Talmud, ISIS, and the Decapitation of Civilization
When decapitations occur, the connection between heaven and earth has been severed
Today, September 2014, I’m unable to shake the images that infected me from watching videos of beheadings by ISIS. These are horrific, but with all due respect to the victims, it’s hard not to appreciate them as brilliantly successful social media retroviruses injected into the worldwide teletechnoculture. They have achieved their authors’ goal: after billions of views on YouTube and elsewhere, a few savages with an instinct for stagecraft and low-budget indie production values have awakened the giant American war machine.
Beheadings aren’t new. Jewish law was concerned about them thousands of years ago, but not as a means of revenge and spreading true faith. Rather, beheadings are symbolic of a problem that concerns the rabbis in the Talmud. A beheading plays the central role in a mystery that worries them. They imagine a corpse, victim of a murder, found half way between two cities. Who is responsible for pursuing the criminal? Judging the crime? For burying the body? And if the crime is not solved, how do we rid the world of guilt when when there is no clear authority? Chaos threatens. For the sages, beheadings were symbolic of the retreat of holiness rather than as a means to achieve it. But the symbolism runs even deeper.
The Broken-Necked Calf
The Torah [Deut 21:7] says that when an unclaimed corpse is found between cities, the closest city is responsible for it. The Sanhedrin, the assembly of 71 judges in Jerusalem (until the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE), has to come out to measure which city is closer.
The judges and elders of the closer city then take an unblemished calf down to a stony ravine. They break its neck with a hatchet. They declare over this violent sacrifice that they are not responsible for the death of the corpse, or more literally, “This blood is not on our hands” (obviously meaning the blood of the corpse, not the poor calf). The pageantry and number of elders involved speak to the seriousness of the matter. A murder remains unsolved, which is bad enough, but we don’t even know which jurisdiction is responsible. There is unavenged guilt roaming the world in-between boundaries and the primitiveness of the ritual to expiate it mirrors the terror it invokes.
The Talmud then worries the bone of the problem by imagining several scenarios that have increasing unreality:
What happens if two bodies are found exactly on top of each other? Is one body exempt because it is “floating” atop the other? Is the body underneath exempt because it is covered by the body on top? Are both exempt?
What if they are both exactly between the two cities?
What if a body is decapitated and the head and the body are in different places? Do we bring the head to the body, or vice versa?
Dexter or CSI Miami has nothing on the gruesomeness of the debate. It’s true the Talmud often considers improbable, even absurd scenarios to try to clear up any ambiguity and close every loophole. In Bava Kamma we read about a guy with a pole rush around a corner and break the jug carried by another guy who was rushing from the opposite direction. A dog brings a hot coal in his mouth to ignite a neighbor’s haystack. A goat jumps down from the roof and breaks someone’s utensils. But the unlikelihood of this hypothetical about two corpses found atop each other exactly equidistant from two cities, combined with the seriousness of the crime, suggests that there is something deeper at work here.
The Talmud then stretches for a most improbable case: What if the original corpse is decapitated? Do we measure to the nearest town from the head or from the body? R. Akiva maintains that we measure from the head, specifically the nose, because that is the source of neshama, the soul, itself. R. Eliezer says measure from the body, because the fetus forms from the navel outward. Rabbi Eliezer ben Yakov resolves the dispute: ‘Measure from the place that the body becomes a corpse, that is, from his neck.”
But think about that for a moment, and you realize, of course, that this is no resolution at all!
If a body is decapitated, where does the neck go? What is the neck? Anatomically, it may be at any one of the seven vertebrae C1-C7 connecting the head to the body, but conceptually it is the indeterminate boundary between head and body. When a body is severed at the neck, the neck as a specific place from which you can measure disappears. It is either in two places, or it is nowhere at all.
Specifying that measurement is to be taken from the neck of a decapitated body defers but doesn’t resolve the problem. The neck disappears into the same limbo or indeterminate space between as does the guilt of the murderer, which now threatens to taint both of the nearest cities. The necks of the calf and the corpse are not the only things that are broken.
