Honor Thy Sources

Parshat Yitro

Anyone who has seen the Golden Globes multiple award winning movie; The Social Network, knows the ethical and legal value of the history of an idea. Deciding whether Mark Zuckerberg came up with the key elements of Facebook on his own, or whether he “borrowed” the idea from the Winklevoss twins is a $65 million dollar question. Judaism has long valued attribution and respect for Intellectual Property. Any student of the oral tradition (Mishna, Talmud, Midrashic literature) knows the lengths to which our scholars go to correctly identify their sources.

The Talmud even argues that offering one’s source can bring ultimate salvation. From Pirkei Avot (6:6; cf Hullin 104b, etc): kol ha’omer davar b’shem omro, mevi geula l’olam – whoever says something in the name of the one who said it [first], brings redemption to the world (or, gains eternal life). Why redemption, for properly attributing source material? The Talmud (Megillah 15) cites Esther 2:22 – “Queen Esther told the King in the name of Mordecai” of the plot against him. This extraneous positive mention later surfaced, leading the King to put Mordecai above Haman, leading to the redemption of Shushan’s Jews. (see)

This concept of honoring and revealing one’s sources goes back to the Bible. One cannot but take notice that when the Bible segues between the narrative introduction of Genesis and the first chapters of Exodus (creation, the patriarchs and the exodus from Egypt), and enters the real business of providing a legal code, it abruptly introduces Jethro; Moses’ father in law, a local pagan minister and tribal leader.

Jethro is credited with providing a hierarchy and organizational tree for the Judicial Branch. In fact, a whole section of the weekly torah readings is named after Jethro. This same weekly portion contains the Ten Commandments but it is Jethro who gets top billing. Read the text:

And Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people; that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.” ….. And Jethro said, “Blessed be the Lord, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh, and who has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.…Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt offering and other sacrifices to offer to God.”.…. And so it was, on the next day, that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood before Moses from morning until evening. So when Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he did for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit, and all the people stand before you from morning until evening?” …. “The thing that you do is not good. Both you and these people who are with you will surely wear yourselves out. For this thing is too much for you; you are not able to perform it by yourself. Listen now to my voice; I will give you counsel, and God will be with you: …. you shall select from all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Then it will be that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they themselves shall judge. So it will be easier for you, for they will bear the burden with you. If you do this thing, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all this people will also go to their place in peace. Exodus 18 1 – 23

At least as regards the structure of the Judiciary Branch, the Torah does not suffer from a Not Invented Here mentality and for that it distinguishes itself from many ideologies and idialogues… But a careful reading of the text reveals that Jethro is used to introduce more than just a pre-existent or pagan system of courts incorporated into the Divine Law. Note that Jethro also “took a burnt offering and other sacrifices to offer to God”. As the Etz Hayim commentary correctly notes: “These are the two main types of sacrifices offered in ancient Israel. The first, olah, was wholly consumed by fire on the alter as a tribute to God; the second, zevah, was partially offered up, and the major portion eaten at a festive meal.” So the Torah, in suggesting that much of the laws to follow were “borrowed” from the existing culture and religion of the day, does not limit itself to Judiciary reform… it includes also the ritual law, including the sacrosanct priestly code of the temple and it’s sacrifices.

This is a radical thesis… to say the least. It is one thing to say that the Torah was open to some practical input regarding the structure of the judiciary.. it is quite another to say that in fact, the Torah borrowed its core rituals and laws of purity from the local practices of the ancient Near East. Far be it from me, your friendly blogger, to be so audacious. For this, I go to a higher authority… Moses Maimonides.

By way of introduction; Maimonides, wrote his seminal philosophic work: The Guide for the Perplexed (Hebrew: Moreh Nevuchim) in such a way so that it would enlighten those inquirers for whom it was intended but whose most heterodox and controversial ideas would be buried “in dispersed chapters” (see Epistle Dedicatory and see Leo Strauss in his Persecution and the Art of Writing.)

