Thursday, February 21, 2008

Tetzaveh (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this portion, see the archives to this blog below, at March 2006.

“Holy Garments… for Glory and for Beauty”

The central theme of Parshat Tetzaveh, and the predominant mitzvah therein, concerns the making of the ceremonial garments worn by the kohanim during service in the Sanctuary/ Temple— the white linen garments (tunic, trousers, belt and hat) worn by the ordinary priest, and the elaborate set of eight “golden” garments worn by the high priest, with interwoven threads of gold, purple, scarlet, and azure, upon which there rested the breastplate with twelve precious stones bearing the names of the tribes of Israel.

We again ask the perennial question: what ideas or principles are inherent in these mitzvot that have bearing for ourselves—priests, Levites and Israelites, men and women alike, living in a world without a Temple? I find two central themes intertwined here.

The one is the idea of hiddur mitzvah. The priestly garments were made le-khavod ule-tifaret, for glory and for beauty (Exod 28:2), the idea being that, by glorifying the Divine service, we really glorify God. From this we may extrapolate the broader idea that mitzvot in general ought to be performed, not in a perfunctory or haphazard way, but in a manner that displays our deep reverence and love of God. This requires, perhaps first of all, heartfelt devotion, inner intention and feeling; but it also requires that their external performance be in a dignified and aesthetic manner, that honors the Divine worship.

The objects used in performing various mitzvot should be as beautiful as possible. This applies, not only to the actual mitzvah-objects themselves—i.e., the parchment used in the Torah scroll, tefillin and mezuzah; the quality of the writing thereon; the compartments and straps of the tefillin; the fringes of the tallit—but also of the objects surrounding them. Thus, on Shabbat one endeavors to make Kiddush in a special ornamental goblet, to cover the halot with a decorative cloth, to use a special spice box at Havdalah; the various artifacts in the synagogue—the ark and its curtain, the garments and “crown” of the Torah scrolls—are typically decorated; the Seder plate, Hanukkah menorah, books such as the Haggadah, and so on, are often objects of beauty. Indeed, throughout the centuries Jews have lavished attention and artistic devotion upon these objects—each period according to its own aesthetic and its own plastic culture. Interestingly, the one mitzvah-object of which beauty is an inherent component, some would even say part of its halakhic definition, is one which is a purely natural object—namely, the etrog, whose very name in the biblical verse, peri etz hadar, means “a beauteous fruit,” and the other branches used on Sukkot.

A second idea implicit in this parasha is the importance of clothing. Like the priests of old, we honor the act of Divine worship by dressing in a special way. There are, of course, the special mitzvah-garments of prayer: the tallit and tefillin. While there are a slew of specific rationales and associations associated with these mitzvot, the donning of these garments during prayer enhances the sense of awe and dignity attached to the hour of prayer. It is this aspect, so it seems to me, that has led so many religious feminists to find the wearing of a tallit by women to be so important.

Beyond that, we honor the Shabbat and festive days by wearing clean, attractive clothing—be it the shtreimel and brocade robe of the hasid, the suit and tie of the bourgeois American, the white shirt and dark trousers of a certain type of Israeli dati, or the multi-colored tunic of the hippie or New Ager. Even for ordinary, everyday prayer there is a certain minimum requirement that one be dressed decently, even when praying in the privacy of one’s own home.

But there is a bigger question: why wear clothes at all (a question best considered in summer, not while anticipating another wave of severe cold)? Why not be nudists? It is asserted that, in communities where everyone walks around naked, the uncovered human body ceases to be particularly erotic (like Adam and Eve in the Garden?)—and I’m inclined to concede the point. Indeed, one could argue that it is precisely the partial covering, the hide-and-seek of seeing and not seeing, that makes the body such an object of fascination. Though a small, some would say an almost cult-like group, the ideas of nudism are characteristic of certain trends in modernity (the movement as such seems to have originated sometime around the turn of the 20th century) carried to their logical conclusion. As such, they are at very least worthy of consideration and response.

