Monthly Archives: August 2018

Isaac and Ishmael Opportunities for Peace within Religious Narrative

by J. KristImage result for J. Kristen Urbanen Urban

The present conflict within Israel/Palestine between the Israeli state and Palestinian Arabs living in territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War is often pictured as mirroring a “sibling rivalry” that has been a part of biblical history for centuries. But while the Genesis story of Isaac and Ishmael is painful reading today for anyone sensitive to the emotional well-being of the other, the narratives that have grown up around this story in Judaism and in Islam are markedly different! What constitutes an expulsion within Jewish tradition, and thus evokes a concern for the trauma visited upon Hagar and Ishmael, actually marks the beginnings of the Islamic tradition and is accepted as the action of an unfathomable and all-knowing God/Allah.

As children of Abraham, Jews and Muslims draw upon rich moral traditions embedded within a shared past recorded in Genesis of the Hebrew Bible and referenced in the Qur’an.[1] It is a past that identifies Ishmael as the father of the Arabs, while his half-brother Isaac becomes the progenitor of the biblical Israelites. What we read in the Genesis account, however, is not an idyllic story, but as Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin observes, the story of a dysfunctional family: “It is the eternal pattern of the book of Genesis: damaged, shattered relationships between siblings and within families.”[2] Indeed, the great drama of Genesis, according to Salkin, is the battle between brothers, whether we talk about Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, or Jacob and Esau:

The Jewish scholar Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi suggests that the Oedipus complex—the battle between father and son—is not at the heart of civilization. No, Yerushalmi says, it is the Cain complex—the battle between siblings. … each one battling for the exclusive love of God. In her book The Curse of Cain, Regina Schwartz bemoans what she calls the Torah’s scarcity principle—this painful idea that there can be only one land, one covenant, one blessing. It is, as she suggests, the dark side of monotheism.[3]

The present conflict within Israel/Palestine between the Israeli state and Palestinian Arabs living in territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War is often pictured as mirroring a “sibling rivalry” that has been a part of biblical history for centuries. But while the Genesis story of Isaac and Ishmael is painful reading today for anyone sensitive to the emotional well-being of the other, the narratives that have grown up around this story in Judaism and in Islam are markedly different! What constitutes an expulsion within Jewish tradition, and thus evokes a concern for the trauma visited upon Hagar and Ishmael, actually marks the beginnings of the Islamic tradition and is accepted as the action of an unfathomable and all-knowing God/Allah.

Such narratives grow out of the sociopolitical contexts of our lives and reflect those realities. When Aristotle spoke of “legitimate” governance in Book III of his Politics, he introduced the concept of “constitution” by which he meant that a government serving the interests of its people must also derive from the set of historical experiences and socio-political institutions they have shared—in a word, their political culture. He understood that a community lives together within a context that both brings meaning to its members and serves to define itself as unique from other communities. Athenians and Spartans constitute such examples. As English School proponent Scott Thomas explains, individuals come to understand themselves as embedded within linguistic traditions and social practices that are “passed on through the narratives that shape the identity of the community.”[4] Drawing upon Alasdair MacIntyre’s Aristotelian-centered social theory as a means of integrating the study of religion into the study of international relations today, Thomas further explains that,

In MacIntyre’s account of social action, the self has a life story, embedded in the story of a larger community from which the self derives a social and historical identity. The life stories of members of the community are intermingled with the stories of others in the story of the communities from which they derive their identity. Thus it follows from MacIntrye’s narrative construction of the self that human actions, such as the construction of state practices, become intelligible only when they are interpreted as part of a larger narrative of the collective life of individuals, communities, and states.[5]

Indeed, it is this notion of narrative that is at the heart of a project between Israeli and Palestinian peace advocates, presented in the 2006 work edited by Robert I. Rotberg, Israeli and Palestinian Narratives of Conflict: History’s Double Helix. Introducing the project, Rotberg writes,

History’s Double Helix is an apt metaphor for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the way that their intertwined reckonings of the past provide fodder and direction for the tit-for-tat battles of the intifada and its inevitable response. . . . A greater appreciation of the separate truths that drive Palestinians and Israelis could plausibly contribute to conflict reduction.[6]

It’s not an easy undertaking, however, as psychologists Daniel Bar-Tal and Gavriel Salomon intimate:

The collective memory narrative has a number of characteristics. First, it does not necessarily tell a true history but rather describes a past that is useful for the group to function and even exist. It is a story that is biased, selective, and distorted, that omits certain facts, adds others that did not take place, changes the sequence of events, and purposely reinvents events that did take place. In short, it is a narrative constructed to fit the current needs of the group. … The narrative of past events, moreover, not only undergoes major revisions to suit present day needs, but is often invented years after the events have taken place.[7]

Which is to say, collective narratives are functional. That collective narratives are functional, however, is what gives them potential within the peace community. As MacIntyre argues, tradition does not mean stagnation; rather, historically driven understandings must be revisited to make palpable “those future possibilities which the past has made available to the present.”[8] Can the religious imaginings of two peoples, then, be brought to bear on the discourse concerning political identity today? Using secondary sources—I am a political scientist, not a theologian—I will examine first the Genesis narrative of the Jewish midrashim (body of Jewish rabbinical commentary and interpretations) surrounding the Isaac/Ishmael story and then the Qur’anic narrative of this same story as understood in Islamic exegesis.

The Genesis Story

Briefly, the story of Isaac and Ishmael that is found in Genesis 16-21 introduces us to Abram and Sarai, who will later be re-named Abraham and Sarah, the world’s first Jews. As the story goes, they have moved to Canaan from Mesopotamia. Being old and childless, Sarah gives her Egyptian maid, Hagar, to Abraham in hopes the couple will have a child by the maid. When Hagar becomes pregnant, her continued presence in their house becomes intolerable to Sarah, who complains to Abraham. “Do with her what you want,” he tells her. Sarah treats the maid badly and Hagar escapes into the wilderness. There she is met by an angel of the Lord, who tells her to return to her mistress and submit to her authority—that the Lord

will so greatly multiply your descendants that they cannot be numbered for the multitude. … [that] you are with child, and shall bear a son; you shall call his name Ishmael; because the Lord has given heed to your affliction. He shall be a wild ass of a man; his hand against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell over against all of his kinsmen. (Gen. 16:9-12)

More than ten years later, Sarah becomes pregnant and has a son Isaac, whom Abraham fetes with a great celebration at the event of Isaac’s weaning. Genesis 21:9 tells us that “Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing [metzachek] with her son Isaac.” There have been countless rabbinical explanations of what Ishmael might have been doing, but whatever it was, Sarah appeals to Abraham, demanding that he send her away (Gen. 21:10). Abraham is not happy to hear this, but when God tells him to do what Sarah asks, he consents, and the two are cast into the wilderness alone, Abraham giving them bare provisions when he sees them off. At one point a spring of water miraculously wells up in the desert and revives them. An angel appears to confirm God’s earlier message to Hagar that Ishmael would be the father of a great nation (Gen. 21:14-21). The next time we read of Ishmael, he and Isaac are coming together to bury their father, after which follows a list of Ishmael’s twelve sons (the number twelve representing a sign of nationhood), who survived him after his death at 137 years of age (Gen. 25:9-18)

Jewish Narratives

The Isaac/Ishmael story of Genesis is a problematic one for Jews, whose ethical center is grounded on a caring egalitarian ethic and the command to take care of “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger” that is found in Exodus 22:21-24 and Deuteronomy 10:18. Indeed, when Rabbi Milton Steinberg discusses what it means to be a religious Jew, he quotes the succinct statement of the famous Palestinian sage Hillel: “That which is harmful to thee do not to thy neighbor. That is the whole doctrine. The rest is commentary.”[9] Sarah’s relationship with Hagar, which results in the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael to the wilderness, and the characterization of Ishmael in this story are especially troublesome passages that, on the face of it, violate this “Golden Rule.” How have these events been explained in the Jewish narrative tradition?

Sarah and Hagar

As Elie Wiesel painfully observes: “How can Jewish history begin with a domestic quarrel between a rich elderly mistress and her young servant?”[10] He continues,

If only Sarah could have shared her love between Isaac and Ishmael! If only she could have brought them together instead of setting them apart! Maybe some of today’s tragedies would have been avoided. The Palestinian problem is rooted in the separation of these two brothers. As always, we must ask, Is it the mother’s fault?[11]

It is true that the relationship between Sarah and Hagar reflects one set of issues that have spawned a number of midrashim over the centuries. The most ancient of these sought to protect the image of Abraham and Sarah, who were seen to constitute a new beginning in God’s creation. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr quotes Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann in explaining that,

In light of the preceding eleven chapters [of Genesis], then, the singling-out of Abram and Sarai appears as still another attempt by God to set things right, “to fashion an alternative community in creation gone awry, to embody in human history the power of the blessing.” [Gen.12:1-3][12]

Thus, Sarah’s infertility was variously explained in the Midrash Rabbah as being God’s way of ensuring that Sarah’s prayers would not cease; that since she was beautiful and rich, she might have become too independent had she immediately been blessed with sons; and that “[she] might give the greatest possible pleasure to [her] husban[d], since pregnant women are bloated and inelegant.”[13] However, for the rabbis, Darr contends that Sarah was foremost a symbol of hope: “certain of their elaborations upon the Sarah stories indicate that they perceived in Sarah a presage of the world to come.”[14] This was larger than imagining the future of Zion, however—symbolizing how God could bring a people out of a barren matriarch; it served as an example of how God’s people, living in a difficult present, ought to live in order to bring about such a future. Darr continues,

More than a Bronze Age relic or a portent of the future, Sarah was a model for faithful Jewish living. When Abram and Sarai were in Haran, for example, and Abraham busied himself converting the heathen to Judaism, Sarai was right beside him converting the women. Despite her great beauty, she remained modest and loyal to her husband. Moreover, in times of trouble she, like other biblical matriarchs, prayed to God, and the Lord took pleasure in her prayers. It was on account of her good deeds, therefore, that Sarah was relieved of the onus of barrenness and granted a child.[15]

Although it conforms to such legal standards of the day as the Hammurabi Code in terms of a moral reckoning, Sarah’s treatment of Hagar and Ishmael borders on cruelty. And while rabbinical interpretations of the past tended to exonerate her actions by focusing on the insubordination of Hagar and Ishmael, more recent interpreters do criticize her harsh demands. For example, Darr quotes from Renita Weems’ essay, “A Mistress, A Maid, and No Mercy,” saying,

Taking advantage of Hagar’s slavewoman status, exploiting the fact that the woman who tended to her house was vocationally limited and her financial options virtually non-existent, Sarai took advantage of her status over Hagar. She knew that the way to enslave a slave—all over again—was to humiliate her, to destroy her (newfound) sense of self-worth, to dehumanize her.[16]

Elie Wiesel condemns her actions as well, but draws upon earlier tradition for support that also seeks to explain Jewish history:

The great Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman—the Ramban–Nahmanides—comments that when our ancestress Sarai (or Sarah) persecuted Hagar, she committed a sin. Abraham, by not preventing her, became an accomplice to that sin. That is why God heard the lament and the tears of Hagar and gave her a wild son whose descendents would torment in every way the descendents of Abraham and Sarah. The sufferings of the Jewish people, said the Ramban, derive from those which Sarah inflicted upon Hagar.[17]

Phyllis Trible, in Texts of Terror, also sees a foreshadowing of Jewish history in her condemnation of Sarah’s actions:

As the life of the mistress has prospered, the lot of the servant woman has worsened. With a disturbing twist, the words of Sarah anticipate vocabulary and themes from the Exodus narrative. When plagues threatened the life of his firstborn son, Pharaoh cast out (grš) the Hebrew slaves. Like the monarch, Sarah the matriarch wants to protect the life of her own son by casting out (grš) Hagar the [Egyptian] slave. Having once fled from affliction (Gen. 16:6b), Hagar continues to prefigure Israel’s story even as Sarah foreshadows Egypt’s role. Irony abounds.[18]

Finally, Darr draws our attention to the patriarchal stage upon which the Genesis drama is being played out. If we see Sarah and Hagar as actors “under the direction—indeed the total control—of a director: the anonymous, omniscient biblical narrator,”[19] we may be predisposed to thinking about Sarah, Hagar, and Abraham in certain ways. For example, this narrator does not question the institution of slavery or the pain caused by the institution of patriarchy; rather, he blames the victims. “He suggests, for example, that if females suffer in polygynous relationships, it is not because such relationships are likely to be oppressive, but rather because women are vicious and competitive.”[20] Feminist scholar Esther Fuchs adds to this with her criticisms that,

Hidden in the background of the power struggle between these women [however] is the male protagonist for whose approval both women are vying. In this manner biblical ideology shifts our attention away from the source of the problem to its symptoms, blaming … the female victims of polygyny for its unsavory aspects.[21]

In Genesis 16:2 we hear Sarai tell Abram, “Because Yahweh has prevented me from bearing children, go to my maid. Perhaps I shall be built up from her.” Things do not go as planned. Trible suggests that when Hagar learns she is pregnant,

Hagar acquires a new vision of Sarai. Hierarchical blinders disappear. The exalted mistress decreases, while the lowly maid increases. Not hatred, but a re-ordering of the relationship is the point. … This unexpected twist provides an occasion for mutuality and equality between females, but it is not to be. If Hagar has experienced a new vision, Sarai remains within the old structures.[22]

What we are told in Genesis 16:4 is that for Hagar, Sarai was “lowered in her eyes.” Darr relays that “the rabbis, motivated no doubt by a desire to exonerate Sarah as much as possible, explained it very much at Hagar’s expense:” and quotes the following from Louis Ginzberg’s The Legends of the Jews:

No sooner had Hagar’s union with Abraham been consummated, and she felt that she was with child, than she began to treat her former mistress contemptuously, though Sarah was particularly tender toward her in the state in which she was. When noble matrons came to see Sarah, she was in the habit of urging them to pay a visit to “poor Hagar,” too. The dames would comply with her suggestion, but Hagar would use the opportunity to disparage Sarah.[23]

Abraham gives Sarah complete authority over Hagar, and we are told by the Genesis narrator that “Then Sarah dealt harshly with her” (16:6). Hagar flees to the wilderness where a number of very interesting things happen. First, she is confronted by the Lord’s angel, who tells her she must return to her mistress’ authority. Then Hagar receives a divine promise: “I will greatly increase your offspring and they shall be too many to count” (16:10). Lest this seem like a small thing, Darr quotes Jo Ann Hacket’s “Rehabilitating Hagar”: “This is the only case in Genesis where this typical J-writer promise is given to a woman rather than to a patriarch, and so we sit up and take notice.”[24] Third, Hagar receives a speech concerning her unborn child (Gen. 16:9-12). While technically this is not an annunciation speech since Hagar already knows she is pregnant, Darr explains in a footnote that

The rabbis believed … the angel’s words were a true annunciation speech, for they claimed that Hagar’s first conception ended in miscarriage before her escape, when her jealous mistress “cast an evil eye on her.” Ishmael, about whom the angel spoke, was not conceived until after Hagar returned to Sarai and Abram.[25]

Finally, Hagar’s encounter with the divine is a singular event for another reason: “So she called the name of the Lord, who spoke to her, ‘Thou art a God of seeing’; for she said, ‘Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?’” (Genesis 16:13). Thus, Hagar’s response is to name God—“an astonishing act undertaken by no other person in the Hebrew Bible. ‘You are El-roi [“God of seeing”],’ she says.”[26] Trible comments on Hagar’s exceptional insight:

The expression is striking because it connotes naming rather than invocation. In other words, Hagar does not call upon the deity … instead, she calls the name, a power attributed to no one else in all the Bible. … The maid … after receiving a divine announcement of the forthcoming birth, sees (r’h) God with new vision. Hagar is a theologian. Her naming unites the divine and human encounter: the God who sees and the God who is seen.[27]

The Expulsion

Hagar returns to Sarai and Abram, whence Hagar gives birth to Ishmael. Fifteen years later, when Isaac is roughly three, at the time of his weaning, Sarah demands that her husband “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac” (Gen. 21:10). The story continues,

But God said to Abraham, ‘Be not displeased because of the lad and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your descendents be named. And I will make a great nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. (Gen. 21:12-14)

The tough questions? Why would Sarah demand this? Why would God side with her? Why didn’t Abraham do more to help Hagar, such as provide her with real provisions, guards, a camel? Trible notes the language of distance and separation in the Genesis narrative, which serves to reinforce the terror of the expulsion of this mother and son into the unknown:

To minimize Abraham’s relationship to Ishmael, God calls him “the lad” rather than “your son.” Moreover, the deity describes Hagar not as “your wife” but as “your slave woman,” a description that tellingly emulates the vocabulary of Sarah (Gen. 21:10). If Abraham neglected Hagar, God belittles her.[28]

Once in the desert, the water runs out and both Hagar and Ishmael are near death. Hagar is distraught:

She left the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears. God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not; for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is. Arise, lift up the boy, and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink. God was with the boy and he grew up; he dwelt in the wilderness and became a bowman. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt (Gen. 21:15-21, Hebrew Bible).

