Thursday, February 21, 2013

Two-Minute Torah: "Obedience" vs. Ritual


Someone said to me recently that while Reform Jews have eliminated Musaf, Conservative Jews have eliminated Shacharit. Reform Jewish prayerbooks have mostly eliminated Musaf, the “additional” service said on Shabbat and holiday mornings, because of its focus on the Temple and priestly rituals, which is considered no longer relevant. In most Conservative synagogues, meanwhile, many regular worshippers miss the first hour or so of services entirely and just come in time for the Torah reading, the sermon, and Musaf. I hasten to add that I have often told congregants that this is just fine with me -- better to come for part of the service than for none of the service!

My first couple of years after ordination I was a rabbi in the Israeli Reform movement, which is generally more traditional than North American Reform. Israeli Reform Jews of course use their own siddur, since among other things, how much Hebrew vs. how much English is not an issue in Israel. The Israeli Reform siddur does not have a Musaf service per se but they do have a “zecher la-Musaf,” a prayer which is recited in the place where Musaf would otherwise go. One of the key verses used in that prayer is I Samuel 15:22:
"Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
As much as in obedience to the Lord's command?
Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice,
Compliance than the fat of rams.”

It is a beautiful, poetic verse, and it nicely conveys the Reform Jewish idea that obedience to the spirit of the law, acts of social justice and tikkun olam, are more important than following ritual commandments.

It was not until many years later that I realized that this verse was taken from the special Haftarah we read on Shabbat Zakhor, the Shabbat right before Purim. Saul, the first king of Israel, has been ordered by God to utterly destroy the Amalekites, including killing men, women, children, and even the cattle. But Saul has left the Amalekite king alive and some of the choicest cattle, which, he tells the prophet Samuel, he has saved to offer up to God as a burnt offering. It is upon hearing this that Samuel utters the statement about obedience to God being preferable to sacrifices.

In its context, then, this verse has nothing to do with social action or any other type of righteousness. It does not condemn prioritizing rituals over social justice. In fact, it condemns Saul’s failure to fulfill the mitzvah of genocide -- the commandment to wipe out not only every Amalekite human but even their cattle.

This ethically troubling mitzvah was eliminated by the sages in the Talmud (Berachot 28a) through the statement that the Assyrian king Senacherib “mixed up the nations” and that it is therefore impossible to perform this mitzvah since we don’t know who, if anyone, is actually an Amalekite. While we read the Torah verses commanding us to wipe out the Amalekites, and the associated Haftarah which condemns Saul’s failure to do so, the actual mitzvah has lapsed into oblivion.

The question I would like to pose, however, is this. Is it legitimate to take a Bible verse out of context and make it seem to say precisely the opposite of what it says in its original context? Why or why not? What’s your opinion?

1 comment:

Charles Leger said...

Interesting question. I support reading the text in context. To make it fit what I want to belive or say is to bend the Word of God to my will, and this is wrong. I want to know God's will!