Shoftim: Abominable

August 18, 2015 at 11:14 pm | Posted in Shoftim | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

lamb 2You shall not slaughter for God, your god, an ox or a lamb or kid that has a defect in it, any bad thing, because it is toeivah to God, your god.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 17:1)

toeivah (תּוֹעֵבָה) = repugnant, causing visceral disgust; an “abomination”.

This is only the first of five times the word toeivah appears in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“Judges”). This emotionally loaded noun or adjective appears 117 times in the Hebrew Bible, and its verb form (תעב) appears 23 times. The word has been used to manipulate reactions for millennia.

An object or action can be toeivah to a class of human beings, or to God. Sometimes the Torah simply states that something is toeivah without saying who finds it repugnant; the implication is that the reader or listener should be repelled.

The first three times the word toeivah appears in the Bible, it describes what disgusts Egyptians.  The book of Genesis/Bereishit says that Egyptians find eating at the same table with Hebrews toeivah (Genesis 43:32). We do not know whether Egyptians were disgusted by their manners or by their diet. Next Joseph tells his brothers that all shepherds of flocks are toeivah to Egyptians (Genesis 46:34).  In the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses tells the Pharaoh that the Hebrews must travel some distance to make sacrifices to God because their animal offerings are toeivah to Egyptians (Exodus 8:22).

The first thing considered toeivah to God, rather than to a specific group of humans, is in the book of Leviticus: With a male you shall not lie down as one lies down with a woman; it is toeivah. (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:22)

This infamous line (misused by fundamentalists to claim that all homosexuality is an “abomination”) occurs in the middle of a list of sexual prohibitions God tells Moses to issue to the Israelites.  Since God is the speaker in this verse, the implication is that God finds that particular act (whatever it might actually be) toeivah.

disgust 1The first verse in this week’s Torah portion to mention toeivah specifies that an animal offering with a defect is toeivah to God, your god. It establishes that God Itself finds a defective offering repulsive, revolting, viscerally disgusting. I picture God as a human being making a face and swallowing hard because his or her gorge is rising.

The problem is that God, unlike Egyptians, has no viscera.  Attributing visceral disgust to God is an anthropomorphization.

Immediately after warning that God finds offerings with defects revolting, this week’s Torah portion says that if anyone worships other gods,

and it is told to you and you hear, and you inquire thoroughly, and hey!—it is true, well-founded, that the thing was done, this toeivah, in Israel—then you shall take out that man or that woman who did this evil thing within your gates, and you shall pelt the man or the woman with stones so that they die. (Deuteronomy 17:4-5)

Is worshiping other gods toeivah to God, or to the people of Israel? Other parts of Deuteronomy make it clear that any act worshiping other gods is disgusting to God.  For example:

Carved images of their gods you shall burn in the fire.  You must not covet the silver and gold upon them and take it for yourself, lest you be snared by it, for it is toeivah to God, your god. (Deuteronomy 7:25)

The toeivah things and practices in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, include defective animal offerings, the worship of other gods, and the practice of magic.

When you come into the land that God, your god, is giving to you, you must not learn to do as the toavot of those nations. There must not be found among you one who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, a caster of cast lots, a cloud-reader, or a snake-diviner, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells with a familiar, or a woman who inquires of the dead, or a man who consults ghosts, or a medium for the dead.  Because everyone who does these things is toavot, and on account of these toeivot, God, your god, is dispossessing them [the Canaanite nations] before you.  (Deuteronomy 18:9-12)

toavot, toeivot  (תּוֹעֵבֹת, תּוֹעֲוֹת) = plural of toeivah.

Since God is dispossessing the Canaanites because of their magical practices, the Torah concludes that God finds the magic repugnant and disgusting. (See my blog post Shoftim: Taboo Magic.)

The word toeivah comes up one more time in this week’s Torah portion, when Moses tells the Israelites that when they conquer any town within the land designated for Israel, they must kill all the inhabitants, men, women, and children—

—so that they will not teach you to do like any of their toavot that they did for their gods, and you would do wrong for God, your god. (Deuteronomy 20:18)

I believe this is one of the places where the Bible advocates something unethical.  Should we commit genocide against a people because we find their superstitious or religious practices disgusting?  Of course not!  Should we kill them all because we are afraid they will convert us?  Of course not!

Genocide motivated by visceral disgust for a group still happens.  The Nazi round-up and slaughter of not only Jews, but also homosexual men, gypsies, and others the Nazis found disgusting, is the most famous example of modern genocide.  Unfortunately genocide still happens around the world.

The Distinguished Member of the Humane Society, by E.H. Landseer

The Distinguished Member of the Humane Society,
by E.H. Landseer

Nevetheless, some reactions of disgust have an ethical component.  I find okra disgusting because of its taste and texture, but I do not consider people who eat it immoral. The idea of cooking and eating a dog repels me in a different way, because I find it unethical.  Dogs have been my cross-species friends; they have enough in common with human beings so I believe it is wrong for humans to kill them for no better reason than to eat them.  (Twenty years ago I realized that this reasoning applies to all mammals, and I have avoided eating them ever since.)

Most Americans find the idea of eating a dog toeivah.  Many (though not all) Chinese still consider dog an acceptable meat.  Should we therefore kill the Chinese?  Of course not!

When we feel visceral repugnance, our impulse is to get rid of whatever is disgusting us.  But in order to be morally upright, we have to step back from our visceral reactions and determine what actions are ethically acceptable.  I can ethically work to pass laws against slaughtering dogs and other mammals for food.  I cannot ethically kill people who happen to be butchers.

Yet if I thought God found eating dogs toeivah, I could use that as a justification for killing dog butchers.  I could even cite an earlier verse in Deuteronomy:  You shall not eat any toeivah. (Deuteronomy 14:3), which is followed by a list of animals that are toeivah to eat, including any animal with paws instead of hooves.

Thus attributing human disgust to God opens the way to truly abominable deeds.

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  1. […] week, in Shoftim: Abominable, I wrote about how attributing toeivah to God anthropomorphizes the One.  The verse in this […]

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