Friday, May 26, 2017

A God of No Self-Control? - Torah portion Bamidbar

The first chapter of Numbers begins with the national census (vv 1-46). The tribe of Levi is noted as not being included in the census (v 47, 49), which allows the Torah a segue into discussing the task of the Levites. They are charged with carrying the Tabernacle, setting it up and taking it down (vv. 50-51), as well as an additional task:
 וְהַלְוִיִּם יַחֲנוּ סָבִיב לְמִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת וְלֹא יִהְיֶה קֶצֶף עַל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
And the Levites shall camp around the Tabernacle of the Testimony, so that there will not be frothing-anger at the Children of Israel (Num 1:53, see also v. 50b)

Frothing at the Mouth

First, a word about the translation "frothing-anger." (If technical linguistic details bore you, feel free to skip to the next section.) As we discussed in an earlier post on Biblical metaphor, the literal meaning of Hebrew words can shed light on their metaphorical connotations. The word qetseph (קצף) generally means "anger" in the metaphorical sense, but the word does appear once in the Bible in its literal use:
נִדְמֶה שֹׁמְרוֹן מַלְכָּהּ כְּקֶצֶף עַל פְּנֵי מָיִם
Samaria is likened - its king - as foam on the surface of water. (Hosea 10:7)
The word qetseph here might mean a "snapped off twig," or it may mean "foam" (see HAL). Twig is the view of the Septuagint, possibly seen as related to qatsats (קצץ, clip, cut off) as well as qetsapha (קצפה) used in Joel 1:7, which in context refers to a type of destruction (poss. splintering) done to a fig tree. Ibn Ezra on Hosea 10:7 connects the words qetseph and qetsapha. Foam is the view of the Vulgate. Also, Metzudat David explains qetseph here as short-lived bubbles on the surface of the water, and Malbim and Metzudat Tzion speak about qetseph in terms of "boiling," wherein bubbles come up to the surface. Rashi refers to qetseph as escume, which is Old French for "froth" or "scum" (אישקומ"א, see Otzar Lo'azei Rashi, M. Catane).

(A couple of word-related factoids: The word "skim" comes from taking the frothy "scum" off the surface of a liquid. The word קצפת in Modern Hebrew means whipped cream, which of course is foam-like.)

In terms of the context of qetseph in Hosea, the deposed king of Samaria could certainly be likened to a twig that was snapped off and now floats away. The metaphor of anger could then be related to "snapping" or "cracking." My preference is to say that the king is likened to foam on the water, which is there one moment and gone the next, and where the anger of qetseph connotes "frothing" or "foaming" at the mouth with rage.


Divine Potentate or Potency?

But I'd like to now consider the theological implications of our original verse in Numbers, about the Levites guarding against "frothing-anger." Let's put aside the connotation of "frothing at the mouth," which connotes a crazed, rabid state. The intent here is most likely "fierce wrath" or "violence." What I want to point out is that the verse is voiced by YHVH, as a command (v. 48), and YHVH refers to his own anger in the third person, as if it is some sort of natural phenomenon that cannot be changed.

"Camp around the Tabernacle, so that there will be no anger" has a similar structure as if I were to say, "Use an umbrella, so that you don't get wet." Now, if I had the power to prevent the rain from falling, why would I tell you to use an umbrella? I should simply keep it from raining, at least on you. I only tell you to use an umbrella because there is nothing I can do about the rain. Likewise, if YHVH can prevent his own anger from flaring, why would he tell the Levites to camp around the Tabernacle? It sounds as if there is nothing YHVH can do about his own anger. If triggered, YHVH's wrath will flare and people will be struck down. It is simply a matter of fact. All the Israelites can do is take safety precautions so that hopefully no one will come into harm's way.

Suffice it to say, it does not sound like the idea of God typically advanced in theological discussions. God is supposed to be "merciful" and "omnipotent." In the above verse, God sounds like neither.

The angle to approach a verse like this, I would suggest, is to consider what it might convey about the view of God from the perspective of the ancient Israelites. To say, "Do X, so that I not kill you," sounds rather like a dispassionate potentate, an autocrat who sets up absolute, nonnegotiable rules, which when broken automatically result in the death penalty. Not that the potentate wants the people to die - he doesn't, which is why he issues the warning - but rather there is simply zero tolerance for infractions. Perhaps that is the model for monarchs in the Ancient Near East.

However, I think there is another way one might approach the view of the Israelites (or at least that of the priestly school, to whom the scholarship literature identifies as the source of most of the Book of Numbers, including the first ten chapters). That is, rather than envision God as a divine potentate, God is viewed as a locus of divine potency - i.e. power. Having God's presence (kavod) in one's midst is akin to hosting a power plant in the middle of town. In order to harness and gain benefit from this power (in the form of blessing, protection, well-being, etc.), a set of strict guidelines must be followed. This includes guidelines for the people at large, as well as even more complex rules for those who work in and around the plant - i.e. the Levites and Priests. The Torah is essentially putting up signs: Authorized personnel only! Stay clear - danger of death! Safety warning - personnel may enter only at X times, equipped with Y uniform, and may under no circumstances touch Z!


