THAT IDOLATERS PRAY DOES NOT MEAN THAT WE ARE FORBIDDEN TO DO SO:
A COMMONSENSE APPROACH TO THE PROBLEM OF SHARED RITUAL PRACTICE
The Center for Modern Torah Leadership Weekly Torah Exploration
with Rabbi Aryeh Klapper
Is Judaism an island, entire unto itself? Many readers of Halakhic Man emerge with a religious vision in which the meaning of Jewish law is entirely metahistorical and acontextual. The highest purpose of this vision is to enable us to boldly go where we please spiritually and intellectually, to experience any civilization without fear that we will lose track of our true selves. Halakhah thus understood is an immovable Archimedean point that enables us to influence without ourselves being influenced.
The problem with this vision is its fatal allergy to reality. In practice, halakhic thinkers are human beings, and so are inevitably influenced by their surroundings. The monadic fantasy therefore leads either to distorting overreactions, or to a constantly fugitive and cloistering virtue, and most often to both.
Worse – since the other realms of our religion are admittedly not autonomous, but rather subject to intellectual and cultural influence, it becomes necessary to shield halakhah from contact with any other aspect of Judaism. We use our books to protect ourselves from our poetry.
A radically opposite vision can be derived from the third book of the Guide of the Perplexed. Here the meaning of ritual law – even explicit Torah ritual law – seems reduced entirely to the historical and contextual. In its extreme version, all of Sefer Vayikra is nothing but a concession to the primitive religious conceptions which the Jews of the Exodus could not reasonably have been expected to give up immediately.
This vision as well cannot be complete. Culture has to come from somewhere, and is not produced solely by the backwash from other cultures. The whole point of Maimonides is that the Jews were being educated toward truth, which means that there was a source of truth, and a standard for evaluating ritual, that was external to their context. G-d conceded animal sacrifice, but would not concede human sacrifice, no matter how much cultural cachet the latter carried.
In the absence of a Temple, the question of whether animal sacrifice would be meaningful in our context is moot, and we can speculate as to whether a Rebuilding would change the context so as to regenerate meaning, or instead grab on to the suggestion of Rav Kook (in one place) that the Third Temple will feature vegetable sacrifices exclusively. But many of the other mitzvoth for which Maimonides gives similar reasons are still in practical force. Sometimes the memory of context is sufficient to provide meaning, but sometimes not. For example – I find it helpful to think of tzitzit as a fulfilment of “and you will be to me a kingdom of priests”, on the assumption that ancient near eastern priests wore tzitzit, but I don’t find it helpful to think that I don’t wear shatnez because ancient near eastern priests wore shatnez. (I do find it interesting to consider the two rationales together.)
Let us take as another example the question of why Vayikra 2:11-13 bans sourdough and date honey (or other fruit-derived sweets) from all sacrifices (while requiring that they be salted). Guide 3:46 explains this as follows:
Because the worshipers of idolatry would not sacrifice bread, but rather sourdough, and they chose to sacrifice sweet things and to make their sacrifices gooey with honey.
At face value, this suggests that our rules of sacrifice are wholly reactive and have no inherent meaning. Had the local idolaters required salt and banned honey, the Torah would have banned salt and required honey.
The problem is that the Torah itself might have influence, so that over time, the idolaters surrounding Israel might adopt its rules. What do we do when the competing religions accept the Torah as their basis?
Now Nachmanides here cites Maimonides, with an interesting addition.
וטעם השאור והדבש,
יתכן שהוא כדברי הרב במורה הנבוכים (ג מו),
אמר שמצא בספריהם שהמנהג היה לעובדי ע”ז
להקריב כל מנחתם חמץ,
ולערב הדבש בכל קרבניהם,
ולכן אסרם לגבוה.
וכזה אמרו רבותינו (ספרי שופטים קמו) במצבה
שהיתה נבחרת בימי האבות
ואחר כך שנאה השם מפני שעשאוה חוק לע”ז,
כמו שאמר “אשר שנא ה’ א-להיך” (דברים טז כב):
The rationale for the (ban on) sourdough and honey
plausibly is in accord with the words of the Rav in the Guide of the Perplexed,
where he said that he hound in their books
that idol worshippers had the custom of sacrificing all their flour-offerings leavened,
and to mix honey into all their sacrifices,
and therefore banned them (when sacrificing) to the Highest.
And our Rabbis similarly wrote (Sifrei Shoftim 146) regarding a matzeivah (monolith)
that it was a choice mode of worship in the days of the Forefathers,
but afterward it was hated by Hashem because they made it a rule for idolatry,
as Scripture writes (Dvarim 16:22) “which Hashem your G-d hates”.
The analogy is not obvious. Sifrei is trying to explain how the Torah can say that G-d hates monoliths when He apparently loved those that the Forefathers erected- the solution is that G-d hated them once they became standard ritual for idolaters. Here, there is no evidence that G-d ever responded approvingly to sourdough or honey. Possibly the argument is a kal vachomer– if G-d is willing to ban forms of worship He once loved because they have in the interim been associated with idolatry, then all the more so He should be willing to ban forms of worship that have no history prior to becoming standard rituals for idolaters.
The gap in the analogy is nonetheless important, because it does not commit Ramban to seeing the Sifrei’s treatment of matzeivah as paradigmatic – it does not compel him to believe that all forms of worship, no matter how worthy in and of themselves, become forbidden once they are adopted by idolaters. Ramban’s only commitment is to the idea that G-d can “hate” a ritual because of its historical associations even if it is not intrinsically corrupt. He does not suggest that G-d must hate every ritual that develops idolatrous associations.
