Rare Footage of the First Convention of Agudas Yisrael

26 02 2015

This beautiful and incredible footage has been doing the rounds lately, and is well worth watching. The reason for its sudden popularity is no doubt the segment showing the Chafetz Chayim, R’ Yisrael Meir haKohen, at 0:57, flanked by both his son on his left and his grandson on his right. Rabbi Yitzhak Adlerstein has provided an excellent service in relating the names of various other personalities in this video. They are:

R’ Avraham Tzvi Perlmuter, the “Dameshek Eliezer” (0:27);

R’ Yisrael Friedman, the second rebbe of Chortkov (0:47);

R’ Yitzhak Zelig Morgensztern of Sokolov, the fourth Kotzker Rebbe (1:47);

R’ Dr. Asher Mikhael (“Arthur”) haKohen of Basel (1:57);

R’ Yehuda Leyb Tsirelson, chief rabbi of Bessarabia (2:05);

R’ Elchanan Wasserman (2:22);

R’ Asher Mendelson (2:28);

R’ Dr. Pinchas Kahn (2:56);

R’ Tuvia Horowitz (3:02);

R’ Yaakov Rosenheim, president of the Agudah (3:16);

R’ Dr. Meir Hildesheim (3:16);

R’ Dr. Eliyahu (“Leo”) Jung (3:55);

R’ Shpitzer (3:58);

R’ Yehezkel Sarna, later head of the Hebron Yeshiva in Jerusalem (4:13);

R’ Moshe Blau (4:28);

R’ Dr. Tuvia Levenstein (4:34).

And while I’m sharing videos, here are three of my favourites. The first is a famous one, since it commences with footage of the Munkaczer Rebbe at his daughter’s wedding in 1933. Unlike that video, the second and third ones are silent, but while the second is in black-and-white (and is shot in pre-war Ukraine) the third is in colour. It was filmed by Dr. Benjamin Gasul in Warsaw, 1939.

Seder Qodshim: Some Preliminary Reflections

18 02 2015

It has taken me a good few years, but I have finally finished the first four sedarim of the Mishna and am now halfway through the forty-first tractate: Masekhet Zevachim.

These remarks of mine are premature, since I am only at the very beginning of Seder Qodshim, but I cannot help but note a qualitative difference between this tractate and every one of the other forty tractates that I have already covered.

As a general rule, the Mishna’s presentation of rabbinic law is haphazard. In Shabbat, for example, it is not until the second mishna of the seventh chapter that we are informed as to what are the primary prohibitions on the seventh day; in Beitza, it is not until the fifth chapter that learn what may not be done on a yontef. For the most part, the Mishna presents us with case law, and it is up to the student to construct around that legislation a system that can reveal its inner mechanics.

There are some notable exceptions to this rule, perhaps the finest being Bava Qama, which commences with theoretical observations about the nature of different torts. But even that tractate quickly devolves into a series of cases. Not so with Zevachim.

With Masekhet Zevachim one finds a tractate that is thoroughly organised around a methodological exposition of its subject matter. It is procedural, systematic and technical, and appears designed as a manual for students seeking to understand the sacrifices. Every other tractate that I have encountered appears geared towards a student who has already studied the Mishna. So far, Masekhet Zevachim is sui generis in regards to its organisational structure, and to the fact that it can be approached in isolation.

And so I wonder (and prematurely): is this due to the sacrificial procedure having been already entirely theoretical at the time of the Mishna’s composition? While in other areas of legislation one might be able to presuppose a certain familiarity with cultural and ritual norms, and therefore utilise an abundance of cases in a presentation of the relevant law, perhaps this area is one in which a general ignorance is to be expected, and in which cases are rare if they are remembered at all.

I look forward to seeing whether or not this observation holds true throughout the rest of this seder, and throughout the following as well (which, in dealing with purity law, is of a similarly esoteric nature). But if I am correct, it would seem that it is specifically in relation to the arcane that the rabbis felt most at home in developing a system from the ground up and in presenting that system methodically.

In my opinion, it’s a welcome change; the careful delineation of theoretical principles is always so much more interesting than the arbitration of individual cases – even if the latter is more rewarding to the cultural historian.

Talmudic Methodology

18 02 2015

Picture the following scenario. A young man, enamoured of Torah, encounters the commentary of the Ramban. Lucid, straightforward and with an almost categorical precision, yet mystical and permitting of ceaseless interpretation. He’s hooked, and he purchases a copy. Undeterred by the fact that he has never before read the chumash, he immediately sets out to learn it with the Ramban, and he commences with the very first verse.

Six words in Hebrew, followed by a few hundred words of Hebrew commentary. He reads those six words, thinks about them a little, makes sure that he understands (or thinks that he understands) what each of them means, and then spends several hours wrestling with the Ramban’s interpretation before moving on to the second verse. But the second verse features no comment from the Ramban! Obviously, there’s no need to learn this passuk and he skips it altogether, moving on instead to the third.

