Monday, May 02, 2011

Shadal On Shaatnez

Shmuel David Luzzatto, who lived through the first sixty-five years of the nineteenth century, was a leader of the Italian Jewish community. He fought against what he saw as extremists on either side of him, was willing to accept truth no matter its source, and was confident that even if under-appreciated in his lifetime, the century would come in which his work would find its full glory.

I have just read a letter from him to his father in law, in which he outlines a general overview of the Jewish purpose. In it, he stresses חמלה, which I think he would have translated as intimate sympathy with the position of the other. It transcends straightforward justice or social fairness, and is לפנים משורת הדין; precisely this facet of it is an important foundation of the Jewish ethic. Shadal writes that this emotion is one which is fostered by Judaism as the best way to make Man moral, and to build a healthy, stable society. (Shadal goes through a number of rational arguments for ethics from Greek philosophy, bemoaning the fact that none of them engendered a proper sympathy and caring for fellow humans.) He discusses several places in the Torah where חמלה may seem to be disregarded, and shows that it is not. Usually, this חמלה is applicable to all humanity; Jews believe all humans to be sons of the same Father, and that they should be treated so. Shadal explains the few places where halacha treats Jews and gentiles differently as places where special חמלה is an expression of particularly close national-brotherly bonds. (For example, lending with interest is not immoral, it is perfectly ethical -- indeed, all nations do so. This normative ethic is also acceptable for Jews doing business with gentiles. However, in order to produce strong intra-national links and feelings of fraternity within the Jewish nation, God demands that we abstain from this practice with relation to other Jews.) Essentially, the Torah raises to the status of commandment this חמלה-compassion, sympathy and fraternal love.

Additionally, belief in השגחה, providence, occupies another cornerstone of the Jewish faith, bolstering the possibly weak committment that חמלה creates towards morality and Godliness. Man needs to know that God cares, and indeed, rewards and punishes him for his actions.

The letter goes on to discuss various individual commandments. I found his explanation for שעטנז and כלאי אילן to be interesting. Shadal provides as part of their purpose to deny the idolatrous practices surrounding the Jews. In idolatrous cultures, he writes, it was common to combine naturally separate elements in order to bind together the providential assistance of otherwise competing forces (gods) in benificent kindness towards the idolator. To further remove Jews from any association with idolatrous practices, much less idolatry, these (to the modern mind, seemingly harmless) practices were forbidden, and contributed to the three basic elements of Jewish practice, the betterment of individual morality, strength of religious passion, and the national general good.