Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Toledot II: Morality independent of Torah

עקב אשר שמע אברהם בקולי - על העקידה דכת' עקב אשר שמעת בקולי: וישמור משמרתי - כגון מילה דכת' בה ואתה את בריתי תשמור: מצותי - כגון מצות שמונה ימים דכת' כאשר ציוה אותו אלהים: חוקותי ותורותי - לפי עיקר פשוטו כל המצות הניכרות כגון גזל ועריות וחימוד ודינין והכנסת אורחים, כלם היו נוהגין קודם מתן תורה אלא שנתחדשו ונתפרש[ו] לישראל וכרתו ברית לקיימן:

Bereishit 26:5 contains the intriguing claim that Avraham was a faithful servant of God, observing, God says, משמרתי מצותי חקותי ותורתי. These are charged terms: Which mitzvot was Avraham observing? Which חקים? Aside from the exegetical point at stake here, there is a much larger question: What did human (and Jewish/Israelite) morality look like before the revelation at Sinai?

Rashi, based on midrashim, jumps in here to tell us that Avraham observed משמרתי—the peripheral restrictions set up to protect against violation of the Torah’s core prohibitions, such as not marrying relatives slightly more distant than those listed in Vayikra 18 and 20. He also observed מצות—those things that a person could intuit on one’s own, such as the prohibitions on theft and murder—as well as חקים—commands that have no intrinsic meaning (according to this midrashic tradition), such as the ban on eating pig or wearing mixtures of wool and linen. And finally, he kept תורתי—the oral traditions that accompany the written Torah, those traditions that go all the way back to the revelation to Moshe at Sinai.

Rashbam takes these verses in a very different direction, albeit building on Rashi’s (his grandfather’s) explanation of מצות as commands that form a kind of natural law that is intuitive to all and can be generated by reason alone. Rashbam carefully explains every term here to refer to something that is completely independent of the covenant at Sinai. Avraham heeded God by following the command to bind Yitzhak, the משמרת here refers to the command of circumcision, the מצות refer to the timing of circumcision, and חקים and תורות are just synonymous words for the category of natural law already spelled out by Rashi.

This approach obviously has some significant literary and historical benefits, in that it allows the Torah to read as a coherent work from beginning to end, without presuming some sort of anachronistic knowledge of Torah (with a capital T) by Avraham hundreds of years before Sinai. In that sense, it fits with Rashbam’s larger project of peshat—which I would increasingly define as what the Torah would mean if we just read it like a book. But there is also some important theology at stake here. For Rashi, there is an implication that one cannot be fully righteous without having a stake in the Jewish covenant, and the rabbinic version of it at that. The written and oral Torot are eternal and ubiquitious, available to the righteous independent of the axes of time and history. For Rashbam, Torah enters the world in history, built on a foundation of morality and a human-divine relationship that stand independent of it. The Jewish path is thus not necessarily the exclusive pathway to God, though it is for Jews. And here is the last piece of this commentary that is so intriguing. For Jews, Rashbam argues, the convenant at Sinai not only adds new obligations and supplements older ones, it casts morality itself in new terms, as part of the ברית, the covenant that now defines the relationship between God and Israel. Natural law, once generated by reason alone, is now, for the Jew, a convenantal matter as well, and part and parcel of our relationship with God. [For another example of this approach to renewal of old mitzvot at Sinai, see Rambam’s commentary on Mishnah Hullin 7:6; though note that he only discusses “ritual” mitzvot there.] The tensions between these worldviews are worth exploring further and I invite comments to try to flesh out the implications.


At November 16, 2007 at 12:51 AM , Blogger ADDeRabbi said...

i disagree with your assessment that these elements are independent of Torah. i think they are - and that Rashbam is saying - that they are a proto-Torah that was later enshrined in the Torah. the Sinai covenant was a more detailed and explicit renewal of these same covenants that God made with the Patriarchs (and perhaps even Noah and Adam).
this reverses the 'traditional' understanding of the patriarchs keeping the Torah before it was given, in that it's not saying that they kept it because it was Torah, rather that it's Torah because they kept it.
much more can be said on this topic, which really touches the heart of the productive tension between myth and law.

At November 17, 2007 at 6:46 PM , Blogger EMT said...

To be more precise, I should have said "capable of standing independent of Torah", so as not to imply that it remains independent after the revelation at Sinai, which is a bolder claim than I think Rashbam is necessarily making here. But I would push you a bit to show where these earlier "covenants" with the Avot are clearly said to be the source of this sort of basic moral behavior. The language in Rashi and Rashbam seems to suggest that Avraham comes to this on his own and so might any future person. But perhaps I just haven't understood your point here fully.


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