Friday, May 04, 2007

Emor (Rashi)

For further teachings on the parsha, see the archives for May 2006 below.

Holy—Against Their Will

I present a few short comments of Rashi on various points in this parsha:

Lev 21:6. “They shall be holy to their God.” Rashi: Against their will the Court has sanctified them for this (Torat Kohanim).

This verse, which appears in the context of the special laws and restrictions applied to the Aaronide priesthood, speaks of the special sanctity they enjoy, inter alia as a result of those selfsame restrictions. Rashi emphasizes here that this holiness is one that is imposed upon them—indeed, following the original generation of priests discussed here, it comes automatically with their birth into the priestly families—as indicated by the use of the third person: kedoshim yihyu, “they shall be holy.”

It seems to me that this is in clear contrast to the opening verse of one of last week’s parshiyot:

Lev 19:2. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Rashi: “You shall be holy.” You should be separate yourselves from licentiousness and from transgression (Lev Rab 24.6). For wherever you find a boundary of sexual license you find holiness. “They shall not take to wife a wanton woman or one profaned… I am the Lord who sanctifies them” (Lev 21:7).

Here the call to holiness is expressed in action, in certain imperatives, as expressed in the use of the second person, kedoshim tihyu. Rashi reads this as a call to separate oneself from transgression, particularly of the sexual kind, drawing a link between a certain measure of asceticism and holiness; Ramban expands the horizons considerably, defining holiness in terms of “Sanctify yourselves with [even] regarding at which his permitted”; yet others see this as a general heading for the entire gamut of social and ethical norms given in this chapter. Be that as it may, Rashi here comes full circle to our case of the kohanim, noting that they are subject to certain sexual proscriptions over and beyond those applying to other Jews, and that this is seen as sanctifying them in a special way. (At times, this rule makes for no little trouble and suffering for older unmarried kohanim and the women who may love them, in a world where divorce is rife and the majority of available women beyond a certain age are divorcées—but this is by way of an aside).

The implication here—that holiness is in some sense “thrust” upon one—is an important one in today’s world, where Jewish commitment is more often than not perceived as freely chosen by the individual. Hence, there is a greater emphasis today upon love rather than fear, upon inner feeling and experience, upon “spirituality” and one’s “personal relationship with God.” All this is well and good, but it too has its pitfalls. There is a constant need for a balance between such sentiments and the idea of the heteronomy of the Torah, of “He held the mountain above them like a barrel”—that is, that the imperatives of the Torah, as of religious and ethical norms generally, come from a place far transcending the self.

“My Appointed Times that You Shall Declare”

We now turn to the chapter on the calendar and the festivals of the Jewish year:

Lev 23:2. “Speak to the children of Israel and tell them the appointed times of the Lord which they shall declare as holy convocations; these are my appointed times.” Rashi: Set appointed times so that Israel may learn in them [or: that Israel may be used to them; or: that all Israel may be present in them]; for one intercalates the year for the exiles who were uprooted from their place to go up for the pilgrimage feast, and have not yet reached Jerusalem.

The language is a bit awkward, and there is even some certain textual difficulty and alternate readings at one point, but the basic sense is clear enough: the appointed times, which are not only God’s but are declared by Israel, should be fixed in such a way that they are convenient for those making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, particularly the exiles who need to travel a long distance. (NB: During much of the Second Temple period an absolute majority of the Jewish people lived in exile in the Hellenistic world, either in Egypt or north of the Land of Israel, in Asia Minor.) As Rashi implies in a later comment (see below), the consideration here is: intercalate the years so that Pesah won’t fall at the end of winter, so that people won’t have to trudge through rain and mud.

23:4. “These are the appointed times of the Lord, the holy convocations, that you should call in their proper times.” Rashi: “These are the appointed times of the Lord.” Above, it refers to intercalating the year; here, it speaks of sanctifying the new moon.

Here Rashi is concerned by a seeming redundancy in the Torah: why does the Torah repeat almost the identical phrase twice, and in such close proximity? His answer is that this expression, specifically the phrase “that you shall call,” refers to two distinct activities of the Court in fixing the calendar: one, the monthly declaration of the new moon; the other, the occasional (every two or three years) intercalation of an entire extra month, intended to adjust the festival to the proper season. One must remember that the Jewish sacred calendar is basically a lunar one, 12 lunar months of 29½ days each adding to an average of 354 days; but this leaves one 11¼ days short of the solar year, so that if left uncorrected the festival days would wander all over the seasons of the natural year—as indeed the Islamic calendar does. Hence, it is corrected by the periodic addition of an extra month—in ancient times, decided and declared ad hoc by the High Court; today, by fixed formula—making it a “solar-lunar calendar.”

