Monday, June 21, 2010

Torah Tidbits: Parshat Acharei

16:2-3 - "...and the LORD said unto Moses: 'Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the veil, before the ark-cover which is upon the ark; that he die not; for I appear in the cloud upon the ark-cover. Herewith [בְּזֹאת] shall Aaron come into the holy place [הַקֹּדֶשׁ]: with a young bullock for a sin-offering, and a ram for a burnt-offering."  So when, exactly, can Aaron come into the "holy place"?  The translation here of b'zot ("herewith") isn't very good; I prefer Kehot's "with this," suggesting that when he comes with the sin- and burnt-offerings, then he can come into the Holy of Holies.  But it isn't clear.  I know that Yom Kippur is the only day Aaron can enter, but it certainly isn't made clear here.  Why not?

16:7-8 - "And [Aaron] shall take the two goats, and set them before the LORD at the door of the tent of meeting.  And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats: one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for Azazel [לַעֲזָאזֵל]."  Interesting!  Who -- or what -- is "Azazel"?  The modern Hebrew phrase, lech l'azazel, means, basically "go to hell!"  So it's interesting to see this word here in the Torah.  Rashi explains that Azaael
is a strong and hard mountain, [with] a high cliff, as the Scripture says [in describing Azaael] (verse 22 below), "a precipitous land (אֶרֶץ גְּזֵרָה)," meaning a cut-off land [i.e., a sheer drop]. - [Torath Kohanim 16:28; Yoma 67b]
Fascinating!  So "hell" is a place cut off from everything, some place hard to reach.  Neat!
16:16 - "And [Aaron] shall make atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleannesses of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, even all their sins; and so shall he do for the tent of meeting, that dwelleth with them in the midst of their uncleannesses [הַשֹּׁכֵן אִתָּם בְּתוֹךְ טֻמְאֹתָם]."  Interesting...  So Aaron had to "make atonement" not only for the people and their sins, but for the very tent of meeting -- the ohel mo'eid itself.  First of all, this echoes what we read in metzora, about a house itself having leprosy, that uncleanliness can adhere to things as well as people, and that things need to be atoned for as well..  Second, there's something to my mind poetic about saying:  'because of our since, the very place in which we meet you, God, is itself in need of atonement.'

16:21 - "And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, even all their sins [וְהִתְוַדָּה עָלָיו אֶת-כָּל-עֲו‍ֹנֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֶת-כָּל-פִּשְׁעֵיהֶם לְכָל-חַטֹּאתָם]; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of an appointed man into the wilderness."  Question:  How in the world is Aaron supposed to know what all of the sins of all of the people actually are?  (Unless what is intended here is a more general statement.)

16:22 - "And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land which is cut off [אֶל-אֶרֶץ גְּזֵרָה]; and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness."  Is this "land which is cut off," this eretz g'zeirah, the same as Azazel?  (The New JPS calls this "an inaccessible region.")  Although I'm sure it's not meant this way, I like the symbolism of putting the collective sins of the people into a goat, who is sent off to a place far from human habitation, a place not reachable by normal means. 

16:29 - About Yom Kippur:  "And it shall be a statute for ever unto you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, ye shall afflict your souls [תְּעַנּוּ אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם], and shall do no manner of work, the home-born, or the stranger that sojourneth among you."  Is something objective and specific intended here by t'anu (e.g., fasting), or is this meant in a more general sense, that on this day, we should, literally, afflict ourselves in the course of atoning?  I like the idea, though, that on YK, the point is to afflict one's self through the contemplation of sins.

16:31 - "It is a sabbath of solemn rest unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls; it is a statute for ever [חֻקַּת עוֹלָם]."  Something I'm noticing:  There are places, like here, where the Torah says something is to be "for ever," while in other places, no mention is made of time.  Is this to imply that, where for ever is not explicitly mentioned, that a law/ordnance is not meant to be forever?  Are things "for ever" weightier than others?

