Shoftim: More Important Than War, Part 2

August 26, 2020 at 9:29 pm | Posted in Ki Teitzei, Shoftim | 1 Comment

Israelite Soldier (artist unknown)

Once the Israelites have taken over most of Canaan and established their own country, Moses says in last week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“Judges”), a king will have more important duties than wars of conquest, and some men will have more important duties than being soldiers.  Battles are inevitable in the Torah, and advantageous to the winners; winning king expands his kingdom, and his soldiers get shares of the booty.  But the portion Shoftim opens a door to an attitude that values peace.

In last week’s post, Shoftim: More Important Than War, Part 1, I covered the four rules a good king must follow, all of which would make a war of conquest more difficult—unless God intervened.   Later the portion Shoftim says:

If you go out to battle against your enemies and you see horse and chariot, more troops than you have, you must not be afraid of them, because God, your God who brought you up from the land of Egypt, is with you.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 20:1)

Individual men must still be prepared to die, but they should know that God is on the side of their country and their comrades.

If the war is defensive, protecting the kingdom from attack, then all able-bodied men who are age 20 and older must serve in the military.1  But if the war is offensive, designed to expand Israel’s border or its prestige, then four kinds of circumstances excuse men altogether from going to battle.2

Israelite house, artist unknown

1) Then the officials will speak to the troops, saying: “Who is the man that has built a new house and not chanako?  He must leave and return to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man yachnekhenu.”  (Deuteronomy 20:5)

chanakho (חֲנָכוֹ) = dedicated it, inaugurated it.  yachnekhenu (יַחְנְכֶנּוּ) = he will dedicate it, inaugurate it.  (From the same root as chanukah, חֲנֻכָּה = dedication; the name of the winter solstice holiday.)

According to Talmud Bavli (Sotah 43b) this exemption applies to any man who has not dedicated a new house, whether he built it, bought it, inherited it, or received it as a gift.  What does it mean to dedicate a new house?  According to Targum Yonatan, it means putting a mezuzah on the doorpost.3  But this takes only a few minutes, not long enough to stop a man from going to battle.  Rashi wrote that dedicating a house means living in it.4

If the new owner died in battle, he would never know that another man was living there.  But the Torah does not want to deprive the owner of the satisfaction of moving into the new house.  In the Torah, a man who lives in his own house is the head of a household, no longer a dependent on an older family member.  He should not be denied the joy of his new status.

Grape vine, artist unknown

2) “And who is the man that has planted a vineyard and not chilelo?  He must leave and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man yechalilenu.” (Deuteronomy 20:6)

chilelo (חִלְּלוֹ) = made profane use of it; made personal use of it.  yechalilenu (יְחַלְּלֶנּוּ) = he will make profane/personal use of it.

The Talmud defines a vineyard as at least five grape vines, and extends the exemption to include those who had planted at least five fruit trees.5  No fruit may be harvested from a grape vine or a fruit tree for the first three years after it is planted.  In the fourth year, all of its fruit must be donated to God—either brought to the priests at the temple, or exchanged for silver which is brought to the temple.  Only in the fifth year can the owner eat the fruit himself, or sell it for profit.6

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra, in which these rules are laid out, is primarily concerned with the holy rather than the profane.  But here in Deuteronomy, Moses emphasizes the importance of feeding yourself and your own household.  After waiting four years for his vines or trees to mature, farmer should not be denied the joy of making a living from them.

Isaac and Rebekah, by Simeon Solomon, 1863

3) “And who is the man that has paid the bride-price for a wife and not lekachah?  He must leave and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man yikachenah.” (Deuteronomy 20:7)

lekachah (לְקָחָהּ) = taken her, had sexual intercourse with her, married her.  yikachenah (יִקָּחֶנָּה) = he will take her, have sex with her, marry her.

Is the fiancé exempt from battle so that he is not deprived of intercourse with his bride, or so that he can beget children with her?  This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, says:

When a man takes a new wife, he must not go out with the army for any purpose; he shall be exempt for his household for one year, and make his wife glad.  (Deuteronomy 24:5)

This implies that a new wife must not be deprived of the joy of intercourse with her husband.

The Talmud, Sotah 43b, says that the bridegroom is sent home whether he paid the bride-price for a virgin or a widow, or he is doing his duty for his deceased brother’s widow.  Under Israelite and Canaanite law, a childless woman whose husband died was is entitled to get a son through her husband’s brother.  “And even if there are five brothers, and one of them dies in the war, they all return for the widow.”7  Perhaps giving the widow a son is so important that if one brother fails, another must be available.  This Talmud passage implies that the purpose of the exemption is to get a new wife pregnant.

Whether the goal is to make the wife glad, or to have a child, a husband should not be denied the joy of living with his new wife.

Rembrandt history painting detail, 1626

4) “And the officials will continue to speak to the people, and they will say: “Who is the man who is yarei and rakh of heart?  He must leave and return to his house, and not melt the heart of his brother [soldier] like his heart.”  (Deuteronomy 20:8)

yarei (יָרֵא) = afraid, fearful.

verakh (רַךְ) = sensitive, tender, weak, delicate.

The Talmud (Sotah 44a) offers two reasons why a man might be fearful: Rabbi Akiva said the man would be terrified by the sight of a drawn sword; Rabbi Yosei HaGelili said the man would be afraid because of his sins (implying a view of the afterlife that was invented after the Hebrew Bible was written).8  Both of these reasons address fear, but not sensitivity.  Perhaps the rabbis of the Talmud interpreted the sentence as describing the man as “fearful and weak-hearted”, making weak-hearted a synonym for fearful.

Talmud tractate Sotah 44b says the reason for this fourth exemption is that fear spreads, making formerly brave and hard-hearted soldiers feel qualms about going to battle.

But the officials could also be asking “Who is the man who is afraid and tender-hearted?”  Since the adjective rakh applies to a mental attitude as well as physical condition, this man would feel tenderness toward all human beings, and be afraid of killing them rather than of being killed.

A tender-hearted man’s reluctance to kill could also spread to other soldiers if he were allowed to march with the troops.

According to the Talmud (Sotah 44a), all four exemptions are announced at once to spare a fearful man from embarrassment; for all the other men know, he is leaving the ranks and going home because of a house or vineyard or wife.

But what if the exemption for a fearful or tender-hearted man is parallel to the other three exemptions?  Then perhaps he must also leave and return home for his own good.  Maybe a peaceful, gentle man must not be denied the joy of living in peace.

