December 20, 2008
23 Kislev 5769
Amos is the first of the classical prophets. His introductory prophecies are aimed at the wrongdoings of all of the nations that surrounded his own homeland, the northern kingdom of Israel. When he confronts Israel\’s neighbors with their sins, he concentrates on their immoral military and political behavior, particularly as they relate to Israel and Judah. When he confronts the nation of Judah, he chastises it for its disloyalty to God and the Torah. When, however, he confronts his own nation, he devotes himself, not to their religious disloyalty; rather, he takes on their moral misbehavior, their treatment of the poor and downtrodden. He confronts them with example after example, seven in all, which, on the face of things seem like transgressions which could actually be construed as totally within the framework of the law. In other words, Amos seems to be saying that it is possible to be despicable, totally within the context of being a law abiding citizen. Nachmanides calls such an individual a \”naval b\’rishut haTorah\” which we might translate creatively as an \”observant fiend\”. (See Ramban to Leviticus. 19:2)
Amos seems to have had such individuals in mind in his fifth example: \”Father and son go to the same girl and thereby profane My holy name.\” (2:7) This verse is not talking about ritual prostitution, nor is it dealing with relationships prohibited by the Torah (arayot). Instead, its subject matter is morally reprehensible behavior rather than prohibited behavior. It points up behavior which is licentious and lacking shame but not forbidden. (See S. Paul, Amos, Mikra L\’Yisrael, pp. 49-50)
The second clause of this sentence is also significant. This behavior was not carried out in order to rebel against God; that was not its purpose since; after all, such behavior could be carried out in a totally legally legitimate way. Still, the judgment of the prophet is quite clear. Such behavior clearly causes the \”profanation of God\’s name\”. (Ibid.)
In other words, the law is not the last word, when it comes to God\’s expectations of us. Law can establish a minimal standard of expectations. It cannot mandate ideal behavior. One can follow the law to the letter and still embarrass God. In some cases, especially if a person lends the impression that he or she observes the law, falling short of a higher standard can be particularly embarrassing to God. We must aspire to be not just law abiding but rather \”holy\” as well. This attitude should inform the way we act. It is not enough just to be \”kosher – acceptable\”, one must be \”kadosh – holy\” as well.
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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