Hagar moves away from her child so as not to see him die? Elie Wiesel tries to explain such un-motherly behavior. Perhaps “she distances herself so she can cry out loud. As long as she is near her son, she manages to hold back her tears—so as not to frighten him, not to distress him. What could be more natural, more human, on the part of a mother?”[29]

Hagar weeps, but God responds to Ishmael. The rabbis explain this by saying that Hagar was praying to idols, while Ishmael’s cries were to God. Indeed, we learn from Ginzberg’s collection of Jewish legends that Ishmael cried: “Oh Lord of the world! If it be Thy will that I should perish, then let me die in some other way, not by thirst, for the tortures of thirst are great beyond all others.”[30] Darr observes that the narrator’s patriarchal lens may be at work here—Hagar’s personhood is not as significant as saving the life of the male heir, destined to be the father of a nation. She also quotes Elsa Tamez, a Latin American liberation theologian who sees in Ishmael’s name a reason for the change in focus:

God has heard the cry of Ishmael; he is called Ishmael, because God is, and always will be, ready to hear the cries of the son of a slave. Ishmael signifies in Hebrew ‘God hears,’ and God will always listen to children such as Ishmael who are the victims of injustice.[31]

Ishmael’s Character

A third troublesome aspect of the Isaac/Ishmael story that we consider here is the description of Ishmael provided in two separate Genesis accounts and the inferences that have been drawn from them within Jewish tradition. The first description of Ishmael comes from the angel who first meets Hagar when she is pregnant in the wilderness. Hagar is told that “He will be a wild ass of a man; his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; he shall dwell alongside all of his kinsmen” (Gen. 16:12). As Salkin observes, this portrayal suggests that

Ishmael is less than fully human; he is like a boy reared by wolves in the wilderness. He is destined to be violent, confrontational, an archer, a warrior, a loner. He will dwell al penei kol echav, “alongside all his kinsmen.” [That is, not with them.] But the phrase al penei can also be translated as “in the face of.” Ishmael will get into people’s faces, which is precisely what gets him and his mother thrown out of Abraham and Sarah’s household.[32]

Darr quotes Gerhard von Rad, who finds in this Genesis verse, “a worthy son of his rebellious and proud mother! In this description of Ishmael there is undoubtedly undisguised sympathy and admiration for the roving Bedouin who bends his neck to no yolk.”[33] Wiesel tells us how the earlier rabbis interpreted this, and with his own commentary, provides us with a more sensitive perspecti

He would be wild. … He would have his fingers in everything. The commentators did not hesitate to explain: He would be a thief. Violent. Poor thing: he isn’t even born yet and already he is being accused of crimes and sins as vague as they are unfair. He is not even born yet and already he is being made an antisocial being. From the moment he arrives, what does he see? Helpless, he is witness to some painful scenes: His mother is humiliated without end. What must he think of the system in which he grows up? What must he think of the patriarch Abraham whose reputation transcends borders? Or of God who permits so much injustice within His human family?[34]

Arthur Waskow wrestles with this text from God as a Fabranganer, a member of a community of Jews that comes together on a weekly basis to discuss Torah using a midrashic style of learning. He focuses on Ishmael’s name rather than the descriptive passage provided by God’s angel:

Literally, the Hebrew Yishma El means “God heard,” and the name is given first by God directly to the pregnant Hagar when God hears her sorrow over Sarah’s harsh treatment of her. Then the name is confirmed in the desert when God hears the despairing cry of Ishmael and Hagar and offers them life and water. But this name also has echoes in the other line of Abraham’s seed; for at the crossroads moment of Jewish history, the moment of deepest despair and suffering in Egypt, the people cried out and their cry came up to God, and God heard their groaning and began the process of their deliverance from Egypt. Again so like! The cry of despair rises from the exiles of the Land, both sets of exiles, both seeds of Abraham: the cry rises from the child of Hagar and from the children of Sarah. And the cry is heard.[35]

The other troublesome Genesis passage (21:9) depicts an Ishmael who, on the day of his brother’s weaning celebration, metzachek (laughs or plays) on the sidelines. Waskow tells us, “The word is usually translated ‘making sport.’ The rabbis, clearly concerned over the seeming injustice of the expulsion, have argued that it means Ishmael was engaged in idolatry, or violence, or sexual license.”[36] As Salkin explains,

The rabbis imagined that Ishmael committed every classic sin. Maybe Ishmael was “fooling around” violently. One midrash portrays Ishmael as shooting arrows at Isaac … (Genesis Rabbah 53:11). The midrash foresees that he will become a highwayman and a robber. Ishmael will use his archery skills to hunt defenseless animals (Genesis Rabbah 49:5). Maybe Ishmael was “fooling around” sexually. The midrashim suggest that he is polymorphously perverse–sexually violating married women and Isaac. Maybe Ishmael was “fooling around” religiously by worshiping idols. A midrash suggests that Ishmael used to catch locusts and sacrifice them to idols as “make-believe sacrifices” (Genesis Rabbah 53:11). Ishmael is like the wilderness, which is his home. He is open to everything—a man with no boundaries, a man untouched by civilization.[37]

Darr notes that “the participle metzacheq is a form of tczhq, the same Hebrew root underlying Isaac’s name (Yitzchaq),” which in itself, connotes nothing bad, simply a young boy having fun.[38] She quotes Gerhard von Rad, who runs with this; however, “What Ishmael did need not have been anything evil at all. The picture of the two boys playing with each other on an equal footing is quite sufficient to bring a jealous mother to a firm conclusion: Ishmael must go!”[39] Salkin reinforces this interpretation when he asks: “Is it, as Norman Cohen, professor of Midrash at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, has suggested, that Sarah notices that Ishmael resembles Isaac more than she would have liked to admit, even to herself?”[40]

Islamic Interpretive Literature: Isaac/Ishmael Story

Muhammad was born in Mecca around 570 CE and began receiving divine revelations in 610, revelations, which continued for 22 more years until his death.[41] Transmitted orally to Muhammad, God’s final prophet, and from Muhammad thence to his followers, these revelations were transcribed into written form, collected, and compiled into the collection called the Qur’an within 30 years of Muhammad’s death. Unlike the texts of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, which are generally believed to reflect the inspired word of God, received and recorded by a number of authors over a span of centuries, Muslims believe the Qur’an to be the actual word of God. Indeed, God’s original “book,” which is written in gold, exists in Heaven, and was the source from which all God’s revelations have been given. Since both Jews and Christians misconstrued the original message, it is by means of the Qur’an that He has presented His final message to mankind.

From the Muslim perspective, then, it is to be expected that many of the biblical stories are also reflected in the Qur’an, however, often with variations. As well, since both Jews and Christians were well-represented in the Arab world in the pre-Islamic centuries and had broad discourse with each other through trade and social interactions, many of the biblical stories are not entirely “filled out” in the Qur’an, the assumption perhaps being that they were already known. Reuven Firestone writes that during the first century or so of Islam’s beginnings, Muslims were encouraged to explore these stories with Jews and Christians, “to learn traditions about the biblical and extra-biblical pre-Islamic prophets, though they were apparently forbidden to study or copy Jewish or Christian scripture or learn their religious practices.”[42] By the time of the Abbasid Caliphate, beginning in 750 CE, such consultation was discouraged, when not forbidden. However it must be recognized that Jewish and Christian converts to Islam often brought their own knowledge and interpretations with them when they joined the Islamic faith community, further contributing to variations in the narrative storyline

Firestone highlights three primary types of literature identified in his study of Islamic exegetical literature:

The first category of ideal types is Biblicist—that is, those traditions that evolved out of a biblically based religious milieu. The second category we call Arab. This refers to traditions that had evolved out of a pre-Islamic Arabian environment independent of Biblicist influence. The third ideal-typical category is Islamic, referring to material reflecting Islamic world views that would appear independent of the first two categories.[43]

Since this part of my research relies extensively on Firestone’s work, it is important to know that, by his own appraisal,

The Muslim exegetical works examined in this study represent a small sample of the hundreds if not thousands of medieval works of this type available in printed editions and manuscripts. … The investigation is therefore limited to a sample of twenty medieval works which represent some of the major genres of medieval Arabic literature and major approaches to medieval qur’ānic exegesis. … They represent Sunnī, Shi’ite, mystical, and Mu’tazilite exegesis as well as major legal schools of Islam, thus typifying the most common and influential medieval Islamic worldviews.[44]

He also notes that these are sources that are available and widely read today throughout the Muslim world. Most of the ones I draw upon in his examples would be traced to sources from within one hundred years of Muhammad’s death.

From the Muslim standpoint, Abraham was not the world’s first Jew—rather, he was a good Muslim. As the Qur’an tells us: “Abraham was not a Jew nor yet a Christian; but he was true in Faith, and bowed his will to Allah’s (which is Islam), and he joined not gods with Allah” (Q 3:67). His story is critical to the story of Muslims, as Ingrid Mattson relates:

According to the history of the pre-Islamic Arabs, Mecca was founded as a settlement by Abraham, his concubine-wife Hajar, and their son Isma’il. It was Abraham and his son who built a simple structure, the Ka’ba (literally ‘the cube’) as a center for the worship of God. Other traditions traced the founding of Mecca as the primordial and most sacred of holy sites to Adam, the father of humanity, but credited Abraham and his family with establishing a permanent settlement there.[45]

The Qur’an, which addresses fundamental aspects in the relationship between God and humanity—such as the meaning of life and death, social and economic justice, issues of war and peace, and the significance of community—does not present a narrative history as one finds in the Hebrew Bible. In short, we do not see the “troubling passages” regarding the Isaac/Ishmael story that are found in the Genesis narrative. In fact, Ishmael, the father of the Arab peoples, is only mentioned twelve times in the Qur’an, none of which have evoked the kind of commentary found in the Jewish tradition. These would include Q 2:127, Q 2:133, Q 2:140, Q 6:84-87, Q 14:39, Q 21:85, and Q38:45. Four additional representative samples would be:

Remember We [the divine] made the House a place of assembly for men and a place of safety; and take ye the station of Abraham as a place of prayer; and we covenanted with Abraham and Isma’il that they should sanctify my House for those who compass it round, or use it as a retreat, or bow, or prostrate themselves (therein in prayer). (Q 2:125)

Say ye, “We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and To Abraham, Isma’il, Isaac, Jacob, and the descendents (children of Jacob) and that given to Moses and Jesus and that given to (all) Prophets and their Lord: we make no difference between one and another of them: and we bow to Allah (in Islam).” (Q 2:136)

We have sent thee inspiration, as we sent it to Noah and the messengers after him: We sent inspiration to Abraham, Isma’il, Isaac, Jacob and the descendents, to Jesus, Job, Jonah, Aaron, and Solomon, and to David We gave The Psalms. (Q 4:163)

Also mention in the Book (the story of) Isma’il: he was (strictly) true to what he promised, and he was a messenger (and) a prophet. He used to enjoin on his people prayer and charity, and he was most acceptable in the sight of his Lord.” (Q 19:54-55)

Firestone notes that, while most of the Qur’anic passages merely include Ishmael with the historical rendering of God’s chosen prophets and messengers—one to be revered, as one reveres his father, Abraham—Q 19:54-55 would seem to offer the opportunity for extensive exegetical commentary:

But here we find an extreme scarcity of traditional material. Most likely, this is due to the simple lack of reports available that would paint Ishmael in a favorable light. By the sixth century CE, Jewish exegesis had already long considered Ishmael an enemy of the Jews and contained few traditions that would supply positive information. Pre-Islamic Arabian traditions had virtually nothing to say about Ishmael, since we see no Arabian material about him among the exegetes.[46]

Interestingly, Q 21:85 has spawned several variations on the characterization of Ishmael as being a man of extraordinary patience. Firestone quotes al-Tabarī:

He cites a tradition … on the authority of Sahl b. ’Uqayl that Ishmael promised a man to meet him at a [certain] place. He came but the man forgot. Ishmael remained and stayed there all night until the man came the next day. He said: “You did not leave?” Ishmael said: “No.” He said: “But I forgot!” He replied: “I would not leave until you came.” Thus, he was true and sincere (sādiq).[47]

In other versions, being a man of his word—and great patience—Ishmael stays for as long as three days, waiting until the man finally shows up. Other character traits we learn from these mostly descriptive passages from the Qur’an point to Ishmael as being one of God’s inspired prophets, a righteous, pious, and generous man; and the one who, with his father Abraham, was commissioned by God to build (or re-build) the Ka’ba in Mecca.

Nor do we learn much about Sarah beyond what we read of her in the biblical Genesis passages. Firestone posits that “the most interesting rendition of the birth of Ishmael is found in Ibn Kāthir,” who gives us a lengthy story, sandwiched within which are his (Ibn Kāthir’s) own explanatory notes. For example,

The People of the Book [Jews, Christians] say:

Abraham requested a sound progeny from God, and God gave him good news about having descendents. After Abraham had been in the Holy Land for twenty years, Sarah said to Abraham, “God has forbidden me from having a child. Go in unto my maidservant; perhaps God will provide you with a son through her.”

When she gave her to him, he had sexual relations with her and she became pregnant. When she became pregnant her soul was exalted and she became proud and arrogant to her mistress, so Sarah became jealous of her. Sarah complained to Abraham, who said to her, “Do with her as you desire.” Hagar was frightened and fled. She stopped at a spring.

An angel said to her, “Do not fear, for God will do good for this boy that you are carrying.” He commanded to her that she return and announced to her that she would give birth to a boy whom she would name Ishmael. He would be a wild man. His hand would be over everyone, and the hand of everyone would be against him. His brethren would rule over all the lands. Then she thanked God.

[This prophecy is appropriate for his offspring, Muhammad, for he was the one through whom the Arabs ruled. They ruled all of the lands throughout the east and west. God bestowed upon them useful knowledge and virtuous acts which were not given to any of the people before them. This is because of the honor of their messenger above all of the other messengers, the blessing of his mission, the good fortune of his revelation, the perfection of that which he brought, and the universality of his mission to the people of the earth.][48]

What is referred to as the “expulsion” in Genesis narratives is a “beginning” in Islamic exegesis. However, the Qur’an only tells us that Abraham and Ishmael (thence, presumably Hagar) are in Mecca and that father and son build the Ka’ba. It does not say anything about how they got there. Hence it is through exegetical narratives that these blanks are filled in. Firestone cites three primary storylines, each told on the authority of a separate traditionist: Ibn ‘Abbās, ‘Alī, and Mujāhid.[49] The Ibn ‘Abbās version “exhibits all the earmarks of a Biblicist tradition that has evolved to the point where it is acceptable to an Arab Islamic milieu.”[50] Firestone counts nineteen full and partial renditions of this story, which proceeds as follows:

1. The narrative takes place subsequent to Sarah’s behavior to Hagar. Sarah’s jealousy of her handmaiden after the birth of Ishmael causes conflict and strife between the two women.

2. Hagar lets down her dress or soaks the bottom of her dress to hide her tracks from Sarah.

3. Abraham gives Hagar and Ishmael a saddlebag of dates and a water skin (or a water skin only).

4. Abraham personally brings Hagar and Ishmael to Mecca, to the House [the Ka’ba] or to the location of Zamzam [the well of water provided to Hagar], and leaves them under a large tree (in all versions Abraham brings them to Mecca without God commanding him to do so and without any supernatural assistance).

5. After depositing them there, Abraham departs on his return to Syria, and arrives at Kadā.

6. Hagar follows him and asks him to whom he is entrusting them in that desolate place. When he finally answers, “To God,” or that God commanded him, Hagar is satisfied. Abraham then recites Qur’an 14:37 (or Q 14:38).

7. Ishmael was still being suckled at the time. The water in the water skin runs out and Hagar’s milk stops flowing for her son. Ishmael gets thirsty and begins writhing or having a seizure. Hagar cannot bear to see him die.

8. She climbs the nearby hills of Ṣafā and then Marwa and runs between them seven times like someone exerting himself (or in distress, or like someone not exerting himself).

9. A comment is asserted here on the authority of the Prophet or Abū al-Qāsim that this is why people run between Ṣafā and Marwa [as part of the ritual of the Islamic Hajj].

10. Hagar is desperate because of the worsening condition of her son. She thinks she hears a voice, which turns out to be an angel (or Gabriel), who scratches on the ground with his heel, which brings forth the water.

11. Hagar immediately dams up the flow or scoops water into her water skin (or both).

12. A second comment is inserted here on the authority of the Apostle, Abū al-Qāsim or the Prophet or Ibn ‘Abbās, to the effect: “May God have mercy on the mother of Ishmael. If she had not done that, then Zamzan would be flowing forever with a great volume of fresh water.”

13. The angel tells Hagar not to worry about perishing, for the boy and his father will build the House of God there.[51]

Aside from the obvious Biblicist parallels in this rendition, Firestone notes that there are also elements of Arab lore and Islamic attempts to explain common pre-Islamic traditions. For example, the pre-Islamic tradition of running between the idols adorning the two hills of Ṣafā and Marwa is here reconfigured into part of the ritual that becomes the Islamic Hajj. Additionally, the miracle of the Zamzam (zammat, “she collected”) well in Mecca is explained—as well the reason why it contains so little water![52]

Firestone finds the ‘Alī version of this story to have little grounding in the Biblicist tradition aside from the names of the characters, and writes that it “most likely originated as an Arab or otherwise non-biblically oriented legend that evolved into a hybrid containing some components of Biblicist as well as pre-Islamic Arabic material.”[53] While a number of variants can be found on the ‘Ali version, the main elements of the story that differentiate it from the Ibn ‘Abbās would be the following. First, in this version, God commands Abraham to establish a site of worship at the Ka’ba and he brings Hagar and Ishmael with him: there is no mention of discord between Sarah and Hagar. Second, a supernatural being, the sakīna [in Jewish tradition the shekhinah is God’s spirit], guides him to the delegated place and points out the exact location for the building of God’s House. Third, after Abraham builds the house, he leaves, though Hagar and Ishmael begin to follow him. When she asks who will take care of them, Abraham replies that he is entrusting them to God, which satisfies Hagar. Finally, when Ishmael becomes thirsty, Hagar runs between Ṣafā and Marwa seven times, looking for help. When she returns, she finds Ishmael scratching his heel into the dirt and the presence of the angel Gabriel. Gabriel asks who she is and she tells him she is the mother of Abraham’s son. When he wants to know

“To whom did he entrust you?” She answers, “To God.” Gabriel is satisfied, the boy scratches the ground with his finger, and the water of Zamzam flows out. Hagar begins to hold back the water and is chastised by Gabriel, who says: “Stop that, for the water is fresh!” or in another rendition, “for it quenches thirst!”[54]

As recounted by Firestone, the Mujāhid version, while it contains a number of renditions and, hence, variations, differs from the ‘Alī version in two essential aspects. First, it tells us that the angel Gabriel accompanies Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael as their guide to locate the place where God wants his House built. Second, they all travel by means of the legendary supernatural steed, Buraq. Additionally, only a couple renditions mention the Ṣafā and Marwa excursions or the Zamzam event.

