Sanctity is not sterile
The Book of Leviticus opens with the bleating and bellowing of sacrificial animals and the odor of their blood (Leviticus 1:5-17): "And he shall slaughter the bullock... present the blood, and dash the blood round about against the altar... And he shall flay the burnt-offering, and cut it into its pieces... And Aaron's sons, the priests, shall lay the pieces of flesh, and the head, and the fat, in order upon the wood that is on the fire which is upon the altar... and Aaron's sons, the priests, shall dash its blood against the altar round about. And he shall cut it into its pieces; and the priest shall lay them, with its head and its fat, in order on the wood that is on the fire... And pinch off its head, and make it smoke on the altar; and the blood thereof shall be drained out on the side of the altar... And he shall tear it at its wings..."
These graphic biblical sacrificial instructions go on and on. With the closing of the Book of Exodus, the Tabernacle preparations are completed. With the opening of the Book of Leviticus begins the routine of the holy. Holiness is not neat and clean, sanctity is not sterile, and the sights and smells of Tabernacle are difficult to digest.
Sacrifice and guilt
Amongst the various reasons for sacrificing a sacrifice, a central space is allocated for the sinner and for guilt: A person feels guilty and attempts to atone for his or her sin through the offering a sacrifice. The sound of the calls of the slaughtered sacrifice, the sight of the blood on the altar, and the smell of the smoking fire demonstrates in practice what should have happened to the person himself. This incredibly powerful experience is intended to awaken within the sinner thoughts of repentance.
It is easy to understand how not just those who intentionally sinned would be required, but actually want to bring a sacrifice. Indeed, in this week's Torah portion, a sacrifice is described for a person who unintentionally sinned is (Leviticus 4:27-35): "And if any one of the common people sin through error, in doing any of the things that the Lord has commanded not to be done, and be guilty... then he shall bring for his offering... and the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven."
As the years and centuries progressed, a complex, multi-branched system of guilt sacrifices developed within Jewish law.
That depends – doubtful guilt sacrifice
What will a person do when he suspects he may have committed a sin, but is not completely sure? An example could be a person who ate a specific food and does not know whether or not it was forbidden. This person offers a special sacrifice labeled the "doubtful guilt sacrifice." It is already possible to sense how this system of sacrifices supplies wide operational leeway for those who carry in their conscience feelings of insatiable and boundless guilt.
Guilt offering of pious – constant feeling of guilt
If the feelings of guilt of those offering a "doubtful guilt sacrifice" were not enough, the sacrificial system branches out and offers people with an especially guilty conscience the opportunity for unending pre-occupation with their feelings of guilt. This possibility comes in the form a special sacrifice labeled "the guilt offering of the pious" (Mishnah, Keritot 6:3):
"Rabbi Eliezer says: 'A person may voluntarily offers a 'doubtful guilt sacrifice' any day and any time and it is called a 'guilt offering of the pious'.' It is said that Baba Ben Buta would offer a 'doubtful guilt sacrifice' every day except for immediately after Yom Kippur. One day he said: 'This Temple pledge of mine! If they would permit me I would bring (a 'doubtful guilt sacrifice' immediately after Yom Kippur as well). However they say to me wait until there is even the possibility that you have doubtful guilt.'"
Yom Kippur ruins routine of guilty-feeling people
Rabbi Eliezer describes a tradition, likely from the school Beit Shammai, according to which a person can bring a "doubtful guilt sacrifice" every day, called "the guilt offering of the pious." As opposed to the regular "doubtful guilt sacrifice" that is offered when there is a reason to suspect we have sinned, the "guilt offering of the pious" can be brought unconnected to a concrete suspicion. The "guilt offering of the pious" is a sacrifice for people experiencing perpetual guilt.
Baba Ben Buta (or Buti) was a sage who lived during the late Second Temple period. He was one of Shammai's disciples and he always felt guilty. It seems that for Baba Ben Buta, sin was the basis of life. Not any concrete, specific sin, rather the very essence of human existence disrupts pure spirituality. The substance of life itself is sin. However, the day after Yom Kippur, even the pious are prevented from bringing a "guilt offering of the pious" as Yom Kippur atoned for all sins, and as much as one may want to bring such a sacrifice, there does not yet exist even the potential for sin.
But Baba Ben Buta is not just any person, nor is he even a typical pious person. Baba Ben Buta regrets that even one day of the year he is prohibited from enacting his world's foundational experience - the experience of guilt. On the foundations of the psychological and religious world of Baba Ben Buta, who tirelessly offers guilt sacrifices, biblical studies Professor Israel Knohl points out:
"This tradition testifies as to the feeling of incessant guilt in relation to God, guilt that is not derived from the violation of any Divine commandment, and this feeling is the motivation for means of atonement - 'the doubtful guilt sacrifice...' This basic feeling of guilt and the consequential desire for atonement are among characteristic of humanity in the presence of the holy - the 'Numinous' (the experience of fear and trembling in the face of the Divine)."
It seems sufficiently evident that in Shammai and his disciples' conception of the Divine, a tremendous emphasis was placed on the Numinous as a fundamental principal. From this develops their feelings of perpetual guilt and hostility towards the body that is accompanied by an understanding of its baseness and carnal, material, and transient nature in the face of the holy.
