Kollot Haftarah D’var Torah: Uprooting Torah for the Sake of Heaven
Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 14 September 2019
If you went to last year’s British Museum exhibition on political dissent, curated by Ian Hislop, you will have seen a copy of the ‘Wicked’ or ‘Sinners’ Bible’. This is a 1631 edition of the King James Bible, unremarkable but for a slight error in Exodus chapter 20. As a result, it reads not as originally intended, but rather states: ‘Thou shalt commit adultery.’
This may have been included in a collection on dissent and subversion, but it is generally assumed that this was actually a mistake. This was the most famous of all ‘bible errata’ – mistakes in the printing of the bible which somewhat change the meaning. It is certainly not understood to be a theological position: not a statement, not an intentional subversion of the text; not saying that the bible might be wrong, that adultery might actually be the right thing to do, the thing that God would want in certain circumstances.
This is, however, exactly the kind of radical theological statement (though not about adultery) that we find in this week’s haftarah, which is taken – as is our practice in our Kollot services – from rabbinic literature.
It is not a comfortable text. In it, the Sages attempt to resolve a tension between one of the mitzvot that Maya has just read for us and another biblical story. They seek to reconcile the instruction not to leave hanging overnight the body of someone who has been executed, with a story from the time of King David, in which descendants of Saul are executed and then their bodies are left hanging for the whole of the harvest season.
The Talmud doesn’t do what we might expect. It doesn’t seek to talk this tension away. Nor does it wash David’s hands of the responsibility making it someone else’s sin. Nor does it twist the narrative to explain how the law as found in Deuteronomy was actually kept.
Rather it says something else, something quite extraordinary.
It says that the bodies were left hanging because this was a good thing to do, the right thing to do. It states that something in Torah might be ‘uprooted’ if there is a broader purpose. Sometimes the law, the explicit instruction of God in Torah, has to be overruled. In our haftarah, the Talmud makes the claim that the expressed will of God was superseded by the consideration of sanctification of God’s name. We might sanctify God’s name by doing the opposite of what Torah states as commandment. This portion articulates a new idea – that there might be a distinction between what is in the Torah as law and what is in God’s or the Jewish People’s or humanity’s best interests. The right thing might be different to the written thing.
Now it is not an easy text, so as we read I ask you to ignore the complexity of the language and the story it tells. It doesn’t really matter for our purposes what these guys did so that they were executed. Ignore, too, the barbaric idea that leaving bodies hanging might somehow be an act of sanctification of the name of God. But, for a minute appreciate the extraordinary radicalism being articulated here.
We sometimes think that we are the first generation of Jews to grapple with the possibility of a tension between Torah and our understanding of what is the right thing to do – what it is to sanctify God’s name in our lives. But even the early sages appreciated this possibility. Of course our considerations are different. We have a very different understanding of what it is to sanctify God’s name. But this amazingly radical text can be applied whenever we find that our ideals of inclusion, our practices of liturgical reform, our approach to social and medical ethics, are in tension with what we receive as law. Anywhere where we experience a tension between the text we inherit and human conscience or the good of society we are inheritors of this rabbinic voice. God’s name can be sanctified by not doing that which is written.
The subversion of the rabbis, unlike that of the ‘Wicked Bible’, was not hidden nor accidental. It consisted of bold theological statements, and nowhere more radical than here, as they explicitly recognise the possibility of tension between Torah law and what is right. Here in our text we find the radical rabbis stating something truly unexpected, and hugely important for us in our religious lives: It is better that a thing in Torah should be uprooted so that the name of Heaven be sanctified.
Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 79
[King David took Armoni and Mephiboshet, the two sons that Rizpah daughter of Ayah bore to Saul, and the five sons that Merav, the daughter of Saul, bore to Adriel son of Barzillai the Meholatite, and he handed them over to the Gibeonites. They impaled them on the mountain before God. All seven of them perished at the same time. They were put to death in the first days of the harvest, the beginning of the barley harvest.] Then Rizpah daughter of Ayah took sackcloth and spread it on a rock for herself, and she stayed there from the beginning of the harvest until rain from the sky fell on the bodies; she did not let the birds of the sky settle on them by day or the wild beasts approach by night. (2 Samuel 21: 7-10)
But isn’t it written HIS BODY SHALL NOT REMAIN ON THE STAKE OVERNIGHT; YOU MUST BURY HIM THE SAME DAY (Deuteronomy 21:23) [so how could they have left Saul’s executed sons and grandsons unburied for a whole season?]
Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzadak: It is better that a letter of Torah should be uprooted [so that] the name of Heaven can be sanctified in public.
[In what way is this expressed in this story?]
Those coming back and forth would say, “What is the nature of these who have been left hanging?”
[And they would hear] “These are sons of kings.”
“And what did they do to deserve such a fate?”
“They laid their hands on ‘gerim g’rurim’ (a category of those who had converted but were not permitted to enter fully into the congregation).”
[Those passing by would say], “There is no nation as worthy of cleaving to as this one. If the sons of kings [who harmed converts] are treated in this manner, how much more so the sons of common people. And if this is done [because of harm] to ‘gerim g’rurim’, how much more so [for harm to] another Israelite?
Immediately, one hundred and fifty thousand joined to Israel, as it is stated: AND SOLOMON HAD SEVENTY THOUSAND WHO CARRIED BURDENS AND EIGHTY THOUSAND WHO HEWED IN THE MOUNTAINS (I Kings 5:29).