Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Abominable Jewman

The term abomination, to’eva, is one of the most loaded words in Scripture, used in sexual, dietary and commercial contexts. However, the term first appears to describe Egyptian, not Jewish, mores. At the end of Exodus 8, in the midst of the Ten Plagues, Pharaoh offers a compromise to Moses: "Go, sacrifice to your God in the land.” Moses replies: "We cannot do so, for the abomination of Egypt we sacrifice to Lord our God. If we sacrifice the abomination of Egypt before their eyes, will they not stone us?” The standard approach is that “abomination” is a term for pagan gods, and a number of commentators point specifically to Aries, the Lamb, which is the astrological sign of Nisan, the month of Passover and the Exodus.
But there is a little problem here: if the Egyptians worship the lamb, why not bring goats? And if they worship all tzon, flocks, i.e. sheep and the goats, why not bring cattle? Even after the plague of darkness, Moses says (10:26): "And we do not know with what we will worship Lord until we come there." Moreover, we see in this week's reading that the Egyptians treat these animals as property (9:3): "Behold, Lord’s hand will have been upon your livestock in the field: upon horses, upon donkeys, upon camels, upon cattle and upon flocks.” Then, of course, we have the awkwardness of the situation: is Moses really trying to negotiate while mocking Egypt’s gods?
The fact is that “the abomination of Egypt" first appears in the book of Genesis. Before Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, the Torah (43:32) observes, "For the Egyptians are not able to eat bread with Hebrews, as this is an abomination for Egypt.” After he reveals himself, he instructs his brothers (46:34): “And you shall say, ‘Your servants have always been men of livestock, both we and our forebears,’ so that you will reside in the land of Goshen, for every shepherd is the abomination of Egypt.” The abomination is not the animal, but the person who deals with it. We find echoes of this in our sources as well, in which shepherds are considered particularly unreliable, even compared to cowherds (Sanhedrin 3:2, Yevamot 16a). The Rashbam puts it this way (Bava Batra 128a): “Cowherds are not well-versed in the law, but shepherds are not mentioned at all because they are wicked, as the average herders of smaller animals are thieves, unacceptable for any legal function.” In Egypt, we find “officers of livestock,” as Pharaoh says to Joseph: “And if you know that among them are men of valor, appoint them as officers of livestock over that which is mine” (47:6). These officers are part of the Pharaonic power structure, but shepherds, the loners and drifters who have little use for central authority, are dangerous and therefore contemptible. Joseph's ruse is too clever by far, as the Egyptians not only isolate the Jews, they demonize them as well.
If so, "the abomination of Egypt” is not the sacrifice, but the sacrificer, the Proverbial (15:8, 21:27) “sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination.” Moses basically says to Pharaoh: in Egypt, we Hebrews are repulsive and hateful, bandits and villains, animals and untermenschen — do you think they'll let us sacrifice within the sacred precincts of the land of Egypt? So long as the Israelites are in Egypt, they cannot serve God openly.
For thousands of years, Jews accepted their hateful status in the eyes of the nations, being considered robbers and swindlers — that was fine for us, as long as we were left a small place, a ghetto of Goshen, where we might keep our identities and names. However, this is an untenable situation. Second-class citizenry ultimately leads to oppression, slavery and, all too often, genocide. The abominable Hebrews become the proud Israelites only when they declare: we are not men of livestock; we are men of valor.

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