Danger of Death - the verses

To substantiate the "potency" approach to the concept of God, I think it is helpful to see just how many verses in the Torah there are which present God in this way.

Below is a list of the verses in the Torah which warn about the danger of YHVH-related death, or speaking about actual deaths. Note that the list does not include: A) verses relating to people put to death by human hands, on YHVH's command, or B) verses clearly speaking about punishments for rebellion and idolatry. (And there are numerous examples of both A and B.) The verses below instead reflect the inherent mortal danger of being in proximity to YHVH.
Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge; whoever touches the mountain will surely die. (Ex 19:12)

Descend, warn the people, lest they break through to YHVH to see, and a multitude of them will fall. (Ex 19:21)

Even the priests who approach YHVH should be prepared, lest YHVH burst forth against them. (Ex 19:22)

[The robe’s bells’] sound shall be heard when he enters the sanctum before YHVH and when he leaves, so that he will not die. (Ex 28:35)

Every man will give YHVH a ransom for his person when counting them, so there will not be a plague among them when counting them. (Ex 30:12)

Whenever they come to the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water so they will not die. (Ex 28:35)

I will not ascend among you, because you are a stiff-necked people, lest I consume you along the way. (Ex 33:3)

A fire came forth from before YHVH and consumed [Nadav and Avihu], and they died before YHVH. (Lev 10:2)

Do not leave your heads unshorn and do not rend your garments, so you will not die and He become wrathful with the entire assembly. (Lev 10:6)

Do not leave the Tent of Meeting, lest you die. (Lev 10:7)

Do not drink intoxicating wine... when you come into the Tent of Meeting, so that you do not die. (Lev 10:9)

[Aaron] should not come at all times into the sanctum... so he will not die. (Lev 16:2)

And the cloud of the incense should cover the ark-cover, which is above the testimony, so he will not die. (Lev 16:13)

But [the Kohatites] should not come and look as the sancta is inserted and die. (Num 4:20)

So there will not be a plague among the Children of Israel, when the Children of Israel approach the sanctuary. (Num 8:19)

Each and every one who approaches the Tabernacle of YHVH dies – will we ever stop perishing! (Num 17:28)

They will guard the safeguard of the sancta and the altar, and there will not be more frothing-anger against the Children of Israel. (Num 18:5)

So that the Children of Israel will not again approach the Tent of Meeting to bear a sin to die. (Num 18:22)

And the [sanctified tithes] of the Children of Israel you should not desecrate, so that you will not die. (Num 18:32)

A "Natural God" of Laws 

What I extract from these verses is not an "angry God," nor an "uncompromising monarch." It is the concept of God's presence as presenting a power that one had to be exceedingly careful around, and which required a great deal of precautions and detailed procedures in order to protect the Priests, Levites, and the public at large from harm.

As for the theological implications of verses wherein YHVH speaks so matter-of-factly about people getting killed if they do not follow the rules, I view this not as offering information about God but rather as indicating a view of the world, and of sancta, that the Israelite priests projected onto God. It is a sense of the divine not characterized by the whims of capricious monarchs, nor of balancing judgment and mercy. Rather, the divine realm was one of natural/created order, rules, and severe danger when borders are breached, when rules are compromised. "Wrath" is purely metaphorical here. "Anger" is a term merely used to express the violence people would face if they stepped over the line - like stepping out into a violent storm.

In a sense, it is a proto-scientific worldview, wherein the framework in which the world exists is founded on laws, and there is cause and effect. In the same way that the ancient mindset did not distinguish the way we do between fact and fiction, or between physical health and morality, in the priestly view (and perhaps elsewhere) it also conflated the natural realm and the divine realm, wherein there is order, law, the occasion for great awe, as well as great caution. So it is not that God "can't help himself" from lashing out against those who do not follow the rules. Rather, God - in the form of a powerful and volatile presence - is envisioned both as the rule-maker and as part of the rules themselves. God creates nature, creates the law, and God is also a potent force within it.


Friday, May 19, 2017

Values and Valuations: Embracing Derash and Peshat - Torah Portion Behar-Beḥukotai

Leviticus 27 discusses votive offerings to the Sanctuary: animals, houses, land, crops, possessions and people - a person could even offer him or herself, that is to say, their market value based on age and gender. The Torah (vv. 3-7) offers the following monetary assessments for persons:

AgeMale
value in shekels
Female
value in shekels
1 month - 5 years53
5-20 years2010
20-60 years5030
60+ years1510


So for instance, if I make a vow to offer my 9-year-old son, I am pledging 20 shekels to the Sanctuary. If I vow to offer myself, I am pledging 50 shekels. What is the basis for these valuations?

