Friday, May 11, 2007

Behar-Behukotai (Rashi)

For more teachings on these parshiyot, see the archives for May 2006, below.

“What has Shemitah to Do with Mount Sinai?”

We shall open with a very brief comment about the opening comment by Rashi on this week’s parsha, which is a popular idiomatic expression in contemporary Hebrew, but used in a manner diametrically opposed to Rashi’s sense:

Leviticus 25:1. “And the Lord spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, saying…” Rashi: What has shemitah to do with Mount Sinai? Were not all the commandments spoken at Sinai? Rather, just as the general rules, the details, and the niceties of the laws of shemitah (the sabbatical year) were stated at Sinai, so were the general rules, details, and niceties of all of them stated at Sinai—thus is it taught in Torat Kohanim. But it seems to me that the following is the interpretation: Since we do not find that the laying fallow of the land is repeated at the Steppes of Moab, in Deuteronomy, we infer that all of its general and particular details were stated at Sinai, and Scripture comes here to teach us that every thing that was told to Moses was given at Sinai, in both general rules and specific details, and were repeated at the Steppes of Moab.

In the common idiomatic sense, the phrase “What has shemitah to do with Mount Sinai?” is used as the response to a non sequitur: What has one thing to do with the other. But Rashi asks the question in all seriousness: why does the Torah mention here, specifically, that God’s speech came to Moses at Mount Sinai? Rashi gives two answers, both of which essentially express faith in the overall unity and integrity of the Torah, including the oral tradition. The first answer is that the details of the mitzvot, even if, unlike here, are not stated as having been given at Sinai, nevertheless were. The second answer, Rashi’s own theory (though both are ultimately based on the same tannaitic midrash, Torat Kohanim) draw an equivalence between those mitzvot given at Sinai, at the beginning of the forty years covered by the legal books of the Torah, and those stated at the Steppes of Moab, at the very end. Whether a given law is mentioned in one, the other, or both, does not affect its halakhic or ontological status.

“Sabbatical Fruits: A Unique Kind of Holiness

The first major group of laws in this week’s parasha pertains to the sabbatical and jubilee years (shemitah and yovel): special years that recur in cycles of seven and forty-nine years, respectively. In the former the land lies fallow and its owners are proscribed from engaging in any agricultural labor; in the latter, those who were forced to sell their ancestral homesteads due to economic pressure return to their original share in the Land of Israel (or their children do so):

Lev 25:6-7. “And the Sabbath of the land shall be for you to eat, for you and your man-servant and your maid-servant… and for your animals and for the [wild] beasts that are in your land…” Rashi: “And the Sabbath of the land shall be…” Even though I have forbidden them [its fruits] to you, I have not forbidden them for eating nor to enjoy their benefit; rather, that you not behave regarding them as if you are the householder, but rather all will be equal therein—you and your hired servants and those who dwell with you. “The sabbath of the land shall be for you to eat.” You may eat from that which rests, and not from that which is guarded.

The “holiness” of the shemitah year is of a unique kind, based on a unique social message. The key sentence in this Rashi is, “Even though I have forbidden them to you, I have not forbidden them for eating nor to enjoy their benefit.” Ordinarily, things considered—whether objects, persons, places or special times—bring in their wake some sort of prohibition or ban. But here the holiness is of a very different kind: the one thing forbidden during shemitah is for the land owner to act like a baal-bayit, to enjoy preferential use of that which grows on his own land and to prevent others—who may be indigent, homeless and hungry—from enjoying them. During shemitah one may not actively cultivate the land; one may harvest that which grows by itself (sefihin, which may be a substantial amount), but one may not store it in a closed silo or other place to which others do not have access. What grows on God’s good earth is there to be eaten by everyone—freely, “like the wild beasts of the field.” One year out of seven the Torah legislates a kind of primitive socialism; the “holiness of the seventh year” (kedushat shevi’it) does not require that one eat its produce in a state of ritual purity, as does the holiness of kodashim, terumah or ma’asrot (the holy flesh of animal offerings, priestly gifts, or tithes); all that it requires is a leveling of the usual social differences between rich and poor that prevail the other six years.

Why is Taking Interest on Loans Prohibited?

From sabbatical and jubilee years, which as we have seen serve an equalizing social effect, the Torah turns to a series of other laws dealing with specific cases—beginning with offshoots of the institution of yovel—in which a person sells his homestead, borrows money, sells himself into slavery, etc. These appear in a series of paragraphs, each one of which begins with the words כי ימוך אחיך, “when your brother falls into straits.” Among these laws is the prohibition against taking interest on loans:

Lev 25:36. “Do not take from him advance or accrued interest, but you shall fear your God, and your brother shall live with you.” Rashi: “Advance or accrued interest [i.e., deducted from the loan in advance, lit., “bite,” or added at the time of repayment, lit. “multiplied”]. The Rabbis conflated these two terms as if one, to consider one who takes usury as having violated two prohibitions.

