Thursday, June 30, 2011

Sticks and Words, Prejudice and Jephthah's daughter. Chukat 2011

There are situations in which the choosing violence over words has some appeal, and using words for reaching agreements and shared understanding seems too hard or impractical. For this discussion I am thinking of “sticks” in a broad sense, all coercion and harsh interaction can be seen as having a touch of violence about it. This week Jews read a story[1] that includes prejudice, violence and a man of deeds, the warrior, Jephthah who made a vow to sacrifice his daughter. In the Torah reading, we are asked to blindly obey a commandment about a mixture of water and ashes of a burnt red cow that has opposite effects on different people[2]. We are also confronted with a sin involving a rock that was beaten rather than spoken to[3]. This is an exploration of sticks and words.

Action Man’s and his Maligned Mother
Jephthah did not worry about scholarship. He thought that as long as he served God with a pure heart we would not stumble[4]. He is introduced as a “Gileadite was a mighty man of valour”, but also as the “son of a lady, a prostitute”[5].  Commentaries are divided between taking it literally[6], and the suggestion that the derogatory name was used for any woman who married out of her tribe. Her marriage was completely acceptable by law, but strongly frowned upon by people worried about land moving between tribes[7]. Influence by stigma, a stick.

The prejudice does not end with his mother. His half brothers, from his father’s “proper” wife drove Jephthah out with force and strong arm tactics[8].  This was a great injustice[9], stick #2. Banished from his family, the fallen son of a prominent family goes to the land of “Tov”, and he hangs out with “empty men”[10]. This band went out to battle all the time and that’s how they got their food[11].

An external threat of war leads the people to set aside their prejudices. Out of desperation Jephthah is called back and offered the leadership. The psychologically scarred man reminds the people “but you have hated me”[12]. He is deeply distrustful, only accepting the leadership with conditions that he will remain as leader afterwards, whether they still want him or not.  Another stick.

“Stick” Words
Jephthah sends a message to the Amonite king, “what is there between you and me? That you have come to fight me in my land[13]. The king of Amon demands the peaceful return of Amonite[14]  land that the Israelites took at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. The historical truth was that the land was originally Moabite but had been conquered by Emorites, and only then conquered by the Israelites from them[15]. Jephthah’s response categorically rejects the claim, Israel did not take the land of Moab or Amon”[16].

In the Harvard negotiation model, the ideal is for the parties to agree on a solution based on meeting as much of their interests as is possible. A harsher element in negotiation is “standards”, when the parties focus on external criteria that force the other party to agree to their terms. Jephthah must have assumed, probably rightly, that there was no chance for a peaceful resolution based on interests. Instead he focuses on standards, such as whatever one’s God has given belongs to that group, so the Amonites and Moabites can have whatever their god Kmosh gave them. Another argument is the passages of 300 years since the original conquest “Why did you not recover the land then?”[17]

The War and the Vow
The tough talk is followed by a battle, and it is then that Jephthah makes the vow. "If You will deliver the sons of Ammon into my hand, whatever comes …from the doors of my house towards me, when I return in peace…shall be to the Lord, and I will offer it up for a burnt-offering."  A vow is a way to force ourselves to do later what we will no longer want to do, again a stick.

Jephthah is victorious. The results are a “very great slaughter and the sons of Amon were subdued before the sons of Israel[18]”.  “Jephthah came to Mizpah, to his house, and behold, his daughter was coming out towards him with timbrels and with dances …And it was, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, "Alas, my daughter! …and I have opened my mouth to the Lord and I cannot go back."  

He was wrong, he certainly could go back. The Torah clearly allows for vow to be annulled by a scholar. He refused to go to the high priest, Phineas because he thought that as leader it was beneath his dignity to go to Phineas. Phineas, thought it was beneath the office of the high priest to go to Jephthah[19]. “I am a high priest the son of a high priest, will I lower myself and go to an Ignoramus?![20] Both Jephthah and Pineas are strongly condemned for their arrogance, although there is a view that Phineas had a right to be insulted by Jephthah’s arrogance, although he was a leader of his generation he was not to be compared to with the righteous of other generations, nor was he to be respected as a scholar[21]. 

Acting on the Vow
Jephthah’s daughter agrees to comply with her fathers vow…and he did to her his vow which he had vowed; and she had not known any man…[22]. Commentary differs on whether she was killed[23] or isolated for the rest of her life[24]. Either way, an avoidable terrible choice[25], if only he had bothered to study and would have known that his vow could be cancelled.  