Throughout the Talmud, there are several passages where the rabbis cannot reach a conclusion. And there are also other passages when the conclusion is to invoke a chok, a commandment that defies rational explanation, a transcendent rule we’re supposed to obey without understanding. Like the attempt to decipher the parah adumah, the mystery of that other calf, the red heifer, the sages here seem to let the physics of the matter dissipate into metaphysics. But there is a clue as to what is really in the minds of the rabbis and God,
When the Talmud calls out the ritual, it doesn’t say “the ritual to expiate the guilt of an unclaimed corpse,” which would be both more dramatic and make more sense, but it names it for the victim, the sacrificial animal, and it gives it a very curiously specific name at that: eglah arufah, the calf that has its neck broken. It then details exactly how the neck of the calf is to be broken: it is to be decapitated with a cleaver to the back of its neck. In other words, the calf is like the imaginary corpse they were just so concerned with that has been killed at the neck.
And where is this to be performed? One would think that it would be precisely where the body was found, but rather the Mishnah prescribes it to be done in an eisan, which a desolated valley or a river, a wasteland, a no-man’s land of the unknown murderer, the real no-man. Further, Rashi explicitly says this must be land that has never been planted and is unsuitable for planting or working, and after the rite is performed, the land is never again to be worked.
Most importantly, the recitation of absolution over the calf is one of the eight pronouncements in all of Jewish ritual and liturgy that must be said in Hebrew! The Holy Tongue, the Lashon Kodesh, is reserved for this ritual, however arcane and gruesome. Why this moment? What is so special about itthat it becomes one of the eight most holy moments reserved for recitation in Hebrew, along with the Shema and the priestly blessings?
The Precarious Joint
The answer lies with the special symbolism of the neck in Jewish mysticism. To properly kasher an animal, it has to be slaughtered through a specialized beheading. The neck separates the seat of the mind and spirit from the body.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe Menacham Mendel Schneerson calls the neck the “the precarious joint” :
In the Torah, the neck is a common metaphor for the Holy Temple… The Sanctuaries are links between heaven and earth, points of contact between the Creator and His creation. … G-d, who transcends the finite, transcends the infinite as well, and He chose to designate a physical site and structure as the seat of His manifest presence in the world and the focal point of man’s service of his Creator….
The Sanctuary, then, is the “neck” of the world … the juncture that connects its body to its head. the neck that joins the head to the body and channels the flow of consciousness and vitality from the one to the other: the head leads the body via the neck…
The Sanctuary’s destruction, whether on the cosmic or the individual level, is the breakdown of the juncture between head and body — between Creator and creation, between soul and physical self. Indeed, the two are intertwined. When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem and openly served as the spiritual nerve center of the universe, this obviously enhanced the bond between body and soul in every individual….
from “The Neck” chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/3222/jewish/The-Neck.htm
The intensity of care taken by the rabbis to assign responsibility for unclaimed corpses and unsolved murders to this or that town increases even more so in the Diaspora (the galus), when there is no Sanhedrin and no Temple in Jerusalem. The crazy hypothetical, and the seriousness with which the Rabbis debate its halachah, seems to be as much about a lamentation of the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the Jews’ exile to a dispiriting, liminal, desolate, precarious realm, an eisan, a wasteland. In exile, we inhabit a “no-man’s land” where law and order has broken down and corpses are piling up. Bodies are found equidistant between cities so that there is no clear authority for cleaning them up or expiating their guilt. We’re stranded between not just two cities, but two order of preserving order and sanctity of human life: the Temple with the certainty of fixed ritual and the Talmud, with its exegesis and elaboration and uncertainty.