*

What is more important than going to war?

Home.

Livelihood.

Family, whatever form it may take.

Peace.

  1. Numbers 1:2-3.
  2. The Talmud distinguishes between optional wars of conquest, and obligatory wars to defend the kingdom of Israel or Judah from invasion. (Sotah 43b-44b)
  3. Targum Yonasan (a.k.a.Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, between 4th and 13th centuries C.E.) as cited by Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Devarim, trans. by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, Brooklyn, NY, 1995, p. 205.
  4. Rashi is the acronym for 11th-century C.E. Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  5. Talmud Bavli, Sotah 43b.
  6. Leviticus 19:23-25.
  7. Talmud Bavli, Sotah 44a, William Davidson translation, www.sefaria.com.
  8. See Talmud Bavli, Eiruvin 19a.  Jews did not adopt the idea that souls survive death until the second century B.C.E.  The idea of souls burning in an underground fire came from Greek and Persian sources, which Jews developed into the myth of Gehinnom (later called Gehenna) and Christians developed into the myths of Hell and Purgatory.  The Talmud was written during the third through fifth centuries C.E.

 

Shoftim: More Important Than War, Part 1

August 19, 2020 at 10:18 pm | Posted in Kings 1, Kings 2, Shoftim | 1 Comment

Israelite soldier (artist unknown)

Wars of conquest and even genocide are glorified in the books of Numbers and Joshua.  (For a blatant biblical example, see my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent.)

Yet sometimes in Deuteronomy a kinder voice comes through.  In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“Judges”), Moses looks ahead to when the Israelites have already taken over most of Canaan and established their own country.  Then a king will have more important duties than wars of conquest; Moses lists four.  Then a man will sometimes have more important duties than serving as a soldier in battle; Moses lists four of these, also.1

King, Hazor, 15-13th cent. BCE, Israel Museum

This week’s post will cover the four things a good king must do.  Next week’s post will cover the four things that are more important than serving as a soldier.

A good king

When you have entered the land that God, your God, is giving to you, and you have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say: “I will put a king over myself, like all the nations around me,” you may certainly put a king over yourself—one that God, your God, will choose.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 17:14-15)

Once on his throne (all the kings of the Israelites were male), the king would have to obey four rules, all of which would make the conquest of foreign countries more difficult:

  • He must not accumulate horses.
  • He must not accumulate wives, especially foreign women who worship other gods.
  • He must not accumulate too much silver and gold.
  • He must read the Torah every day.

This description applies to Josiah/Yoshiyahu, a young king of Judah in the 7th century B.C.E.  At age sixteen, “he began to seek out the God of David, his forefather …” (2 Chronicles 34:3).  At 26, he orders repairs for the temple in Jerusalem, and the high priest Hilkiah/Chilkiyahu reports:

“I have found a book of the torah in the house of God.”  (2 Kings 22:8)

torah (תוֹרָה) = teaching, instruction; the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.  (From the root verb yorah, יֺרָה = teach, instruct.)

Josiah hearing the book of the law, 1873

Galvanized by this scroll, King Josiah demands exclusive worship of the God of Israel throughout the Kingdom of Judah and parts of the former Kingdom of Israel to the north.  He demands that his people worship only at the temple in Jerusalem, he reinstitutes Passover, and he destroys the shrines, priests, and idols of other gods.2

Modern scholars propose that Hilkiah’s scroll was a substantial part of the book of Deuteronomy, either the early core (chapters 5-26) or the code of laws in chapters 12-20.  They point to various items in the story of Josiah’s reign that appear as laws in Deuteronomy, but are not mentioned in the first four books of the bible.3

Some passages in Deuteronomy imply praise of King Josiah and criticism of earlier kings.  In this week’s Torah portion, Moses’ four rules for kings seem to be veiled criticism of King Solomon/Shlomoh, whose reign over a united Israel would have taken place during the 10th century B.C.E.

1) He must not accumulate horses for himself, and he must not send people back to Egypt in order to accumulate horses, for God said to you: “You must not find an excuse to turn back on that road again.”  (Deuteronomy 17:16)

Israelites used donkeys for riding, not horses.  Throughout the Ancient Near East horses were used to pull war chariots.  Charioteers usually defeated foot soldiers—unless God intervened, as when 600 Egyptian chariots tried to cross the Reed Sea.4  God does not say “You must not find an excuse to turn back on that road again” until this week’s Torah portion, but several times in the books of Exodus and Numbers the Israelites in the wilderness come up with an excuse to head back to Egypt, and God acts to prevent them.5

By the time of Josiah, the kings of Judah were not only keeping horses and chariots, but dedicating them to the sun god Shemesh.

And he [Josiah] abolished the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the Shemesh, from the entrance of the house of God to … the outskirts, and he burned the chariots of the Shemesh in a fire.  (2 Kings 23:11)

Chariots, ivory plaque from Megiddo

Despite this loyal action, God does not intervene when the army of Egypt under Pharaoh Nekho fights the army of Judah under King Josiah.  The second book of Chronicles explains that the pharaoh sends messengers to Josiah asking for safe passage through Judah on his way to fight the Assyrians to the north.  But Josiah “did not listen to the words of Nekho from the mouth of God, and he came out to fight on the plains of Megiddo.” (2 Chronicles 35:22).  The Egyptians win, and an arrow kills King Josiah, who is riding in a horse-drawn chariot.

Three centuries earlier, King Solomon buys horses from Egypt.6  He keeps 12,000 horses and 1,400 chariots—a substantial military force.7  Although the bible does not describe his battles, it does say that Solomon exacts tribute from countries on Israel’s borders, and enforces punishing corvée labor on the Israelites in the north (as the pharaoh did to the enslaved Israelites in Egypt).8

2) And he must not accumulate wives for himself, so that his leivav will not veer away.  (Deuteronomy 17:17)

leivav = heart (literally), mind, inner self, seat of emotions and thoughts.

Only two of King Josiah’s wives are mentioned in the bible: Chamutal of Livnah (a town in western Judah) and Zevudah of Rumah (a village west of the Sea of Galilee in what was the Kingdom of Israel until the Assyrian conquest of 701 B.C.E.).9  Both of these women are of Israelite descent, not foreigners.

