Ham, Sex, Wool and Linen: "I want to perform all those forbidden acts"

Here is a troubling theological question.  Should one say that the biblical commandments are perfect and any truly pious person would by nature want to observe them?

Or should we admit that we want to sin, but that we overcome that natural impulse in order to observe the commandments?

I came face-to-face with a simple rabbinic statement of this dilemma while working on my doctoral dissertation at Brown some years back on the traditions of Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah. (You thought maybe I was going to tell you about my personal experiences with temptations? Nu, no such luck.)

According to the midrash in the collection called Sifra, Eleazar takes a definite side in this debate. He adduces proof that one should say that yes, he wants to sin and that yes, he curbs his inclination in accord with the precepts of the Torah.

Here is the citation from my thesis:

A. "And I have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine (Lev. 20:26)."
B. If you are separated from the nations, you are mine. If not, lo, you [belong] to Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylonia and his associates.
C. R. Eleazar b. Azariah says,
D. "From whence do we know that
E. "one should not say, 'I do not wish to wear a garment of wool and linen (stnz); I do not wish to eat meat of a swine; I do not wish to have relations with a forbidden relation (`rwh)'?
F. "But [he should say rather], 'I want to [perform all those forbidden acts but] what can I do, for my father in heaven so decreed on me [that I should not do so].'

G. "It comes to teach, 'And I have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.'
H. "We find that one separates himself from transgression and takes upon himself the yoke of heaven." [Sifra Qedosim, pereq 11:22, ed. Weiss, p. 93b]

Comment: C, E, and F are Eleazar's statement. D and G provide the exegetical language and verse as a context for the statement. The comment in H provides an appropriate gloss for the unit C-G, linking it back to A-B.

Eleazar's saying is related to the issue of one's intention. Here the question is not intention in the performance of a commandment but in the abstention from sin. Intention in general is not a common concern of Eleazar's rulings.
See this citation in context on p. 188.

And by the way this reminds me of an interfaith statement of a loosely related dilemma regarding sin in a classic rabbi-priest joke:
A priest and a rabbi found themselves sharing a compartment on a train. After a while, the priest opened a conversation by saying, "I know that in your religion you're not supposed to eat pork. Have you actually ever tasted it?"

The rabbi said, "I must tell the truth. Yes, I have, on the odd occasion."

Then the Rabbi had his turn of interrogation. He asked, "Your religion, too... I know you're supposed to be celibate, but...?"

The priest replied, "Yes, I know what you're going to ask. I have succumbed once or twice."

There was silence for a while. Then the Rabbi peeped around the newspaper he was reading and said, "Better than pork, isn't it?"
In temperament, I agree with Eleazar. (Repost from 5/05)


Drew_Kaplan said...

Interesting - I had wondered why in Neusner's (and his students) used such a format - it's definitely a neat use of form criticism. Thanks!

Barzilai said...

I seem to remember that the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim says that this only applies to super-rational laws, but not to laws that are based on ethics and morality.