Sunday, May 25, 2008

Behukotai (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives to this blog at May 2006 and May 2007.

Arkhin – “Valuations”

This parasha is best known for the tokheha, the imprecation or rebuke that seems the culmination of the message of the Book of Leviticus. (Thus Mary Douglas, who in her Leviticus as Literature describes the arrangement of Vayikra as a “walk” around the Sanctuary, sees this chapter as the literary counterpart to the spacial “Holy of Holies.”) But that chapter has no mitzvot. The book, however, concludes with one more chapter, whose purpose is rather difficult to fathom—the section of Arkhin, “valuations.” The Torah describes a situation where a person vows to pay a certain fixed sum of money, known as his erkhekha, his valuation, to the Temple treasury. This chapter, Leviticus 27, lists the “valuation” for the two sexes and for different age groups, from infancy through childhood, youth, and adulthood, and into old age, as well as discussing valuations of animals and other property, and various miscellaneous laws about substitutions made between sacrifices, etc.

My question is this: we know that a person may make a vow to bring an animal or other sacrifice to the Temple, or simply bring one voluntarily (neder or nedava). He may also pledge money or a specific valuable to the Temple coffers. Then there are offerings of gratitude (todah) that may be brought when appropriate. Why, and under what circumstances, would a person be moved, rather than bringing a lamb or goat (or a bushel of grain, or olives, or wine), to say “I shall bring my valuation”? I of course haven’t read everything, but I have never even come across a discussion of this question, let alone an answer. (Perhaps one my readers can help me with such a source)

The only answer I can come up with—and this is speculative—is that such a vow was moved by a sense of being totally in God’s hands, that one owes one’s entire life, one’s very being, to the All Merciful , and one wished to express that idea symbolically by offering one’s “value” to God. This might be the result of deep contrition, of having committed a sin of such magnitude that one feels worthless—as if to say, “By rights, He ought to take my life”! Or it might be the result of great joy or relief, perhaps after recovering from grave illness or experiencing some dangerous, near-fatal event. Of course, the sacrifices of todah, or hatat, and in a certain sense even olah, may also serve this purpose; indeed, there is a homiletic line of interpretation in which animal sacrifices in general are seen as corresponding to the person’s own “vital-animal soul,” the korban being offered in the person’s stead. But somehow the wording of erkhi ‘alay is more suggestive of the offering made being very specifically keyed to the person‘s own self (or that of another person—wife, child, elderly parent) whose “value” is being offered.


Chapter Four

Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from every man…. Who is brave? He who conquers his own urges. … Who is wealthy? He who rejoices in his portion….. Who is honored? He who honors others.

This chapter consists mostly of sayings of the tannaim from the generation of Yavneh and the Hadrianic persecution that followed, including both those who died a martyr’s death during that period, and those who survived and helped to establish the new, alternative center of Torah in the Galilee thereafter.

In this mishnah, I have omitted the proof texts, preferring to concentrate on the message of the mishnah per se. This mishnah might be compared to a Zen koan: that is, a brief epigram (or, in this case, four short epigrams on one theme) whose purpose is to upset preconceived, conventional notions—in this case, as to what it means to be an outstanding person. The wealthy man is not the millionaire, but the one who knows how to accept life, whether he has much or little. The wise man is not the erudite expert, but the person who knows the limits of his own knowledge, and that, even though he may be expert in a given field, he has much to learn from other people. (This is perhaps the distinction between knowledge or, as we would say, information, and real wisdom.) The hero is not only one who can withstand external threats, but who is master over his own inner desires, which may be chaotic or egotistical. (Whenever I read this I think of Natan Sharansky, surely a paradigm of modern Jewish heroism, who after bravely withstanding the crushing force of the Soviet regime, confronted the totally different test of involvement in the quagmire of Israeli political life. I think he acquitted himself not badly.) There is a saying—I’ve heard it used in Jewish Musar sources, and that it originates in Islamic sources—that soldiers returning from the front are told “You have won the small battle; now you must face the great battle!” That just about sums it up.