Israel and its neighbors in Solomon’s time

King Solomon, however, has 700 royal wives and 300 concubines.  His first wife is the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt.10  He loves and becomes attached to Pharaoh’s daughter and to women from the royal families of Moab, Ammon, Edom, Phoenicia, and Hatti.11  Although at the beginning of his kingship he builds the first temple to the God of Israel in Jerusalem, in his old age he becomes more devoted to his foreign wives than to God.

And it happened in his old age, Solomon’s wives turned his leivav away after other gods, and the leivav of Solomon was not with God, his God, like the leivav of his father, David, had been.  (1 Kings 11:4)

King Solomon even builds shrines for the foreign gods Khemosh and Molekh.12  Thus the second rule for a king in this week’s Torah portion can be read as another veiled criticism of Solomon.

3) And he must not accumulate too much silver and gold for himself.  (Deuteronomy 17:17)

If an Israelite king kept more money than he needed to pay for the basic functions of kingship, he was disobeying the biblical injunctions to support the poor, widows and orphans, resident aliens, and Levites (religious functionaries who lived on donations).13

King Josiah takes this responsibility seriously.  When he reinstitutes the observance of Passover,

Josiah contributed lambs and goat kids for the people numbering 30,000, and 3,000 cattle, everything for the Passover sacrifices for everyone who was present.  These were from the property of the king.  (2 Chronicles 35:7)

But the description of King Solomon’s palace indicates that he uses excess gold for his own luxury.  He decorates the palace with 200 shields and 300 bucklers of hammered gold.  All his drinking cups and other utensils are also gold.14

4) And it shall be when he sits upon his throne of kingship, then he must write for himself a copy of this torah on a scroll, from [the scroll] in front of the priests of the Levites.  And it must be with him, and he must read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to be in awe of God, his God, to observe all the words of this torah and these decrees, to do them.   (Deuteronomy 17:18)

The fourth rule establishes that Israelite kings are not above the law.  The king’s most important job is to follow God’s rules.  To do this, he must keep on rereading them so he does not forget any, and so they immediately come into his mind when he faces a relevant situation.

Once again, King Josiah serves as an example of a good king.

Solomon Reading from the Torah of Moses, French manuscript, 13th cent. CE  (In the bible that king is Josiah, not Solomon!)

The king went up to the house of God, along with all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the priests and the prophets and all the people from small to big.  And he read out loud all the words of the scroll of the covenant that had been found in the house of God.  And the king stood on a platform and he cut the covenant in front of God: to follow God and to observe [God’s] commandments and testimonies and decrees with all [their] leiv and with all [their] soul, to carry out the words of this covenant, the one written on this scroll.  And all the people stood with the covenant.  (2 Kings 23:2-3)

leiv (לֵב) = a short version of the word leivav = heart, mind, inner emotions and thought.

Not so King Solomon.

And God felt angry with Solomon because he had turned away his leivav from being with God, the God of Israel …  And God said to Solomon: ‘… You have not observed my covenant and my decrees that I commanded.’  (1 Kings 11:9, 11:11)

*

These four rules for kings can still show us how to do good instead of make war.  If a king must not accumulate war horses, then today every head of state should make treaties rather than weapons, and every individual should learn how to give up violence.

If a king must avoid marrying women who will tempt him to turn away from God, then today every head of state should avoid listening to those who advise taking office for the sake of power rather than service, and every individual should avoid listening to people who tempt them away from their own standards.

If a king must not accumulate too much silver and gold, then today every head of state should avoid using their position for personal gain, and every individual should learn to care more about people and actions than about wealth.

Finally, if a king must copy, read, and reread the Torah, then today every head of state should read their country’s constitution and key laws, consult with experts in every field requiring action, and question the morality of each option before acting.  And every individual should engage in study before speaking out or voting.

Then we would have more than a good king; we would have a good world.

Next week: four more startling rules in the portion Shoftim, this time about who must be excused from military service, in Shoftim: More Important Than War, Part 2.

  1. Unlike today’s nation of Israel, the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah did not use women as soldiers in battle. (However, in Judges 4:1-22 the prophetess Devorah acts as the general of the Israelite tribes behind the scenes, and Jael kills the enemy general when he is in her tent.)
  2. 2 Kings 22-11 through 23:25.
  3. Including the temple (a.k.a. the house of God) in Jerusalem as the only legitimate place for offerings to God, the celebration of Passover at the temple rather than at home, and the language of passages in which the people pledge themselves to a covenant with God. (W. Gunther Plaut, “Introducing Deuteronomy”, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. by W. Gunther Plaut, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981, pp. 1290-1294.)
  4. Exodus 14:1-30.
  5. Exodus 14:10-14, 15:26, 16:2-4, 17:3-6; Numbers 11:4-6, 14:2-4.
  6. 2 Kings 23:28-30.
  7. Solomon’s father, King David, hamstrings 1,600 of the horses he captures in a battle with the king of Tzovah, keeping only 100 for his own use (2 Samuel 8:4). King Solomon buys horses in 1 Kings 10:28.
  8. 1 Kings 10:26.
  9. 1 Kings 10:25 and 11:28.
  10. 2 Kings 23:30-36.
  11. 1 Kings 3:1.
  12. 1 Kings 11:1-3.
  13. 1 Kings 11:7-8.
  14. The book of Deuteronomy requires all landowners to support these groups in 14:27-29, 15:4-11, 24:19-21, and 26:12.
  15. 1 Kings 10:16 and 0:21.

Repost: Shoftim

September 5, 2019 at 9:07 pm | Posted in Shoftim | Leave a comment

Four things are called toeivah (abominable, repugnant) in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim: offering defective animals as a sacrifices for God, worshiping other gods, keeping carved images of gods, and practicing magic.

My 2015 blog post on these abominations pointed out that while it is fine to avoid doing things we find repugnant, it is immoral to kill human beings who do repugnant things.

I still believe that.  But when I reviewed my 2015 post, I decided to rewrite the last part of it.  Since the 2016 American election I have become more concerned about government-sponsored heartlessness than about individual heartless deeds.  So here is my rewritten post: Shoftim: Abominable.

Shoftim: To Do Justice

August 15, 2018 at 8:17 pm | Posted in Shoftim | Leave a comment

Tzedek, tzedek you must pursue. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:20)

tzedek (צֶדֶק) = right behavior; ethical standards; justice.

