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No longer take comments. Post's 'labels' are unreliable for linking or searching. Use the INDEX OF POSTS instead. A fairly accurate, but incomplete INDEX of Posts & good overview and understanding of this blog READ SOME REASONS TO REJECT ORTHODOX JUDAISM my April 2014 post or click link above. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family (1950's) and went to Orthodox Yeshiva from kindergarten thru High School plus some Beis Medrash.Became an agnostic in my 20's and an atheist later on. My blog will discuss the arguments for god and Orthodox Judaism and will provide counter arguments. I no longer take comments. My blog uses academic sources, the Torah, Talmud and commentators to justify my assertions. The posts get updated. IF YOU GET A MESSAGE THAT THE POST IS MISSING - LOOK FOR IT IN THE INDEX or search or the date is found in the address.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Explanations of Pagan Customs in Judaism with some notes on Maimonides Part I

UPDATED THRU 11/20/2014 6/27/2018

Why Are Pagan Laws, Rituals and Customs in the Torah ?

Many Orthodox Jews respond: We do not know why the Torah has certain laws, rituals and customs. God has commanded them. ( I will be mainly concerned with laws, rituals and customs that have no obvious reason. Laws such as the prohibition against murder are not the concern of this post.)

Others, in the tradition exemplified by Maimonides (Rambam 12th century) in his Guide for the Perplexed ( my edition translated from the original arabic edition, revised throughout (Eighth Impression) second edition published 1904, reprinted in 1956), offers the following basic  explanations:

E1) Many Torah laws, rituals, customs are meant to reject Idolatry and Idolatrous ways of worship or to create a fence around them.

{ETA 7/10/2014 One motivation for the development E1 is explained in Origins of some Torah Laws and Chosen People Idea. Or perhaps it occurs because of religious, political, national  differentiation similar to numerous countries having there own religious brand or like the numerous different Christian, Islamic, and Jewish denominations today. Or perhaps the Ancient Israelites were by trial and error attempting to find the best way to worship Yahweh/EL. }

E2) The  Israelites had been steeped in Idolatry. The Torah allowed some pagan practices to continue  as an 'accommodation' to human weakness, but they are rededicated to the worship of Yahweh.

(Rambam also offers other reasons for certain specific and laws, rituals and customs - some will be discussed in future posts. ETA 3/19/2014 - see Part 2 and Part 3 and Circumcision and Rambam }

E1 - For some laws the Torah explicitly confirms E1. For example Deut 27:15 Cursed be the man that maketh a graven or molten image, an abomination unto the LORD, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and setteth it up in secret.

Notice that E1 and E2 combined are an almost unfalsifiable position. If a clearly pagan practice is in the Torah it becomes an ‘accommodation’. If it is prohibited it is because it was associated with Idolatry. Nevertheless, a very convincing case can be made against E2 for many of the Torah’s pagan  laws, rituals and customs.

 The posts 'Cut Off in  the Bible  and  'Statute Forever' in the Bible already began to address why E2 is an incorrect explanation for many Torah pagan laws, rituals and customs and strongly suggests the Torah’s many ancient near east (ANE)  laws,  rituals and customs had extreme importance and were not simply pagan ‘accommodations’. This post will mainly continue the discussion of why E2 is very often not the correct explanation. The sources and documentation for this post are at the end of the post or interspersed throughout.

{ETA 11/20/2014 Lets suppose Animal Sacrifice is rationalized because of  E2 or perhaps it serves communal purpose.  Neither of those reasons would apply to Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob... If so why were they engaged in such acts ? }

Rambam did not have access to modern knowledge and facts and based his opinions on what information was available to him. He was unaware of natural explanations of the origins of the species, modern cosmology and archaeology. He was unaware of newly discovered  ancient near east (ANE) parallels to Torah laws, festivals, expressions, conceptions and myths.

I would argue that the Torah was not making allowances for pagan practices because of peoples inability to withstand a major change in religion. Sometimes the Torah directly prohibits a particular pagan  practice regardless of how entrenched the pagan practice may have been. 

Some of the pagan rituals etc: may have been retained because they empowered Priests, for example requiring them to perform certain rituals. As example would be Levit 14:34-57 purging and making expiation after a plague. 

But many  pagan practices (modified or unmodified)  that persist in the Torah are there because the authors of the Torah believed they were a necessary way to achieve the favor of Yahweh or were good for their society. They shared certain beliefs and customs  with other ANE (ancient near east) cultures and incorporated them into the Torah. Cross pollination was also occurring. {ETA 3/24/2014 see for example this post Yom Kippur Origins }

The Torah  authors rejected or modified other pagan practices to  create differentiation from surrounding nations for political/national/religious reasons or because they hoped through trial and error they could discover the best way to worship Yahweh and obtain his favor.

Judaism today does not know the reason for many of it’s laws, rituals and customs. For example the prohibition for wearing a flax and wool garment. It is fairly certain there is no health issue concerns, nor any concern today regarding it’s potential Idolatrous associations as Rambam suggested (see item H below). If so, then what use is it for us today to abide by the commandment in modern times. The same is true for many other laws, rituals and customs. It is as if we are practicing meaningless laws and rituals. 

