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August 23, 2012 - Image 35

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2012-08-23

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>> Torah portion

Parshat Shoftim: Deuteronomy 16:18-
21:9; Isaiah 51:12-52:12.

Efrat, Israel

y

ou shall appoint judges...
[who] will not pervert
justice... Righteousness,
righteousness shall you pursue ..: You
shall not plant for yourselves an ashera
(a tree used for purposes of idolatry
according to Rashi and Ibn Ezra)
near the altar of the Lord your God"
(Deuteronomy 16:18-20,21).
The juxtaposition of these verses
— the demand for honorable and righ-
teous judges, the concern for an impar-
tial legal system that is a
"no-bribe zone," immedi-
ately followed by the prohi-
bition of idolatry — seems
to mix two completely
different areas of religious
concern.
It combines the moral
and ethical laws of interper-
sonal conduct together with
the ritual laws of Divine
service.
Each of these two realms
holds a respected place
in the Bible, but why group them so
closely together without any kind of
segue between them? Also, which of
these two crimes is the more griev-
ous? Is it a corrupt judicial system that
undermines the very infrastructure of
an ethical society or is it a mistaken
religious notion that calls for the wor-
ship of a tree instead of worship of the
Creator of the tree?
Certainly, the injurious implications
emanating from the first seem far more
damaging than those emanating from
the second. .
Indeed, the Bible itself adds a rider
to the command to pursue justice: "in
order that you may live and inherit
the land which the Lord your God
gives you." A just society is a necessary
prerequisite for the continued life of
historic Israel and for Israel's ability to
retain sovereignty over her homeland.
No such caveats or conditions appear
pursuant to the prohibition of the ash-
era.
Why prohibit worshiping the ashera
tree specifically if it is planted near the
sacrificial altar? Is it not equally forbid-
den to serve a freestanding ashera tree
even it is nowhere near the sanctuary
(Mishkan) or Temple?

What I believe our sages are deriv-
ing from this juxtaposition of the
biblical verses is that the real sin of
idolatry lies in the perversion of jus-
tice perpetuated by the idolaters. This
was found in their lack of morality
and ethical conscience, in the orgiastic
Dionysian rites that included eating
the limbs and drinking the blood of
living animals and in the drunken
trysts with temple prostitutes.
Idolaters paid no heed to "thou shalt
not murder" when they sacrificed inno-
cent children to Moloch. And worst of
all was when the immoral-
ity of idolatry invaded the
hallowed gates of the Holy
Temple. At that point, the
entire reason for Israel's
nationhood ceased to exist, so
that God was forced to leave
His House and see to it that it
be destroyed.
The truth is that almost
every time the Bible forbids
idolatry, it is within the con-
text of the immoral behavior
that characterized it:
Remember that God chose Abraham
because he was committed to compas-
sionate righteousness and moral justice
(Genesis 18:18-19); and on Tisha b'Av,
the memorial day of our Temples'
destructions, we read publicly the
verse, "Only in this regard shall one be
praised: 'Be wise and know Me, for I
am the Lord who does lovingkindness,
moral justice and compassionate righ-
teousness in the land, because these are
what I desire, says the Lord"' (Jeremiah
9:22, 23).
Although Maimonides consistently
defines idolatry in pure and absolute
theological and metaphysical terms,
Rabbi Menahem ha-Meiri (13th- and
14th-century Provence) defined idola-
try in terms of the "disgusting immoral
acts of the idolaters:' whose paganism
prevented them from accepting the
universal moral laws of the Noahide
Covenant.
For the Meiri, anyone who was moral
was ipso facto not to be considered an
idolater. In the final analysis, he under-
stood that to know God is to pursue
justice and righteousness. ❑

Shlomo Riskin is chancellor Ohr Torah
Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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