Thursday, September 4, 2008

Pillars & Trees & Goats & Michael Jackson

"You shalt not plant an Asherah of any kind of tree beside the altar of the Hashem your God, which you shall make for yourself. Neither shall you erect for yourself a pillar, which Hashem your God hates". Deuteronomy 16:21-22

Rashi comments: An altar of stones and an altar of earth He commanded to make, but this He hates, for it was the custom of the Canaanites. And even though it had been beloved by Him in the days of the Patriarchs, now He hates it since these (Canaanites) made of it a custom for idolatry.

The reference to the Patriarchs is to events such as is described in Genesis 21:33:

"And Abraham planted a tamarisk-tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God."

and Genesis 28:18,22:

"And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it...and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house"

and Genesis 35:14-15:

"And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where He spoke with him, a pillar of stone, and he poured out a drink-offering thereon, and poured oil thereon. And Jacob called the name of the place where God spoke with him, Beth-el."

According to Rashi, God was originally fond of these customs during the time of the Avos but then changed His mind a few hundred years later and decided they were a no-no because the Canaanites adopted the same practices.

Now contrast this with what Rambam says regarding animal sacrifices in Guide for the Perplexed (3:32): The custom which was in those days general among all men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up consisted in sacrificing animals in those temples which contained images, to bow down to those images, and to burn incense before them... It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God, as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used.

Thus an interesting conclusion can be derived from the opinions of these two Rishonim: if Jews started a custom that was later adopted by Gentiles, it is verboten. God just doesn't like it!
  • The Reform were decried for their incorporation of music into their services since this was looked upon as a Christian practice, even though we had long before relied on vocal and instrumental music during Temple services.
  • Although the custom of covering one's head is an ancient one, it was once primarily adopted only by the pious and by married men (see Kiddushin 29b); going with an uncovered head - even in synagogue - was customary in the middle ages (see, for example, Shulchan Aruch O.C. 91:3). But, the theory goes, the universal Ashkenazic practice of covering the head became entrenched when Jews became accustomed to seeing Christians church-goers with uncovered heads.
  • The Vilna Gaon annulled the long observed custom of erecting trees and greenery in shuls during Shavous because it eventually became a gentile custom.
On the other hand, if the Gentiles started the custom, we are now free to claim it as our own! Thus, we have things like yahrzeit candles, upsherin, Lag b'Omer fires, 18th Century modes of dress adopted from Gentile aristocrats, possibly tashlich and kapporos, etc.

And, oh yes, the common practice of incorporating gentile tunes into Jewish liturgy - regardless of what certain esteemed rabbinic leaders say about goyishe African music and beats.


Z said...

You are trying to infer from the Rambam that anything gentiles started is ok for us to adopt but that is not what he is saying. He says that it was allowed because it was already deeply ingrained in society including the Jewish People.

It is impossible to go from one extreme to the other suddenly. Therefore man - according to his nature - is not capable of abandoning suddenly that to which he was deeply accustomed ... As it was then the deeply-ingrained and universal practice that people were brought up with to conduct religious worship with animal sacrifices in temples ... God in His wisdom did not see fit to command us to completely reject all these practices - something that man could not conceive of accepting, according to human nature which inclines to habit ... He therefore left these practices but transformed them from their idolatrous associations ... that their purpose should be directed toward Him. Thus, He commanded us to build a sanctuary for Him with an altar to His name and offer sacrifices to Him... In this way idolatry was blotted out and the great foundation of our faith - the existence and oneness of God - was established. This was accomplished without confusing people's minds by prohibiting the worship they were accustomed to and which alone they were familiar with ... God doesn't choose to change man's nature with a miracle ... As sacrificial worship is not a primary intention ... only one Temple has been appointed ... in no other place is it allowed to sacrifice ... to limit such worship within bounds that God did not deem it necessary to abolish it ... because of this the prophets often declared that the object of sacrifices is not very essential and that God can dispense with them...(Guide III:32)

Frum Heretic said...

My inference was tongue-in-cheek. But my examples were not.

Anonymous said...

You're right. Everyone takes the Rambam to task for giving such an explanation for korbonos. This is why the Meshech Chachmah (or is it the Ohr Sameyach?) says that this is the reason that Bamos were allowed before the Bais HaMikdash. In other words the Jews wanted to bring offerings on their own (as the non-Jews do/did) so Bamos were allowed. But NOT that this is the reason that korbonos were commanded. The Rambam's words as written are not in accordance with any Jewish belief about the purpose of korbonos, which effect the world and the souls of Am Yisrael everyday. But OMG how can anyone say such a thing about the Rambam??!! And yet he is the one that made such an outrageous statement that we are left to reconcile with an eternal and sublime Torah.

Frum Heretic said...

Not everyone takes Rambam to task with his explanation of korbanos. Certainly it is a favorite explanation for most Modern folk (MO and leftwards) to whom the idea of animal sacrifices is primitive and barbaric.

I have a harder time with the Rashi (based on the Sifri) that I quoted. To say that "God like matzevot & asherim at one time but changed his mind because the Canaanites did it for A.Z." is not only silly but is also a theological nightmare. It makes much more sense to say that the later prohibition was simply a trend towards consolidating the centers of religious worship.