So Ishmael and Hagar arrive in Mecca. How does Abraham’s eldest son—who comes to the area speaking Hebrew—become the progenitor of the Northern Arabs and ultimately, of Muhammad? Firestone provides us with a body of narratives that explain this. According to traditional Arab genealogical reckonings, the Original Arabs arose from tribes long extinct, but whose descendents included the ancient tribe, the Jurhum, who “migrated from Yemen to Mecca, where they are assumed to have controlled the religious rites of the Ka’ba or even to have built it, but were eventually forced to concede control of the holy city and then died out long before the beginning of Islam.”[55] Firestone identifies Ibn ‘Abbās as the primary authority with respect to the Jurhum narratives, which tell us that the Jurham either lived near Mecca or were passing by when they realized there was water in the Meccan valley—the miraculous Zamzam well. They come to check it out, find Hagar and Ishmael as the inhabitants, and ask permission of her to allow them to live there also. She agrees, but retains the water rights. Thus, Ishmael grows up with the Jurhum: he learns Arabic from them, learns to hunt from them, and eventually marries a Jurhumite woman.[56]

Nor, according to Islamic exegesis, is Ishmael bereft of his father’s love and care. Indeed, Abraham comes to visit Hagar and Ishmael a number of times. Several of the later traditions say that his travel was expedited because he rode the Buraq provided him by Gabriel from Paradise.[57] Again, it is Ibn ‘Abbās who provides us with the principal narrative, a story that serves to extend the biblical story that ends abruptly in Genesis 21:21. But Islamic elements also enter the narrative that show Abraham giving guidance concerning what would be considered a “proper wife” for Ishmael, and “ensures that the second generation matriarch of the leadership of Islam is fitting for her role.”[58] The narrative also depicts Ishmael as a dutiful son who obeys his father’s wishes, is a good provider for his family, and is a man who observes the religious sanctity of the Sacred Precinct of Mecca. As Firestone writes:

The Islamic version affirms that Ishmael was never rejected in favor of his younger half brother Isaac. The forbear of the northern Arabs and the Quraysh [Muhammad’s tribe] continued to receive his father’s blessing; his second wife, befitting the Arab matriarch and the progenitor of Muḥammad, received explicit approval from father Abraham. Ishmael remains closely connected with his father and in so doing, remains firmly within the Abrahamic monotheistic tradition.[59]

Discussion and Conclusions

This paper argues that the narratives by which a community defines itself have everything to do with the social and cultural realities in which the community finds itself embedded. That the narrative may change to mirror changing conditions is the means by which identity and tradition are maintained over time; indeed, the resilience of a community’s identity might be measured by its ability to reconcile itself to social and political change. The Jewish midrashic tradition, by which rabbinical authorities struggled with the difficult texts of the Hebrew scriptures, has demonstrated the vibrancy of such a process. In considering the explanations surrounding the Isaac/Ishmael stories found in Genesis, it is apparent that the harshest accounts of Hagar and Ishmael are found in the earliest rabbinical writings. These were times—following the Babylonian exile (586 BCE) and, later, the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans (70 CE)—when the political world of Jews was one of living in minority status. The necessity of promoting a clear distinction between us and them, of explaining the concept of being chosen, of clarifying what it meant to be a Jew in the face of political persecution and turmoil, would have certainly impacted the development of the narrative. Later reflections—certainly those promoted since the founding of the state of Israel—have spawned more generosity. Indeed, we find both rabbis and scholars interpreting these stories in light of the “caring ethic” promoted by Judaism from its beginnings. As well, we find Jewish feminists challenging exploitative or dehumanizing characterizations deriving from what they see as patriarchy-centered narrators.

However, from the perspective of Islamic exegesis, the trauma of Isaac and Ishmael seems to be non-existent! Abraham obeyed God. Hagar and Ishmael show no sense of loss, no anger at having been expelled from Abraham’s house. Indeed, in following God’s commands, Abraham was making it possible for Islam’s groundwork, the lineage of Muhammad, to be laid. Ishmael and Hagar, under God’s protection, moved to the Meccan Valley, became integrated with the Jurhum, one of the tribes of the Original Arabs, and thence, arabized. Abraham never abandons his older son, but returns on many visits, and bestows his love and blessing on Ishmael. It is not inconsequential that these narratives arose within a century or so of Muhammad’s death (d. 632 CE), at a time when the Islamic Empire was on the ascendancy. That is, Muslims could afford to be “generous” in their understandings—they were to be in power for much of the next one thousand years.

Such generosity may be difficult to imagine with respect to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict at this point in time. While Israeli historian Ilan Pappe hopes for the emergence of a “bridging [political] narrative,” such as that used in literary and dramatic works, as a means by which Palestinians and Israelis might come together to develop a single narrative that today accommodates the collective histories of both peoples,[60] the political realities are not presently conducive to such a project. Believing such a goal can only come about when each party respects the collective narrative of the other, Dan Bar-On and Sami Adwan have sought to impact such perceptions through the public education curricula of Israelis and Palestinians.[61] Citing observations of Emmanuel Levinas, who recognized that “the totality of the self cannot contain the infinity of the otherness of the other,”[62] Bar-On and Adwan were prepared for resistance, as their participants sought to determine within themselves how much, and to what extent, they were able to accept the collective history of the other as part of the representation of their own reality today. While the Israeli high school students and their teachers were more willing to accept a side-by-side set of narratives representing an Israeli narrative and a Palestinian narrative, young Palestinians still living under the hardship of Israeli occupation found it much more difficult to be so open to the story of the other. It would seem the actions of individuals here can only, as MacIntyre suggested, be interpreted as part of the larger collective narrative:[63] if the politics change, then so, perhaps, will the political narratives. But perhaps there is an opening for exploring the religious narratives of two brothers separated in their youth.


  1. 1. Quotations from the religious scriptures will be found in the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an.
  2. 2. Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin, Searching for My Brothers: Jewish Men in a Gentile World (New York: The BerkeleyPublishing Group, 1999), 15.
  3. 3. Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin, Searching for My Brothers: Jewish Men in a Gentile World (New York: The Berkeley Publishing Group, 1999), 16. Salkin references two other sources: Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991); Regina Schwartz, The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).
  4. 4. Scott M. Thomas, “Taking Religious and Cultural Pluralism Seriously,” in Religion in International Relations: The Return from Exile, edited by Fabio Petito and Pavlos Hatzopoulos (New York, NY: Palgrave, 2003), 28.
  5. 5. Scott M. Thomas, “Taking Religious and Cultural Pluralism Seriously,” in Religion in International Relations: The Return from Exile, edited by Fabio Petito and Pavlos Hatzopoulos (New York, NY: Palgrave, 2003), 38. Thomas references MacIntyre within this passage: Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (London: Duckworth, 1985), 205-210.
  6. 6. Robert I. Rotberg, “Building Legitimacy through Narrative,” in Israeli and Palestinian Narratives of Conflict: History’s Double Helix, edited by Robert I. Rotberg (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006), 2.
  7. 7. Daniel Bar-Tal and Gavriel Salomon, “Israeli-Jewish Narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Evolution, Contents, functions, and Consequences,” in Israeli and Palestinian Narratives of Conflict: History’s Double Helix, edited by Robert I. Rotberg (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006), 23. In this discussion, the authors also cite Patrick Wright, On Living in an Old Country: The National Past in Contemporary Britain (London, 1985), 142, 165.
  8. 8. Alasdair MacIntyre, “After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (extracts),” in The MacIntyre Reader, edited by Kevin Knight (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1998), 94.
  9. 9. Rabbi Milton Steinberg, Basic Judaism (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc., 1947), 12.
  10. 10. Elie Wiesel, “Ishmael and Hagar,” in The Life of Covenant: The Challenge of Contemporary Judaism (Essays in Honor of Herman E. Schaalman), edited by Joseph A. Edelheit (Chicago: Spertus College of Judaic Press, 1986), 236.
  11. 11. Elie Wiesel, “Ishmael and Hagar,” in The Life of Covenant: The Challenge of Contemporary Judaism, edited by Joseph A. Edelheit (Chicago: Spertus College of Judaic Press, 1986), 248-249.
  12. 12. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Far More Precious than Jewels: Perspectives on Biblical Women (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 93. Also: Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation Series (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982), 105.
  13. 13. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Far More Precious than Jewels: Perspectives on Biblical Women (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 93.
  14. 14. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Far More Precious than Jewels: Perspectives on Biblical Women (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 116.
  15. 15. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Far More Precious than Jewels: Perspectives on Biblical Women (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 116. In this paragraph, Darr also references Mary Calloway, Sing, O Barren One: A Study in Comparative Midrash, Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series, no. 91 (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1986), 5-12, 123-130; and Genesis (Lech Lecha) XXXIX 14, 324.
  16. 16. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Far More Precious than Jewels: Perspectives on Biblical Women (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 153. Darr quotes from Renita Weems, Just a Sister Away: A Woman’s Vision of Women’s Relationships in the Bible (San Diego, CA: LuraMedia, 1988), 10.
  17. 17. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Far More Precious than Jewels: Perspectives on Biblical Women (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 151. Darr quotes Elie Wiesel, 248.
  18. 18. Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 21.
  19. 19. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Far More Precious than Jewels: Perspectives on Biblical Women (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 154.
  20. 20. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Far More Precious than Jewels: Perspectives on Biblical Women (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 155.
  21. 21. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Far More Precious than Jewels: Perspectives on Biblical Women (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 155. Darr quotes Esther Fuchs, “A Jewish Feminist Reading of the Hagar Stories.”
  22. 22. Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 12.
  23. 23. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Far More Precious than Jewels: Perspectives on Biblical Women (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 136. The author quotes Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, Vol. 1, translated by Henrietta Szold (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1909), 238. For this passage, Darr also references Genesis (Lech Lecha) XLV 4, 382.
  24. 24. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Far More Precious than Jewels: Perspectives on Biblical Women (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991),139. The author quotes Jo Ann Hackett, “Rehabilitating Hagar: Fragments of an Epic Pattern,” in Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, edited by Peggy L. Day (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989), 15.
  25. 25. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Far More Precious than Jewels: Perspectives on Biblical Women (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991),159, note 23. The author also quotes Ginzberg, Legends, 239; and cites Rashi (Rabbi Shelomoh Yitschaki, Solomon ben Isaac), Commentaries on the Pentateuch, translated by Chaim Pearl (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1970), quoted in The Soncino Chumash, 77.
  26. 26. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Far More Precious than Jewels: Perspectives on Biblical Women (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 141.
  27. 27. Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 18.
  28. 28. Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 21-22.
  29. 29. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Far More Precious than Jewels: Perspectives on Biblical Women (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 149. Darr quotes Wiesel, 240, 245.
  30. 30. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Far More Precious than Jewels: Perspectives on Biblical Women (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 146. Darr quotes Ginzberg, Legends, 265.
  31. 31. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Far More Precious than Jewels: Perspectives on Biblical Women (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991),146. Darr quotes Elsa Tamez, “The Woman Who Complicated the History of Salvation,” translated by Betsy Yeager, in New Eyes for Reading, edited by John S. Pobee and Bärbel von Wartenberg-Potter (Oak Park, IL: Meyer Stone Books, 1986), 16.
  32. 32. Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin, Searching for My Brothers: Jewish Men in a Gentile World (New York: The Berkeley Publishing Group, 1999), 29-30.
  33. 33. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Far More Precious than Jewels: Perspectives on Biblical Women (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 140. Darr quotes Gerhard von Rad, Genesis, Old Testament Library, translated by John H. Marks (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), 189.
  34. 34. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Far More Precious than Jewels: Perspectives on Biblical Women (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 140-141. Darr quotes Wiesel, 240.
  35. 35. Arthur I. Waskow, Godwrestling (New York: Schocken Books, 1978), 25.
  36. 36. Arthur I. Waskow, Godwrestling (New York: Schocken Books, 1978), 24.
  37. 37. Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin, Searching for My Brothers: Jewish Men in a Gentile World (New York: The Berkeley Publishing Group, 1999), 30.
  38. 38. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Far More Precious than Jewels: Perspectives on Biblical Women (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 142-143.
  39. 39. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, Far More Precious than Jewels: Perspectives on Biblical Women (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 142-143. Darr quotes von Rad, 227.
  40. 40. Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin, Searching for My Brothers: Jewish Men in a Gentile World (New York: The Berkeley Publishing Group, 1999), 29.
  41. 41. For a more complete discussion of the genesis of the Qur’an, the reader is referred to the following: Ingrid Mattson, The Story of the Qur’an: Its History and Place in Muslim Life (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008); M. M. Al-Azami, The History of the Qur’anic Text from Revelation to Compilation: A Comparative Study with the Old and New Testaments (Leicester, UK: UK Islamic Academy, 2003).
  42. 42. Reuven Firestone, Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990), 8. Firestone quotes M. J. Kister, “Haddithŭ ‘an banī isrā’īla wa-ḥaraja: A Study of an Early Tradition,” Israel Oriental Studies II (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, 1972), reprint edited by M. J. Kister, Studies in Jahiliyya and Early Islam (London, 1980), 218-222.
  43. 43. Reuven Firestone, Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990), 9.
  44. 44. Reuven Firestone, Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990), 20-21.
  45. 45. Ingrid Mattson, The Story of the Qur’an: Its History and Place in Muslim Life (Malden, MA: Blackstone Publishing, 2008), 4.
  46. 46. Reuven Firestone, Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990), 45.
  47. 47. Reuven Firestone, Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990), 46.
  48. 48. Reuven Firestone, Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990), 42.
  49. 49. Reuven Firestone, Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990), 63-71. Ibn ‘Abbās: ‘Abdullah b. ‘Abbās b. ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib, died in 687 CE. He is considered “an excellent commentator and the originator of Islamic exegesis,” having learned most of the traditions from the Companions of the Prophet. Firestone also notes that he has been referred to as the “rabbi of the community,” and “the interpreter of the Qur’an.” ‘Alī: ‘Alī b. Abī Tālib died in 660 CE. ‘Alī was the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad and the last of the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs (successors) of the Prophet. He is a well-respected transmitter of the tradition. Mujāhid: Mujāhid b. Jabr al-Makhzūmī, died in 722 CE. According to Firestone, he was a great authority on Qur’an commentary and recitation and a respected transmitter of tradition, “though he has been criticized for taking traditions from the People of the Book.”
  50. 50. Reuven Firestone, Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990), 64.
  51. 51. Reuven Firestone, Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990), 63-64. The reader is invited to consult Firestone, who identifies the various renditions throughout this passage.
  52. 52. Reuven Firestone, Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990), 65.
  53. 53. Reuven Firestone, Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990), 69.
  54. 54. Reuven Firestone, Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990), 68.
  55. 55. Reuven Firestone, Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990), 72.
  56. 56. Reuven Firestone, Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990), 73.
  57. 57. Reuven Firestone, Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990), 76-79.
  58. 58. Reuven Firestone, Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990), 77.
  59. 59. Reuven Firestone, Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990), 78-79.
  60. 60. Ilan Pappe, “The Bridging Narrative Concept,” in Israeli and Palestinian Narratives of Conflict: History’s Double Helix, edited by Robert I. Rotberg (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006), 194-204.]
  61. 61. Dan Bar-On and Sami Adwan, “The Psychology of Better Dialogue between Two Separate but Interdependent Narratives,” in Israeli and Palestinian Narratives of Conflict: History’s Double Helix, edited by Robert I. Rotberg (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006), 205-224.
  62. 62. Dan Bar-On and Sami Adwan, “The Psychology of Better Dialogue between Two Separate but Interdependent Narratives,” in Israeli and Palestinian Narratives of Conflict: History’s Double Helix, edited by Robert I. Rotberg (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006), 206. The authors cite Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity (Pittsburg, 1969) on page 222.
  63. 63. Alasdair MacIntyre, “After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (extracts),” in The MacIntyre Reader, edited by Kevin Knight (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1998), 93

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Posted by on August 30, 2018 in Uncategorized


Perdón, contricción y arrepentimiento en la tradición judía

Yerahmiel Barylka*

“¡Buscad al Eterno mientras puede ser hallado! ¡Llamadle en tanto que está cercano! Deje el impío su camino, y el hombre inicuo sus pensamientos. Vuélvase al Eterno, quien tendrá de él misericordia; y a nuestro Dios, quien será amplio en perdonar” 1

“Venid, pues, dice el Eterno; y razonemos juntos: Aunque vuestros pecados sean como la grana, como la nieve serán emblanquecidos. Aunque sean rojos como el carmesí, vendrán a ser como blanca lana” 2

“Que no le diga a la persona que es baal teshuvá, ‘recuerda tus acciones pasadas, y si es hijo de prosélito, no le recuerde las acciones de los padres antes de la conversión’” 3

“El solía decir que es mejor una hora de teshuvá y de buenas acciones en este mundo, que toda la vida en el mundo eterno”… 4

“Los piadosos y las personas de buenas acciones solían bailar delante de ellos con antorchas y les elogiaban. ¿Qué decían? – loado quien no ha pecado y quien hubiera pecado que sea perdonado. Y había quienes decían: “loado mi nacimiento, que no avergüenza mi vejez,… y hay quienes decían ‘loada tu vejez’ que perdona (las faltas de tu juventud), a los que volvían en teshuvá5

“Antes de que el mundo fuera creado… Dios había pensado crearlo…, pero supo que éste no se mantendría en pie (por las faltas de los humanos)… hasta que creó el arrepentimiento”6

“Regresa un día antes de tu muerte. Le preguntaron los alumnos a Rabí Eliécer, ¿acaso se sabe cual es el día de la muerte para que haga teshuvá? Les dijo por cierto, que haga teshuvá hoy, no sea que muera mañana, que haga teshuvá mañana por si fallece pasado mañana, así hará teshuvá todos los días” 7

“Quien dice: Pecaré y me regresaré, no le permiten que haga teshuvá. Pecaré y Iom Kipur me absolverá, no es perdonado en el Día del Perdón. Pecaré y mi muerte me borrará las acciones, el día de la muerte no le corrige. Rabí Eliécer hijo de Rabi Iosi dice quien peca y se arrepienta y sigue inocentemente, no se mueve de su lugar hasta no ser perdonado. Y quien dice pecaré y regresaré sólo le absuelven tres veces, pero, ninguna más8

“Ten piedad de mí, oh Dios, conforme a tu misericordia. Por tu abundante compasión, borra mis rebeliones. Lávame más y más de mi maldad, y límpiame de mi pecado. Porque yo reconozco mis rebeliones, y mi pecado está siempre delante de mí. Contra ti, contra ti solo he pecado y he hecho lo malo ante tus ojos. Seas tú reconocido justo en tu palabra y tenido por puro en tu juicio. He aquí, en maldad he nacido, y en pecado me concibió mi madre. He aquí, tú quieres la verdad en lo íntimo, y en lo secreto me has hecho comprender sabiduría. Quita mi pecado con hisopo, y seré limpio; lávame, y seré más blanco que la nieve. Hazme oír gozo y alegría, y se regocijarán estos huesos que has quebrantado. Esconde tu rostro de mis pecados y borra todas mis maldades. Crea en mí, oh Dios, un corazón puro y renueva un espíritu firme dentro de mí. No me eches de tu presencia, ni quites de mí tu santo espíritu. Devuélveme el gozo de tu salvación, y un espíritu generoso me sustente. Entonces enseñaré a los transgresores tus caminos, y los pecadores se convertirán a ti. Líbrame de homicidios, oh Dios, Dios de mi salvación, y con regocijo cantará mi lengua tu justicia. Señor, abre mis labios, y proclamará mi boca tu alabanza. Porque no quieres sacrificio; y si doy holocausto, no lo aceptas. Los sacrificios de Dios son el espíritu quebrantado. Al corazón contrito y humillado no desprecias tú, oh Dios. Haz bien a Sión, con tu benevolencia; edifica los muros de Jerusalén. Entonces te agradarán los sacrificios de justicia, el holocausto u ofrenda del todo quemada. Entonces se ofrecerán becerros sobre tu altar” 9

El ser humano comete errores

El ser humano, en su soledad, comete errores. Faltas contra el prójimo, contra Dios, y contra él mismo. Muchas veces se arrepiente de esos actos, otras, ni siquiera es consciente del daño que se hace y del perjuicio que crea a los demás. Hay faltas que indican violaciones de normas legisladas por los países, otras a las costumbres, otras al mandamiento religioso. Dentro de sus angustias, el ser humano, desea encontrar un instante de paz interior. Encontrar coherencia entre el querer ser y el ser. Poder enmendar los errores. Incluso, obtener perdón de los afectados. Y, si es un hombre de fe, lograr la absolución divina. Las personas son también entes sociales y como tales, sus acciones, aún las más recónditas, influyen en el otro.

