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Far Away, So Close

By Yosef Yitzhak Lifshitz

How the commandments bridge the unbridgeable gap between God and man.


Understood literally, R. Yehuda Ben Rabbi Simon emphasizes, the act of “cleaving” to God is impossible. Flesh and blood cannot walk “after the Lord” or “go up into heaven to cleave” to him in the same way that it is incapable of withstanding the intense heat of a blazing fire. Thus does R. Yehuda Ben Rabbi Simon interpret the passage, “After the Lord your God shall you walk” as an instruction to emulate God: To follow his example to the best of human ability.
But how is man to go about emulating the divine? And what form does this emulation take? First and foremost, say the sages, one must align himself with the moral stance of the Holy One as described in the biblical laws and in prophecy. The commandments are not, after all, merely a collection of imperatives expressing God’s will. Rather, they comprise a comprehensive ideological system. As such, the Jew is commanded to keep not only God’s laws, but also the spirit of those laws. Abba Shaul says as much in the Talmud: “Abba Shaul interpreted, and I will be like him: Be thou like him: Just as he is gracious and compassionate, so be thou gracious and compassionate.”35 In his Book of the Commandments, Maimonides expands on this point:
By this injunction we are commanded to be like God, praised be he, as far as it is in our power. This injunction is contained in his words (Deuteronomy 28:9), “And thou shalt walk in his ways,” and also in an earlier verse in his words (Deuteronomy 10:12), “To walk in all his ways.” On this latter verse the sages comment as follows: Just as the Holy One blessed be he is called merciful, so shouldst thou be merciful; just as he is called gracious, so shouldst thou be gracious; just as he is called righteous, so shouldst thou be righteous; just as he is called hasid [one who does acts of loving kindness], so shouldst thou be a hasid. This injunction has already appeared in another form in his words (Deuteronomy 13:5), “After the Lord your God shall ye walk,” which the sages explain as meaning that we are to imitate the good deeds and lofty attributes by which the Lord, exalted be he, is described in a figurative way—he being indeed immeasurably exalted above all such description.36
Clearly, Maimonides does not believe that the injunction “after the Lord your God shall ye walk” is limited to the fulfillment of his commandments. Rather, it is intended to cultivate good character and develop a moral personality. Man is not meant, as Rabbi Soloveitchik maintained, to be a submissive subject, doing merely (and only) what is expected of him. Instead, he is to be God’s active partner in the betterment of the world, doing the right thing because he honestly and wholeheartedly believes in it. Only by raising humanity to a higher level is the ideal of modeling ourselves after God truly achieved.
One of the clearest examples of the command to adopt God’s moral stance can be found in the laws pertaining to sexual conduct. For example, the Midrash interprets the biblical passage “And you shall be holy to me: For I the Lord am holy,”37 as meaning, “Just as I am holy, so you be holy. Just as I am chaste, so you be chaste.”38 Of course, the sages did not intend for the adjective “chaste” to be taken literally. Rather, it is used as a means of emphasizing the vast difference between a God who transcends the needs and desires that accompany a physical form and the pagan deities who abandon themselves to sensual pleasures. Here we may recall Zeus, the Olympian patriarch, who fathered a substantial number of Greek heroes; Krishna, the avatar (physical incarnation) of Vishnu, who seduced young village girls in the Vrindavan forest; the frequent sexual intercourse between brothers and sisters in the Egyptian pantheon; and the countless fertility gods and goddesses who presided over wild, orgiastic rituals. The Jewish God is the complete antithesis of all these. Not only is he above physical lust, but he loathes acts of debauchery, and explicitly forbids them. Indeed, the Tora is unrelenting in its view of sexual promiscuity as utterly repugnant:
And if a man lie with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall surely be put to death: They have wrought unnatural sin; their blood shall be upon them. If a man also lie with a man, as one lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: They shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. And if a man take a wife and her mother, it is wickedness: They shall be burnt with fire, both he and they; that there be no wickedness among you…. And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing: He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless. You shall therefore keep all my statutes, and all my judgments, and do them: That the land, into which I bring you to dwell, will not vomit you out. And you shall not walk in the practices of the nation, which I cast out before you: For they committed all these things, and therefore I abhorred them.39
Immorality of the sexual kind—adultery, incest, and “unnatural” acts of intercourse—are so loathsome to God that he threatens those who indulge in them with the full measure of his wrath. This is precisely why, according to the Midrash, the prophet Balaam advised Balak, king of Moab, to tempt the children of Israel into licentious behavior:
“Behold, these were caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam” (Numbers 31:16). What was the word of Balaam? He told them: Even if you bring in all the crowds of the world, you can not overcome them [the Israelites]. Maybe [you think] you are more populous than the Egyptians, that about them is said (Exodus 14:7), “He took six hundred of the best chariots,” and as long as Israel does his will he will fight for them, as it is said (Exodus 14:4), “The Lord will fight for you,” and when they do not do his will he will fight against them as it is said (Isaiah 63:10), “So he turned and became their enemy and he himself fought against them.” And not only that: They make the Merciful One act cruelly. As it is said (Lamentations 2:5), “The Lord is like an enemy; he has swallowed up Israel.”40
And yet, as much as the Jew must strive to emulate the “chasteness” of the Holy One, he must also take care not to interpret this commandment too zealously. Unlike Catholicism, for example, Judaism does not encourage total abstention from sex, since this would be in clear violation of the divine commandment to “be fruitful and multiply, replenish the earth,”41 as well as contradict God’s pledge to Abraham that his seed would be multiplied like the grains of sand on the shore. Therefore, following God’s example does not mean a denial of sexuality, but rather the practice of sexual temperance: The subjection of one’s sexual urges to the control of the spirit, and its channeling toward higher, worthy ends.
The Tora’s attitude towards financial and property-related offenses is also anchored in the notion of identification with God. Although the commandments prohibiting offenses of this kind rely on a universally applicable “natural justice,”42 parallels for which can be found in almost every set of human laws from time immemorial, they are reinforced by the pronouncement God placed in the mouth of the prophet Isaiah: “For I, the Lord, love judgment; I hate robbery with burnt offerings.”43 The Talmud explains:
This may be compared to a human king who passed through his custom-house and said to his attendants, Pay the tax to the tax collectors. They said to him, But the whole tax, surely, belongs to thee! He answered them, All travelers would learn from me not to evade their payments of tax. So the Holy One blessed be he said, “I the Lord hate robbery in burnt offerings;” let my children learn from me and keep away from robbery.44
Although everything created—including the cattle, sheep, and birds sacrificed on the altar—belongs to God, he is not prepared to accept a sacrifice offered in a forbidden manner. While the crime of robbery is, in theory, an offense committed by man against his fellow, it is nonetheless hateful to God, and considered a direct and serious offense against him. For this reason, the Tora obliges the transgressor not only to return what he has stolen to its owners and to pay additional compensation, but to make a guilt sacrifice to God as well.45


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