As if to confirm this despair, a few pages later the end of Tractate Sotah depicts an apocalyptic scenario of the breakdown of all law and order, a recounting of the terrible things that occur when there are so many unsolved murders that the rite of eglah arufah has to be abandoned:
WHEN [THE SECOND] TEMPLE WAS DESTROYED, SCHOLAR AND NOBLEMEN WERE ASHAMED AND COVERED THEIR HEAD, MEN OF DEED WERE DISREGARDED, AND MEN OF ARM AND MEN OF TONGUE GREW POWERFUL… FROM THE DAY THE TEMPLE WAS DESTROYED … THE COMMON PEOPLE BECAME MORE AND MORE DEBASED; … INSOLENCE WILL INCREASE AND HONOUR DWINDLE; THE VINE WILL YIELD ITS FRUIT [ABUNDANTLY] BUT WINE WILL BE DEAR; THE GOVERNMENT WILL TURN TO HERESY AND THERE WILL BE NONE [TO OFFER THEM] REPROOF; THE MEETING-PLACE [OF SCHOLARS] WILL BE USED FOR IMMORALITY; … AND THE DWELLERS ON THE FRONTIER WILL GO ABOUT [BEGGING] FROM PLACE TO PLACE WITHOUT ANYONE TO TAKE PITY ON THEM; THE WISDOM OF THE LEARNED WILL DEGENERATE, FEARERS OF SIN WILL BE DESPISED, AND THE TRUTH WILL BE LACKING; YOUTHS WILL PUT OLD MEN TO SHAME … A MAN’S ENEMIES WILL BE THE MEMBERS OF HIS HOUSEHOLD; THE FACE OF THE GENERATION WILL BE LIKE THE FACE OF A DOG…
– Sotah 49a-b
This is just a small section of what the rabbis call Yeridas HaDoros, the Decline of the Generations, a work of vast imagination and mourning, a lamentation for the Temple. The Talmud is a document written not only in exile but about exile. Knowing the Talmud’s historical context helps us understand the entwinement of the Temple with the spiritual health of Israel. After the Temple was destroyed, Israel was the calf whose neck is broken. Israel is the floating corpse unclaimed between two cities in a time of calamity and the breakdown of social order.
What could illustrate the Yeridas HaDoros better than this plague of ISIS beheadings? Yes, they are brilliant, viral manipulations of the media. What is their message? Nothing less than the breakdown of civilization, the threat of a barbarian that he is coming to get you next. But it is now America’s job now to measure the distance to adjacent states and demand that the world take care of the problem.
The real problem is that we, the whole world that is attending to the Mideast, have all become Israel without her Temple. The neck of civilization has been severed, and it will be considerably harder to cleanse the world of its guilt. The cost will be high. There will be billions of dollars more spent in the years to come, and many more lives lost. In the coming storm, how much more simple would it have been to sacrifice a single calf in the wasteland and utter some words in Hebrew.
Palo Alto, 9/11/2014
I originally posted this on 9/11/2014. Since then, the US has gone to war against ISIS very similarly to how Israel began its campaign against Hamas in Gaza, by “degrading” them with airstrikes. The two Islamic militant groups share many similarities in their barbarity and abuse of civilians. It has been well-documented that Hamas maximized civilian casualties by forcing them, including women and children, to stand in the line of fire, even after Israel warned civilian populations to evacuate in advance of impending strikes, including by dropping leaflets, exploding noise bombs, and even making personal calls to cell phones. During the latest Gaza war, Obama admonished Israel to exercise maximum discretion in avoiding killing civilians when Israel already did all it could to minimize the horrors of war and its inevitable collateral damage.
This week, the US-led coalition bombed the village of Kfar Daryan in Syria, killing numerous civilians including women and children. The White House announced in a press conference on September 30, 2014, it could not hold itself to “the highest standard we can meet” in prosecuting its war against ISIS to avoid such future incidents. All war is dreadful. Many wars are evil on political and metaphysical grounds. But I also believe in just wars. I believe wars against ISIS and Hamas are justified. But naive hypocrisy in waging war makes the damage, moral and mortal, worse.
October 3, 2014