El judaísmo, como muchas otras culturas, diseñó un camino que permite la corrección de las acciones fallidas. Camino que es peculiar y que no es nada fácil. Acciones que fueron discutidas y compiladas, y que incluso tienen fecha fija. El gran día del Perdón, Iom Kipur.

Regla general

Maimónides establece esta regla: Todos los preceptos prescritos por la Torá, si fueran trasgredidos voluntaria o involuntariamente, si son de hacer o de abstenerse, deben volverse en teshuvá, se deberán confesar ante Dios. Y toda persona que ofreciere un sacrificio por faltas cometidas, las ofrendas por si no lo perdonan si no hace teshuvá y si no se arrepiente, y si no se confiesa… y lo mismo debe hacer quien es pasible de sufrir alguno de los cuatro castigos capitales.

El judaísmo subordina, en el caso de las faltas al prójimo, el perdón divino al previo perdón humano.

Un sentido más profundo…

Pero, más allá de la letra reglamentada, el perdón, incluso, el perdón de uno a sí mismo, que permitirá al pecador arrepentido vivir sin culpa por el error cometido, exige un proceso personal de reparación, cercano casi a un volver a vivir o a un nacer nuevamente. Las acciones tratan de retrotraer a la persona del pecador a una situación más compleja que la que podría haberse obtenido únicamente a través de haber vuelto atrás el reloj de la existencia personal al instante anterior al del error. Con ello no sería suficiente. Es menester dar marcha atrás a la historia personal y limpiar las aureolas que dejaría la falta en la personalidad y en la conducta. Se necesita restituir el tejido espiritual a su totalidad y a su integridad. De ahí el desafío de la teshuvá.

En las faltas hacia el prójimo, nadie puede perdonar desde “fuera”, excepto el damnificado, después de haber sido reparado. Nadie puede ser perdonado sin el reconocimiento del error, sin el arrepentimiento, seguido por confesión o autoconfesión. Sin un compromiso interior de no reincidir. Sin haber sido puesto en la prueba de las mismas circunstancias.


Frente a las culturas que establecen la culpa como algo que no se puede expiar por nuestras propias acciones y la culpa por los pecados cometidos contra Dios, que hace menester Su intercesión, el judaísmo presenta otro modelo. El perdón no se obtiene por gracia sino por acción. El alma no queda en paz si no atraviesa el proceso de la teshuvá en su totalidad. El Talmud interpreta las palabras “ante el Eterno” como si se dijera “contra el Eterno”. Con esto nos quiere decir que el día de Kipur anula las faltas que comete el hombre contra Dios, y no las cometidas contra sus semejantes. Estas sólo pueden ser perdonadas después de haber reparado el perjuicio que se causó y pedido disculpas por las ofensas. “Si ofendéis a vuestro compañero, implorad su perdón; si os rechaza, pídanle hasta tres veces que os perdone; y si aún así se rehúsa a perdonar, vosotros ya cumplisteis con vuestro deber”10 . “El hombre que no perdona cuando se le piden disculpas hasta por tres veces, es considerado cruel” (Midrash).


Teshuvá es traducida como “arrepentimiento”, y a pesar de que esta traducción es cercana, sabemos que el vocablo hebreo que más se acerca a arrepentimiento es /i>jaratá. Teshuvá, se relaciona con “shuv” que significa retornar, “lashuv” “volver, retornar” y “lehashiv” que puede significar “devolver” o también “contestar, responder”. Es por eso que la palabra teshuvá significa mucho más que arrepentimiento, y por lo tanto debemos deducir que hacer teshuvá es mucho más que arrepentirse. “Todos los preceptos de la Torá, tanto los mandatos como las prohibiciones, si fueran transgredidas deliberada o involuntariamente por el hombre, al hacer teshuvá y arrepentirse de su error, debe confesarse delante del Eterno… diciendo: ‘Dios, he errado, he pecado, he transgredido delante de Ti, he hecho tal y tal acción, y me avergüenzo, y jamás repetiré la misma’”. ¿Cuál es la Teshuvá perfecta? Aquella en la cual hallándose nuevamente el trasgresor en una situación semejante a aquella en que pecó, se sobrepone a los motivos que provocaron su incorrecto proceder”.

Los principios de la teshuvá son: 1) abandonar el pecado y retirarlo incluso del pensamiento, 2) decidir con todo el corazón no ser reincidente en el futuro, 3) arrepentirse sinceramente por el pasado, 4) confesar con sus labios. La teshuvá depende del deseo sincero de no tropezar nuevamente con el pecado.

El término teshuvá, debe entenderse como la acción de aceptar, con dolor, el haber cometido un error, y regresar a las buenas acciones, después de asumir la decisión de cambiar radicalmente la conducta equívoca, y confesar la acción. Así lo resume Maimónides11 .

Baal Teshuvá

La noción de Baal Teshuvá –quien ha regresado de sus faltas-, es tan grande que nuestros sabios afirmaron que en el lugar (el nivel espiritual) donde se encuentra esa persona es más elevado que el de un justo que no hubiera pecado. Y ello se comprende ya que quien llevó a cabo alguna actividad prohibida o indeseada, puede quedar con el hábito de regresar a ella, añorando el eventual placer que pudo darle. Reprimir o sublimizar acciones pasadas provoca un esfuerzo muy duro. Cada uno de los pasos del proceso puede ser independiente del otro: El pesar puede ser sincero sin el compromiso de cambiar, se puede decidir cambiar sin asumir el dolor por la acción, se avanza en la acción pero no se confiesa. Sin embargo, esa independencia no anula su validez. Las normas de teshuvá son diferentes si las acciones realizadas fueron deliberadas o por negligencia o error. El concepto de Baal Teshuvá, sin embargo no debe ser aplicado a las personas que no fueron observantes por ignorancia o por no haber sido educados en el cuidado de los preceptos. En este trabajo usaremos indistintamente los términos teshuvá y arrepentimiento, sólo para facilitar la fluidez del texto. Aunque no son equivalentes.
Las fuentes12 , “Y os será estatuto perpetuo: En el mes séptimo, el día décimo del mes, afligiréis vuestras almas y ningún trabajo haréis; tanto el nativo como el peregrino que mora en medio de vosotros; porque en este día se hará expiación por vosotros para purificaros; de todos vuestros pecados quedaréis puros ante el Eterno.(Como) sábado solemne será para vosotros, en el cual habéis de afligir vuestras almas; estatuto perpetuo es” que consagran a Iom Kipur como día de expiación, nos presentan un concepto importante para comprender la senda que debe recorrer todo pecador a fin de llegar a quedar limpio de su falta.
Si extendiéramos el concepto de teshuvá al máximo, diríamos que para poder tener el mérito del perdón divino, es menester nacer de nuevo o retroceder la historia personal como si pudiéramos detener el reloj y el calendario, retrocederlos y purificarnos al extremo que la falta quede totalmente borrada de nuestra historia personal. Esas exigencias son muy difíciles de lograr, casi imposibles. El trabajo que se exige en este caso, es el de elaborar la acción, pasar por un proceso de elaboración sicológica y espiritual agotadores, a fin de no dejar siquiera aureola ni señal del error. La fórmula es complicada. Exige de teshuvá, concepto que es más que un simple arrepentimiento, de confesión y aceptación. Pide una toma de conciencia del error, colocarse en la misma circunstancia de la falta y ser fuerte para no ser seducidos ni por la costumbre, ni por las circunstancias. Comprometerse a no repetir el error y cumplir con la promesa, y lo que no es más fácil, obtener la satisfacción del Otro, herido, o molesto por la acción. El perdón no sólo borra el castigo divino por la trasgresión, sino debe llegar a la altura de eliminar el daño metafísico que se comete con la falta contra la armonía de la Creación. El arrepentimiento permite cambiar el entorno terrenal y elevarlo hasta que el pecador se incorpore al entorno celestial.

Las normas según Maimónides

Maimónides consagra diez capítulos para tratar el tema de la contrición, los seis primeros tratan acerca de las personas que conocen las faltas específicas que cometieron y de las que se arrepiente.
Y así afirma en el primer capítulo:

Todos los preceptos bíblicos, tantos los de hacer como los que ordenan abstención de acciones, si alguna persona las hubiera trasgredido, sea culposa o inocentemente, cuando realiza teshuvá, y se arrepienta de sus acciones, debe confesarse ante Dios, como está escrito13 : “Di a los hijos de Israel: Cuando algún hombre o mujer cometiere cualquier pecado de los (que suelen cometer los) hombres, prevaricando contra el Eterno, se tendrá por culpables a tales personas, y éstas confesarán el pecado que hubieren cometido, y restituirán íntegramente aquello en que hayan delinquido añadiendo la quinta parte sobre ello, y darán todo a aquél contra quien han cometido la culpa”. La confesión es un mandamiento… y quien más se confiese mejor es. … no se perdonará si no se arrepienten y se confiesan. … y aún en los casos en los que haya devuelto lo sustraído y pagado la deuda o hubiera presentado una ofrenda, no será perdonado… ni siquiera si hubiera indemnizado por el daño físico causado, si no se hubiera confesado y arrepentido.

Maimónides trata otro tipo de teshuvá, en la que las personas reconocen también la necesidad de revisar todas sus sendas, y no sólo aquellas acciones en las que pecó. El rabino Arón Lichtenstein, afirma que en los casos puntuales, es suficiente que no repita la falta para llegar al objetivo de teshuvá, pero, en este tipo, se convierte en una obra vital… este tipo de teshuvá es mucho más difícil que el puntual…

El concepto de arrepentirse antes del incierto día de la muerte, lo que significa que el proceso debe iniciarse inmediatamente, marca una diferencia en la calidad espiritual de la vida, ya que obliga a una constante búsqueda de elevación. Es un concepto que no tiene objetivo definido. Aquí se incluyen todos los valores. El rabino Jaim Vital dice que perfeccionar los valores no es una norma per se, ya que se ubica a lo largo y a lo ancho de todos los mandamientos.

Maimónides nos continúa diciendo:

No digas que no hay teshuvá sino de pecados que tienen una actividad consigo, como prostitución, robo y hurto. Tal como hay que regresar de esas acciones, también se deben revisar los malos pensamientos, y tornar del enojo, del odio, de los celos, de la burla, de perseguir el dinero, y los honores… de todo ello hay que hacer teshuvá…

Pedido de perdón a una persona fallecida

En el momento del sepelio, después de todas las oraciones e inmediatamente después de colocar una pequeña piedrita en señal de la presencia, se le pide perdón al fallecido. El pedido lo realiza algún representante de la congregación encargada del sepelio o un familiar. También se pide disculpe si en la inhumación se le trató indebidamente y se lo libera de sus obligaciones con sociedades de las que formó parte. Este momento es singular y se une a la obligación de pedir perdón al ofendido aún cuando ya hubiera fallecido.

Un ejercicio de lectura talmúdica respecto al perdón

Me permito incluir en este trabajo una traducción libre de un texto talmúdico14 , nos trae una de las fuentes más apasionantes que intenta con un lenguaje más que simple y ejemplar darnos a comprender las dificultades del desafío.
Recomendamos la lectura en forma fluida intentando desentrañar el mensaje que se oculta tras los relatos, para poder llegar a la esencia de la discusión. Y así dice:

“El Día del Perdón no absuelve por las faltas cometidas por el hombre a su prójimo, hasta que el afectado no sea satisfecho. Explicó Rabí Eleazar ben Azariá el versículo15 : “Porque en este día se hará expiación por vosotros para purificaros; de todos vuestros pecados ante el Eterno quedaréis puros”, diciendo: Los pecados que son entre la persona y la divinidad16 , – son perdonados por el Día de Perdón, las faltas cometidas contra el prójimo sólo se perdonan si el prójimo lo hace. Dijo Rabí Akivá: Loados sean Israel, ¿Ante quién se purifican, quien les purifica – Vuestro Padre que está en las Alturas, como está escrito17 “Esparciré sobre vosotros agua limpia, y seréis limpiados de todas vuestras inmundicias; y de todos vuestros ídolos os limpiaré” y también está escrito18 “el Eterno es el manantial de aguas vivas de Israel” – tal como las aguas vivas purifican a Israel, así también lo hace el Eterno.

Hemos estudiado que: “El día del Perdón no absuelve por las faltas cometidas por el hombre a su prójimo” 19 , Rav Iosef bar Jabi le mostró una contradicción a R’ Avahu: dice la mishná que: “El día del Perdón no absuelve por las faltas cometidas por el hombre a su prójimo”, pero está escrito20 : “Si pecare el hombre contra el hombre, E’lohim le juzgará”, significando que si orare al Señor, tendrá perdón! – Le contestó: la palabra E’lohim (Dios), en este versículo significa Juez, y la intención no está referida a D’s. Si fuera así, dime hasta el final “Mas si alguno pecare contra el Eterno, ¿quién rogará por él?”. Ello quiere decir que el principio del versículo habla acerca de los pecados del hombre contra su prójimo, a lo que le contestó que está escrito: “Si pecare el hombre contra el hombre, E’lohim le juzgará“, entonces irá a una corte y hará lo que ella le ordene y se le perdonará. “Mas si alguno pecare contra el Eterno”, quién orará por él, el arrepentimiento y las buenas acciones.
Dijo R’ Itzjak: Quien ofende a su prójimo así sea sólo con la palabra – debe amigarse (disculparse) con él, tal como está escrito21 : “Hijo mío, si salieres fiador por tu amigo, Si has empeñado tu palabra a un extraño, Te has enlazado con las palabras de tu boca, Y has quedado preso en los dichos de tus labios. Haz esto ahora, hijo mío, y líbrate, Ya que has caído en la mano de tu prójimo; Ve, humíllate, y asegúrate de tu amigo”. Y ello se debe comprender que si tienes dinero que le debes, abre tu palma de la mano y entrégale el dinero que le debes, y si le faltaste con la palabra, envíales a muchos amigos que en tu nombre se disculpen y pidan su perdón.
Dijo rav Jisda, y debe pedirle perdón con tres filas de tres personas, tal como está escrito22 “(Iashur) El mira sobre los hombres; y al que dijere: Pequé (jatati), y pervertí (aviti) lo recto, y no me ha aprovechado (lo shave li), Dios redimirá su alma para que no pase al sepulcro”. La palabra iashur indica filas –shurot–, y tal como el versículo utiliza tres palabras para indicar pecado, jatati, aviti, lo shave li, nos sugiere poner tres filas ante las que pedirá perdón. Dijo R’ Iosi bar Janina: quien pide perdón a su prójimo no debe hacerlo más que tres veces, porque está escrito23 : ana, na, na “Así diréis a José: Te ruego que perdones ahora la maldad de tus hermanos y su pecado, porque mal te trataron; por tanto, ahora te rogamos que perdones la maldad de los siervos del Dios de tu padre. Y José lloró mientras hablaban”. Más no debe pedir ya que el ofendido le debe perdonar. Pero si el ofendido hubiera fallecido antes que le pidan perdón, trae diez personas y se paran frente a la tumba del ofendido y dice delante de ellos: “He pecado ante el Dios de Israel, y frente a fulano a quien dañé”.
Se cuenta que R’ Irmiah tuvo un incidente con R’ Aba. Fue R’ Irmiah y se sentó en el umbral de la casa de R’ Aba, a fin de pedirle que le disculpe. Cuando la sirvienta de R’ Aba arrojó las aguas servidas de la casa, cayeron sobre la cabeza de R’ Irmiah que estaba allí. Y entonces dijo sobre sí mismo: me hice como la basura sobre la que vierten las aguas sucias, y se llamó a sí mismo24 : “El (que) levanta del polvo al pobre y al menesteroso alza del muladar”. Al oír R’ Aba lo que le había sucedido, salió a su encuentro diciéndole: Ahora debo yo pedirte perdón a ti, por la vergüenza que te hice pasar, tal como está escrito25 : “Haz esto ahora, hijo mío, y líbrate, ya que has caído en la mano de tu prójimo, ve, humíllate, y asegúrate de tu amigo”. Se cuenta que R’ Zeira, cuando tenía alguna cuestión con un semejante que lo había ofendido, iba y pasaba delante del otro a fin de darle oportunidad para que saque las cosas que tenía en su corazón y se amigue. Ya que se preocupaba que le fuera fácil a ese hombre pedirle perdón y perdonarle.
Se cuenta que Rav estaba enojado con un faenador ritual, y este no se presentó para disculparse. En la víspera del Día de la Expiación, dijo: Yo iré a disculparme. Se encontró con Rav Huna, su alumno, que le dijo: ¿Adónde se dirige? A lo que le respondió: voy a disculparme con Fulano. Le dijo Rav Huna: Va Aba (que es el nombre de Rav) a matar a una persona, (porque suponía que ese ser no iba a tener un buen final). Fue Rav y llegó donde él, y ese Fulano estaba sentado partiendo una cabeza de vacuno y levantó la vista y lo vio diciéndole: ¿Tú eres Aba? Vete, no tengo de qué hablar contigo. Y se opuso a dialogar con él. Mientras finalizaba la frase y seguía partiendo la cabeza, se desprendió uno de los huesos y le golpeó en el cuello matándolo, cumpliéndose así lo que había previsto Rav Huna.
Se cuenta que Rav estaba leyendo las escrituras semanales, frente a Rabí cuando comenzaron los debates en el seminario. Luego que comenzaron, ingresó R’ Jiia, tío y maestro de Rav, regresando Rav al inicio de la clase. Tras él, ingresó Bar Kafra, y nuevamente reinició por el honor que le merecía Bar Kafra. Entró R’ Simón ben Rabi, volvió a iniciar la lectura. Luego llegó R’ Janiná bar Jamá, y Rav se dijo a sí mismo: ¿Tantas veces volveré a comenzar?, por lo que no reinició sino que continuó desde el lugar en el que se encontraba. Se enojó con él R’ Janiná porque vio que él era menos importante que otros. Rav fue en las vísperas del Día de la Expiación trece años a contentarle pero no le perdonó. Y preguntaron, ¿cómo hizo Rav?, si ya había dicho R’ Iosi Bar Janiná, que quien pide perdón a su prójimo ¡no debe hacerlo más que tres veces! Contestaron: Dado que Rav era piadoso, quiso comportarse más estrictamente de lo que pide la norma. Y preguntaron, ¿y R’ Janiná por qué se comportó así que no le perdonó pese a todas las veces que le pidió? Si ya había dicho Rabá, todo quien domina sus cualidades y perdona a quien le haya ofendido, ¿le perdonan desde las Alturas todos sus pecados? Explicaron: la cosa fue así: R’ Janiná soñó que colgaban a Rav sobre una palmera, y nosotros estudiamos que aquellas personas acerca de las que se sueña que serán colgados de una palmera, luego se convierten en directores de academias de estudio. De aquí aprendemos que él será líder, y no le perdonaré para que esté obligado a ir a estudiar Torá a Babilonia, y así se cumplirá el sueño y será un jefe de academia y cabeza de sabio, porque si no, él se quedaría en Israel y no habría quien pueda enseñar en Babilonia”.