The central idea in both these comments is that the appointed times are determined by Israel, an idea made explicit in the phrase “that you shall declare in their appointed times.” A well-known midrash depicts God himself being asked by his celestial entourage, “Nu, so when is yom tov this year?” to which the Almighty answers: “I don’t know. Ask Israel’s Sanhedrin: whatever they say goes.” (Exod Rab 15.2, in my rather colloquial paraphrase)

These same phrases appear yet a third time, near the end of the chapter, in verse 37, rather strangely breaking up the section on Sukkot in the middle, giving what might be called a “false summation” of the entire chapter (like certain works of classical music in which the composer teases the listener with a premature coda). This is followed by those specific laws of Sukkot which do not relate to the sacrificial system. While Rashi does not comment on this verse as such, in verse 39 he makes a comment that again relates to the establishing of the dates of the festivals by the Court:

Lev 23:39. “But on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you ingather the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the festival of the Lord…” Rashi: “When you ingather the produce of the land”—that the seventh month shall occur at the time of the ingathering. From this it follows they were commanded to intercalate the years, for were it not for the ibbur, at times it would fall in the middle of the summer or the winter.

“The words of Torah are poor in one place and rich in another”—that is, that which seems ambiguous or absent in one passage is eventually explained elsewhere. From the above example, we may say that the same holds true of Rashi: what is at times terse and laconic in one place, is fully explicated elsewhere.

“Sir, have you no shame?”

I do not ordinarily engage in political discussion in these pages, but this time I cannot be silent. The above words, originally addressed in 1954 by senior US Army counsel Joseph Welch to Senator Joseph McCarthy, may be applied equally well to Ehud Olmert.

I never thought that I would have a good word to say about the late Richard Nixon—crook, conniver, witch-hunter, cold warrior, demagogue—but I must say that in the present situation I long for the sense of shame and dignity he demonstrated when he resigned his high office rather than wait for Congress to impeach him.

Our own Prime Minister has been held accountable for the worst military fiasco in Israel’s short history, whose long-range consequences are yet to be seen. After appointing a hand-picked governmental investigating commission, rather than a blue-ribbon, quasi-judicial state commission, he refuses to accept the implicit findings of that same group—namely, that in the critical moment he revealed great incompetence and ought to resign—and persists in sticking to his chair.

Sabers are again rattling in the Middle East and there is talk of war, perhaps as early as this summer. Cool, mature heads are needed. The people have lost their trust in this man, a situation intolerable in any democracy even in peacetime, let alone one facing the specter of war. How can he ignore 98% of the body politic, and that of his own Deputy PM, who have declared that they have no confidence in him? Drinking Turkish coffee with Gulf emirs and Saudi dignitaries, whose countries don’t have a common border with Israel, won’t solve our pressing problems.

Indeed, there is no shame left in Zion. Ehud is not alone. There is something about Israeli political culture that seems to create people with an exaggerated self-confidence. Perhaps it’s part of the psycho-cultural reaction to the timid, frightened image of the Galut Jew (itself more a stereotype than a reality) that has played a decisive role in the Zionist notion of the “New Jew.” An interview this weekend with the beleaguered Defense Minister includes the line, “Peretz, even though a secular socialist, has faith. He believes in himself…” (!) I fear that Olmert’s ouster, necessary as it is, may be a mixed blessing: waiting in the wings are two former PMs, neither of whose terms were brilliant successes, who will be vying to replace him. They will tell the public that they oughtn’t to be held accountable for their previous record of bad judgments because “I’ve changed; I’ve learned from my past mistakes.” Admittedly, we Jews believe in teshuvah, in the ability of individuals to alter their character—but that does not mean that there should be placed in their hands the helm of that which is most precious to the Jewish people—the future of the Third House, of our rebuilt national home!

An Exchange on Taharah

As this week’s parasha contains the proscriptions against kohanim having any contact with the bodies of the dead (with a handful of exceptions), this seems an opportune occasion to share a recent exchange with a friend on a subject pertaining to Jewish burial. My friend, a member of the board of directors of a Jewish cemetery in Connecticut, told me, during his recent visit to Israel, of a controversy that had arisen around the subject of taharah, the ritual cleaning of the dead in preparation for burial. He later wrote regarding some of the specifics:

• The Cemetery Association was founded by “Conservative-leaning” individuals independent of any specific congregation;

• A burial recently occurred wherein the decedent specifically requested that taharah (or any other ‘Jewish’ act) not be performed;

• Existing by-laws [prior to January 2007] made no mention of mandatory taharah requirements;

• A number of individuals had purchased future interment plots under the assumption that taharah was optional;

• An amendment to the by-laws was recently promulgated requiring the mandatory performance of taharah, resulting in an ad-hoc meeting between the local Reform Rabbi, some of his objecting congregants, and cemetery association representatives; emotions ran high.

