Monday, June 28, 2010

Hukat (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog, for June 2006 and 2007, and July 2008 and 2009.

“You are Called Man…”

This week’s parashah contains what is, on the face of it, one of the harshest statements in the aggadah regarding non-Jews. At Yevamot 60b-61a, we read:

Our Rabbis taught: Thus did R. Shimon b. Yohai say: Graves of pagans do not cause impurity in a tent, as is said, “You are my flock, the flock that I shepherd, you are man” (Ezek 34:31)—you are called man, but the pagans are not called “man.”

At first glance, to the modern reader, this saying seems a blatant example of what might be called Jewish racism: that only we, the children of Israel, are called human, whereas members of other nations are not even considered so in the full sense of the term! This view seems of a piece with such approaches as that of R. Judah Halevi, who asserts that prophecy is only possible among Jews, the seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; or the teaching of Habad Hasidism that Jews possess a “Divine soul,” a spark of the transcendent, that is somehow different to that of Gentiles. How then are we to understand this passage?

There are several possible answers. First of all, it may be read in light of the bitter experiences of the Jewish people throughout its long history, in many different situations—in Antiquity, in the Middle Ages, and even in the modern period—in which Jews were treated in cruel and inhuman manner by their neighbors; were dependent upon the good graces of Gentile rulers (including, in the tannaitic context, the local officials of the Roman empire) who might turn against them without warning; were subject to random acts of violence, religious persecution, arbitrary seizure of property, expulsion and murder. It was, to put it mildly, difficult to feel ones common humanity in such a situation. Moreover, Jewish teaching never advocated ”turning the other cheek” so that, if Jews were powerless to respond in kind physically, they could at least find some comfort in mocking their pagan neighbors.

Moreover, there have been some Jewish thinkers and jurists who have argued that the more ferocious statements about goyim do not apply to today’s Gentiles. Thus, for example, R. Menahem ha-Meiri (14th century France; compiler of the compendium, Beit ha-Behirah, which summarizes the discussions of the Talmud and the major comments of rishonim through his day) explains such dicta, which are found throughout the Talmud, by saying something like the following: these statements relate to the pagans who lived “then,” but not the Gentiles among whom we live today, who are educated in the “paths of decency and ethics.”

A second way of relating to this is to note that there are various different opinions within Judaism, with a constant tension within the tradition between particularism and universalism. Thus, for example, one might invoke the following statement in Bava Kamma 38a:

It was taught: Rabbi Meir said: From whence do we know that even a Gentile who engages in Torah is likened to the High Priest? Scripture says, “[These are the things] which a man should do, and live through them” (Lev 18:5). It does not say, “priests, Levites and Israelites,” but “man”—from which you learn, that even a Gentile, if he engages in Torah, is tantamount to the high priest.

This statement hardly requires elaboration.

A third tack—and one which may actually be closest to the peshat, the straightforward sense of the text, at least ion our case, is to read the above passage as a strictly technical halakhic statement, referring to the status of non Jews vis-à-vis specific laws of the Torah. To wit: that the “human being” whose body—from birth, through menstruation, sexual intercourse, various other bodily discharges, normal and abnormal, and through death—is subject to impurity and may engender it, refers only to Jews. This is so because the halakhah, with certain exceptions, addresses itself in full force to Jews alone. Indeed, this is the force of the Torah Temimah’s comment on this passage; and note also the continuation of our sugya, a few lines further down in Yevamot 61a:

Rabbina said: It is indeed the case that Scripture excludes him [the body of the dead Gentile] from impurity in a tent, as is written “When a man dies in a tent” (Num 19:14). But from whence is it excluded from being subject to impurity through contact or carrying?

And it continues from there into a technical discussion of the “contagion” of ritual impurity.

I would like to conclude with a comment on the current application of these ideas. In wake of recent events, there is a sense of increasing hostility towards and even delegitimation of the State of Israel on the part of our erstwhile friends. Some have suggested that Jews ought to turn inwards and abandon our long-standing alliances and involvement in the positive aspects of Western culture, and adopt the attitude that ”The whole world is against us,” seeing anti-Semites atop every high hill and under every green tree. Such an approach is as much a distortion of the truth as the overly sanguine view that nothing has changed and that w are living in a new age of love and peace among nations. During the modern era, the Jewish people have discovered that there are many decent, highly moral, wise, and good decent people in the non-Jewish world—surely as much so as there are among Jewry—and it would be false both to our own best interest and to the truth itself for us to abandon that knowledge in face of the present storm.

“When a Man Dies in the Tent…”

Two homiletic uses of our verse stress, from different perspectives, the utter devotion a person ought to show towards Torah. Both appear in Shabbat 83b:

Rabbi Yonatan said: A person should never refrain from going to the Study House and from words of Torah, even in the hour of his death. As is said, “This is the Torah: when a man dies in a tent…” Even at the moment of death, he should engage in Torah.

One implied assumption of this saying is that, unlike other disciplines and areas of knowledge, which a person may study for some practical purpose—and hence would be of no use to him when he knows he is dying and cannot possibly implement them—the study of Torah is an end in itself; an act which is of innate value, even one no longer has any practical interest in anything in the world! Hence, among other things, the concept of life-long adult study among Jews as a sanctified act—a concept quite possibly unique to Jewish culture.

Indeed, the hagiographies of great rabbis often report that they engaged in Torah even in their dying moments. Thus, the aggadah shows King David studying Torah constantly every Shabbat, to avert the Angel of Death; the Zohar describes the great mystical revelation of the Idra that R. Shimon bar Yohai shared with his disciples on the last say of his life; the death-bed scene of the Baal Shem Tov, of others, are all marked by Torah study and teaching. If I may relate a family story: it is told that my own sainted grandfather, Rabbi Simhah Eliyahu Chipkewicz, suffered his fatal attack while sitting at his shtender (reading stand) learning Talmud (as he did most of his waking hours)—thus , at least, we are told in the compendium of mid-century Rabbinic biographies, Toldot Anshei Shem (New York, 1950), p. 107.

