What Hands Teach Us about Religion

Beha'alotekha By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jun 13, 1998 / 5758 | Torah Commentary | Interreligious

My father liked to study hands, not to predict the future but to judge character. An amateur graphologist, he had concluded that our hands are an even more revealing extension of our personality than our handwriting. The interest was a great ice–breaker. He would often ask guests visiting our home for the first time to show him their hands, palms down and held together in a triangle. After a brief gaze, he would offer a few comments about their personality type, talents and values. He was rarely way off. Though I failed to acquire his expertise, I remained ever sensitive to the expressiveness of hands.

A few weeks ago, I had the thrill to meet “Hammerin Hank” Aaron at the Tufts University commencement where we both received honorary degrees. In case you have forgotten, he is the hall–of–famer who holds the record for home runs (755), runs–batted–in (2,297), total bases (6,856) and extra–base hits (1,477) compiled in a 23–year career in which he also had the remarkable lifetime batting average of .305. To my astonishment, there was nothing oversized in Aaron’s stature or physique to account for his prowess. The secret to his feats lay in his hands — large, strong and beautifully proportioned. They still embodied the speed and strength, the iron will and keen intelligence which sustained such a high level of play over so many years. For me, those wonderful hands declaimed that ultimately consistency is the key to greatness.

The role assigned to hands may likewise be an indicator of a religion’s character, one for example that illuminates a fundamental difference between Judaism and Christianity. A detail in this week’s parashah prompts me to take up the subject.

The Levites are inducted to replace the first born Israelites to service the Tabernacle. The latter lost their privilege after they had succumbed to worshiping the Golden Calf. In contrast, the Levites had remained staunchly loyal to Moses despite his absence (Exodus 32). In the purification rite for the Levites there are two rapid symbolic hand gestures. First, the Israelites or their elders lay their hands upon the Levites and the Levites in turn lay their hands upon two bulls to be sacrificed as a sin offering and a burnt offering “to make expiation for the Levites (Numbers 8:11–12).” Ritual language is by definition multivalent. Whereas the first instance suggests an act of voluntary transference from Israelites to Levites, the second is an act of ownership by which the Levites collectively declare that the bulls meant to purge the Tabernacle of any impurities caused by them indeed belong to them (Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus, Anchor Bible, pp. 150–153).

Moreover, the inauguration of the Levites is not an isolated use of hands for ritual purposes. Nearly every individual (and even one communal) sacrifice offered on the altar of the Tabernacle was preceded by a gesture of ownership, that is pressing, and not simply placing, one hand upon the animal to signify that in all the tumult attending the cult, this quadruped is actually mine (Leviticus 1:5; 3:2, 8, 13; 4:4, 15, 24, 29, 33).

To convey the idea of transference apparently required the use of two hands. Prof. Milgrom points to the awesome Yom Kippur purgation in the Tabernacle where the High Priest would rest both his hands heavily on the head of the scapegoat before confessing the sins of the people and dispatching it into the wilderness (Leviticus 16:21). Similarly, in the instance of the blasphemer put to death by stoning, those who heard him passively without protest were obliged to place their hands on his head prior to his execution (Leviticus 24:10–14). Again sin was eliminated by shifting the guilt (Milgrom, pp. 1041–1044).

Outside the cult, the laying on of hands functioned to symbolize the transference of authority from master to disciple. Prior to his death Moses conferred leadership upon Joshua, his chosen successor by placing both his hands upon him, “before Eleazar the priest and before the whole community (Numbers 27:22).” And a thousand years later the Rabbis adapted this Mosaic paradigm as the rite by which they bestowed juridical and spiritual authority on their most accomplished students. Though ordination by hands was restricted to Palestine and eventually fell into disuse, the terminology of semikhah (the laying on of hands) for rabbinic ordination today echoes its distant origins. Most interesting is the fact that Maimonides could not conceive of Moses as conferring an iota of his charisma upon the seventy elders he needed to lighten his daily burdens without laying his hands on their heads (which occurs in our parasha, Numbers 11), though there is no trace of such an act in the biblical text itself (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Sanhedrin 4:1).

The New Testament, in contrast, employs the laying on of hands for an utterly different purpose, namely to heal the sick. As Jesus established his ministry in Galilee, he restored the dead and afflicted to good health by use of his hands. One synagogue president said to him: “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” Jesus accompanied him, “went into the room and took the girl by the hand, and she got up (Matthew 9:22, 25).” Elsewhere, the Gospel reports that, “At sunset all who had friends suffering from one disease or another brought them to him; and he laid his hands on them one by one and cured them (Luke 5:13).” On still other occasions, Jesus with the touch of hands banished blindness (Matthew 9:29) and leprosy (Luke 5:13) and revived from the bier the dead son of a widow (Luke 7:14). And in the spirit of this tradition, some Evangelical Christians still effect healing by laying hands upon the stricken.

While Hebrew Scripture has no exact parallel to these stories, Moses and Aaron in Egypt and at the Sea of Reeds most certainly brought about miracles by the use of rods clearly endowed with special power. But the pervasive rationalist bent of the Mishnah sought to diminish the belief in such extraordinary events. Moses did not help his soldiers defeat the Amalekites by holding his hand aloft (Exodus 17:11–12), nor did looking at a copper serpent atop a standard heal a person bitten by a snake (Numbers 21:9). In both cases, insisted the Mishnah, victory and recovery were the result of an inner transformation. Imbued with deep faith in God, the ancient Israelites were able to stay out of harm’s way (Rosh Hashanah 3:8).

No religion is wholly unalloyed or entirely consistent. Yet what essentially separates Judaism from Christianity is a matter of temperament. In the garb of symbolic language, the laying on of hands in the Torah leaves the outside world visibly unchanged. The ritual transforms the inner state of its human participants. Not so in the Gospel, where the act operates instrumentally altering the external state of the recipient. The two religions differ on the degree to which the world can be modified by piety and ritual. It is no accident that Judaism, for which the conquest of the world begins with the painstaking conquest of ourselves, has no sacraments.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch ‘s commentary on Parashat B’ha·alot’kha are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.