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Thursday, January 12, 2017

WHAT IS A "MOTIVE CLAUSE"?



In scholarly circles, it is customary to refer to an author by using the title of his/her books. Thus, for example, I am known among my colleagues as “Motive Clauses,” because I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the topic of Motive Clauses in Hebrew Law (Scholars Press, 45, 1975).

What are, in fact, “motive clauses”? Instead of giving a technical analysis of my doctoral dissertation, here is a popularized version of my thesis: “Motive clauses” are statements attached to laws, which justify or clarify a legal norm. “Do this, do that, because….” In reality, laws do not need a clause of this kind. They simply state, “The speed limit is 30 miles an hour,” or, “Do not murder” and then they identify the penalty in case of transgression. Yet, in the Bible, many laws are accompanied by motivational clauses. Why? 


I was drawn to study this phenomenon more than 40 years ago, while I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania (1969-75), when I read an article by two biblical scholars claiming that these clauses are unique to the Bible. Yet, being familiar with other ancient Near Eastern texts, I knew that this was not correct. Even though Babylonian or Assyrian laws are not usually accompanied by such clauses, many indeed are. So, I decided to study in greater detail this literary phenomenon. 


Motivational clauses appear in different forms. Some biblical laws are accompanied by explanatory statements, appealing to the common sense of its time, such as: When a master hits a slave and the slave survives, “he [the master] is not to be avenged, since he [the slave] is the man’s property” (Ex. 21: 21). In other texts, the clause justifies the law by appealing to God’s authority, like, “You shall be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19: 2). Others, instill a fear of punishment. For example, priests are prohibited from drinking liquor when entering a tent of Meeting, “lest they die” (Lev. 10:9). Yet, others promise well-being after the law is implemented: honor your parents, “so that you may long endure on the land that the Lord your God is assigning you” (Ex. 20: 12).  Here are two examples from the ancient Near Eastern texts: According to the Laws of Hammurabi the builder, who sets up a shaky structure that collapses, is responsible for the damage, “because he did not make strong the house he built and it fell down” (LH 232). According to Middle Assyrian laws, in case of divorce, the husband can take back his gifts but not what she brought into the marriage, “it being reserved for the woman” (MAL A 38). 


Where does the literary influence come from to provide legal statements with motivational clauses? I argue that the source is the wisdom literature. An analysis of proverbs, maxims or words of the sages in the ancient Near East, including the Bible, shows that laws and proverbs are very often formulated with motivational clauses. Examples: “Keep your feet from their (the sinners) path, for their feet run to evil” (Prov. 1: 16); or, “Do not crush the needy in the public court, for the Lord will take up their cause” (Prov. 22:22-23). Or, in extra biblical wisdom texts: a popular saying in Byblos, “My field is like a woman without a husband, because it lacks a cultivator”. Or, “Do not reproach someone older than you, for he has seen the Sun before you” (Proverbs of Amenemope, Ch. 27:1, Egypt). 


If motivational clauses are found both in sapiental literature and laws, it is very tempting to argue that biblical laws were not laws per se, carried out by the courts, but wisdom sayings that encouraged people to do the right thing. That changes the entire perspective of the way in which we read and study the so-called biblical laws, which, I maintain, are only guiding principles, recommendations, encouraging statements or customary practices, but not laws.

It is also important to note that of the thousands of legal cases we have available in the Babylonian literature, not a single case has been resolved by saying that it was “according to the laws in Hammurabi.” Similarly, we do not have any court case in the Bible that was clearly adjudicated according to a prescribed law. Indeed, the shoftim (“officials,”  in biblical Hebrew this word does not mean “judges”) who functioned as leaders in ancient Israel (e.g., Deut. 16: 18) were most likely guided by customary practices of their time. Law emerged later on in Jewish history, when Rabbis began to codify the teachings of the Bible (e.g. the Mishnah and Talmud) and transformed them into norms that could be enforced by religious courts.


Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

Framingham State University

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Books by Rifat Sonsino:

FINDING GOD (URJ; Behrman House)

THE MANY FACES OF GOD (URJ; Behrman House)

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I DIE? (URJ; Behrman House)

DID MOSES REALLY HAVE HORNS? (URJ; Behrman House)

SIX JEWISH SPIRITUAL PATHS (Jewish Lights; Turner)

THE MANY FACES OF GOD (URJ; Behrman House)

AND GOD SPOKE THESE WORDS (Commentary on the Decalogue; URJ; Behrman House)

VIVIR COMO JUDIO (Palibrio)

MODERN JUDAISM (Cognella)

MOTIVE CLAUSES IN HEBREW LAW (Scholars Press)

Monday, December 5, 2016

HANUKAH-NOW A MAJOR HOLIDAY FOR JEWS TODAY



This year, in an unusual calendrical quirk, the first night of Hanukah will fall on the Eve of Christmas. My Google search pointed to the fact that this happens very rarely, maybe 4 times during a 100-year period. Last time, it occurred in 2005. While we, Jews, plan to light the first of the eight candles on Saturday night, Dec.24, 2016, our Christian neighbors will begin to celebrate the birth of Jesus. 


In Jewish tradition Hanukah is viewed as a “minor” festival. For example, Jewish law permits regular work on this day. As I remember, during my childhood in Istanbul, Turkey, we did not give much attention to the holiday. True, we did light the candles, ate “bimuelos” (putty fritters deep-fried in oil) or “borekas” (pastry filled with cheese or vegetables; my wife still makes them even during the year), celebrated the “merenda” (like, ‘pot-luck’) dinner on the last day of the festival, and sang special prayers and songs, but life went on as usual. Some of our prayers differed from those of Eastern European Jews and we never had “latkes” (potato pancakes) or played with “dreidels” (four-sided tops).  The use of “sufganiyot” (jelly doughnuts) in Israel is relatively new.  I also do not remember receiving any gifts on Hanukah. 


The reason why Hanukah was considered minor is most likely because it is not found in the Bible, but comes from the post-biblical period. The Apocrypha, a collection of books compiled after most of the Bible was edited, includes two books dealing with the festival: The First and Second book of Maccabees. The first is a “royal history” of the Hasmonean dynasty, whereas the second claims to be a shortened version of a five-volume history of the period by Jason of Cyrene. There are also a number of references to Hanukah in the writings of Josephus, the 1st cent. CE Jewish historian, as well as in the rabbinic literature (eg., Pesikta Rabbati 2:5; BT Shabbat 21b).


Today, things are different. Especially among Jews who live in close proximity to  Christians, Hanukah is now observed as a major holiday competing with Christmas. And it is getting even bigger by the year. Today, we celebrate it with family dinners, elaborate synagogue services, gifts to the family members, and special foods for the holidays, including latkes.


I see nothing wrong in this development. Hanukah includes many elements (forget about the so-called miracle-which was not) that make it a very significant festival for Jews today. Among the values it proclaims, one can mention, the right to be different, the necessity to fight oppression, the pride in one’s Jewish identity, the commitment to traditional values, the significance of Jewish survival and the necessity to support Israel. Hanukah also reminds us that our Jewish existence today is a testament to the light we still need to shed in the darkness that envelops our civilization, by stressing human values and respect for diversity. That is not bad at all. 


Happy Hanukah, and, to my Christian neighbors, a Merry Christmas.


Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

Dec. 2016

Books by Rifat Sonsino:



FINDING GOD (URJ; Behrman House)

THE MANY FACES OF GOD (URJ; Behrman House)

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I DIE? (URJ; Behrman House)

DID MOSES REALLY HAVE HORNS? (URJ; Behrman House)

SIX JEWISH SPIRITUAL PATHS (Jewish Lights; Turner)

THE MANY FACES OF GOD (URJ; Behrman House)

AND GOD SPOKE THESE WORDS (Commentary on the Decalogue; URJ; Behrman House)

VIVIR COMO JUDIO (Palibrio)

MODERN JUDAISM (Cognella)

MOTIVE CLAUSES IN HEBREW LAW (Scholars Press)




Wednesday, November 2, 2016

CAN YOU COMMAND "LOVE" OF GOD?



