D'var l'erev Yom ha'Kippurim 5778 - "Sin" and "Virtue"
© 2017 S.H. Parker

Israel Abrahams, Reader in Talmud at Cambridge, in his 1906 monograph, Judaism, writes:

If Judaism as a system of doctrine is necessarily syncretistic in its conception of God, then we may expect the same syncretism in its theory of God’s relation to man. It must be said at once that the term ‘theory’ is ill-chosen. It is laid to the charge of Judaism that it has no ‘theory’ of Sin. This is true. If virtue and righteousness are obedience, then disobedience is both vice and sin. No further theory was required or possible. Atonement is reversion to obedience….

The ritual side of atonement was seriously weakened by the loss of the Temple.  The sacrificial atonement was gone. Nothing replaced it ritually. Hence the Jewish tendency towards a practical religion was strengthened by its almost enforced stress in atonement on moral betterment. Sin estranged, atonement brought near. (pp. 22,3 - emphasis added)

Note that scholars state that the words usually translated as “sin,” חטא (chait) and עֲבֵרָה (averah) , actually mean “to miss the mark” or “to cross a line,” respectively,  much as one might expect from Mr. Abrahams’ exposition.

I have harped on this very point for the past several years: as far as Torah is concerned, “sin” describes an act, therefore “sinful” does not and cannot describe a person or their character.  I do not recall Torah ever labeling a person as “sinful,” not the Pharaoh of the oppression, not Bilaam nor Balaak, not Korach, not Dathan, not even Cain. In fact, even in modern Hebrew, I am told, you still cannot express the notion of a “sinful person,” as opposed to "a person who has committed a sin." Maybe this is why Christianity could truly flourish only outside of Israel….

Occasionally, “the people” (in their entirety) are described as רָשָׁע (wicked) or “stubborn,” usually as Adonai is threatening to annihilate all of them and start over and just before Moshe talks Adonai “off the ledge.” The two or three such scenes have always struck me as both apocryphal and “about” something else entirely. (“But that’s another story,” as Moustache says.)

Let me be quite clear: there is nothing eschatological about “sin” as far as Torah is concerned. There is nothing “soul-changing” about having “sinned.” Despite the Rabbinic obsession with sin, Torah understands that people do sin; Torah sees persons not as inherently sinful but as perfectible (perhaps Torah is naive in this, especially considering the history of the last few thousand years, but this is the way Torah sees things). This is why Torah has a procedure for rectifying “sin” (confess to the harmed party, make restitution, bringing your guilt offering and, the key to it all, “sin no more” – which is the goal of “repentance”). Yom ha’Kippurim’s blood atonement is only for those transgressions that have not already been subject to the procedure.

The absolutely fundamental, the essential, question remains. Virtue and righteousness, vice and sin, atonement and return are all defined by “obedience” … obedience.

Obedience to whom?-Or to what? “That is the question.”

The obvious answer is “Adonai.”

Obedience to Adonai, who is known in the early (E) tradition as “El Shaddai,” is obvious in the stories about Abram/Abraham. It is even more emphatically so in Moshe’s encounter with “I Am” (אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה) at the bush. At the bush, despite Moshe’s numerous refusals, obedience to “I Am” is absolutely expected.

The obvious answer is Adonai but … not so quickly. Please.

Not long after Moshe’s return to Egypt, we get a new object of obedience, a contract (a/k/a the brit, covenant, the “Ten Commandments” - and the Tetragrammaton (יְהוָה) is introduced) And, almost immediately, the people demand Moshe act as intermediary.

From this point forward, Adonai does not talk to the people again. And “obedience” has shifted from obedience to El Shaddai/I Am/ יְהוָה to obedience to “God’s word.”

The brit is changing character. It is no longer an oral agreement between two parties. Now it is “you [pl.] will follow my commandments and judgments and statues," which are now written down in a "sefer" (which in Biblical Hebrew means "letter," not "book;" Avi Hurvitz, "Biblical Hebrew," Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2016). Moshe receives them from Adonai and, we presume, faithfully communicates them to b'nei Yisrael.

In Devarim (Deuteronomy), the focus shifts once again. As of Devarim, the brit is obedience to the torah (note my switch to lower case here; etymologically “torah” means “guidance,” heuristically, “teachings, lessons”).

Adonai is formally out of the picture.

The Torah, or at least sefer Devarim, was promulgated by Ezra in the mid-5th century BCE. By the end of the 3rd century, the canon was closed. This is also the time that the Pharisaic movement - actually an opposition party, a minority party at that - arose in response to the assimilationist onslaught of Hellenism. By the 1st century CE, the Pharisees had defeated their Hellenizing and theological opponents, the Sadducees, thanks to the efforts of Vespasian and Titus ... and Pharisaism gave rise to Rabbinism and what eventually became Christianity.

