9/07/2005

Thou Shalt Not Erect Monoliths

I’ve written about the Rambam’s take on the Mitzvah of ‘Tamim Tihiyeh’, in this weeks parsha, a while ago. There’s another mitzvah in the parsha that I find to be very fertile for an admonition of many elements of the contemporary scene. As the title reflects, there’s aBiblical prohibition, at the beginning of the parsha, against setting up ‘matzeivot’. As Rashi points out, and as is clear from the usage in Bereishis, a matzeivah is a monolith, a single stone that is erected to become the focus of the worship of a particular deity. A mizbei’ach was made of many stones, and was a locus of animal sacrifice.
The strange part, and many commentators ask this, is that if the Torah was offended, as Rashi claims, by monoliths because they were used in pagan worship, then why aren’t mizbeichot guilty by the same association?
The main approach to resolving this question within the commentators is to describe a monolith as something intrinsically bad, or endemic to paganism, as opposed to a mizbei’ach which is described as being a tool for worship in general.
Of course, all answers are constrained by the fact that the Patriarchs erected monoliths. It’s not acceptable to most commentators, nor to myself, to say that reports of the Patriarchs’ erection of monoliths are from the Elohist whereas the prohibition is from the Deuteronomist. Similarly, it’s not acceptable to most commentators (but I’m personally OK with it) to suggest that the theology of the Partiarchs was underdeveloped and monolatrous’ or ‘henotheistic’.
There’s an approach that I’ve heard as attributed to the Maharal, that basically understands the problem with monoliths as being, well, monolithic. One idea, or theory, or path, or way of thinking becomes so gigantic to as to preclude anything else from intruding. In the dictionary.com definition: “characterized by massiveness and rigidity and total uniformity”, like Stalinism or Chabad.
The Maharal can understand that the Patriarchs would be monolithic; when one introduces a new idea, a new way, there’s no way for that founder to conceive of his project from several angles, in several models, with the contribution and production of many disparate elements. When something progresses from being an individual issue to being a communal issue, monoliths become dangerous in that they overwhelm dissent and diversity.
It seems that God doesn’t want to be worshipped monolithically.
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