Jacob Milgrom (Anchor Leviticus, Vol. III, pp. 2,370-2) cites the explanation that the amounts reflect the average that various individuals (based on age and gender) would fetch in the slave market. These figures are reflected in Assyria's tax of 50 shekel per Israelite landowner (2 Kings 15:20), and the 20 shekel price for which Joseph is sold (Gen 37:28) (G. J. Wenham, 1978). Milgrom rejects this view and suggests (accd. to Abravanel) that "these sums distinguish Israelite persons from slaves: all, regardless of productive capacity, bear a fixed price" (emphasis Milgrom's). He cites the Mishna (Arakhin 3:1) which states, "Whether a man vowed the valuation of the fairest (adult) in Israel or of the most unseemly in Israel, he must pay 50 selas." In other words, the valuations if anything attest to an ethos of equality.

What about the amount that women are valued at, as opposed to men? Milgrom likewise rejects the interpretation that women being valued less demonstrates their lower productive capacity (B. Levine, 1989), saying instead that "the relatively high value for female valuations indicates the reverse, that the woman was an indispensable part of the labor force, nearly equivalent to that of the male."

So I want to stop for a moment and make an observation about myself. When I read these explanations of Milgrom's, what I notice is that I like them.

Why is that? Well for one, I don't much care for the idea of people being assigned a monetary value, much less a value based on the slave market. And I can't say I'm partial to the idea that males are valued more than females, or that people become devalued once they've reached the age of sixty. Milgrom's explanations bring out a "softer" view of some of these distinctions. The figures the Torah gives in fact distinguish us from slaves. They show how highly valued women were in the society.

But here's my question: What do I do with this observation, the fact that I'm partial to these explanations? Should I embrace it, run with it, or should I be wary of it hampering my objectivity? My answer, at least at this point, is both.

On a religious level, it is critical, of utmost communal and spiritual importance, that we extract meaningful, relevant interpretations out of the text, so that Judaism should embody and promote our highest values (e.g. the idea that all human life is equally valuable regardless of age or gender). The Torah needs to be a place where we see these values reflected. So absolutely yes, run with it.

However on a scientific level, from a scholarly perspective, such a preference is arguably the occasion for added caution. "Wanting" something to be true, "liking" it because it comports with our way of thinking, can very easily cloud our judgment and prevent us from approaching the text with a focus on the most probable meaning. In addition to values inclining us toward certain explanations and not others, the process of devising original interpretations (ẖidushim) can itself be exciting, to the point where we can develop a "blind spot" and not see that in fact the explanation - creative though it is - lacks plausibility. So yes, be wary as well.

How do we accomplish both? I would say, by distinguishing between the two very distinct endeavors of peshat and derash. Here is how I view them at present (meaning that I see this conceptualization as a work in progress):

Peshat is the work of ascertaining - to the best of our abilities - the plain meaning of the text. It is an attempt to recreate the mind of the author/editor and understand their words from their perspective. It is by no means an exact science, but it is "scientific" in the sense that we expect our tentative conclusions to be based on the preponderance of evidence. It is detective work, much of it tedious, collecting clues and "fingerprints" which will lead us to an informed conclusion - rarely a "proof," but optimally with a convincingly high level of substantiation. Theoretically, it should not matter where the data points us, whether it affirms our values or contravenes them, whether it bolsters our hypothesis going in, or overturns it. True, there is no such thing as total objectivity. But we can take measures, apply academic standards to minimize our blind spots, remain vigilantly self-aware, humble and scrupulous, and "dust" for clues and evidence as thoroughly and carefully as we can.

Derash is a different realm altogether. It is the work of utilizing a sacred text to voice our values, our traditions, and achieve a pedagogical goal. It is a religious act, focusing not on the meaning of the text per se but rather on meaningfulness. A good drash in the "religious" sense is one that speaks to our spiritual needs, inclinations and aspirations. A good derash in the "technical" sense is one which makes creative use of any number of elements within the text in order to anchor the teaching, so that when we read the text, we almost cannot help but be reminded of the derash. To construct an effective drash on both counts requires creativity, artistry, associative thinking, and a combination of emotional, spiritual and intellectual sensitivity as to the needs of the intended audience. Not only are subjectivity, bias and preference not things to be wary of - they are openly embraced as part of the process of derash!

In a "clean" intellectual world, peshat and derash would be "non-overlapping magisteria," to borrow a term from the late scientist Stephen Jay Gould. Simply let peshat reside in the realm of science and facts, and derash in the realm of religion and values - and don't allow these worlds to encroach upon one another. Don't let values or religious sensitivities disturb our work of reconstructing the meanings and worldviews behind the text. And don't let the plain meaning of the text "force" us into adopting religious positions that we would otherwise find reprehensible.