Sólo como breve guía, recomendamos una segunda lectura para poder determinar en cada uno de los relatos la interacción habida entre quienes ofenden y quienes son ofendidos. En todos los relatos hay una tensión muy especial entre los que piden perdón y los ofendidos. A veces, los roles se mezclan y los seres humanos aparecen con toda su humanidad.

Dios espera el arrepentimiento

En la Tosefta26 , leemos que los siete días que corrieron antes del diluvio, nos enseñan que en esa semana esperaba el Eterno la teshuvá de las personas para detener su decisión de provocar su muerte. Ver Génesis27 : “y fue a los siete días y las aguas del diluvio fueron sobre la tierra”.

El texto del profeta Ezequiel28 nos desafía nuevamente para entender la materia, presentándonos el arrepentimiento como fórmula de vida:

A ti, pues, hijo de hombre, te he puesto por atalaya a la casa de Israel, y oirás la palabra de mi boca, y los amonestarás de mi parte. Cuando yo dijere al impío: Impío, de cierto morirás; si tú no hablares para que se guarde el impío de su camino, el impío morirá por su pecado, pero su sangre yo la demandaré de tu mano. Y si tú avisares al impío de su camino para que se aparte de él, y él no se apartare de su camino, él morirá por su pecado, pero tú libraste tu vida. Tú, pues, hijo de hombre, di a la casa de Israel: Vosotros habéis hablado así, diciendo: Nuestras rebeliones y nuestros pecados están sobre nosotros, y a causa de ellos somos consumidos; ¿cómo, pues, viviremos? Diles: Vivo yo, dice Dios el Señor, que no quiero la muerte del impío, sino que se vuelva el impío de su camino, y que viva. Volveos, volveos de vuestros malos caminos; ¿por qué moriréis, oh casa de Israel? Y tú, hijo de hombre, di a los hijos de tu pueblo: La justicia del justo no lo librará el día que se rebelare; y la impiedad del impío no le será estorbo el día que se volviere de su impiedad; y el justo no podrá vivir por su justicia el día que pecare. Cuando yo dijere al justo: De cierto vivirás, y él confiado en su justicia hiciere iniquidad, todas sus justicias no serán recordadas, sino que morirá por su iniquidad que hizo. Y cuando yo dijere al impío: De cierto morirás; si él se convirtiere de su pecado, e hiciere según el derecho y la justicia, si el impío restituyere la prenda, devolviere lo que hubiere robado, y caminare en los estatutos de la vida, no haciendo iniquidad, vivirá ciertamente y no morirá. No se le recordará ninguno de sus pecados que había cometido; hizo según el derecho y la justicia; vivirá ciertamente. Luego dirán los hijos de tu pueblo: “No es recto el camino del Señor”; el camino de ellos es el que no es recto. Cuando el justo se apartare de su justicia, e hiciere iniquidad, morirá por ello. Y cuando el impío se apartare de su impiedad, e hiciere según el derecho y la justicia, vivirá por ello. Y dijisteis: No es recto el camino del Señor. Yo os juzgaré, oh casa de Israel, a cada uno conforme a sus caminos.

De estos versículos, particularmente del 19, la Tosefta29 aprende, que “aun si la persona hubiera sido un malvado durante toda su vida, y hace teshuvá en sus finales, Makom lo recibe”.

Encontramos una fuente sumamente ilustrativa que deseamos compartir, y que aparece en Avot de Rabí Natán30 , y esta es su traducción libre: “El solía decir… leemos en Qohelet31 , “Aún hay esperanza para todo aquel que está entre los vivos; porque mejor es perro vivo que león muerto”.

Porque un perro vivo es mejor que un león muerto, es mejor que Abraham, Isaac, y Jacob que descansan en el polvo, porque en este mundo aún puede regresar en teshuvá, y el Santo Bendito lo recibirá, pero, un justo ya fallecido, no puede sumar más méritos…”

Leímos también en Avot de Rabí Natan32 : “Todo quien permite que otros hagan acciones buenas, no le permiten que peque, para que sus alumnos no estén en el mundo venidero, y él descienda al Sheol, tal como está escrito en Salmos33 “Porque no dejarás mi alma en el Sheol…” y todo quien hace pecar a los otros no le permiten que haga teshuvá para que no ocurra que sus alumnos se encuentren en las profundidades del Sheol, y el esté gozando del mundo venidero, como está escrito34 , “El que es perseguido por homicidio será un fugitivo hasta la muerte. ¡Que nadie le brinde su apoyo!”

Las ofrendas de perdón

En la época del Templo, se realizaban ofrendas de expiación por diversas categorías de faltas.
La más clásica de ellas, es la del chivo expiatorio, tal como aparece descrita en Levítico. 35 El servicio sacerdotal de Kipur era realmente impresionante, al grado que los poetas sefarditas de la Época de Oro en España, imaginando el esplendor del sumo sacerdote cuando hacía el servicio sagrado de Yom Kipur en el Templo, hicieron su descripción con lindos versos, los cuales fueron introducidos en la liturgia de este día. Ibn Gabirol36 escribe: “¡Bienaventurados los ojos que vieron todas estas cosas! ¡Bienaventurados los ojos que vieron a los levitas y al pueblo atentos a la Gloria Divina resplandeciendo con viva luz, y al sumo sacerdote anunciando al pueblo que acudía a él: De todos vuestros pecados ante el Eterno, estaréis limpios! ¡Bienaventurados los ojos que vieron los muros del santuario amado, la Gloria Divina irradiando con luminosa claridad; y al sumo sacerdote distribuyendo la palabra santa como el rocío benéfico, rodeado de los sacerdotes y del pueblo semejantes a las plantas de olivo, acompañándolo con la exaltación con que se acompaña a un rey!

Pese a las bellas palabras que describen el servicio, basándose en el sentimiento poético, el tema de los sacrificios, sin embargo, no fue fácil de digerir por los exegetas. ¿Es acaso el chivo expiatorio una ofrenda a Dios?, se preguntaron algunos, y es Ibn Ezra quien opina que no, porque no es faenado por los seres humanos, y que sus razones forman parte del conocimiento esotérico. Najmánides es desmentido varios siglos después por el rabino Dr. Iosef Soloveichik quien se escandaliza ante la posibilidad de pensar, como lo hace aquel, que los sacrificios del chivo son una especie de aporte a Satán para que no se interponga ante las ofrendas del pueblo. Una explicación original aparece en la obra Orot Hateshuva, 37 “las personas deben hacer todo lo que puedan para enmendar la falta, pero no son responsables por el mal en el mundo… sólo el Santo Bendito asume esa responsabilidad, según Isaías38 “Que formo la luz y creo las tinieblas, que hago la paz y creo el mal. Yo el Eterno que hago todo esto”, que comparte con las personas. Después de los esfuerzos de la persona para enmendar el mal, le toca a El. Por ello se presentan dos ofrendas. Una para Dios, para perdonarnos por nuestra culpa, y la segunda, la de Azazel, para perdonar a Dios por la creación del mal. Se lo envía a una zona despoblada como el desierto, vacía, tal como nuestros defectos, que no dependen únicamente de nosotros. Este desarrollo teológico es consecuencia de la dificultad de comprender la muerte del chivo sin faena a través de un acto violento en particular, y sin que se quemen sus restos en el altar. El acto pareciera conducir a un acto de teshuvá colectivo, después de que cada persona pudo pasar por un acto individual. Maimónides nos explica que el chivo lleva encima todos los pecados, y ello impide que sea faenado por los procedimientos acostumbrados.

Lo que se intenta es alejarlo. El Talmud, discute39 si la muerte del chivo perdona sin teshuvá, y ello provoca un debate entre Rabanan, que consideran que sí, y Rabí, que cree que no. En el Talmud de Jerusalén, Iomá 8:6, el dilema talmúdico permite a los rabinos una nueva sutileza, la de poder dividir entre faltas suaves y graves, cuando las primeras podrían ser perdonadas por el chivo expiatorio aun sin teshuvá. Sin embargo, de las opiniones de Maimónides debería entenderse el concepto al revés: Teshuvá es suficiente, y no necesita de la muerte del chivo para perdonar las faltas leves. Y en esta época en la que no hay más ofrendas, teshuvá es suficiente para todas las faltas.


En los diez días de contrición entre Rosh Hashaná y Yom Kipur, se deben revisar las acciones de todo el año, también aquellas acerca de las que se duda si son o no pecaminosas, y hacer teshuvá. La tarea con esas acciones dudosas es más importante que la que se debe hacer con aquellas cuya gravedad salta a la vista. Y en esos días, habrá que reforzar aquellas acciones positivas, caritativas, que permitan equilibrar el balance individual. Leemos en el Talmud: 40 “durante todo el año, las personas deben verse como mitad culpables y mitad inocentes, y ver a todo el universo en esa posición. Si pecare en una sola falta, condenaría al mundo todo, se condenaría a sí mismo. Pero, si agregare una buena acción, podría salvarse, y con él a todo el universo.”

Con este concepto, teshuvá se convierte en una acción social, que no sólo trabaja sobre el individuo sino que también se extiende al medio que lo envuelve.

Otro concepto, basado en Isaías: 41 “Deje el impío su camino, y el hombre inicuo sus pensamientos, y vuélvase al Eterno, el cual tendrá de él misericordia, y al Dios nuestro, el cual será amplio en perdonar”, obliga a un trabajo espiritual y psicológico de reconstrucción. Abandonar los pensamientos, es abandonar la rutina, dejar el camino trillado y enfrentarse a lo desconocido. “No nos librará Assur; no subiremos sobre caballos, ni nunca más diremos ‘dioses nuestros’ a la obra de nuestras manos: porque en ti el huérfano alcanzará misericordia”- 42 Cuando podamos aceptar que no somos como dioses y que nuestras obras son sólo humanas, y por lo tanto falibles, podremos emprender el cambio de camino. Teshuvá se convierte así en un desafío.

Camino que personas creyentes o no, deberían emprender. Y como decimos en Israel: “es mejor una hora antes de…”

  1. Isaías 55:6-7
  2. Isaías 1:18
  3. Mishná Baba Metziá Cap. 4 mishná 10
  4. Mishná Avot, capítulo 4, mishná 17
  5. Tosefta Sucá, Capítulo 4, Halajá 2
  6. Pirké de Rabí Eliécer cap. 3
  7. Avot de Rabí Natán versión a, capítulo 15
  8. Avot de Rabí Natán cap. 40
  9. Salmo 51:3- 21
  10. Talmud Babilónico Yomá 87
  11. Hiljot Teshuvá 2:2
  12. Levítico 16:29-31
  13. Números 5:6-7
  14. Iomá 85b y 87a
  15. Lev. 16:30
  16. En el texto aparece la palabra Makom, el Omnipresente. Levinas dice que desea significar que no es el Día que provoca el perdón por sí mismo como si fuera por un acto mágico. La fecha sólo libera al alma de la culpa, pero, el arrepentimiento debe ser cotidiano, para que tenga efecto. La Tosefta en Ioma 4:9, establece que el “décimo día – día de expiación, perdona a quienes se regresen de sus acciones negativas, el día sólo perdona a los que se arrepienten.”
  17. Ezequiel 36:25
  18. Jeremías 17:13
  19. Es difícil establecer la diferencia entre faltas contra Makom y contra el prójimo. Si bien, la ofensa al prójimo sería todo lo que causa daño físico o económico al otro, estas faltas son también faltas contra el Omnipresente, con quien la relación no se limita únicamente al culto o a los principios relacionados con Él. “Poner en duda el triunfo final del Bien, o colocar lo material como valor fundamental – dice Levinas – son pecados con Makom”. La Tosefta en Ioma, cap. 4 halajá 9, nos dice que: Ofrendas por faltas cometidas, y la muerte y el Día de la Expiación, no perdonan si no se acompañan por la Teshuvá, porque el versículo de Levítico 23:27, tiene la limitación de la palabra aj, “Mas” el día décimo de este séptimo mes, será el día de las expiaciones; convocación santa será para vosotros, y afligiréis vuestras almas y presentaréis ofrenda de fuego al Eterno. Y no haréis ninguna clase de trabajo en este mismo día, porque es día de expiaciones, para hacer expiaciones por vosotros ante el Eterno, vuestro Dios”, para expresarnos que sólo es perdonado si hace teshuvá, y si no, no sus pecados no le son perdonados… Rabí Iehudá dice que la muerte y Iom Kipur perdonan con el arrepentimiento, el arrepentimiento perdona con la muerte, y el día de la muerte es considerado como el de la teshuvá.
  20. I Samuel 2:25
  21. Proverbios 6:1-3
  22. Job 33:27-28
  23. Génesis 50:17
  24. Salmos 113:7
  25. Proverbios 6:3
  26. Sotá 10:4
  27. 7:10
  28. 33:7-20
  29. Kidushin 1:16
  30. Versión A, Cap. 12
  31. Eclesiastés 9:4
  32. Cap. 40
  33. 16:10
  34. Proverbios 28: 17
  35. Levítico 16:8 Y Aarón echará suertes sobre los dos machos cabríos, una suerte “para el Eterno” y la otra “para Azazel”. 16:9 Y presentará Aarón el macho cabrío sobre el cual cayó la suerte “para el Eterno”, y lo ofrecerá como ofrenda por el pecado; y el macho cabrío sobre el cual cayó la suerte “para Azazel”, será colocado vivo ante el Eterno para hacer expiación por medio de él, enviándolo a Azazel en el desierto. 16:11 Y presentará Aarón el novillo de la ofrenda por el pecado, que es de él, y hará expiación por sí y por su casa, degollando al novillo de la ofrenda por el pecado, que es de él. … 16:16 Así el hará expiación por el santuario, a causa de las impurezas de los hijos de Israel y de sus transgresiones, con motivo de todos sus pecados. Y del mismo modo hará con la tienda de asignación que está entre ellos, en medio de sus impurezas. 16:17 Y no ha de haber hombre alguno en la tienda de asignación cuando él entre paga hacer expiación dentro del santuario, hasta que salga; así hará expiación por, sí y por su casa y por toda la congregación de Israel. 16:18 Y saldrá al altar que está delante del Eterno, y hará expiación por él. Y para ello tomará de la sangre del novillo y de la sangre del macho cabrío, y la pondrá sobre los cuernos del altar, alrededor. 16:19 Y de la sangre asperjará sobre él siete veces con su dedo índice; así lo purificará y lo santificará de las impurezas de los hijos de Israel. 16:20 Y cuando hubiere acabado de hacer expiación por el santuario y por la tienda de asignación y por el altar, hará presentar el macho cabrío vivo. 16:21 Y pondrá Aarón sus dos manos sobre la cabeza del macho cabrío vivo, y manifestará sobre él todas las iniquidades de los hijos de Israel, y todas sus transgresiones, y todos sus pecados, cargándolos así sobre la cabeza del macho cabrío, y lo enviará al desierto 16:22 Y el macho cabrío llevará sobre sí todas las iniquidades de ellos a tierra inhabitada; y así el hombre dejará ir al macho cabrío por el desierto. 16:23 Y entrará Aarón a la tienda de asignación, y quitándose las vestiduras de lino con que se vistió al entrar en el santuario, las dejará allí. 16:24 Y lavará su carne con agua en lugar sagrado, y se pondrá sus vestidos (comunes); y saldrá y ofrecerá su holocausto y el holocausto del pueblo, haciendo expiación por sí y por el pueblo. 16:25 Y hará consumir sobre el altar el sebo de la ofrenda por el pecado. 16:26 Y aquél que hubiere llevado el macho cabrío a Azazel, lavará sus vestidos y bañará su cuerpo en agua; y después de esto podrá entrar en el campamento. 16:27 Y en cuanto al novillo de la ofrenda por el pecado y al macho cabrío de la ofrenda por el pecado, cuya sangre fue traída dentro del santuario para hacer expiación, los sacarán fuera del campamento y quemarán a fuego sus pieles y su carne y su estiércol. 16:28 Y el que los quemare lavará sus vestidos y bañará su cuerpo en agua, y después de esto podrá entrar en el campamento. 16:29 Y os será estatuto perpetuo: En el mes séptimo, el día décimo del mes, afligiréis vuestras almas y ningún trabajo haréis; tanto el nativo como el peregrino que mora en medio de vosotros; 16:30 porque en este día se hará expiación(2) por vosotros para purificaros; de todos vuestros pecados quedaréis puros ante el Eterno.(3) 16:31 (Como) sábado solemne será para vosotros, en el cual habéis de afligir vuestras almas; estatuto perpetuo es. 16:32 Y el sacerdote que fuere ungido y consagrado para ser (sumo) sacerdote en lugar de su padre, hará expiación y se vestirá las vestiduras de lino, las vestiduras sagradas; 16:33 y hará expiación por el santo santuario; por la tienda de asignación y también por el altar hará expiación; y por los sacerdotes, y por todo el pueblo de la congregación, hará expiación. 16:34 Y esto os será estatuto perpetuo, para hacer expiación por los hijos de Israel, a causa de todos sus pecados, una vez al año. E hizo Aarón según había ordenado el Eterno a Moisés.
  36. (1021-1058)
  37. Citada por el rabino Shlomo Jaim Aviner, en Tal Hermón. Jerusalén 5745, pags. 481-581
  38. 45:7
  39. En Shavuot 12,b
  40. En Kidushin 40
  41. 55:7
  42. Oseas 14:4

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Posted by on August 29, 2018 in Uncategorized


Sir Isaac Newton and Judaism

Sir Isaac Newton and Judaism

The scientist’s recently disclosed private papers reveal his deep reverence for ancient Jewish wisdom.

Sir Isaac Newton was one of the greatest scientists of all time. Some of his most outstanding discoveries include the laws of optics or the physics of light, the three laws of motion, the laws of gravity, and calculus. He is also famous for his Principia Mathematica, the most widely read scientific work of all time, in which he explains the motions of the planets in a single mathematical system. Born in an age that embraced rationalism and shunned religious authority, Newton was also hailed as a hero of his era. Yet, recent divulgement of Newton’s personal writings challenges all common assumptions about his true identity.

Newton’s Private Beliefs

Newton’s private beliefs have been kept under wraps for hundreds of years, probably because of their unfavorable reception. Bernard Cohen’s book Franklin and Newton discusses the first time scientists discovered Newton’s personal manuscripts: He quotes John Maynard Keynes, the British great economist: “‘Upon his death in 1727, a very big box of unusual papers was discovered in his room. Bishop Samuel Horsley, who was also a scientist, was asked to inspect the box with view to publication. He saw the contents with horror and slammed the lid…’ shut.” The recent disclosure of Newton’s private manuscripts revealed that Newton was far from the archetype rationalist he was originally assumed to be.