The Hebrew word for Perplexed – Nevuchim) first appears in the Torah in the mouth of Pharaoh… Exodus 14:3 who sees that the Jews look confused and perplexed… and are living up to their latter appellation of Wandering Jews…’ Maimonides gives the following explanation. I quote at length because it is so revolutionary and rich with powerful implications for understanding the practical (halachic) teachings of the Torah.

Buried in Part III, chapter 32 of The Guide, Maimonides writes:

It is, namely, impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other: it is therefore according to the nature of man impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed. Now God sent Moses to make [the Israelites] a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. xix. 6) by means of the knowledge of God. …. But the custom which was in those days general among all men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted in sacrificing animals in those temples which contained certain images, to bow down to those images, and to bum incense before them; religious and ascetic persons were in those days the persons that were devoted to the service in the temples erected to the stars,  It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God (literally “gracious ruse”), as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used; it would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name, that we should not pray to Him, not fast, not seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action. For this reason God allowed these kinds of service to continue; He transferred to His service that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings, and of things imaginary and unreal, and commanded us to serve Him in the same manner; viz., to build unto Him a temple; … He selected priests for the service in the temple; …He made it obligatory that certain gifts, called the gifts of the Levites and the priests, should be assigned to them for their maintenance while they are engaged in the service of the temple and its sacrifices. By this Divine plan (literally “gracious ruse”) it was effected that the traces of idolatry were blotted out, and the truly great principle of our faith, the Existence and Unity of God, was firmly established; this result was thus obtained without deterring or confusing the minds of the people by the abolition of the service to which they were accustomed and which alone was familiar to them.

I know that you will at first thought reject this idea and find it strange: you will put the following question to me in your heart: How can we suppose that Divine commandments, prohibitions, and important acts, which are fully explained, and for which certain seasons are fixed, should not have been commanded for their own sake, but only for the sake of some other thing: as if they were only the means which He employed for His primary object? ….. Hear my answer, which will cure your heart of this disease and will show you the truth of that which I have pointed out to you. There occurs in the Law a passage which contains exactly the same idea; it is the following:” God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt; but God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea,” etc. (Exod. xiii. 17). Here God led the people about, away from the direct road which He originally intended, because He feared they might meet on that way with hardships too great for their ordinary strength; He took them by another road in order to obtain thereby His original object. In the same manner God refrained from prescribing what the people by their natural disposition would be incapable of obeying, and gave the above-mentioned commandments as a means of securing His chief object, viz., to spread a knowledge of Him [among the people], and to cause them to reject idolatry. It is contrary to man’s nature that he should suddenly abandon all the different kinds of Divine service and the different customs in which he has been brought up, and which have been so general, that they were considered as a matter of course; …In the same way the portion of the Law under discussion is the result of divine wisdom (literally “gracious ruse”), according to which people are allowed to continue the kind of worship to which they have been accustomed, in order that they might acquire the true faith, which is the chief object [of God’s commandments]. …As the sacrificial service is not the primary object [of the commandments about sacrifice], whilst supplications, Prayers and similar kinds of worship are nearer to the primary object, and indispensable for obtaining it, a great difference was made in the Law between these two kinds of service. The one kind, which consists in offering sacrifices, although the sacrifices are offered to the name of God, has not been made obligatory for us to the same extent as it had been before. We were not commanded to sacrifice in every place, and in every time, or to build a temple in every place, or to permit any one who desires to become priest and to sacrifice. On the contrary, all this is prohibited unto us. Only one temple has been appointed,” in the place which the Lord shall choose” (Deut. xii. 26): in no other place is it allowed to sacrifice: …. and only the members of a particular family were allowed to officiate as priests. All these restrictions served to limit this kind of worship, and keep it within those bounds within which God did not think it necessary to abolish sacrificial service altogether. But prayer and supplication can be offered everywhere and by every person. The same is the case with the commandment of zizit (Num. xy. 38); mezuzah (Dent. vi. 9; xi. 20); tefillin (Exod. xiii. 9, 16): and similar kinds of divine service.