In such a fashion, he progresses through the five books of the Torah: skipping verses on which the Ramban leaves no comment, and merely reading those verses on which he does. Since the Ramban’s commentary deals at length with ideas contained within the verses on which he does not remark, even reading the text in so haphazard a fashion will still enable the diligent student to at least encounter every (or almost every) verse in the Torah. So, when he comes to the end of this enterprise, what will he have achieved?

It would be foolish to say “nothing”, since it is impossible to read a text the size and scope of the Ramban’s commentary on Torah and to not learn a thing, but to pretend that he has at all studied that text would be no less ridiculous. After all, the Ramban’s commentary on the Torah is a commentary on the Torah, and the only way to properly engage with a commentary is to study first the text on which it serves as one. By skipping those verses that lack the Ramban and only cursorily engaging with those verses that do, our student will not only fail to learn Torah, he will also and as a direct result fail to grasp the Ramban’s commentary on it.

If you think that this scenario sounds absurd, it is no different to the Talmudic methodology adopted in every major yeshiva. There, students commence their study of every sugya with a reading of its introductory mishna. They make sure that they understand (or think they understand) the mishna’s words, they have a look at the issues with the mishna that Rashi raises, and then they proceed to spend several hours (perhaps days, or even weeks) wrestling with its gemara. And well they should: the Talmud, as a text, is both larger and more complex than the Mishna – to an order of magnitude.

But have they really learnt the gemara? After all, the gemara serves as a commentary upon the Mishna, and unless one actually studies first the text on which it is based, how can one expect to walk away with a proper understanding of either?

I first asked this question in 2002, when it initially became apparent to me that “we were doing it all wrong”. If a student’s only encounter with the Mishna was with the few lines that served as a preface to the text that he was really studying, is it not the case that he is really studying neither? Like the Ramban’s commentary on the Torah, the Talmud doesn’t feature gemara on every single mishna, and while almost every mishna might be mentioned at some point within it, the rabbinic endeavour presupposes familiarity with the text as a whole. Should not more time be devoted to a serious, analytical study of the early rabbinic literature on its own merits, before delving into the sprawling, complex and systematic commentaries upon it? And the flabbergasting answer that I received (not once, but twice, and at two separate institutions) was, Yes. Of course! But who has the time?

You do, is what I should have answered. If it is your job to study Torah, then you absolutely have the time to do it properly. But I did not. I accepted their answer: all things being equal, if I could only study one thing, I would make it the gemara. And to those who lack the time to study anything else, the gemara is a worthwhile choice. It contains both law and philosophy in equal measure, and might amply be described as the root and stock of rabbinic Judaism. But those who do have the time – whether they learn in kollel, or whether they simply devote a few hours each day to serious study – have no excuse for neglecting the Mishna, save that their teachers taught them to do so.

5774: The Year that Was

17 02 2015

5774 was an incredible year for me.

It began, somewhat predictably, with Rosh haShana. Little more than a week later, on the day following Yom Kippur, my sister got married to her wonderful husband and I was honoured with being mesader qiddushin. My lovely girlfriend, Ariella, had flown up to Sydney for the occasion, and the two of us partied late into the night. (Which is to say, we partied until the wedding finished and then we both went home, for we are old.)

In November of that year, which was 2013 by the Gregorian calendar, I received a phone call from “the university” while holidaying with Ariella in Melbourne. It turns out that the thesis that I had not yet started to research nor to write was due to be submitted, and that no further possibility of deferral would be extended to me. Way to ruin a vacation.

Still, there are some vacations that cannot be so easily spoilt, and the one that was approaching fell thoroughly into that category. It commenced on Boxing Day, when my immediate family and I (with the delightful Ariella in tow) flew to Cape Town for my brother’s wedding. He was to be making official his long-standing relationship with the love of his life, his highschool sweetheart and the mother of his beautiful little boy, and since they are both so enamoured of the culture of that continent, they had picked an African location.

We spent ten days in Cape Town eating meat and seafood, basking in the thick sunlight, canyoning through ravines, climbing up Table Mountain, hiking through the dense forest, relaxing in the Botanical Gardens of Kirstenbosch, walking the old township and having a generally fabulous time. Even weighed down with books on metaphor theory and their application to biblical studies, nothing could dampen my spirit.

Having exhausted so much of what Cape Town had to offer, we then flew to Johannesburg and caught a shuttle bus up north. After a six-hour drive we had arrived at Madikwe game reserve, where we spent the next few days and where my brother was married. Once again, I was truly honoured to have been mesader qiddushin, and to have fulfilled those duties in such a beautiful and exotic location.

We saw herds of impala and zebra, a great many elephants, two ferocious lions, a lioness, several giraffes, rhinos and buffalo, and a tremendous number of birds. On the evening before the wedding, we had dinner under the stars, surrounded by trees and by rangers with guns, where we feasted on the flesh of Madikwe’s former four-legged residents.

