Parasha / E-Letter

Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudi: A Light Tap on the Wing

0 Comments 08 March 2018

The commentary to this week’s Torah Portion (Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudi) is provided by Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom. In it, he suggests that RASHBI’s (Rav Simeon Bar Yochai) statement about non Jews not being fully human was not intended to rank humanity. Rather, what was “a light tap on the wing” became, for a decidedly not marginal stream in Jewish thought, the basis for racist theory and practice stream of Jewish thought. Rabbi Milgrom explains how we can unpack this and actually defuse the bomb.

המשכן במדבר. מקור התמונה: By illustrators of the 1890 Holman Bible [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom

“I feel a light tap on the wing, and a second later, it’s over.” – Former Israeli Air Force Commander and Army Chief of Staff, Dan Halutz being asked what a fighter pilot feels when releasing a bomb in reference to the assassination of Saleh Shehade in Gaza in 2002, by an Air Force bomb which also killed fourteen civilians

Following the gripping drama of the Exodus story and the Golden Calf episode, which we read in recent Torah portions over the past two months, this Shabbat we begin a long and steady series of Torah readings, beginning with the end of the book of Exodus, through the entirety of Leviticus and including a significant portion of the book of Numbers, that deal almost exclusively with the laws of the Temple and its ritual. And, if we, the beneficiaries of a Judaism that has developed over almost 2000 years without such Temple rituals, don’t find such content challenging enough, this Shabbat we add as a Maftir reading an entire chapter from the Book of Numbers (Ch. 19) which deals with the laws of the red heifer, necessary for offering and consuming the Pesach sacrifice. What in the world are those of us who don’t connect to the Priestly Code to do! Searching for relief in the Oral Tradition, we find this comment in the Babylonian Talmud:

In reference to Numbers 19:14, ‘If an adam (human being) dies in a tent, everyone and everything in the tent is made impure for seven days, Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai says that the graves of gentiles do not render one impure, as it is stated: ‘And you, My sheep, the sheep of My pasture, are adam ‘ (Ezekiel 34:31): adam refers to you, not to gentiles (Yevamot 60b-61a)

Do we learn from this statement that Simeon bar Yochai intended to rank human beings and say that only Jews are to be considered to be human while the rest of humanity is sub-human? If we are precise (and it is important to be precise!) he is only talking about the laws of purity and impurity and providing a rather forced reading of a verse in Ezekiel. However, unfortunately, what could have been just a light tap on the wing became a rallying cry for a not insignificant stream of racist Jewish thought against which we are engaged in an uphill struggle. Moshe Greenberg, of blessed memory, a beloved and great Biblical critic, who was also a member of our organization, wrote a heart wrenching article on this topic: he considered the sources which continue the line that Simeon bar Yochai took to be such a khilul hashem, a desecration of God’s name, that he didn’t allow the translation of this article. [Greenberg’s Hebrew article can be read by clicking here and scrolling down to the bottom of the page.]

For those of us to whom Jewish culture in its entirety is important (no censorship here!) and who seek enlightenment even in difficult texts, it’s a case of the chicken and the egg: either Simeon bar Yochai ‘s statement gave birth to a racist doctrine, or the racism was already there and what he said was taken out of context and used as a proof text. Such is the case with “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.” What began as a Talmudic gloss (in Tractate Brachot 62b) to a corrupt text in I Samuel 1 24:11 where David rejects the violent option and spares Saul’s life has turned into the doctrine of preemptive strikes and has inspired endless assassinations (cf. Ronen Bergman’s recent book, reviewed here.) Were our forefathers really so violent? Or did hard times lead to the adoption of otherwise marginal words as a central doctrine in Judaism?

As Greenberg teaches us, the choice is ours, and we don’t have the luxury of staying on the sidelines. Let us hope and work for a time that relegates these sources to the margins where they belong, and may we banish them from our houses like Chametz, not only for the days of Passover, but for the rest of the year as well.


Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights

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