The pursuit of justice and/or ethical behavior is an obligation incumbent upon all of us.  But in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“Judges”), the pursuit of tzedek is an instruction to judges.  The portion begins:

Shoftim and officers you shall appoint in all your gates [of towns] that God is giving to you according to your tribes; veshaftu the people [with] rulings of tzedek.  (Deuteronomy 16:18)

shoftim (שֺׁפְטִים) = judges; those who decide cases; those who deliver justice.

veshaftu (וְשָׁפְטוּ) = and they shall judge, make settlements among, deliver justice to.

Samson, also a judge

The shoftim in this week’s portion are not the kind of shoftim we see in the book of Judges/Shoftim.  There, most shoftim were chieftains or war leaders during a time of frequent conflicts among small states.  They deliver justice to the people by leading an army that frees them from their latest conquerors.  Afterward they usually serve as chieftains who are also judges.1

City gate at Megiddo

The shoftim in this week’s Torah portion also differ from the town elders who serve as judges in biblical passages referring to the time before Israel and Judah had kings. During that period, an individual with a claim to press, or two household heads seeking arbitration, would go to the town gate or the village threshing floor at daybreak and call ten of the settlement’s elders (respected male heads of households) to come over and adjudicate.2  A decision required the consensus of all ten men.3

Although the book of Deuteronomy is set on the bank of the Jordan at the end of Moses’ life, it was written for the citizens of the kingdom of Judah, and refers to their legal system.4  The shoftim in this week’s portion are appointed judges, not the first ten respected elders to pass by.

These appointed shoftim must judge the people with “rulings of tzedek” as follows:

You may not skew a ruling; you may not recognize a face; and you may not take a bribe, since a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and distorts the words of the tzaddikimTzedek, tzedek you must pursue, so you may live and take possession of the land that God, your God, is giving to you.  (Deuteronomy 16:19-20)

tzaddikim (צַדִּיקִם) = the innocent; the righteous, the ethically good, the just.  (From the same root as tzedek.)

To “recognize a face” means to show favoritism, not just in the decision but also in how the parties are treated during the hearing.5

Why would pursuing justice enable the Israelites to live and conquer more and more of the land of Canaan?  Deuteronomy predicts that they will only win battle victories with God’s help.  (See my post Re-eih: Ownership.)  Therefore it pays to do what God wants.

Moses frequently restates what God wants from the Israelites, which includes just decisions about legal claims.  It also includes avoiding the worship of other deities (the first of the Ten Commandments).  If local appointed judges hear that someone has been worshiping other gods, they must investigate thoroughly.  If the rumor proves true,

Stoning, from Piola Domenico, 17th century

Then you shall bring out to your gates that man or that woman who did the wicked thing, and stone them with stones so they will die.  On the word of two or three witnesses they shall definitely be executed, [but] they shall not be put to death on the word of one.  (Deuteronomy 17:5-6)

At least two eye-witnesses must agree that they saw the accused bow down to, or otherwise serve, an alien god before the judges can declare the accused guilty.  One or zero witnesses are insufficient for a guilty verdict, no matter what the circumstantial evidence.6

The Torah portion Shoftim also addresses what local judges should do when it is hard to connect a legal case with the appropriate law or ruling.

If a matter of law is too difficult for you, … then you shall get up and go up to the place God, your God, chooses.  And you shall come to the priests of the Levites, or to the judge who is [serving] at that time, and you shall inquire; and he shall tell you the matter of the law.  (Deuteronomy 17:8-9)

The next few verses say that the local judges must carry out the ruling from Jerusalem (the place God chooses) exactly as instructed.  This passage parallels the scene in Exodus/Shemot where Yitro tells his son-in-law Moses to appoint judges to settle minor disputes, and ask them to bring the major cases to him.7  Yitro explains that the major cases should go to Moses not because he is the central authority, but because God talks to him and gives him the laws.  Perhaps difficult cases must be referred to the priests and judges in Jerusalem not because they are the central authority, but because they are more experienced in interpreting God’s laws.

*

Just as “Tzedek, tzedek you must pursue” should be a goal for every human being in some sphere of life, we can take to heart other instructions to the shoftim in this week’s portion.  How do you judge the actions of another person?

Do you act like the chieftains and war leaders in the book of Judges, convinced that your own cause is just and therefore you have the right to dictate to everyone else?  Or do you act like the elders in the gate, taking action against someone only if your sense of what is right matches the opinions of other respected people in your community?

Do you “recognize a face” or show favoritism, making excuses for someone you like while judging someone you dislike harshly?  Do you feel obligated to refrain from correcting someone who has given you a gift, such as a job or status?

If one person tells you about the terrible thing a third person did, do you believe it?  Or do you wait until two eye-witnesses confirm it?  Do you draw conclusions about someone from circumstantial evidence?

If you cannot make up your mind about whether another person is guilty of wrongdoing, or whether you need to do anything about it, to whom do you take the case?  Who can you trust?

It is not so easy to pursue justice.

  1. Judges 2:16-19. Specific war-leaders whom the book of Judges cites as shoftim administering justice are Otniel (3:9), Jepthah/Yiftach (12:7), and Samson/Shimshon. (15:20, 16:31).  The shoftim named in Judges who appear to be chieftains who also judge cases are Tola (10:1-2), Ya-ir (10:3), Ivtzan (12:8-9), Eilon (12:11), and Avdon (12:13-14).  One woman, Devorah, takes a dual role.  She is introduced as “a prophetess, a woman of Lapidot, [who] administered justice in Israel at that time … and Israelites went up to her for rulings” (Judges 4:4-5), but then she calls for war and accompanies a general into battle.
  2. Ruth 4:1-11, Proverbs 31:23, and Lamentations 5:14. Also see Victor H. Matthews & Don C. Benjamin, Social World of Ancient Israel 1250-587 BCE, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 1993, pp. 122-124.  Deuteronomy 25:7 calls for the elders at the gate to rule on the case of a new husband who accuses his bride of not being a virgin; perhaps the older system of town elders survived, modified by later laws and rulings imposed by the kingdom’s priests and other higher-ranking judges (see Deuteronomy 17:8-13).
  3. Matthews & Benjamin, p. 124.
  4. Most modern critical scholars date the composition of Deuteronomy chapters 12-25 to the reign of King Josiah of Judah in the 7th century B.C.E., with some editing later.
  5. Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) on Deuteronomy 16:19.
  6. Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 37b.
  7. Exodus 18:22.

