Friday, September 05, 2008

Shoftim (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog, at August 2006.

“Set upon yourselves a king”

This parasha deals primarily with the theme of society and its institutions: courts, police, priests, prophets, monarchy, military and the laws of war. The institution of the king seems obvious: society needs a ruler, a central authority who is ultimately responsible for decisions relating to the society as whole. But a close reading of this chapter reveals more than a little ambivalence about the monarchy: is the appointment of a king an obligation or mitzvah, or merely a permissible option? Rambam, at the beginning of Hilkhot Melakhim, states that this was one of the three mitzvot Israel were commanded to perform upon entering the Land (the other two being to eradicate the memory of Amalek, and to build the Temple).

But there seems to be a certain ambivalence about the entire matter. The wording of the section concerning the king (Deut 17:14-20) begins “When you come to the land… and inherit it and dwell therein, and say: ‘I will place upon me a king, like all the nations around me,’ you shall surely place upon yourself a king whom the Lord your God chooses…” The rest of the chapter places various restrictions upon the king: that he shall be from among your brethren, and not a foreigner (this created a difficulty regarding Herod); that he not acquire too many horses, nor a harem of many wives—i.e., that he not abuse his power to acquire wealth or live a sumptuous life-style; and that he be aware that he is subject to the law of the Torah—that he have a copy of the Torah with him, reading it regularly, “so that he may learn to be God-fearing.”

All this is paralleled by the historical account of the beginnings of the Israelite monarchy: a careful reading of the story of the anointment of Saul in 1 Samuel deepens the ambiguity. In Chapter 8 the elders come to Samuel saying: “you are old and your sons are not following in your path; give us a king like all the other nations.” He prays to God, who responds: “It is not you for whom they have contempt, but Me!“ (8:7). Yet surprisingly, God does not say not to appoint a king, but instead (we can imagine the Holy One letting out a deep sigh of resignation), says, in effect: Do as they say. At this point Shmuel alerts the elders to some of the possible drawbacks of a king, the famous mishpat ha-melekh, but in the end he gives them what they want.

The question is, of course: why does God react thus? It is perhaps instructive here to read some of Martin Buber’s writings about the religio-political vision of the Bible, such as The Kingdom of God. He claims that the original Hebrew political ideal was that expressed under Samuel and perhaps under the “judges” who preceded him: an anarchistic system of government, imbued with a sense of the direct rule of God, mediated through charismatic leaders who appear periodically to lead the people in some specific challenge, usually military, and who then return to carrying for their fields and orchards and vineyards like everyone else.

The ambiguity becomes deeper when one turns to the Chapter 9, which describes the actual appointment of Saul (which, besides everything else, is “a good yarn”). This long, circuitous story begins with a young man from the tribe of Benjamin named Shaul seen wandering through the hill country (in districts identified by such archaic place names as Shalisha, Sha’alim, Yemini, and Tzuf) looking for his father’s lost donkeys. He hears about a man of God, a roeh (“seer”) or itinerant charismatic prophet, who might be able to help him, and prepares to give him “rebbe gelt”—a quarter shekel of silver. On the way he encounters some young maidens who offer him a rather long-winded and flirtatious description of where to find the man and what he will be doing. Meanwhile, God has told Samuel that the man who will visit him the next day is to be appointed as the leader of Israel. Shaul arrives at the place where Shmuel is about to offer a sacrifice; he is invited to participate in the meal, which continues all day, is invited to sit next to the holy man, is given the choicest piece of meat, and Samuel shows him great warmth, honor and friendship, and even praised with the words “For whom is all Israel yearning, if not for you and your father’s house?” (9:20). The next day, in the morning, they go up to the roof and, in a private, almost clandestine ceremony, he is anointed with oil and told “God has anointed you leader over His inheritance!” (10:1), and told a series of signs that are realized. At one point he encounters a band of ecstatic prophets (בני נביאים) and God’s spirit “swoops down upon him” (much as it did with Samson in Judges 13-16).

But then, in the actual coronation scene (where Saul briefly disappears—out of sudden shyness or “stage fright”?), Shmuel reiterates his negative evaluation of the institution of the monarchy and the people’s desire for a king, saying, in effect: “You want a king? Here he is, you can have him!!” There is much more to be written about these chapters; I have explored the fascinating issue of Saul’s relations with Samuel, and later on with David, on several occasions in the past (see HY II [Haftarot]: Tetzaveh; and the material I have just posted on my blog under the heading “Thoughts on Saul: A Circumcision Sermon”).

I will offer a tentative explanation of this seeming contradiction. Perhaps there is a distinction between the institution of monarchy, and the often exaggerated hopes the masses may place in a charismatic leader as being somehow able to resolve all the problems of the country (is this at least part of the Obama phenomenon?), and the other ills of one-man rule, which may often degenerate into tyranny; and the specific individual chosen to fulfill that role. Clearly, Shaul was an impressive figure, whose humble origins and at least initial personal modesty endeared him all the more to seer and God alike (until he began to make certain serious, even fatal mistakes).

The basic idea that emerges from this tension is a simple one: monarchy (or, in modern terms, some form of central leadership) is a necessary evil, far superior to the dangers inherent in anarchy and in allowing society to be governed by the law of the jungle, in which the strong oppress the weak relentlessly (see Avot 3.2: “Pray for the welfare of the government; for were it not for its fear, each man would swallow his fellow alive”). In any event, it is a basic need of human beings in society. Here, as in many other areas (see, e.g., next week’s parasha on the issue of divorce), we say that the Torah is not a code for some ideal, Edenic existence, but is rooted in actual human nature, and the compromises necessary for men to live normal lives.


