THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Balak – פרשת בלק
July 20, 2019 – יז תמוז תשעט
This essay is sponsored by Janet & Gary Waller in memory of Meyer Pessin Z”L, and by Suzy Levin in memory of Yehonatan ben Yosef David v’Shira Z”L.
Clinging to Idolatry
The religio-erotic encounter between the Israelites and the daughters of Moab and Midian is among the most shameful episodes in the Pentateuch. “While Israel was at Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoring with Moabite women who invited the people to the sacrifices for their God. The people partook of them and worshipped that god. Thus, Israel attached itself to Baal Peor (Numbers 25:1-3).” For their licentiousness and covenantal perfidy, the Israelites were punished with a plague claiming 24,000 victims.
Scholars have speculated about what attracted the Israelites to the worship of Baal Peor. Some theorize that, in this instance, Israelite fornication with heathen women was not a matter of basic sexual gratification. Rather, it was cultic intercourse associated with fertility rites. Human copulation was thought to inspire the deity to impregnate the land with rain-seed. Alternatively, copulation was part of a funerary rite -- which would make the theological error not idolatry but necrolatry. In this view, the ancients believed that the unsatisfied spirits of young boys and girls who had gone to their deaths as virgins would cause harm to people unless propitiated through sacrifices, eating, drinking, and fornication. The simplest understanding, though, is that Israelite men were seduced by heathen women, and that in the process of obtaining sexual gratification they were compelled to cast aside their religious scruples and worship a foreign deity.
Scripture uses an uncommon word -- ויצמד -- to describe Israel’s relationship with Baal Peor. The word has been variously translated: “attached itself to” (JPS), “clung to” (Robert Alter), “coupled itself for” (Jacob Milgrom), “joined himself unto” (KJV), and “yoked himself to” (ESV). The last of these translations follows the view of Ibn Ezra and is consistent with the meaning of צמד בקר in the verse “He took a yoke of oxen (I Samuel 11:7).”
The Talmud offers contradictory homiletic interpretations of ויצמד. Numbers 25:3, which described the association of sinful Israelites with Baal Peor, is contrasted with Deuteronomy 4:4, which describes the association of loyal Israelites with the Hebrew Deity – “But you, the ones clinging – הדבקים -- to your God, are all of you alive today.” According to the uncharitable interpretation, the transgressors were more closely connected to Baal Peor than the pietists were to God. Whereas the sinners were attached to Baal Peor like a tightly fastened lid on a jar צמיד פתיל, the righteous were tenuously connected to God like two dates שתי תמרות הדבוקות which although currently stuck together could easily come apart. The charitable interpretation has it that the transgressors were but loosely connected to Baal Peor, just as a woman’s bracelet צמיד loosely fits around her wrist, while the pietists were glued tightly to God דבוקים ממש (Sanhedrin 64a).
Rabbenu Bachya favored the charitable interpretation, suggesting that if Israel’s devotion to Baal Peor had risen to the level of דביקות then its covenantal relationship with God would have been irreparably damaged. In contrast, Meshech Chochmah accepted a more damning understanding of the episode. He noted that in Numbers 25:2 the sinners are identified not as “Israel” but as “the people,” indicating that Israelite women, too, were ensnared in false worship. Moreover, he noted that the halakhah follows Rava who ruled that idolatry committed out of romantic love and devoid of theological conviction is not punishable by death (Sanhedrin 61a). Since the guilty ultimately died in the plague, it must be, averred the Meshech Chochmah, that, in addition to their initial pleasure-seeking motivation, the Israelites eventually became intellectually convinced of the truths of Baal worship. Pseudo-Jonathan offers a condemnatory analogy: The Israelites were to Baal Peor like a nail driven so firmly into wood that it cannot be extracted without breaking the wood.
Rav said that the Israelites of the Biblical period knew the utter falsehood of idolatry and that it was solely for the purpose of permitting for themselves illicit sexual unions that they adopted the cover story of heathen religion. Rav’s claim is understandable. Jews are so convinced of the truths of monotheism and so disdainful of polytheism or the belief in deities others than Y-H-W-H that an Amora could not fathom how the Israelites could have possibly made such gross theological errors; it must be, in his view, that they knew the truth but were motivated by impure libidinous considerations.
The Gemara challenges Rav’s assertion. “Like the memory of their children are their altars (Jeremiah 17:2)” indicates that the Israelites were sincerely devoted to their idolatrous worship. They longed for their pagan altars like the longing of a loving parent for a lost child. The Gemara further tells the story that, upon the destruction of the Temple, a starving child rejected Elijah’s importuning that he should recite “Shema Yisrael.” Instead, the child hugged his idolatrous figurine as his empty stomach fatally burst. The boy’s body fell upon the idol in fulfillment of the verse “I will cast your carcasses upon the carcasses of your idols (Leviticus 26:30).” The Gemara concedes that although Jews initially turn to idolatry for reasons other than sincere belief, it is possible for them to develop steadfast devotion to the rites and ritual items of non-Jewish religions.
In modern Jewish history, one can find traces of Rav’s dictum in the writings of David Friedlander, Heinrich Heine, and even Theodor Herzl. Heine apostatized, but only because baptism was “the entry ticket to European culture.” Friedlander – seriously – and Herzl – as an unrealistic proposal jotted down in his diary – suggested that mass apostasy be embraced by European Jews, not because they accepted Christian doctrines as truth but as a means of overcoming the legal disabilities imposed on Jews or as a strategy to blunt the effects on anti-Semitism. Contrariwise, there were Jews in the modern period who wholeheartedly have embraced dogmatic Christianity out of deep religious conviction unadulterated by romantic, social, legal, or pecuniary concerns.
Whenever a person crosses the permeable threshold separating religions, and especially when his or her doing so yields material or connubial advantages, outsiders will question the depth and sincerity of the proselyte’s newfound religious attachment. But the true extent of another’s person faith is impossible to discern. In this regard, the competing homiletic readings of ויצמד are inevitable. Most contemporary Jews can cite anecdotal examples of people who are only loosely associated with their adopted religion. There is a regrettable tendency to assume this low level of dedication about converts to Judaism -- even though that convert is required to have promised the converting rabbi that he or she will adhere to all 613 mitzvot -- who undertook religious metamorphosis while romantically attached to a Jew. Yet it should never be denied that there are also those who satisfy the other reading of ויצמד; people who were introduced to Judaism because of social factors, yet who cling to their newfound faith with all their heart and soul.