Saturday, May 21, 2005

BBS X-com redux

The other day we took a look at the cherem, or excommunication, delivered by the leaders of the Jewish community in Amsterdam against Spinoza in 1656, one which was apparently much more severe than usual, and included some remarkable passages, some of which sounded familiar. Well, as I should have guessed (duh), a bit of it comes from the Torah, Deuteronomy in particular. Now Nadler (the author of the Spinoza bio) refers to "the famous phrases from Deuteronomy 4:7" -- but the Hebrew version (I did not know this) must be fairly different from my handy NRSV, as that 4:7 has nothing like that. I eventually found a similar passage in chapter 28.

Deuteronomy chapter 28 has 68 verses. The first 13 say how blessed the Israelites will be if (and only if) they diligently observe the commandments the preceding chapters have spelled out. As everyone knows, these commandments vary in tone and content from things they were probably already doing (23:13) to common courtesy (24:21), to particular one-shot tasks (27:2-8), to everyday rules of conduct, which themselves range from time-honored conventional morality (25:15) to the oddly specific, by today's standards at least (25:11-12; did this issue really come up that often?), or things which, for various reasons, virtually no-one suggests we should do today (take your pick). Anyway, if the Israelites are faithful to the covenant, Moses tells them, they will be blessed (28:6): "Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out."

The remaining fifty-plus verses of chapter 28 (you can see where this is going) deals with what will happen should the Israelites fail to obey. The only overlap with Spinoza's cherem that I can see is the inverse of verse 6: "Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out" (28:19). My point in the earlier post was that Spinoza's cherem was particularly vitriolic, for reasons not entirely clear; but when we look at the source for the "cursed be he under conditions C1, and cursed be he under complementary conditions C2" language therein, we find not only that but a whole lot more that they might have put in but didn't. So in some ways he got off easy.

As before, I intend no disrespect here. Moses had good reason to emphasize the importance of obedience, and to look at an ancient text with contemporary eyes is not to mock it. When we do so look at it, we see what we saw in the cherem, only more so. Some of the unpleasantness ensuing on disobedience is as you would expect:
27: The LORD will afflict you with the boils of Egypt, with ulcers, scurvy, and itch, of which you cannot be healed.

Some of it is unpleasantness of a different sort:
30: You shall become engaged to a woman, but another man will lie with her.

Ouch. But that's not all.
49: The LORD will bring a nation from far away, from the end of the earth, to swoop down on you like an eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand, a grim-faced nation showing no respect to the old or favor to the young.

That nation will besiege the Israelites, and ultimately they will be scattered among all peoples, which of course will be no fun either.
67: In the morning you shall say, "If only it were evening!" and in the evening you shall say, "If only it were morning!"—because of the dread that your heart shall feel and the sights that your eyes shall see.

But the most remarkable part is the description of the siege:
53: In the desperate straits to which the enemy siege reduces you, you will eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your own sons and daughters whom the LORD your God has given you. (54) Even the most refined and gentle of men among you will begrudge food to his own brother, to the wife whom he embraces, and to the last of his remaining children, (55) giving to none of them any of the flesh of his children whom he is eating, because nothing else remains to him, in the desperate straits to which the enemy siege will reduce you in all your towns. (56) She who is the most refined and gentle among you, so gentle and refined that she does not venture to set the sole of her foot on the ground, will begrudge food to the husband whom she embraces, to her own son, and to her own daughter, (57) begrudging even the afterbirth that comes out from between her thighs, and the children that she bears, because she is eating them in secret for lack of anything else, in the desperate straits to which the enemy siege will reduce you in your towns.

Wow. In some places in (what some of us call) the Old Testament, the characteristic rhetorical repetition is just tedious, but here it's very powerful. I can just imagine Moses delivering this address; that must have been something to see. As for Spinoza, Nadler thinks he wasn't even there to hear his.

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