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Magic, Religious Extermination, and Contemporary Reading of Scripture

  • Magic, Religious Extermination, and Contemporary Reading of Scripture

    Chukat, Numbers 19:1−22:1
D'var Torah By: 

Parashat Chukat presents a delightful diversity of difficult passages for a thoughtful reader. It commences with the sacrifice and strange ritual of the red cow (Numbers 19:1-20) and gives us only one verse regarding the death and burial of Miriam (Numbers 20:1). This is followed by the people's complaining against Moses and Aaron for lack of water and Moses's smiting-and not ordering-the rock to produce water, as God had commanded. This failure to follow God's instruction becomes the reason for the brothers' punishment of never entering the Promised Land (Numbers 20:2-12). Edom's refusal to let the Israelites pass through its territory and the death and burial of Aaron conclude the second chapter of the parashah (Numbers 20:14-29). The next chapter briefly picks up the theme of Canaanite kings refusing to let the people pass, but quickly moves to reiterate the theme of the people's complaining, this time resulting in their punishment by a plague of snakes (Numbers 21:1-15). Then God gives the people a well, and they utter a song of thanksgiving and praise. Finally, the Israelites confront two kings, Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan, who are destroyed because of their refusal to let the people pass through their territory (Numbers 21:16-22:1).

Two matters in this parashah attract my attention:
1. The red cow and the copper serpent
2. The punishment of the enemies of the Israelites known as "proscription"

These as well as other matters in the parashah , particularly the image, death, and burial of Miriam, are fully discussed in bothThe Torah: A Women's Commentary (ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss [New York: URJ Press, 2008], pp. 915-936) and The Torah: A Modern Commentary (ed. W. Gunther Plaut [New York: URJ Press, 2005], pp. 1,144?1,168).

  1. The Red Cow and the Copper Serpent

Much has been written about the red cow, the ashes of which are meant to remove ritual impurity from those who have touched a corpse, human bone, or grave. And much has been written about the copper serpent, which, when looked upon, is meant to remove the effects of the poison of the serpents sent to punish the people. Our compulsion to find meaning in the biblical text runs up against a cultural divide that separates modern consciousness from the consciousness in primitive cultures. Regarding these two biblical objects, we are dealing with what the great anthropologist Sir James George Frazer described as "sympathetic magic." Frazer's description of the first principle of magic fits:

If we analyze the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause. . . . The former principle may be called the Law of Similarity. . . . From the first of these principles, namely the Law of Similarity, the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it. . . . (Frazer,The Golden Bough, online text: http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext03/bough11h.htm#chapter3)

Being sprinkled with the ashes of the red cow that are dissolved in "the water of lustration" or looking at the copper serpent is meant to magically remove that which ritually separates one from the community or the physical threat of death. As others have noted, the "red" color of the cow probably stands for blood, a symbol of life, and the copper serpent resembles the serpents biting the community and acts as a kind of antivenin, the antidote for snakebite. Yet we immediately recognize, especially in the case of the snake, that we are not dealing with scientifically verifiable, if symbolic, "antivenin." Both biblical and Rabbinic tradition understood the problematic nature of this "cure." From the biblical perspective, the copper snake had to be destroyed in the time of King Hezekiah (king of Judah, ca. 715-687 b.c.e.) because it had become the object of idolatrous worship (see II Kings 18:4). Rabbinic literature echoes depictions of the magical properties of the copper snake by imagining that the banner on which it was placed catapulted itself into the air. But Rabbinic lore also spiritualized the copper snake by arguing that when one looked up to see it, the person would symbolically be reminded of the Heavenly Father, the source of healing, and this faith-emphasizing process would lead to healing ( Tanchuma , Chukat 19 and Aggadat B'reishit 11).