17:7 - "And they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices unto the satyrs [לַשְּׂעִירִם], after whom they go astray. This shall be a statute for ever unto them throughout their generations."  The "satyrs"?!?  Who are these?!?  Rashi explains that "to the satyrs" means "to the demons [לשדים], like, 'and satyrs (וּשְּׂעִירִים) will dance there' (Isa. 13:21). - [Torath Kohanim 17:100]."  Demons!  Weird...

17:10-11 - "And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, that eateth any manner of blood, I will set My face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people.  For the life of the flesh is in the blood [כִּי נֶפֶשׁ הַבָּשָׂר בַּדָּם הִוא]; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that maketh atonement by reason of the life."  Two thoughts.  First, it is a bit jarring to me that God would want this kashrut-related law applied to non-Jews.  Is eating blood something so generally moral that anyone who does it violates God's laws?  Strange.  Second, we find here an actual reason for not eating blood, that, basically, it contains the life of the living thing and is meant for sacrifice, not eating.  But once a reason is given, that reason is open to analysis, and this reason -- that "the life of the flesh" is in it -- is pretty weak.  Living things can't live without water either, but that's not considered to be something super holy.  Same for bile.    I guess my point is premodern societies viewed blood as something more magical and mysterious than it what's the point of the prohibition against eating it?

17:15 - "And every soul that eateth that which dieth of itself, or that which is torn of beasts, whether he be home-born or a stranger, he shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even; then shall he be clean."  This verse seems to imply that it is at some level "okay" to eat such non-kosher animals, if the only thing you have to do afterwards is wash in order to become clean.  But I thought you simply aren't supposed to do this?

18:2 - "Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: I am the LORD your God."  You know when a chapter starts out with this, some heavy laws are going to follow.  Rashi adds
I am the Lord, your God: I am the One Who said at Sinai, “I am the Lord, your God” (Exod. 20:2), and you accepted My sovereignty upon yourselves [at that time]; consequently, accept My decrees. Rabbi [Yehudah Hanassi] says: “It is openly known before Him, that they would eventually be scourged by [transgressing the laws of] immoral relations, in the days of Ezra. Therefore, [concerning these laws,] God came to them with the decree: I am the Lord, your God! You should know Who is placing these decrees upon you-the Judge Who exacts retribution (אלֹקִים), but Who is faithful also to pay a reward (ה ) ! ”- [Torath Kohanim 18:138]"
18:3 - "After the doings of the land of Egypt [כְּמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ-מִצְרַיִם], wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do; and after the doings of the land of Canaan [וּכְמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ-כְּנַעַן], whither I bring you, shall ye not do; neither shall ye walk in their statutes [וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶם לֹא תֵלֵכוּ]."  First, what are the "doings" (ma'aseh) of Egypt and Canaan as opposed to their "statutes" (chukot)?  The Torah doesn't make this clear, nor whether these are meant to be comprehensive statements (i.e., should the Israelites do nothing that the Egyptians?  nothing of what the Canaanites did?  or only those things that violate other Torah laws?).  Rashi tries to explain that their "statutes" in this context as follows:
and you shall not follow their statutes: What did Scripture omit [until now] that it did not state [and includes in this clause]? However, these are their social practices, things that assumed the status of law (חָקוּק) for them, for example, [certain days set aside for attendance at] theaters and stadiums. Rabbi Meir says: These [practices referred to here,] are the “ways of the Amorites,” [the superstitious practices] enumerated by our Sages. — [see Shab. 67ab; Torath Kohanim 18: 139]
Uh, so the things the Egyptians and Canaanites did that the Israelites aren't supposed to do involve attending "theaters and stadiums"!?!  Is the point that in every possible way they were supposed to be different, even down to things that are not proscribed by Torah?  Rashi quotes another Rabbi Meir implying that the social practices in question are "superstitious practices," presumably involving soothsaying, etc.  But then why cite the examples of attendance at theaters and stadiums?  There's a lot in Judaism about not doing things that other peoples do, almost for the sole reason of differentiation...  Not sure what I make of this.  I suppose there was a time and a place where from a social psychological perspective, differentiation made sense from a social cohesion perspective, but I'm not sure that the take home message is that savory for today's world...
18:4-5 - "Mine ordinances shall ye do, and My statutes shall ye keep, to walk therein: I am the LORD your God. Ye shall therefore keep My statutes [חֻקֹּתַי], and Mine ordinances [מִשְׁפָּטַי], which if a man do, he shall live by them [אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם]: I am the LORD."  So...if he doesn't keep them, then he dies?  Or is it that one's life is through them, so if you keep them, then you live "by" them?  Rashi has two interesting things to say here.  First, he distinguished betrween "statutes" and "ordinances."  The former
are the “King’s decrees” [without apparent rationale to man], against which the evil inclination protests, “Why should we keep them?” Likewise, the nations of the world object to them. Examples are: [The prohibition of] eating pig and wearing shaatnez [a mixture of wool and linen] (see Lev. 19:19), and the purification procedure effected by purification water [the mixture including the ashes of the red cow] (see Num., Chapter 19). Therefore it says, “I am the Lord.” I have decreed [these] upon you; you are not permitted to exempt yourselves [from fulfilling them]. — Torath Kohanim 18:140]
Ordinances, on the other hand,
are the laws stated in the Torah in justice, [i.e., which human intellect deems proper,] which, had they not been stated [in the Torah], would have been deemed worthy to be stated [e.g., not to steal, not to murder, etc.]. — [Torath Kohanim 18:140]
Fascinating!  So the Torah makes an explicit distinction between statutes (chukim) which lack any apparent rationale, and ordinances (mishpatim), which do have underlying reasons.  So on the one hand, it suggests mishpatim are open to some kind of interpretation, while chukim are not:  they are as they are because God says so.  But does not the prohibition against doing things as others do them (e.g., the Egyptians, Canaanites) suggest a logic behind chukimThey mix their fabrics, so we don't; they eat milk and meat, so we don't.  It's hard to view some of these things as anythingng other than a system of social control vis-a-vis the other peoples of the time, whose codes of laws were far less onerous.  I need to think about this some more...