Shoftim: No Goddesses Allowed

August 24, 2017 at 7:06 pm | Posted in Shoftim | 1 Comment
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In beginning, elohim created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:1)

elohim (אֱלֺהִים) = gods (plural); one of the names of the God of Israel. (Other common names include the tetragrammaton, El, El Elyon, and El Shaddai.)

How many gods does it take to create the universe? For most of ancient Canaan and Mesopotamia, in the beginning there were two: a father god and a mother goddess, who proceeded to beget additional gods. The universe was dualistic from the start.

But the book of Genesis clarifies that only one God created the universe, without any sexual partner.  God makes all the separations and distinctions, including gender, during the course of this creation. And unlike the gods of other peoples in the Ancient Near East, the God of the Torah demands exclusive loyalty. Anyone who worships God is forbidden to worship any additional gods or goddesses.

God first reveals this at Mount Sinai, with the commandment:

You shall not make for yourself an idol or any image of what is in the heavens above or what is in the earth below on what is in the water below the earth. You shall not bow down to them and you shall not serve them. Because I, God, your elohim, am a jealous eil. (Exodus/Shemot 20:4-5)

eil, El (אֵל) = a god; the father god of Canaanite religion; the God of Israel.

Matzeivah at Gezer

Worshiping an idol is equated in the Bible with worshiping the god that the idol represents. In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“Judges”), Moses orders the Israelites:

You must not plant for yourself an asherah of any wood next to the altar of God, your elohim, that you shall make for yourself. And you must not erect for yourself a matzeivah which God, your elohim, hates. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:21-22)

asherah (אֲשֵׁרָה) = the mother goddess of Canaanite and Phoenician religions (called Ishtar in Akkadian and Inanna in Sumerian); a carved wooden post representing this goddess. (Plural: asherim, אֲשֵׁרִים.)

matzeivah (מַצֵבָה) = a standing stone used as a marker, or as an image representing a god. (Plural: matzeivot, מַצֵּבֺת.)

Clay figurines from Judah

Although very few wooden artifacts have survived the millennia in Israel, archaeologists have unearthed numerous small clay figurines in ancient Judah that may have been modeled after large wood asherim.1

All asherim are forbidden in the Bible, but not every matzeivah is. Standing stones that mark graves, boundaries, covenants, or great events are acceptable.2 So are the standing stones Jacob erects for God and anoints with oil.3 The matzeivot that God hates are the standing stones that people bowed to and anointed in order to worship a different god.

Asherim and matzeivot are mentioned together in eleven biblical passages.4 These wood and stone vertical idols were erected at the shrines of other gods—and even, at times, inside the temple of the God of Israel in Jerusalem.5 Thus when people came to a shrine or, during the reigns of more permissive kings, to a temple of God, they also acknowledged the divine power of the gods represented by the asherah and the matzeivah.

Who were the gods behind these two ubiquitous types of idols?

Asherah from Ugarit

The religion of Canaan (later known as Phoenicia) had a founding pair of gods who mated and produced 70 more gods. The father god was named El. In a long poem from Ugarit in northern Canaan6, El is associated with the bull, and holds court in a field at the source of two rivers. The mother goddess was named Asherah or Atirat, and was associated with the seashore, stars, fertility, and trees.

El and Asherah’s most important son was Baal, the weather god. In the Ugaritic poem, Baal asks Asherah to ask El for permission to build a palace on Mount Tzafon and hold court there. Both parents give permission, thus making Baal the ruler over all his sibling gods and goddesses. In other Canaanite stories, Asherah and her son Baal are a sexual pair.

Baal from Ugarit

An asherah represented the mother goddess Asherah. A matzeivah probably represented her son and lover Baal, since Canaanite rituals focused on the pairing of Asherah and Baal, not Asherah and El.7 Most biblical references to matzeivot do not specify the god; the only exceptions are Jacob’s matzeivot for God in the book of Genesis, and two matzeivot of Baal in the second book of Kings.8

The first time the Israelites are told to destroy asherim and matzeivot is in the book of Exodus:

For their altars you shall tear down and their matzeivot you shall shatter and their asherim you shall cut down (34:13); because you must not bow down to another eil, because God is jealous of “his” name; a jealous eil is “he”. (Exodus 34:14)

The Torah consistently uses masculine pronouns and conjugations to refer to its asexual God. Hebrew is a gendered language, in which even inanimate objects and abstract concepts are assigned genders, so the masculine gender is often arbitrary. But it may not be so arbitrary in the case of God.

In the Torah the head of a household is a man, who is entitled to complete obedience from his wife and adult children as well as his slaves. God is often described in the first five books of the Bible as a demanding father, and in the books of the Prophets as the husband of the Israelites, who collectively take the role of God’s unfaithful wife.

Canaanite and Mesopotamian religions had both priestesses and priests; the Israelites had only priests. In other Canaanite and Mesopotamian cultures, women could also own land, make contracts, and initiate divorce. The Israelites reserved these privileges for men.

Is the biblical condemnation of goddesses, including both Asherah and the later goddess Ashtoret, “Queen of the Heavens”9, a result of this discrimination against women?

Or is it merely part of the condemnation of all gods other than the one God, a condemnation that includes the worship of matzeivot as well as asherim?

Complete dedication to a single god does have an advantage. If you begin with two gods, male and female, you can certainly understand our universe of separations and distinctions. But it might be hard to grasp that everything is part of a whole.  Beginning with a single god who creates all the separations and distinctions makes it easier to transcend dualism and get an inkling of the underlying unity of everything.

For me, as for many human beings, it is hard to keep remembering that we are interconnected parts of the whole, and that the whole means more than the sum of its parts.  It is hard to keep returning to any sort of God-consciousness.

So I agree with the Torah portion Shoftim that we should not plant any goddess-posts or god-stones. What we need is a new pronoun and some new metaphors for God.

