Tuesday, July 07, 2009

How did one "join" to Baal Peor?

Here is a commentator who is very sure of himself -- Arnold Ehrlich, who returned to Judaism at the end of his life. And he gives very novel interpretations, though ultimately I do not think I agree with him.

Towards the end of Balak, in the incident at Shittim, he is supremely confident of his purportedly novel peshat in Vayitzamed Yisrael:
א וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל, בַּשִּׁטִּים; וַיָּחֶל הָעָם, לִזְנוֹת אֶל-בְּנוֹת מוֹאָב.1 And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab.
ב וַתִּקְרֶאןָ לָעָם, לְזִבְחֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶן; וַיֹּאכַל הָעָם, וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶן.2 And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods; and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods.
ג וַיִּצָּמֶד יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְבַעַל פְּעוֹר; וַיִּחַר-אַף יְהוָה, בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל.3 And Israel joined himself unto the Baal of Peor; and the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel.
Rashi says that the method of worshiping Baal Peor was to defacate to the idol. Thus:
ג) פעור
על שם שפוערין לפניו פי הטבעת ומוציאין רעי, וזו היא עבודתו:
and this is the standard understanding. What is meant by vayitzamed? Ibn Ezra writes:
[כה, ג]
ויצמד ישראל
מגזרת צמד בקר והטעם: הנשים והנה נצמדו עמם לדת פעור.
That is that it comes from a team of oxen, and the idea is that the Midianite women and the Israelite men joined with them to the religion of Peor.

In Mikra Kifshuto (right), Arnold Erlich takes both Jewish and gentile commentators to task, except for Ibn Ezra who almost had it but missed it. The Jewish commentators were misled by their beliefs about the form of worship, thinking that Peor was defacation. And the gentile commentators, who were exempt from going after midrashim, he does not understand how they missed his obviously correct peshat.

And that is that the worship of Peor is not peiur pi hatabaat like Rashi, but rather that the virgin daughters offered to Peor their virginity, by sleeping with a man for the sake of their deity, and thus both of them together worshiped Peor, the woman with her virginity and the man by opening her opening. And based on this, vayitzamed is from Tzemed Bakar {just like Ibn Ezra}, which means a pair. And the lamed of le-Baal Peor is towards or for the sake of Peor. And so vayitzamed Yisrael levaal Peor means that Israel joined with the virgins of Moav for the sake of Baal Peor.

Later on, in explaining what caused Pinchas to take action, he notes the tradition interpretation that it was because Zimri was Boel Aramis, and zealots may take action. As Rashi writes:
ז) וירא פינחס -
ראה מעשה ונזכר הלכה.
אמר לו למשה: מקובלני ממך הבועל ארמית קנאין פוגעין בו.
אמר לו: קריינא דאגרתא איהו ליהוי פרוונקא, מיד ויקח רומח בידו וגו':
Erlich dismisses this explanation by arguing that the ancient Israelites did not regard illicit relations as such a terrible action. He gives the example of David Hamelech who slept with Batsheva, a married woman, but was only criticized after having Uriah killed. And the pasuk in Pinchas says that it was "because he was zealous {perhaps: jealous} for his God", where the language does not work for illicit relations. But rather, as he wrote above, the intercourse was the form of worship of Peor, and thus the term jealousy on behalf of God does work.

While I find all this very creative, ultimately I don't think I entirely agree with it. Firstly, others have approached this interpretation before him, though did not entirely offer it, besides Ibn Ezra. If we look at excerpts from the commentary of Aharon ben Yosef the Karaite, towards the end of Balak, we find:
וַיָּחֶל הָעָם, לִזְנוֹת - a language of profanation, such as {and gives a Biblical parallel}... or the meaning is that they began by having illicit relations, and afterwards bowed down to idols, and joined {vayitzmedu} to Baal Peor, as is explained {in the first pasuk in the perek} "and they called to the nation... and Israel joined to Baal Peor." For one who has intercourse with an idolator is a son-in-law to idols. For it is stated {in Malachi 2:11}

יא בָּגְדָה יְהוּדָה, וְתוֹעֵבָה נֶעֶשְׂתָה בְיִשְׂרָאֵל וּבִירוּשָׁלִָם: כִּי חִלֵּל יְהוּדָה, קֹדֶשׁ יְהוָה אֲשֶׁר אָהֵב, וּבָעַל, בַּת-אֵל נֵכָר.11 Judah hath dealt treacherously, and an abomination is committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah hath profaned the holiness of the LORD which He loveth, and hath married the daughter of a strange god.
{Update: Aharon ben Karaite is basing himself on the gemara in Sanhedrin 82a, where it also discusses Zimri, though it was not obvious that this connection was being made.}

Later, on "and they cried", Aharon ben Yosef the Karaite "because he said that a man should kill his men who have nitzmedu and nitchabru with the daughters of Moav. This is a language of joining, and a reworking on his part of the actual pasuk which is:
ה וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-שֹׁפְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: הִרְגוּ אִישׁ אֲנָשָׁיו, הַנִּצְמָדִים לְבַעַל פְּעוֹר.5 And Moses said unto the judges of Israel: 'Slay ye every one his men that have joined themselves unto the Baal of Peor.'
Such that he understands nitzmadim to Baal Peor as nitzmadim and joined to the daughters of Maov. And a bit later, on et-sheneihem, in
ח וַיָּבֹא אַחַר אִישׁ-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל-הַקֻּבָּה, וַיִּדְקֹר אֶת-שְׁנֵיהֶם--אֵת אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֶת-הָאִשָּׁה אֶל-קֳבָתָהּ; וַתֵּעָצַר, הַמַּגֵּפָה, מֵעַל, בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.8 And he went after the man of Israel into the chamber, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel.
he suggests that they were nitzmadim in intercourse. So he can take nitzmad as referring to intercourse.