“And you shall fear your God.” Because a person’s mind is drawn after interest, and it is difficult to abstain from it, and he justifies it to himself, saying [that he takes interest] in compensation for his money being idle while it was with him [the borrower]. Hence Scripture needed to say, “and you shall fear your God.”

The basic concept underlying both this law and the other legislation in this chapter is that of social solidarity. The terms used here to refer to the person in need of help are ones that suggest inter-personal connectivity and responsibility, even a quasi-familial intimacy: אחיך (your brother); עמיתך (your countryman); רעך (your neighbor). These terms imply an element of social cohesion and identification with the other that are a far cry from the concept of homo economicus that is the dominant model for most relations in contemporary society.

A second interesting point here is that the desire for wealth is described here in terms reminiscent of the way Hazal describe sexual desire: “because a man’s mind is drawn after interest [i.e. increasing his wealth].” There is something highly seductive about the prospect of gaining money, even significant wealth, while sitting idle and “letting your money work for you.”

The difficulty with the prohibition against loaning money on interest is that, in a complex capitalist economy such as our own it seems patently unworkable, certainly as a general societal norm. Modern society is very different from biblical society, which was mostly agrarian, and money functions as a commodity, as a necessity for any significant enterprise. Admittedly, relatively small loans to individuals, between friends and family members, or through religiously-based free loan societies such as are found in many traditional Jewish communities, do exist—but the main thrust of modern economic life is one in which money “makes” money. The majority of loans, on a global or even nation-wide scale, are for purposes of investment; entire markets, such as the commodities markets in which people buy and sell “futures” on various goods, are based on speculation on money and prices. Nearly a century ago, the sociologist and economist Werner Sombart went so far as to counter the Marxian labor theory of value by describing money as the essential creative and dynamic factor in enabling technological and other innovations.

But in fact, this problem is not only one in modern society. The transition from an agrarian society to a way of life based upon commerce, financial activity, and various crafts and skills that can be practiced in an urban environment, occurred for much of the Jewish people in the early Middle Ages—according to historian Avraham Grossman, already during the 8th century CE in Babylonia and elsewhere. During much of the medieval period, money-lending was thought of as The Jewish occupation. Interestingly, Islam, which has a similar ban on “usury,” is only now confronting this problem in a serious way, as some Muslim countries that have become major players in the world economy thanks to petrodollars are turning to a stricter and more all-encompassing interpretation of Islam—and they must now deal with these contradictions in order to bring “Islamic banking” into the modern world.

One form of halakhic response to this problem is what amounts to a legal fiction: to recognize the reality in which Jews live, and to facilitate their participation in the economy in a manner that will not cause people loss or place them at a disadvantage in their financial lives. This is the basis of the heter iska, which provides the legal basis for banking in Israel as for other forms of money-lending, by making the borrower into a fictitious partner in part of the loan. One nevertheless remains with the question: what of the spirit of Torah? How does one foster, in a faceless, ruthless economy, some vestige of the idea of mutual caring and responsibility of which the Torah speaks here, in which one sees the stranger, at least the fellow Jew, as one‘s “brother”? There are pockets of this in the Hevrot GM”H—the religiously-motivated Free Loan societies that exist in many communities—but they are no more than an island in a sea of greed and rational calculation of self benefit. It seems to me that this is not sufficient, and Jewish thinkers must seek alternatives to “neo-liberalism,” which seems a code word for monolithic, nearly cannibalistic capitalism.

I have witnessed, within the span of my own lifetime, the emergence of a mood in which “achievement” in life is increasingly seen in terms of money and the acquisition of wealth and things: the wealthy seem to be openly adulated for their wealth in a way that they were not a generation ago. More and more young people, with some notable exceptions, seem moved in their choice of a course of study and a career by the “bottom line“—and who can blame them? In retrospect, the protest movements and communes of the ‘60s seem a kind of “last hurrah” of the impulse for radical change based on economic and social equality and gentler, more human values.

