So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-Peor; but no man knows his grave till this day. (D 34:5-6)
This appears to be a contradiction. How can the Torah tell us where Moshe was buried, and in the very next phrase, say that we cannot know where that is!
The answer lies is the nature of the phrase “opposite Beth-Peor”.
In biblical Hebrew, there are two words for “opposite”. The first is “knegged”, which is used for the first time to define the marriage between husband and wife: the literal translation is that the wife “is a helper to oppose him.” This kind of opposition is similar to opposable thumbs: thumbs are only useful because they are able to physically engage with the fingers. This kind of opposition, like a marriage, requires active involvement. The same word, “knegged” is also used to describe the relationship between man and G-d: we are in opposition to each other in precisely the same way as a married couple: there is active interaction and plenty of give and take.
The other word used to define an opposite in Hebrew is “mul.” The Torah tells us no less than three times that we are “mul” Peor. What does this word mean? Mul is the same word as the core of the word for “circumcision” – a “mul” is a cut, an utter and irreversible disconnection. In other words, by saying that we are “mul” Peor, the Torah is telling us that we as a nation, and Moshe later in death, are in contradistinction with Peor. So who was Moshe? He was not Peor. And who are the Jewish people? We can be defined, in a nutshell, by what we are not: we are distinctly and clearly not Peor.
Well. It is good to have that settled. Except, of course, that in order to know that we are not Peor, it might be helpful to understand what, precisely, Peor actually was!
And Israel stayed in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. And they called the people to the sacrifices of their gods; and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. And Israel attached himself to Baal-Peor; and the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. (Num 25)
As Riskin points out, the Jews engage with Moabite harlots, but G-d does not get angry. And then we follow the harlots to sacrifice to idols – and G-d is still not wrathful. What clearly makes G-d furious is when we somehow take it to the next level: we start worshipping Peor.
The Torah is telling us that worship of Peor is worse than sexual crime – it is indeed the worst possible form of idol worship! Is it possible that there is something about Peor which is so much worse than worshipping “normal” pagan idols like the sun or the moon or the stars?
The Gemara tells us that the way to worship Peor was to defecate in front of the idol.
This is, of course, disgusting. But think about it, if you can, from a safe distance. What does it mean to consider the effluence of the body holy? What does it mean to consider feces to be a higher form of worship than praying to the sun?
It means that we think that the product of our body is the greatest form of holiness. It is to suggest that the human body is not only something that exists within nature, but that the natural functions of the human body are close to godliness.
Even praying to the sun is better! At least praying to a star requires one to look upward, to elevate one’s gaze if nothing else. But worship of Peor is service that, literally, wallows in filth. There is no possibility of elevating oneself when one identifies so completely with nature that feces are considered holy!
This can sound like an abstract notion, relevant only in the ancient world with a now-dead religion. But it is something that is very alive today. Consider that in some Jewish circles, girls now have “period parties.” See http://zeek.forward.com/articles/117283 . It is becoming an acceptable way to “improve” the Torah – as many people do not understand what “tumah” (mistranslated as “unclean”) actually means. (I explain these at http://goo.gl/8vGr0 and http://goo.gl/SUuTd .)
So with the best of intentions these Jews conclude, erroneously, that the Torah seeks to embarrass and belittle women for the functioning of their body. And their solution is to celebrate effluence, to pursue Peor. It is the very antithesis of Judaism.
Society as a whole continues to move in this direction. The notion that anything that is “natural” is good is rooted in the same worship of Peor – especially when talking about what the human body does, or desires to do. When we value the natural functioning of our bodies, our very waste, as more special than the spiritual elevation of our bodies and the world around us, then we are engaged in specifically the one thing that Moshe, even in death, has lain in opposition to for 3000 years. Such confused notions are no less than the most vile form of idol worship.