(Don’t Be Like Moses) Politics & Compromise in the Talmud (Judah b. Korha)

Moses and Aaron

In the current political climate, these words made a lot of sense the other day in the synagogue. Instead of righteous prophetic truth telling, instead of Moses and the law of strict justice that “cuts through mountains,” there’s Aaron, the pursuit of peace, or rather the wisdom of the sage and the art political compromise, finding the imperfect balance between one with the other. In shul about politics and the virtue of political compromise, it was my good luck and fortune to make it just in time to hear the rabbi parse this bit of Talmud before the public (b.Sanhedrin 6b-7a).

“R. Eliezer the son of R. Jose the Galilean says: It is forbidden to arbitrate in a settlement, and he who arbitrates thus offends, and whoever praises such an arbitrator [bozea’] contemneth the Lord, for it is written, “He that blesseth an arbiter [bozea’], contemneth the Lord.” But let the law cut through the mountain, for it is written, “For the judgment is God’s.” And so Moses’s motto was: Let the law cut through the mountain. Aaron, however, loved peace and pursued peace and made peace between man and man, as it is written, “The law of truth was in his mouth, unrighteousness was not found in his lips, he walked with Me in peace and uprightness and did turn many away from iniquity.”


Meir says: This text refers to none but Judah, for it is written, “And Judah said to his brethren, What profit [beza’] is it if we slay our brother?” And whosoever praises Judah, blasphemes, as it is written, “He who praiseth the man who is greedy of gain [bozea’] contemneth the Lord.” R. Judah b. Korha says: Settlement by arbitration is a [mitzvah], for it is written, “Execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates.” Surely where there is strict justice there is no peace, and where there is peace, there is no strict justice! But what is that kind of justice with which peace abides? — We must say: Arbitration. So it was in the case of David, as we read, “And David executed justice and righteousness [charity] towards all his people.” Surely where there is strict justice there is no charity, and where there is charity, there is no justice! But what is the kind of justice with which abides charity? — We must say: Arbitration.

Don’t be like Moses. Be like Aaron. Refusing to come to terms, prophetic truth telling grates on the ear. Nothing is pure, not in this world. The more I learn, the more the form of rabbinic discourse in the Babylonian Talmud resembles cut and deal liberalism. The contemporary political takeaway requires some transposition. The text itself makes reference to legal arbitration, not politics. And the term that the rabbi interpreted as compromise, is actually translated as “arbitration” in the Soncino translation. The Soncino editors note: “The root-meaning of וֹצּﬠב is ‘to cut’; hence the word translated, ‘covetous’, is taken in the sense of an arbiter in a compromise, when the difference between two claims is split.”


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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