Balancing Peshat and Sensitivity

Re'eh By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jul 31, 2013 / 5773

Parashat Re’eh contains a categorical pronouncement against idolatry in the Land of Israel. Once the Israelites enter and dwell in the Promised Land, they are commanded to destroy the devotional sites of other nations: “You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshipped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site” (Deut. 12:2–3). The law is clear cut—zero tolerance for the practices of other peoples in the Land; their ways will corrupt the People and lead them astray from the God of Israel. One need look no further than Israel’s journey through the wilderness (especially the episode of Ba’al Peor) or the book of Judges to understand the rationale behind this law. Clearly the Israelites are easily seduced by the idolatrous fetishes of their neighbors. Yet, how may we, as both loyal heirs to the biblical tradition and modern readers, understand this harsh pronouncement of Deuteronomy? Is a more nuanced interpretation possible?

Joseph ben Isaac B’khor Shor softens the blow of Torah’s legislation. Echoing the wisdom and discomfort of the rabbinic tradition, he explains that the law of Deuteronomy does not involve the utter and complete destruction of these devotional sites.

The verse refers to instruments used in the service of idolatrous practice. For it is impossible to destroy the sites. And it is understood that the land itself is not forbidden. Torah states it is the places where they worship their gods—the mountains do not belong to their gods. For if an idolater bows down to a mountain, the mountain does not become forbidden [to the Israelite]—and so too is the case with hills.

And more than that, he explains that the Land itself does not become tainted through these practices. While the B’khor Shor’s approach is a departure from the peshat, or literal sense, of Torah (which literally mandates “obliterating their name from that site”), he is also in the vein of Rabban Gamliel.

Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3:4 relates the story of Rabban Gamliel, who finds himself bathing in the presence of a statue of Aphrodite. When challenged by Proclus, a Roman, as to why he would be allowed to bathe in the presence of a Greek goddess, Rabban Gamliel responds brilliantly: “I came not within her limits, she came within mine! People do not say, ‘Let us build a bath as an adornment to Aphrodite’ but ‘Let us make a statue of Aphrodite as decoration for the bath’ . . . what is treated as a god is prohibited, but what is not treated as a god is permitted.” Since Rabban Gamliel was immersed in Hellenistic culture, he wisely recognized the need for accommodation. One could not be a purist as commanded by Deuteronomy 12:2–3. Such action would have cost Rabban Gamliel his life. In his wisdom, Rabban Gamliel softens the text of Deuteronomy, allowing Judaism to stop short of “obliterating their name.” Both the B’khor Shor and Rabban Gamliel teach us an important lesson in recognizing the life-affirming shades of grey in Torah. Far from demanding a black-and-white interpretation, we, the loyal readers of Torah, are challenged time and time again to read sensibly and sensitively.

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