Parashat Behukotai / Marketplace of Torah Ideas

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Jerusalem's Jewish QuarterCredit: Moshe Gilad
Yakov Z. Meyer

In this week’s Torah reading, Behukotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:34), the long list of laws that fills the Book of Leviticus ends. Now the book’s schematic, commanding tone shifts to a vivid picture of, on the one hand, the rewards God will grant Israel for observing his commandments, and, on the other, the punishment he will mete out for failure to do so. He informs Israel, “If ye walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them” (Lev. 26:3), there will be fitting rewards. However, “if ye will not hearken unto me, and will not do all these commandments” (26:14), the penalties will be dire.

After presenting 25 chapters of laws, Leviticus now describes the basic ideas behind its commandments and prohibitions. To illustrate this change in tone, Midrash Tanhuma presents a verse from Proverbs 1. Here King Solomon, to whom the Book of Proverbs is traditionally attributed, warns his son to avoid falling into the trap the sinners lay to divert him from the path of righteousness. To that end, Solomon “recruits Wisdom,” which he himself personifies: “Wisdom crieth aloud in the streets, she uttereth her voice in the broad places; She calleth at the head of the noisy streets, at the entrances of the gates, in the city, she uttereth her words: ‘How long, ye thoughtless, will ye love thoughtlessness? And how long will scorners delight them in scorning, and fools hate knowledge?’” (Proverbs 1:20-22).

Wisdom is proclaiming its message in the bustling city, calling upon the thoughtless, the scorners and the fools not to stray from the righteous path. Whereas this week’s reading opens with the warning, “If ye walk in my statutes,” Proverbs describes Wisdom standing in the street, offering her wares. The midrash is combining the verses from Proverbs and Leviticus, creating a new picture of Wisdom – which, in the sages' eyes, is the Torah –  and citing the verses from Behukotai

However, the sages want to do more than juxtapose the verses. They interpret the passage in Proverbs, changing its focus and meaning: “It is written, ‘If ye walk in my statutes.’ This verse is referred to in, ‘Wisdom crieth aloud in the streets, she uttereth her voice in the broad places.’ Rabbi Samuel, son of Nachman, asked Rabbi Jonathan, son of Elazar, who was standing in the marketplace: Please teach me one chapter. Rabbi Jonathan replied: Go to the beit midrash [study hall] and I will teach you there. Said Rabbi Samuel: Did you not teach me, ‘Wisdom crieth aloud in the streets’?

“Rabbi Jonathan answered: You do not know how to read a text properly. What does that verse refer to? To the area outside that belongs to the Torah. Where are gems sold? In their own place. Similarly, the Torah must be studied in its own place. What does ‘in the broad places’ mean? A place where the Torah is expanded, elaborated upon. Where does that happen? In synagogues and halls of learning. Thus it is written: ‘she uttereth her voice in the broad places; She calleth at the head of the noisy streets’” (Midrash Tanhuma, Behukotai: 4).

Rabbi Samuel wants to study Torah in the marketplace and cites the verse he was taught, which describes the Torah offering its wares “outside.” But Rabbi Jonathan rebukes him, and explains that the Torah does not cry outside in the streets or markets, but rather in the “outside” that is related to the Torah – in its own marketplace: in synagogues and religious study halls. Rabbi Jonathan will teach his student Torah in the appropriate place, not out in the bustling streets.

Rabbi Samuel did read the verse in Proverbs properly – within the context of that book, where it is clear that Wisdom raises its voice outside, literally. Wisdom here embodies accessible knowledge that is not only available to everyone, but also entices people to listen to it. Standing in the public square, Wisdom offer its wares and conducts its battle against the sinners, who seek to ambush other people. Indeed, in Proverbs, Wisdom and sin fight for the soul of the individual in the public square. Rabbi Samuel sees the Torah’s words from this perspective.

Rabbi Jonathan has another concept of the Torah, however, and interprets the idea of “outside” in a different context. He sees the Torah as part of a different, intellectual ethos that is incompatible with the biblical ethos of Proverbs. He believes that the Torah does not proclaim its message outside in any literal sense, but rather in an artificial space created specifically for it, where the Torah can be heard and is always welcome. For Rabbi Jonathan, “outside” is a marketplace similar to one in which precious stones are sold, and the Torah can be “traded” only in the Talmudic academy, and nowhere else.

Rabbi Jonathan thus transforms the meaning of the verse in Proverbs. Universal Wisdom – addressing the thoughtless, the scorner and the fool, and proclaiming her message in the bustling streets and before the city’s gates – is depicted as embodying an analytical Torah that is heard only in its own special space. Rabbi Jonathan essentially “converts” Wisdom’s voice, which is heard in and seeks to influence the public domain, into a professional commodity with a unique marketplace and target “audience” of merchants, a separate place where the only thing of interest is the Torah.

For his part, Rabbi Samuel seeks to transfer the model of the Torah as presented in Proverbs into the context in which he lives, but Rabbi Jonathan argues that Rabbi Samuel’s reading of the text is incorrect. A full explication of the Torah’s verses demands, he says, that they be adapted to the new context in which the Amoraim (scholars of the Oral Law) exist, to the new ethos within which they operate.

The nature of the Torah and the nature of external space have changed. The Torah’s voice is no longer heard in the streets, addressing the thoughtless, the scorners and the fools: Instead it has become a body of professional literature, whose interpretation requires expertise and, more important, motivation and effort. The Torah no longer tries to woo the simple individual; those who want to study it must seek it out.

In effect, Rabbi Jonathan tells his student, the concept of going outside to listen to the Torah is based on an incorrect understanding of its verses. In correcting Rabbi Samuel, his teacher explains the nature of the beit midrash, the renowned scholarly institution whose boundaries are delineated by the sages. This is the artificial space where the Torah can be heard and where it is welcome. This is the space where those who take an interest in the Torah congregate, as in the marketplace where those interested in commerce in precious stones congregate. The Torah’s market is dynamic, intimate and thriving.

It is easy to deduce how Rabbi Jonathan regards the marketplace where Rabbi Samuel wants to study Torah. Wisdom, as portrayed in Proverbs, must be heard at the city’s gates where the thoughtless gather, where it can grab hold of them and lead them to the righteous path.

In Rabbi Jonathan’s view, however, the Torah has no intention of luring such individuals and leading them to righteousness. In his opinion, the Torah is not oriented toward tikkun olam in the narrow, rhetorical, social sense – that is, repair or correction of the earth’s ills and the pursuit of social justice.

The Torah’s mission is not to penetrate or change the public domain, or in some way to assume the role of the prophet who rebukes the public at the city gates. Rather, says Rabbi Jonathan, the Torah is meant to create an alternative space to hide in from the outside world – an intimate, artificial place that is a new sort of “outside.” A place to which the Torah is delivered and in which it can survive.