This part of the vacation over, we drove back to Johannesburg and caught a flight to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. There we spent two days white-water rafting, hiking along the waterfall and eating feasts of epic proportions. It was sad to leave, but leave we must, and our next stop was Chobe National Park in Botswana, where we added to our list of wildlife an abundance of hippos, several crocodiles, more wild dogs and a cheetah.

When we finally arrived back in Sydney, some three weeks after we had left, Ariella moved in with me and I began to write my thesis…

In July, when the thesis was finally beginning to take shape and the deadline was little more than a month away, Ariella and I flew to Helsinki with her parents, and there I met the rest of her family. Her brother, who is married to a Finnish girl, lives in Helsinki with his wife and their two beautiful children, and for two weeks we strolled and shopped, kayaked and ate, and I tried to write more of my thesis.

Towards the end of the holiday, Ariella and I made a brief stopover in Paris for three nights, where we got to feel like Europeans, catching flights and trains without need of a passport and with only enough luggage to see us through a few days. They were some of the most wonderful days of my life: we spent approximately eight hours on each of them walking, stopping only to fill up on cheese, cured meats, red wine and roast duck. The snails, which I ate on the first night and on the third, were magnificent, and the Jewish quarter was like a slice out of time.

On our return to Sydney, I commenced the traumatic period of thesis-writing, in which I didn’t leave the apartment, barely slept and wrote for over twelve hours a day. That culminated in an awful fortnight, at the conclusion of which I reeled into the university printery, produced five copies of the finished product, submitted four of them and tried not to have a nervous breakdown.

When Rosh haShana approached once more and 5774 morphed into 5775, so too did Ariella (without whom my thesis would still be unwritten) morph from being my girlfriend into being my fiancée.

We made the announcement in Melbourne, shortly after Yom Kippur, and had an impromptu lechayim for all of her 150+ family and friends (including a handful of my own people, there to toast the end of my long bachelorhood).

While that concluded 5774, I feel that a word or two should be said for the beginning of 5775, at which Ariella and I (who both believe in short engagements) got married at the home of my parents. Ariella’s father, who is both a Torah scholar and a tzaddik, honoured us both by being mesader qiddushin, and we custom-designed the marital proceedings ourselves.

Put simply, we separated the eirusin from the nisuin by an hour, such that qabbalat panim was followed by Ariella circling me seven times, my giving her a ring and her father reciting two berakhot. While our guests ate, she and I (together with her father and our two witnesses) filled out and signed the beautiful ketubah that my parents had given us. Then, we returned downstairs for the chuppah, at which I wore a kittel and was given a new tallis by Ariella’s parents. I put it on, made a shehechiyanu, was given a ring by Ariella, draped the tallis over the two us for the seven berakhot and then stomped on a glass.

The following week was spent in Melbourne, where we had sheva berakhot almost every day, and where we turned our one-day wedding into a seven-day feast.

I look back now and I am amazed at how much has changed over so short a time. One of my two sisters is married and is due to have her first baby soon; one of my two brothers is married and now has a second baby boy; my thesis has finally been submitted, and I find myself married to the love of my life; and – as of only two days ago – my other sister is engaged!

I really don’t know what this year will bring, but it will be pretty hard to top the last.

Cholent: A Heated Issue

16 02 2015

A little while ago, David Curwin over at Balashon mused upon the etymology of cholent. He offered a variety of different suggestions, and is no doubt correct in relegating all of them (or almost all of them) to the status of “folk etymologies” (“etymythologies”, as I have heard one scholar put it).

He does not note, although perhaps should, that the earliest reference in text to this food as “cholent” (known by Sephardim as chamin, “hot food”) is in the 13th century Or Zarua II:8, by Rabbi Yitzhak of Vienna, who mentions it in relation to the Jews of France. Whether or not that lends itself to one of the etymologies that derive the word from French, I cannot say.

Reference to cholent is fairly ancient, even if the Franco-Yiddish terminology cannot be traced back before the 13th century. In fact, not only is it ancient but it is something of a cause célèbre in rabbinic circles.

While the Torah does not expressly forbid cooking on Shabbat, it does prohibit the lighting of a fire. What is more, the textual proximity of the description of the tabernacle’s construction to a repeated stipulation that concerns resting on the seventh day was enough to suggest that anything required for the former must be prohibited on the latter. And, since the preparation of dyes for the tapestries required a process of heating and stirring, that effectively prohibits cooking on Shabbat.

While one might need to be a rabbinic Jew to accept the logic underlying this conclusion, one certainly need not be a rabbinic Jew to accept the conclusion itself. In fact, all available evidence would suggest that non-rabbinic Jews also abstained from cooking on the seventh day, be it for any reason other than the most obvious one: that cooking simply feels like “work”.

This is where things get a little complicated, since the rabbinic predilection for casuistry has resulted in careful delineations of precisely which aspects of cooking are to be so labelled. And while stirring is indeed a problem, in the event that the food is already at least one-third cooked, and so long as it is placed upon the flame before Shabbat has come in, and so long as one does absolutely nothing to adjust the flame in any way, to change the rate at which the food is being heated or to add anything further to it, it will be possible to eat a nice, hot meal for Shabbat lunch.

