Monthly Archives: June 2014

Red Heifer, Red Herring?

Rashi, at the beginning of this week’s parsha, writes (Bamidbar 19:2):

“This is the chok of the Torah” –
because the Satan and the Nations of the World attack the Jews and say “What is this mitzvah and what rationale is there for it?”,
therefore the Torah categorizes it as a chukkah, meaning “It is a decree from before Me and you have no authority/permission to interrogate it.”

 -“זאת חקת התורה”
,לפי שהשטן ואומות העולם מונין את ישראל לומר מה המצוה הזאת ומה טעם יש בה
:לפיכך כתב בה חקה –גזירה היא מלפני ואין לך רשות להרהר אחריה

“THIS is the chok of the Torah” suggests that the law of the red heifer is THE paradigmatic chok. However, Rashi to Vayikra 18:4 writes the following:

-את משפטי תעשו
:אלו דברים האמורים בתורה במשפט, שאלו לא נאמרו, היו כדאי לאמרן
-ואת חקתי תשמרו
דברים שהם גזירת המלך, שיצר הרע משיב עליהם, למה לנו לשומרן, ואומות העולם משיבין עליהם, כגון אכילת חזיר ולבישת שעטנז וטהרת מי חטאת
:לכך נאמר “אני ה’” – גזרתי עליכם, אי אתם רשאים להפטר

“You must do My mishpatim” –
These are things that are said in the Torah with mishpat, meaning that if they had not been Said, it would have been appropriate/worthwhile to say them.
“and you must preserve my chukim” –
things that are royal decrees, which the evil inclination challenges, saying “Why should we observe these?”, and the Nations of the world challenge them, as for example [not] eating pig, [not] wearing wool-and-linen-woven-together, and the taharah that results from the waters mixed with the ashes of the red heifer –
therefore Scripture writes [immediately afterward] “I am Hashem” – I have decreed upon you, and you have no authority/permission to exempt yourself.

Here the red heifer is only one of three classic chukim.

A search for Rashi’s precedent yields a wide variety of lists. Bamidbar Rabbah 19:5 has the following:

Rabbi Yehoshua of Sikhnin said in the name of Rabbi Levi:
There are four things that the evil inclination challenges, all of which the Torah calls chukim:
The rules regarding marrying the wife of a brother, the prohibitions against forbidden mixtures, the sent-away-goat, and the red heifer.

רבי יהושע דסכנין בשם רבי לוי אמר
ארבעה דברים יצר הרע משיב עליהן דכתיב בהן חקה
אשת אח וכלאים ושעיר המשתלח ופרה אדומה

Here the list expands to four, with the ban on pig omitted and replaced with the sent-away-goat and the brother’s wife. In truth, it is very hard to explain how the ban on pig made Rashi’s list, since the Torah does not seem to describe it as a chok.

However, Talmud Yoma 67a (also Sifra Acharei Mot 9)

ואלו שיצר הרע משיב עליהם ואומות העולם ע”א משיבין עליהם כגון אכילת חזיר ולבישת כלאים וחליצה יבמה וטהרת המצורע שעיר המשתלח

expands the list to five, includes the ban on pig, and omits the red heifer! The new member of the list is the process of taharah for those afflicted with tzara’at (a condition almost but not entirely unlike leprosy.)

Finally the Geonic work Halakhot Gedolot 50

לבישת שעטנז ואכילת בשר חזיר ורוק יבמה והרבעת כלאים ושור הנסקל ועגלה ערופה וצפרי מצורע ושער נזיר ופטר חמור ובשר בחלב ושעיר המשתלח

expands the list to eleven, also including the ban on pig, and still omitting the red heifer.

From all this it seems hard to see the red heifer as particularly hard to understand. However, there is a separate tradition, found inter alia on Yoma 14a, which describes the red heifer as the mitzvah which confounded the wisest of all men, King Solomon. This is on the basis of Kohelet 7:23:

:כל זה נסיתי בחכמה אמרתי אחכמה והיא רחוקה ממני

All this I tried with my wisdom: I said ‘I will become wise’, but she (wisdom) is far from me.

Rashi’s comment on our parshah is apparently a conflation of these traditions. Again, this does not explain why the traditions differ as to whether the red heifer is unique.

I want to draw your attention to the flip side of the issue. Rashi to Vayikra 18:4 defines chukim and mishpatim as opposites, but he gives a description of mishpatim rather than providing examples. All his precedents, however, give the same list of five mishpatim –

.ע”ז וגילוי עריות ושפיכות דמים וגזל וברכת השם

Foreign worship, sexual sins, bloodshedding, robbery/theft, and cursing the Name.

