Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Yiftach was necessary

This week's parsha is Chukas, and in the haftara (Shofetim 11) we read about Yiftach.

The sense one gets of Yiftach is that he was not the most refined or educated of individuals. Of ignoble birth, he left home and gathered a band of idle men.

Yet sometimes a situation calls not for the refined, and educated, but for the coarse and uneducated. Think to the present day, with abuse that was covered up or mismanaged by the Jewish leadership. It took a few Yiftachs to lead the charge and change Jewish society for the better.

Yiftach was tapped in order to deal with the immediate threat, but they appointed him as chief on a more permanent basis. And as a Shofet, which means governor or war leader, rather than necessarily a legal / "halachic" judge, he was a good pick.

The rest of the story is ambiguous. I am not sure if we are supposed to respect Yiftach's commitment to his vow, at the expense of his daughter. (Don't retroject our values onto the Biblical text!) Or what we are to think of the slaughtering of Ephraimites, who it does seem unjustifiably picked a fight with Gilead in the aftermath of the successful fight. Chazal did not think too highly of his halachic erudition, and criticized both Yiftach (lay leadership) and Pinchas (halachic leadership) for not seeking each other out and resolving the issue of Yiftach's daughter.

Even if a Yiftach is necessary for a given issue, we might be wary of ceding greater control to uneducated and unrefined individuals, and turning away from our previous leadership.


Princess Lea said...
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Princess Lea said...

I heard from Rabbi Wein that all the shoftim, in essence, were "flawed" individuals. Like, don't get me started on Shimshon.

If they weren't spiritually flawed, they were physically flawed, like Ehud ben Geira. Back then, physical deformity was MAJOR, a reflection on the quality of the person.

All of the shoftim, really, were quickly elected as the situation called for it. They were dealing with violence, so educated diplomacy wasn't an option. Even Yael, a woman in a tent, calmly executed Sisra.

This was the time, when the land was still unsettled, that we had such leaders of bloody action, like the Wild West. Dovid bridged that gap by being a skilled warrior and a soulful poet; then Shlomo wined and dined the greater world, the smartest man of all.

So to when Israel was first re-established. The age of Moshiach will be one of chutzpah; only those with fire and grit will be able to accomplish.

For everything, there is a time.

Gavriel M said...

I think it's pretty clear that the story is told in such a way to impart the foolishness of making rash vows. I don't think that's imposing our values on the biblical text. The biblical text teaches that on numerous occasions. It's a lesson that we have learned so well (perhaps overlearned) that we need reminding sometimes how important it once was.

Do you mean that since he made the vow, are we supposed to think he was correct to keep it? Why would you think that? What if he had made a vow to worship Ba'al do you think the biblical text would think that it was correct to keep such a vow?

joshwaxman said...

Perhaps because the vow is binding as an obligation to God, such that worshiping Baal would be an obvious betrayal. Meanwhile (ignoring that pesky lo tirtzach or interpreting it as locking her away) a child and especially a daughter is considered chattel and the removal of the personal because of such an obligation would be considered unfortunate but still an expression of the obligation.

I agree that the foolishness of hastiness in making vows jumps out of the text itself (or at least, can jump out). But if the follow-through was not obligatory but for the fact that Yiftach was a moron, then the message of hastiness and the tragedy of it all are not expressed nearly so well.

Gavriel M said...

I think you are correct that part of the tragic arc of the story is that once Yiftah had made the vow he had no choice but to keep it.

However, I don't think it is correct to say that therefore the biblical text endorses his actions. The author of Shoftim is separated from the events he describes by the Shaulian-Dawidhic (and probably) Shlomoaic religious reforms that transformed, not only the political nature of the Hebrew polity, but its basic religious and societal norms. I think its perfectly consistent to say that in the heroic, wild and staggeringly violent age of the judges, that Yiftah had no choice but to keep to his word, but in the temple period institutions existed that could have annulled his vow in pusuit of higher moral objectives and, anyway, he would have been much less likely to make the vow in the first place. And I don't think it is necessary to therefore say Yiftah was an moron. The biblical authors were, I think, on the whole less prone to moralising and more prone to story-telling than we are. They also had more of a sense of historical processes than the midrashic tradition.

Alternatively Gabriel Josipivic ("The Book of G-d") has a reading where Yiftah actually is an idiot and most of the characters from Judges are basically hapless and the whole thing is an obscene prelude to Dawidh getting matters back on track.


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