There is a commonsense way to reach the same conclusion. Sacrifice per se was a fixed idolatrous ritual, so why doesn’t the Torah ban sacrifices entirely? Maimonides instead argues that the Torah includes ritual animal sacrifice because it was such a crucial element of the culture’s spiritual toolbox that it could not be eliminated.
A quick Bar Ilan search (version 18+, so not at the cutting edge of PED bekiut) indicates that the Sifrei was rarely quoted before the 20th century. But in the 16th century, Shut Be’er Sheva 71 followed a very similar line of reasoning. Be’er Sheva explains that the practice of praying with “raised hands” fell into Jewish disuse, despite ample Biblical precedent, because it became associated with Christian prayer. He does not suggest that Jews discontinue prayer altogether because it had been adopted by Christians.
The early 20th century Shut Siach Yitzchak 436, however, cites Sifrei to defend a halakhic prohibition against speaking Hebrew, which apparently had become associated with Zionism. But with all due respect, this seems more a reductio ad absurdum against the ban than an argument for it, and in any case, even Siach Yitzchak uses this as a post facto justification, not as a basis for instituting a new prohibition. (This is also true of Be’er Sheva.)
In other words, the mere fact that a religious practice is shared with idolaters cannot be sufficient to ban it, and I think the same principle likely applies to practices shared with nonidolatrous sectarians. Rather, the standard is likely similar to that articulated by Maharik regarding the formal prohibition against imitating the ways of the Gentiles, namely that the specific detail being imitated must have no rational purpose. Perhaps one might soften it to “must achieve no rational purpose that cannot obviously and as easily be achieved by other means”, but I suspect not much further.
I am therefore not enamored of Maimonides’ explanation of the ban on sourdough and honey in sacrifices, and I am similarly but to a lesser extent dissatisfied with Ramban’s explanation of why monoliths are prohibited. For a contrasting position, which I would much prefer if I could only found it convincing, see Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. He argues that monoliths represent unaltered nature, which was how G-d was known prior to Sinai. At Sinai, we learned to worship the transcendant G-d, and so switched to composite/manufactured altars.
I am aware of two alternative approaches to the sourdough and honey issue.
The first approach argues that both represent the yetzer hora – sourdough on the assumption that chametz on Pesach has that symbolism, and honey on the argument that sweetness= temptation to sin. One can add a little sophistication to the latter by pointing out that halakhically the “honey” here refers to all sweets produced from fruit – echoes of Eden? = but again, this seems to me unconvincing. If G-d had banned salt and mandated honey, I suspect we would easily have made salt represent the yetzer hora (perhaps because with regard to the meat-kashering process it is literally lifebloodsucking?), and honey the sweetness of doing mitzvot. Note that R. Chaim Paltiel has a different schema in which the yetzer hora starts off but sweet ends up causing fermentation – obviously we could understand the symbolism as moving from sourdough to honey as easily as vice versa.
The second approach is kabbalistic. Here something interesting may have happened. Rabbeinu Bechayeh (Bachyah ben Asher, 1255-1340) writes the following:
השאור והדבש רמז למדת הדין
כידוע מלשון חמץ,
ולפי שהם דברים שיצאו ממזגם
לכך הם מרוחקים מן המזבח,
Using the interpretational method of the Kabbalah:
The sourdough and honey are hints to the Attribute of Justice,
as is evident from the use of the word chametz.
Since they are things that have left their (healthy range of) mixture
Therefore they are distanced from the altar.
Both sourdough and honey represent justice, honey because it is an extreme of taste.
But R. Menachem Rekanati (1250-1310) writes this (the translation may be inaccurate):
בעבור שהקרבנות באים לרצון לשם הנכבד
להשלים אלינו כל המדות,
על כן לא יבואו מן הדברים אשר להם היד החזקה
כמו השאור הרומז למדת הדין החמוצה והקשה,
גם לא יבואו מן הדברים המתוקים לגמרי כמו הדבש
רק מן המזוגים,
כענין שאמר בבריאת עולם [ב”ר יב, טו]
שיתף מדת רחמים עם מדת הדין ובראו.
Because all sacrifices come to appease the will of the Holy Name,
To bring all the Attributes into peace with us
Therefore, there must not come from things that have a strong effect
Such as sourdough, which hints at the Attribute of Justice, which is fermented and difficult,
and also must not be brought from the things which are completely sweet, such as honey,
but rather only from those which are blended,
as Bereshit Rabbah 12:15 writes regarding the creation of the universe:
“He combined the Attribute of Mercy with the Atttribute of Justice and created it.
Here sourdough represents justice, whereas honey represents mercy!
My suspicion is that R. Recanati is the original, and Rabbeinu Bechayeh somehow misidentified the antecedent of a pronoun in R. Recanati or some commentary both he and R.Bachyeh each had access to.
I cannot prove this, however, and perhaps my suspicions arise from inadequate knowledge or appreciation of the kabbalistic method.
So I don’t yet have a viable alternative to Rambam’s historical reductionism. My sense is that a modified version of his thesis can be constructed in which the ancient idolaters had very deep symbolic reasons for using honey and sourdough, so that our ban against them is a rejection not only of their practice but of the concrete ideas that motivated their practice. Your concretizations of that altered thesis are very welcome indeed.
 I believe there is an article in Minhagei Yisroel tracing the evolution of the phrase and associated hand positions based on medieval woodcuts, but I don’t recall for certain, and would welcome a specific citation or correction.