Parshat Acharei – Kedoshim
Goats or Pan: Hairy interpretations of the naturalist vs. the phantasmal
Sometimes biblical interpretations clash when it comes to explaining certain terms in the scriptures, namely because of one’s preconceived world view. Very rational people will see everything as something naturally occurring and a person given to belief in the supernatural can tend to see all things as providence. I tend to be somewhere in the middle, not completely given to either school of thought. I think most of us are. Now, I do have many friends that are very prone to loving fantastical interpretations of the Torah. Interestingly, not all of them are necessarily religious people or partial to the miraculous. They just like the thrill of keeping the story larger than life.
Most often this becomes an issue when people have to translate the unknown or ambiguous. Believe it or not the supernatural sounding interpretation usually wins out. We have no better example of that than in the over-killed discussion of “the sons of G-d conceived with the daughters of men,” and the whole nephilim debate. (see Genesis 6) One of the others is found here in this parsha. The Torah reads:
“And they shall not sacrifice anymore
their sacrifices for the Se’irim
after which they still stray after;
this is an eternal statute
for them, and for [all their] generations.”
| Velo-yizbechu od
| et-zivcheihem lase’irim
| asher hem zonim ach areihem
| chukat olam tihieh-zot
| lahem ledorotam.
We aren’t exactly sure what the term se’irim means. But for the most part this is translated as demons, as is seen in the King James Bible and is thus the most widely received understanding. Even bible skeptics will insists on this translation, in the same manner they insist the nephilim references only be understood in light of the folklore simple because it’s juicy material; they rather debate with stuff fit for Ancient Aliens as its a better straw-man, easier to quash than serious scholarship.
What is perplexing to some very rational minded Jews is that this understanding is not without precedence even in our own tradition. This is the understanding of the Chazal – our rabbinic sages from the age of the prophet Ezra until the end of the 7th century that formulated the foundations of Jewish tradition. This in agreement of the midrash, Sifra, and the opinion of geniuses such as S’forno (9th century). So it should come as no surprise that even Rashi holds by this:
“LeSe’irim: to sheidim [Heb. demons]
as in “the se’irim dance there.”
לשעירם: לשדים, |
כמו, “ושעירים ירקדו שם:” |
(ישעיה יג כא) |
Rashi to Leviticus 17:7, 11th Century
Now the rationalists among us can find a alternative meaning presented to us by citing this same verse. Here it will be understood by our tradition to mean demons as well, that dwell in the ruins of a fallen city, encroached upon by the animals of the wilderness. And on this note the naturalist will point out that the se’irim are mentioned in the middle of a long list of desert animals; wild-cats, ferrets, and ostriches before it (Isaiah 13:21); then jackals and wild-dogs after it (Isaiah 13:22). It is therefore very logical for us to assume this is some sort of animal, there is nothing to suggest otherwise.
This would actually be a very logical assumption. It is also suggested by examining the word itself. Se’irim in their few references, just like the mere two references of sheidim in the Tanach, are always spoken of in the plural and without definition. But in the singular we get a obvious hint about the entomology; a sa’ir is a buck, a he-goat. Though we have a clear word for goat in Hebrew, אז – instead we find here in Leviticus the need to be very specific. Instead of merely referring at an animal by species it prescribes them by gender and stage of development. Whereas here in Parshat Acherie it uses the term sa’ir for a male-goat, earlier on in this book we will also see used the gender appropriate term for female-goats; in fact used in combination with a clear mention of the species of which animal we are talking about to prove the point:
“… and he shall bring his offering
a female-kid of the goats.”
| …vhai’va karbano
| s’irat izim…
We could try to dig deeper for a linguistic understanding. However, in our attempts to simplify the language it becomes apparent to us that we are often talking about nicknames; not genus (species) or taxonomic qualities. However, nicknames just like classifications often lend descriptive hints to the subject at hand. Just like hares are so named because they are hairy even at birth, unlike their cousins the rabbits who are born hairless; so too in Hebrew are the goat’s so descriptively nicknamed. The root of the nicknames seir, seirim , seirah, seirat are given because they are hairy. As in the scripture:
“Look, Esau my brother is a hairy man
and I am a smooth man.
| Hain, Eisav achi ish sair
| vanochi ish halach
When we look at this evidence and work our way backwards linguistically it seems like the issues is settled. The case is closed. Until we look at the scholarly translations of the Torah, again we turn to the JPS. Now note that Jewish Publican Society is the standard of Jewish academic scholarship. While giving a hearty helping of tradition it loves to wax poetic, but not as often at the expense of reason. So it is intriguing to some, and seemingly justifying to others, when the JPS translates our verse out for Leviticus 17:7 as:
“And they shall no more sacrifice
unto the satyrs,
after whom they go astray.”
