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permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
The penultimate chapter of Leviticus consists of a divine
plea to heed God’s commandments. It takes the form of inducements and
intimidations, promises of agricultural bounty and national tranquility and
threats of defeat, chaos and exile. The future of ancient Israel in its
homeland will depend entirely on its adherence to the revelation at Sinai.
Aside from the poetry of the passage, its rhetoric pulsates with a tone of
urgency. Free will has its risks; people may choose to put themselves in harm’s
way. Rebellion against the strictures of God is the persistent evil that
Neither this collection of admonitions nor those at the end
of Deuteronomy are cast in terms of life after death or the world-to-come. They
are utterly different from the hell-fire sermons of Puritan New England in
which compliance is coerced through damnation. The religious vocabulary of the
Torah, and indeed the Tanakh, is pervasively this-worldly. Life predominates as
the supreme value and relegates an inchoate notion of the afterlife–Sheol–to
the margins of collective consciousness. Accordingly, retribution or reward are
natural phenomena, occurring in the here and now. The language betrays no
notion of a soul that transcends death.
Equally noteworthy, the audience for our concluding address
is the people as a whole, and not the individual Israelite. What will be
weighed in the balance is the piety and morality of the nation, which if found
to be wanting will impact adversely on the fate of the minority of God-fearing
citizens. To abide personally by God’s will can secure one’s well-being only if
a sufficient number of others do the same. Hence, the paradigmatic nature of
Abraham’s discourse with God on the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. How many
righteous members will it take to avert the destruction of a community? Throughout
much of the Tanakh the group takes precedence over the individual. The marquee
actor in the drama is the nation. The Torah’s legislative agenda is to forge a
mass of slaves into "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation," a
beacon of justice and righteousness for an ever wayward humanity.
For all their power, then, these admonitions could not be
the final word on God’s moral calculus. While history confounds the correlation
between the fate of the nation and its character, the plight of the individual
begged for divine empathy. The Hellenistic world, with its heightened
sensibility for the priority of the individual, created the context for
post-biblical Judaism to absorb a full-blown belief in life after death. By the
first century B.C.E., the Second Book of Maccabees eases the pain of martyrdom
with the promise of immortality and resurrection. And several centuries later,
the Mishna makes the belief normative: those who deny that the doctrine of
resurrection is not to be found in the Torah forfeit their place in the world
to come (Sanhedrin 10:1).
What interests me in this theological evolution is how the
earlier biblical strata are salvaged. Creative exegesis allows for
reconciliation. The master of this preservative technique is Maimonides, who devoted
his life to rereading the Tanakh in light of Aristotelian philosophy. Hebrew
Scripture and Greek philosophy served as two media for the expression of the
The material blessings stipulated in Leviticus and
Deuteronomy, for Maimonides, represent an intermediary stage in the path to
individual salvation. By providing for our collective physical needs–fertility
and food, law and order and domestic tranquility and national security–they
generate the conditions within which we can indulge our love of Torah full
Reconsidering these blessings after more than a millennium
of national exile, Maimonides understood them to be a depiction of the
messianic era, when a scion of David will have restored the Jewish people to
its land, rebuilt the Temple and achieved a lasting state of peace. None of
this will be effected through divine intervention, but solely through
enlightened leadership. Though "the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the
leopard lie down with the kid," the nature of the world will remain
unchanged. The Messiah is but a warrior steeped in Torah, a mortal combining
the prowess of Bar Kochba with the piety and profundity of Rabbi Akiva.
Maimonides draws a sharp distinction between the messianic
era and the world-to-come. The former is natural and collectively experienced;
the latter supernatural and individually attained. The messianic era creates an
ideal set of circumstances in which each of us can pursue what the harsh
reality of daily life denies us: the undistracted study of Torah. According to
Maimonides, "neither the prophets nor the rabbis yearned for the messianic
era in order to rule the world or oppress the gentiles or enter into matrimony
with them or wine and dine, but solely to be free to engage in Torah and philosophy."
A world at peace becomes the springboard for individual salvation.
In this vision of the world-to-come, the love of God
expressed in the ceaseless endeavor to fathom the nature of God leads to the
immortality of the soul. As our understanding expands, our love intensifies and
rationality gives way to mysticism. Union with God is the ultimate blessing for
those solitary individuals who have extended themselves intellectually to serve
the Almighty without desire of reward (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah,
chapters 8-10; Hilkhot Melakhim, chapter 12).
For all his elitism and intellectualism, Maimonides has
caught the spirit of Leviticus’ litany of reward and rebuke. Coming at the end
of the Holiness Code (chapters 17-26) the composition reaches for a level of
morality that would transform our brutish existence into a paradigm of the good
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