Understandly, this is something that non-rabbinic Jews can simply not accept. And equally understandably, the decision to make cholent has come to be viewed as a powerful statement as regards one’s faith in the rabbinic sages.

As such, Rabbi Zerachiah haLevi of Gerona, in his 12th century commentary to Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi’s Sefer haHalakhot, declares that all those who abstain from eating cholent should check their lineage, lest they turn out to be descended of sectarians! No doubt he had in mind the anti-rabbinic Karaites, who at the time that he was writing comprised some 40% of the world’s Jewish population, and with whom the rabbis frequently engaged in heated polemics of this nature. Only those who do eat cholent, Rabbi Zerachiah haLevi continues, are to be considered believers, and it is only they who will merit to see the end of days (Maor haQatan, Shabbat 38b).

These statements are quoted in a number of important rabbinic texts – such as Sefer Abudirham (§177) and Sefer Kol Bo (§31) – and their sentiments are adopted in several others. So, for example, in the midst of the Shulchan Arukh’s description of those items that may and may not be used to cover a pot (the concern being whether or not they will cause it to emit steam), Rabbi Moshe Isserles – a 16th century Polish scholar and contemporary of the Shulchan Arukh – interjects with a gloss:

ומצוה להטמין לשבת כדי שיאכל חמין בשבת כי זהו מכבוד ועונג שבת. וכל מי שאינו מאמין בדברי החכמים ואוסר אכילת חמין בשבת חיישינן שמא אפיקורוס הוא

We are commanded to cover [hot vessels] in advance of Shabbat, that we might eat hot food [chamin] on Shabbat, since this is [a fulfillment of the twin commandments of] honouring and delighting in Shabbat. And anyone who does not believe in the words of the sages and who forbids the consumption of hot food on Shabbat is suspected of being an apikorus.

– Orach Chayim 257:8

The apikorus is a curious category of person, but for all practical purposes he (or she) is somebody who has forfeited their right to inherit the world to come (mSanhedrin 10:1). The suggestion that one might be suspected of being an apikorus on no stronger ground than an aversion to cholent is a powerful one, but it is not the fiercest statement made in cholent’s defence.

That dubious honour belongs to another contemporary of the Shulchan Arukh: Rabbi Mordekhai Yoffe. One of a number of people who disliked the Shulchan Arukh, Rabbi Yoffe is almost alone in having utilised his dissatisfaction with the text to produce an alternative. It is known as Levush Malkhut and it spans ten volumes, the first five of which only are devoted to an exposition of rabbinic law.

To properly understand the nature of this work, it is important to appreciate that it effectively functions as a commentary upon another. The text that serves as its foundation is the monumental Arba’ah Turim of Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher: a 13th century German scholar, who condensed all of rabbinic law into four broad categories – the first of which, “Orach Chayim”, covers the laws of Shabbat (amongst other things).

Rabbi Mordekhai Yoffe was far from being the only person to have authored a commentary on this magisterial work. Rabbi Moshe Isserles, whom we have already mentioned, wrote a commentary on the Tur called Darkhei Moshe. And Rabbi Yosef Caro, who was later to pen the Shulchan Arukh, wrote a commentary on the Tur called Beit Yosef.

The Beit Yosef is a vast and thoroughly comprehensive exposition of rabbinic law – too vast for the average person to make good use of, and more comprehensive than a text of that nature may be required to be. It is a tremendous resource and encyclopedic in scope, but thoroughly in need of an abridgement. Rabbi Caro’s Shulchan Arukh is precisely that abridgement: an expurgated and abbreviated version of his Beit Yosef, designed for easier use.

It was the opinion of the Levush that this abridgement was a little too abbreviated, and he sought to create a work of Jewish law that would fall midway between the Beit Yosef and the Shulchan Arukh: a commentary, in other words, upon the Tur that would not be too encyclopedic, but would neither be too casual in its presentation of the sources.

It is a masterful work and, sadly, too little studied. The section that corresponds to the laws of Shabbat is titled Levush haChur and there, in Orach Chayim 276:8, he concludes rather strikingly:

מצוה להטמין לצורך שבת כדי שיאכל בשבת מאכל חם וזהו מכבוד ועונג שבת. וכל המפקפק על התמנת חמין לשבת שאינו רוצה לאכול חמין בשבת משום טעמא שנתבשל בשבת ואינו מאמין בדברי חכמים הרי זה נקרא מין ומלעיג על דברי חכמים וחייב מיתה

We are commanded to cover [hot vessels] for the sake of Shabbat, that we might eat hot food on Shabbat, and this is [a fulfillment of the twin commandments of] honouring and delighting in Shabbat. And anybody who casts aspersions on the covering up of hot food [chamin] in advance of Shabbat, since he does not wish to eat hot food on Shabbat – for the reason that he considers it to be cooking on Shabbat – and who does not believe in the words of the sages is called a sectarian and one who scorns the words of the sages, and is deserving of death.