2. The Punishment of the Enemies of the Israelites, Known as Proscription.

Numbers 21:2 describes the vow the Israelites made to God regarding the Canaanite king of Arad who had attacked them: "If You deliver this people into our hand, we will proscribe their towns." This is understood by commentators to mean that all the inhabitants of the town are to be killed and the property dedicated to God by being given to the priests or the Sanctuary. What is being described in our parashah and elsewhere in the Torah by "proscription" is a religious concept underlying the modern understanding of extermination. The Israelites exterminate their human enemies and appropriate the booty, which is then dedicated to God. Such a punishment goes well beyond the more typical biblical (and ancient Near Eastern) punishment of enemies through enslavement, and (or) killing the males and taking the females and property. The Hebrew root of the verb "to proscribe" is chet, reish, mem, and its noun form is used in Rabbinic literature to designate a form of excommunication. Two other verses, Leviticus 27:28-29, state the principle of proscription clearly:

But of all that anyone owns, be it human or beast or land-holding, nothing that has been proscribed for the Eternal may be sold or redeemed; every proscribed thing is totally consecrated to the Eternal. No human being who has been proscribed can be ransomed: that person shall be put to death.

For the modern nonfundamentalist reader, for Reform Jews, what do we do with biblical passages whose original meaning are rooted in magic and superstition or religiously based extermination? First, we have to remind ourselves constantly of the human origin of the biblical text. That principle allows us to accept the multiple contradictions found in the long history of our biblical ancestors, who, over more than one thousand years, could have not just differing opinions, but also mind-sets embedded in the primitive and the sublime, in brutality and in higher visions of universal justice and peace. Second, immersion in both biblical and later Rabbinic literature not only confronts us with ideas and values from antiquity, but also challenges us to reflect on and assess what speaks to us from the treasures of our people and what does not! At a time when sacred Scripture is again used to justify the most inhuman treatment of others, Reform Jews have an obligation to speak-out of our regard for human life, science, and good sense-to share our vision for a better world informed by what we regard as the best values of our tradition.

Rabbi Lewis M. Barth is professor emeritus of midrash and related literature, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles, California.

A Progressive, But Nonrational Approach
Davar Acher By: 
Matthew D. Gewirtz

A rabbinic mentor told me he used to give unhelpful advice to his congregants when they struggled with guilt. They would tell him, "Rabbi, my mother died and I didn't visit, care, or tend to her enough in her final weeks. Now she is dead. The guilt is unbearable." In his early years of rabbinic experience, he would provide this counsel: "You did your best; don't feel guilty." As time went on, the rabbi realized that this advice was not helpful. In essence, he had answered an irrational emotion with a rational response. Instead, he started to give ritual assignments in response to these types of quandaries. Rather than urging people not to feel guilty (that is, trying to will people not to feel their feelings), he would prescribe an activity for a certain period of time. For example, in one case, he advised a congregant to visit patients who were terminal, as the congregant's mother had been, and try to provide some of the care that had not been given to his mother. Sure enough, his desperate congregant fulfilled the six-week assignment and reported back that his guilt had begun to subside. There was no rational reason for the relief of guilt. Indeed, some rituals have no rational reason. But sometimes ritual fulfillment brings us to new levels of awareness and resolution that simply have to do with plugging into an age-old ritual that exists because God demands it of us.

I do believe emphatically in our progressive approach to reading the Torah as a living and continually revelatory document. However, we have to be careful not to simply pick and choose certain pieces of Torah based on whether they conflict with our modern sensibilities. Indeed, the fundamentalist right has hijacked Scripture to be read by letter and not by spirit. But we do not have to relinquish complex and ancient ideas because we think they are outdated. I am not suggesting that we sacrifice (much less look for) a red cow, but just because its mystical and magical elements don't resonate in a rational manner does not mean the message behind the sacrifice is not helpful somehow. While the rationale of my mentor's assignment to his congregant described above was unclear, performance of that assignment had a healing effect.

The benefits of many rituals may not be apparent immediately, but sometimes when we engage in them, we find a sense of awareness and balance that we had not realized was possible. I may rail against the fundamentalist path. But I also encourage us to engage in the nonrational religious act because you never know what potential power, sense of awareness, balance, and resolution of complex feelings may result. This does not mean we should be irrational and crazy, just that sometimes we should take the nonrational route to wholeness.

Rabbi Matthew D. Gewirtz is the spiritual leader of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey. He has just realized his first book, The Gift of Grief (San Francisco: Celestial Arts, 2008).

6/30/2008
Reference Materials: 

"Chukat, Numbers 19:1-22:1
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,145-1,164; Revised Edition, pp. 1,022-1,042
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 915–936"

When do we read Chukat

2019, July 13
10 Tammuz, 5779
2022, July 9
10 Tammuz, 5782
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