What is the purpose of rabbinic law, in all its creativity? What is its relationship to the law of the biblical text? These questions lie at the very heart of contemporary Jewish existence, and they are questions that standard codes of Halakhah do not answer. Instead, answers to these questions, and others like them, are found in the rabbinic non-legal exegeses and narratives known as “aggadah.” One such narrative, recorded in the midst of a discussion of the original context of the fifteen “Song of Ascent” psalms (Sukkah 53a-b), may answer some of our questions:
Rabbi Hisda said to a certain rabbi who was arranging his aggadot before him, ‘Have you heard in regards to what David composed his fifteen Songs of Ascent?’ The other replied, “Thus said Rabbi Yohanan: When David dug the Pits (שיתין), the Deep (תהומא) rose up and threatened to submerge the world, and David then uttered the fifteen Songs of Ascent and caused the waves to subside.’ ‘But if so, [asked Rabbi Hisda,] shouldn’t it be ‘Songs of Descent,’ instead of ‘Ascent?’
’Since you reminded me,’ the other replied, ‘[I may say that] it was stated: When David dug the Pits, the Deep arose and threatened to submerge the world. ‘Is there anyone who knows,’ David asked, ‘if it is permitted to write the [Divine] Name upon a sherd and throw it into the Deep so that its waves will subside?’ No one said anything, so David said, ‘If anyone knows the answer and does not speak, may he be strangled!’ At which point Ahitofel offered an a fortiori argument on his own: ‘If, for the purpose of establishing harmony between man and wife, the Torah said, ‘Let My name that was written in sanctity be blotted out by the water (in the biblical law of the suspected wife or sotah),’ how much more so may it be done in order to establish peace in the world!’ He therefore said to him, ‘It is permitted!’ [David] then wrote the [divine] Name upon a sherd, threw it into the Deep and it subsided sixteen thousand cubits. When he saw that it had subsided to such a great extent, he said, ‘The nearer it is to the earth, the better the earth can be kept watered.’ He uttered the fifteen Songs of Ascent and the Deep rose fifteen thousand cubits and remained one thousand cubits [below the surface].’
Ulla remarked: Learn from there that the thickness of the earth’s surface is one thousand cubits. But do we not see that one only has to dig a little for water to emerge?—Rabbi Mesharsheya answered: That is due to the high level of the Euphrates.
This narrative is a compelling drama in its own right, but understanding the specific ideas it conveys requires grappling with the older traditions with which it is engaged. The Bible has a complex relationship with the Ancient Near Eastern myths that form its cultural background, at times adapting them, at times polemicizing against them, and at times doing some of both. In Sinai and Zion, Jon Levenson discusses biblical texts about the establishment of the Temple quelling chaotic waters, such as Psalms 24:1-3:
The earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants. For he founded it upon the ocean, set it on the nether streams. Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place?
This psalm draws a straight line from the establishing of the world upon the waters to the Temple on Mount Zion. Levenson argues that this passage, and others like it, are an extension of a common mythical theme from Israel’s cultural background. In ancient near eastern mythologies, the chief god often takes his place at the head of the gods by virtue of combating and defeating the primordial waters and thereby creating the stable state of the world as man knows it. “Creation, kingship, and temple thus form an indissoluble triad; the containment of the sea is the continuing proof of their eternal validity.” Levenson argues that this myth develops in certain biblical texts into the building of the Temple as the establishment of a more perfect realm, and the establishing of God’s dominion in the world. Levenson quotes a variety of biblical verses to this effect, including the ones quoted above.
Levenson mentions our narrative as a rabbinic manifestation of this theme, showing how it persisted long after the biblical period:
More fundamentally, in rabbinic cosmology, Mount Zion is the capstone which keeps in place the waters of chaos whose subjugation made creation and hence all civilization possible. Were it not for the Temple on Zion, those angry waters would surge from the abyss in which they are imprisoned, undo the work of creation, and return the world to the primordial chaos which is described in Gen 1:2. In fact, some rabbinic sayings mention moments when precisely such a reversion threatened to become reality.
The waters threaten to destroy the world and when they are quieted a stable world is established. This is what takes place at the end of the narrative in the discussion about where the waters stabilized and the thickness of the Earth; the discussion is about the nature of the newly established state of the world (compare Genesis 8:22, which depicts the establishment of the regular order of nature after the flood in the time of Noah).
At this point, however, I part ways with Levenson. He argues that in the rabbis thought the temple “keeps in place” the waters that would otherwise consume the world. As proof for this he quotes the first few lines of our narrative, wherein it is stated that “David then uttered the fifteen Songs of Ascent and caused the waves to subside.” Ignoring the fact that it is the psalms, not the Temple, that restrains the waters in this quotation, it is critical to note that in the full text of the passage from the Bavli, quoted above, this tradition is rejected as failing to adequately explain the relationship between the chaotic waters and the Song of Ascent psalms. In place of this tradition, the Bavli records the lengthier narrative with its emphasis on Ahitofel’s legal argumentation.
In this tradition it is not psalms, nor even the building of the Temple that calms the waters; it is rabbinic-style creativity. The text even emphasizes the creative nature of Ahitofel’s argument by saying that he formulated the argument “on his own.” Ahitofel’s argument takes the form of the a fortiori argument, “if X then certainly Y,” so common in rabbinic discourse. Moreover, Ahitofel’s argument overrides the biblical prohibition of erasing God’s name (Shavu’ot 35a-b) and leads to the establishment of harmony and calm in the world.