  1. See Aaron Greener’s essay What Are Clay Female Figurines Doing in Judah during the Biblical Period?, published on thetorah.com.
  2. Jacob marks Rachel’s grave (Genesis 35:20) and his boundary pact with Lavan (Genesis 31:45-52) with matzeivot. Moses erects twelve matzeivot for the twelve tribes around an altar for a ceremonial covenant between the Israelites and God (Exodus 24:4). Joshua erects twelve standing stones in a circle at Gilgal to commemorate the crossing of the Jordan River (Joshua 4:1-9, 4:19-24).
  3. Genesis 8:18, 28:22, 31:13, and 35:14.
  4. Exodus 34:13; Deuteronomy 7:5, 12:13, and 16:21-22; 1 Kings 4:23; 2 Kings 17:10, 18:4, and 23:13-14; Micah 5:12; 2 Chronicles 14:2 and 31:1.
  5. King Hezekiah shatters matzeivot in the Jerusalem Temple in 2 Kings 18:4. King Menashe erects an asherah in the Temple in 2 Kings 21:7. King Josiah removes all the objects made for Asherah and Baal from the Temple and burns them in 2 Kings 23:4-6.
  6. Translated by H.L. Ginsberg in The Ancient Near East, Vol. 1, edited by James B. Pritchard, Princeton University Press, 1958.
  7. Similarly, in the annual fertility rituals of Mesopotamia to the east, a high priestess embodying Asherah (called Inana or Ishtar in that region) has sexual intercourse with the city’s king, who embodies Asherah’s son Baal (called Tammuz or Dumuzi there).
  8. 2 Kings 3:2 and 10:26-27.
  9. Ashtoret, originally one of the daughters of Asherah and El, replaced Asherah as the primary goddess in the region of Canaan during the 6th century B.C.E. The worship of Ashtoret is denounced in Judges 2:13 and 10:6, 1 Samuel 7:4 and 12:10, 1 Kings 11:5, and 2 Kings 23:13. Israelite women worship the “Queen of the Heavens”, one of the titles of Ashtoret, in Jeremiah 7:18 and 44:15-18.
  10. 1 Samuel 28:3-20.

 

Haftarat Shoftim—Isaiah: A New Name

September 6, 2016 at 9:21 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Shoftim | 2 Comments
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9) and the haftarah is Isaiah 51:12-52:12).
Isaiah, by Gustave Dore, 1866

Isaiah, by Gustave Dore, 1866

The second “book” of Isaiah (written in the sixth century B.C.E. around the end of the Babylonian exile, two centuries after the first half of Isaiah) opens:

            Nachamu, nachamu My people!” (Isaiah 40:1)

nachamu (נַחֲמוּ) = Comfort them! (From the same root as nicham (נִחָם) = having a change of heart; regretting, or being comforted.)

This week’s haftarah from second Isaiah begins:

             I, I am He who menacheim you. (Isaiah 51:12)

menacheim (מְנַחֵם) = is comforting.

At this point, many of the exiles in Babylon have given up on their old god and abandoned all hope of returning to Jerusalem. So second Isaiah repeatedly tries to reassure them and change their hearts; he or she uses a form of the root verb nicham eleven times.

In the Jewish calendar, this is the time of year when we, too, need comfort leading to a change of heart. So for the seven weeks between Tisha B’Av (the day of mourning for the fall of the temple in Jerusalem) and Rosh Hashanah (the celebration of the new year) we read seven haftarot of “consolation”, all from second Isaiah.

This year I notice that each of these seven haftarot not only urges the exiles to stick to their own religion and prepare to return to Jerusalem; it also coaxes them to consider different views of God.

The first week—

—in Haftarah for Ve-etchannan—Isaiah: Who Is Calling? we learned that once God desires to communicate comfort, the transmission of instructions to human prophets goes through divine “voices”, aspects of a God Who contains a variety ideas and purposes. When we feel persecuted, it may comfort us to remember that God is not single-mindedly out to get us, but is looking at a bigger picture.

The second week—

—in Haftarah for Eikev—Isaiah: Abandonment or Yearning? second Isaiah encourages the reluctant Jews in Babylon to think of Jerusalem as a mother missing her children, and of God as a rejected father. Instead of being told that God has compassion on us, we feel compassion for an anthropomorphic God. Feeling compassion for someone else can cause a change of heart in someone who is sunk in despair.

The third week—

—in Haftarah Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser, we took a new look at what God would be like if God really were anthropomorphic. Like a slap in the face, this realization could radically change someone’s theological attitude.

The fourth week, this week—

—God not only declares Itself the one who comforts the exiled Israelites, but also announces a new divine name.

In Biblical Hebrew, as in English, “name” can also mean “reputation”. In this week’s haftarah, God mentions two earlier occasions when Israelites, the people God promised to protect, were nevertheless enslaved: when they were sojourning in Egypt, and when Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel/Samaria. Both occasions gave God a bad reputation—a bad name. And the Torah portrays a God who is very concerned about “his” reputation. For example, when God threatens to kill all the Israelites for worshiping a golden calf, Moses talks God out of it by asking:

What would the Egyptians say? “He was bad; He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to remove them from the face of the earth.” (Exodus/Shemot 32:12)

Now, God says, the Babylonians are the oppressors. They captured Jerusalem, razed God’s temple, deported all the leading families of Judah, and still refuse to let them leave Babylon.

            Their oppressors mock them—declares God—

            And constantly, all day, shemi is reviled. (Isaiah 52:5)

shemi (שְׁמִי) = my name.

The Babylonians are giving the God of Israel a bad name.

            Therefore My people shall know shemi,

            Therefore, on that day;

            Because I myself am the one, hamedabeir. Here I am! (Isaiah 52:5-6)

hamedabeir (הַמְדַבֵּר) = the one who is speaking, the one who speaks, the speaker. (From the root verb diber (דִּבֶּר) = speak)

Since God’s old name has been reviled, God promises that the Israelites will know God by a new name. Then God identifies Itself not merely as the speaker of this verse, but as “the one, The Speaker”, adding extra emphasis with “Here I am!”

The concept of God as Hamedabeir appears elsewhere in the Bible. In the first chapter of the book of Genesis/Bereishit (a chapter that modern scholars suspect was written during the Babylonian exile), God speaks the world into being. Whatever God says, happens.

Second Isaiah not only refers to God as the creator of everything, but emphasizes that what God speaks into being is permanent.

            Grass withers, flowers fall

            But the davar of our God stands forever! (Isaiah 40:8)

davar  (דָּבָר) = word, speech, thing, event. (Also from the root verb diber (דִּבֶּר) = speak.)

What is the davar of God regarding the exiles in Babylon? In this week’s haftarah second Isaiah says:

            Be untroubled! Sing out together

            Ruins of Jerusalem!

            For God nicham His people;

            He will redeem Jerusalem. (Isaiah 52:9)

nicham (ִנִחַם) = had a change of heart about; comforted.