וְלֹא-יִזְבְּחוּ עוֹד, |
אֲשֶׁר הֵם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם: |
Leviticus 17:7 (JPS Translation – 1917)
What are we talking about when we use the word satyrs? We are talking about something like fawns (as in The Lion and the Witch and the Wardrobe), however more precisely this term goes all the way back to ancient Greece where the god Pan is described as being half-man, and yet half-goat on the lower half of his body. Pan being the god associated with nature, fertility and spring became so recognizable as symbolic of the ancient gods that he became the universal symbol of Greco-Roman romanticism several times throughout history. Interestingly this symbol has also been similarly associated with classical satanism (belief in devil worship, the concept of a personified evil as prescribed by religious dualism), as the satyr’s form is clearly unnatural and pagan. But given the options you would wonder why JPS would give such an exotic translation.
Truth be told, even though JPS does not mind saying they don’t know what the meaning is many times when the text is unclear, they too follow the rabbinic and midrashic tradition of interpretation. To some extent it is also true that they have tried to not make waves with the “Authorized Version” (meaning King James Bible) that English speakers were accustomed to use before it. But this choice here is in keeping with our tradition, and for this reasons not completely unfounded.
We will find another reference to the satyrs which also sheds some more light on the subject:
“For the Levites left
their open land and their possession,
and came to Judah and Jerusalem;
for Jeroboam and his sons cast them off,
that they should not execute the priest’s office
“And he appointed priests
for the high places
and for the seir’im and the calves
which he made.”
כִּי-עָזְבוּ הַלְוִיִּם, |
אֶת-מִגְרְשֵׁיהֶם וַאֲחֻזָּתָם, |
וַיֵּלְכוּ לִיהוּדָה, וְלִירוּשָׁלִָם: |
כִּי-הִזְנִיחָם יָרָבְעָם |
וּבָנָיו, מִכַּהֵן |
וַיַּעֲמֶד-לוֹ כֹּהֲנִים, |
וְלַשְּׂעִירִים, וְלָעֲגָלִים, |
אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה. |
2 Chronicles 11:15
There are two suggestions being made to us here; that they made sacrifices of seirim (goats) and calves. But not only that, that in the days of the revolt of northern Israel from the kingdom of Judah they rejected the religion of Israel and the Levitical priesthood, with the people once again degenerated into worship of idols of calves and goats; “asher asah” which they made, which they crafted.
This meaning might be news to most of us, and I admit it seems like I’m going out on a limb here, but its not if we really consider it for a minute. If we look at this verse from our parsha it tells us that the people are to no longer offer sacrifices unto the satyrs – goat beings. Not to just not stray after them, but “asher hem zonim ach areihem / after which they still stray.” How can they still be straying after this type of idolatry when we have never heard of it before in the Torah?
My suggestion is this, we actually have heard of it before, but indirectly. When before have we read in the Torah of people making an idol of an animal and then offering sacrifices before it? That’s right, the egel ha-zahav – the golden calf. (see Exodus 32:4) Thought we don’t hear of the people worshiping and sacrificing goats before, especially to idols made in their likeness, it appears that the children of Israel did in fact do so or they wouldn’t have been prohibited from continuing to do so. Its not hard to imagine, they did exactly this for calves. The reason why we probably never hear of this before, is because the exodus story so far is trying to deal with primary topic at hand; that of removing the people from slavery, and removing the symbols of that slavery from their mindset in the wilderness journey. The symbol of the calf represented an obvious old way of thinking, but the goat less so. If we examine them both the insight enlightens us to the meaning of this verse.
