July, 1, 2006 in Israel
Jephthah\’s irksome pledge to offer up a sacrifice upon his successful return from battle against the Ammonites has been a constant source of difficulty for those who look to the heroic figures of the Bible as a model of ideal behavior. Jephthah vows: \”If you deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out of the door of my house to greet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the Lord\’s and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.\” (Verse 31) When his daughter steps out of the house to greet him upon his safe return, the reader is stunned by the gravity of the situation. It is obvious to all that Jephthah\’s dilemma is not just tragic. It contradicts our sense that the tradition outlaws human sacrifice.
What is the nature of this proscription? This episode plays an interesting role in a philosophical debate over one of Maimonides\’ Thirteen Principles of Faith. Maimonides\’ Ninth Principle states that the Law of Moses is immutable and unchanging. This means that no one claiming to be a prophet can contradict or abrogate any precepts of the Torah. Maimonides derives this principle in part from the verse \”Thou shall not add to or take away from it.\” (Deut. 13:1) and cites as his rationale that a thing which is harmonious and perfect cannot have anything added to it or taken from it, as the harmony would then be destroyed. (Guide to the Perplexed 3:34)
Rabbi Joseph Albo (15th century Spain) questioned the derivation and application of this principle and, in particular, he disputes the significance of the proof verse for this principle. He asserts that the Torah is immutable from the Divine vantage point but will appear to change from the human vantage point since God is like a doctor who will change his treatment in accord with the patient\’s health. He further claims that this verse was not intended to teach the Torah\’s immutability but rather to teach that human beings are not entitled to add to or diminish the laws of the Torah of their own volition nor are they allowed to learn from the ways of idolatrous traditions in order to enhance or detract from any of the commandments. He learns this from the context of the verse quoted by Maimonides: \”You shall not act thus toward the Lord your God, for they perform for their god every abhorrent act that the Lord detests; they even offer up their sons and daughters in fire to their god. Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you; neither add to it nor take away from it.\” (Deut. 12:31-13:1) From this verse, then, Albo derives that one should not be lured to adopt foreign practices to the worship of God because God abhors these practices.
Consequently, according to Albo, Jephthah sinned grievously when he attempted to adopt the idolatrous practice of child sacrifice to his worship of God because this practice was offensive to God and had never been commanded in the Torah. [Remember that God did not intend for the sacrifice of Isaac to be carried out.] (Sefer HaIkkarim 3:14) From Albo\’s vantage point, even heroic figures, like Jephthah, can fall prey to the temptation and allure to allow foreign practice to influence how they practice their religious life. He asks us to question very carefully if such practices are really God\’s will.
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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