18:7-16 - "The nakedness of thy father, and the nakedness of thy mother, shalt thou not uncover: she is thy mother; thou shalt not uncover her nakedness."  And so forth and so on.  Here we find a series of laws concerning illicit sexual relationships.  I'm curious to know whether these practices were common among the peoples from whom the Israelites were trying to be different.  Did the Egyptians take siblings as wives?  Did the Canaanites sleep with their children?  Someone must have been doing these things or it wouldn't have been necessary to expliciutly prohibit the behavior.

18:9 - "The nakedness of thy sister, the daughter of thy father, or the daughter of thy mother, whether born at home, or born abroad [מוֹלֶדֶת בַּיִת, אוֹ מוֹלֶדֶת חוּץ], even their nakedness thou shalt not uncover."  Why is it necessary to stress that it doesn't matter where the sister is born?  And why not say the same about sons?

18:17 - "Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter; thou shalt not take her son's daughter, or her daughter's daughter, to uncover her nakedness: they are near kinswomen; it is lewdness [זִמָּה הִוא]."  So...this is lewd, but not all the other things?  Why only say this here?

18:21 - "And thou shalt not give any of thy seed to set them apart to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD."  Who is Molech, and what's the big deal?  Rashi explains that Molech was
[a] form of idolatry...and this was the manner of its worship, that one would hand over one’s child to the pagan priests, who would make two huge fires. The child was then passed through on foot between these two fires. — [Sanh. 64b.]
Hmmm.  This is one of those passages that gives pause.  On the one hand, reference is made to the specific practices of a specific religious group/cult that existed thousands of years ago and is now no more.  On the other hand, we're supposed to view the Torah as being above and beyond time, something perfect and permanent forever.  That's a bit hard to do...
18:22-23 - Oy:  "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is abomination [תּוֹעֵבָה]. And thou shalt not lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith; neither shall any woman stand before a beast, to lie down thereto; it is perversion [תֶּבֶל]."  So there we have it, right?  No homosexual behavior (or bestiality).  In this context -- of the many different illicit sexual relationships -- I see this as a differentiator in some way:  others do it, so therefore we will not.  It's a mixing of things that others allow, but Judaism will not. 