A page of Isaac Newton’s writing featuring, the prayer, in Hebrew,
‘Blessed is His name for eternity.’

After being tucked away for 200 years, Newton’s manuscripts were finally auctioned off in 1936. Keynes, The Babson family in America, and Israeli Professor Avraham Shalom Yahuda bought the majority of them and donated them to university libraries around the world. These manuscripts have been made available in the past 25 years.

Newton’s “strange” interests

It’s no wonder that both Christian and secular-minded scientists who had originally revered Newton had little incentive to publicize their findings. Newton’s manuscripts revealed that he took a keen interest in “archaic” Jewish wisdom. Newton’s knowledge of Jewish thought was not superficial; he referred to rabbinic works such as the Aramaic Version of Esther, Vayikra Rabba, the commentaries of Sa’adia HaGaon, Ibn Ezra, Rashi, Sifra, R. Aharon ibn Hayyim; Seder Ma’amadot (about the daily sacrifices) the Bartinurah and Talmudic passages from the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud in Latin. One of Newton’s manuscripts was entitled “On Maimonides,” where he quoted the Latin translation of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah. 1

Sir Isaac Newton

But the content in Newton’s notes should not really have come as such a big surprise, given the collection of works in his library. Newton kept five works of Maimonides essays in his library.2 He also owned a Latin commentary on Maimonides that references the Moreh Nevuchim, The Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides’ reconciliation of Torah with science and philosophy. This particular work seems to have had a significant impact on Newton’s philosophy. The harmony between scripture and science was a theme threaded throughout many of Newton’s works, and a means through which he carried out his theological and scientific pursuits.3

Newton’s beliefs, revealed

Maynard Keynes, the scholar who studied Newton’s manuscripts, summarized his findings in honor of the 300th anniversary of Newton’s death. Keynes explained that Newton’s beliefs were influenced by Maimonides’ philosophy. Keyne’s described Newton as “a Judaic monotheist of the school of Maimonides”. In fact, in his work The Principia, Newton rejected the concept of the deity for a belief that closely mirrored the Jewish monotheistic concept of God. (Newton even quotes an element in Maimonides’ teachings: that one can only learn about God indirectly, through His actions and His dominion.)4

Newton’s theological writings at Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem, October 2014.
(photo credit: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Newton’s leanings were not limited to the intellectual sphere, and he appears to have kept the seven commandments of the children of Noah that the Torah has given to non-Jews. To quote, in his own words, in Theological Manuscripts: “Although the precepts of Noah are not as perfect as the religion of the Scripture, they suffice for salvation… Indeed, (as the rabbis taught) Jews had admitted into their gates heathens who accepted Noah’s precepts, but had not converted to the Law of Moses.” Newton professed that commandment against eating “the flesh” or “the blood of (live) animals” is because “this religion obliged men to be merciful even to brute beasts.”5

Newton’s Scientific Works and Maimonides

What may have irked scientists more than Newton’s private beliefs and practices was how he applied these beliefs to his theological and scientific studies. Parallels of Newton’s philosophy and Maimonides’ teachings are interwoven in his manuscripts. For example, Newton used Maimonides’ “Laws of Sanctification of the New Moon” in his notes on “considerations about rectifying the Julian calendar”.

Newton studied the measurements of Solomon’s Temple and the Third Temple to come to a greater understanding of the earth’s dimensions. He understood that the Temple was a microcosm of the earth and “revealed the works of God”, the world’s greatest architect.6

To that end, Newton quoted excerpts from the Latin translation of Maimonides’ De Cultu Divino, where he explained the measurements of the Temple. 7 Newton also preoccupied himself with studies on the Jewish cubit or the amah (measurements used to build the Temple, the tabernacle, and its vessels) and the measurements of The Great Pyramid of Giza, which he believed to have derived from the Jewish cubit. He wasn’t merely dabbling in mathematics; the accuracy of his analysis of the circumference of the earth and his theory on gravity were dependent on these findings. He recorded his calculations of the Jewish cubit in his work A Dissertation upon the Sacred Cubit of the Jews and Cubits of the several Nations.”8

Many scientists who feel less than favorably toward Newton’s beliefs and his method of study consider him a fool who dabbled in mysticism and pseudoscience. In response to the critics, John Maynard Keynes wrote: “There was extreme method in his madness…All his unpublished works… are marked by careful learning, accurate method, and extreme sobriety of statement, they (his controversial works) were nearly all composed during the same 25 years of his mathematical studies.”9

Much of Newton’s private life, as well as some of the drafts of his scientific works, is still hidden from us. It’s perhaps no wonder that he hid his true identity and means of study from the public; he would have likely been ostracized and his scientific discoveries immediately dismissed. Sarah Dry, author of The Newton Papers, notes that gaps in his original draft of The Principia suggests that he deliberately concealed them. Says Dry, “And it’s because Newton didn’t want people to know how he had come to his knowledge. I think that might relate to his religious beliefs.”

Newton’s outstanding discoveries single him out as one of the greatest science influencers of all time. Perhaps we can now add his attempt to reconcile ancient scripture with science as yet another unique, albeit undervalued, accomplishment of Sir Isaac Newton.

1. Newton, Maimonides, and Esoteric Knowledge, Faur Jose, Cross Currents,
2. Essays on the Context, Nature and Influence of Isaac Newton’s Theology, by James E.Force and Richard H. Popkins, Kulwar Academic publishers, page 3
3. Newton, Maimonides, and Esoteric Knowledge
4. Essays on the Context, Nature, and Influence of Isaac Newton’s Theology, page 4
5. Newton, Maimonides, and Esoteric Knowledge
6. Isaac Newton’s Temple of Solomon and His Reconstruction of the Sacred Cubit, Tessa Morrison, Springer Science and Business Media, page 36
7. Judaism in the Theology of Sir Isaac Newton, Matt Goldish, Springer Netherlands,
8. The Newton you Never Knew. See also footnote 6
9. The Essential Keynes, by John Maynard Keynes, Penguin Random House. Newton’s technical studies in alchemy, a mystical, archaic study about turning lead into gold, prompted further criticism.

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Posted by on August 27, 2018 in Uncategorized


The Secret History of One of Greece’s Oldest Jewish Communities

Mystery, Nazis and Paul the Apostle

Veria’s Jews are said to have heard the gospel directly from Paul himself, documenting his visit, says one legend, on a long-lost Torah scroll. But by the time the Nazis were defeated, this 2,000-year-old community was extinct.

The interior of the synagogue in Veria, Greece.

The interior of the synagogue in Veria, Greece.Courtesy of Evi Meska

Following the angry reception that greeted him when he preached to the Jews of Thessaloniki, around the year 50, the Apostle Paul was spirited out of town by fellow believers in Jesus’ resurrection. They brought him to Berea, some 60 kilometers (37 miles) to the west. There too, Paul spoke in a synagogue, but in Berea the Jews “were more noble than those in Thessaloniki, for they received the word with all eagerness,” according to the account in Acts of the Apostles 17.

If nothing else, the New Testament reference to Veria (as Berea is known today) is proof that a Jewish community existed in this Macedonian town as early as the first century. That was the case for the following two millennia, albeit with interruptions, until 1943, when the Holocaust brought Jewish life in Veria to an abrupt end.

Today there are no Jews in Veria, a town of some 66,000 residents, but the quarter where they lived still stands (and is undergoing gentrification), and at its heart is a synagogue that draws a small but steady stream of visitors. Many of those who come seeking the synagogue are Jews, but there are also Christians who want to see the place where Paul preached the gospel 2,000 years ago. In fact, the current synagogue, which is perched above the Tripotamos river that runs through Veria, is less than 200 years old. But there is a belief, widespread though not substantiated, that the synagogue where Paul spoke stood at the same site.


If visitors are lucky, Evi Meska will be at the synagogue when they drop by, to describe the history of the building she has come to champion, and tell of her hopes to develop Veria – which already draws tourists interested in seeing the spectacular royal Macedonian tombs in nearby Vergina – into a mandatory stop on the Jewish itinerary of northern Greece. Part of her ambition is to create a memorial to the town’s Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.

Meska will also mention a modern legend about a mysterious Torah scroll that was supposedly in use at the time of Paul’s visit and was lost in the Holocaust. It’s an outrageous idea, but if you’re like me, you won’t be able to get that story out of your head.

Evi Meska herself is not Jewish. But in 2002 she was working for the municipal tourism office, shortly after the synagogue underwent a partial renovation, and was asked to take around the building a group of Holocaust survivors from Veria who had come back from Israel to visit their birthplace. It was then that she learned firsthand about the destruction of the community.

Before they expelled Veria’s Jews from their town, on May 1, 1943, the Germans locked up some 300 of them in the synagogue. For three days, they were denied food and water. Those who survived were then deported, first to Thessaloniki and then to Auschwitz.

Hearing about the deportation “was a shocking moment for me,” Meska recalls. “The Holocaust went from being in my head to my heart.”

The old synagogue of Veria, Greece. Draws a small but steady stream of visitors.
The old synagogue of Veria, Greece. Draws a small but steady stream of visitors.David Green

The ‘Da Vinci Code’ Torah

At the start of the war, Veria had a Jewish population of some 600 to 650, to whom were added about 200 Jewish refugees from other parts of the country. According to Giorgos Liolios, who has documented the Holocaust in Veria, 460 Veria Jews died in the Holocaust, 448 of them at Auschwitz. It is also known that 136 of the town’s Jews escaped deportation by fleeing to the mountains, and that 123 of them returned after the war. When they came back to Veria, however, the survivors found that their homes were occupied by newcomers and their possessions were all gone. Virtually all of them left, some of them for Thessaloniki, but the majority left Greece for either Israel or the United States. By 1970, Veria’s Jewish community was declared defunct, and management of its affairs was transferred to the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki.


In 2002, when the renovated synagogue was reopened, the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece published a pamphlet containing a detailed history of the Jewish community of Veria. Appended to it was the text of an article published in the Greek newspaper Kathimerini in May 1951 that reads like a variation on “The Da Vinci Code.” That seems to be the source of the tale of the 2,000-year-old Torah scroll.

In precise, authoritative language, the anonymously written article describes how, during a visit to Veria in 1941, Isaac Kambelis, a senior representative of the Thessaloniki Jewish community, was shown an ancient Torah scroll. In the scroll’s margins was writing describing a visit by a “shaliah” – Hebrew for “messenger” or “apostle” – named “Saul,” who preached about the coming of the Messiah. When Kambelis described what he had seen to Thessaloniki’s chief rabbi, Zvi Koretz, the latter asked a respected Jewish scholar to travel to Veria to inspect it for himself. That scholar, “the wise Barouch Ben Jacob,” according to Kathimerini, confirmed, among other things, that the scroll appeared to date back to the second century B.C.E.

A plan to submit the scroll to further examination among foreign experts was interrupted by World War II, when, according to the same article, the Nazis confiscated all the religious objects belonging to Veria’s Jewish community and transported them to a four-story museum in Auschwitz. After the Russians liberated the death camp, they gave the Torah to Hungarian survivors, who, “even though they regarded it as passul [forbidden for ritual use, because it had been written upon], they used it for the purpose of religious ceremonies, because they did not have any other.” Eventually, says the article, it ended up in the hands of the survivor “Ernest Klein, a merchant from Budapest.” After that, its fate is unknown.

When Minna Rozen, professor emeritus of Jewish history at the University of Haifa, visited Veria a year or two ago, she too was shown around the synagogue by Evi Meska, and she too heard and was startled by the account of the “Paul scroll,” which she decided to check out, if only because “it was such a nice story.”

Prof. Rozen says she found no record of the visits of either Isaac Kambelis or Barouch Ben Jacob to Veria in the prewar archive of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki. She also notes that the reference to a Jewish museum in Auschwitz is “nonsense.” It is true, however, that the Germans shipped many of the ritual objects and documents they stole from Jewish communities around Europe to Prague for display in what was planned to be a museum of an “extinct” people.

She questions, too, the idea that someone would have gone to the trouble of documenting the visit of Paul to Veria in real time: “At the time that he came there, he was not an important person,” she points out.

Inside the synagogue at Veria, Greece. The Apostle Paul is believed to have stood at the same site two millennia ago and preached to the town's Jewish community.
Inside the synagogue at Veria, Greece. The Apostle Paul is believed to have stood at the same site two millennia ago and preached to the town’s Jewish community.David Green

But Rozen notes that the story doesn’t add up for a more basic reason: After the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, in 1453, they forcibly brought to their new capital Jews, Muslims and Christians from all over the empire, to repopulate and rebuild the city after the decline of the final years of Byzantine rule. Among the groups who were transferred there was Veria’s entire community of Romaniote Jews, as the Greek-speaking Jews of the Byzantine empire were called. “And when they were deported,” notes Rozen, “they took their Torah scrolls with them.” And neither they nor their scrolls ever returned.

Lost history, restored synagogue

According to Elias Messinas, no physical evidence remains of the Romaniotes’ presence in Veria either. Less than a half-century later, however, their place was taken by Sephardi Jews, who “brought with them their own culture, language and religious traditions,” writes Messinas in his 2011 book “The Synagogues of Greece.”

Messinas, an Athens-born, Yale-trained architect who today divides his time between Greece and Israel, undertook to do a survey of the remains of the country’s synagogues for his doctorate. “By the 1990s,” he recalls, “in remote corners of Greece where no communities survived, synagogues and cemeteries were abandoned.” After spending months in surveying and documenting them, Messinas’ hope was to convince the Jewish leadership to preserve the sites, as part of the Jews’ cultural legacy.

In the case of Veria, a preservation program was attempted, with the support of the Getty Grant Program. In addition to the synagogue itself, which by the ’90s was in very bad repair, there was also the surrounding Jewish quarter, called Barbouta, and a cemetery just across the river, on what had once been the outskirts of town, but was now in the heart of a growing residential neighborhood.

The abandoned site of the cemetery was developed by the city as athletic fields, in return for establishment of a memorial to the city’s Jews on the site, to be created from the remaining gravestones – as was done some years later in Thessaloniki. The city also restored the synagogue façade in 1996 along with new pavement for the Barbouta area. A few years later, the interior of the synagogue was also renovated by the Jewish community.

Like Evi Meska, Giorgos Liolios is not Jewish. But there seems to be consensus among all concerned that he knows as much about Veria’s Jewish history as anyone. A lawyer and journalist by training, and a poet and novelist in his free time, Liolios has also written two Greek-language books about Jewish history – one about Veria, the other about the island of Sifnos.

In “Shadows of the City” (2009), Liolios says he attempted to reconstruct the events of the Holocaust in Veria, and more generally in Greece, and to name the “460 victims of the Jewish community of Veria.” In a written statement he sent to Haaretz, Liolios described the conversion of the cemetery into a sports facility as “an unholy act,” and “unacceptable if you consider the way we should manage the memory of the dead.”

The synagogue at Veria in Greece. The town was home to between 600 and 650 Jews at the start of World War II.
The synagogue at Veria in Greece. The town was home to between 600 and 650 Jews at the start of World War II.David Green

He is no less disturbed by what he refers to as “the destruction” of the synagogue’s interior.

As the person who had painstakingly studied and published the history and architecture of the synagogue, Messinas was glad that the building was finally preserved, though he would have preferred if the work had been more accurate in preserving the synagogue’s original character. For example, the interior walls were repainted in blue instead of repairing the existing faux-marble – a traditional and unique decoration – and images depicting holy sites in the Land of Israel were added to the walls.

According to Liolios, both the plan to redevelop the cemetery and the manner in which the synagogue was renovated are examples of a larger, monument-based approach to Jewish memory that he sees as an inappropriate way to teach about the Holocaust.

“I believe,” Liolios wrote, “that we should be more interested in a systematic and persistent effort to manage and point out the memory of Jewish presence in the city and the Holocaust, with the help of various tools (mainly through school education).

“I would not, of course, oppose the installation of a Holocaust monument in Veria, but if it is to happen, it should be placed in a central part of the city rather than being ‘hidden’ in a remote corner of the city,” so that both locals and visitors will encounter and interact with it. Liolios says he wants to avoid the situation in which “Holocaust monuments are being set up just to say that we have repaid our debt to memory.”

Empathy and wonder

As a model of an effective memorial, Liolios points to the Stolpersteine project, in which small commemorative plaques are embedded in the sidewalk where Jews lived or worked before their deportation. The “stumbling stone” project began in Germany, but now has spread to everywhere Jews were persecuted during the Nazi period. Liolios believes they are an effective way to stimulate empathy and wonder. “Although there is generally a good climate in Veria,” he wrote, “there is still a large number of inhabitants who have anti-Semitic ideas or are suspicious,” and they need to be encouraged to empathize with the victims.

There’s some irony in the fact that the two great champions of Jewish commemoration in Veria are non-Jews, although it shouldn’t be so surprising, considering that no Jews live today in the city. For her part, Evi Meska would like nothing more than to see a memorial created in the basement of the Veria synagogue, which once housed the community’s mikveh, its ritual bath. She imagines bringing some of the tombstones from the former cemetery into the basement. “People died in the synagogue: it’s a place of memory,” she says.

Across from the synagogue, she proposes restoring a house and turning it into a museum: “I have pictures, stories, histories of the survivors, a lot of things to put in the museum.”

When I spoke with David Saltiel, a businessman who serves as president of both the Central Council of Greek Jews and the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, he said that he “hadn’t thought about” a museum in Veria, noting that creating such an institution requires money, content and dedicated professionals, all of which are in short supply.

Instead, Saltiel says his current priority is the expansion of the excellent Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki with an additional 500 to 600 meters of floor space. And adjacent to the train station of that city, which is where the Jews of Thessaloniki began their final journey to Auschwitz, the foundation stone was laid last January for a Holocaust museum. The major funding for that is also coming from non-Jewish sources: Greece’s Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the eponymous philanthropic organization established by the estate of the late Greek shipping magnate, and the government of Germany.

As taken from,

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Posted by on August 25, 2018 in Uncategorized


Parshat Ki Teitzei: King Henry VIII and the Talmud

Remember that king with 6 wives? The Jews helped unravel his levirite obligation to his first marriage
Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein. (Public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein. (Public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Did you know that King Henry VIII purchased a copy of the newly printed Talmud when he wanted to escape his marriage to his first wife Catherine of Aragon? What makes this even more remarkable is that there were no Jews living in England at that time. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Let’s begin at the Battle of Bosworth Field, the last time a king of England won his throne on the battlefield.

The 32-year War of the Roses, which wiped out the male heirs of the houses of York and Lancaster, ended on August 22 1485. King Richard III, the last king of the House of York, was killed and buried (his body was eventually discovered under a Leicester city council car park in 2012).