Mindless worship
All this would point to the value of knowledge. Yet, there is a place for the non-logical. In introducing the law of the red heifer, the Torah states; “This is Chukaht חוקת (the statute of) the Torah which the Lord commanded, …take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow[26]”. The word Chukat means a law for which no reason is given. While some might assume that God knows the reason for this, in Chasidic teachings it is suggested that these commandments simply transcend reason[27]. The words “this is the statue of the Torah” is also taken to mean that it would be better for a person to treat all the laws of the Torah as unexplainable commandments rather than try to find reasons for them[28]. 

The Chasidic movement sought to correct the devaluing of the worship of the unlearned Jews that stemmed from the great emphasis on scholarship in 17th and 18th century Eastern Europe. It insisted on celebrating the sincerity and holiness of the “simple Jews”. In its Chabad version it also emphasised self nufilication. Somewhere out of all of this emerged a saying that “Sechel” (the mind) is concealment of Godliness.” While it still encourages us to think as a means of worship, there is a downgrading of the importance of thinking in comparison with obediance.

Words Not Sticks
On the other side of the argument is the following idea. The Israelites were without water. God told Moses to take a stick and speak to the rock and water would appear. But he hit the rock instead: a repetition of his exact action forty years earlier under God’s instructions when he had made the same request for water. What was the difference? Four decades before, Moses had been leading slaves; they were acustomed to being told what to do, now they were free people. Times and people had changed. The stick was no longer needed – just words. Moses had failed to change and was no longer the man to lead the people.[29]

Violence in its various forms might be necessary at times, minimizing it should help.

[1] In our Haftorah reading from the prophets
[2] Numbers 19:1-22
[3] Numbers 20:7-12
[4] Me’am Loez, translated by Rabbi Nathan Bushwick (1991), Moznaim Publishing New York, Jerusalem, p. 234
[5] Judges 11:1
[6] Metzudat David
[7] Radak (David Kimche, 1160-1235), Ralbag
[8] Metzudat David
[9] Ralbag
[10] Judges 11:3
[11] Ralbag
[12] Judges 11:7
[13] Judges 11:12
[14] I would assume that  Amon and Moab were closely related peoples, both parties to the conversation do not distinguish between them
[15] Numbers 21:26 see Rashi
[16] Judges 11:15
[17] Judges , echoed in the Talmudic law in Bava Basra chapter 3, of Chazakah, that someone who claims ownership of land and can prove possession for three years does not need to produce the original sale documents unless the original owner protested within the three year period. Otherwise his silence is part of what legitimises the possessors claim.
[18] Judges
[19]  Midrash Tanchuma, Rashi
[20] Midrash Tanchuma Yashan quoted in Liebovitz, N, Studies in Bamidbar, p. 274, This reminds me of the case about an accountant for a company called Chicago Kosher in Winnipeg, Canada. This company sold meat certified as Kosher all over the world. The accountant calculated the combined output of all the Kosher butchers in Winnipeg, and realised that it did not add up to the meat processed in the factory. He approached the certifying Rabbi about his concerns. The Rabbi asked him, can you study the Talmud? “No” he said, can you study the Mishnah? “No” etc. The Rabbi dismissed him as an ignoramus. The accountant then went to another Rabbi who was less judgemental and more supportive. The accountant was proven right, when police discovered meat from non-Kosher butchers being delivered in middle of the night. I met the accountant years later, but heard the story from someone who knows him well.  
[21]  Me’am Loez, p. 239
[22] Judges 11:36-39
[23] Ramban
[24] Abarbanel, Ibn Ezra, Radak
[25] Talmud,  Ta’anit 4a
[26] Numbers 19:2
[27] I remember this in the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I don’t have an exact source
[28] R. Mendel of Kotzk, quoted by R. Zeev of Strikov, in Greenberg, A, Y, (1992) Torah Gems, Y Orenstien/Yavneh Publishing Tel Aviv
[29] Sacks, (2009) Chief Rabbi Jonathan, Future Tense, Hodder & Stoughton London

1 comment:

  1. Shalom! What a beautiful piece! You are correct in that the relevance for present times can be seen. Elsewhere in the Scriptures it is said that there is a time and season for everything - even sticks and words :)