It is the Rabbis, starting in the late 1st century CE, that concern us here. It is these men who make the final redefinition of “obedience.” Now, as Torah makes quite clear, many, if not the majority, of b’nai Yisrael decided for themselves who or what to obey and the n’viim (prophets) confirm that this self-determination continued into post-Biblical times; historically,  the majority of b’nai Yisrael seem to have continued doing so; so I guess I’m talking about the last “official” act of redefinition.

And just what did the Ta’anim and Amoraim decide? What did they declare to be the object of obedience?

In the late 1st century/early 2nd century, we learn that Rabbi Eliezer argued with Gamliel II and his minions (Baba Metzia 59b). God intervened on Rabbi Eliezer's behalf but he lost the argument and was excommunicated. The Rabbis justification is: "After the majority one must incline."

"Majority" of whom?-Rabbis, of course (which "Rabbis," well, in our times, that's another question entirely). This, despite the fact that everyone knows that ben Hyrcanus is correct and the majority wrong. The Rabbis have decided that consensus of the Rabbis overrules right (and God, for that matter).

In other words, even when they go beyond the Torah, even when they are wrong, even when God says otherwise "after the majority...."

In Rosh Hashanah (25a), this claim is reiterated even more forcefully: Rabbi Akiva asserts “‘you’ [may decide] even if you err inadvertently, ‘you’, even if you err deliberately, ‘you’, even if you are misled.”

Again, right and wrong and even God are irrelevant. What is relevant is that “the” Rabbis … command it.

"Obedience" means "obey the Rabbis!"

Again in Rosh Hashanah (25a), these Rabbis (remember, there weren’t more than a dozen at the time) arrogate to themselves the authority of Moshe. As they wrote:

If we call in question [decisions of] the beit din of Rabban Gamliel, we must call in question the decisions of every beit din which has existed since the days of Moses up to the present time [historically, neither the term nor the entity, beit din, existed before Gamliel's academy]. For it says, then went up Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel. Why were not the names of the elders mentioned? To show that every group of three which has acted as a beit din over Israel is on a level with the beit din of Moses.

(This sounds a lot like our version of protecting an ecclesiastical hierarchy.)

So many extension to Torah did they introduce that an entire branch of the Pharisaic movement left, dissociating themselves from Israel and breaking the kinship relation fundamental to Israelite history. Today, they are called "christians."

They imposed such nonsense as tefillin.

While totafot are mentioned in Torah (though never defined in Torah, Mishna or even in Gomorra), tefillin are not. Tefillin are never defined, no “rules” for their construction are ever given in Mishna … a startling omission. So obvious was the fact that tefillin are a Rabbinic invention that the Rashbam authoritatively rejects them as a clear misunderstanding of Torah (demonstrating that in the 12th century, tefillin were not a settled matter). So thorough was the Rabbinic demand of obedience that Rashbam asserts that tefillin should be done simply because the Rabbis ordered it. (N.B.: no one, today, would recognize 3rd century tefillin as kosher. They are wrong on size, wrong on shape (many are conical). They have the wrong number of chambers. They have the wrong passages on their scrolls. They’re “just wrong.”)

Almost the entire edifice of kashrut is based on the statement לֹא-תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי, בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ (you will not boil a kid in its own mother’s milk). Well, not quite on this single statement but on its threefold repetition (though, very significantly, this is not mentioned in the core Biblical passages on what is permissible to eat at Vayikra (Lev.) 11:1 ff.). Yet, on its face the language is so precise as to negate any need for interpretation.

What 3rd-4th century Rabbis did was to use the repetition of this statement to build the milk/meat rules we now have. Their basis is the specious assertion that each repetition comes to teach something new, forget how precise the language.

But that same “principle” is not applied to other, much more significant, repetitions: the repetition of the 10 Commandments, the prohibition on blood (repeated even more often than “don’t boil”), not working on Shabbat, Shabbat as a remembrance being but a few rather striking examples. (Granted most of the repeated commandments are not in precisely the same words as is לֹא-תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי, בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ, but that does seem to be hair-splitting in the extreme.)

If we are to learn something new from each repetition, what are we taught from the multiple holy day lists, also the multiple lists of the observances associated with each? They do not match, neither the lists nor the observances….

Why not say, as my teacher Rabbi Joseph Radinsky, of blessed memory, taught that if Torah repeats something, it must be important. If it repeats it yet again, it must be really important.

Johanan ben Zakkai was willing to admit that he did not understand the commandments concerning the  פָרָה אֲדֻמָּה (“red” heifer). Why can’t 3rd-4th century Rabbis admit they no longer remember what  לֹא תְבַשֵּׁל was actually about?

The question stands; so again I ask: “'If virtue and righteousness are obedience [and] disobedience is both vice and sin," obedience to what or to whom?

Gmar tov