Of course, real life is a good deal "messier" than that. I mentioned my reactions to Milgrom's peshat on the text. But what about Milgrom himself? Were his conclusions influenced by a desire for the Torah to say the "right" thing, to reflect the kind of Judaism he would be proud of? Did values seep into his thoughts on valuations? I think it's very likely.

But is that necessarily a bad thing? My inclination at the moment is to say that even if such seepage is inevitable, strictly speaking it is poor science. Not that scientists should seek to be robots, not that intuition, values and individual proclivities don't have their place in the investigative process (I think they surely do!), but that the conclusions we draw should come with a certain level of personal detachment, and that we need to minimize cognitive bias, so that evidence serves to derive our explanations, not justify our a priori views.

In order to aid that, I suggest that we also engage in derash. Rather than suppress our values, we should express them, give them a space to breathe - the circumscribed space of homiletics. And we ought to do so knowingly, explicitly, and confidently. We need to dispel the notion that it's "just a derash," that unfortunately what we want to say is not in the peshat, so we present it as a derash, a consolation prize of sorts. That thinking undermines both peshat and derash! It is a problem for peshat because again it implies "wanting" the text to carry a certain meaning. And it is a problem for derash because it "devalues" our values.

What this comes down to is the deep need for external justification. We're not comfortable "declaring" what our values are. What we desperately want is for our values to be "sourced" elsewhere - in a sacred text, in the will of God. Which I believe is why we talk about the derash (Midrash, Aggadah) of the Talmudic sages as hailing "from Sinai." It's why we - knowingly and unknowingly - remake the peshat in our own image by asserting that the text per se carries our values. In effect, we make derash masquerade as peshat.

I suggest instead that we take ownership of our values. Be honest and self-assured when making a derash. Don't fear the internal voice. Don't apologize for our conscience, our higher moral and spiritual sensibility. Be aware of it, embrace it, and use the Torah - deliberately, explicitly - as a means of speaking that voice. Earlier, I said, "The Torah needs to be a place where we see these values reflected." I worded that precisely, meaning that the Torah should be where we see our values "reflected," not externally "sourced."

I'll end with a derash of my own. The Talmud (Bava Kama 82a) cites the verse, "And [the Israelites] walked three days in the wilderness, and they did not find water" (Ex 15:22), and interprets it metaphorically to mean, "[The word] 'water' can only be referring to Torah" (אין מים אלא תורה). In the plain sense, the sages are expressing the view that the Torah is as vital as water, that we would die of thirst without it. But I will offer another interpretation, a "derash on the derash" if you will, and that is this:

In the stillest, calmest, clearest, most peaceful pool of water, when we look down at it, what we see is not the water, but rather our own faces reflected back up at us.

We have been looking at our reflections in the waters of Torah for thousands of years, in the form of derash. It's what makes the Torah "the Torah," a sacred, religious text. However, water is also water. The Torah is also an Ancient Near Eastern text, and those who wish to discover the peshat, understand it for what it is (out of pure curiosity, without an ideological agenda) will endeavor to the best of their ability to see through their own reflections and examine the text on its own terms.


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A Curse By Any Other Name - Torah portion Emor

The Torah employs a number of terms meaning "to curse," primary among them: qilel (קלל), arar (אראר), alah (אלה), and naqab/qabab (נקב/קבב). Two of these appear in this week's Torah portion, in a single verse:
וַיִּקֹּב בֶּן הָאִשָּׁה הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית אֶת הַשֵּׁם וַיְקַלֵּל וַיָּבִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל מֹשֶׁה
"And the son of the Israelite woman cursed (or blasphemed, pronounced) the Name, and he cursed, and they brought him to Moses" (Lev 24:11)
The context is two men in an altercation, one of whom is said to have an Egyptian father and an Israelite mother (v. 10). In the course of the fight, this individual utters a curse involving "the name" (probably the name YHVH, see Rashi). Did he actually curse God, or did he merely use God's name in a curse? There are in fact strikingly similar Mesopotamian laws against pronouncing a deity's name in a curse against another person, specifically in the context of an altercation (see Milgrom, Anchor Leviticus Vol. III, pp. 2108-9). Our case however clearly refers to cursing God, as evidenced a few verses later:
אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי יְקַלֵּל אֱ-לֹהָיו וְנָשָׂא חֶטְאוֹ
"Any man, if he curses his God, he will bear his sin" (Lev 24:15)
How do we understand the "curse" implied by the two verbs va-yiqov and vayqalel? First off, it should be said that there is disagreement as to whether va-yiqov in our verse even means "curse," and which root it stems from, naqab (נקב) or qabab (קבב). Whereas the root qabab always connotes cursing, naqab can mean 1) pierce/bore a hole, 2) designate/appoint, or 3) curse/blaspheme (see BDB Lexicon).