One wonders what a person ought to do if he doesn’t like cholent! Fortunately, such people have long existed, and it has long been noted that if the consumption of hot food is disagreeable to somebody than he is forgiven for eating cold food on Shabbat. That’s something of a relief, but strong words require strong counter-words, and so it is fitting that Rabbi Eliyahu Shapira (a 17th century Polish scholar who authored a commentary on the Levush) has the following to append to Rabbi Mordekhai Yoffe’s sentiments:

אבל מי שכואב לו החמין ועונג שלו לאכול צונן לא יצער נפשיה באכילת חמין. ומי שאין אוכל כהאי גוונא צונן עליו נאמר כסיל בחושך הולך – קהלת ב:יד

But one who is pained by eating hot food, and for whom eating cold food is enjoyable, should not cause anguish to himself by eating hot food. Concerning somebody who under these circumstances doesn’t eat cold food, scripture states: an idiot walks in darkness (Ecclesiastes 2:14).

Who would have known that cholent could be so polemical!

“Beyond Narrative”

16 02 2015

Here, recently reprinted, is Roger Ebert’s 1978 article, “Beyond Narrative: The Future of the Feature Film”.

It is rather lengthy, but thoroughly engrossing, and comprises in part a highly informative review of the history of arthouse cinema. Within this it features a profound analysis of Robert Altman’s Three Women, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, and the nature of films that eschew conventional narrative. Much that the author has to say (about the relationship between cinema and television, for example) needs to be taken with a grain of salt – the article having been authored, after all, in 1978. That said, several of his predictions concerning the “future” of mainstream cinema have been vindicated, and to a great extent they remain true today.

Charmed, I’m Sure: Wizardry, Women and War in the Book of Numbers

16 02 2015

Yesterday I had the pleasure of presenting my fourth paper (?) at an AAJS Conference, held this time at the University of New South Wales. I was a last-minute stand-in, since one of the registrants had cancelled and, as such, I was able once more to enjoy the experience of hastily cobbling together a synopsis in time for the programme to go to print, and then labouring over the construction of a paper that might both satisfy that synopsis and the general expectations of the discipline. I cannot say whether or not I succeeded in the second of those two aims, but I at least succeeded in the first of them.

My paper (the title of which introduces this post) was concerned with a series of narratives in the book of Numbers, which culminated in what might be termed a “holy war” against the Midianites. My concern with the last of those passages (Numbers 31) was two-fold: I was interested in establishing the ideological goals of the text, and in considering why that story (which might have featured for its enemy any number of different nations) was presented as being one about the Midianites in particular.

We know from archaeological evidence that Midian came into existence at some point in the 13th century BCE in the Northern Hejaz region of Saudi Arabia, which is just east of the Gulf of Aqaba – effectively where Eilat is today, extending both westward and southward, and but a little bit south of where the Moabites dwelt at the time when our story is set. Interactions between Midianites and Moabites are recorded in a few instances – both negatively (as in Genesis 36:35, where the Edomite king, Hadad, is said to have defeated the Midianites in the plains of Moab) and positively (as when Midianites and Moabites unite in Numbers 22 to secure the services of Balaam).

The proximity of the Midianites to the land of Israel is such that we might expect them to feature in a number of texts (as we find, for example, with the Edomites, Moabites and Ammonites) and so it perhaps comes as something of a surprise that they are really only mentioned a handful of times.

In some instances, the Midianites appear as active characters within a story, advancing the plot and participating in it, while at others they are incidental features of a narrative: part of the backdrop, if you will. It is Midianite traders, we are told, who were responsible for raising Joseph from the pit and selling him to a caravan of Ishmaelites, and it was to Midian that Moses fled after having murdered an Egyptian taskmaster. While the Midianites in that former narrative play no further part in the Joseph saga, the Midianites who feature in the subsequent text become active characters whose role in the Moses story is somewhat… complicated.

Moses, of course, marries a Midianite woman and develops a strong and positive relationship with her father. He is referred to, throughout the book of Exodus, primarily as Jethro, but when he reappears in the book of Numbers it is as Chovav. We are told on several occasions that he is a Midianite priest, and the context in which this information is conveyed would seem to suggest that it is information favourable to him.

He offers Moses good advice that the latter is quick to heed and joins up with the Israelites for a time, having heard of the wondrous things being done for them. So positively is this Midianite priest described that the rabbinic tradition came to look upon Jethro as a convert to Judaism, while some scholars have hypothesised that the worship of the Israelite god actually originated in Midian.

Not all references to the Midianites are so favourable. Together with Amalek, they are described in Judges 6ff as having oppressed Israel for several years; their subsequent defeat is alluded to in Psalm 83, and referred to on more than one occasion by the prophet Isaiah. Yet the most striking display of animosity towards these people is in the book of Numbers, and it is none other than Moses himself who leads the charge.

