A Brief Note on the Jew and Society

Parsha Re’eh continues the record of Moses’ final teachings to the Children of Israel. He approaches a number of discrete topics. Some are esoteric – for example, the laws of redeemed offerings and consecrated meat. Other of the teachings remain central to the modern day practices of Judaism – for example, the identification of both permitted and forbidden animals, fish and fowl and the remission of loans in the seventh year, as part of the Shemmitah ritual. Permitted and forbidden foods form the basis for the laws of Kashrut, and the Shemmitah, which was first discussed in Parsha Behar, introduced the revolutionary principle of a somewhat anachronistic concept, loan remission.

Many of the laws that have been educed from the Torah are designed to create barriers between Jewish society and society at large. Moses was very blunt in warning the Children of Israel to be wary of “foreign influences”. The original focus of this direction was at the practice of idolatry and heathen rites. Indeed, some of the Children of Israel had ventured into idolatry when they lost hope of Moses’ return from Mt. Sinai; and some were drawn to the bacchanalian revelry offered up by the women of Midian. They could not be tolerated by God who explicitly commanded the Israelites not to “worship other Gods”.

In an attempt to lessen the allure of idol worship, Moses demanded that in the forthcoming war of conquest the Israelites destroy any trace of idolatry. They were ordered to tear down the altars and smash the pillars of all places where the repugnant regime was practiced. They were warned “to beware of being lured into their ways after they have been wiped out”. Moses repeated God’s hatred of the heathen rites: “…they perform for their god’s every abhorrent act that God detests: they even offer up their sons and daughters in fire to their gods”. More decisively, they were ordered to expel the indigenous peoples of Canaan: “When thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee, whither thou go in to dispossess them and thou dispossess them, and dwell in their land.”

Unfortunately it appears that the Israelites did not destroy all or any of the pagan shrines, nor, does it appear that they  instituted measures to guard against such places and such practices from rising up in their midst. The early rule of the Israelites was marked by the continuing corrupting influence of idolatry and which was that much more remarkable for the ease which with people could turn to the worship of other gods: Baal and Ashterot being the most familiar. Even the revered King Solomon was guilty of allowing such noxious practices to befoul the Kingdom of Israel. The Book of Kings described how he permitted pagan worship to take root in his kingdom, and even constructed altars and temple for the worship of strange god, including the notorious Molech, which was associated with child sacrifice: “Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable idol of Moab, on the mountain which is east of Jerusalem, and for Molech the detestable idol of the sons of Ammon.”

The Torah seems very specific about what it regarded as “foreign influences”; idol worship and pagan practices. However, when that peril dissipated, a new and more potent danger was identified; not the practice of neither idolatry nor heathen rites but that presented by foreign ideas.  The first of such ideologies is identified under the rubric of Hellenism, which became a very strong and influential culture on the heels of the conquest of Judea by Alexander the Great; the latest falls under the rubric of Modernity.

Hellenism had many facets: for example, philosophy and social regulation. Most importantly because of its domination of the Mediterranean basin and the Middle East, it offered the allure of a “global village” tied together by similar customs and a common language, Greek which became the lingua franca of Alexander’s great empire. Interestingly, Hellenism had its greatest impact in the Jewish urban societies of Judea and Egypt. The surrounding rural areas were largely spared much of the influence of Hellenism and their residents formed the backbone of the Macabees whose revolt was ostensibly a reaction to the growing threat that they perceived Hellenistic thought and cultural assimilation were to their Jewish identity and way of life.

Foreign culture has intermittently challenged Jewish traditions. The Roman world and medieval Spain demonstrate excellent examples of the successful melding of old and new.  Coincidentally, one of the most influential thinkers of the early middle Ages was Maimonides who adapted Aristotelian and neo-Platonic thought to Jewish thought. However, his actions were not without controversy and his works were considered heretical by many leaders of the nascent Ashkenazi community of Northern Europe.

The argument continues about foreign influence; should they be adapted or shut out? Should Jewish doctrine and doctrine be amenable to innovation or should the thought and culture of “others” be shut out and Jewish society shut in? The reality is that, as with most things, a balance must be struck. Attaining that equilibrium has been a challenge each generation of Jews have faced, and no doubt will continue to face.

This entry was posted in 2015, Deuteronomy/Devarim, Re'eh. Bookmark the permalink.

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