Hashem’s Ethics Are Not Always Ours

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Akedat Yitzhak, Sha’ar Twenty-Seven, Part 2

The Exceptionalism of Learning from Hashem Directly

R. Arama returns to his original analogy of a human being as a tree. Trees root in the ground, and their branches extend from their trunks. Humans generally must rely on their intellects to understand the world around them, to evaluate their choices, and build their lives. For such people, Aristotle’s character recommendations are exactly correct (and they are often correct for everyone, as his examples from Tanakh showed).

Some people are privy to how Hashem views the world (including all Jews, who stood at Sinai); their roots and trunk are in Heaven, their branches coming down to earth. Where everyone else has to build a worldview from the ground up, the Jews (and Ya’akov’s sons, he’s working his way to saying) have access to a better form of information.

To partake of it, Jews must ground their existence on awareness of Hashem, and proper faith more broadly, the reason Sukkah 12a tells parents to teach their children Shema as soon as they can speak. Faith well formed tells Jews how to think and how to act, sometimes differently than the ways ordinary human reason would say.

[It’s a point I think many miss, also key to how Rambam viewed philosophy; I think Rambam thought philosophy covered all areas of human thinking, mastered by Aristotle in a way superior to any other philosopher. Jews differed in having access to a higher form of wisdom, sometimes contradicting human wisdom.

R. Arama’s idea of Jews’ having their roots in the heavens reminded me of a passage inThe Phantom Tollboothby Norton Juster. The protagonist, Milo, meets a boy from a family born with their heads at their eventual height, who grow down to the ground. The boy, Alex, does know of some in the family born upside down, growing the other way. They often grow to ten times everyone else’s size, he says, and “they say they walk among the stars.” For all my admiration for the book, here R. Arama got there first.]

Breaking the Ordinary Human Mold, in Line with Hashem’s Goals

Avraham planned to kill Yitzhak, Ya’akov bought the birthright with a bowl of soup at a moment of Esav’s vulnerable hunger, prophets were generally dismissed as crazy (as II Melachim 9 shows, where a prophet tells Yehu he will be the new king of the Northern Kingdom; his colleagues ask what the prophet said, referring to him as “he-meshuga ha-zeh, this crazy one.”) Sha’ul is blamed for sparing any of Amalek, despite compassion and pity being the most important character traits in Hashem’s and people’s eyes.

Jews are called evil for hitting each other (as Sanhedrin 58b says to explain why the verse says Moshe spoke to “the evil one” when trying to stop him from hitting his fellow Jew. Raising a hand to strike another Jew already makes one evil). At the same time, when a prophet told a fellow prophet to hit him, as Hashem had commanded, the latter’s refusal incurred the death penalty (I Melakhim 20).

Sum total, Mishle 21;30 says it best, there’s no wisdom, insight, or counsel before (or in competition with) Hashem. We use our human wisdom except we also have access to ideas we could never get on our own, sometimes counterintuitive, counterlogical, and yet correct. It’s the reason Avot stresses actions over wisdom. Unless shaped by actions of obedience to Hashem’s greater wisdom, a person will never develop understanding of how Hashem wants us to see the world, wants us to evaluate how to act, and will miss the mark on many areas (R. Arama says rov mishpatavmost areas).

The Explanation for Ya’akov’s Sons

The Tribes knew their exceptional status [exceptionalism has a bad rap today, because anyone can claim it. R. Arama reminds us that where it is an accurate description, there’s little or no point in denying it], a status which meant other nations could not intermarry with them; they knew Avraham had insisted on a non-Canaanite wife for Yitzhak, as had Yitzhak and Rivka for Ya’akov [we will have to wait to see how he understands Yehuda’s eventually marrying a Canaanite woman.]

For an ineligible marital partner to force himself upon Dina, as Shekhem had, broke the rules of civility, the norms of ordinary life, and called for an extraordinary response, to make clear they were distinct and different, were people Hashem had taught to care about purity and sanctity. To R. Arama, it’s why the Torah brings up the defiling of Dina multiple times.

They are sad over her defilement, they deal trickily and treacherously with the people of Shekhem because of what they had done to Dina, they take booty from the city that mistreated Dina, and they rebut Ya’akov’s rebuke over endangering them by questioning how they could let Shekhem’s treating her like a prostitute go unchallenged.

As R. Arama notes, other than the original story, these are the only times the Torah brings up what had happened. To his mind, it’s explaining, each time, why the brothers acted in ways human logic sees as wrong. They were following a divine imperative to protect and publicize the sanctity of the Jewish people, the consequences for any who violate that sanctity.

Where Did the Story Occur? And Other Brief Points

Having made his major points, R. Arama moves on to specifics. Although I’ve been referring to the city as Shekhem, R. Arama disputes the identification. The Torah never identifies the city. In 33;18, the Torah does say Ya’akov came shalem, ir Shekhem, usually translated as “whole (i.e., safe from his encounter with Esav) to the city of Shekhem.”