God let the Babylonians punish the Israelites because they were unjust and because they worshiped other gods. But now God has had a change of heart and wants to end the punishment and rescue the Israelites from Babylon. Since God’s name was reviled, some of the exiles do not believe God has the power to carry out this desire. So God names Itself Hamedabeir and then declares:

            Thus it is: My davar that issues from My mouth

            Does not return to me empty-handed,

            But performs my pleasure

            And succeeds in what I send it to do.

            For in celebration you shall leave,

            And in security you shall be led. (Isaiah 55:11-12)

The speech of Hamedabeir achieves exactly what God wants it to. In this case, God wants the Israelites in Babylon to return joyfully and safely to Jerusalem. If the exiles believe this information, their hearts will change and they will be filled with new hope.

*

It is easy to give up on God when life looks bleak, and you blame an anthropomorphic god for making it that way. No wonder many Israelite exiles in the sixth century B.C.E. adopted the Babylonian religion. No wonder many people today adopt the religion of atheism.

But there is an alternative: redefine God. Discover a name for God that changes your view of reality, and therefore changes your heart.

Thinking of God as Hamedabeir, The Speaker, takes me in a different direction from second Isaiah. Not being a physicist, I take it on faith that one reality consists of the movement of sub-atomic particles. But another reality is the world we perceive directly with our senses, the world of the davar—the thing and the event. We human beings cannot help dividing our world into things and events. We are also designed to label everything we experience. What we cannot name does not clearly exist for us. In our own way, we too are speakers.

What if God is the ur-speech that creates things out of the dance of sub-atomic particles—for us and creatures like us?

What if God, The Speaker, is the source of meaning? Maybe God is what speaks to all human beings, a transcendent inner voice which we seldom hear. When we do hear The Speaker say something new, we often misinterpret it. Yet sometimes inspiration shines through.

I am comforted by the idea of a Speaker who makes meaning, even if I do not understand it.

 

Shoftim: Abominable

August 18, 2015 at 11:14 pm | Posted in Shoftim | 2 Comments
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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; taboo; 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 word appears as a noun or adjective 117 times in the Hebrew Bible, and its verb form (תעב) appears 23 times.

An object or action can be toeivah to a class of human beings, or to God.  The first three times the word toeivah appears in the Bible, it describes what disgusts Egyptians.

Toeivah to 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 considered the manners or the diet of the Hebrews abominable.

Next Joseph tells his brothers that shepherds are toeivah to Egyptians (Genesis 46:34), meaning that Egyptians shun that occupation.  Then 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).

Toeivah to God

The first thing considered toeivah to God, rather than to a 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.

disgust 1The first verse to use the word toeivah in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, specifies that an animal offering with a defect is toeivah to God.

Attributing visceral disgust to God is an anthropomorphization.  God, unlike Egyptians or other humans, has no viscera.

Immediately after warning that God is revolted by offerings with physical defects, this week’s Torah portion says that for Israelites to worship other gods  is toeivah, and anyone who does “this evil thing within your gates” must be stoned to death.  (Deuteronomy 17:4-5)  Furthermore,

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)

Toeivah deeds in this week’s Torah portion include not only offering defective animals and worshiping other gods, but also practicing 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.

(See my blog post Shoftim: Taboo Magic.)

Toeivah to incite murder

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

Only from the towns of these people, [the towns] that God, your God, is giving to you as a possession, you must not let any soul live … so that they will not teach you to do like any of their toavot that they do for their gods; then you would do wrong for God, your god. (Deuteronomy 20:16,18)

Here Moses appears to assume that since the Israelites are so easily tempted, they are not responsible for their own actions.  He orders them to murder all of the potential tempters, as if genocide were a mere peccadillo compared to conversion to a different religion.

Which comes first, visceral disgust or the decision to commit genocide?

Required identification

The most famous example of modern genocide is the Nazi round-up and slaughter of Jews and members of other minorities, including homosexual men, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and blacks.

When Hitler came to power, Germany was suffering from a long economic depression.  Hitler wanted to make Germany great again.  His government intensified pre-existing prejudices, and used the perception of minorities as “inferior races” or abominations as an excuse to confiscate Jewish wealth, which funded 3-5% of the national budget and perhaps a third of the German war effort.

Then the Nazi government doomed Jewish men, women, and children, as well as the members of other minorities, to slavery and death in concentration camps.

Increasing visceral disgust for Jews enabled the government to improve the German economy, and treating the Jews as toeivah led to and justified genocide.

In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses wants to inspire the Israelites to conquer Canaan and secure it as an Israelite land, without any future assimilation or retaliation.  The most certain way to accomplish this would be to murder every Canaanite in every captured village or town.

Is the purpose of the proposed genocide to ensure Israelite ownership of the land?  Or to eliminate religious freedom and enforce the worship of one God?  Either way, labeling the Canaanites as toeivah justifies Moses’ call for genocide.

*

When we feel repugnance, our impulse is to get rid of whatever is disgusting us.  Personally, I find okra disgusting.  I believe that no moral issue is involved if someone gives me a bowl of gumbo with okra and I quietly dispose of it.

But what if we find a class of human beings disgusting and believe that they are even toeivah to God?  Can we just get rid of them?  No.  Genocide is never justified.

Moses underestimates the need for human responsibility in this week’s Torah portion.  He should be preaching that we are responsible for our own  religious worship—and that we must avoid doing abominable deeds in the name of God.

 

Shoftim: Saving Trees

August 24, 2014 at 8:31 pm | Posted in Shoftim | 1 Comment
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When you besiege a town for many days, to make war against it, to capture it, lo tashchit its trees by swinging an axe against them; for you will eat from them, so you shall not cut them down; for is a tree of the field ha-adam, to come in front of you in the siege? (Deuteronomy/Devarim 20:19)Peaches_clip_art_hight

lo tashchit (לֹא־תַשְׁחִית) =  you shall not destroy, ruin, corrupt.

ha-adam (הָאָדָם) = human (as an adjective); the human, humankind (as a noun).

The above verse from this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“judges”), assumes that it is acceptable to make war in order to capture a town belonging to a different tribe or nation. If humans from the town get in your way, you may kill them. Everyone does it.

However, the verse does challenge the idea that it is acceptable to cut down your enemy’s orchards and groves. This practice both allowed the besieging forces to vent their spleen, and ensured that even if the siege failed, the town would still suffer in the long term, deprived of both fruit and a means of livelihood. (For example, olive oil was a major export of the portion of Canaan the Israelites conquered.  Cutting down olive trees is prohibited.)

