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A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community

Parshat R'eih
Deuteronomy 11:26 - 16:17
August 14, 2004     27 Av 5764

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matt Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow

Every year, Shi'ite Islam recalls the martyrdom of a central figure in its sacred history of Husayn ibn Ali, grandson of Muhammad. This annual observance is called Ashura, and it occurs on the tenth of the month of Muharran. Shiites, particularly in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, engage in a bloody ritual of self-flagellation - extreme mourning that transports the devotee to the Battle of Karbala (October 10, 680). This rite is the most graphic illustration of a Toraitic prohibition found in Parashat R'eih. At the beginning of Deuteronomy 14, we read, "You are children (banim) of the Lord your God. You shall not gash yourselves (lo titgodedu) or shave the front of your heads because of the dead."(Deuteronomy 14: 1) What is the literal meaning of (p'shat) in this verse? How do the Rabbis reread this verse? And, what does this seemingly archaic prohibition teach us today?

To begin, Rashi (1040-1105), the great medieval exegete, explains, "you shall not make cuts and incisions in your flesh for the dead in the way the Amorites did, because you are children of the Lord." The prophets of Ba'al engaged in such a practice in their confrontation with the prophet Elijah as "they shouted louder, and gashed themselves with knives and spears, according to their practice, until the blood streamed over them (I Kings 18:28)."

Although the Torah's literal prohibition is clearly in line with Rashi's explanation, the Rabbis of the Talmud reinterpret the verse. Claiming that the Hebrew word, titgodedu, is related to agudah, which means group, they connected Deuteronomy 14:1 to Psalm 94:21, which states, "they group together (yagodu) against the soul of the righteous." Out of this intratextual comparison, the Rabbis teach "lo titgodedu, which means "'you shall not form factions (B. Yevamot 13b)." Undoubtedly, the rabbinic reading is a radical departure from p'shat, the literal interpretation of Torah.

Professor Ze'ev Falk z"l, one of the most eloquent voices of Israel, sheds light on the rabbinic methodology that comes to illumine this verse. He explains, "the explanation of lo titgodedu shows that Scripture is not simply monolithic Law but rather it is teaching (Torah), and that is forbidden to be satisfied with pan-halakhism or religious behaviorism, as defined by A.J. Heschel. The prohibition taught here is part of the obligation of always being close to God, and so that means that the individual must control feelings of sorrow. Also, the explanation of the Sages: 'not to make factions,' dovetails well with this commentary. Out of a closeness to God follows the need to be a role model [and to act in God's Image], and so, one must emphasize unity rather than division. This is Solomon Schechter's notion of 'Catholic Israel.' From here, it can also be explained that banim (literally 'sons' but also potentially 'children') includes daughters . . . and it is forbidden to divide the people Israel by diminishing women."

The Talmud teaches that interpretation of Torah is like "a hammer that smashes a rock" into infinite pieces. Truly, there are "seventy faces of Torah." Perhaps the connection here between pshat and drash (homiletical interpretation) lies in the act of self-infliction, individually and collectively. Torah prohibits the literal wounding of oneself as a sign of mourning; the Rabbis, in their wisdom, prohibit wounding the nation through baseless disunity. More important, just as mourning taken to the extreme, expels us from the presence of God, divisions within the people of Israel do likewise. Professor Falk invites each of us to once again live in the presence of God - affirming the need for a creative interpretation of Torah and of the importance of looking upon women as equals in the covenant. Only then can we truly be "children of God."

With wishes for a good week and Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz

The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.