• As the question of taharah had never previously been raised (it was always naturally assumed), the Reform Rabbi stated that, in all likelihood, a goodly number of his deceased congregants already interred in the cemetery probably had not undergone taharah;

Thus, in a nutshell, we have the traditionalists objecting on the grounds that the cemetery might somehow be defiled by “impure” burials, while those on the Reform side object, for whatever reason, to the mandatory performance of taharah.

In my response, I stated that taharah is a time-honored Jewish practice, which essentially consists of the washing and cleansing of the body before being laid to rest. The exact details of practice, both in terms of the detailed procedure and of the various prayers and biblical verses recited by some, vary at different times and places. The main halakhic sources I found are Tur and Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah §352; Rambam, Hilkhot Avel 4.1 ff.; and Yehiel Tukazinsky’s Gesher ha-Hayyim.

The Rambam perhaps sums it up when he uses the words minhag yisrael bamet uvekevurah—“the practice of Israel regarding the dead and burial.” My sense is that the obligation falls under the general rubric of “respectful handling of the dead,” which is in turn a major example of the more general obligation of gemillut hesed, performing acts of loving-kindness to others in a variety of life situations, from the cradle to the grave (visiting the sick, rejoicing bride and groom, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming guests in one’s home, and loaning money without interest are all examples). All these acts stem from the concept of imitatio dei, imitating God’s qualities. These obligations are incumbent upon every Jew, and by extension upon the Jewish community as a whole, which often sets up special bodies to perform these tasks, acting in its name.

I nowhere found any indication that lack of taharah is reason to exclude a given deceased from burial. It seems clear to me that taharah is incumbent upon the family of the deceased, or the Hevra Kaddisha, and that the deceased should not be penalized for this omission (even if he/she specifically requested it). Burying the dead is a mitzvah in its own right, and as such not dependent upon any other prerequisite other than that the person be Jewish and, of course, dead.

Regarding an unpurified body somehow “contaminating” the cemetery: there is a certain paradox in the very use of the term taharah in this context, as a corpse is referred to as avi avot hatumah, the highest, gravest category of ritual impurity, incapable of being restored to halakhic taharah. The explanation is that, like many words, the term taharah is used here in a borrowed sense, and not meant literally.

On the other hand, I fail to understand the objection of the Reform camp to the practice of taharah, unless it’s a matter of “freedom of conscience” or the like. Other cultures, most notably the European Christian one, practice “laying out” of the dead, which simply means washing and dressing the body in a reverent way. Taharah is the Jewish equivalent to “laying out,” with certain variations that come with Jewish culture. I wonder whether the objection to taharah may not be that people don’t like to think about the dead being prepared, and professional morticians somehow present an image of sterility and distance that enable relatives to not really think about the process.

The alternative is embalming, which from a Jewish viewpoint is seen as disrespectful, and even somewhat pagan in its attitude toward death, trying to artificially beautify or in some sense deny the reality of death. (For more on this subject, see my article about “Hevra Kaddisha” in The Third Jewish Catalogue [1980], 136-138. I myself served as a member of the Hevra Kaddisha of Greater Boston during the period I lived in that area, 1969-74, and participated in several dozen taharahs.) In any event, in practice the two are not mutually exclusive.

Finally, I might mention that I discussed this matter with Rabbi David Gollenkin, the leading Masorati (Conservative) posek in Israel. He agreed with my general analysis, and referred me to a responsum he once wrote on the matter (in Hebrew) available on the Rabbinical Assembly website,, in Volume 5 of the RAI Responsa. He suggested that a diplomatic way of resolving the problem would be to make a public statement that the cemetery board of directors strongly recommends taharah as a positive Jewish act, but will not exclude any deceased because of its absence. On the other hand, a prominent figure in the mainstream Orthodox world whom I approached on this subject commented that “There are rabbis in Connecticut”—in other words, that he felt it improper to rule on a question originating in an area where there are other rabbis whose jurisdiction it properly is.

On a Lighter Note

Following such a somber theme, here is the URL of a Sports’ Lover Sefirat ha-Omer Calendar: As my late grandmother would say: “America goniff!”


Blogger rbarenblat said...

I find myself baffled by the notion of Reform Jews objecting to taharah. In the Reform shul to which I belong, taharah is valued highly. Because we are a small congregation in a small town, many people have been asked to "step up" in one way or another to keep the congregation running; I doubt that most of the members of the chevra kadisha would have joined a chevra in a big city shul, but here it seems perfectly natural that we would perform this final mitzvah for our fellows.

I can imagine why one might not wish to participate in the work; it can seem overwhelming to someone who hasn't experienced it (and probably also to someone who has.) But I can't imagine why one would be ideologically opposed to it.

Just goes to show the diversity of practice and opinion within the Reform movement, I guess. :-)

6:21 AM  

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