{ETA 3/23/2106 Side Note. Orthodox Jews consider the future resurrection of the dead and the world to come as important principles of Judaism. From the Book Understanding Judaism - Jacob Neusner Editor- 

Beginning Page 35 The [Rabbinic Jewish] belief in the world to come with it’s concomitant belief in bodily resurrection is an importation from Zoroastrian civilization. Both stem from non Jewish sources. }

{ETA 6/27/2018 A related discussion is found on page Page 299 How To Read the Bible James Kugel 2007 Why did the Lord inform one prophet that the Lord was essentially a divine humanoid , while to another prophet that the Lord is an abstract , distant deity who dwells in Heaven ? [I think these sort of contradictions support the notion no Lord was involved with the prophets.] Anyway the apologetic answer found on page 727 it was an accommodation to gradually wean the Israelites from polytheistic notions. Pauline of Christianity and Rambam used such an apologetic. The book then exposes the weakness of the above apologetic. A) What would be so hard for Israel to accept a new notion of a divinity ? B) How would 2-3 centuries of divinely given contradictory information improve the situation when the change over was finally made ?}

Some Torah and Pagan comparisons;  A critique of some of Rambam’s explanations; Related Issues

A) The Torah codifies pagan superstitions and discriminations for example as see Bitter Waters  and  Blemished Priests.

B) Citing Rambam page 356

“...I do not know the object of the table with the bread
upon it continually, and up to this day I have not been able to assign any reason to this commandment.”

Levit 24:5 And thou shalt take fine flour, and bake twelve cakes thereof: two tenth parts of an ephah shall be in one cake.
6 And thou shalt set them in two rows, six in a row, upon the pure table before the LORD.
7 And thou shalt put pure frankincense with each row, that it may be to the bread for a memorial-part, even an offering made by fire unto the LORD.

Sparks - Beginning on page 206 - perpetual presentation of 12 loaves of bread parallel Mesopotamian practice: a) 12 loaf offering to the deity during Akitu b) Presenting meals to gods in trays. 

Exodus 25:29 And thou shalt make the dishes thereof, and the pans thereof, and the jars thereof, and the bowls thereof, wherewith to pour out; of pure gold shalt thou make them.
30 And thou shalt set upon the table showbread before Me always.

JPS page 167 - ANE art work shows tables holding gifts of food before enthroned royalty and deities.

C) The Patriarchs, Moshe and Aaron -  engage in sacrifice and other pagan  rituals. For example Genesis 28:18 And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. 

But surely these individuals would not be Idolaters and would not need to slowly weaned from pagan practices. It is more likely they performed these ritual for their alleged efficacy or other ritualist reasons.

D)  Deut 13:1 All this word which I command you, that shall ye observe to do; thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.

This expression: “... reflects an ancient Near eastern  scribal formula that was often included in the epilogue of treaties, inscriptions, or law collections to protect them from being defaced, altered, or written over.” Page 394 JPS

E) Some pagan myths share  similarities to the Torah’s (Creation myths;  Noah flood story; the early story of Moses birth and saving - King Sargon  for example). 

See the book Old Testament Parallels for examples.

Religions of the Ancient Near East - Helmer Ringgron (Translated by J. Sturdy) 1973

Page 121 Regarding Assyrian and Babylonian religion:
" It is known that life or the BREATH of life is a gift of the gods, who also have the power to take it back." [My capitalization. Such a notion is found in Genesis 2:7 Then the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.]

F) Pagan expressions and theophany are adopted in the Torah  (see  Kuzari Part 2 for some examples).

G) Some beneficial agricultural customs of 'pagans'  rejected outright in the Torah.  

Citing Rambam page  337

"It is further mentioned in the Nabatean Agriculture that the ancient idolaters caused certain things named in that work to rot, waited till the sun stood in a certain degree [of the ecliptic], and then they performed many acts of witchcraft. They believed that that substance should be kept ready by every one, and when a fruit-tree is planted, a portion of that rotten substance should be scattered round the tree or under it ; the tree would then grow quicker and produce more fruit than is generally the case. They say
that this process is very extraordinary ; it acts like a talisman, and is more..."

Actually, this pagan practice will work, but not for any supernatural reasons. Rotting organic matter helps vegetative growth. It shows how a kernal of truth can exist beneath all the embellishments. The Torah could have taught the "rot" agricultural method perhaps with a with blessing to Yahweh.  It is more likely the authors of the Torah threw out the baby with the bath water so to speak. 

Again Rambam page 338

"In the Nabatean Agriculture it is further distinctly stated that it was the custom of the people in those days to sow barley and stones of grapes together, in the belief that the vineyard could only prosper in this way. Therefore the Law prohibits us to use seed that has grown in a vineyard, and commands us to burn both the barley and the produce of the vineyard. For the practices of the heathen, which they considered as of a magic and talismanic character, even if not containing any idolatrous element, are prohibited, ...."