Chapter One

We now enter into the fourth and final cycle of reading Perek for this summer. I will focus upon one highly significant mishnah near the beginning of the first chapter:

3. Antigonos of Socho received [the tradition] from Shimon the Righteous. He said: Be not like servants who serve the master in order to receive a reward, but be like servants who serve the master not in order to receive a reward. And may the fear of Heaven be upon you.

We find here, expressed in simple, pithy language, what many have described as a central theme in Judaism: the ideal of serving of God without ay ulterior motivation. Don’t be like those who perform the mitzvot out of self-interest, in the expectation of reward (whether in this world or the next), but like those who serve the Master because they love Him, and His service is itself precious to them. This idea is given, perhapsof its most sublime expression in the final chapter of Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuvah (and of Sefer ha-Mada’ as a whole): service of God through love alone—“Do the truth because it is the truth,” with their confidence that whatever reward one is deserving of will come of its own accord. (see HY V [=Rambam]: Yom Kippur)

Interestingly, this issue is one on which we find dramatically opposed viewpoints in this short tractate. Thus, in the opening mishnayot of both the second and the third chapters, we find the opposite approach expressed: admonishing people to behave properly, by reminding them to bear in mind that “there is an all-seeing eye, an all-hearing ear, and a book in which all your deeds are recorded” (2.1) or, in even more extreme terms, reminding man of the transient and even grossly physical nature of his bodily existence, invoking the day of his death and that he will have to answer for his actions (see above, Behar).

How are we to interpret these differing sayings? Possibly, some would say, as different levels of service: selfless love as the ultimate ideal, with the carrot and stick of Divine recompense as an interim educational tactic used to motivate less-developed souls (thus Rambam, in many places). Other Musar writers invoke the ideas of “love” and “fear” as twin motifs, both equally important in the service of God, which complement one another (in much the same way as the first two paragraphs of Shema, Shema & Vehaya im shamo’a, which represent respectively the ideas of love and fear, are both essential). Or are they based on different evaluations of human beings in general and what may be expected from them?

Rabbi Benny Lau, in his recently published book The Sages (based upon his own popular lecture series on Pirkei Avot) portrays the relation between the two in more confrontational terms, as representing two rival, even conflicting ways of looking at one of the basic issues of religion. He describes Antigonos’ approach as a radical innovation, vis-a-vis the mainstream view of Hazal which, following the literal sense of Tanakh, sees reward and punishment as an essential component of any Judaic world-view. Indeed, the Rabbis blame Antigonos’ doctrine, at least by implication or indirectly, as the source of the heresy of the Zaddokites and Boethusians, who rejected the Oral Law. Their argument was that: if there is no reward and punishment (which Antigonos does not say; but his words could be taken as removing reward and punishment as significant motivations in religious life), then why bother to observe the commandments in careful, punctilious fashion? Lay counterpoises Antigonos to R. Hanina ben Dosa who, in 3.11, emphasizes fear as the basic axiom of religious life.

I would like to make two comments about our contemporary situation viz. the issue of “fear vs. love.” On a certain important love, the fear of punishment, or of not receiving any reward for one’s actions, is essentially ego-centered. At times, it seems to be that, in very different form, this is part of the underlying attraction of today’s revival of “spirituality”? Much of what passes for that is in fact self-help, guidelines to people how to feel better with themselves? Or take a popular way of “selling” Kabbalah: that it will make you wealthier, more powerful, more attractive to the opposite sex, etc. Antigonos’ view, by contrast, is based on Torah lishmah—which I would translate as: orientation towards universals, God as transcendent, outside our petty, transient human concerns, etc. (which is also an idea in much Hasidic though, where it is called bittul atzmi).

This view also meets the needs of the modern zeitgeist in another way. Many people today find it difficult to believe in benevolent Providence, or any direct form of recompense. This is so, first, because science has made us too aware of the operation of natural causality in the world. But ion addition, and especially, for us Jews the Holocaust has upset such traditional beliefs beyond repair. In the past I used to think that this was a fallacious argument; philosophically, the issue of theodicy is the same whether one is speaking of one suffering individual (the problem of Job) or of six million. But somehow, through the fact of the Holocaust, quantity has somehow created a different quality. The Jewish people has known mass expulsions, pogroms and wholesale murders before, but never before was there a systematic attempt to decimate entire Jewish communities, indeed, whole regions of Jews. The number of victims was numbered, not in scores or even hundreds of individuals, but in hundreds and even thousands of towns and villages.

Hence, Antigonus makes more sense for our day. A kind of unrequited love of God; mitzvot as demonstration of one’s commitment to God despite everything and anything that may happen in real life. Yeshayahu Leibowitz used to speak in such terms: of religious life totally divorced from any hope or fear of Divine recompense ir involvement in human life. An older gentleman of my acquaintance—a German Jew who left Germany a few months after Kristallnacht, and who in Israel was a devoted participant in Leibowitz’s weekly shiurim—said that such a teaching was the only one which enabled him to lead a religious Jewish life after the Holocaust. While those of us born after Holocaust, who were fortunate enough to experience its horrors on our own flesh, may not have the biting edge of an Elie Weisel (or of a Rav Amital), who says he prays despite God’s abandoning us, nevertheless, the naïve belief that “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world” has a hollow sound. Our only path can be that of “nevertheless…” —of the path of Torah and mitzvot because it is right.


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