I suppose if one believes that God said so, that this is simply one of God's chukim, and therefore no explanation is needed or given, then there's not much to discuss.  But is homosexuality really an "abomination"?  Are my friends who are gay doing something at odds with the natural order of the universe?  I just can't accept this.  It makes no sense.  Having relations with siblings or children isn't the same as homosexuality.  It just isn't.  I can understand why God would create a world in which people had y'zirei hara (evil inclinations) to do things prohibited by moral law, but to create a world in which people are hard-wired to want to do things that are prohibited by chok (statute) rather than mishpat (ordinance)...what could possibly be the point of this?  Right, I know, who am I to ask why God does as God does.  But in this world, where gay friends would suffer terribly if the sexual aspect of their identities were suppressed -- heck, where most gays in the world do suffer in this way -- where there are so many terrible things am I supposed to buy that this is so important to God?

By the way, what's the difference between a toevah (abomination)and a tevel (perversion)?

18:24-28 - "Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things; for in all these the nations are defiled [כִּי בְכָל-אֵלֶּה נִטְמְאוּ הַגּוֹיִם], which I cast out from before you. And the land was defiled, therefore I did visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land vomited [וַתָּקִא הָאָרֶץ] out her inhabitants. Ye therefore shall keep My statutes and Mine ordinances, and shall not do any of these abominations; neither the home-born, nor the stranger that sojourneth among you--for all these abominations have the men of the land done, that were before you, and the land is defiled--that the land vomit not you out also, when ye defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. "


Some thoughts:  There is a tension here.  On the one hand, there are statutes from God that have no rationale, that God has explicated in Torah.  On the other hand, we are to understand that even before the Torah was given, non-Israelites were "defiled" by not observing certain prohibitions, which caused God to make the land "vomit" (!) them out.  But how could these peoples have known what God wanted and, more to the point, why should it have mattered?  A counterargument would be that these sexual prohibitions are mishpatim -- and therefore logic-based and applicable to non-Israelites.  But then what is the logic according to which homosexuality is an abomination?  What is the underlying morality, other than the fact that God "said so"?  What troubles me even more about this passage, though, is that it seems to say that even chukim apply to non-Jews:  "Ye therefore shall keep My statutes and Mine ordinances, and shall not do any of these abominations; neither the home-born, nor the stranger that sojourneth among you."  But why should chukim apply to non-Jews, no matter where they live?

Am I missing something here?

1 comment:

  1. I've heard a couple of things about the gay question that may be relevant.

    1) Some believe the "lie with a man as with a woman" refers only to anal sex (and of course it says nothing at all against lesbians). A gay orthodox yeshiva student expounds this view in the excellent documentary "Trembling Before G-d".

    2) There are many behaviors classed as "abominations" -- homosexuality is not particularly singled out. It's also more in the category of "because God said so" laws. It is therefore simply bigotry for the Christian and Jewish religious right wing to constantly speak out and legislate against gays on religious grounds, while they don't seem to worry about other "abominations" that are equally based on a decree rather than on any self-evident sense of justice or morality.

    At any rate, the text is still a big problem for me. The "evil inclination" we allegedly have to eat bacon ["decrees against which the evil inclination protests"] is qualitatively different from the "inclination" towards the people we fall in love with and sleep with. It seems ridiculous to place these on the same legal or moral level.

    As for chukim applying to resident non-Jews, I suppose that would insulate the local Jews from temptation and from accidental breaking of statutes.