Friday, September 24, 2004

The Danger of Overemphasizing Parallel Surface Structure

A common thing Biblical academic scholars do is find parallel practices to those described in Tanach in the surrounding culture - that of the Ancient Near East. (Academic Talmudic scholars may do the same for the surrounding cultures of the rabbis of the Talmud.) Often this can provide illumination into the significance of rituals or items, and when a parallel is reinforced by something in the text or tradition, it has a likelihood of being true.

I think, though, there is a danger of being misled by archaeological evidence of the social context. That danger is being faced with a square peg and a round hole, and blunting the edges of the peg to force a matching. Sometimes it is obvious that one is doing it, but with enough ornate language and philosophizing, one can present a compelling yet ultimately false correlation.

To borrow a metaphor from the field of linguistics: Sometimes two words can have an identical surface manifestation, but may have entirely different derivations such that they are not related whatsoever. Consider the two words: boxes and boxes. The first refers to a noun - to a collection of wooden containers. The second is a verb: "He boxes in the boxing ring."

The first meaning of the word box comes from Late Latin buxis, from Greek pyxis, from pyxos "box tree," of uncertain origin. The second meaning, namely "a blow," perhaps come from Middle Dutch boke. See this etymological dictionary for more information.

That gives us the form box. But take this further. Boxes as the collection of wooden containers arrives in that form by taking the noun box, and adding the plural marker to it. Since the singular ends in an x, we add an es to the end instead of simply an s. Boxes as the verb adds the es to denote the present tense third person singular.

Thus, even though the two words boxes and boxes have the same surface form, the differ in their entirety when we examine their deep structure and etymology.

The same may well be true when examining cultural phenomena as well. Consider an historian/sociologist examining 21st century cultures. He might see parallels amongst various groups, and draw a connection. Judges wear robes as a mark of their honor. So do chassidic rebbes, so it too must be a mark of honor. So do housewives. So do people when they get out of the shower. Are all these instances a mark of honor. Or does the judge wear the robe because he often showers?

Judges and others wore powdered wig as a sign of honor. Orthodox women wear sheitels. A bad historian might, due to the fog created by a thousand years, conclude that the Jewish practice is based on that of the surrounding culture.

People concerned with lead and other impurities filter their water. Right now, many Jews are filtering their water for fear of copepods. There is a practice of some to filter the water for pesach for fear of consuming chametz in the water. These practices have entirely different motivating factors, but someone could come up with an explanations that the Jews, instructed to watch carefully over their health, shared the concern of those who feared lead and therefore mandated as halacha the filtering of water. When you do not have the facts, you can make up all sorts of rationalizations which sound good, especially if you speak academic.

Recently I had a post showing how just as Jews have tevilat kelim, immersing of vessels before use to remove some sort of ritual impurity, the Hindus have a tevilat eilim, where they immerse their idols in the water. I am sure some academician could come up with some link, but such a link would be false.

I am sorry to belabor the point, but I stress this with cause. What is obvious to us, as firsthand observers of events, is not obvious when viewed from afar.

Two examples. Tonight someone told me an interesting dvar torah about the institution of tzitzit. The purpose of tzitzit, perhaps, is to see them remember God's commandments and avoid sin (though perhaps I could argue that this is a side effect rather that the root cause of the commandment.) However, Milgrom has demonstrated that in the Ancient Near East, prominent people wore fringes on their garments. There is a lot of evidence to back this up. Techeilet is also a mark of nobility. Therefore, to cite Milgrom, ""Weaving a ...[blue] thread into the tsitsit enhances its symbolism as a mark of nobility. Further, since all Jews are required to wear it, it is a sign that Jews are a people of nobility. Their sovereign, however, is not mortal: Jews are princes of God." (see here)

The one who related this to me added the following insightful comment. Only the high priest (kohen gadol) was allowed to wear shaatnez in his priestly garments, yet here, every Jew was commanded to put techeilet, made of wool, on his linen garment (if the garment were made of linen). Thus each person is priestlike, reinforcing the idea that the Israelite nation is a mamlechet kohanim vegoy kadosh, "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."

Thus the practice of putting on tzitzit is a democratic statement, that all the people are holy. We can link it to recalling the commandments in that it reminds the Israelite of his higher calling, of his priestly and noble stature, which requires a specific code of behavior. (see here for another formulation of this, in the review)

It all sounds very good. However, there is nothing in the Biblical command to suggest this explanation. This is all a rationalization; an attempt to fit the square peg of tzitzit as a reminder into the round hole of Ancient Near Eastern nobility wearing fringes.

Even the surface manifestations do not match. Did the Ancient Near Easterners wear one blue string in their fringes? No. they just wore fringes. The blue is taken by Milgrom from elsewhere to symbolize nobility.

