Rashi’s God and Ibn Ezra’s God

Behar Behukkotai By :  Walter Herzberg Assistant Professor Emeritus of Hebrew Bible and Its Interpretation and Professional Pastoral Skills Posted On May 16, 2009 / 5769 | Main Commentary

I am in the midst of reading Michael Fishbane’s recently published book Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology. Especially compelling, from my perspective, is the emphasis he places on experiencing the act of biblical interpretation which “is understood to foster diverse modes of attention to textual details, which in turn cultivate correlative forms of attention to the world and divine reality” (page xi). To quote my student Rachel Isaacs (rabbinical student in my Advanced Exegesis class), “Fishbane articulates most clearly the reason why rabbinical students are engaged in the types of learning they are. Close reading [of the Torah text] is not a useless skill or a rite of passage. It forces us to have an intimate, thoughtful, and challenging relationship with the text. As a result, we acquire new revelations through the process of encountering the text as much as we do from the content itself.”

Fishbane’s words resonate with me strongly since I have been working on a book project based on a three-stage model that Professor Steven Kepnes (Colgate University) and I have developed: (1) identifying the textual question, then (2) examining different interpretive approaches to the textual question/detail, and consequently (3) deriving or extracting a moral or theological lesson. Interestingly, Jeremy Ruberg (also a rabbinical student in my Advanced Exegesis class) detected a similar three-stage approach inherent in Fishbane’s comments.

Through a close reading, and analysis of a recurring phrase in this week’s Torah portion, I will attempt to demonstrate how this three-stage approach to the text works: According to the laws of the jubilee year, land reverts to its original owners every fifty years. Therefore, when land is sold or bought, the price of the transaction is based on the number of harvests remaining until the next jubilee year. Leviticus 25:14–17 reads as follows (emphasis is mine):

14  And when you sell property to your fellow, or purchase from the hand of your fellow, do not maltreat each other
15  By the number of years after the jubilee you shall buy from your fellow, and by the number of years he shall sell to you.
16  The larger the number of years, the more you shall pay for its purchase and the smaller the number of years the less you shall pay for its purchase, since he is selling to you the number of yields
17  Do not maltreat each other, and you shall fear your God, for I am the Lord your God

Stage one: identifying the textual question

Commentators and close readers throughout the ages have been puzzled by the occurrence of the phrase “do not maltreat” in both verses 14 and 17.

Why then is the phrase “do not maltreat” repeated only three verses after it first appears?

Stage Two: examining different interpretive approaches to the textual question

A. Rashi (Rabbi Shelomo Yitzhaqi, France, 1040–1105), commenting on the first occurrence (verse 14), notes that “do not maltreat” is referring to “victimization in financial matters.” However, when commenting on the second occurrence (verse 17), he notes that “here [the Torah] enjoins us regarding verbal harassment” (Art Scroll translation). Rashi, as usual, deals with an apparent redundancy or repetition by distinguishing between the two occurrences of the very same phrase: one is referring to financial maltreatment, the other to verbal maltreatment.

The Art Scroll translation of the Torah that often follows Rashi’s interpretation actually translates the phrase differently in each verse: victimize in verse 14, and harass in verse 17. Most other translations use the same word in both verses: E. Fox uses maltreat, R. Friedman uses persecute, NJPS uses wrong.

B. Abraham Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1089–1164) explains the repetition by stating that the warning not to maltreat in verse 14 is addressed to the buyer, while the warning not to maltreat in verse 17 is addressed to the seller.

The following comments of Obadiah Seforno (Italy, 1475–1550) help us understand why a separate injunction “not to maltreat” is required for both the seller and the buyer: “There shall be no kind of deceit in any transaction.” The seller can mislead the buyer by covering up the true condition of the object offered for sale. Nowadays, for example, if you are selling a home with a mold problem, you must not paint over the mold, or place some furniture in front of it to block it from the view of the buyer.

The buyer, on the other hand “should not deceive the seller: when the seller is not aware of the value of the article, even though it was in his possession . . . and he had time to show it to an [expert] merchant or a relative.”

Stage three: deriving or extracting a moral or theological lesson

Rashi encourages us to ponder, and consider the nature of the maltreatment. Is maltreatment solely an act that results in a negative tangible outcome; in our case financial?