A note about Milgrom's translation

Jacob Milgrom assumes the root of va-yiqov to be naqab and translates it here as "pronounced," i.e. an act of verbal designation (Anchor Leviticus, Vol. III, pp. 2107-8). That is to say, the man in our verse pronounced the name YHVH (va-yiqov... et ha-shem) and subsequently cursed that name (vayqalel). Milgrom's reasoning is that when naqab is coupled with the word shem in the Bible (on six other occasions, Nu 1:17; 1 Chr 12:32, 16:41; 2 Chr 28:15, 31:19; Ez 8:20), it invariably means "designate." Plus, a similar Nabatean expression exists which also means designate. So the same meaning - verbally designate/pronounce - should hold true in our verse as well. Therefore va-yiqov here cannot mean curse.

However, Milgrom's reasoning can be contested on the following grounds:

1) Without exception, all other instances of naqab + shem use the same precise expression, niqvu be-shemot, which is not the case in our verse.

     a) The other instances have the formulation "naqab + be-shem," pronouncing or designating "in the name." (Even the Nabatean expression uses the "b" prefix.) Our verse however has "naqab + et ha-shem," and whether we wish to translate et as "to" or "with," it is a different formulation.

     b) In addition to the difference in prepositions, the verb itself, va-yiqov, is conjugated differently than niqvu, the form used in all six biblical verses containing the expression.

     c) The phrase niqvu be-shemot is always presented as a single unit; in our verse the two words naqab and shem are separated by four intervening words.

2) V. 16 states that the "noqev shem YHVH" shall be put to death. If noqev indicates one who "pronounces," there should be no death penalty for merely uttering the name. Rather, the verse should have referred to the "meqalel shem YHVH," the one who "curses" the name, as being deserving of such a punishment.

So it seems to me entirely reasonable to dissociate the instance of naqab + shem found in our verse from other instances in the Bible, counter to Milgrom's proposal, and therefore to maintain that va-yiqov can in fact mean "curse." But what sort of curse does it convey?


Examining the literal to understand the metaphor

The one other instance of va-yiqov in the Bible (2 Ki 12:9) refers to boring a hole, i.e. the root naqab. So it is arguable that va-yiqov in our verse also stems from naqab. Again, naqab sometimes means to physically pierce, in the literal sense, and at other times it means to designate or to curse, employing the act of piercing as a metaphor.

Could va-yiqov here possibly be speaking literally? That seems unlikely. Unless we were to believe that the man in our verse had a piece of parchment with the name YHVH written on it and literally "pierced the name," we need to understand "va-yiqov... et ha-shem" in the idiomatic, metaphorical sense. In that case, we might ask: What characteristics of "piercing" are being borrowed in order to understand va-yiqov metaphorically as a curse? When the verb naqab is used in the Bible to convey physically piercing something, it can refer to:
  1. An act of destruction or injury, as in piercing the hand (2 Ki 18:21, Is 36:6) or impaling the enemy (Hab 3:13, parallel to מחץ, to strike).
  2. Having/creating holes, either for use (2 Ki 12:9) or implying lack of physical integrity (Hag 1:6); this is also arguably the anatomical connotation of נקבה, female.
  3. Subjugating or subduing an animal, by piercing it through the nose (Job 40:24) or piercing a fish with a hook (Job 41:2).
So even within the literal sense of piercing, we can identify at least three different aspects of that act onto which to hang a metaphor. Let's consider each of these individually.

To destroy someone by impaling them, running them through, certainly sounds like an apt metaphor for cursing. It would be something like our metaphorical use of the term "eviscerate" to imply destroying someone with a particularly forceful argument. Then again, would not ḥarav (חרב, "slay") have afforded an equally suitable metaphor? Why naqab over ḥarav?

Putting a hole in something so as to weaken its integrity, induce leakage, might also work as a metaphor for cursing. The verb va-yiqov could imply puncturing something and draining its life force. However, the verb ḥilel (חלל, "profane," related to ḥalal, "corpse") also implies draining the life force, and in fact the Torah uses ḥilel specifically when it comes to damaging the name YHVH (e.g. Lev 21:6). So why naqab and not ḥilel?

How about subjugating or subduing an animal as a metaphor for cursing? In biblical use, it turns out that piercing an animal's nose, and idea of "tagging" an animal, has an overwhelmingly positive (or at the very least, neutral) connotation when applied as a metaphor. It conveys not subjugation but rather selection or designation, as in:
  • Designating a salary (Gen 30:28)
  • The appointment of people to positions of importance and responsibility (Is 62:2, and the six instances of niqvu be-shemot)
  • A person of distinction/designation (Am 6:1)
(The "designation" or "marking" connotation of naqab makes for an interesting parallel to the words hiqdish and qodesh, which also imply earmarking or designating; a subject for a separate inquiry.)

To be clear, the above caveats do not necessarily rule out destruction, draining, or subjugation as the characteristic of piercing being borrowed by va-yiqov when connoting a curse. But I would like to offer another possibility for understanding the metaphor, one which also connects naqab with qilel.