In the Hebrew Bible we are often told “to love” God, such as “Love (AHB) the Lord, all you faithful? (Ps. 31: 24), or “You shall love (AHB) the Lord your God” (Deut. 6: 5). 


Here we can raise two issues: 1. Can you command love? , and 2. Even though some people easily understand that one can “love” a spouse, a child, even a country, many have a hard time conceptualizing what it means to “love” God. 


Historically speaking, the concept of “loving” God comes from the treaty terminology of the Ancient Near East, and simply means “to be loyal to.”  Especially in ancient Anatolia, many Hittite rulers signed treaties with their vassals requiring them to “love” their overlord. Similarly, in the Amarna letters we find that Rib-Abdi of Byblos stating that the city is divided into two: “half of it loves the sons of Abdi-Ashirta, and the other half (loves) my lord” (EA 138:71-73), or in the Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon we read: “If you do not love the crown prince designate, Ashurbanipal,….”(here some curses follow; See ANET, 537). We have a reflection of this meaning in the Hebrew Bible, when it states that “Hiram [King of Tyre] loved (AHB) David always” (I K 5: 15). The Latin-Vulgate translation uses here the term “amicus” [friendly]. In the Canaanite Akkadian of Amarna, the verb ramu, the functional equivalent of AHB, meant “to favor.” So, in the past, “to love” primarily meant “to be loyal.” It had nothing to do with the emotional content that the verb “love” implies today. 


What about in Jewish sources? In the early ones, such the Talmud, to “love” God simply meant to study rabbinic texts, minister to scholars, and generally do God’s will by carrying out the Mitzvot (See, for ex. Yoma 86a). During the medieval times, the mystics (like Bahya ibn Pakuda) stressed that to “love” God is to have an intense longing for the nearness of God and a desire for communion with God, whereas many rationalists argued that “loving God” simply means to have a knowledge of God. Maimonides puts it this way: “According to the knowledge so the love” (Mishne Torah, Repentance 10: 6). 


What about us today? I maintain that, even though love cannot be commanded, actions leading to love can be ordered. As W.G. Plaut’s Torah Commentary puts it, “Each Mitzvah [commandment] done in the right spirit is an act of loving God” (p. 1211). Thus, our practice of Judaism must be done in the highest spirit of loyalty to our Jewish tradition, a tradition that should be maintained, strengthened and, at times, adapted to the needs of our times. Our prayers must be offered with devotion, our holidays observed with appropriate joy, and our rituals carried out with a sense of reality and necessary re-interpretation to make them relevant to our needs today.  


As to the second issue, I am more comfortable with the Maimonidean rationalistic approach that states that thinking and studying about God is to love God. In my non-theistic view, to love God is to find out what God stands for. This is manifested in the commitment we make to discover of the mysteries the universe, and the realization that we stand in awe before the awesome energy, namely God, that keeps it going. 


How do we get there? Hassidic masters have taught us that the Torah commands us three times to love; twice our neighbors (Lev. 19: 18, 34) and then God (Deut. 6: 5). We love humans first and then we love God. Not the other way around. Only after we have learned how to love people can we come to the “love”-namely, the understanding and appreciation of God.


Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

Nov. 2016
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Books by Rifat Sonsino:

FINDING GOD (URJ; Behrman House)
THE MANY FACES OF GOD (URJ; Behrman House)
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I DIE? (URJ; Behrman House)
DID MOSES REALLY HAVE HORNS? (URJ; Behrman House)
SIX JEWISH SPIRITUAL PATHS (Jewish Lights; Turner)
THE MANY FACES OF GOD (URJ; Behrman House)
AND GOD SPOKE THESE WORDS (Commentary on the Decalogue; URJ; Behrman House)
VIVIR COMO JUDIO (Palibrio)
MODERN JUDAISM (Cognella)
MOTIVE CLAUSES IN HEBREW LAW (Scholars Press)