old bachelor; he married his wife Yonah quite late in life, with whom he had one daughter, Leah, today 30.

I first met Moshe at the home of Reb Gedaliah in 1971. Because Reb Gedaliah spoke no English, Moshe served as his translator. He performed this task in a singularly soft, cultured, and expressive, almost musical voice. He did not cut what is called “an impressive figure”: he was rather short, wore a somewhat dusty dark suit and beat-up black hat, and his face was dominated by a very full, somewhat unkempt beard and payot.

There are two things that I found particularly striking about Moshe. As one of the eulogists at his funeral commented, he saw himself as a devotee of both Breslav and Buber. In other words, he combined a deep religiosity—meaning not only piety, in the sense of meticulous observance of the halakhah, but also a deep sense of the immediacy of God—with a deep love and connection to the Western humanistic tradition, including such un-Orthodox Jewish figures as Buber. (At an international conference honoring Buber’s centennial in 1978, Moshe, the only person there with beard and payos, stood up to declare that he became a hasid through reading Buber.) Moshe, throughout his life, maintained a lively, one might say eclectic, interest in a wide gamut of subjects. He spent many hours at the Hebrew University library, where I would often encounter him. He was as likely to talk about the Masons and the impact of their symbolism on the great seal of the United States, as he was to talk about Hasidic rebbes or the Talmud. I found this a refreshing contrast to many neophytes to Orthodox Judaism, who often seem to abandon their former cultural orientation and interests.

He also had a deep commitment to peace, to rapprochement between Jews and Arabs, to universal love of humanity—again, in strong contrast to the bon ton of the Orthodox world. One of his projects was to print and distribute the “Prayer for Peace” by Rabbi Nathan of Nemirov (R. Nahman’s Boswell), which he had translated into both English and Arabic. Among his closest friends was a non-religious peace activist, Yohanan, who died tragically young in a hiking accident. He spoke of him with deep pain, gave classes in his memory, and was much concerned about assuring that proper use be made of the vast library he left behind.

Moshe had great intellectual and spiritual vitality. When I heard of the gravity of his illness, just two days before he died (the last Shabbat of his life friends organized a minyan in the garden outside of his house, so that he could hear the prayers and Torah reading through the window of his room—a very moving occasion), and someone mentioned that he was over 80, I was quite surprised. I had never thought of him as “an old man”: there was something timeless and ageless about him; he was now and again beset by health problems, but his mind and spirit and interest in all aspects of life were those of a young person.

The second striking thing about him was that he was a kind of “holy fool” or “A fool of God.” By this I of course don’t mean that there was anything foolish about him: he was a highly intelligent and educated man. His “foolishness” consisted in a certain simplicity, in a sense of utter humility and self-abnegation before God, and a rejection of the cerebral as a standard of human value. This idea is a central theme in Braslav—one of Reb Nahman’s most important stories is about the hakham vetam, “the wise man and the fool”—but Moshe lived this quality in an extreme way. When asked, “How are you?,” he might answer, “How do I know?” or “We are all lost sheep.” He really seems to have seen himself as “nothing”—and not just as a rhetorical flourish. He thus had a particular fondness for the figure of Reb Zusha of Hanipol, that one among the Hasidic masters who, more than anything, embodied the quality of being the “holy fool.” Indeed, the last shiur that Moshe Klibanoff gave at Yakar, some time this past winter, was in honor of Reb Zusha’s Yahrzeit.

It goes without saying that he was a great ba’al hesed, always caring about other people, doing mitzvot to help others, collecting money for this or that needy person. He also much concerned about tikkun hamiddot, constantly trying to improve and perfect his character—even at age 80.

At the funeral, I sensed a great outpouring of love by the large number of people whose lives he had touched, from a variety of different circles: Breslav Hasidim, devotees of Shlomo Carlebach, Yakar people, university circles, etc. May his memory continue to be a source of blessing, and a model for us all.


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