The second saying, which continues on the same page in the gemara (with parallel at Berakhot 43b) sees “death” in more metaphorical terms:

Resh Lakish said: Words of Torah are not sustained except by one who kills himself over them, as is said, “This is the Torah: when a man dies in a tent.” The “tent” here is, of course, read as a metaphor for the Beit Midrash, where one expends all of ones energies, as if “dying.”


1. My wife Randy came up with an interesting insight this past Shabbat, regarding the placing of the law of the Red Heifer (Parah Adumah) specifically in this parashah. In general, the organization of the book of Bamidbar/Numbers seems the least coherent of all five Humashim, with narratives and laws juxtaposed in what often appears to be rather hodge-podge fashion. In any event, I have always been puzzled as to is why the laws of ritual impurity relating to contact with dead bodies and the special ritual of slaughtering a red heifer, burning it to ashes, and sprinkling its ashes mixed with water over the impure individual (all involving in turn further complex rules) stand by themselves, here in Numbers 19. After all, all the other rules of impurity issuing from the human body—childbirth, ejaculation, menstruation, abnormal discharges from the sexual organs, and the affliction commonly [mis]translated as leprosy—all appear together in Tazria–Metzora (Leviticus 12-15); moreover, these appear immediately following the listing of pure and impure mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and insects in Lev 11. Thus, all the biblical sources for the Mishnaic “Order of Purities”—Seder Toharot—are conveniently grouped in one place, with the glaring exception of the greatest source of impurity of all—the dead human body. Why?

Randy observed that, immediately following this chapter, there appears the incident in which Moses strikes the rock to bring forth water rather than speaking to it as he was instructed; this is in turn followed immediately by the death of two of the three leaders of the desert period—Miriam and Aaron—and by the announcement to Moses that he would not enter the Land but would die at the end of the fortieth year of wandering (which may not have been far off); in due course, a few chapters later, Moshe asks God to appoint a successor to himself, and the charge to Joshua is duly described. Hence, Randy suggested, the description of the actual deaths of the most prominent people in the community is preceded by laws as to how to deal with death in the physical sense.

Alternatively, one might argue that, whereas the various discharges in Leviticus apply first and foremost the person who is thus rendered impure, the impurity of death is different: it affects others, but not the dead person, whose physical remains become a permanent source of impurity. Oddly, the ritual of cleaning the dead body (known as “laying out” in American Christian culture) and dressing it for burial is referred to as taharah—“purification.” Moreover, in certain circles—perhaps when dealing with the body of an especially pious individual or a great rabbi, or in certain very traditional communities (the old-time Yerushalmis?)—the corpse is actually immersed in a special mikveh reserved for this purpose—one of the most innately paradoxical acts one can imagine. (I have a rather macabre story about this, which I won’t recount here.)

2. Regarding the main subject of my essay this past Shabbat (“You are called Man, but the pagans are not called man…”), I would add that the idea of Jews enjoying some sort of unique status within the human community is part of the broader issue of Jewish “election” or the notion of the “chosen people,” which is too vast a subject to discuss here. I will simply make one brief point: that election implies greater responsibility, being held by God to more exacting standards. “You alone have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I hold you accountable for all your transgressions” (Amos 3:2).

On the other hand, longtime reader Mark Kirschbaum wrote me as follows:

There is another explanation, and that is linked to a typical ant-Semitic approach whereby the Jewish tradition even in antiquity must always answer even to contemporary progress, i.e. in women's issues, or universality—and that is the reality that most cultures have these kind of self important views. Spain had “purity of blood” categories until modern times, the US mandates that presidents be US born, etc. It is only delegitimizing that the Jewish tradition celebrates its own if you apply very recent standards of universalism.

While I would agree that there is a certain “holier-than-thou” attitude that may be present among those who make such a critique, for me there was a very different subtext: namely, I am disturbed about certain things happening in Israeli society right now. There is a kind of Jewish McCarthyism: exclusionary laws, suggestions of loyalty tests for citizenship, attacks on internal critics of Israel, attempts to hamstring human rights groups (viz. the recent demonization of Naomi Hazan), vulgar attacks on the Supreme Court, serious attempts to remove certain Arab MK’s from the Knesset, and the view that all and any criticism of Israel’s actions, certainly from without, are motivated by “anti-Semitism.” In this context, it is doubly important to reaffirm the universal values of our tradition.

On another level: I received an email from another reader who found this essay somewhat confusing on technical grounds, in that he couldn’t find the source verse connecting this dictum to the parashah. The truth is that I presented things in confusing fashion: I found the Rabbinic comment from Yevamot 90b quoted in both Torah Temimah and Yalkut Yehudah on verse 14: “when a man dies in a tent,” but the verse itself only appears far down in the Talmudic source; in between I digressed to quote the more “liberal” dictum from Bava Kamma before returning to the first source. Moreover, as I just discovered, in the English translation of the first part of the Yevamot passage I inadvertently omitted the key sentence: “you are called Man, but the pagan nations are not called Man,” which should have appeared right after the quote from Ezekiel. My apologies for the confusion.

Finally, writing about this passage required that I read Ezekiel 34, a fascinating prophecy about the “shepherds of Israel” that uses the metaphor of sheep and shepherding throughout. I did not fully understand the final verse, from which our prooftext, “you are man,” is brought. Perhaps it’s the prophet’s way of reminding his readers that all this is a metaphor, and he is really taking about people, not sheep.


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