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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The value of a human being / Sotah 46a

I have a close friend who does not have children, and who is offended by the rabbinic claim that God commanded procreation. The Rabbis based their claim on Genesis 1:28, God blessed [humanity] and God said to them, “P’ru u’r’vu / Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.” I have come to believe that the Rabbis’ decision to read this verse as a prescription, rather than descriptive, is mistaken and deeply problematic. Chapter 1 of Genesis is riddled with phrases that are grammatically similar but pertain to land and ocean, plants and animals, none of which can be “commanded” in the sense of a divine obligation. Rather, Genesis 1:28, like all the other similar expressions in the chapter, is describing God’s creation of a self-sustaining universe – which is astounding enough!

The Rabbis knew their claim was problematic. Requiring women to engage in a life-threatening activity runs counter to Jewish law. So they exempted women (Mishnah Yebamot 6:6 is appended to the end of this blog posting). But how many men can reproduce without a woman? Catch 22.

Masechet Sotah, in chapter 10, discusses the eglah arufah, the calf who is decapitated as part of a ceremony required by Torah (Deuteronomy 21) when a person is found murdered, but the perpetrator is unknown. The elders of the city closest to where the corpse is discovered convene in a valley (presumably at the site of the murder) and recite a formula disavowing responsibility for the murder that took place: “Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it.” The Gemara is quick to reinterpret this to mean not – heaven forbid! – that the elders could possibly have committed the murder, but rather that the elders did not fail to offer the man food, nor fail to provide him an escort through dangerous terrain (Sotah 46b).

You might well be wondering: why decapitate the calf at all? How does this atone for the murder? We find a remarkable answer offered, rejected, and reworked:
R. Yochanan b. Shaul said: Why does the Torah mention that he should bring a heifer into a ravine? The Holy One, blessed be God, said: Let something that has not produced fruit [i.e. has never given birth] be decapitated in a place which is not fertile, and atone for one who was not given [the opportunity] to produce fruit. What “fruit” mean? If I say “offspring,” then according to this argument we should not break a heifer's neck if [the person found dead] was old or castrated. Therefore [we understand “fruit” to mean] commandments. (Sotah 46a)
I find the three parallels (murder victim, calf, location of murder/ceremony) breathtaking. Because the murder victim will be unable to “produce fruit” (i.e. father children), we decapitate a calf that itself has never given birth, and the ceremony takes place in a valley that has born no “offspring” (i.e. where no crops can grow because it is a harsh, rocky environment).

R. Yochanan’s explanation highlights the murder victim’s loss of opportunity to have children, suggesting that this is the most tragic aspect to his death. The emphasis on reproduction – indeed the elevation of reproduction to a divine commandment – jumps immediately to mind. Is this the most important thing lost when a person is murdered? As the biological parent of four children, I certainly appreciate the value of procreativity, but is this capacity (which to my mind is a blessing) the most important aspect of me, or anyone else? One is reminded of the famous mishnah found in Sanhedrin 4:5:
For this reason was a single man created: to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul in Israel, Scripture imputes [guilt] to him as though he had destroyed an entire universe. And whoever saves a single life in Israel, Scripture credits him with having saved an entire universe. (Sanhedrin 37a)
While this homiletical and ethical teaching references procreation – the first man Adam is regarded as the progenitor of all humanity – this is not the same thing as saying that the essential worth of a human being is encapsulated in his/her ability to reproduce. Rather, it expresses the immense worth of a human being.

The Gemara asks this question, as well, by posing a legalistic question: would we dispense with the ceremony if the murder victim were old (and therefore beyond the age of procreativity) or castrated (and hence incapable of reproducing)? It is a rhetorical question because Torah commands the ceremony whenever someone is slain and the murderer is unknown. Gemara’s answer is wonderful. What is lost is the person’s mitzvot – all the good things he would have done, all the divine obligations he would have undertaken, all the ways he would have lived in response to God have been lost irrevocably. An image of God has perished, stolen from humanity and from God, and all that the victim would have done and could have become has tragically been lost. This interpretation of “fruit” raises it to a much higher, more humane, and indeed holier level.

Addendum: for those interested, here is Mishnah Yebamot 6:6. (It is worthwhile to examine the discussion on Yevamot 65b–66a where a significant minority express discomfort with the exemption of women.)
No man may abstain from keeping the law, Be fertile and increase (Genesis 1:28), unless he already has children: according to the School of Shammai, two sons; according to the School of Hillel, a son and a daughter, for it is written, Male and female God created them (Genesis 5:2). If he married a woman and lived with her ten years and she bore no child, he is not permitted to abstain [from fulfilling this legal obligation]. If he divorced her, she may be married to another and the second husband may live with her for ten years. If she had a miscarriage the space [of ten years] is measured from the time of the miscarriage. The duty to be fruitful and multiply falls on the man but not on the woman. R. Yochanan b. Baroka [dissents from this view and] says: Of them of both it is written, God blessed them and God said to them: “Be fertile and increase” (Genensis 1:28).

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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