This background helps to clarify the opinion, widespread in the school of Shammai, that "it would have been better for a person not to have been created" (Babylonian Talmud, Masechet Eruvin 13B)." (From his article: "A Torah portion that contains acceptance of heavenly rule")
Couples therapy, guilt and violence
Upon first examination, it seems that people with a tendency for guilt and self-punishment are not dangerous to those around them. Perhaps they are a danger to themselves, but it appears that there is no suspicion they would hurt someone else. However an additional aggadah about Baba Ben Buta, as I understand it, debunks that calming assumption.
This aggadah starts with a Babylonian Jew who comes west to the Land of Israel and married a local woman. During this period, both Babylonian Jews and Jews in the Land of Israel spoke Aramaic, but they used different dialects thereof. These linguistic differences caused difficulty in communication between the couple: He asked of her to prepare a certain dish, and she, in her innocence, prepared a different dish. Thusly, in a series of linguistic miscommunications, the couple's relationship became more and more tense.
At the height of this crisis the husband asks for his wife to bring him "tray butzini." In his dialect of Aramaic that means two zucchini. In her dialect of Aramaic that means two lamps (then made of clay). The woman went and brought her husband two clay lamps. Furious with anger the husband commanded his wife: "Go and break these clay lamps 'al rosh ha'baba'." In his Babylonian Aramaic, "rosh ha'baba" means "above the gate." However, in his wife's with Aramaic dialect "rosh" means "head" and "baba," as we have already seen, can be a person's name. In her distress and lacking her husband's understanding of this word, the woman went to the sage Baba Ben Buta and broke the clay lamps on his head.
This is how Baba Ben Buta, the man who has never been opposed to bearing the burden of guilt, responded to the women who broke two clay lamps on his head (Nedarim 66B): "He said to her, 'What are you doing?' She said to him, 'Thusly my husband commanded me to do.' He said, 'You have done your husband's bidding, God will bring forth from you two sons like Baba Ben Buta.'"
He sends her back to aggressor's arms
At first glance, this seems like generous couples therapy. The rabbi sees the woman's distress, so he puts aside his own honor and lets her fulfill the violent and uncompromising demands of her husband (as at this point he does not know about the couple's language confusion).
However, the Torah has already taught us: "Love thy neighbor as thyself." The phrasing of this commandment reflects the psychological truth that only someone who loves him or herself can love can properly love his neighbor.
If Baba Ben Buta was not full of so many feelings of guilt, he could find room in his heart to get angry and feel hurt by the woman who hurt him. If Baba Ben Buta would permit himself to get angry at the women, he could subsequently become angry at her abusive husband. If Baba Ben Buta would believe that he isn't supposed to be beaten by a strange woman, he could understand that she too isn't supposed to receive ugly and degrading commands from her husband. If Baba Ben Buta would love himself, he could supply this woman with genuine protection.
It is easy to see that breaking the clay lamps on Baba's head was not just the result a linguistic mistake, it was a call for desperately needed help. Baba Ben Buta should have gone to the aggressive husband, harshly and sensitively spoken with him to save his neighbor from her distress. But Baba Ben Buta is in love with guilt, and people experiencing perpetual guilt offer to those around them the same world they experience - a world without love or mercy. From these combined traditions of Baba Ben Buta, we can learn that whoever lacks compassion for himself or herself cannot be compassionate towards others.
And in the beit midrash of talkbacks
The beit midrash of talkbacks was especially busy this week and I am grateful to everyone who wrote reasoned comments. We do not have to agree, but it is important, even pleasant, to try to understand one another as we learn Torah together.
Chen (talkback #59) wrote that the issue of control which I wrote about in the previous column applies not only to women but to men as well, and that religion is a means of control. I agree with you, Chen, but I want to add two things: (1) A religious mechanism is (also) a means of control. Religion offers more than just that. (2) Every social structure contains within it control mechanisms. This is no reason to abandon human society. It is important to be familiar with the control mechanisms of society and engage them in negotiation. I do not think it is possible avoid their presence.
For several months now the beit midrash of talkbacks has been migrating back and forth over continents and oceans. Thanks to the generosity and understanding of Uzi Bar-Pinchas, it now appears in English as well. In the fledgling English Beit Midrash of talkbacks, Steven from Maryland, US (talkback #7) claims that I misinterpreted the terms "erva" ("nudity") and "gehenom" ("hell"). According to him, and many of the other Israeli respondents to the Hebrew beit midrash of talkbacks, these terms refer to the sages' anxiety that they will sin in their relations with the woman, and they do not apply to the woman herself.
It seems to me that if men see a woman from afar, any average, everyday woman, and immediately they think of sexual delinquency, then in their own anxiety they are objectifying and "minimizing" the woman into a giant sexual organ, into a walking vagina or into the opening to hell. Whoever sees a woman and immediately says "nudity" identifies the woman as "nudity." This, my friends, is what is so problematic.
I was fortunate enough to learn the stories of Baba Ben Buta with students in the Life Issues -Talmudic Bibliography program, and I am grateful to them for that.
Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas
Click here to read this article in Hebrew