A Halakhic Quandary

This week I received a rather unusual and intriguing question, one of the strangest I’ve ever received in my life as a rabbi:

Rabbi, Why isn't there a brakha for when you see a very beautiful girl-woman? Aside from the obvious answer that the Sages knew that this would lead to...... We say a brakha over a king and a big hakham. I hold that instead of thinking “Wow!” when seeing a certain kind of woman, we should quietly say a brakha. A birkat ha-nehenin [i.e, a blessing recited when experiencing pleasure from a given thing]? Or should we say it outloud and have others say Amen?... Some might say no Amen is required. Others would hold that, rather than thinking “Wow!” or say “Did you see that?,” they should instead say Amen... Is this Modern Orthodox Halakha here?

To begin: the most obvious problem is that the Sages were greatly concerned with the Yetzer ha-Ra, the sexually arousing aspect of seeing a woman. Thus, there is the statement in b. Shabbat 64b that “Whoever gazes at the little finger of a woman is as if he gazed at the place of her nakedness.” This is even codified as halakhah! (Rambam, Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 21.2; Shulhan Arukh, Even ha-Ezer 21.1)

But, for better or worse, most of us do not live in a society in which women and men lead almost completely separated lives—and most of us would say that this a good thing; that our ideal ought to be a “mixed but modest society.” True, there are certain kinds of ways in which men look at women which are offensive, or which may even be felt by the woman who is their object as invasive, as an assault upon their person. (And, by the way, aren’t women sometimes sexually attracted by seeing an attractive man? Why is the halakhah formulated in a one-way manner? Tovah Hartman addressed this problem some few years ago in an interesting piece in the magazine De’ot.) On the other hand, I have heard from more than a few women that deliberate avoidance of eye contact by the pious makes them feel uneasy and uncomfortable, as if emphasizing their sexual nature above all else. One friend of ours, herself quite strictly Orthodox, said that she never went to speak with a certain rabbi whose writings she greatly admired because she feared an awkward encounter of that type.

It seems to me that for us, in our culture, reciting a blessing upon seeing a woman (or any person) whose beauty draws our attention in a striking way could be a positive thing. The goal of such a brakha would be to elevate the experience to its source in the Divine—something particularly important in this case, where the response to female beauty, for the ordinary man, doubtless involves a mixture of the sexual and the aesthetic. This is actually a basic Hasidic idea. Thus, R. Nahum of Chernobol states several times in Me’or Einayim that one who feels love (including erotic attraction?) towards someone, should turn it towards its root in the Divine quality of love, thereby elevating it to its source.

Prof. Ben Ravid of Brandeis, in a discussion among friends on this subject, mentioned the saying at the very end of Yerushalmi Kiddushin, “A person is held culpable for whatever he’s eyes saw and from which he did not derive pleasure.” This reflects another, more down-to-earth approach to the problem. The saying expresses an anti-ascetic tendency, one suggesting that the person who is overly abstemious in avoiding life’s legitimate pleasures is not holy, but merely prudish: enjoying those things God placed in His world is a way, indirectly, of acknowledging His blessings. Of course, in its original context this saying refers primarily to gastronomic delicacies and the like; in the case of a woman, the pleasure is obviously limited to seeing and appreciating her beauty, and not to other kinds of pleasure one might readily imagine.

The secondary question that then arises is: if so, what blessing ought one to recite for female (and human) beauty? At first blush, I thought it might be most appropriate to model a blessing after those recited upon seeing a wise person or a mighty leader: שחלק מחכתמו ליריאיו/לבשר ודם and שחלק מכבודו ליריאיו / לבשר ודם: that is, that human wisdom and human honor or grandeur is a reflection of Divine wisdom or Divine grandeur. Thus, one might recite a blessing alluding to human beauty as reflecting a Divine trait; perhaps something like שחלק מהודו/ מיפיו לבשר ודם.

But the accepted halakhic principle today is that the repertoire of blessings is closed. We cannot create new brakhot, but can only apply the existing formulations to new cases or new applications. A survey of friends and colleagues yielded two main options: משנה הבריות , “He who varies the creatures,” recited over seeing a person of unusual appearance; and שככה לו בעולמו, “that there is such in His world,” recited over beautiful sights. The former is more associated with people of bizarre or freakish appearance; the latter is classically recited upon encountering impressive and beautiful scenic vistas. On balance I tend more towards the latter, as less problematic. And I conclude this little essay by thanking my friend for inspiring, perhaps unwittingly, such a fruitful and significant discussion, which ultimately touches upon crucial issues of the application of halakhah in our modern world of changing values and perceptions.


Post a Comment

<< Home