This narrative provides an explanation of the purpose of (or, more radically, a justification for) rabbinic legal creativity. The biblical law prevented David from stopping the waters that were threatening the world until the decisive action of a rabbinic figure, Ahitofel, frees his hands. The picture created is one where the biblical law cannot always properly respond to the chaos of the world in which its adherents live. Responding to this world requires the flexibility and creativity so prevalent throughout much of rabbinic discourse.
Our narrative asserts an answer to our original question about the purpose of rabbinic law. What of our second question, on the relationship between biblical and rabbinic law? A more thorough examination shows that our narrative has something to say on this topic as well. To this end, we will look further at both Levenson’s arguments in Sinai and Zion and the biblical texts that serve as the basis for Ahitofel’s argument.
Levenson’s goal in Sinai and Zion is to lay out the biblical traditions that surround the two mountains Sinai and Zion in the Hebrew Bible. His primary focus in on the unique covenant tied to each locale, the Sinaitic covenant of Moses and the Davidic covenant at Zion. The Sinaitic covenant is a covenant of law. It binds the entire people of Israel to follow the laws of God, who rules over them directly and cares for them. Fulfillment of the law is a condition of the covenant, and if Israel disobeys then they have broken the covenant and God will abandon them.
The Davidic covenant is between God and the Davidic line, as opposed to the nation of Israel, and is entirely unconditional. God has bound Himself to the Davidic line, promising that a Davidic king will always reign over Israel as God’s representative, without making any demands regarding their behavior. Thus these two covenants, Levenson argues, create a basic tension that persists throughout the biblical corpus.
With that in mind, let’s return to Ahitofel’s argument in our narrative and examine its relationship to the biblical law:
Ahitofel offered an a fortiori argument on his own: “If, for the purpose of establishing harmony between man and wife, the Torah said, Let My name that was written in sanctity be blotted out by the water, how much more so may it be done in order to establish peace in the world!” He, therefore, said to him, “It is permitted!”
The a fortiori argument is a classical form of rabbinic exegesis that works by using a logical hierarchy between two situations to transfer a rule from one situation to the other. The first situation in Ahitofel’s argument is the biblical law of the suspected wife, wherein God’s name is erased as part of the process of resolving the husband’s suspicions about his wife, indicating that creating interspousal harmony and saving a marriage is important enough to permit violating the biblical law forbidding the erasure of God’s name.
This idea that there is a measure of importance which can permit the erasure of God’s name is identified by Ahitofel as the inner logic of the suspected wife procedure. By whatever measure one determines that marital harmony is important, it is fairly intuitive that saving the world is even more important. The inner logic of the suspected wife procedure would therefore of course permit the erasure of God’s name to save the world. The a fortiori closely follows the logic of the legal procedures of the sotah law, intuitively extending its application to his situation.
Detailing this process is important, as it enables a more nuanced perspective on the role of rabbinic creativity. Rabbinic exegesis of this sort is not an attempt to replace a biblical law that has nothing to say to a world other than the one it was given into. Instead, it is an attempt to bridge the gap that developed between the canonized law and the ever-changing reality. It does not replace the biblical law but extends it, according to its own internal logic, to contexts it had not previously encountered.
The significance of this is in how we perceive rabbinic law. Rabbinic law could be seen as rendering biblical law irrelevant, replaced and abandoned in the dustbins of history. However, rabbinic law could also, and according to this argument, should, be seen as maintaining biblical law’s relevance. By taking the inner logic of the biblical law as its point of origin, rabbinic creativity guarantees the continued relevance of biblical law. When Ahitofel crafts the argument that enables calming of the primordial waters, he is affirming biblical law rather than superseding it.
This understanding of the relationship between biblical law and rabbinic creativity bears great significance for the relationship between the Sinaitic and Davidic covenants. The two covenants exist throughout the Bible as contradictory conceptions of God’s relationship with the nation of Israel, the tension between them minimized only by virtue of their confinement in separate passages. Sometimes there are passages, however, that deal with both the Sinaitic and Davidic covenants, and as such they perforce attempt to resolve the tension between the two.
One method of resolution is what Levenson calls “the subordination of the Davidic covenant to the Sinaitic,” in which “the entitlement of the house of David is no longer indefeasible; it is contingent upon the observance of mitzvot.” These texts side with the Sinaitic covenant over the Davidic one by making the dynastic reign of the Davidic kings dependent on their observance of the laws of Moses. Our rabbinic narrative presents us with a similar but more extreme resolution. The restraint of primordial chaos, a role usually reserved for the king and his temple, has been transferred to a rabbinic figure and to the law. Our text depicts the Davidic covenant of kingship as not just subordinated to but as replaced by the Sinaitic covenant of the law, albeit in its rabbinic extension.
Our narrative therefore presents us with a claim about the purpose of rabbinic legal creativity as well as a vision of the law, both biblical and rabbinic, winning out over the king and temple as the center of the covenant between God and Israel. It utilizes tropes from ancient near eastern mythology to connect the law to the stability of the created world, and in doing so it displaces the temple that is so central in these mythologies. These themes, the stabilizing effect of the law and the displacement of the temple by the law, appear in other places in the Bavli as well. “God made a condition with the works of creation: ‘If Israel accepts the Torah, you will continue to exist, and if not, I will return you to chaos and void” (Shabbat 88a). “Since the day the Temple was destroyed, God has no [place] in the world other than the four cubits of the law” (Berakhot 8a).
Taken altogether, the force of our narrative lies behind the idea that rabbinic legal creativity maintains the covenant of the law, carrying it into an exilic world in which a covenant of king and temple had ceased to be relevant. For the contemporary reader, our narrative suggests answers to some of the fundamental questions of Jewish life: rabbinic law is intended as a law that responds to a changing and chaotic world, and it does so not by replacing the biblical law, but by applying the biblical law’s logic to an ever-changing reality.