Or, can verbal maltreatment be an equally egregious offense? Rashi’s comment beckons us to reflect on our own behavior toward and interaction with others, perhaps causing us to carefully consider the nature of our speech and interaction. Verbal maltreatment, though sometimes subtle, seems to have the potential to cause damage as well, though not necessarily financial.

Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, with his focus on the identity of the maltreater, (or more specifically, the financial offender), encourages us to be aware that there are always two sides to any transaction—that it is not the seller alone who may take advantage of the buyer, but the buyer who may take advantage of the seller as well. In other words, contrary to popular opinion, it is not always the seller who is the potential defrauder. Similarly, in situations involving parents and children, teachers and students, employer and employees, both sides possess the potential to maltreat. This interpretation may help us consider the complex nature of relationships, and become cognizant of the fact that the identity of the maltreater is not always clear-cut or obvious.

Sharon Barr (another rabbinical student in my Advanced Exegesis class) beautifully articulates an approach to the text that is applicable to the analysis we completed above: “In each of the comments we studied, the rabbis attempted to make God’s words clearer and God’s expectations perhaps more attainable. As opposed to looking at this phrase as merely another commandment which God demands that we fulfill, it is now an opportunity for ‘meditative reflection and reflective action’ as we think about our own preferred understanding of it in our everyday lives.”

Sharon’s comment was based on the following excerpt from Fishbane’s book:

“Textual study thus becomes a discipline of ethical and spiritual self-cultivation; and scripture is transformed thereby from an authoritative corpus of received laws, beliefs, and memories into an authorizing matrix for ongoing meditative reflection and reflective action . . . The Jewish theology that results is multiple and pluralistic . . . theology is not merely a type of thinking but also a type of living.”

This three-stage approach can be demonstrated even more clearly by identifying one more question in Leviticus 25:17, which as we have seen reads as follows:

“Do not maltreat each other, and you shall fear your God, for I am the Lord your God.”

Stage one: identifying the textual problem/question

Note that the verse concludes “and you shall fear your God . . . ” There are many injunctions in this chapter in particular, and in Leviticus in general. Why then is this injunction among the few that concludes with the exhortation to “fear your God”?

Stage two: examining different interpretive approaches to the textual question

Rashi, as we noted above, considers the phrase “do not maltreat” in verse 17 to be referring to verbal harassment. He actually continues his comment, adding “that one should not annoy his fellow nor give him advice that is not appropriate for him . . . And if you will say ‘Who knows if I had bad intentions [when I gave the advice],’—this is why it says ‘You shall fear your God,’—the One Who knows thoughts. He knows [your intentions].”

Ibn Ezra, as we noted above, comments that the phrase “do not maltreat” is repeated because it refers to both the seller and the buyer. He says that the verse therefore concludes “you shall fear your God, for I am the Lord your God” to warn both the seller and the buyer that He “will punish whoever maltreats [or takes advantage of] his fellow” (my translation/paraphrase of Ibn Ezra).

Stage three: deriving or extracting a moral or theological lesson

Before reading any further, please take a moment to consider the difference in the implied theology of Rashi’s and of Ibn Ezra’s comments.

Implied Theology: Based on Rashi’s and Ibn Ezra’s comments, my students often suggest that Rashi’s God, so to speak, is internal—one’s conscience—which will hopefully motivate one to refrain from behaving inappropriately. Ibn Ezra’s God, on the other hand, is external—and the fear of some looming punishment will hopefully deter one from behaving inappropriately. There is, of course, ample opportunity to continue considering the ramifications of these two divergent approaches.

I would like to conclude by quoting a comment of Ita Paskind’s (rabbinical student in my Advanced Exegesis class) that I think articulates, and encapsulates, the approach I have been attempting to convey through this Torah study: “Fishbane’s argument is that biblical interpretation should not be viewed as a historical endeavor, something to study but not apply. No; it’s applicable to our lives and actually requires effort and self-discipline. Studying the various commentators sheds light on different types of theological truths that can be found in the Bible . . . my learning can be a window into new approaches to theology, [and] Talmud Torah can help me attune my soul to the presence and workings of God in the world.”

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.