Monday, August 20, 2007


Now Back to the (not so) Regularly Scheduled Weekly Parsha Blogging: Shoftim

Chapter 16 of Deuteronomy (split between Re'eh and Shoftim) contains three apparently unrelated (groups of) commandments: commandments related to the sacrifices at the festivals, the famous injunction to appoint magistrates and establish courts of law as "justice, justice you shall pursue" and the commandment not to plant sacred posts or trees.

The justice mentioned in connection with establishing courts of law is not "mishpat" (or specifically procedural justice) but rather a more general, and un-attainable notion of "tzedek". But even if tzedek is un-attainable, we are not supposed to throw our hands up in the air and say "we cannot achieve divine perfection, therefore we are condemned to sin and require some external force to save our souls", but rather we are to pursue this kind of justice. And not just with courts of law (though these are important) but also we are to pursue distributive as well as procedural justice (note the double mention of justice).

This is the connection with the festival sacrifices: the key part of these sacrifices (which continues to this day when the bread, some of which is burnt as the challah sacrifice, is shared to all at a festive meal) is the sharing of food. A good, just and holy society is one in which the joy of the harvest is amplified by the joy of a festive meal in which the poor and marginalized (including the landless -- and through their jobs constantly exposed to impurity -- priests who seem, in their descent from the punished figure of Levi, to be originally an untouchable caste of priests akin to the Osu of the Ibo, as I believe I've hypothesized before on this blog) share in the goodness of the land, which is not truly ours but is God's holy land.

To adapt Pirke Avoth, which also warns us of the calamities which may befall for breaches of justice, without the sustenance for all provided by sharing of the harvest, there is no Law. And without the Law there is no sustenance. Thus, distributive and procedural justice work hand in hand -- whence the double commandment to pursue justice.

But what is the connection with the prohibition of Asheroth? As I have mentioned no doubt before, I wonder if the term Asheroth is, in origin, a Hittite term, related to the Ashuras of other Indo-European groups. If so, then we might consider the commandment to eschew Asheroth by reference to other, Indo-European mythologies. In particular, let us consider, of all things, Wagner's retelling of the Niebelungenlied. What starts the chain of events the ultimately leads to the dawn of the brave new world and twilight of the gods? Wotan's cutting of the World-Ash tree.

Such mythical sacred trees were common among Indo-European peoples and the worship of them, as was the sanctification of posts in Ashera worship among the Hittite-influenced Canaanites. But what was the function of the World-Ash tree? It was from which the Norns wove the fate of humanity. By cutting the tree down, Wotan gave humans free will.

In Judaism, a similar thing happened when Adam and Eve ate (rather than cut down) the fruit of an important tree. But while certain Christian groups view this as the "original sin" which renders mankind completely alienated and incapable of achieving divine justice, we might view this as the evolutionary dawn of humanity: we humans have knowledge of good and evil and are not bound by fate or instinct. While we mere mortals might never be able to achieve divine justice, we are not to think ourselves as completely debased (c.f. Pirke Avoth). Rather justice is something we can and must pursue. However, without knowledge of good and evil and without freewill, justice is meaningless -- as those who are punished must have mens rea for the punishment to be just.

Thus, like the cutting of the World Ash tree and the burning of Valhalla, the eating from the tree of good and evil and the revelation of the tree of life are critical steps in us becoming human and copartners with God in creation. It is not that our humanity alienates us from God so justice is futile to pursue, but because we are human and not mere beasts, we must pursue justice, even if we, as humans and not God, can never obtain it.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?