The Idolater as a Spiritual Giant
This Shabbat we read the passage from the Torah known as parashat Parah, chapter 19 of Bamidbar, that contains the laws of the parah adumah, the red heifer.
The Torah tells us that if a person comes in contact with a dead body then they become ritually impure (tamei). Such a person is unable to enter into the holy space of the Beit Hamikdash or to eat of the sacrificial offerings, including the Korban Pesach. In order to become pure (tahor), a red cow – that has no blemish and has never been worked and does not even have two black hairs – must be slaughtered and then burned outside of the camp with cedar wood, a hyssop branch, and a crimson thread. (Numbers 19:3-6). The ashes from that fire must then be mixed with spring water and sprinkled by a kohen on the tamei person with the hyssop on “the third and seventh day”. Only then does the tamei person become tahor.
The requirement to read this passage at this time of year is an ancient one and is recorded in the Talmud (Megillah, 29a). Rashi there writes that the reason we read about this mitzvah in the weeks before Pesach is, “lehazhir et yisrael letaher she-yaasu pischeihen betahara, in order to encourage the Jewish people to purify ourselves so that we will be able to bring the paschal lamb in a state of taharah.”
So important is this passage that the Shulchan Arukh writes (Orach Chaim, 686:7): “There are some who say that one is biblically obligated to read parashat Zachor and parashat Parah Adumah. Therefore Jewish people who normally do not live near a minyan need to travel to a place where there is a minyan on these shabbatot in order to hear these passages.”
In other words, according to the Shulchan Arukh this is one of the two most important readings of the entire year.
On top of that, if we think about it this ritual is perhaps the most essential ritual of our entire Torah. Without the ashes of a Red Heifer we are functionally unable to rebuild the Beit Hamkidash. The Red Heifer is thus the sine qua non of having a Beit Hamikdash in all of its glory.
How many of these Red Heifers have we had in our history? There is a dispute about this.
The Mishnah records the opinion of R. Meir (Parah 3:5) who states that there were a total of seven Red Heifers. Moshe made one, then Ezra a second one, and then five more from Ezra onwards. The Mishnah also records the opinion of the Sages who argue with R. Meir and state that there were a total of nine red heifers.
The last of the Red Heifers happened during the era of the Second Temple. According to both opinions there have been no Red Heifers since the destruction of the Second Temple. Thus, we are waiting for a new Red Heifer in order to rebuild the Beit Hamikdash. The next Red Heifer -- it will either be the 8th Red Heifer or the 10th Red Heifer -- will herald the arrival of messianic era.
We can’t be completely sure what was the last Red Heifer. However, there is a story in the Talmud about a specific Red Heifer and Tosafot argues that this story took place during the era of the Second Temple (Avodah Zarah, 23b, s.v. bikshu). Thus it is likely that this story refers to the last kosher, Red Heifer!
The story appears in tractate Avodah Zarah (23b-24a; the story also appears in Kiddushin, 31a). The tractate as a whole discusses the idea that we need to distance ourselves from idolaters. For example, the Talmud tells us that we are not allowed to do business with idolaters for three days before their holidays and for three days after their holidays. The rabbis also decreed that we are not allowed to eat their bread, their oil, and their wine. Furthermore, the Talmud tells us that there is a prohibition of doing something nice for an idolater such as giving them a gift. Indeed, the Talmud even tells us that if we see an idolater in a pit we are not allowed to help them get out of danger.
These are serious prohibitions. The upshot of these laws is that idolaters must be treated as our enemy.
In this context the Talmud tells us the story of the Red Heifer that was born to a specific idolater named, Dama ben Nesina.
The story begins with the Sages asking R. Eliezer a simple question: ”Ad heichan kibbud av va-em? To what extent must a person go in order to honor their father and mother?
Rather than simply answer the question, R. Eliezer told them, “tzu u-reu mah asah oved kochavim echad leaviv be-ashkelon ve-dama ben nesina shemo, go and see what an idolater named Dama b. Nesina did for his father in Ashkelon.”
What did Dama do in order to honor his father? One time the sages sought to purchase from Dama stones for the Efod of the Kohen Gadol. They offered him a profit of $600,000 dinar (and some say it was $800,000 dinar) in exchange for the stones. But the key to the safe for the stones was underneath Dama’s father’s head and so Dama did not disturb his father.
In a later year, a Red Heifer was born into Dama’s herd. As we have discussed a Red Heifer is extremely rare, and this possibly the last Red Heifer ever born. So we can imagine how much money the Red Heifer was worth.
The Sages asked Dama to sell them the Red Heifer. He responded by saying to them I know that I can ask you for all the money in the world and you would gladly give it to me. And yet, all I am asking from you is that you give to me the profits that I lost when I refused to wake up my father to help you purchase the stones you wanted for the Efod.
This is a story I remember learning from my parents at a very young age. I think my parents wanted to make sure that I didn’t wake them up!
Sometimes when we learn something at a young age we don’t think about some basic questions about a story. But recently I came across this story as part of our daf yomi studies and I realized that there are some basic questions that need to be addressed.
1) Why does R. Eliezer answer the question of hoe to honor one’s father and mother by referring to the actions of an idolater? Were there no Jews who properly observed the mitzvah of Kibbud Av Va-em?