These are five of the Seven Noachide Commandments, excluding the positive commandment to establish a court system (which may simply be an obligation to enforce the six prohibitions) and the ban on eating flesh taken from live animals.

What is interesting, and perhaps important, about this is that it suggests that the law against eating flesh taken from live animals is at least a kind of chok, and not among the laws that “if they had not been Said, it would have been appropriate/worthwhile to say them.” This is perhaps why Rashi did not cite the examples – he did not wish to suggest that Gentiles as well have a relationship with G-d which binds them to accept incomprehensible commandments.

The difficulty is serious – if Gentiles have such a relationship, why should the Nations of the World harass the Jews for observing incomprehensible commandments?

I suggest, however, that the terms mishpat and chok in Rashi’s precedents should not be understood as comprehensively categorizing all mitzvot – some are neither chukim or mishpatim, although none can be both. A mishpat is a rule that regulates the human/Divine or human/human relationship. A rule intended to prevent cruelty to animals, or to prevent human beings from becoming cruel, is not incomprehensible, but it is still not a mishpat. Perhaps it would not have been said had it not been Said, but it was Said, to non-Jews as well as Jews.

The question remaining is – do we agree that the obligation to obey incomprehensible rules is a privilege, or at least a reflection of higher status, or even that obeying such rules is a good thing? Should we instead strive to better King Solomon and succeed in rationalizing all Divine commandments?

One of my favorite Talmudic moments is when the stam cites a tradition that Mosheh’s request to Hashem

,הראני נא את כבודך

please show me Your glory,

was a request to understand why good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people, and that Hashem responded with an explanation, and here it is! But they then find a contradictory text which proves that the answer found in the previous tradition cannot be correct. At this point they should surrender and say that we simply can’t know the answer, but instead, they offer what they think is a reasonable answer and assume it was what G-d said in answer to Mosheh’s Ultimate Question! But it is hard to accept that really important things are unknowable, and it should be.

Here too, Bamidbar Rabbah 19:5 explains that Solomon, the wisest of men, understood everything about Torah other than the red heifer. To show this, however, it feels compelled to offer its own explanations of everything that Solomon understood, without in any way claiming that its explanations are received Solomonic traditions. What is left of his superior wisdom, then, if we can satisfactorily explain everything he was praised for understanding.

My suggestion is: when the Satan, the Nations of the World, and the evil inclination challenge our obedience to Torah, our response must be that we obey simply because He is our Commander, Who took us out of Egypt. But sometimes – often – it is our yetzer hatov, our inclination toward good, that challenges our willingness to obey the incomprehensible and accuses us of spiritual laziness in not seeking better rationales, and thereby better ways to apply those laws to new cases.

Jews ought not glory in incomprehensibility, and obey the absurd with greater joy than the reasonable.   We should instead strive to rationalize when we can do so with sincerity and integrity; to recognize when we cannot, and that since we are not G-d, in every generation there will be some mitzvot – often different than those considered chukim in earlier generations – that we cannot rationalize with sincerity and integrity, and which we must nonetheless obey; and to know – as best we can – when we are and when we are not acting and thinking with sincerity and integrity.

Shabbat shalom




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Did Mosheh handle Korach’s rebellion in the best way possible? Can we even ask that question?

Did Mosheh handle Korach’s rebellion in the best way possible?  Contrafactual hypotheticals can never be answered definitively, but we can make a partial judgement based on outcomes.  And based on outcomes, the verdict is fairly negative – the leading rebels were not reintegrated into the community, but rather killed, and the majority of the community rebelled again the day after they were killed.  G-d’s anger was not assuaged, but rather He sent a plague that killed thousands and was stopped only by a new intervention.

The key textual support for this evaluation is that in Bamidbar 16:21 G-d tells Mosheh:

 הבדלו מתוך העדה הזאת ואכלה אתם כרגע:

Separate from within this assembly, and I will consume them in an instant,

and Mosheh responds

האיש אחד יחטא ועל כל העדה תקצף

Shall one man sin, and You act-with-anger with the entire assembly?!

whereas in  17:10 G-d says

הרמו מתוך העדה הזאת ואכלה אתם כרגע

Elevate yourselves from within this assembly, and I will consume them in an instant

and Mosheh can respond only by sending Aaron to stand in the way of the plague

:כי יצא הקצף מלפני יקוק החל הנגף

 because the acted-on-anger has already gone out from G-d, the plague has begun.

