Friday, August 17, 2012

Re'eh (Wanderings)

“This Repetition of the Torah”

With this week’s Torah portion, we begin that part of Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy) devoted to a systematic legal code. As I stated last week with regard to the narrative-historical-sermonic part of this book, here too a close reading with an eye to comparison with the earlier books of the Torah can be very instructive and enlightening, shedding light on the significance of this seeming repetition of what appears earlier.

And indeed, nearly all of the subjects treated in this parashah (Deut 12-16) are repetitions of subjects found earlier in the Torah: the Sanctuary or Temple; kashrut; tithes; the sabbatical year; festivals. But upon closer examination we find that, in every case, these laws are told in a different way than in the earlier books, with different emphases, and are brought here primarily—so it would seem—davka for the innovations therein.

To begin: the legal section of our parashah (the actual reading begins with a half-dozen verses that round off the more general, sermonic themes of the first three Torah portions) begins with the subject of religious worship, the service of the Almighty at a special site set apart for that purpose—a subject which dominates the latter half of Exodus (Chs. 25-31; 35–40), the first half of Leviticus (Chs. 1–16, 21-22), and scattered sections of Numbers, describing the building of the Sanctuary (forerunner of the Temple in Jerusalem), the types of sacrifices to be offered there, the laws of purity and avoidance of the numerous sources of bodily impurity, which are a sine qua non of the performance of its service, and various laws concerning the priesthood. In the corresponding chapter here, there are virtually no details of the korbanot, the specifics of the how, what, when and where of the offerings. Instead, there is a rather sweeping statement, “There you shall bring your burnt-offerings and your whole-offerings, your tithes and gift-offerings, your vows and free-will offerings and the first born of kine and flock… And you shall eat them there before the Lord your God” (12:4–5). The main idea is the centralization of worship in one place: “that place which the Lord your God shall choose from among your tribes to make His Name dwell there” (a phrase repeated a dozen or more times in the course of the parashah); all this, in stark contrast to the indigenous pagans who worship their gods “on every high mountain and hill and under every leafy tree” (ibid., v. 2).

Thus, a related subject, the flip-side of worshipping the one God, is the rejection of idolatrous worship. Whereas in the earlier books of the Torah this prohibition is stated firmly but briefly, without much elaboration, here it is a subject of central concern. Particularly important here are the social dangers of mingling with the indigenous pagan population and the need to avoid various forms of pagan proselytizing.

A third subject which looms large in our parashah is that of kashrut: those forms of flesh—mammals, fish and fowl—permitted and forbidden for consumption. At first glance, Chapter 14 is not dissimilar from Leviticus 11, even down to the specific listing, by name, of the various species of prohibited birds. But there are differences: here, it is not rooted in quite the same way in the laws of tum’ah (even though the word is mentioned here, in passing), in that it does not discuss how contact with certain carcasses may contaminate foodstuffs, vessels, etc; where possible, it is slightly more concise; there is no mention of those few species of insect—grasshoppers and locusts—which it is permitted to eat (a practice which has long since fallen into desuetude among most Jews); and, perhaps most important, it concludes with several laws of a more general nature: the prohibition against eating carcasses of animals which died by themselves and, by implications, the law of shehitah; the ban against blood; and what we know as the prohibition against cooking or eating meat and milk together, which appears in two places in Exodus in a rather strange context. The overall impressions is that we have here something like an orderly code of kashrut, of what the Israelite person may and may not eat, as a part of everyday life without being related to the sphere of the pure and the holy.

Tithes: in Numbers 18:21–32 we find the laws of tithes for Levites. Here, too, a tithe is separated from all produce, but it is consumed by Israelites when they go to the Temple on pilgrimage—what is referred to by Hazal as the “second tithe”; moreover, there is a three-year cycle, in which every third year the tithe goes to the poor instead. In other words, in addition to (or some might say, instead of) tithes and gifts to the religious functionaries (priests and Levites), the tithe serves a more general purpose for the population as a whole: to enhance the sacred celebration on pilgrimage feasts, and to help the poor and indigent (including, in passing, the Levite, who is without a homestead).

