bullish on intellectual property values

parshat yitro

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.

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. ( לֹא-טוֹב cf Genesis 2:18) 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 ideologues… 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.

In a previous post we detailed how Maimonides channeled the pagan antecedence of  Biblical ritual and religious practice.  Today, I am in LA, land of Beverly Hills and it’s Beverly Hillbillies and thinking how Jethro and his family (in the sitcom that is) were to be a foil, mirror and ultimate source of inspiration (nay, salvation) for their neighbors.  ~

Ultimately, admitting our sources is our salvation and denouncing our sources is the beginning of “orthodoxy”,decay and ultimate petrification.  Daniel Boyarin, in a wonderful book called Border Lines tries to show how both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity invented Orthodox Religion to separate their practice and beliefs from each other and from their past.  It’s a fascinating book but  what relates to our discussion is his observation that “what counts as heresy… is often the traditional religion of a generation before. (p59)

Boyarin quotes the first Mishna in the tenth chapter of the tractate of Sanhedrin: “These are they that have no place in the next world: One who denies the resurrection of the dead, one who denies the [Oral] Torah is from heaven.. Boyarin points out that “Resurrection and the revealed Oral Law are the major doctrinal points of issue  between the Pharisees and the Sadducees”  The Pharisees are the precursors of Rabbinic (Orthodox) Judaism who wrote the Mishna and wrote out pre-existing groups and belief systems such as held by the Sadducees.  The other group the Rabbis meant to delegitimize were (my favorite) .. the Am Haaretz “People of the Land” who likewise had no use for the Oral Torah discovered by the Jews returning from Babylonia.

Boyarin quotes scholar Shemaryahu Talmon of the Am Haaretz: “These groups are arguably descended from the people who had not gone into exile in Babylonia: “Those who had been permitted by the babylonians to remain in the land in essence did not change their life style, economic structure, and religious-cultic customs, notwithstanding the loss of political sovereignity and cultic institutions and the incurrance of economic hardship.  They were the conservatives who clung to their established systems of values, despite the changed circumstances” ( footnote 122, page 251)

It seems to me that the salvation that comes from giving value to our joint, and many times inconvenient and muddled cultural intellectual property is to help save us from ourselves.  In denying the many times primitive, but sometimes pure and simple ideas of our predecessors, we risk suffocating our options, alternative opinions and natural creativity in an orthodoxy that claims to reflect a past that never existed…


Jethro Bodine of the Beverly Hillbillies

Jethro Bodine of the Beverly Hillbillies

~ I’m actually in Santa Monica but Hanuka came early this year so I can’t incorporate Tom Lehrer’s “Hanuka in Santa Monica” into the post .. but if you haven’t heard it click the  link…


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Filed under Bible, Chosen People, Judaism, Religion, social commentary, Torah

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