In other words, the outcome of Mosheh’s initial response was to directly involve the whole community in a sin which originally could be attributed to Korach alone.

The problem with a contrafactual is that we cannot know whether any policy would have produced better results – perhaps this was a Kobyashi Maru no-win scenario, and any alternative would have left Aharon impotent to stop the inevitable plague. Some of us will feel that religious faith requires the belief that Mosheh handled the rebellion properly.  At least one midrash, however, traces Mosheh’s eventual exclusion from eretz Yisroel to his overly harsh rhetoric toward the Levites here. I have no strong opinion, but one insight emerged from studying this parashah while studying intensely about war generally. That is:  What exactly was Korach threatening to do?  He gathers crowds against Mosheh, but did they actually engage in, or threaten to engage in, disobedience?  The midrash concretizes his disobedience by having him wear a tkhelet tallit without tzitizit, but the text as we have it has no such active illegality.  Perhaps there was an opportunity still to redirect, rather than directly oppose Korach’s challenge.

But then again, any policy’s outcome depends on the free-willed choices of the other participants, and that can never be knowable.  In the end perhaps the deepest lesson of the parshah is that Mosheh could not know in advance or afterward whether he made the best decision, and that should teach us empathy for all those who with honesty and sincerity accept the challenges of political leadership.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Is the G-d of the Book of Joshua a moral G-d? Is Joshua a moral leader?

Is the G-d of the Book of Joshua a moral G-d?  Is Joshua a moral leader?

Eric Cohen, Executive Director of the Tikvah Fund, triggered a lively and fascinating conversation this week with these questions at Tikvah’s Advanced Institute on War and Human Nature, where I am a participant.  The premise of these questions is that at least on first reading Yehoshua has Divine sanction to act in ways that defy contemporary morality – for example, he exterminates the inhabitants of various cities, including children, without regard for the innocence or guilt of particular individuals, and not distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants.

I admitted early in the conversation that this issue had bothered me since high school, and that I had not yet found a satisfying way to read the Book.  This is still the case, and I’m glad to be challenged to revisit the issue.   However, based on the conversation at the Tikvah seminar, it seems to me that there may be value in laying out some preliminary methodological thoughts and tentative theological guide posts.

1) One can simply invalidate the question, or deny it any significance.  Behavior that G-d approves is proper, and “morality” is a useful category only insofar as it enables us to accurately predict what behaviors G-d will approve.

This is not an approach I generally find religiously useful or attractive.  From an internal Biblical perspective, as several participants noted, there are clear instances where prophets challenge G-d on the basis of an external standard, and from a Rabbinic perspective, Torah can be properly interpreted only on the basis of a priori moral intuitions.

We do recognize a category of “hora’at sha’ah”, of actions that are given Divine sanction even though they violate our standard norms.  However, this category refers generically to actions that violate legal norms for the sake of principles that antecede the law – they do not refer specifically to teleological suspensions of the ethical.  It may be at times useful to argue that a hora’at sha’ah legitimates violation of moral norms as well, but that seems to me at best a last resort.

2) One can morally rationalize Joshua’s actions in a way that seeks to prevent them from serving as a legitimating precedent for any subsequent behavior.  One can say, for example, that such behavior is justified only when a people is returning to its Divinely granted homeland, or when an enemy population is so culturally corrupt as to make the prospect of their repenting – even partial – utterly ridiculous.  Or one can say that his behavior was grounded in prophetic knowledge of consequences, so that he was able to make utilitarian judgments in circumstances where uncertainty would generally forbid them.

My sense is that such approaches fail in practice.  I may think that I have effectively quarantined a text, but someone else will come along and argue that his or her circumstances exactly match those I described.  For example, the conversation at Tikvah took place with an unspoken agreement that no one would evaluate interpretations by their implications for current or past Israeli policies, but it was clear to all that such implications were lurking close to hand.

Furthermore, defending Joshua’s actions on utilitarian grounds often fails empirically.  If the justification is that it was necessary to prevent all Canaanite resistance, and/or eliminate all subsequent Canaanite cultural influence, why is it that he did not in fact complete the conquest, and that Canaanite influence seems alive and well in subsequent Biblical narratives?

3) One can critique the applicability of ordinary morality to particular political situations.  For example, one may believe that national origin stories inevitably involve aggressive violence, and that nonetheless nations have a right to emerge, as birds have the right to crack their shells.  Joshua – or the American West – must be judged by a different standard than we use to judge life as conducted within an existing political entity.