Because of this principle which I explained to you, the Prophets in their books are frequently found to rebuke their fellow-men for being over-zealous and exerting themselves too much in bringing sacrifices: the prophets thus distinctly declared that the object of the sacrifices is not very essential, and that God does not require them. …. Isaiah exclaimed,” To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord” (Isa. i. 11): ….For it is distinctly stated in Scripture, and handed down by tradition, that the first commandments communicated to us did not include any law at all about burnt-offering and sacrifice. ….. …. The Psalmist says:” Hear, 0 my people, and I will speak; 0 Israel, and I will testify against thee: I am God, even thy God. I will not reprove thee for thy sacrifices or thy burnt-offerings, they have been continually before me. I will take no bullock out of thy house, nor he-goats out of thy folds” (Ps. 1. 29).– Wherever this subject is mentioned, this is its meaning. Consider it well, and reflect on it.

Maimonides is saying that all the laws of the Temple and Priesthood are only borrowed conventions, designed to move his Chosen People and humanity in a new direction. Even rituals such as fasting, zizit, mezuzah, tefillin, supplications, prayers and similar kinds of worship are not the goal… but means to a goal. It is our job, 2,000+ years latter to try to discern the direction to which these intermediary steps are pointing. It is our job to study comparative religion of the ancient Near East and to try to distinguish what parts of the teachings and commandments of the Torah are “borrowed” steps and which contain within them ultimate goals. As he writes:

The chief object of the Law, as has been shown by us, is the teaching of truths; to which the truth of the creatio ex nihilo belongs. It is known that the object of the law of Sabbath is to confirm and to establish this principle, as we have shown in this treatise. In addition to the teaching of truths the Law aims at the removal of injustice from mankind. (ibid)

So when we review Biblical injunctions and prohibitions such as: “‘Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.” (Leviticus 18:22) we need to ask whether this is a prescriptive law based on an ultimate goal or a descriptive remnant and an accommodation to a then current social bias. The same holds true for all gender and class bias found in the Torah as relates to women, slaves, the deaf, dumb and handicapped.

By honoring our sources a whole new universe of discussion and enlightenment is possible. Let the learning begin…

This blog is written in memory of my father-in-law Shimon Wexler; Shimon ben Aharon u’ Miriam



Filed under Judaism, Religion, social commentary

11 responses to “Honor Thy Sources

  1. Wendy Revel

    The wonderful Orna gave me the link to your blog. It’s extraordinarily well- written–scholarly and charming– and I especially like this post, and “Imagining Shabbat”. Looking forward to reading Madliik in the future.

  2. Thanks Wendy…. i’ll settle for charming!

  3. Thank you for such audacious (and friendly) reminders of our humble origins. Isn’t it fantastic to know that we come from the combined wealth of ancient civilizations that somehow were synthesized into our own peculiar Hebraic brand? semitic mutts that we are..
    a great read on Yitro is the link to his silent daughter – the first lady Zippora, oddly resembling the mythic Isis of Egypt. A black goddess who resembled a bird. Here’s one link about it: http://www.ucpress.edu/excerpt.php?isbn=9780520236868

    Love the blog. How respectful to honor YOUR late father in law with a nod to our national father in law.
    keep em coming.

  4. Amichai – Thanks for your comments and entusiasm! The link is fascinating… especially the comparison/contrast between the common The Myth of the Birth of the Hero where the royal is saved by animals or low-life’s, completes an odyssey and then returns to his entitled world of the palace… and the Hebrew version… lowlife saved by royal, completes exile as stranger in a royal kingdom.. not his own and returns to humble beginnings to redeem his people….

    btw… is a rabbi of a mutt called an Erev Rav?

