Parashat Hashavua Study Center
Parashat Re'eh 5771/ August 27, 2011
Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, HYPERLINK "mailto:Isaac.Gottlieb@biu.ac.il" Isaac.Gottlieb@biu.ac.il.
Dr. Dror Ehrlich
Department of Philosophy
On Religious Mediocrity
See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your G-d that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your G-d, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced. (Deut. 11:16-18)
Below we shall briefly discuss the interpretation of Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (Italy, 15-16th century) on these opening verses of this week's reading, and the relationship between his interpretation and the social and spiritual realities of his time and place. We shall also address its applicability to contemporary Israeli Jewish society. First we cite his interpretation:
See. Look and observe, so that your ways not revolve around mediocrity, as in the rest of the nations, for indeed, He "sets before you blessing and curse." These are two extremes, for blessing means to succeed more than that which would suffice, on the better way, and curse is a malediction that detracts, so that one does not achieve
that which would suffice; and both are before you, in your reach, according to the way which you choose.
In accord with his concise style, in this exegetical remark Sforno unequivocally presents an entire religious world view. According to his interpretation, the Torah teaches us an important principle, namely that although the middle road in general is natural for human beings to follow (as do the other nations of the world), and is even to be commended, when it comes to worshipping the Lord the middle way is not an option. Indeed, in the secular realm of human life, following the middle road will lead to sufficiently satisfying our needs, no more and no less, as Maimonides notes in the introduction to his commentary of Tractate Avot, ch. 4, where he recommends that persons generally take the middle road and refrain from adopting extreme positions in their morality and behavior.
According to Sforno, however, in the Jew's spiritual world it is not possible to settle for that which is "sufficient" and to follow the middle, or the mediocre, path. Quite the contrary, Jews are faced with only two possibilities, the two extreme points: obeying the Lord's commandments (=blessing) or disobeying them (=curse), or in other words, following the way of the Lord's Teaching or leaving this way and following another, following other gods. In the case at hand there is no third way, no middle way and no vacuum. This is a necessary dichotomy, offering us the choice of one of these two options. The middle road, serving G-d partially, half way, or a third of the way, or a quarter of the way, or as he put it, revolving around mediocrity, is not an option.
From a slightly different angle, one could argue that in his interpretation Sforno takes an assertive stand against religious mediocrity. This position should be understood in the context of the historical reality in which he lived – Italian Jewish society of the Renaissance. This society was in many respects integrated into the general Christian society and had absorbed external cultural influences, leading to a spiritual decline among the Jews, which found expression in religious skepticism and a decline in observance of the Jewish commandments. Sforno's commentary on the Torah was apparently written in an effort to cope with this socio-religious problem. He sought to write a commentary that would be relevant to the Jews of his time and would help strengthen them in their faith at a time when they faced the choice of being faithful to the commandments or abandoning them altogether. Embedded in his commentary are ideas attesting to this bias and comprising a wealth of anti-Christian polemics. Thus the passages cited above should be seen not only as reflecting a doctrinal theological position, but also as criticism of the superficial religiosity that characterized the Jewish society in which he lived.
Superficial religiosity, or religious mediocrity, did not disappear from the world and
continues to exist to this day. In my opinion, the main problem it presents is not quantitative, observing fewer practical commandments, rather qualitative, characterized by a decline in consciousness of standing before G-d, of loving and fearing G-d and being bound by His commandments. As a result, religion has become shoved off from its proper place at the center of human existence to the peripheral realms of our being, as the prophet Isaiah complained (Is. 29:13): "… that people … has kept its heart far from Me, and its worship of Me has been a commandment of men, learned by rote."
As Maimonides wrote at the end of his commentary on Tractate Makkot:
It is a fundamental tenet of the Torah that if a person has properly performed one of the six hundred and thirteen commandments of the Torah, without having any other motive such as one might have in this world, but has done it purely for its own sake and out of love, as I have explained, then this deed merits the person life in the world to come.
Here Maimonides emphasized the centrality of human awareness that accompanies observance of the commandments and argued its supremacy over the number of commandments a person observes.
One of the figures who painfully noticed this development in our time and cautioned against its dangers was my mentor, Rabbi Yehudah Amital, z"l, head of the Har Etzion Yeshivah, who passed away just slightly over one year ago. Rabbi Amital maintained that when the inner aspect of serving G-d becomes weaker, and instead emphasis is placed on the outer aspect of practical observance of the commandments, we have cold, technical religiosity, devoid of any spirituality and sense of elation. As with many graduates of the Har Etzion Yeshivah, deeply engraved in me is the memory of the tisch which Rabbi Amital would occasionally hold on the Sabbath eve, at which he would sing in his warm voice the words from the Sabbath and festival amidah, "Ve-taher libbenu le-ovdekha be-emet" (=Purify our hearts to serve You truly), of which he wrote in one of his books:
Doing things naturally is of value not only in opposition to observing the commandments out of coercion, but also in opposition to observing them artificially. The importance of worshipping the Lord naturally is included in the petition we make in our prayers, "Purify our hearts to serve you truly." Artificiality puts a blemish on "true" worship of the Lord. The thrust of this request is that there be a correlation between our performance of the commandments and our inner sense of loving the Lord, fearing Him, and seeking His closeness, without a lack of proportion between the quantity of deeds and the inner value.
May these words be a tribute to his memory.
Be'ur al ha-Torah le-Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, ed. Z. Gottlieb, Jerusalem 1980, p. 329.
One can hardly miss the striking similarity between these remarks of Sforno's and Rashi's commentary on v. 28: "From this you learn that whoever engages in idolatry thereby leaves entirely the way that Israel was commanded; hence it has been said that whoever admits to idolatry is as one who rejects the entire Torah." One can hardly fail to be impressed by the similarity between this totally dichotomous position and the founding principle of the religious philosophy of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, namely the distinction between sacred and profane, between altruistic worship of the Lord and idolatry.
For example, cf. M.A. Shulwass, The Life of the Jews in Italy during the Renaissance, New York, 1955 (Heb.), 175-176, 180-183. Schulweiss lists observing the Sabbath and praying in the synagogue with a minyan as examples of commandments that the masses became lax about observing, and reports their practice of drinking wine made by non-Jews (ibid., p. 182).
For an analysis of Sforno's commentary on the Torah in the light of the social realities of his time and place, see M. Rahimi, Perush Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno la-Torah – Kelalim u-Magamot, doctoral dissertation, Bar Ilan University, 2006. On what motivated him to write the commentary, see ibid., pp. 19-21, 116, 162-169.
Mishnah `im Perush Rabbenu Moshe ben Maimon, Y. Kapah edition, Seder Nezikin, Jerusalem 1965, p. 165. Maimonides further develops the distinction made by R. Bahya ibn Pekudah between the duties of the body and the duties of the heart, concurring with him in the matter of the latter taking preference over the former. The notion of meriting a place in the world to come on the basis of properly observing a lone commandment – the interpretation of which was a subject of controversy among commentators on Maimonides – was developed further by R. Yosef Albo in Sefer ha-Ikkarim (Article 1, ch. 23, and Article 2, ch. 19), who viewed it as true faith that all who see themselves as belonging to the Teaching of Moses must accept.
Rabbi Yehudah Amital, "Tevunah ve-Regesh ba-Torah u-va-Tefillah," Alon Shevut Bogrim 14 (2001), p. 17.
Rabbi Yehudah Amital, Ve-ha-Aretz Natan li-Vnei Adam: Pirkei Hagut ve-Hinukh, Alon Shevut 2005, p. 71.