Also, there are other possible explanations from fringes. In Mari, in the Ancient Near East, the prophet would enclose his hem and a lock of his hair with his report. The hem was also used as a signature, pressed into a clay tablet, and sometimes (according to Speiser) the fringe could serve duty in place of the hem. (see same link as above)

I might then offer the rationalization/fit that the fringe each Israelite wears represents the signature of the prophet, Moshe, on his prophecy, that is the entirety of Torah, and thus will serve to remind the average Israelite about all of the commandments. {OK, not the best explanation I could come up with, but it is possible, and corresponds to a different meaning the fringe had in Ancient Near Eastern culture.}

So which one is it? When you realize that there are other meanings to the fringe, Milgrom's explanation loses some of its force. And, need it be any of the above explanations? Think about it. Fringes became a style in the Ancient Near East for various personalities. Now there was a concept that someone could have a fringe on his garment. Different cultures might attach entirely different significance to this feature, just as the Jew and the Hindu immerses items in water, for entirely different causes.

A similar situation arises in terms of the piercing of the Israelite perpetual slave's ear. He says "I love my master" and his ear is pierce; he serves until the Jubilee year. Ancient Near Eastern law has similar laws in terms of slaves and ears. Maidservants get their ear mangled for not behaving as befit their place. A slave who denies his master has his ear cut off. So one can argue it is a punishment.

Or, as I suggested, and I found out later some Biblical scholars: the law seems the reverse. In ANE law the servant who denies his master is punished in his ear, while in Jewish law he loves his master and is punished similarly. Chazal don't ask this question (at least not explicitly) but say the reason is that the ear which heard "ki li benei yisrael avadim." "For to Me are the Children of Israel slaves." They are slaves to Me (God) and not slaves to slaves. Thus, I would suggest, by saying he love their human master, the perpetual Hebrew slave denies the Mastery of his true Master, God.

Perhaps. It certainly sounds nice. But that does not mean it is necessarily true.

Other features of slaves in Ancient Near Eastern law is that the master might carve a sign into the slave's foot so that if he ran away he could be tracked. Other slaves had marks of their status via a special hairdo. Perhaps the piercing of the ear served a similar function. This would go along with Ibn Ezra's suggestion that the piercing was a slave-mark, and not a punishment.

However, just because we find near or even exact parallels does not mean that their is any actual correspondence. It may very well be that the reason is as Chazal say in its simplest form - that it is a punishment to the ear which heard "For to Me are the Children of Israel slaves." The ear heard and disregarded so it is punished. (Perhaps this will serve as a reminder to him that he has disregarded this directive.)

Update: To elaborate a bit more on why I object to the explanation of tzitzit given above. If you browse through parshablog, you will see that not infrequently I suggest explanations based on Ancient Near Eastern parallels. So it is not the idea of parallels in its entirety that I find fault with. Rather, I think you have to be careful when making such parallels, and not just jump at any parallel and assume that it must be correct because one can make a parallel. In this instance, I think the parallel is superficial and a bit forced.

  1. It is too general for my tastes. There is a difference between saying "look! Ancient Near Eastern law also has a maiming/amputation law on the books for a woman who crushes a man's testicles!" as per an earlier post of mine, and saying "look! the Torah commands fringes and fringes were worn by prominent members of society in the ANE!"
  2. In line with the above, perhaps this was a style of garment and only the rich and prominent could keep up with the styles. If it is a Biblical commandment, then the common populace has reason to keep it.
  3. It is also too general (and conceptual) of an explanation. "It is a sign of prominence and princeliness." This matches the wig example above.
  4. It does not match in all of the details. They did not wear fringes with specifically a blue thread. He takes the meaning of techeilet from elsewhere and tacks it on.
  5. The explanation of prominence does not jive with the reason for the commandment given explicitly in the verse. We are told the reason is that the wearer will see it and remember to fulfill all the commandments. What does this have to do with it being a princely style of dress? And, while one can may a connection, that connection will be somewhat forced, and the explanation in the verse will no longer be read in its most straightforward manner.
  6. Worse, it does not even have a parallel in the Israelite practice. I would have an easier time accepting it had it been that only the prominent people in Israelite society wore this. Say, the head of each bet av, or the prophets, or the priests, or even the Levites. Then, it makes sense to say that here too this is a sign of prominence or princeliness.
    Instead, this is a command on everyone. So what do we have here? A match of the prominent people of the ANE in dress, to... even the common Israelite! This is no match at all! So Milgrom rescues it with a rationalization of the nation in general being a nation of priests and a holy nation... everyone is a prince of God.
    It just does not pass the smell test. If he had a sharp parallel, one might offer some a rationalization to rescue it, but here he has a parallel that does not match in all the details, is generic ("prominence") in nature, contradicts the reason explicitly given in the verse, and does not match the same situation in Israelite society. It is farfetched.
  7. There seems to be at least one other function for the fringe in ANE society - as signature for a prophecy. This is not explicitly related to princeliness. Who knows what other functions it had.

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