  5. alan schur

    I am a newbe to your website

    • Alan – Welcome to the blog! Look forward to your comments… hoping that you’re able to find the “subscribe” button and “share”button… still working on making these functions more obvious…

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  7. With regard to honoring sources… attribution see also: Adam Kirsch in Tablet – Daf Yomi:
    Finally, toward the end of Chapter 2, the Gemara returns to a favorite topic, the respect due to great rabbis—in particular, to rabbis who have died. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel teaches that “One does not construct monuments for the graves of righteous people, as their words are their memorial”: A Torah sage is to be remembered for his teaching, not for his splendid tomb. Indeed, the Talmud is scrupulous about attributing every opinion to the sage who originally stated it, often getting into long debates on the subject.

    To drive the point home, we hear a story about Rabbi Yochanan, who complained that his student Rabbi Eliezer “did not say a halakhah in my name”—that is, he taught a law without adding that he had learned it from Yochanan. To appease Yochanan, another rabbi, Ya’acov bar Idi, came up with a clever biblical comparison. In the Book of Joshua we read that Joshua taught the Israelites the whole Torah, which he had learned first-hand from Moses. But “is it possible,” Ya’acov asks, “that with every statement that Joshua made while sitting and expounding to the Jewish people he would say: Thus said Moses?” Of course not; rather, everyone knew that Moses was the source for each one of Joshua’s statements. Just so with Eliezer and Yochanan: Eliezer didn’t have to attribute his statements to his teacher one by one, since everyone knew that Yochanan was the source of his learning.

    Still, it is this kind of specific, verbal attribution that is the best tribute to dead sages. Rabbi Yitzchak goes so far as to say that “Every Torah scholar from whose mouth people quote a matter of halakhah in this world, his lips move along with it in the grave.” And this is a delicious sensation for the dead: “like one who drinks spiced wine, even after he drinks it, the taste remains in his mouth.” It is a wonderfully concrete image for intellectual satisfaction. For the rabbis, being able to contribute to the unending discussion of Torah matters was the sweetest thing of all.

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  9. NZL

    Well written.
    You have quoted the Rambam like many do, and go on to make your own inferences, stating that “It is our job, 2,000+ years later to try to discern the direction to which these intermediary steps are pointing”. You also make reference to homosexuality and gender issues in the Torah, and that “we need to ask whether this is a prescriptive law based on an ultimate goal or a descriptive remnant and an accommodation to a then current social bias”.

    Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and if you use modern western society as the basis for your outlook on life then so be it. But respectfully, to use the Rambam as a tool to support your points is indeed “audacious”, especially when you consider his words in Hilchot Melachim 11:1
    “In the future, the Messianic king will arise and renew the Davidic dynasty, restoring it to its initial sovereignty. He will build the Temple and gather the dispersed of Israel.
    Then, in his days, the observance of all the statutes will return to their previous state. We will offer sacrifices, observe the Sabbatical and Jubilee years according to all their particulars as described by the Torah…”

    The Rambam here is pretty clear. No inferences necessary.
    Again, you are always entitled to your own opinions, but to somehow insist that they fall within the walls of orthodoxy or that rishonim themselves would support them is a very dangerous game to play.


    • NZL

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments and cordial tone … Torah learning at its best! Thanks also for posting on Purim. My sense is that you and I will agree to disagree, but what better day than Purim when every position has its day. Ad de Lo yada… venehapechu…

      And now to your comments. You are not the first to bring a citation from Maimonides to contradict a quote from Maimonides. The school of Brisk built a franchise on “resolving” such inconsistencies. When the inconsistency is between the Rambam of the Mishneh Torah and the Moreh, however, one can easily distinguish between the intended audiences.

      I cannot comment on the same-sex extrapolation, as I would have to agree with you that I have no basis in the Rambam, or Rabbinic sources for assuming that the “toevah” applied in the Torah is only the internalization of a common, local and dated bias. (Unless of course on would argue that “Lo tov liyot levado” “It’s not good for man to be alone” is an overriding clall).

      When it comes to gender equality we do have a hint, a Purim hint to boot, that if only men would evolve socially, women could be treated equally…. why can women not read the Megillah for public fulfillment of the mitzvah? Because of “the honor of the community” kavod hatzubbur… anyway that’s my read…

      Purim Sameach, my friend!

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