Cut Ourselves: Re’eh and an Argument for Competition

The continuity conversation seems to occupy most of the communal conversations. Be it the Jewish communal servant or the volunteer, we often sound like conspiracy theorists looking for the magic bullet that will save our community. In fact there is not ever going to be one solution. If we hope to make it into the 22nd Century a nation we will need a wide array of different approached to ensure our collective vitality.

I was thinking about this where reading Re’eh, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

You are the children of the Lord your God: you shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead. For you are a holy people unto the Lord your God, and the Lord have chosen you to be God’s own treasure out of all peoples that are upon the face of the earth (Deuteronomy 14:1-2)

The plain meaning of this prohibition is tattooing our bodies because this represents our holiness to God. On this Rashi comments:

You shall neither cut yourselves: Do not make cuts and incisions in your flesh [to mourn] for the dead, in the manner that the Amorites do, because you are the children of the Omnipresent and it is appropriate for you to be handsome and not to be cut or have your hair torn out. ( Rashi on Deuteronomy 14:1)

Rashi emphasizes the issue of imitating our neighbors with these tattoos. In the Talmud we see a completely different read on these prohibition. There we learn:

Reish Lakish said to Rabbi Yochanan: Read the verse “you shall not cut yourselves”, which means do not form separate groups. (Yebamot 13b)

It is not about cutting our corporeal bodies, but rather dividing our national corporation. What is the fear of cutting the people of Israel into different groups?

In our era we have seen a wonderful proliferation of different expressions of Jewish life. While this might give cause for a sense of hope, still others like Reish Lakish  fear that we are losing a sense of a common Jewish life. While I too have that fear, I know collectively we will be better off continuing to differentiate creating many niche forms of Jewish life. While this will put certain stress on our resources it will foster a healthy competition for the nature of Jewish life. This regression to Reish Lakish’s point of view makes Judaism stale and not relevant (see suburban big top synagogue) and gives rise to the corruption and being ineffective (see the Rabanut in Israel). In our era it might be that cutting in different competing units itself is what makes us as a collective so holy.

 

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