Numbers 22 describes Midianites and Moabites joining forces to secure the services of Balaam, a prophet-for-hire. They approach him with amulets, or charms (קסמים in the Hebrew). These are devices used for soothsaying or sorcery. The term is mentioned again, in Joshua’s review of Israelite history, when describing Balaam as a קוסם – a sorceror. It features a number of times throughout the biblical literature, and it is noteworthy that it only appears positively in one instance, and that is when Balaam declares in Numbers 23 that there is no קסם in Israel. Such cannot be said, of course, for Israel’s neighbours, who have approached Balaam with קסמים in the hope that he will curse them.

This passage marks the last reference to Midianites within the Balaam cycle. Their subsequent omission is strange, and one that Josephus attempts to correct by giving the Midianites a stronger part to play in his version of events. It is on the basis of their absence within the rest of the Balaam story that many see the reference to them at its beginning as an addition to the text, designed to link it with the events described later on in the same book.

Indeed, the Midianites resurface in Numbers 25, in which they feature in a tale of sexual and cultic infidelity that leaves some twenty-four thousand Israelites dead. In this passage, we are told that the Israelite men began to consort in a depraved manner with Moabite women. The verb employed here, לזנות, implies sexual debauchery. As a result of this, they then become “attached” to the service of a Moabite deity named Baal-Peor. The relationship between sexually liaising with Moabite women and becoming attached to this particular god lends itself to an interpretation of this god’s worship involving a sensual component – as was suggested by many earlier biblical commentators in particular.

Suddenly, an Israelite man brings a Midianite woman (not a Moabite woman) into his tent. We are subsequently told (after both she and he have been murdered) that her name was Kozbi and that her father was a Midianite chieftain. The name Kozbi, of course, is reminiscent of the Hebrew כזב, which means “false”, or “lying”, and which is a term associated several times in the book of Ezekiel with both sorcerors and sorcery. In this instance, its usage harmonises with the sudden command given by God to Moses: that he should harrass the Midianites, for they have conspired against the Israelites – a term that denotes deception and trickery; the notion that things were not really as they seem.

It is a fascinating feature of this narrative that the Moabites, who are likewise implicated in their use of magic, their hiring of Balaam, the sexual enticing of Israelite men and the worship of Baal-Peor are now dropped from the narrative altogether. The Midianites, who until this point have been a background feature of the text, now assume primary importance. It is they who are to blame for the transgressions of the Israelite men, and it is from them alone that vengeance is to be extracted.

The story continues, and concludes, in Numbers 31. Here, Moses is finally instructed to take revenge against the Midianites. He is also told that this is to be his final mission: אחר תאסף אל עמיך, “afterwards, you shall be gathered unto your people”. In a way, the story of Moses’ life has now come full circle, since his first mission was a quest that was imparted to him while he was residing in Midian. This passage is also linked to the previous Balaam narrative with a return of the itinerant prophet, who here meets a violent end, being driven through with a sword. The assertion that the Midianite women of Numbers 25 (note: they are here described as Midianite, not Moabite) acted “on Balaam’s instruction” likewise connects these various texts together.

The story is a bloody one, but it features strong parallels with various other biblical texts – particularly those that, unlike this one, utilise the term חרם. As with those passages, this one also speaks of putting cities to the fire and killing their inhabitants by the sword, but unlike most of the חרם texts, not everybody in this one is slated for annihilation.

It is in regards to this particular issue that we might note a striking contrast between Numbers 31 and 1 Samuel 15. In the latter text, Saul spares the Amalekite king together with the best of his livestock; he is rebuked for doing this, and the king is murdered. In the former passage (Numbers 31), the Israelite generals spare the Midianite women, children, livestock and wealth; they are rebuked for doing this, and Moses has the young boys murdered together with every woman who has ever been sexually active. Girls too young to have had sexual intercourse may be kept by the Israelites as spoils of war, together with the Midianite wealth – but only once the latter has been purified.

Another comparison might be made to the story in Judges 21. There, the Israelites go to war against the people of Jabesh-Gilead (a war carefully crafted around the flimsiest of rationales), slaughtering everybody except the virgin girls, who are then given to the men of the tribe of Benjamin. When the number of captured girls proves insufficient, they abandon all pretence of excuses and instruct the Benjaminites to simply steal women for themselves from the neighbouring town of Shiloh. This passage is thought by some to reflect on patriarchal concerns with biological purity and with the integrity of one’s bloodlines, as is evidenced by the need for the foreign men to be eradicated and for the captive women to be virgins.

While the war against Amalek permitted no survivors and no plundered wealth, the wars against Jabesh-Gilead and Midian both allow for the survival of certain girls, while the war against Midian allows also for the plundering of other property. Here as there, the booty is inherently tainted, but so long as the girls are too young to have had sexual intercourse and so long as the other property is ritually cleaned, this taint may be removed.

