judaism as a language

Ki Teitzei

It should come as no surprise that a significant number of jews do not observe, or even strive to observe all the commandments. The truth is, that this lack of homogeneous observance is not new.  There was probably never a period when the body of card carrying jews kept all the commandments.  And I’m not talking about minor commandments like putting on tephilin or wearing fringes.  I’m talking about the big ones, like the Sabbath and the Passover.

We know that when the book of Deuteronomy was “found” in the middle of the reign of King Josiah (ruled 640 – 608 BCE) the Passover was no longer observed.  2 Kings Chapter 23: 21-22

And the king commanded all the people, saying: ‘Keep the passover unto the LORD your God, as it is written in this book of the covenant.’
For there was not kept such a passover from the days of the judges that judged Israel, nor in all the days of the kings of Israel, nor of the kings of Judah;

We know that the Prophets castigated the Jews for not observing the Sabbath and the fact that in the early Rabbinic period the Rabbis would promise that that the Messiah will come if every Jew properly observes two consecutive Sabbaths.  [1] It would seem that strict Sabbath observance was a challenge not unique to the post Enlightment.

So there was always a significant portion of the Jewish people whose observance of the commandments was less than perfect.  What is more intriguing is the notion that it may never have been the intent or objective that the laws all be observed… all the time.

If one reads the Hebrew Bible it is full of crimes punishable by death, but the Talmud basically neuters the death penalty by suggesting that: “A Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called a murderous one. R. Eleazar ben Azariah says ‘Or even once in 70 years.” Mishneh Makkot 1:10

There are those who believe that the 49 year cycle Jubilee where loans were forgiven and property returned to its original owner… was purely utopian and never put into practice.  Could it be that not all of the laws and rituals in the Torah were actually meant to be kept or if kept… kept without exception.

Which brings us to the law of the rebellious son:

If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, that will not hearken to the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and though they chasten him, will not hearken unto them;
then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place;
and they shall say unto the elders of his city: ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he doth not hearken to our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.’

And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die; so shalt thou put away the evil from the midst of thee; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.  (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

כִּי-יִהְיֶה לְאִישׁ, בֵּן סוֹרֵר וּמוֹרֶה–אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ, בְּקוֹל אָבִיו וּבְקוֹל אִמּוֹ; וְיִסְּרוּ אֹתוֹ, וְלֹא יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵיהֶם

 וְתָפְשׂוּ בוֹ, אָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ; וְהוֹצִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל-זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ, וְאֶל-שַׁעַר מְקֹמוֹ

 וְאָמְרוּ אֶל-זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ, בְּנֵנוּ זֶה סוֹרֵר וּמֹרֶה–אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ, בְּקֹלֵנוּ; זוֹלֵל, וְסֹבֵא

וּרְגָמֻהוּ כָּל-אַנְשֵׁי עִירוֹ בָאֲבָנִים, וָמֵת, וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע, מִקִּרְבֶּךָ; וְכָל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, יִשְׁמְעוּ וְיִרָאוּ

Says the Talmud: “There never has been a ‘stubborn and rebellious son’, and never will be. Why then was the law written? That you may study it and receive reward.” Tosef. Sanh. 11:6 Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 71a).

Here we have an outright example of one of the so numbered 613 commandments which is a fiction and whose purpose is to create a learning moment.

It seems to me that the above examples, and many more that I could mention, give us a license to take off the legalistic glasses of Halacha and look at the statutes and rituals of the Torah in a different way.

The way that appeals most to me is that we look at the corpus of Jewish law and ritual more as a language than as an instruction manual.

As we say in the Sabbath morning prayers in the piut Ezrat Avotecha:

אשרי איש שישמע למצותיך

Happy is the person who can listen to your commandments.

It may not be the only way we wish to look at the corpus of Jewish Law, but certainly it is a lense worth looking through from time to time.  Judaism as a language.  For some it is a mother tongue, for others a second language.  For some it is their primary form of communication, for others, not so much.  It is a language that expresses certain emotions and ethical standards in a unique and powerful way. Some words lose their meaning, go out of fashion or become socially incorrect. Some words take on new meaning or have different meanings when used in different contexts or situations.  Some words are reinvented or take on a meaning diametrically different than their origin.  Judaism as a language is no less serious of an endeavor or subject of study or commitment, but besides its many other benefits, it does not have the same artificial line of demarcation between those who observe and those who don’t. The tent that holds those who listen and speak the language of the commandments is large.

When I was studying philosophy, back in the day, the philosophy of language was a primary area of interest.   Philosophers such as Noam Chomsky argued that the structure o language was built into our DNA.  Not everyone agrees with Chomsky’s linguistic philosophy and fewer still with his political views, but this son of Hebrew teachers understood that a language reflects the DNA of the speaker.  In that regard, Judaism as a language becomes an act of discovery of who we are and who we can be.

————-

[1] R. Johanan said in the name of R. Simeon b. Yohai: If Israel were to keep two Sabbaths according to the laws thereof, they would be redeemed immediately, for it is said, Thus saith the Lord of the eunuch that keep my Sabbaths,( Isa. LVI, 4.)  which is followed by, even them will I bring to my holy mountain, etc.(verse 7)  (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 118b)

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Filed under Bible, Hebrew, Shabbat, Torah

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