2) What is the relationship between not waking up one’s father and being rewarded with a Red Heifer? If God wanted to reward Dama for his performance of the mitzvah, then God had many ways to miraculously give Dama enormous amounts of money? Why did God choose to reward Dama specifically with a Red Heifer?
3) Ironically, this passage does not reflect normative law. The halacha is that if one knows that their father would be upset if he was not woken up, then one can indeed wake him up (Arukh Hashulchan, YD 240:40). Presumably most fathers would prefer to be woken up rather than lose the $800,000! So why is this case cited by R. Eliezer as the answer to the question of how to honor one’s father, when in fact one should not follow the practice of Dama?
I have one answer to all of these questions.
Recently I had a conversation with an old friend named Barry Wimphymer who is now a distinguished a professor of Talmud and has just published a book by Princeton University Press called, The Talmud: A Biography.
Barry suggests that when there is a rigid halakhah the Talmud will often introduce a story that intentionally undermines a flat reading of that halakhah. He argues that the aggadic story is often a self-reflecting critique by the rabbis of their own halakhic practice.
I believe that this argument works well in our situation and that this story of Dama b. Nesina is actually a subversive text undercutting the central message of the tractate.
The tractate as a whole is very much anti-idolater. If one studies the entire tractate one will not find a single kind word about another faith other than Judaism.
And then, we come to this story. This story is not an explicit praise of idolatry, but the upshot of the story is that if we want to know how to observe the fifth commandment we must turn not to a great rabbi, but to an idolater. More than that, the rabbis of this story come out very bad in comparison to the idolater. First, why couldn’t they have recognized Dama’s greatness the first time they came to visit him? It is clear that he was worthy of praise for God rewarded him for his actions. More than that, an idolater recognizes the full value of the Red Heifer and refuses to take unfair gain from it. This shows us that this idolater is a man filled with great spiritual sensitivity.
Fundamentally, I think that the story appears in this tractate in order to teach the basic message that the Jewish people could not worship in the Temple without the help of an idolater, who in this case turns out to be a spiritual role model. By extension, the message to me seems that we will not be able to rebuild the Temple without other righteous idolaters.
In a tractate that exists to condemn idolaters this story tells us that we Jews must learn even from the idolaters. We Jews must remove the very concept of religious superiority from our lexicon. We Jews must recognize that not all idolaters are the same; and that some are even our spiritual role models!
It wasn’t just in the Babylonian era that there was a strong push to undercut some of these anti-idolatry laws. As we move into later periods this tractate basically became for some rabbis a dead letter law as they reconcile living in a world that is filled with very good people who happen to not be of the Jewish faith.
For example, one of the main themes of this tractate is the prohibition against wine touched by an idolater. It is prohibited under the rubric of yayin nesekh, wine that was offered as a libation. The Talmud prohibits all wine touched by an idolater even if we do not see a libation actually happen.
But this is the way R. Moshe Isserles (Rema), the foremost codifier of Ashkenazi law in the 16th century, writes about this law in Yoreh Deah, (Yoreh Deah 124:24): Uvezman hazeh dehagoyim lav ovdei avodah zarah heim, kol magaan mikrei she-lo bekavanna, and nowadays where the gentiles are not idolaters…it is permitted to drink wine touched by a gentile either through his force (and not his hand) or even by his direct hand, if it was done accidentally.” He then adds, “ve-ein lefarsem hadavar bifnei am haaretz, one should not publicize this law in front of ignorant people.” This opinion of the Rema is supported by the greatest commentary on Yoreh Deah, the Shakh.
The Rema was not the first to completely wipe away a law from the tractate. On the very first page of the tractate the Talmud tells us that we are not allowed to do business with idolaters. In the 12th century, Tosafot asks then how come we are able to conduct business with our neighbors. Tosafot writes, the people around us are not idolaters, but rather, minhag avoteihem be-yadeihem. They are just practicing their ancient traditions and they are not worshipping idolatry.
Through these texts we see that the great rabbis of our tradition whether in the Talmud or the medieval halakhists recognized that there was something fundamentally wrong with earlier traditional texts that spoke about idolaters in a xenophobic manner. The Talmud itself suggests that not all idolaters are bad, and that it is possible that an idolater can even be more righteous than our greatest rabbis. Later rabbis recognized that the whole notion of an idolater is not applicable in our modern times. And that was a thousand years ago!
Why do I mention this today?
Because what our rabbis knew a thousand years ago, I sometimes fear that we forget today.
How traditional Jews deal with other faiths is I believe one of the greatest religious challenges of our people. The Jewish people are more successful today than at any point since the destruction of the Temple. The State of Israel has never been so strong. Here in America, Jewish strength on both sides of the aisle should make us feel confident. This past week our city hosted an AIPAC conference, which was definitely a show of enormous political influence of the Jewish community.
And yet, with this position of power comes a great spiritual danger
There is the danger of us becoming smug and emphasizing texts that indicate Jewish superiority over the nations. Instead of recognizing that we live in a world populated with Dama b. Nesina’s, I fear that too many of our Jewish brothers and sisters might be teaching our children the wrong and hurtful message that we are better than our neighbors.
This is one of the great challenges of our people as we grow stronger in the land of Israel and become more successful as a community.
Our successes should not lead us to triumphalism, but rather to a realization that we are surrounded by holy people of all faiths. We must all recognize that our holy, eternal Temple, the third Temple –bimheirah veyameinu! -- can not be rebuilt without the great idolaters of the world, like Dama b. Nesina.
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