The Talmud generalizes the prohibition against cutting down fruit trees in a siege to prohibit any wasteful destruction, including tearing fabric when you are not in mourning (Kiddushin 32a), or scattering your money in anger (Shabbat 105b).

Rambam (the 12th-century commentator Moses Maimonides) wrote that the verse in this week’s Torah portion applies to any injury to a fruit tree. However, he said, the tree may be removed if it is damaging other trees, or even if its wood can be sold at a high price. The important thing is to avoid any needless destruction. He extended this idea to cover ruining edible food or demolishing a usable building.

The prohibition against waste and useless destruction came to be called bal tashchit. (Bal, like lo, means “not”.)

Many societies have rules against destroying a fellow citizen’s property. What stands out about the Jewish principle of bal taschchit is that it prohibits useless destruction of both enemy property, and your own personal property.

According to the 13th-century book Sefer Ha-Chinukh, the purpose of bal taschchit is to train us to avoid acting on evil impulses. Wicked people revel in destruction and corruption. By following the rule to eschew waste and preserve everything useful, we gradually reduce our impulses to destroy something, and develop a better attitude.

Imagine if everyone followed the rule of bal taschchit today!

Who knows, maybe the modern ethic of “reduce, re-use, recycle” is training us to disapprove of wasting the earth’s resources. Maybe the people of the world are almost ready to rally to a new call to save the world from the pollution that leads to “global climate change”—which really means ruin and hardship all over the world.

May it be so!

 

Shoftim: Taboo Magic

August 21, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Posted in Shoftim | 1 Comment

What is my lucky number to win the jackpot?

If I order my troops to advance today, will I win the battle?

Is it okay if I ignore that beggar?

Today and in biblical times, people want to know the answers to the first two types of questions so much that they sometimes resort to magic.  The third question, then as now, is the kind of question we never resort to magic to answer–but our  prophets and religious leaders give us an answer anyway.

The Torah points out the difference between magic (not magic tricks, but serious occult practices) and prophecy in this week’s portion, Shoftim (“Judges”).

When you come to the land that God, your god, is giving to you, you must not learn to act according to the to-avot of those nations. There shall 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 anyone who does these things is to-avot; and on account of these to-avot, God, your god, is dispossessing them [the Canaanite nations] before you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 18:9-12)

to-avot = plural of to-eivah = abomination, foreign perversion, custom of one culture that is taboo in another culture

The first four times the Torah uses the Hebrew word to-eivah, it refers to actions that are taboo to the Egyptians, but not to the children of Israel: eating, breeding, or sacrificing sheep. The next six times the word shows up, in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, it is about sexual pairings presumably practiced by Canaanites, but forbidden to Israelites. Then the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim uses the word 17 times, for a variety of practices forbidden to the Israelites. Nine of these explicitly refer to worshiping Canaanite gods. Most of the other eight practices labeled to-eivah may refer indirectly to Canaanite religious customs.

In this week’s Torah portion, the word is used three times to emphasize that Israelites must shun the occult practices of Canaanites.

The Torah does not ban all occult practices. After all, the book of Numbers/Bemidbar says that when Joshua leads the Israelites to conquer Canaan, the high priest should consult the Urim and Tummim and tell Joshua when to go out to battle.  In the first book of Samuel, King Saul tries, and fails, to get an answer from these magic objects about his upcoming battle against the Philistines. This is perfectly acceptable; his unacceptable behavior is when he sneaks off to ask a woman who inquires of the dead to raise the ghost of Samuel.

Then the Urim and Tumim disappear from the Torah, except as objects that high priests used to wear. The Talmud claims that until the fall of the first temple, kings could ask the high priest a yes-or-no question, and the Urim and Tumim would sometimes provide an answer. Consulting the Urim and Tumim does sound like an oracular practice sanctioned by God for the Israelites. So how is it different from a Canaanite method of divination that is called to-eivah?

The chief difference, according to the Torah, is that when the Urim and Tummim give the high priest an answer, it is because God is communicating through them. When Canaanites do divination, they receive answers from the ghosts of dead human beings, or from omens sent by their own gods. Employing a Canaanite occult practice is tantamount to adopting a Canaanite religious practice.

The passage in this week’s Torah portion continues:

You must be tammim with God, your god. Because these nations that you are taking possession of, they listened to cloud-conjurers and  lot-casters; but God, your god, did not set this out for you. God, your god, will establish for you a prophet from your midst, from your brothers, like me. To him you shall listen! (Deuteronomy/Devarim 18:13-15)

tammim = simple, all-of-a-piece, unblemished, perfect (when referring to an animal or anything physical); complete (when referring to a course of action); wholehearted (when referring to the human mind)

A simple interpretation of “You must be tammim” is that the Israelites, and everyone who follows the god of Israel, must be dedicated exclusively to God. Treating anything else like a god is a serious flaw. We must not pray or make offerings to an idol, to the name of someone else’s god, or to the spirit of a person who has died. We also must not try to get foreknowledge, or influence our futures, through any substitute for God. We must leave our futures in God’s hands.

The Torah also supports a more subtle interpretation. A major 19th-century commentator, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, pointed out that those who are tammim, wholeheartedly dedicated to God, only think about what they should do for God right now; their minds are so fully occupied with this, they do not worry about their futures. Serving God, doing good, is everything.

Maybe that is why the prophets in the bible rarely answer questions, and are seldom consulted. They force people to listen to predictions that are really warnings, all on the same theme:  If you go on disobeying God, you will suffer for it!

And obeying God means more than exclusive worship. Again and again in the Torah, God orders us to provide for everyone who is disadvantaged, including the widow, the orphan, the resident alien, and the destitute beggar. God tells us to be honest and fair in all our judgments and our business dealings with other people. God asks us to respect our parents and elders, to love our neighbors, and to be kind to the strangers in our midst.

I believe that being wholehearted with God means being wholly dedicated to good behavior toward all human beings, and to the earth we live on.  If we use occult practices to second-guess the future and manipulate our own fortunes, we distract ourselves from what we should really be doing with our lives. We divide our own hearts when we spend energy on indirect means to selfish ends, because then we have less energy for the really good things in life: enjoying creation, and improving our world in small but significant ways.

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