Nudists—or “naturists,” as they prefer to be called—believe in living in a manner most in accordance with nature: just as animals wear no clothes, so oughtn’t man. For many, this is coupled with vegetarianism, with eschewing tobacco, alcohol, and with avoiding various other civilized vices. It is a kind of romantic return to an age of innocence, a kind of celebration of Rousseau’s “noble savage.” The answer to this claim is that, at least in the Judaic purview, man is not a merely natural creature, but transcends the state of nature. Call it intelligence, call it reason, call it culture or civilization, call it the Divine spark within or the soul: the human being is a hybrid, a mélange of natural-biological aspects and spiritual ones, that transcend them. He/She is from nature, but not of it. The use of clothing to cover the purely natural is a nearly universal sign of this insight; it is a symbol of human dignity, in everyday life as in solemn ceremony. (Jains and certain itinerant monastic groups in India walk around naked as the sign of a special religious calling. But this seems rooted in their despair of sanctifying human life as such, in a rejection of the world, an utter indifference to life itself as a sphere of meaning—almost as if they were already a kind of walking dead.)


VII. The Uniqueness of Moses. “None has risen up in Israel like Moses, a prophet, and one who saw His image”

Having just written (in HY IX: Terumah, Postscript to Mishpatim) about the complexity and multi-faceted nature of the Sinai revelation, as well as the central role played therein by Moshe Rabbenu (whose birthday and deathday, the 7th of Adar, fell this past week), not much remains to be said about this principle. It is nevertheless worth noting that Rambam saw this as a central linchpin in the whole system of the Principles: he devoted more space to it than to any of the other twelve in Perek Helek; it is positioned in the numerical center of the thirteen; and its number, seven, filled with mystical resonance, is surely not accidental.

To briefly restate his view: Rambam understood the actual revelation at Sinai as being extremely limited in contents. The 600,000 people comprehended the Divine appearance in only the most general way: they understood that God was real, and that He was their Ruler; the awesome nature of the epiphany also conveyed to them the dire consequences of being unfaithful to Him—i.e., the proscription against idolatry. But the main aim of Ma’amad Har Sinai was to establish Moses’ authority as teacher and prophet, and to make it clear to the people that all the mitzvot which they would subsequently be taught by him came were from the Almighty. (I wrote about this at length during the first year of Hitzei Yehonatan in HY I: Shavuot = blog: Shavuot: Essays).

But the predominant image in Rambam’s presentation (repeated with slight variation in three places: here; in Yesodei ha-Torah 7.12-13 and Ch. 8; and in Guide II.33) is that of Moses at the top of the mountain for forty days, detached from material needs, like a talmid sitting before his rebbe. A Beit Midrash of one, with the brightest possible student, who absorbed quickly, and received an accelerated course—the entire Torah in forty days. Maimonides also stresses the unique characteristics of Moses’ prophecy: that he received prophecy while awake, and not in a dream state; saw things clearly, and not through parables or symbols; that he did not tremble or faint when receiving the prophetic vision, but was calm and normal, like one conversing with a friend; and that he could approach God whenever he wished. One could say that Moses existed in almost a kind of limbo between the human and the Divine: he was a mortal human, to be sure, but no ordinary man; serving as intermediary between Man and God, when necessary he pled Israel’s cause before God, but he was also God’s partner, so to speak, in raising and educating this difficult, stiff-necked people, and seemed to share His complaints.

Why was this principle so important to the Rambam? In part, perhaps, because Rambam was an elitist: but also, because he understood that communication with the Divine is no simple matter, but requires tremendous preparation, cultivation of qualities that are far outside the ken of ordinary human life. Also, there are hint here and there that Rambam deeply identified with Moshe. Yisrael Yuval recently wrote a paper about Rambam’s close relation to Moses (“Moses Redivivus,” Zion 72 [2007], 161-188): how he saw himself in a Mosaic image, as a prophet or messianic precursor. Interestingly, even on the personal level there was an identification: until Maimonides’ day the name Moses was hardly ever used, but from then on, it became far more common.

VIII. Sinaitic Revelation. “God gave the True Torah to his people by the hand of his prophet, the faithful one in His house”

To reiterate what I said last time in my introduction to the four principles related to Revelation: here Rambam appears far more as a traditional Jewish teacher and far less the philosopher. The whole concept of revelation, of breaking through the barriers behind the Infinite and the Finite, between God and man, runs again the orderly, hierarchical world of Aristotelian philosophy—but for a Jew, Sinai and Matan Torah are indispensable fundaments.