This is not going as far as saying that this was the method of worshiping Baal Peor, but much closer than Erlich gives credit to anyone for. And this is where the measure of success is matching his own commentary.

But anyway, to cast it more starkly, if we are to adopt Erlich's position, we are in effect saying that they were nitzmadim -- pairing together in intercourse, le-Vaal Peor -- as a worship of Baal Peor.

I am not sure we find any evidence of idolatrous defecation rituals in the Ancient Near East. What about intercourse? For a while, there was in vogue the position that kedeisha meant hierodule, a cult-priestess with whom one had intercourse as a means of worshiping the deity. But, to cite Wikipedia for what I've heard elsewhere,
Sacred prostitution is often held to have been widespread across the Ancient Near East,[1], but this has since been proven to have been more a construct of the 19th Century Western European mindset than a true representation of the facts [2]
If so, this would go quite far in undermining Erlich's entire thesis. I think a better parallel for this is either the pasuk in Malacha, as Aharon ben Yosef offered it, or else Devarim 7:
ג וְלֹא תִתְחַתֵּן, בָּם: בִּתְּךָ לֹא-תִתֵּן לִבְנוֹ, וּבִתּוֹ לֹא-תִקַּח לִבְנֶךָ.3 neither shalt thou make marriages with them: thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son.
ד כִּי-יָסִיר אֶת-בִּנְךָ מֵאַחֲרַי, וְעָבְדוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים; וְחָרָה אַף-ה' בָּכֶם, וְהִשְׁמִידְךָ מַהֵר.4 For he will turn away thy son from following Me, that they may serve other gods; so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and He will destroy thee quickly.
I would say that the Midiates, or Moabites, made use of kiruv basar as a means of kiruv. They started with the intercourse, and perhaps as an explicit or implicit condition, they followed up on these festivities (perhaps interspersed with it) by eating a feast dedicated to Baal Peor, and worshiping them. I don't entirely agree with Rashi's midrash {Sifrei} as peshat:
ב) וישתחוו לאלוהיהן -
כשתקף יצרו עליו ואומר לה הישמעי לי, והיא מוציאה לו דמות פעור מחיקה ואומרת לו השתחווה לזה:
Through all these actions, these Israelites became joined to Baal Peor. Just as we find in Devarim 7.

I don't agree with Erlich that illicit intercourse was not considered so bad, despite his "proof" from David and Batsheva. I think one can be zealous rather than jealous. And even if one is jealous, that does not mean that the act of intercourse itself was the worship. If so, why mention eating of the zivchei meisim and bowing down? Well, because it happened, but the point is that there are other aspects of worship involved.

Without taking this somewhat extreme position, we could well say that Moshe already said to slay anyone who joined to Baal Peor, and Zimri had done so, because it was well understood by this point that those who were having intercourse with Midianites or Moabites had signed up for the whole program -- and perhaps he had already worshiped, and was now taking her (again?) into his tent. He had decided that he was a follower of Baal Peor, and had joined up with this Midianite woman for this (eventual) purpose, and so Moshe's directive applied. This even if he did not yet have intercourse.

And Erlich is perhaps right in that the intercourse itself was not the major problem, but the idolatry.


frumheretic said...

See also here, where Jahn makes a similar claim:


E-Man said...

I don't understand two things: 1) David and Batsheva is not considered illicit relations according to the Gemorah, so this would not be a proof for laxity in that area fors omeone who knew anything about the incident. 2) Moshe clearly never told anyone to kill zimri, in fact pinchas was considered to have paskined the halacha himself, no? Therefore, it seems like pinchas killing zimri was for a different reason.

E-Man said...

I don't understand two things: 1) David and Batsheva is not considered illicit relations according to the Gemorah, so this would not be a proof for laxity in that area fors omeone who knew anything about the incident. 2) Moshe clearly never told anyone to kill zimri, in fact pinchas was considered to have paskined the halacha himself, no? Therefore, it seems like pinchas killing zimri was for a different reason.

joshwaxman said...


erlich is quick to dismiss midrashim as fanciful, and would doubtless do the same for the incident with david and batsheva. in terms of pinchas and zimri, while this is indeed rashi's reading, one could argue quite nicely that Pinchas was actually fulfilling Moshe's directive in pasuk 4 and 5.


yaak said...

I would say that the Midiates, or Moabites, made use of kiruv basar as a means of kiruv.


Anonymous said...

satan will take you as low as you let him -- to cult sex murder even


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