Friday, April 19, 2013

Aharei Mot - Kedoshim (Ramban)

“You Shall Be Holy”

This week’s parashah is so rich in ideas, and includes so many major comments of Ramban, that it was difficult to decide which to choose. Due to restrictions of time and space (and my readers patience), I shall summarize two important Ramban discussions from Aharei Mot in concise form, and translate and discuss at greater a third one, from Kedoshim.

In his discussion of the atonement ritual performed in the Temple on Yom Kippur, at Leviticus 16:8, Ramban discusses at some length the sa’ir la-azazael, the goat sent out into the wilderness. He asks how such a thing can be done at all: this animal is not a sacrifice in the usual sense of the word, not being offered on the altar, but is rather sent deep into the Judaean Desert east of Jerusalem, where it is pushed over a cliff and smashed to smithereens (!). He reaches the conclusion that this is an offering to “the prince who rules over places of ruin,” or even, so to speak, a “bribe’ to Samael (Satan) himself!—that is, to the demonic powers (“satyrs that dance there”) whose domain is the wilderness. But is this not an act of idolatry? Ramban’s answer is that, indeed, were it not that God commanded us to do so, it would be so; but as God commands us to bring this offering, symbolically “giving” the sins of Israel to the powers of darkness and chaos that somehow reign in the areas beyond human settlement, it is not only permitted, but somehow a part of the Divine economy that takes into account the “needs” of the dark side. (Thus, in extremely concise fashion; we hope, bli neder, to present this passage in greater length before Yom Kippur).

A second interesting Ramban on Aharei Mot is that on 18:25, near the end of the chapter dealing with the laws of incest and other sexual transgressions. This passage is one which I was privileged to learn in a systematic fashion from the late Dov Rappel of Kvutzat Yavneh, in a class he taught during the early years of the Shalom Hartman Institute (I recall David Hartman arguing vociferously with Dov about this passage). The Biblical verse states that the nations which lived in the land of Canaan prior to Israel performed “all of these abominations” (i.e., incest and other forbidden sexual acts enumerated earlier in the chapter) and as a result were expelled (“spit out”) of the Land. The moral implied is that the continued presence of the Israelites in the Land is likewise contingent upon them observing these laws and behaving in a decent fashion regarding such matters. Ramban adds to this his own perennial theme, which we alluded to last week in connection with tzara’at, that the Land of Israel is itself a place over which God watches closely, and is by its very nature subject to different laws than other places; that, in a metaphysical sense, the land itself cannot abide impurity and evildoing (at least beyond a certain point), and will expel those that contaminate it with licentious behavior.

A third teaching, which we translate here, appears at the beginning of Parashat Kedoshim, and sheds interesting light on Ramban’s approach to mitzvot, and the relation between that which is explicitly commanded (i.e., mitzvot) and religious life generally.

Lev 19:2. “You shall be holy.” {Rashi comments here:] “You shall be separate from sexual transgressions and from transgressions [generally], for wherever one finds mention made of sexual lewdness (ervah) there you find mention of holiness.” But in [the tannaitic midrash] Torat Kohanim I saw it stated stam [i.e., without elaboration]: “You shall be separated (perushim tihyu).” And thy also taught there, “’And you shall sanctify yourselves and be sanctified, for I am holy’ (Lev 11:44)—just as I am holy, so shall you be holy. Just as I am separate, so shall you be separate.” And in my opinion this separation does not allude to separation from sexual licentiousness alone, as in the words of the Rabbi [i.e., Rashi], but that perishut [abstinence; asceticism] which is mentioned everywhere in the Talmud, whose authors are called perushim (Pharisees; lit., “separate” or “ascetic ones”).

And the matter is thus: the Torah warned us against sexual sins and forbidden foodstuffs, but permitted intercourse between man and wife and eating meat and drinking wine. Hence the person who is driven by appetite (ba’al ta’avah) will find room to indulge in lustful behavior with his wife or his numerous u wives, and to be among those that swill wine and guzzle meat (per Prov 23:20), and will speak freely using all those vulgarities that are not explicitly prohibited by the Torah. And such a person will be a “knave with the permission of the Torah” (naval bereshut ha-Torah).

Ramban raises here one of the central problems entailed in the system of halakhah, or perhaps in any religious-legal system: religious behaviorism. Does halakhah fully encompass the definition of what it means to be a religious Jew? We have discussed in the past the importance of the sense of being commanded; that Judaism rejects total autonomy, an approach based exclusively upon the individual’s conscience and spiritual sensitivity, seeing the sense of being commanded by a higher authority as central to the religious life. But there likewise exists an opposite danger: a sense of self-satisfaction and self-righteousness based upon formal fulfillment of the letter of the law, and the feeling that I can indulge myself to my heart’s content in whatever the Torah hasn’t specifically proscribed. Ramban here sketches a picture as to how one can live a life of self-indulgence that is technically kosher, adding that the Torah encompasses general commands or standards that cannot be quantified or reduced to clear-cut imperatives: “You shall be holy.”

