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The Elimination of Temptation: Understanding a Popular Midrash

August 15, 2014

Sanhedrin 64a:

“And they cried with a loud voice unto the Lord their God.” Now what did they say? — R’ Judah, or as others maintain, R. Jonathan said: [They cried this:] ‘Woe, woe, it is that [sc. idolatry] which destroyed the Sanctuary, burnt the Temple, slew the righteous, and exiled Israel from their land; and still it sports amongst us! Have You not set it before us that we might be rewarded [for withstanding its allurements]? But we desire neither temptation nor reward!’… They fasted for three days, entreating for mercy; thereafter their sentence fell from Heaven, the word emeth [truth] written upon it. (R. Hanina said: This proves that the seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, is emeth.) The shape of a fiery lion’s whelp issued from the Holy of Holies, and the Prophet said to Israel, That is the Tempter of Idolatry. While they held it fast, a hair [of its body] fell out, and his roar of pain was heard for 400 parasangs. [In perplexity] they cried: ‘What shall we do? Maybe Heaven will pity him!’ The prophet answered: Cast him into a lead cauldron, and cover it with lead to absorb his voice, as it is written, And he said, “This is wickedness; and he cast it into the midst of the ephah: and he cast the weight of lead upon the mouth.”

A similar version of this story appears in Yoma 69b.

Many have understood this midrash as a historical truth. See, for example, Rabbi Avigdor Miller’s Torah Nation 198-199, where he presents the usual Jewish day school understanding, and in a lifetime attending Modern Orthodox places of education I have never heard otherwise. Much has been made of this Gemara by, for example, the Vilna Gaon, who noted that the abolition, as Rav Miller called it, of this evil inclination coincided with the cessation of prophecy among the Jewish people. This observation is the starting point for many divrei torah that seek to find a metaphysical connection between the two, mostly along the lines that idolatry and prophecy are two sides of the same coin, and the absence of one demands the absence of the other.
Fortunately, the Arstcroll Hebrew version of the above includes the comment, tucked away at the end, that “there are those who understand this midrash in a non-literal fashion.” This for example, serves to explain why the inclination was present in the Holy of Holies, the place where the prophets perceived as the point of emanation of the prophetic voice.
Here is another understanding. According to Maimonides:

1. The evil inclination toward idolatry seems to have survived the early Second Temple period alive and well. Note that the subsequent centuries witnessed many Hellenized Jews worshiping in the manners of the gentiles, and the halachic tradition, starting with the mishnaic and talmudic tractate Avodah Zara, Idolatry, was composed between the second and sixth centuries, and both Maimonides and Rabbi Joseph Karo, among others, included the relevant laws in their codes.

2. Even though the Jews have not produced a mainstream and accepted prophet since the early Second Temple era, it does not mean that prophecy has ceased. As he explains elsewhere, two things are necessary for one to prophecy: a person has to reach the level of a prophet, and God has to say something. It is just coincidental that either no one has reached that level, or no one on that level was around when God decided to speak.

3. The story seems to be metaphorical. a. Why wasn’t it recorded in the books of Zechariah and Nehemia, the sources for the expounded verses, or any time before the third century? b. Why does it use scattered and out of context verses? c. Since when do the sages wrestle with lions of fire? Maimonides wrote that wise people readily perceive that these stories are usually deeply metaphorical, and code for something else.

I believe that something else is this. In the olden days, idolatry was basically pagan. People believed that, for example, if you wanted it to rain, you needed to appease the Rain God, and this was because ancient man had no understanding of the natural conditions that cause rain. Eventually, humanity, including the Jews, moved away from these pagan ideas, and developed more sophisticated religious and philosophical beliefs. Note that the classical Greek philosophers were not considered by Maimonides, the Kuzari, and others to be idolaters. Rather, they already were somewhat monotheistic, and they disputed the sages with regards to the nature of the Primal Cause and the eternity of the universe and the like, but they were not idolaters. The spread of these classical philosophical ideas beyond Greece, to Egypt and ancient Judah, took place during the era of the early Second Temple and the Great Assembly. The sages were noting that the great work, namely religious restoration, undertaken by Ezra and Nehemia and the last prophets led to the Jews as a whole reaching a national consciousness of the utter futility of old school idolatry, but, as I wrote last week, new, more subtle forms of idolatry would still persist.

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