Modernist theologians find this perhaps the hardest egg to crack. Many modern thinkers have been influenced by the historical approach, which sees the Torah as a composite document, evolving over time and not given all of a piece at one time, certainly not as early as ca. 1300 BCE. But beyond that lies another problem, one perhaps more serious because it is rooted in the very heart of the modern temperament—namely, the resistance to heteronomy. If Sinai is true, then there are stringent limits on human autonomy—and our feeling of moral autonomy is very important to us.

On the other hand, some basic framework of mitzvot and halakhah is an indispensable given of Jewish tradition, needed for any form of Judaism. Thus, modern Jewish thought is filled with a variety of rationales intended to justify the mitzvot in a new context—sociological, ethical, psychological, folkloristic, survivalist, eudemonic—yet one is left with the impression that much of it is post factum.

Another, far more serious, and to my mind far more valid problem concerns those mitzvot that are either morally problematic or else seemingly meaningless and irrelevant. There are two approaches, not necessarily mutually exclusive: one, apologetics, seeking deeper, hidden meaning in the mitzvah, thereby justifying them; second, reinterpretation or edicts of various sorts. Things that were really intolerable to Hazal were interpreted out of existence. Thus, regarding the putting to death of the rebellious son (ben sorer umoreh) or the destruction of the wayward city (‘ir hanidahat), they used midrashic analysis to infer so many barriers to its actual practice that they could say “Such a thing never exists; but one receives a reward in studying it for its own sake.” Similarly, Hillel introduced the prosbul when the Torah’s elevated idea of canceling debts on the seventh year ended up depriving the poor of any credit. In practice, the Torah functions as a kind of mélange of the written word and the Oral Law, which includes an active role for human interpretation.

The problem is that in the modern age, defenders of the Orthodox faith tend to be excessively rigid in their approach to halakhah, invoking the argument of the “slippery slope” (that any leniency will end up as “Reform”), and ostracizing any figures—even learned, pious, respected rabbis who can make a cogent case—who have the courage to buck the tide.

This is perhaps an appropriate place to mention a recent book by Marc Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised. In this book he notes that the Principles were far from being a universally accepted catechism of Judaism and that, throughout the history of Jewish thought, almost every point of the thirteen was contested from one quarter or another.

IX. The Unchanging Torah. “God shall not change, nor substitute another for His Torah, forever”

Why did Maimonides state this as a separate principle? It somehow seems less central than the idea of revelation or prophecy per se, or even that of Moses’ uniqueness. My sense is that he had a clear polemic purpose. In addition, he indirectly alludes here to the subject of Oral Torah, which he saw as an inseparable part of the Torah generally.

To my mind, there were three separate polemic targets to Rambam’s statement that the Torah will never be altered or replaced by another. The first was Christianity, who claimed that God had made a new covenant, superceding the old covenant with Israel, and nullifying the old Law—i.e., the Torah. Secondly, Islam. Maimonides had little reason to quarrel with Islam on theological grounds as such; like Judaism (and unlike Christianity), it believed in the strict unity and incorporeality of God. But Muhammed claimed to have received the Quran in a new revelation, as well as teaching new laws—and it was on that point that his split from Judaism was clear.

But I suspect that the real target here was Karaism. The Karaites saw themselves as loyal Jews, following the Torah of Moses, but they rejected the Oral Law as so much accretion upon the Written Law. Several of Rambam’s more outspoken halakhic broadsides in the Yad—for example, regarding the Shabbat laws or certain aspects of Niddah, the laws of menstruant women—were directed against the literalism and rejection of Rabbinic halakhah of the Karaites (see, e.g., Issurei Biah 11.15; but see also Mamrim 3.3, where he exonerates those raised in Karaism from direct culpability for their actions). Thus, in he full wording of this principle, in Perek Helek, he states that God “will not change the Torah or its interpretation (my emphasis)” and then adds that: ”I have already discussed this matter in the introduction to this work” (i.e, in Hakdamah le-Seder Zeraim), which is devoted almost entirely to the Oral Law.

Where does that leave the idea of ongoing revelation? Judaism clearly allows room for halakhic creativity, for the ongoing flow of religious insight, for commentary that serves as interpretatio (see my forthcoming essay on Rawidowicz for the dynamic interpretation of this concept)—but all is somehow rooted in the original Sinaitic revelation (Scholem talks in one place about the paradox of belief in Torah from Heaven actually allowing great freedom to say almost anything). But this is a vast subject, which we will treat on another occasion.


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