This position is to some degree embodied in the rabbinic presumption, sometimes given legal effect–that all land outside Israel was obtained by robbery.  I understand this as a recognition that all land titles that don’t trace directly to G-d trace back rather to an act of conquest, and conquest per se can rarely if ever be condoned by the moral rules that apply within a political community.

I am not willing, however, to concede that moral rules by definition apply only within settled political communities.  As I have written elsewhere, the practical ethical rules of war may not be those of ordinary society, but that does not mean that there are no rules.  So it may not be proper to judge Yehoshua by the standards of behavior within a state, or by the standards of international behavior in a community of nations that recognize an effective system of international law.  But there must nonetheless be standards by which his behavior can be judged.

4) One can seek to reinterpret the story so that Joshua’s actions conform to a standard of morality one is willing to defend in ordinary life.  For example:  One can adopt the halakahic position that the Canaanites were entitled to convert or flee, and adequately informed of this right, and thus anyone remaining in the cities was in fact a combatant.  This seems to me a plausible approach in some cases.

5) One can seek to reinterpret the text so that it is not evident that G-d approves of some of Joshua’s actions.  This is difficult, as overall Divine approval of Joshua is repeated and unquestioned in the book.  In general, the Book of Joshua seems to have a more values-transparent narrator than is usual in Biblical narratives, and to leave less space for readers to make their own evaluations.

Nonetheless, this is the approach I find most religiously attractive, because I think it most allows genuinely wrestling with the text rather than imposing on it – and in the end, if we come to the conclusion that G-d did approve, we will need to rethink our assumptions.  But I want to make clear that I think it is legitimate to say that for the time a narrative’s meaning is opaque to us, and therefore that we will not seek to derive values from it, although we aspire to do so in the future.

Here is one resource that I hope and suspect will eventually prove helpful:

In 5:13, before the conquest of Jericho, Joshua sees an angel holding its sword drawn, and asks: “Are you for us, or for our enemies”?  I think the most plausible reading of his uncertainty, following the Talmud, is that he fears that the angel intends to slaughter the Jews, because they have done or intend to do something wrong.  The Rabbis identify that wrong with failure to study Torah or bring the daily sacrifice, but these are in the first instance likely symbolic, and in the second instance difficult to find evidence for in the text (see Radak for a remarkably pointed rejection of this midrash).

The angel’s possible ambivalence here puts me in mind of G-d’s ambivalence in the story of the Concubine of Give’ah (Judges 19-21).  In that story, the Urim veTummim endorse an attack on the tribe of Binyamin – and the attack fails, twice, with heavy losses.  A third attack is endorsed with the note that it will lead to victory, which it does.  To me, this clearly indicates that G-d is (to put it mildly) not wholly comfortable with those He grants overall victory, and perhaps the angel indicates something similar here.

Those who seek to argue that only Divine command matters in this narrative cannot, to my mind, well explain why Rachav and her family are saved from Jericho, and the Gibeonites from among the Canaanites generally.  In each case the presumptive command to kill everyone seems to be trumped by a humanly assumed commitment, and at least in the case of Rachav, the decision to spare her seems to be as endorsed as the killing of everyone else.  What if, as a tactic to induce surrender rather than fighting to the last man, Joshua had sent in a herald promising to spare noncombatants generally?  So I don’t think that the question is so easily evadable.

But as noted, this is not yet a reading, only a suggestion of a possible seed out of which such a reading might develop.  I welcome your suggestions, assistance, and critiques.

Shabbat shalom

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The CMTL Shavuot Library

Just in time for Shavuot, here are selections from CMTL’s Torah archive:

Synesthesia at Sinai:  Why did the Jews see voices when they received the Torah?

Who Wrote the Torah? A literary analysis in defense of unitary authorship of the Torah.

Talmud Torah as the Shared Spiritual Language of the Jewish People: Dr. Ruth Calderon’s Knesset Speech and the fulfillment of Rabbi David Hartman’s dream.

Why Study Talmud? Two foundational principles–“the humility of reason” and “the vulnerability of authority”–that we distill through Talmud study.

The Boundaries of Torah Study: Can and should our definition of learning Torah include learning from secular sources in the sciences and humanities?

A note on translations and the Book of Ruth

Translated Excerpts from Rut Rabbah


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The Book of Ruth, a Translation by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Click here to download a copy of Rabbi Klapper’s translation of the Book of Ruth.

Zman Mattan Torateinu Sameiach!

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