Curse as diminution, blessing as expanse

A device used to lance or pierce is necessarily wider along the shaft and narrower at the tip. This is for reasons of simple physics: The moderate force one applies across the wide end of the shaft becomes concentrated at the narrow tip, making the force sufficient to impale. Similarly, the act of impaling involves taking a wide potential target area and narrowing in, choosing a specific point of impact. This relates to the metaphor "designate," which is a movement from wide to narrow, from the set of all possibilities to the specific choice made. When narrowing down is thought of in terms of "designation," the biblical connotation is positive. However, narrowing by definition also implies limiting, confining, closing in, closing off possibility, and perhaps that is the aspect of piercing to which naqab as a "curse" refers.

Indeed the other term for "curse" in our verse, qilel, has a similar connotation. The root quf-lamed-lamed also has a literal meaning, namely: "diminishing," "lessening," "abating," as in flood waters physically withdrawing (Gen 8:8, 8:11), and similarly "lightening," "easing up" of weight or force (1 Sam 17:43, 1 Ki 12:10). That then feeds into the metaphorical usage of being "light" on one's feet (i.e. fast, 2 Sam 1:23), or treating a person or matter "lightly" (dishonorably, Gen 16:4-5, 2 Sam 19:43; trivially, 1 Ki 16:31, 2 Ki 3:18). Then of course we have qilel, which means curse in the sense of causing intense dishonor. But if we go back to the literal meaning, the curse implied by qilel is one of lessening, atrophying, growing smaller. The large-to-small movement of qilel then parallels the wide-to-narrow movement of naqab.

To be cursed is to become diminished - in size, stature or power. To bless is precisely the opposite. The verb barakh connotes expansion, proliferation, widening, becoming greater, larger, as in multiplying and filling the earth (Gen 1:22, 28), or becoming as numerous as the stars in the heavens (Gen 15:5, Gen 22:17, 26:4; Ex 32:13). The movement of barakh, in contradistinction to naqab and qilel, is narrow-to-wide, small-to-large.


Going back once again to our original verse, we can perhaps understand va-yiqov... et ha-shem, "cursing the name," as carrying both the destructive connotation of impaling, as well as the diminutive connotation of narrowing, confining. To curse the "name" of YHVH is to attempt to destroy God's reputation and legacy by diminishing it, as if to say, "May YHVH's power and influence atrophy." To say "barukh ha-shem," by contrast, is to amplify God's legacy, to wish for it to expand, proliferate, and thereby exert a greater influence in the world.


Special thanks to Professor Ed Greenstein of Bar-Ilan University, whose online lecture on metaphor in the Bible contributed greatly to this post.


Monday, May 1, 2017

Using Recycled Sins to Cleanse the Sanctuary - Torah portion Aḥarei Mot-Kedoshim


This week's Torah portion begins with a description of the Yom Ha-Kipurim service (Lev 16). The goal of this service is two-fold:
  1. To cleanse the people of sin.
  2. To cleanse the Sanctuary of impurity.
What I would like to suggest is that one of the fixtures of the service, the atat offering, accomplishes both of the above goals simultaneously, by transforming sin into the very cleansing agent used to remove the Sanctuary's impurity.

The meaning of Kapara / Kipur


To begin with, what do we mean by "cleansing"? The Hebrew word in question is kapara, as in "kipur," the definition for which ranges from "atonement" and "expiation," to "wiping" and "purgation" (see J. Milgrom, Anchor Leviticus Vol I, pp. 1079-84), to "ransom" (as in the phrase "kofer nafsho," Ex 30:12). In post-biblical use, "kofer" also connotes the denial of religious tenets.

I prefer the approach of the Midrash, which states: "kapara is a term of nullification" (kapara lashon bitul, Midrash Aggadah Buber, Deut 21:7). Likewise, Rashi explains the phrase: "akhapera panav" (Gen 32:21) to mean "I will nullify his anger." (Abarbanel and Ramban explain the phrase similarly.) "Nullification" relates in a sense to all the above definitions of kapara. Atonement and expiation are the nullification of sin, in the sense of culpability and guilt. Wiping and purgation are the nullification, by means of active removal, of something undesired. "Ransom" is really a means of nullifying sin so as to prevent a divine plague (a more involved discussion, perhaps the topic of a future post). And kofer/kefira is the nullification of religious tenets, denial in the sense of rendering them null and void.

Yom Ha-Kipurim then, is the "day of nullifications."