Were Shekhem the city the brothers destroyed, it’s odd for them to choose to graze their sheep there, as they do in 37;12. He instead suggests the name of the city was Shalem, and it was called ir Shekhem because its crown prince was named Shekhem.

As always, I am taking the points I find most creative, not all the points. R. Arama thinks the verse means to praise Dina for going to see the young women of the area, a sign she was not interested in any sexual misadventures, intended to live fully within the values of her parents.

R. Arama reads Shekhem, post-rape, as making a sincere pitch to marry Dina. Along the way, he notes what I think people today reject when they see it later in the Torah—a rapist marrying his victim, in those days, could be a sincere and effective way to save the woman the embarrassment and isolation of being unwanted, and could—I think—produce an eventually workable marriage.

[I note it because I meet people who insist the current view of rape is the only possible one; I need not disagree with how people today see and characterize rape and its effect on women today to be able to also see the cultural element to that reaction. It’s important because it protects us from judging the Torah and halakha’s view of rape based on our current cultural context, however true and accurate our current cultural context is about our time. In our time, we would assume every rape victim would reject the offer to marry her rapist. In the Torah’s time, apparenly some or many women would choose otherwise.]

He makes an interesting point about trickery in his read of the brothers’ response to Shekhem’s suggestion. The verse says they answered trickily, because he had defiled their sister. R. Arama thinks they brought up their complaint, hashed it out with Shekhem for a bit, and then let it drop, as if they had resolved the issue. That, too, was part of the plan, to give Shekhem and his father the impression they had moved on. Reconciliation can itself be a tool of deceit.

Trickery is Not a Lie

At the same time, R. Arama resists reading the brothers as having said anything actually untrue (they would mislead, not lie). They never said circumcision was all that was needed to join as a people, they said the people of Shekhem’s city would have to be kamonu, like us; circumcision was an example, but they also would have to accept the world of mitzvot as a whole (as do all converts). Had they done that, the Ya’akov family could have intermarried with them, because they would have joined the Jewish people.

Similarly, when they speak of marrying, they speak in general terms, never specifically saying they would let Dina stay with Shekhem.

The people, of course, took their words at closer to face value, thought circumcision was a sufficient condition for linking the two groups, and would then allow both Dina’s marriage as well as others. R. Arama thinks they should have investigated further, the brothers’ relied on their impetuousness. Had they in fact asked harder questions, the brothers would have answered (he thinks), and then perhaps the city would have sincerely converted. Then Dina might in fact have married Shekhem, and it would be smiles all around, the unfortunate orginal incident leading to a better world, where Shekhem and his city became honest converts.

[There’s too much here for me to consider, especially his assumptions about Dina’s ready willingness to stay with Shekhem just because he converted. The most succinct point I can make is his insistence on avoiding the brothers’ having lied. He’s comfortable with deception, their saying words they knew would be taken differently than they meant them, as long as they did not baldly lie.

It’s a technique Rashi used to explain Ya’akov’s fooling Yitzhak into thinking he was Esav: Rashi and R. Arama seem comfortable with misleading people where circumstances call for it, strongly resist outright lying, a distinction whose significance is often lost on people today, and therefore alow themselves to lie.]

Leaving Shekhem

R. Arama infers the brothers handled the situation largely correctly because Hashem does not weigh in negatively (although Ya’akov did; I might have imagined he obviated the need for Hashem to speak). In addition, Hashem protects them from retribution, part of Hashem’s always protecting those who follow Hashem’s Will. (He takes their protection as a sign of agreement, where I could have imagined Hashem was opposed to what they did, agreed with Ya’akov’s rebuke, but protected them because, on balance, it was the better result.)

At the same time, Hashem tells Ya’akov to leave the area, because staying there will require constant special Providence, and Hashem prefers the world work naturally as much as possible. On the way to Bet El, Ya’akov tells his group to remove the “foreign gods,” meaning any idols in the booty they took from the city (I think because he does not want to imagine they had idols from anywhere else or for any other reason).

Idols do not include only items of worship; he thinks Ya’akov was also telling them to rebury character traits they pulled out here in response to Shekhem’s actions, character traits they ordinarily should avoid. Shabbat 105b refers to the evil inclination as an idol, the brothers’ needed to bury their anger and treachery before going to Bet El.

As always, he says a bit more, and so could we. Nonetheless, this seems a reasonable stopping point in his investigation of the Dina/Shekhem story and the rest of Va-Yishlah, an incident showing him Hashem’s ethics sometimes diverge from how human beings think of ethics, and those privileged to learn from Hashem can and should follow a different path. As did the Tribes in reacting to their sister’s abduction and rape.

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