Intercropping is a useful agricultural practice. The Torah was prohibiting a valid agricultural practice. The Torah actually could have taught the Israelites more about intercropping with a blessing  to Yahweh. It is more likely the authors of the Torah threw out the baby with the bath water so to speak. 

H) The Torah clearly sometimes makes no accommodating to human weakness for certain  pagan customs, while for others it allows them. For something apparently as trivial as wearing wool and flax garments - this becomes prohibited. Rambam suggests on Page 338 because it was associated with Idolatry. Yet, animal sacrifice is also associated with Idolatry, becomes  glorified in to Torah.  Couldn’t the Torah allow wearing flax and wool and rededicate it God ? 

I) Deuteronomy Chapter 28:1 And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe to do all His commandments which I command thee this day, that the LORD thy God will set thee on high above all the nations of the earth. 
7 The LORD will cause thine enemies that rise up against thee to be smitten before thee; they shall come out against thee one way, and shall flee before thee seven ways. 
11 And the LORD will make thee over-abundant for good, in the fruit of thy body, and in the fruit of thy cattle, and in the fruit of thy land, in the land which the LORD swore unto thy fathers to give thee. 
12 The LORD will open unto thee His good treasure the heaven to give the rain of thy land in its season, and to bless all the work of thy hand; and thou shalt lend unto many nations, but thou shalt not borrow.

Here we have promises of fertility, power, rain....when you obey Yahweh. Hardly different from the ancient pagans who hoped to achieve the same from their gods. 

From JPS page 427 - Regarding Deut 28:1-68 “The Mosaic covenant specifies a series of blessings and curses that follow upon national obedience or disobedience to the law. These are modeled after ancient Near Eastern state treaties, in which the consequences of breach of the treaty are spelled out at its conclusion; this chapter has several close parallels to the Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon (VTE), a Neo-Assyrian treaty dating 672 BCE.” JPS goes on to write the Code of Hammurabi also ends with exhortations to obedience, accompanied by blessings and curses. JPS also writes the passage most likely reflects the Babylonian conquest and exile of Judah (597 BCE and 586 BCE) here recast as a prophetic warning. Verses 47-57, and Verses 58-68 are trying to make sense of that catastrophe.

Also see this post Bible Predictor

This post is continued Explanations of Pagan Customs in Judaism with some notes on Maimonides  Part 2


Sources, Additional  Documentation and Information

Beginning Page 207 Ancient Texts For The Study of The Hebrew Bible - Kenton Sparks 2005)
Regarding Leviticus 11-15-

The dietary laws: Clean .vs. Unclean - very close to ancient near east views. The Clean species - animals of domestic flock and herds. The unclean - Dog, swine in Hittite.

Body fluids discharges - Normal biological or Illness creates ritual uncleanness in The near east. 

Hittite priests - if engage in sex it creates unclean and needs a ritual bath. Similar to Leviticus 15:16-18

Skin Infections, Fungus on things - like the ANE neighbors you consult a priest. Mesopotamia and Israelites - priest diagnoses based on fungal color and prescribe treatment and PERFORM elimination rites like in Levit 13:47-50, 14:33-57

Regarding Levit 17,21,22 "Hittite priestly instructions include many rules of this sort as well as similar warnings about DIVINE PUNISHMENT THAT WOULD RESULT IF  THE RULES ARE CONTRAVENED". [My capitals]

Regarding Levit 24:1-9 perpetual presentation of 12 loaves of bread. This  parallels to Mesopotamia practice a) 12 loaf offerings b) presenting meals to gods on trays

Religions of the Ancient Near East - Helmer Ringgron (TRANSLATED by J. Sturdy) 1973

Page 159 - "A number of Temples display a ground plan similar to the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem"

Page 121 REGARDING Assyrian and Babylonian religion:
" It is known that life or the BREATH of life is a gift of the gods, who also have the power to take it back." [My capitalization. Such a notion is found in Genesis ...]

Page 160 From the Ras Shamra texts of the Baal myths - To give authority he needs a house or place usually called Bait or Bet the usual word for Temple. "This shows clearly that The Temple was treated in The first place as the dwelling  of the god or his official residence". Like the jews, the Temple Atargatis held 2 sacrifices per day.

Page 166 From the Ras Shamra texts - Baal has Khnm priests like Kohnim Hebrew. Kohen in Phoenician and Punic inscriptions.


Religions of the Ancient Near East - Helmer Ringgron (Translated by J. Sturdy) 1973

Page 159 - "A number of Temples display a ground plan similar to the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem"

Page 121 Regarding Assyrian and Babylonian religion:
" It is known that life or the BREATH of life is a gift of the gods, who also have the power to take it back." [My capitalization. Such a notion is found in Genesis ...]


Frazer VI - The Golden Bough by  James Frazer Volume I abridged edition 1922, 1979 - fifteenth printing.) 

JPS  - Jewish Publication Society Jewish Study Bible 2004 Berlin and Brettler

Kugel - How to Read the Bible by James Kugel 2007

OTP - Old Testament Parallels  by Victor Mathews and Don Benjamin 

Sparks - Ancient Texts For The Study of The Hebrew Bible - Kenton Sparks 2005)

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