Haftarah Parshat Vayetze
November 9, 2013
6 Kislev 5774
Hosea adamantly denounces the northern kingdom Israel’s idolatry. In their new found power, they have become attracted to the variety of deities worshiped by their neighbors. Their cosmopolitanism has made them syncretistic – a little bit of this religion and a little bit of that. One verse sees them worshiping Baal (13:1) and in the very next verse, their disloyalty to God has them entranced by other divinities: “And now they go on sinning; they have made them molten images, idols by their skill from their silver, wholly the work of craftsmen. Yet for these they appoint men to sacrifice; they are wont to kiss calves (hem omrim zovhei adam agalim yeeshakun!” (13:2)
The last part of this verse is particularly intriguing. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th century Spain), a sage known for his “pshat” or plain meaning of the text understands this verse to mean: “People sacrifice (to idolatry) and kiss the calf (a source of worship like the golden calf).” Similarly, we find in Targum Yonathan, the Aramaic translation of the Prophets: “the false prophets say to them: sacrifice to the works of man and kiss the calves of bulls.” Others read this verse as a description of the idolatrous call to sacrifice children to idolatry, as one notes in the second interpretation of Rabbi David Kimche: “The idolatrous priests say: whoever sacrifices their children should also kiss the calf.”
The Talmud offers a frighteningly surreal version of this idea as an expose on the potential for the obscene corruption of religion: “What is meant by: ‘Let the men that sacrifice kiss the calves’? Rabbi Isaac, of the school of Rabbi Ammi said: Whenever the idols\’ priests became envious of any wealthy men, they starved the calves [which were worshipped], made images of these men, and placed them at the side of the [calves’] cribs. Then they loosed the calves, who upon recognizing these men [from the images set before them] ran after them and pawed them. Thereupon the priests said, \’The idol desires you; come and sacrifice yourself to them. Raba said, If so, the verse should not be: ‘They sacrifice men and kiss the calves,’ but, \’The calves kiss them [i.e., paw, and fawn upon them] that they should sacrifice themselves\’. But Rava explained it thus: If one sacrificed his son to the idol, the priest said to him: You have offered a most precious gift to it; come and kiss it. (Sanhedrin 63b)
The second opinion in this excerpt from the Talmud or one like it obviously served as a source for the midrashic interpretation of Rabbi David Kimche. Rabbi Isaac’s interpretation is much more interesting. It provides us with a religious “caveat emptor – buyer beware” warning concerning what might or should be considered idolatrous. People should beware of buying into religions or ideologies for which the purveyor is using the religion for self-serving purposes. Religions should be ennobling for their followers and not be a means for duplicitous behavior. Rabbi Isaac wants us know that like all things in life, even in religion, one must keep one’s eyes open.
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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