Sabbatical year: In Leviticus 25 the sabbatical year is described as “a Sabbath for the land”: no agricultural labor is done; the land lies fallow except for what grows by itself; and, instead of private ownership of its produce, all are free to help themselves to its natural yield—among other things, a social regulation that, for one year, levels off the economic differences in society. In Deut 15:1-11, this idea is complemented by the remission of all debts—a lofty ideal, giving those who have fallen into debt an opportunity to start afresh. Precisely because this idea is such a radical one, and those with money are understandably reluctant to loan it to others out of fear that it will be cancelled in the remission year, the Torah emphasizes the moral imperative of doing so, saying, roughly: Don’t bear an “evil thought” in your head that you won’t loan money to those in need because of your own selfish considerations, but do it nevertheless (vv. 9-10). This noble and generous-spirited legislation clearly reveals the primitive socialist spirit of the Torah. But halakhah and moral admonitions were of no help, and in the end, when the Sages saw that this law it was unworkable, it was legislated out of existence through the legal fiction of the prusbul. In this way the halakhah was forced to take account of the meaner realities of human nature, as otherwise no one would lend out money to anyone else (also, society and the economy became more complicated, and loans began to be made for investment and speculation, diminishing the moral character of the remission, intended to ease the burden of those that suffered real need).

Festivals: Unlike Leviticus 23 and Numbers 28-29, which detail the sacrificial offerings brought on each of the festivals (including Sabbath and Rosh Hodesh, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), here the festivals are primarily occasions for pilgrimage of “every male” to “the place which the Lord shall choose.” The only offering specifically mentioned is the Paschal offering, which is central to the observance of Pesah; otherwise, each family unit brings of whatever God has blessed them, from both livestock and field produce, to and “rejoice before the Lord your God.” The festivals, as we may infer also from the Psalms, were occasions for the whole people to be together, to be part of the “joyous multitude,” impressing upon each person not only the almost-tangible presence of God in the holy center, but also the sense of belonging to this people.

It is clear from this brief survey that the Mishneh Torah is not a simple repetition of what comes in the earlier books, but that in almost every case familiar institutions are mentioned with the addition of some new and significant element.

How are we to understand all this? One solution offered by modern scholarship is that of biblical criticism—that the Book of Deuteronomy was written by a different hand, in a different time, reflecting a different religious approach than the other books. An interesting question is whether one can be a pious, observant Jew without believing in the unity and Mosaic authorship of the Torah, but acknowledging some sort of historical development. I have addressed this issue elsewhere. (see HY X: Bamidbar –Shavuot [=Zohar]).

But there is another way of reading these texts, somewhat in the spirit of the late Rabbi Mordecai Breuer: namely, that the use of different textual layers is a kind of organic means of dealing with the multi-faceted and complex issues of human life addressed by the Torah. In this view, Devarim serves as an organic, natural complement to the earlier laws, adding new laws suitable to the new situation of a people living in its own land, as against the more sacramentally-oriented cult of the tribes living in the desert, close to the holy place. There is thus a shift of emphasis: In Leviticus, the realm of the holy is a kind of sphere unto itself, with a daily routine of sacred service somehow detached from the everyday life of society. Here, the holy place is much more a kind of focal point of society—the center to which people ascend periodically on pilgrimages, and more generally, for a gamut of offerings related to personal events.

This point is felt even more strongly in the following two parshiyot, which deal, respectively, with the institutions of society as whole (the king, the high court, the military, the prophet, etc.), and the multitude of situations encountered in family and inter-personal life. Thus, many of the laws in Shoftim and Ki Teitsei are totally new, not mentioned at all in the first four books. But that is for another time.


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