Thursday, May 16, 2019

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Emor 5779–Shor Spot

Anyone who is a semi-regular reader of my musings recognizes that I don’t exactly agree with a lot of the rabbinic interpretations and understandings of the Torah – informed, as they are – by, in my humble opinion, the conceived of whole cloth “oral Torah.”  Who wouldn’t want the opportunity to create, redact, and edit an entire set of understandings that undergird one’s own pre-conceived ideas?

I recognize that’s pretty harsh. The Torah clearly requires a little help with understanding a significant portion of its contents, and it’s certainly likely that some common understandings of how to interpret unclear texts developed over the millennia before the rabbis attempted to record them. So perhaps saying they come from “whole cloth” is a bit histrionic. From the evolution of praxis and traditions is probably a fairer description. The problem with assuming these laws were handed down simultaneously with the Torah is that it negates or minimizes what might have been hundreds of generations of attempting to make sense of things. It assumes G”d didn’t think we were up to the task of understanding the Torah, and, at least for me, that is in direct contradiction to the words of Torah herself in Deuteronomy 30:12 (the “lo bashamayim hi” – the Torah is not in heaven, not too difficult or baffling for us. Of course, the rabbis abrogated our  individual rights with the story of the oven at Akhnai, and made themselves the defacto interpreters and deciders.)

Right here, in this parasha, is a classic example of what I like to call FWTTOTT – effing with the text of the Torah.

וְשׁ֖וֹר אוֹ־שֶׂ֑ה אֹת֣וֹ וְאֶת־בְּנ֔וֹ לֹ֥א תִשְׁחֲט֖וּ בְּי֥וֹם אֶחָֽד׃

However, no animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young [JPS]

However, a bovine or ovine, itself, and its sons (children) you shall not slaughter on the same day. [my translation]

Let’s look at the words:


A unitary noun representing a single beast of a (bovid) herd, בָּקָר,  often translated as ox (and sometimes cow) although it is a masculine noun.


A unitary noun representing a single beast of a flock צֹאן (ovine or caprine) often translated as sheep or goat

According to some linguists, both unitary nouns are meant to represent a single beast of either gender. This all gets further complicated by the fact that Hebrew has multiple words for animals, some of them synonyms, and others differentiating between species and sub-species, all of which have singular and plural male and female forms. (Though it’s my belief that this then lends greater credence to my contention that shor and se are non-gendered unitary nouns.)

As many of these others words for cows, oxen, sheep, goats and other sacrificial animals are attested to in the Torah (though some only in Nakh) this suggests that the authors of the Torah ( or The Author, if you prefer that understanding) had a choice of terms, and made deliberate choices. It would have been easy to write this text to clearly mean “a mother and its child should not be slaughtered on the same day” or “a parent and its child should not be slaughtered on the same day.” The Author/authors chose otherwise.

Given this, it would seem the plain meaning here is that no animal and either of its parents should be slaughtered on the same day (sundown to sundown.)

But no, say the rabbis. This only applies to mothers and sons. Rashi, Nachmanides concur. (Ibn Ezra agrees with me that it applies to both genders.) In Talmud, Chullin 78 there is a protracted discussion of this verse and its implications. As is typical, it cites other verses in Torah to bolster its conclusions. I agree with that methodology in principle – cherry-picking verses in isolation isn’t really fair.

But here’s the rub – I don’t find this verse difficult to understand. It prohibits slaughtering (ostensibly for sacrifice, if we take it in context with the previous verse which prohibits sacrificing any animal until it is 8 days old) any animal and any of its parents on the same day. Period. (Talmud does fairly raise the point that the structure of the Hebrew does seem to indicate it refers to only one parent

אֹת֣וֹ וְאֶת־בְּנ֔ו

– it, and its sons/children - meaning perhaps that one could slaughter one of the parents. But that seems illogical to me.)

So here’s the question. What practical end was served by the rabbis deciding that this meant only that a mother and her child could not be sacrificed on the same day? Were most sacrifices male? Did our ancestors not perceive the familial bond between father and child to be as important as between mother and child?

Did our ancestors not understand the reason for this commandment? Is it about animal cruelty, or does it have some other underpinning? Torah is not clear about the why, just the what – so the rabbis rule to adjust the what based on their understanding of the why. Something feels wrong about this process.

For that matter, why the preceding commandment to not sacrifice an animal younger than 8 days old? Quite frankly, that seems to be a pretty low barrier. By the 8th day, a good shepherd or herder could tell, even in those days, how healthy and strong an animal that 8-day-old beast might grow up to be, and easily play a game of sacrificing those that showed less promise – though this is tempered by G”d’s insistence that sacrificial animals be pure – so an obvious defect would disqualify.

On the one hand, this is the stuff that makes my head want to explode. On the other hand, this is the stuff that makes me challenge anyone who says they know, with absolute certainty, what every commandment in the Torah means.

If it’s not obvious by now, this should tell us all why the “because G”d said so” rational was created. Well, I was never that enamored of that rationale. I’m even less enamored when it becomes “because that’s what we, the rabbis, have decided that this is what G”d said.”

So why does it matter? I’m certainly not for a return to the sacrificial system even if the Temple should be rebuilt. It matters if I want to work to reclaim for each of us, as individual Jews, the right to interpret and understand the Torah. It matters if I want to see a movement that eventually leads to the creation of  new, modern 21st-Century academies of Torah in Diaspora, with the goal of creating a new Talmud, new Halakha, new understandings of our sacred heritage that will enable us to successfully navigate the survive the coming centuries. We all have a lot of studying to do to even make that even an idea worth considering. I’m game. Are you?

Shabbat Shalom,

©2019 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Emor 5778 - A Quixotic Hope on the Camino Real
Emor 5777 - Mum's the Word (Revised & Revisited 5760)
Emor 5775 - Missing the appointment
Emor 5774 - Lex Talionis (Redux & Revised from 5759)
Emor 5773 - The Half-Israelite Blasphemer
Emor 5772-Eternal EffortII: We Have Met the Ner Tamid and It Is Us
Emor 5771-B'yom HaShabbat, B'yom HaShabbat
Emor 5770 - G"d's Shabbat II
Emor 5767-Redux and Revised 5761-Eternal Effort
Emor 5766 - Mum's the Word (Redux 5760 with new commentary for 5766)
Emor 5765-Out of Sync
Emor 5764-One Law for All
Emor 5763-Mishpat Ekhad
Emor 5758-Gd's Shabbat
Emor 5759-Lex Talionis
Emor 5760-Mum's the Word
Emor 5761-Eternal Effort

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