Even one of the seemingly most “progressive” movements of our time—women’s liberation or feminism—is largely focused on equal economic and career opportunities for women. Obviously, the demand for a level playing field in the competitive struggle is justified, as are the campaigns to eliminate sexual harassment in the work place. All of these are positive values as such; long-time readers of Hitzei Yehonatan will be familiar with my positions on “Orthodox feminism” in terms of such issues as women reading Torah or Megillah, reciting Sheva Berakhot publicly, and even the ordination of women. But there is a down-side to all this as well: I see the home as becoming far less central in a society where two–career families are the norm; the family dinner table, where parents and children can meet and talk and exchange experiences in a (hopefully) warm and supportive atmosphere is rapidly becoming a thing of the past for many educated Westerners—between long working hours, fast foods, television, and internet. Observant Jews still have Shabbat and the Shabbat table, but even that is only one day out of seven. Given the objective circumstances of people’s lives, women’s equality is no more a matter of elementary fairness and equity; but it must be seen, not as some utopian vision, but as a response to the increasingly harsh and competitive nature of the global marketplace, one which has in turn brought in its wake a real crisis of sexuality and the family—a subject on which I will elaborate on another opportunity.

Though there is much that Michael Lerner (of Tikkun magazine) writes with which I do not agree, he has at least one important insight: that the religious Right in America, with their talk of family values and their militant reaction to such things as abortions and same-sex marriage, are expressing real pain. They see the traditional family crumbing around them, and with it a deep threat to essential human values that these hold dear. Lerner says that these feelings must be accepted, and that any program for rebuilding and changing society must include real concern for community and family—although hopefully with more tolerant and pluralistic, and less militaristic values, than those of the Right, and without a simplistic return to a world in which women are consigned to Kirche, Küche und Kinder —“Church, Kitchen and Children.”

This essay is dedicated to the memory of my mother, whose Yahrzeit falls this Shabbat. It seems appropriate to be discussing davka these subjects on this occasion, as during a good part of her adult life she was actively involved in movements for social change, specifically in a socialist direction. In retrospect, she and others of her generation were guilty of certain errors in these activities, supporting movements that promulgated equality and social justice at the expense of individual freedom and independent thought. But their errors were born of a certain naïvete, even innocence: there were certain horrors and perversions of idealism that, during the 1920s and ‘30s in America, were simply unimaginable. Today, the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme. Our culture by and large celebrates the autonomy of the private individual, the right to be any thing one chooses, to define oneself and one’s own identity—while equality, the dignity and right to minimal economic security of the ordinary “working man,“ are all but lost. The accomplishments of the labor movement, for which my parents and their cohorts struggled so hard, have largely become eroded. Today’s “Left” seems preoccupied with the politics of identity, of language, of “politically correct” expression, and less with real justice for all. (All this, without even mentioning the Jewish aspect: be it the threat to Jewish communal survival from radical individualism, or the political threat to Israel from simplistic views of the Middle East and knee-jerk support, especially by the British and European Left, of even the most outrageous Arab positions.)

“We were like unto Sodom”

A very disturbing incident occurred this past Sunday, that to me seems to embody the lack of social cohesion in today’s world. A motorcyclist—Moshe Yisraeli, aged 62, from Holon—was knocked off his motorcycle, while riding too close to two trucks, and lay on the central traffic lane at Ezor Junction, motionless. Nearly two minutes passed before anyone stopped to help him; by the time he arrived at the hospital he was dead. I don’t know if he could have been helped or would have died anyway, but the indifference displayed here is shocking: during those two minutes, perhaps 100 drivers passed through the intersection, and not a single one stopped to see what had happened. Did they all think he was no more than a heap of garbage that happened to land in the middle of the road? (Ironically, Yisraeli’s profession was that of driving instructor.)

I was reminded of the story of Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old woman who was raped and murdered in her apartment house in Queens in 1964, in full view of dozens of neighbor’s windows. At the time this was seen as a disturbing symptom of the apathy, indifference and alienation of modern American society. But this happened here in Israel.

Once again, the issue seems that of social cohesion and mutual responsibility vs. the autonomy of the individual that seems to be advocated by “neo-liberalism.” Some years ago a ”Good Samaritan Law” was legislated by Israel’s Knesset, requiring an individual to stop and help if he sees another person in immediate and grave danger. Interestingly, the main opponents of the law when it was discussed in committee were secular liberals, who objected on two grounds: a) the fact that the Hebrew title of the law, which was taken from a biblical verse, “you shall not stand over your neighbor’s blood” (Lev 19:16); b) the “liberal” concept that that government governs best that governs least; in other words, a philosophical position that government oughtn’t to make any laws imposing ethical obligations on its citizens, even those of the most basic and seemingly self-evident kind (see Yair Eldan, Akdamot 11 [2001], 7-37). Last Sunday at Ezor we saw the result of that kind of thinking.


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