The 28-year-old Welsh-born Henry Tudor was now the king. But his claim to the throne was a tenuous one. His father, Edmond Tudor had been captured while fighting for Lancaster and died three months before Henry was born. Henry’s grandfather, Owen Tudor, had been a page boy in the court of Henry V. Later, he married the late king’s widow, though it took an act of parliament to declare that Edmond was in fact his legitimate heir.

It was his mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, who was key in making Henry Tudor into Henry VII. Her great-grandfather was John of Gaunt, the third son of Edward III. But maternal claims to the crown of England were not really strong enough, so she improved her son’s standing by marrying him to Elizabeth of York, eldest daughter and heir to Edward IV (after the presumed death of Elizabeth’s brothers — the “princes in the tower”), thus uniting the warring houses of Lancaster and York.

Portrait of Henry VII by an unknown artist. (Public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

So, now that he was king, Henry had work to do to cement his claim and that of his children. Just four years after the Battle of Bosworth Field, Henry made plans to marry off his eldest son Arthur, who was only 3 at the time, to 4-year-old Catherine of Aragon, a daughter of the powerful Spanish royal family,

The couple were married in 1501, a few weeks after Arthur’s 15th birthday. But just six months later, the heir to the throne died. Catherine would later testify that the marriage was never consummated.

So now, what was Henry to do? Without the support of the Spanish, his monarchy was precarious. And to make matters worse, less than a year later, his wife, Elizabeth died too. Henry briefly entertained the idea of marrying Catherine himself, but eventually decided to marry her off to his second son, who would go on to become Henry VIII.

The problem was that marrying a brother’s widow is clearly forbidden by the Bible (Leviticus 18:16). Luckily, Henry VII was able to receive a papal dispensation from Pope Julius II to allow his son to marry and retain the alliance of Spain.

Fast forward 20 years. Henry VII is dead. Henry VIII is now king, and he is no longer interested in Catherine. For one thing, she failed to give him a male heir who survived infancy (though her daughter, Mary, did later become the first-ever female ruler of England). Also, Henry had fallen for Anne Boleyn, the sister of one of Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting. (Anne later became the mother of the future Queen Elizabeth).

But Henry had a problem. Catholic law did not allow for divorce. And even though, later on, Henry seemed quite happy to execute wives (including Anne Boleyn) when he lost interest in them, Catherine was the sister of the Spanish king, and far too important to behead.

Catherine of Aragon, attributed to Joannes Corvus. (Public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

So Henry’s advisers tried to invalidate the marriage to Catherine. As Henry’s brother’s widow, she was forbidden to him, they said. She had never actually been his wife in the eyes of the church (which therefore made Mary illegitimate). Furthermore they told Henry, the fact that his son from Catherine died in infancy was a sign that the marriage was not sanctioned.

However, Pope Clement VII, who was at the time effectively being held prisoner by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who also happened to be Catherine’s nephew, refused to annul the marriage. Eventually, this led Henry to split from the Catholic Church and found the Church of England. But first his advisers and scholars had to defend their view to parliament.

The problem was a verse in this week’s Torah reading — if a man dies childless, his brother must marry his widow in a process called yibum (levirate marriage), in order to keep his brother’s name alive (Deuteronomy 25:5-6). This law supersedes the prohibition of marrying a brother’s widow, and applied in Henry’s case. If the brother-in-law chooses not to perform yibum, he must instead perform the Torah mandated “divorce” procedure called halitzah (Deuteronomy 25:7-10).

So now Henry really had a problem. Several of his advisers, however, found a loophole to this too, and consulted Jews for advice. There were no Jews living in England, since they had been expelled in 1290 by Edward I, but several Jewish converts to Christianity lived in the country, were close to the king, and maintained contacts with Jews in Europe.

“The Jews tell him that the law of Deuteronomy has never been kept since the fall of Jerusalem,” Henry’s former Greek tutor Richard Croke, who was advising him on what to do with Catherine, explained in a letter to the Bishop of London John Stokesley written in March 1531. “It is not intended to be kept, except where it is allowed by the Levitical law, and they do not consider it obligatory except where causes and circumstances expressly urge it, and not even then is it absolutely obligatory.”

A page of the Babylonian Talmud, printed by Daniel Bomberg in 1522 in Venice. (Public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

He was basing his view on the words of the talmudic sage Abba Shaul, who banned the levirate marriage if it was done with the wrong intent.

“One who marries his sister-in-law for her beauty, or in order to gratify his sexual desires, or for any other [ulterior] motive it is as if he sinned with a forbidden relation, and it seems to me that the child would be almost illegitimate,” (Yevamot 39b).

The great mishnaic sage Rabbi Akiva also banned levirate marriage in even stronger terms.

As early as 1530, theologians tried this approach to free Henry from his marriage.

“The Levitical law remains in force, and that Deuteronomy was conditional, and is not kept either by Christians or Hebrews, as they themselves have determined in the Talmud,” wrote one of the theologians in Venice by the name of Franciscus Georgius.

In one of those historical coincidences that seems to occur nine times out of 10, a Christian scholar named Daniel Bomberg had printed the first complete set of the Talmud just a few years earlier. It was Bomburg who created the chapter and verse numbers that we all take for granted now, when he published his Mikra’ot Gedolot Bible a few years before that.

Henry ordered a copy of the nine-volume Talmud from Venice, hoping it would support his claim to have the marriage annulled. As it happened, Henry actually married Anne in 1532 before the nine volumes of Talmud arrived, so they were never used and remained in mint condition for hundreds of years.

And that is the (shortened version of the) story of Henry VIII and the Talmud.

By the way, the set of Talmud that Henry ordered was eventually discovered by Jack Lunzer in Westminster Abbey. After almost 25 years of failed attempts, Lunzer managed to purchase Henry VIII’s Talmud from the Abbey in 1980.

This same set of Talmud sold in 2015 for over $9 million. But that is another story.

As taken from,


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Posted by on August 23, 2018 in Uncategorized


The Joy of Saying “I am Sorry”


Image result for nathan lopes cardozo

by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo

One of the most remarkable features of the Portuguese Spanish Selichot, besides the text, is the choice of melodies. The tunes are not like those of the Edot HaMizrach, the Eastern Sefardi communities. They are much nicer, with due respect, surely much more beautiful than those of our Ashkenazi brothers.

The Portuguese Spanish Selichot are different in that their tunes are very optimistic and joyful. They are a pleasure to hear.

Still, to sing about one’s transgressions in an optimistic tone, as if proud of them, is quite remarkable! It begs the question: How can a person feel pride about his transgressions? Would it not be more appropriate to chant them in a subdued voice, dramatically, to sad music?

Why ask a chazzan with a beautiful voice, accompanied by a grand choir, to lead these prayers? Shouldn’t the congregation get someone with an untrained voice who would sing the Selichot simply and humbly?

I believe there is a profound idea behind this phenomenon: To be given the opportunity to do teshuvah is an enormous privilege. It is a joy to be able to say I am sorry. In fact, it is one of the great gifts that Judaism has given mankind: the knowledge that man can change; that if he has not been successful the past year, he can turn over a new leaf and start again. This is the ultimate expression of religious optimism. Judaism teaches man that there is no karma that traps him, and no original sin that stands in his way. Man is free to re-engage with God and his fellow man. He can regret his deeds. Whatever obstacles there may be, all that is required is the will to change his ways and the effort to work hard at it.

Over the years, we have misunderstood the meaning of prayer and chazzanut. In most synagogues, services are heavy and often depressing. There is an absence of joy and spiritual outpouring.

True, it is not easy to speak to God. In fact, it is a major undertaking, and not without great risk. Who are we to speak to God? There is chutzpah involved. Even more outrageous is the fact that we dare to praise God. Johann Wolfgang Goethe once observed: Wer einem lobt stellt sich ihm gleich. He who praises someone places himself on the other’s level. Or, as Aristotle said: Everyone may criticize him, but who is permitted to praise him?

Indeed, the question is crucial. Logically, such boldness should not be permissible. The answer, however, is that God is prepared to compromise His greatness for the sake of man and come down to his level, or lift man to such greatness that he can touch His Throne.

This is the internal knowledge of the religious man. Through it he realizes the joy and the privilege to be allowed to praise God and ask His forgiveness, in spite of its impertinence.

Nothing expresses this joy better than singing the Selichot in an optimistic tone. Not only is man allowed to say the Selichot; he is commanded to do so. It is the celebration of man’s vulnerability as well as his grandeur. It is God’s great gift to man.

What, then, is the function of the chazzan and choir? Many seem to believe it is to give a musical performance; to provide a “charming service” for the congregants. But such an observation is a tragedy. It’s a violation of the very goal it wants to achieve. More than that, it’s a kind of idolatry entering our synagogues.

Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “The Cantor has to pierce the armor of indifference”. Chazzanut is not simply a skill, or a technical performance. It is a protest against apathy; a nearly impossible battle to rescue the words of the prayer book from spiritual oblivion. The chazzan’s task is to lift the printed words from the very page on which they appear and turn them into a prophecy through which man will look in the mirror and realize that he must run for his life. He has to disengage himself from the all-too-familiar prayers, which have become stagnant and deadening. Chazzanut is the art of putting wings on the words, elevating them to a world that many of us no longer recognize. The goal is to unbind the words from their own restrictions until, in an explosive burst, they scatter into new meanings and carry us to a newfound world of spirituality.

The chazzan and the choir must lift each word out of its confined meaning and turn it into something that the word on its own is unable to convey. To sing is “to know how to stand still and to dwell upon a word” (Heschel).

The Talmud tells us (Sanhedrin 94a)) that God wanted to appoint King Chizkiyahu as the Mashiach. After all, he was a great tzaddik, a righteous man who even turned Jewish education on its head by ensuring that “no boy or girl, man or woman was found who was not thoroughly versed in the laws of purity and impurity” (Ibid 94b). Never, says the Talmud, was there such advanced Torah learning in all of Israel. And yet, Chizkiyahu’s son Menashe was utterly wicked. The Talmud asks, in astonishment, how that could have been. Such a righteous father; and such an evil son! Surprisingly, the Talmud responds that the reasons why King Chizkiyahu did not become the Mashiach and why he had such a wicked son are one and the same: He didn’t sing! That showed that he lacked understanding of the value and profundity of singing. He didn’t realize that just as music sets the soul on fire and draws us nearer to the infinite, so does singing. “It takes us out of the actual and whispers to us dim secrets that startle our wonder as to who we are, and for what, whence, and whereto” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). Menashe never heard his father singing. He was probably a very serious and somber man. As a result, he couldn’t purify his heart and mind. He was left with stagnated words that couldn’t move him and ultimately led to his wickedness.

We must never forget that because Chizkiyahu didn’t sing, he could not be the Mashiach. And all of us lost out.

No song – no Mashiach

As taken from,

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Posted by on August 23, 2018 in Uncategorized


Repentance for Christians Involves Rejecting Replacement Theology

It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that Hashem set His heart on you and chose you—indeed, you are the smallest of peoples. Deuteronomy 7:7 (The Israel Bible™)

Rabbi Tuly Weisz, director of Israel365 and the publisher of The Israel Bible and Breaking Israel News believes that the rejection of replacement theology by contemporary Christians is a “prerequisite for all of the other stages of geula (redemption).” He told Breaking Israel News, “As a Jewish rabbi, I’m not comfortable telling non-Jews what they should believe and do. However, I do feel strongly that the time for the rejection of replacement theology is now, to bring about the continued stages of redemption.”

What exactly is replacement theology? Bob O’Dell, co-founder of Root-Source, a Christian portal for dialogue between Christians and Jews, believes that replacement theology exists on a continuum. O’Dell said, “This replacement could be as minimal as ‘the church is God’s preferred institution’ to the most aggressive form of replacement theology which transfers the entire calling and purpose of the Jewish people over to the church, while relegating the Jewish people to a place of hell on earth – without hope, without promise, and devoid of anything good, [without] any hope of redemption.”

Robbie Coleman of Zion’s Bridge Ministry used even stronger language to define replacement theology. “It is more than errant doctrine, which began late first century. It is a devised plan by God’s enemy to deceive His creation, to keep them from His protective covenantal blessings — the blessing through Israel to the nations.”

In advance of this past 9th of Av, a date in the Hebrew calendar that marks the destruction of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem and other tragedies in Jewish history, O’Dell and Ray Montgomery, a Root Source subscriber from New Zealand, put together a list of anti-semitic actions throughout Christian history.

O’Dell noted, “A careful examination of the list that we put together for the 9th of Av project makes it quite clear that certain key leaders within the Christian faith, from about 100 to about 400 CE, put forth an argument that the church had replaced Israel in certain ways.”

Coleman admitted that it’s difficult for many churches to face the consequences of centuries of replacement theology. “Today, many of the mainline denominations are not open to the discussion of replacement theology. I have found two reasons: ignorance or prejudice.

“The first group is somewhat naïve people that have accepted what has — and has not been — taught them. This has, at times, been expressed in the teaching of supersession theology [another name for replacement theology], which says that the new covenant supersedes the original covenant.

“The prejudiced group is generally pro-Palestinian and against the Jewish people. They take up causes that require the Jewish people to leave the land promised to them by God. They develop theology based on propaganda and lies, rather than a pure study of the Scripture. If people had read and understood the Bible, I don’t think such deception would have been established as doctrine,” Coleman asserted.

Tommy Waller, founder of HaYovel, an organization that brings Christian volunteers to Israel to serve Jewish farmers, also spoke to Breaking Israel News about the difficulty Christians may have facing the damage done by replacement theology. “It is difficult, anytime we’re admitting that we have done something wrong. Until we can take a position of humility, we’re not going to be able to tackle this situation and understand the harsh realities, having to face that the Holocaust was a reality, and even before that, the Spanish Inquisition and the pogroms and the Crusades and all these other horrific things done to Jews were a reality.

“These things have to be presented to us over and over again in order for us to overcome it. The first time I went to Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust museum) in Jerusalem, that was a wake up. I walked out of there literally undone, in tears. It was a horrific reality to understand. There are a lot of historical facts that incriminate Christianity. It’s not talked about. It’s not something that the pastor gets up and speaks about every Sunday, the need to repent. So it’s hard.”Waller acknowledged a second reason why replacement theology is challenging for the church to fully grapple with. “There’s still anti-semitism in the church. There’s a hatred for Judaism, a hatred for Jews. It’s a sad statement, but there’s still an undercurrent of anti-semitism,” he said.

The church’s relationship to Israel and to Jerusalem poses yet a third difficulty. “Replacement theology has extracted everything about Jerusalem, about Israel, from our Bibles. Somehow that got taken away early on in Christianity and we just haven’t been able to come back to it,” Waller said.

Although much damage has been done in the name of replacement theology, Christian leaders Waller, Coleman and O’Dell agree that, at least in some circles, things are, in fact, changing for the better.

Waller elaborated on the specific way his organization is helping to heal the damage done by replacement theology. “The only way we can turn this around is first to admit that we were wrong and then for me, and for HaYovel particularly, putting our feet where our heart is, where our true intentions are to repent, has been very helpful to us and also helpful to the Jewish people that we’re serious about this repentance. It’s not just verbiage. We physically want to walk it out. The atrocities done to the Jewish people were done in a physical way, and obviously the reconciliation, the repair, the teshuva (repentance) also needs to be a physical reality.

“We have to introduce and encourage more congregations to come to Israel, meet the people that have been affected by this. Just coming here to Israel and just working in the fields, it’s part of teshuva – putting ourselves in a place of servitude and doing something good and not being resistant to God’s choosing the Land of Israel and the Jewish people.”

Coleman told Breaking Israel News, “An increasing number of ministries are arising to shed light on the truth of the issue.” He highlighted Christians United for Israel as “one that has continued to make a huge impact, with over one million adherents.” Coleman also noted the work of Christian Friends of Magen David Adom, Bridges for Peace, the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem and the Christian Friends of Israel, founded by Ray and Sharon Sanders whom he applauded for working for 30 years, “undoing the harm that has been done to the Jewish people in the name of Christianity.”

His own ministry, Zion’s Bridge, teaches, “the necessity of embracing our Hebraic roots and repenting for the error in our prejudices against the Jewish people, as well as God’s promises toward, and revival of, the Jewish nation, Israel. We travel to churches, exposing the fallacy of replacement theology and showing its errant foundation that was established with the founders of the Christian doctrine.

“By renouncing replacement theology, the church first of all must acknowledge that we’ve been wrong about Israel and the chosen people. We’ve been wrong and committed atrocities by thinking that God wanted to replace Israel with the church. Repentance is returning to God and His Word. We must ask why it could be that we have treated the ‘chosen ones’ with disrespect? If God has not rejected His people then, we are not allowed to either.”

O’Dell concluded on an optimistic note, “This thing is going to happen. It may be delayed. It may be resisted. It may be fought, but I firmly believe that God is saying to the churches that they must begin moving in the direction of actively renouncing replacement theology. Or else [they] risk missing out on the next big revival God desires to pour out onto the Christian world.”

As taken from,

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Posted by on August 23, 2018 in Uncategorized


Social Capital and Fallen Donkeys

by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Many years ago, Elaine and I were being driven to the Catskills, a long-time favourite summer getaway for Jews in New York, and our driver told us the following story: One Friday afternoon, he was making his way to join his family in the Catskills for Shabbat when he saw a man wearing a yarmulke, bending over his car at the side of the road. One of the tires was flat, and he was about to change the wheel.

Our driver told us that he pulled over to the roadside, went over to the man, helped him change the wheel, and wished him “Good Shabbos.” The man thanked him, took his yarmulke off and put it in his pocket. Our driver must have given him a quizzical look, because the man turned and explained: “Oh, I’m not Jewish. It’s just that I know that if I’m wearing one of these” – he gestured to the yarmulke – “someone Jewish will stop and come to help me.”

I mention this story because of its obvious relevance to the command in today’s parsha: “Do not see your kinsman’s donkey or his ox fallen on the road and ignore it. Help him lift it up” (Deut. 22:4). On the face of it, this is one tiny detail in a parsha full of commands. But its real significance lies in telling us what a covenant society should look like. It is a place where people are good neighbours, and are willing to help even a stranger in distress. Its citizens care about the welfare of others. When they see someone in need of help, they don’t walk on by.

The sages debated the precise logic of the command. Some held that it is motivated by concern for the welfare of the animal involved, the ox or the donkey, and that accordingly tsa’ar ba’alei hayyim, prevention of suffering to animals, is a biblical command.[1] Others, notably the Rambam, held that it had to do with the welfare of the animal’s owner, who might be so distressed that he came to stay with the animal at a risk to his own safety[2] – the keyword here being “on the road.” The roadside in ancient times was a place of danger.

Equally the sages discussed the precise relationship between this command and the similar but different one in Exodus (23:5): “If you see your enemy’s donkey fallen under its load, do not pass by. Help him load it.” They said that, all other things being equal, if there is a choice between helping an enemy and helping a friend, helping an enemy takes precedence since it may “overcome the inclination”, that is, it may help end the animosity and turn an enemy into a friend.[3]  This, the ethic of “help your enemy” is a principle that works, unlike the ethic of “love your enemy” which has never worked and has led to some truly tragic histories of hate.

