On the Bible and Judaism: A Collection of Writing by Moshe Greenberg
In case you’re thinking that this week’s Torah reading (Numbers 19-21) is a dead letter with no practical applicability, I have some news for you: the number of observant Jews who study the case of the Red Heifer in chapter 19 hoping to put it to use in preparation for the resumption of animal sacrifice on the Temple Mount is far greater than the number of Jews who, like the readers of this website, search for needles in the haystack in order to extract humanistic teachings from classical texts (but that’s okay: “Not for your number have I chosen you…”)
The Biblical Law of Impurity
Truth be told, the biblical laws of impurity don’t send me, but the sages of old did bequeath one interpretation that is sadly more relevant that we’d like to think: on verse 16 of chapter 19, which reads, “And in the open, anyone who touches a person who was killed (hallal herev) or who died naturally or a human bone or a grave shall be unclean for seven days,” the Talmud says (Nazir 53b): a sword (that kills) is as impure as a corpse.” If you’re living in Israel, your indirect contact with corpses is not only with someone whose medical training or practice brought them, inthe service of health, into contact with a cadaver, but also with people who, tragically, mistakenly, or perhaps even gallantly have dished out death on our behalf. I don’t imagine that many readers of this post carry weapons, but surely some of us have children, grandchildren, spouses or siblings who do come home for Shabbat with weapons that may have killed someone; naturally, we make sure the gun is securely locked away, but what about the spirit that designed, manufactured, sold and continues to accompany it when it is put into use?
The Bible was uncompromising when it came to the separation of life and death, holiness and impurity; when King David soughtto build the Temple, he was told that he couldn’t, because his hands were filled with blood. When I think of the purification rituals that our society will require for removing the violence that has stained it, a herd of red heifers doesn’t seem adequate. But unfortunately, we’re not even close to that stage, because the bloodletting hasn’t ended. Rather, we are still learning, teaching and preaching war. May we all be disciples of Aaron, the High Priest who was not only trained in cleaning up after the crime, but sought to prevent it by loving peace, pursuing peace, loving all of God’s creatures (that’s what ohev et habri’ot clearly means) and bringing them close to Torah.
p.s. Those of you who read my Torah commentaries in Hebrew as well as in English have probably noticed that they are not identical: it’s not just a matter of translation – when I start to render the message in the other language, I seem to always find myself going somewhere else and developing new ideas. This week, the Hebrew version, on racism and nationalism, is based on an article by the lateMoshe Greenberg , my beloved teacher at theHebrewUniversity and who was also a member of RHR. If you have the ability and inclination to tackle the Hebrew, you’ll understand why I haven’t even tried to translate my Hebrew column.