In the case of the calf, it’s not so hard for us to understand why they worshiped it. The entire economy of the Egypt they left surrounded the calf. They were essential for use in labor; both construction and agricultural. They were essential to the diet of Egypt by producing not only meat but also dairy that was a much needed staple. So much was the economy and diet dependent on the calf that when Yosef interprets the dream of famine for the Pharoah his vision is in the form of cattle; both fat and lean, respectively representing years of fortune and famine. (see Genesis 41)
But there was more than just a secular mental connotation, the symbol of the calf was intertwined with the symbol of Hathor (and intern, Isis) – the mother goddess who carried the sun disk between her horns – she was a symbol of rebirth and fertility. According to their mythology, from this cow deity the Pharaohs would suckle nutrients and intern (in a trickle-down effect) these blessing and providence would flow to the people under him. For the Egyptian the calf was central in offerings for worship and in being worshiped. In worshiping the calf the children of Israel were resorting to the old ways of thinking, finding comfort in the old religion and mindset. This was the primary theme of the exodus story, that the children of Israel come out from under that both physically and mentally.
Now if we examine the Egyptian significance of the goat, we are not left without some pretty good examples of goat worship. In fact there was an entire cult centered around worship of the goat and the satyrs in the north Egyptian town of Mendes. There the satyr would become associated with the symbol of Zeus there as well, to whom they would adorn with the head and pelts of a ram. These associations will grow with the more north and the more to the present we come with our mythology (example, the mascot of Thor is the goat). But at the time period of the exodus this symbol of the goat is not yet synonymous with norther paganism.
It goes back to something older, and something they apparently came in contact with again once they reached the highlands of Sinai. You see, unlike in the case of the Egyptians the goat was the central economic currency and lifeblood of the Bedouins who traveled with their flocks of goats. Unlike Egyptians the Bedouin could not herd cattle on huge tracks land, without land they raised hearty animals they could keep on the move. You can’t push goats, but they migrate quite well. And when I say goats are hearty, I mean they are tough. They eat almost anything (don’t leave out a tin can or they might even eat that, really). They can even be outright mean. No matter how small their horns are, they can get you something fierce!
Its the fierceness of the goat symbol that seems to prevail, and in each incarnation going forth we are going to see a scary symbolic nature of this animal taking shape. The reverencing of goats does not stem from or lead to a gentle and nurturing concept of the divine. Instead the apparent reverence towards this concept of deity is going to be based on fear and terror. So much so that going on through out the books of the Neviim and the Ketuvim – the Prophets and the Writings – the symbol of the goat is going to be irreversibly intertwined with the symbol of devils and demons in folklore. This idea is compounded as Edom, the Greeks, the Romans, etc. all continue to be epitomized by the symbol of the goat; people who worshiped idols we do not mind calling false gods, and demons. We only need to look at the capriciousness and inhumanity of their gods to validate why we can so easily can call them devilish. So much has happened to the children of Israel since their days of simple and tranquil goat herders like Yaakov Avinu – Jacob our Father – that now at this point in history the goat is a symbol of fright.
Though there are among our sages those that say the reverencing of the goat in the mind of some people was not necessarily occultic idolatry, they suggests that the cult of the goats was just another way of people trying to connect to the spiritual for protection. (Sforno) In the same way the people didn’t necessarily worship the calf, they just used it as a medium to direct their worship towards the Divine (Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed); so too it was with the goat. This might hold some truth to it, because we do see this come up after the mentions of the different sacrifices that include the goat, including the atonement sacrifices of Yom haKippurim – the Day of Atonements. The symbols and elements of the holy worship of G-d became mingled with the fears and ferocity of the new desert experience. They reverenced it; but maybe a little too much, to the point that the new situation they were in reawakened a primitive fear that had be there under the surface for a while.
During this Omer period I hear a lot of people talking about getting over the tendency to “golden calf it,” to rely on our old comforts and ways of doing things that hold us back from really being free people. But I think its also important that we don’t try to “buck” our spirituality either; that we not give in to fear, fierceness and ferociousness that twists it around. Most certainly we shouldn’t give in to fear that makes us want to see something as ugly, harsher and more unnatural than it really is.