Regularly Scheduled Programming: Holiness, Idolatry, and Korbanot

I want to return back to our regularly scheduled programming, which is, expounding a system of Jewish philosophy based on our metaphor of a relationship between two lovers. I think we can use such an analogy to come up with a theory of holiness, and then, using that as a foundation, come up with a theory of the attitude towards idolatry in Judaism, including an explanation of that famous Rambam on korbanot.

So, let us begin by taking your average romantic relationship between two lovers. Their relationship is a loving and romantic one. But do they spend their time engaged in primarily romantic pursuits? Is every day completely subsumed by their stretching out luxuriously in bed, whispering sweet nothings in each other’s ears, feeding strawberries to each other? No, because that’s not real life, and they have to go to their jobs and earn enough money to pay for those strawberries, and the bed, etc. etc. So their life is not spent continually in what we would call intrinsically romantic endeavors. But, they love each other, and that fact underlies their entire relationship, and more importantly, the way they view the world. Because of the fact they love each other, certain times are imbued with a romantic feeling, even though there is nothing necessarily intrinsically special about that time otherwise. For instance, a couple’s anniversary has no romantic significance to anyone else except for that couple, but to that couple, the fact that it is a date significant to their relationship imbues that date with romantic significance. Certain objects also become imbued with romantic significance. An engagement ring has no intrinsic romantic significance unless it is used as part of the romantic relationship between a couple; once it is so used, it becomes a romantic object. This extends to even the most seemingly insignificant of things; movies, songs, jokes, random one-liners, anything can attain romantic significance if it becomes part of a romantic relationship. And it is that ability to imbue romantic significance to anything which strengthens the relationship, that allows the two lovers to construct a reality around each other.

So, that’s how I understand holiness. We are not actively engaged in dialogue or union with God at all times, but our love for him and our relationship with him transforms the way we construct our reality even when we are not. It alters our perception of time as we commemorate times of the year that were significant in our relationship. We imbue certain objects, certain books, certain places, certain people with significance because of the role they have played in our relationship. The quality we bestow on these things, the recognition of something as imbued with significance by virtue of the role they have played in our relationship with God, is what we call holiness.


But there is a dark side to this quality. For before we entered into our relationship with God, we served idols. We loved others before we met him, were seduced by their specific charms. We knew these charms were illusory, that nothing compares to the one true God, that we have committed to a loving relationship with him, and we do not desire to return to our previous, obviously inferior loves. But yet, polytheism still had a power over us. Polytheism does not demand commitment to any one god, it does not demand that one act in accordance with one true moral law and obedience to the source of all goodness. It merely demands sacrifice and ritual to the numerous powers that control man’s destiny, who have little regard or fondness for humanity, and after that is offered, man is free to pursue his own pleasure and/or destruction. Whereas monotheism is a loving monogamous relationship between equals, polytheism is a series of one night stands with people who want nothing but to use someone for their own pleasure, and are willing to be used themselves to get it. Which is to say the former is obviously preferable, but the latter has its appeals. And with this comes its own set of imbued significance, memories of hedonism and license, the food we ate for free in Egypt, free of commitment, free of responsibility, free of difficulty. And there are times and things which recall those times, festivals and objects and places, all of which recall that sweet hedonism of despair, a sort of inverse of the idea of holiness we spoke of previously.

The Torah thus demands to rid the Jewish people of any such thing that carries such associations, like someone who was dumped trying to delete their former lover’s name and memory from their life. Break their idols, smash their mounds, burn their temples. Even things that may have been okay, even praiseworthy beforehand, like the mounds (matzevah) erected by the Avos, must now be destroyed, for they are now tainted with other, pernicious associations. Everything associated with these former dalliances must either be forcibly removed from consciousness, or else be forcefully distanced from.

But yet, not everything gets destroyed. (And here’s where the analogy kind of breaks down a little, but bear with me) The same power of a loving relationship to imbue anything with romantic significance can be of use here. It can take something which previously had associations dangerous to this relationship, and turn it into something positive. Such a process can even be helped by the already present emotional urgency in such negative associations, diverting such turbulent emotional waters towards a new, more positive goal. This is basically the Rambam on korbanot, who says in the Moreh Nevuchim that they were instituted to wean the Israelites off of idolatry. In other words, according to our thesis, the Israelites had a practice, korbanot, which to them, was strongly emotionally associated with the drive to paganism. By instituting korbanot, the Torah seeks to turn the practice, motivated by an emotional need to sacrifice an animal in a bloodthirsty frenzy to a bloodthirsty God who demands sacrifice, and incorporate it into a monotheistic worldview, keeping and incorporating the emotional drive but ultimately doing away with its conceptual foundations, so it receives a new understanding in light of this new, healthy, relationship.

The real thing I’m adding to the Rambam here is that I’m assuming that once incorporated, it receives a new interpretation. In this way, the questions asked on the Rambam, how a mitzvah could be contingent upon the existence of idolatry, can be dismissed. The initial reason is not the final reason, what matters more is how its incorporated into the framework of the existing relationship. This makes sense with the fact that the Rambam himself says in the Mishneh Torah not only that the korbanot will return when the beis hamikdash does, but that they are a mitzvah whose meaning is beyond human comprehension. He’s not saying he doesn’t know the reason they were instituted, because he does. He’s saying he does not know yet what significance they have within a religious system that no longer sees idolatry as a threat. But yet, they remain within the system, their meaning to be figured out in the messianic era when they will be reinstituted.



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