How does one know that one has become a grober yung? (lit., “a coarse young man”; i.e., a boor or vulgarian)? Ultimately, it is a matter of personal sensitivity; if a person is honest with him/herself, he knows full well when he has become a hedonist, when he lives mostly for his own personal pleasures, performing the mitzvot perfunctorily, his real interest being the table, the bedroom, etc. (Some groups try to control this area: e.g., Gerer Hasidism today has a whole series of rather puritanical regulations about marital sex life far beyond what is specified in Shulhan Arukh; but beyond the excessive puritanism of such an approach, it misses the point: that the Torah seeks to develop a personality who knows how to judge the realm of the permitted in terms of the overall quest for holiness.

Therefore this verse comes, after [the Torah] has enumerated those things that are completely prohibited, commanding in a general way to separate ourselves from excessive material indulgence and to restrict ourselves in sexual intercourse, as the Rabbis say, “Sages ought not to be found with their wives [constantly] like roosters” [b. Berakhot 22a], but only engage in sexual relations according to that which is needed to fulfill the mitzvot connected therewith. And he should sanctify himself regarding wine, in restricting it, as Scripture calls the Nazirite holy (Num 6:5), and he should be heedful of the evils mentioned in connection with it, as in the cases of Noah and Lot. And he should also separate himself from impurity, even though it has not been proscribed in the Torah, as they said, “The garments of an am ha-aretz are a midras [something forbidden to tread upon] for perushim,” (b. Hagiggah 18b; i.e., they maintained a high standard of ritual purity even in everyday life, where it is not required); just as the Nazirite is called holy because he guards himself against becoming contaminated by contact with the dead, so too in this case. And he should guard his mouth and his tongue from becoming disgusting through gross eating and from abhorrent speech, as stated in the verse “for every mouth speaks impiety [or: vulgarity]” (Isa 9:16). And he should sanctify himself in these matters until he achieves perishut, as they said of Rabbi Hiyya, that he never engaged in idle conversation in his life.

Several questions arise in wake of this approach? Most importantly: Is asceticism the central expression of the quest for holiness? The modern temperament, including the present revival of interest in “spirituality,” is by and large anti-ascetic. What about decent behavior in relations between man and his fellow—honesty, generosity, kindness, forgiveness—none of which necessarily require abstemiousness per se? Indeed, the continuation of this chapter seems more concerned with a variety of ethical imperatives, such as “not standing over one’s fellow man’s blood” (i.e., responsibility towards the welfare of others), not to bear grudges nor to behave vindictively towards others and, most centrally, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” And what about God-consciousness, the sense of “radical amazement” at the wonders of God’s creation—which, again, need not necessitate asceticism?

Or, alternatively, one might argue that “You shall be holy” is only one of several general commands found in the Torah, and not intended as the be-all and end-all. Albeit, notwithstanding, it is certainly quite central, both because it is spoken to the entire people in solemn assembly (be-hakhel), and because it closely echoes Exodus 19:6, the imperative that introduced the Sinai revelation, when the people were called upon to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Interestingly, some years ago a friend of mine, quite memorably, celebrated his sixtieth birthday by having a “second bar mitzvah” on Parshat Kedoshim, at which he read the Torah portion and spoke of “being holy” as the central challenge of a Jew’s life.

Yet again, one might view holiness even in the narrower sense of asceticism, or at least as restraining the pleasure principle, as an important starting point in this quest, in the sense of consciously refusing to see the self and its pleasures as the center of life—an important point in the context of contemporary general culture. We continue:

This general mitzvah comes to teach regarding these and similar things. After enumerating all those transgressions which are entirely forbidden, including under this general commandment cleanliness of one’s hands and body, as they said: “’And you shall make yourselves holy’—this refers to the former waters [i.e., at the beginning of a meal]; ‘and you shall be holy’—these are the latter waters [mayim aharonim, at the end of a meal]; ‘for I am holy’—this refers to pleasant oil” (b. Berakhot 53b). For even though these are Rabbinic commandments, the essential point of this and similar verses is to warn us that we should be clean and pure and separate ourselves from the multitude of the people, who contaminate themselves with excessive indulgence and ugly things. For such is the way of the Torah: after detailing a given subject, it includes other things which are similar thereto. Thus, following the prohibitions involving the details of laws involving business dealings between people—“you shall not steal,” “you shall not rob,” “you shall not deceive” and the like—it says in general, “And you shall do that which is upright and good” (Deut 6:18), including under the positive command of the upright and the [willingness to] compromise, all that which is beyond the letter of the law….

And the meaning of the phrase, “for I the Lord your God am holy” (ibid.) is to say that we shall merit to cling to Him when we are holy. And this is analogous to the subject of the first of the Ten Commandments. And it commands here, “each man shall fear his mother and his father” (v. 3), for there it commanded regarding their honor, and here regarding fear [i.e., respect and reverence towards parents]. And it says, “you shall observe my Sabbaths” (ibid.), for there it commanded concerning remembering [the Sabbath], and here regarding its observance; and we have already explicated the subject of both of them [in Exod 20:7]….

In this final section, Ramban touches upon another idea: that Parashat Kedoshim is a kind of recapitulation of the Ten Commandments, but with variations, adding here that which is absent in the earlier text.


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