July 3, 2004
Micah’s message ends with a verse which has been described as one of the most sublime statements of biblical religion: “He [God] has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness and to walk modestly (hatznea lechet) with your God.” (Micah 6:8) Contextually, this verse was intended as a rebuke to those who were meticulous in their observance of the trappings of religious ritual without concurrent concern for their own inner religiosity and moral characters. Religiosity, according to Micah, required, above all, the pursuit of justice, acts of kindness and humility before God.
While the first two qualities were more or less understood to refer to a person’s conduct with other people, the third element – “hatznea lechet” was a matter of debate among commentators. Targum Jonathan, the 7th century Aramaic translation of the prophetic books, translates this phrase: “walk humbly in fear of God.” This seems to suggest that a person should conduct him/herself with a cognizance that all actions are taken in the presence of God. Rashi offers a second interpretation. He asserts that “hatznea lechet” means to imitate God’s humility in one’s dealings with others, particularly in one’s willingness to forgive others. It is clear that both of these commentators see “hatznea lechet” with reference to the way a person conducts him/herself toward others.
In contrast, Rabbi Yitchak Abrabenel (15th century Spain) identifies “*hatznea lechet” with inner private religiosity. He asserts that a person’s faith in God must be pure, simple and without question.
Rabbi Yehudah Halevi (11th century Spain), in his famous philosophical dialogue, The Kuzari, has the king of the Khazars offer up an entirely different interpretation of “hatznea lechet”. The king uses this verse from Micah as a justification for asserting that Jews should be ascetic (monastic modesty) in their religious lives and in their relationship with God. Halevi ultimately rejects the king’s interpretation and returns to the original intention of this verse mentioned above. He asserts that this verse makes no claim to represent Judaism’s “ideal” message. Instead, it establishes the rational basis upon which all societies are founded (a natural law of sorts) and without which they could not survive. These are a necessary prelude to prepare the world for the receipt of the Torah. Only when the people become overly focused on the ritual commandments to the detriment of the rational commandments necessary for a just and moral society did God reemphasize the importance of these commandments. However, Micah’s statement should never be mistaken for the be all and end all of the Jewish tradition. (See Judah Halevi, Kuzari 2:47-8)
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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