Kapara of sin and impurity - two opposite actions


The Torah prescribes kapara, nullification, for sin and also for impurity:
  • "And the priest will nullify him of his sin" (וְכִפֶּר עָלָיו הַכֹּהֵן מֵחַטָּאתוֹ, Lev 4:26)
  • "And [the priest] will nullify the purification-candidate of his impurity" (וְכִפּרֶ עַל המִַּטּהַרֵ מִטּמְֻאָתו, Ibid. 14:19)
Sin and impurity are understood as distinct phenomena but are typically conflated when it comes to describing the damage they cause as well as their removal. Both are viewed as blights, stains which infect, corrupt, and soil a person as well as the sancta. Milgrom characterizes sin and impurity in this way, speaking about the removal of both as "purgation." But whereas I believe he is correct about purgation in the case of sin, with impurity it is the very opposite - it requires replenishment

As we spoke about in the previous post, tum'a, typically translated as "impurity," is more accurately understood as a depletive force, that which draws and sucks away the nefesh (human life-force) or kedusha (vital-energy of sancta) in proximity, or by touch. Tum'a is therefore not "pollution" which infects; it is a vacuum which draws.

Impurity is a "lack" whose corrective action is filling, replenishing. Sin, as we will see, is an "excess" whose corrective action is purging, expelling. Two opposite strategies, yet both are kapara. Both nullify a state of imbalance.

As an analogy, there are entirely separate treatments for high blood pressure and for low blood pressure, yet both regulate the healthy flow of blood. (A closer analogy than one might think, since blood is equated in the Torah with nefesh, life-force, as we will discuss ahead.)

So there are two forms of kapara, the purging variety and the replenishing variety. The root ḥet-tet-alef (חטא) appears in both contexts, which itself requires explanation.

What does sin have to do with purification?


Ḥet-tet-alef takes two distinct forms: One is ḥata, the other ḥiteh (and hit'ḥateh). The first means "sin." The second, rather antithetically, means "purify." These two opposing definitions are commonly reconciled by understanding iteh (i.e. the action of itu'i) as "purification from sin." However, the various the instances of "purify" (ḥiteh/hit'ḥateh) in the Torah do not appear within contexts characterized by "sin" (e.g. Lev 8:15, 19:12, 13, 19, 20; Num 31:19, 31:23). Rather, these cases more reasonably point to purification from impurity - that is, impurity of the everyday variety, involving no sin whatsoever, such as the impurity incurred through contact with a human corpse (as opposed to the impurity resulting from the sins of idolatry, Lev 20:3; murder, Num 35:34; illicit sexuality, Lev 20:24-25).

Here I'd like to offer an explanation which places ḥata and ḥiteh, sin and purification, within a single conceptual frame - one which I believe better articulates the relationship between sin and impurity, as well as the function of the ḥatat sacrifice of Yom Ha-Kipurim.

Ḥet is widely translated as "sin," which certainly has a basis. However, just as tum'a has its own common translation ("impurity") yet also possesses an underlying feeling and dynamic - a sense of depletion, so too does ḥet carry its own feeling, its dynamic - a sense of excess.

To commit a ḥet, according to the Priestly tradition, is to take one of the things YHVH has said not to do, and do it (Lev 4:2). It is something off limits that one has taken for him or herself, if only inadvertently. A ḥet is "wide of the mark" (Jud 20:16) in the sense that there is a "target" with circumscribed bounds where one must aim one's actions, operate within, but instead the person has gone outside those bounds, beyond the allowable range, to take something that was not theirs to take. They now bear that something "extra" - indeed extraneous - on their person, their psyche, and suffer under its weight.

Hence sin is a type of "excess," not only conceptually in the sense of having acquired or made use of something unlawfully, but also in the palpable feeling of guilt that weighs on the person. That excess is nullified by a purgative, depletive activity. Such activities - in the Bible and rabbinic Judaism - include sacrifice, fasting, suffering, supplication and charity.

How does this relate to ḥitu'i, purification? Very simply, ḥitu'i is the act of using "excess" to nullify "lack." It is taking a surplus and replenishing that which is depleted. Ḥitu'i acts against impurity, and impurity is a lack, a depletive force. Therefore one nullifies that force, eradicates the destructive void, by "filling" it, topping it off. That is ḥitu'i, the use of surplus life-force to fill the vacuum of tum'a, impurity.

In my previous post, we discussed Milgrom's analogy of tum'a as a "minus-charge." In this framework, we can describe both ḥet and ḥitu'i as carrying a "plus-charge." With ḥet, it is a damaging "plus" or excess on a person that requires purging, and with ḥitu'i, it is a beneficial, restorative "plus" - a surplus - which has the power to nullify the "minus" of impurity. So ḥet and ḥitu'i, ḥata and ḥiteh, are in fact two manifestations of the same concept - excess, plus.

In sum, ḥet is a "plus" state whose correction to "neutral" requires purgation. Ḥitu'i is the use of "plus" to replenish and cancel out "minus," resulting in the neutral state. To return to the blood pressure analogy, ḥet is akin to high blood pressure. Ḥitu'i is akin to giving salt to a hypotensive patient in order to raise their blood pressure.

With this understanding in mind, let's turn now to the ḥatat, the sin offering.