In Numbers 31, Moses berates his generals by referring specifically to the sexual misdeeds of the Midianite women. While a superficial reading of this passage might therefore lead us to suppose that pre-pubescent girls are spared on the grounds that they were innocent of the crimes of their sisters and mothers, it needs be noted that this same concession is not extended to infant boys (who were surely innocent of the crimes of the Midianite men). On the contrary, and at the risk of stating the obvious, the virgin girls are to be looked upon as property; their being virgins simply makes them property that is safe to claim. Little Midianite boys are, after all, Midianites; they are foreigners, in other words, and they remain forever threatening. Sexually active women have been branded by the enemy, but virginal girls are neither here nor there, and can be claimed.

As to how they might be claimed, we can consider in this context Deuteronomy 21, which describes the means by which a captive woman might actually become an Israelite. She needs to shave her head, pare her nails, change her clothes and mourn her parents, but so long as her captor has the patience for all of this she can now be legitimately his.

Susan Niditch puts it beautifully in an article titled “War, Women, and Defilement in Numbers 31″ (Semeia 61, 1993). She observed that “the Hebrew scriptures, like the classical literary traditions of many cultures, is filled with associations between women and war – the victims like Dinah (Gen 34) or the concubine of Judges 19, whose humiliations men avenge in wars with outsiders or within the group; the women stolen in Judges 19 or taken as booty in Numbers 31, demarcating an end to hostilities; the daughter of Jephthah, the war-vowed sacrifice (Jud 11:34-40). Their presence marks the passage into war and the exodus from it; they are marginal, border figures, central in the events around them, and yet they are usually nameless, voiceless items of exchange and symbols of transition” (43-44).

The narrative in Numbers 31, functions as a vehicle for conveying important realia about warfare, and about the laws of cultic purification. In doing so, it transmits a specific ideology concerning the nature of impurity and of transgression, of the status of women in war (and perhaps even outside of war), and of those who can (and must) be held responsible for transgression. In this instance, the primary message of Numbers 31 can be reduced to two related issues: that women taken captive in war require a process of cultural assimilation that precludes their having been sexually involved with the enemy, and that the spoils of war require a process of purification before they are ready for Israelite use.

In order to appreciate how these two ideas govern the text, it is necessary to consider the metaphorical relationships that underlie them. To be clear, a metaphor ascribes qualities or terms from one semantic domain to something that derives ordinarily from a different semantic domain. In metaphor theory, the thing being discussed in such a manner might be termed the subject of the metaphor, while the descriptions applied metaphorically to it are termed the vehicle. The semantic domains of the subject and of the vehicle need to be sufficiently similar to one another as to permit comparison, yet sufficiently distinct as to be recognised as non-literal. In the simple equation, AN X IS A Y (such as LIFE IS A PARTY, MEAT IS MURDER and THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD), identification of the metaphor is relatively straightforward. In most texts, however, we do not have that luxury, and must consider which metaphorical relationships underlie the passage without being stated explicitly.

In this instance, I would like to suggest that the two primary metaphors that underlie Numbers 31 are that foreign women are vehicles of social degeneration and that foreigners in general are agents of contamination. What is more, a careful consideration of the passages that are linguistically and thematically connected to this one (being the Balaam cycle in Numbers 22-24, and the worship of Baal-Peor in Numbers 25) demonstrates that these same metaphorical relationships are latent within those narratives as well.

The assertion that foreign nations have a contaminating influence is conveyed both by means of denigrating those other nations, as well as through lauding Israel in its enforced separation from them. We have already had occasion to note the careful contrast that is established between the Moabites and the Midianites on the one hand and the Israelites on the other, in Numbers 22 and 23. It is in relation to Israel that Balaam declares that there is no sorcery in their midst, while emissaries from the other nations approach the prophet with sorcery, quite literally, in their hands.

It should also be noted that when Balaam first blesses the Israelites encamped beneath him it is specifically in relation to their dwelling apart from all other peoples. Their isolation is accounted to them as righteous: תמֹת נפשי מות ישרים, the prophet declares. וּתהי אחריתי כמֹהו; “May I die the death of the upright, and may my end be like his!” The imputation of righteousness to those who dwell apart from all others is predicated on the assumption that cross-cultural pollination has a deligitimising effect. This in turn is predicated on the assumption that the Israelites express a certain cultural uniformity, or homogeneity, which might be threatened by cultural contact.

This ideology is so pervasive throughout so much of the biblical literature that it can easily go unnoticed, and tends to be remarked upon more frequently in its absence. So too when it comes to the relationship between foreign women and cultural decline, which is particularly evident in the second part of our story, in Numbers 25. There, once Israel has settled in Shittim, they first whore out to the Moabite women, they are only then invited by the Moabite men to partake in offerings, it is then that they eat, and then that they worship Moabite gods. It is in doing this that they are described as having become “attached” to Baal-Peor – a process that commences with their sexual seduction and only ends with their service of a foreign deity. As Susan Niditch has observed, the Midianites “had hired a male wizard to curse Israel, while the Midianite women had cast their own spell, seducing Israel into apostasy” (op.cit. 46).

