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Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 15: the details

So. Eleazar of Modin and me, Hellenizers and Romanizers, Bar Kochba and the Maccabees, and the question of assimilation. This note is for going through the categories, with an eye on all of that.

R. Elazar of Modim said, he who profanes things sacred, and despises the festivals, and puts his fellow-man to shame in public, and makes void the covenant of Abraham our father, and makes the Torah bear a meaning other than what is right, such a one, even though knowledge of the Torah be his, has no share in the world to come.

Once you start thinking about Hanukkah, the profanation of the sacred is about the use of the Temple for pagan rituals. It’s also fairly simply the use of ritual objects for everyday uses (drinking wine from your Kiddush cup on Thursday, or using your t’fillin to strap your books together), or just irreverence generally. The sage is arguing for a clear distinction between profane and sacred, a kind of insulation from the World. Since Jews under Hellenic or Roman or American rule will have all of the instruments of government and power be almost by definition profane, that insistence seems to me a retreat from interaction, rather than a healthy mindfulness.

As for despising the festivals, one of the things about growing up a Jew in America (unless you are in a real enclave, in which case you are only somewhat growing up in America) is the experience of missing school on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur or the first day of Passover. Or, potentially, any of the other days in which work is prohibited. Not to mention soccer, which practices on Saturday mornings—my Rabbi once told me that soccer is a graver danger to American Judaism than intermarriage. Not to mention that I am at work right now.

R. Travers Herford claims that the bit about shaming in public is an interpolation, and it certainly seems a bit off-topic for the list. But the sages felt very strongly about it. In this context, though, the question: who is the public? Fellow Jews? Fellow westernized Jews? Non-Jews? Surely it isn’t shameful to be outed as a Jew (either actually outed or to have attention drawn to it by conversation, mention of the holidays, conspicuous dietary accommodation, etc), but it can be a bit awkward. And there’s the shanda fur de goyim, the person who embarrasses all Jews by association. I think that this idea of public shame is connected, in a complicated web, with the whole question of assimilation and individuation.

As for making void the covenant, that is another reference to the Hellenizers, and refers literally to disguising the circumcision of the penis so that the Jew will not be visibly different in the bath or the gym. It has been used metaphorically to describe other visual differences (the payess, the yarmulke, or even the black hats and caftans). It is supposed to stand for the faith covenant, I suppose, of which the physical signs are only physicals signs, after all, but then it is difficult to judge anything but the physical signs, isn’t it?

As for making the Torah say what it doesn’t—here I will yield to Menahem ben Solomon ha-Meiri, who gave as an example the prohibition against the meat we get from pigs. He says that while it is possible to suggest that the prohibition is a metaphor for swinish behavior, it is not allowed to argue that it is purely a metaphor. That is, one who says that eating pork is forbidden and it is a metaphor for swinish behavior is all right. One who says that eating pork is forbidden because it is a metaphor is on dangerous ground, as kashrut is one of those laws which applies independent of any intent or context. But one who says that eating of pork is permitted, and that the prohibition really means something else, that one has no share in the world to come.

I provide Meiri’s gloss here precisely because it so clearly describes my own attitude toward kashrut. Not that it is a metaphor for behavior, but that it is all about endogamy and exogamy. Peculiar and difficult to understand dietary restrictions (of which the pork taboo is the easiest example) prevent members of the Tribe from eating meals with outsiders. At the time, and now, eating meals with people is one of the ways in which bonds are formed between people and between families. If you can’t sit down to a meal with your non-Jewish neighbor, you are much less likely to contract a marriage between your children, and your children are much less likely to elope even if you don’t contract such a marriage.

As an assimilated American Jew—a believing Jew, a passionate Jew, a Jew much in love with my own Jewishness, but not an observant Jew, not a traditional Jew, not a Maccabee by any means—I eat pork for dinner most Friday nights, with my Christian wife, who shares the blessings of the shabbos table with me and our lovely Jewish children. I reject the application of the laws of kashrut as thoroughly as I reject the application of the laws of the rededicated Temple. Well, perhaps not as thoroughly, as, you know, ew, animal sacrifice. But the point is that in both cases I take the laws immediate and obvious application as not pertaining to me, except as metaphor. In other words, as having a meaning other than what is (in halakhic terms) right.

And yet, I do not give up hope for the world to come. On the other hand, I am giving up hope for an adequate conclusion to this note, so I will let y’all (if you wish) talk about these details, and start again with a new page.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


May all the blessings be upon everyone during rosh hashanah. Happy rosh hashanah everybody.

[This appears to be spam, so I've removed the link, but there's no reason Gentle Readers should not have a nice Rosh Hashanah anyway. Thanks, -V.]

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