The ḥatat offering - simultaneous purging and replenishing


The Yom Ha-Kipurim service includes two ḥatat offerings: a bull, for the High Priest and his family (פַּר הַחַטָּאת אֲשֶׁר לוֹ, v. 6), and a goat, for the Israelite people (שְׂעִיר הַחַטָּאת אֲשֶׁר לָעָם, v. 15). The question we need to ask: Is the ḥatat a "sin offering," as it is usually translated, or is it a "purification offering," as suggested by Jacob Milgrom? The common rendering sees ḥatat as related to ḥet. Milgrom understands ḥatat as related to ḥitu'i.

I would propose that it is in fact both. It effects sin-removal as well as sanctuary-purification. How? It takes excess, in the form of ḥet, sin, and converts it, transforms it, into "surplus" that can be used for ḥitu'i, to replenish the depletion in the sancta due to Israel's tum'a. The concept and methodology are as follows:
  1. A person (or the Israelite community as a whole) sins, unlawfully going beyond authorized bounds and taking what is not theirs, and thus accruing a destructive "plus" or excess.
  2. In addition, Israel imparts impurity to the Sanctuary by incurring severe forms of impurity or by committing "cardinal" sins.
  3. An animal in one's possession ("asher lo") is offered as a ḥatat sacrifice, itself being an act of purgation.
  4. The person with sin/excess (or the priest as their representative) then performs a hand-leaning on the animal, which connects the nefesh (life-force) of the person with the nefesh of the animal. (See my post discussing the rationale for hand-leaning.)
  5. When the animal's throat is slit, the blood drains out and is collected. Blood is understood in the Torah as the carrier of the nefesh, the life-force (Lev 17:11, 17:14; Deut 12:23). Thus, when the animal's blood is drained, along with it is drawn the "excess" from the person's nefesh. (Which is in itself an ingenious technique, allowing a person to purge excess life-force without spilling a drop of their own blood!) This completes the purgative, "sin offering" dimension of the ḥatat.
  6. The blood that is drained is now endowed, "supercharged," with the offerer's excess vital energy, purged nefesh. That "plus" can now function as a surplus to replenish the "minus" of the sancta. Blood is daubed on the horns of the incense altar and sprinkled "before YHVH," as is done in the normal ḥatat (vv. 18-19, see Lev 4), and as a once-a-year act it is also sprinkled on the kaporet, the ark cover in the Holy of Holies (vv. 14-15). The disposition of blood on the sancta comprises the replenishing, "purification offering" dimension of the atat. (See my book Ohr HaShachar, pp. 214-15, for further explanation.)
Thus the atat performs a two-in-one function: It effects a "purgative-type" kapara for the people, nullifying its sins, as well as a "restorative-type" kapara for the sancta, nullifying their impurity. Destructive plus and minus are cancelled out in a single ritual, creating a zero-charge state, neutral, or tahor, whereby conductivity to the divine presence is restored.

Perhaps this can also help to explain the Torah's use of the plural "kipurim," alluding to the two distinct functions of kapara accomplished by the ḥatat. Indeed the word kipurim, when not referencing the day itself, primarily refers to the ḥatat ha-kipurim (Ex 29:36, 30:10, Num 29:11).

Yom Ha-Kipurim - Recycling and communal responsibility


What emerges from the service of Yom Ha-Kipurim, and the ḥatat offering in general, is a fascinating idea: "Sin" is not destroyed. Rather, it is recycled, transformed, and put to constructive use in the service of the community.

If the ḥatat were merely a "sin-offering," the person weighed down with guilt would experience "relief" upon their sins being purged, and that would be that. While such relief is certainly beneficial, strictly speaking it is a self-oriented rite, stemming from the desire to unload one's own psychological burden. Not unlike modern-day interpersonal requests for "forgiveness" (meḥila), which are often motivated by the wrongdoer's need for atonement rather than the victim's needs, here too the sinner, in bringing the sin offering, seeks his or her own welfare.

So yes, the Torah's prescription does address the self-focused, self-corrective need. But it does not end there. The purgation of the individual is subsequently transformed into an act which serves the people. The feeling of expiation and unburdening of the self is coupled with an awareness - and active responsibility - for the other. The divine presence will only be maintained, and the people endowed with blessings of well-being, if the Sanctuary "that dwells with them in the midst of their impurities" (v. 16), is cleansed, replenished. To this end, the person offering the sacrifice contributes part of their life-force toward the task of replenishment, thus doing their part in helping to restore the Sanctuary as an effective "conductor" for the divine presence, and ensuring continued communal vitality.

The service is a beautiful exemplification of Hillel's famous dictum: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?" (m. Avot 1:14) Yom Ha-Kipurim combines these two critical principles in a single process, effecting both purgation and restoration, personal well-being and societal well-being, understandable focus on the self, as well as care and responsibility for the other.