These two themes reach their climax in Numbers 31, in which they function in many ways as an opportunity to present a series of legislative principles. While the excuse for the war is predicated on concerns over foreign women in particular, the concern over foreign men shows through in the war’s outcome: a contamination rendered even unto inanimate objects. It is difficult to determine the extent to which this impurity is resultant of the war itself, and the extent to which it lay already upon the property of the Midianites, as it may indeed have lain upon the Midianites themselves.

Certainly, the book of Numbers does speak at length about corpse impurity, and reference to such defilement is made also within this chapter. In relation to one’s involvement in warfare rendering a spiritual contamination, one recalls in this context David, who could not build the temple because his hands were stained with blood. And yet, the presentation of war in Numbers 31 is somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, all those who take part in the killing are rendered susceptible to corpse impurity, in need of the waters of the red heifer and are quarantined. On the other hand, it is none other than the high priest’s son who leads the charge, and who does so bearing sacred vessels and trumpets.

Looked at from a strictly literary perspective, the imagery is dissonant, made all the moreso in that these utensils are not referred to as כלי מלחמה (vessels of war), but as כלי הקֹדש: sacred vessels. And herein lies the ambiguity: is war sacred by virtue of its being divinely ordained, or is it something ugly and contaminating? This ambiguity is made especially pronounced within the text’s conclusion, in which the generals of the war make an offering, לכפר על נפשתינו: “in order to atone for ourselves”. For what, one wonders, do they seek atonement? For the sin at Baal-Peor? Or for the war itself?

This dual presentation of the war suits the nature of the two metaphorical relationships that it serves to emphasise. On the one hand, there is the alluring quality of the women; seductive and inviting, they are reminiscent of the “woman of folly” in Proverbs 1-9. On the other hand, however, there is the physically and spiritually contaminating nature of their host culture; repulsive and foreboding, theirs is a path that leads only to death.

It has been suggested that this passage reflects the interests of a late, post-monarchic community, as evidenced by the role of the priests as leaders of the war, and by the highly developed organisation of the Israelite army. The deadly appeal of foreign nations may suit the interests of a scribe who lived during the period of Babylonia’s ascendancy, but what does it tell us that the enemy chosen is the Midianites, rather than the Moabites?

Some scholars has suggested that “Midianites” might have served as a generic reference to nomadic peoples – perhaps along with “Ishmaelites”, “Kenites” and “Amalekites” as well. As such, it may be that the Midianites in Numbers 31 served as a reference also to the Moabites of Numbers 25, but I find this interpretation unsatisfactory. While some features of the text may lend themselves to the possibility of a rough synonymity of terms, the editorial gloss in Numbers 22 that includes Midianite elders in the delegation sent to Balaam belies this possibility. In addition to its asserting a distinction between Midianite and Moabite, it reflects on a desire to maintain an exclusively Midianite focus in the narrative’s culmination, which it legitimises by including them in the affair of Balaam. We must consider, therefore, the Midianite ethnicity of Kozbi as a further appeal to exclusively Midianite guilt, and the reference to the women of Baal-Peor as having been Midianite (as opposed to Moabite) as the final nail in their collective coffin.

One is reminded in this regard of the early post-exilic work of Ezra/Nehemiah, with its focus on the termination of marital relationships, the expulsion of mixed-race children and the rejection of northern communities who, while religiously similar, were simply not a part of the community of exiles. A concern for the purity of bloodlines and of language mark key interests of this community, insofar as they are represented within that text, and they are concerns that find a subtle counterpart within the book of Numbers as well.

In relation to concerns of this nature, there can surely be no better enemy than the Midianites: a community into which Moses himself had married, and from whom – but ten chapters prior to the commencement of our story – he humbly requests an entourage. The manner in which Moses seeks companionship from his father-in-law and is denied mirrors in some fashion the requests made to the returned exiles in Ezra 4. In both instances an appeal is made to the commonalities between two communities, and in both cases these overtures are rebuffed with an appeal to fundamental dissimilarities.

In Ezra, it is the Judean delegation that rebuffs the various men of the north, while in Numbers it is Moses’ father-in-law who refuses to travel with Moses and his people. In his words, כי אם אל ארצי ואל מולדתי אלך: I will go to my land and to my family. That Moses’ family includes Jethro’s own daughter further emphasises the liminal nature of women within this text. In both cases, however, these passages preempt open hostilities between the two groups, which in the pentateuchal narrative culminates in bloodshed.

That these concerns are reflected in the pre-exilic literature is but a further indication that they did not originate during the period of the restoration, as some have supposed. The uneasy relationship that ancient Israel had with her neighbours is reflected in a great deal of her literature. The appeal of foreign cultures and a priestly aversion to cross-cultural pollination find a powerful representation in Numbers 31, and are well-suited to the choice of sexual and cultic metaphors that predominate within it.


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