In general, as the Rambam states, one should do for someone you find in distress what you would do for yourself in a similar situation. Better still, one should put aside all considerations of honour and go “beyond the limit of the law.” Even a prince, he says, should help the lowliest commoner, even if the circumstances do not accord with the dignity of his office or his personal standing.[4]

All of this is part of what sociologists nowadays call social capital: the wealth that has nothing to do with money and everything to do with the level of trust within a society – the knowledge that you are surrounded by people who have your welfare at heart, who will return your lost property (see the lines immediately prior to the fallen donkey: Deut. 22:1-3), who will raise the alarm if someone is breaking into your house or car, who will keep an eye on the safety of your children, and who generally contribute to a “good neighbourhood,” itself an essential component of a good society.

The man who has done more than anyone else to chart the fate of social capital in modern times is Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam. In a famous article, ‘Bowling Alone’ and subsequent book of the same title,[5] he drew attention to the sharp loss of social capital in modern times. It was symbolised by the fact that more people than ever were going ten-pin bowling, but fewer than ever were joining bowling teams: hence ‘bowling alone,’ which seemed to epitomise the individualism of contemporary society and its corollary: loneliness.

Ten years later, in an equally fascinating study, American Grace,[6]  he argued that in fact social capital was alive and well in the United States, but in specific locations, namely religious communities: places of worship that still bring people together in shared belonging and mutual responsibility.

His extensive research, carried out throughout the United States between 2004 and 2006, showed that frequent church- or synagogue-goers are more likely to give money to charity, regardless of whether the charity is religious or secular. They are also more likely to do voluntary work for a charity, give money to a homeless person, give excess change back to a shop assistant, donate blood, help a neighbour with housework, spend time with someone who is feeling depressed, allow another driver to cut in front of them, offer a seat to a stranger, or help someone find a job. Religious Americans are measurably more likely than their secular counterparts to give of their time and money to others, not only within but also beyond their own communities.

Regular attendance at a house of worship turns out to be the best predictor of altruism and empathy: better than education, age, income, gender or race. Religion creates community, community creates altruism, and altruism turns us away from self and toward the common good. Putnam goes so far as to speculate that an atheist who went regularly to church (perhaps because of a spouse) would be more likely to volunteer in a soup kitchen than a believer who prays alone. There is something about the tenor of relationships within a religious community that makes it an ongoing tutorial in citizenship and good neighbourliness.

At the same time one has to make sure that ‘religiosity’ does not get in the way. One of the cruelest of all social science experiments was the “Good Samaritan” test organised, in the early 1970s, by two Princeton social psychologists, John Darley and Daniel Batson.[7]  The well known parable tells the story of how a priest and a Levite failed to stop and help a traveler by the roadside who had been attacked and robbed, while a Samaritan did so. Wanting to get to the reality behind the story, the psychologists recruited students from Princeton Theological Seminary and told them they were to prepare a talk about being a minister. Half were given no more instructions than that. The other half were told to construct the talk around the Good Samaritan parable.

They were then told to go and deliver the talk in a nearby building where an audience was waiting. Some were told that they were late, others that if they left now they would be on time, and a third group that there was no need to hurry. Unbeknown to the students, the researchers had positioned, directly on the students’ route, an actor playing the part of a victim slumped in a doorway, moaning and coughing – replicating the situation in the Good Samaritan parable.

You can probably guess the rest: preparing a talk on the Good Samaritan had no influence whatever on whether the student actually stopped to help the victim. What made the difference was whether the student had been told he was late, or that there was no hurry. On several occasions, a student about to deliver a talk on the Good Samaritan, “literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way.”

The point is not that some fail to practice what they preach.[8]  The researchers themselves simply concluded that the parable should not be taken to suggest that Samaritans are better human beings than priests or Levites, but rather, it all depends on time and conflicting duties. The rushed seminary students may well have wanted to stop and help, but were reluctant to keep a whole crowd waiting. They may have felt that their duty to the many overrode their duty to the one.

The Princeton experiment does, though, help us understand the precise phrasing of the command in our parsha: “Do not see … and ignore.” Essentially it is telling us to slow down when you see someone in need. Whatever the time pressure, don’t walk on by.

Think of a moment when you needed help and a friend or stranger came to your assistance. Can you remember such occasions? Of course. They linger in the mind forever, and whenever you think of them, you feel a warm glow, as if to say, the world is not such a bad place after all. That is the life-changing idea: Never be in too much of a rush to stop and come to the aid of someone in need of help. Rarely if ever will you better invest your time. It may take a moment but its effect may last a lifetime. Or as William Wordsworth put it: “The best portion of a good man’s life: his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.”[9]

Shabbat shalom.


[1] See Baba Metzia 31a.
[2] Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Rotze’ach, 13:2, 14.
[3] Baba Metzia 32b; see also Tosafot, Pesachim 113b.
[4] Hilkhot Rotzeach 13:4.
[5] Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
[6] Robert Putnam, David E. Campbell, and Shaylyn Romney Garrett, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2010.
[7] Darley, J. M., & Batson, C. D. (1973). ‘From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior,’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27(1), 100-108.
[8] Tosefta Yevamot 8:7; Bavli, Yevamot 63b.
[9] Wordsworth, ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey.’

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Posted by on August 22, 2018 in Uncategorized


The Unstoppable Yehudit Abrams

The Unstoppable Yehudit Abrams


The hi-tech maverick who recently won $360,000 for her early detection breast cancer device is also a convert to Judaism. This is her amazing story.

Standing before a crowd of 5,000 at the We Work Creator Awards this summer in Jerusalem, Yehudit Abrams had reason to be nervous. This moment represented the culmination of many dramatic twists and turns: childhood in a devout Quaker home; Orthodox Jewish conversion; researching ultrasound to support the Mars mission at NASA; mingling with tech elite in Silicon Valley; and conducting a medical relief missions around the world.

Standing there under the spotlights, with WeWork’s legendary founder Adam Neumann looking on, Yehudit took a deep breath and focused on how breast cancer claims another life every 74 seconds.

Yehudit said a prayer and launched into the pitch for MonitHer, the first at-home, hand-held monitor for early detection of breast cancer. With a combination of engineering and medical expertise, fierce entrepreneurial spirit, and unstoppable energy and passion, Yehudit described her vision to revolutionize one of modern medicine’s most perplexing challenges.

Minutes later, Yehudit was awarded first prize of $360,000.

Idaho and TM

Born Holley Abrams in Boise, Idaho, the road to here has been complex, dramatic, and deeply inspiring.

“I grew up in a family of cowboys and ranchers, raised as a devout Quaker,” Yehudit tells near her office in downtown Jerusalem. “My mom is very spiritual, and talking to God is something instilled in me from an early age. If an ambulance drives by, we’d say, ‘Please God, take care of this person and let them not suffer’.”

A precocious and razor-sharp child, Yehudit was encouraged to explore the worlds of music, science and adventure. Yet when it came to religion, she was taught “not to question.”

I was born questioning.

“The problem is, I was born questioning,” Yehudit says. “As a Christian, it didn’t make sense to me that man could be God. It also didn’t make sense that because someone died, I’d go to heaven. Nor did it make sense that God is divided into three entities, since by definition a First Cause can’t have a split beginning.”

By age 10, Yehudit began studying other religions like Daoism and Buddhism. She eventually settled on Transcendental Meditation – connecting with a local instructor and meditating diligently throughout junior high and high school.

From a young age, Yehudit was self-reliant. Her parents divorced, leaving a father uninvolved, a mother working two jobs, and a brother off with his friends. “I cooked for myself and grew up fast,” she says.

As age 13, Yehudit randomly raised her hand when the school music instructor asked if anyone wanted to play cello. That night she took the instrument home and an unbreakable lifelong bond was formed. She excelled at cello, going on to win statewide solo completions.

Her cello teacher gave her the sheet music for “Kol Nidrei,” the solemn prayer that begins Yom Kippur services. “Even before I played it, I sensed something special,” Yehudit says. “I stared at the music and it was like the notes were popping off the page. When I played it, every hair on my body stood up straight. I couldn’t explain it and I needed to find out its origins.”

Yehudit opened the Boise yellow pages and called the local synagogue for the schedule of services. That Friday evening, she dropped in at Boise’s legendary synagogue built in 1865, the oldest synagogue building in continuous use west of the Mississippi. Though a tiny congregation with no rabbi, Yehudit was welcomed by a middle-aged lay leader named George, a convert to Judaism and the son of a KKK Wizard in West Virginia. George agreed to answer all of Yehudit’s questions and gave her the book, Judaism & Christianity: The Differences.

“I fell in love with the services, the community, and the study” she says. “It felt like home.”

Yehudit continued meditating and pursuing a Jewish education. At age 15, she wondered if any Kohanim, descendents of the Jewish priests, lived in Idaho. She flipped open the phone book and found one “Cohen.” Reuben Cohen, who happened to live directly across the street.

“It was late in the evening and I went outside, laid down and looked up at the stars,” Yehudit says. “I thought about the blessing given to Abraham, and asked God to send someone to teach me more about Judaism.”

At that moment, a short, stocky, 78-year-old man emerged to throw out the garbage. “I ran across the street and asked him, ‘Are you a kohen?’ Reuben stiffened with pride and said, ‘Yes, I am a kohen. What else would you like to know?'”

The two stood outside talking till 3 a.m. It was a match made in heaven. Reuben’s wife passed away 10 years earlier, leaving him all alone. “He became my best friend and my surrogate father,” Yehudit says. “Every day after school, I’d go straight to his house. He was a walking encyclopedia. Every night we’d talk history and politics, and he’d cook me dinner.”

Though Reuben had not been to synagogue for 50 years, Yehudit’s enthusiasm caught on and they began attending services regularly together.

Conversion and Medical School

In high school, Yehudit decided to become a Jew. Wanting to experience Judaism in the “optimal way, in Israel,” she noticed a flyer at the synagogue for Sar-el, the program to volunteer at an army base or hospital. In 1993, one week after high school graduation, 80-year-old Reuben and 17-year-old Yehudit set off together to Israel.

After six weeks, Reuben went home to Idaho and Yehudit stayed, lodging at the Heritage House while looking for a conversion program. “I cried on every rabbi’s desk and they politely turned me away,” she says. “That was God’s way of saying: ‘How badly do you want to become a Jew?'”

That year, on Yom Kippur, Yehudit attended services overlooking the Western Wall. She had since discovered she was born on Yom Kippur, and memories came rushing back of the “Kol Nidrei” sheet music that started this whole journey.

“That day I surrendered everything to God. I asked, with every fiber of my soul: ‘I will do your will for the rest of my life. Just help me become a Jew.'”

Life as a Jew felt brighter and more potent. That special feeling has never gone away.

The next day, Rabbi Asher Wade, himself a former Christian pastor, gave Yehudit the phone number of Sharei Bina, a women’s seminary in Tzfat. The director, Tova Weingot, warmly accepted Yehudit and pledged to shepherd her through the conversion process. “I studied morning till night, drinking in Torah,” she says with an enormous smile.

One year later, Yehudit completed her conversion under Rabbi Avraham Auerbach of Tiberias. “I emerged from the mikveh into a different reality,” she says. “Life as a Jew felt brighter and more potent. That special feeling has never gone away.”

With one big goal checked off, Yehudit’s next priority was pursuing her dream of eventually becoming a doctor. After 6 months of ulpan, her Hebrew was still not at university level, so she moved back to the U.S. and studied mechanical engineering at Oregon State. “There were virtually no women in engineering back then,” she says, relishing the role of a maverick. “The entire department had one small women’s bathroom – a converted janitor’s closet. I saw this as an opportunity to break some norms.”

Yehudit solidified her engineering bona fides with internships at HP and Intel, then chose to attend medical school at Charles University in Prague, the oldest university in Central Europe, founded 1348. Every summer during medical school, she joined different medical teams – in Guyana, the Czech Republic, the Appalachian Smoky Mountains, rural Idaho, and at Tel Hashomer in Israel.

Her conclusion from these experiences was disheartening. “Treatments were mostly superficial, prescribing a pill but not diagnosing the problem due to the lack of diagnostics,” she says. “That’s when I began thinking of how to apply engineering to medicine, to create point-of-care diagnostics.”

In the NASA “Sandbox”

On a whim during her senior year of medical school, Yehudit applied to Singularity University, an elite technology think tank and business incubator. The 10-week program, held on the NASA campus in California, exposes creative leaders to cutting-edge, exponential technologies, with the goal of creating companies whose target is to impact a billion lives.

Yehudit was accepted to Singularity and awarded a $25,000 scholarship from Google. “It was an incredible summer,” she says. “We learned the business side of start-ups, which sparked my entrepreneurial streak. After hanging out with Elon Musk, Larry Page, astronauts and Nobel laureates, my take-away was that we all have greatness within. I can do big things, too. That was an empowering realization.”

After hanging out with Elon Musk, Larry Page, astronauts and Nobel laureates, my take-away was that we all have greatness within.

At Singularity, Yehudit became friendly with NASA’s chief medical officer. She was hired and “thrown into the sandbox,” the building where young engineers collaborate on innovative NASA projects.

Yehudit was put on a NASA team working on medical devices to support astronaut health during space missions. “Because Mars is such a long-duration mission,” she says, “you need to identify, diagnose, and treat with the same device. That’s the beauty of working at NASA – they set impossible standards and expect you to achieve huge things.”

In 2010, following the devastating earthquake in Haiti that killed a quarter-million people, Yehudit went to assist the medical relief teams. She surveyed hospitals and saw patients day and night. Seeing that one of Haiti’s main hospitals, servicing 400,000 people, had only one X-ray machine, she began thinking of how to make ultrasound affordable, portable, and easy to use.”

Yehudit returned to NASA where she helped develop a futuristic wearable “ultrasound patch,” she calls a “body window” that sticks to the body and performs continuous imaging and medical diagnosis – all with low-energy requirements and no physical side effects.

With Yehudit’s background in mechanical engineering and medicine, hi-tech connections, and out-of-the-box thinking, the pieces were falling into place for a creative breakthrough in portable ultrasound.

Meanwhile, she still had unfinished business with her medical career and turned her focus to getting a residency. Little did she know of the detour life would take. She had met her husband at NASA, had a baby boy, and soon after divorced. Suddenly, Yehudit was a single mom and her medical career stalled. “I spent the next five years applying for different medical residencies, and every time something else interfered with my plans. I was frustrated at the delay in my plans.”

It would, of course, prove a blessing in disguise.

Puzzle Pieces

During her time at NASA, Yehudit’s cousin – a breast cancer survivor who had discovered the disease through self-exam – was killed in a car accident. That’s when Yehudit decided to focus her attention on the early-detection of breast cancer. Being at home with her son, she had time to digest all she had learned over the years, and to begin drafting ideas for monitoring breast health.

Breast cancer can metastasize rapidly, making it critical to detect it at an early stage. “Once the cancer metastasizes, the five-year survival rate can drop from 95% to 23%,” she says. Of the 250,000 cases of invasive breast cancer diagnosed each year, she says only 60,000 are stage 0 cancers that can be easily cured. “Breast cancer can metastasize in a few months, yet we’re screening every one-to-two years. The numbers prove that mammography alone is not detecting it early enough.”

Yehudit blames the problem on the limitations of current screening methods. Mammography, she explains, delivers a high rate of false-positives – as many as one in three. “Mammography is not finding aggressive breast cancers early enough, cannot alone reliably image dense breasts, or be used to monitor high-risk women, and cannot differentiate some cancers that may not need treatment from those that do. This causes over-diagnosis and unnecessary biopsies. In the U.S. alone, 20,000 women proactively remove their healthy breasts to avoid living with anxiety and fear. We want to eliminate such unnecessary intervention.”

Fortuitously, Yehudit was hired by an ultrasound start up for the next 4.5 years, where she honed her knowledge of ultrasound, skills as a scientist and investigator, and formed scientific relationships that would later be critical to her own start-up. She also learned from the company’s mistakes after they went bankrupt due to poor management.

By this time, Reuben, her surrogate father, had died at age 102. Yehudit’s son was of school age, and she felt it was time to move to Israel.

Yehudit wanted to find breast cancer in its earliest state, keeping survival rates above 95%.

In the meantime, Yehudit wrote out her own ideas for a completely novel approach to screening for breast cancer. Instead of screening for cancer, she wanted to monitor health, in order to find breast cancer in its earliest state keeping survival rates above 95%.

She filed a patent for the MonitHer breast health monitoring system in which monthly whole breast ultrasounds are performed in the home in order to detect any breast changes. In the event of any suspicious change, the user sends historical images of the area of the breast in question via secure link to a physician for review. This removes the guessing game for physicians whether or not to perform a biopsy. MonitHer utilizes an FDA-approved software developed by one of her collaborators.

Grand Prize

With a bright future in the Holy Land, and after five years at home raising her son, Yehudit saw the move as a perfect opportunity to get her medical career back on track and complete her training in radiology. She applied to a residency lottery in Israel, not knowing which hospital she would get. “My first choice was Shaare Zedek in Jerusalem. It’s run according to Jewish law and was my dream hospital from when I was a teenager living in Israel,” she says.

Yehudit began 2018 with Aliyah, along with her son and mother, settling in Jerusalem’s urban hip neighborhood of Nachla’ot. Incredibly, she was accepted at Shaare Zedek, slated to start her residency in July 2018. In the meantime, she applied to MassChallenge, a prestigious startup accelerator focusing on high-impact, early-stage entrepreneurs. The Israeli branch received over 500 applications from 40 countries, and Yehudit was selected to participate. “This gave me access to advisors, classes, and a space to work out of,” she says.

In April 2018, after seeing a notice for the WeWork Awards, Yehudit quickly submitted a “pitch video.” Based on the criteria of social impact, ability to scale, and commercial potential, MonitHer was accepted to compete.

The competition pitted MonitHer against endeavors as diverse as organic farming and solar-powered water desalination.

” Moments before going onstage, it all came together. The years of engineering, the inability to return to residency which led to many years of ultrasound research. Nothing had gone my way. But that was not my deal with Hashem. I gave my life to do His will, and now perhaps this was Hashem’s will for me.” Yehudit says. “I looked out at the crowd and realized that of those thousands of people, one in eight women would be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. I knew what I had to do and wasn’t nervous anymore. I understood that it’s not about me. And I made a commitment: Whatever God wants from me, I’ll do. Just show me the way.”

The grand finale of the night was the announcement of WeWork’s $360,000 first prize. (Adam Neumann the Shabbat-observant Israeli founder of WeWork, is partial to prize money in multiples of 18, Chai.)

As “MonitHer” was announced the winner and as confetti rained down, Yehudit was momentarily stunned. “I sensed my entire life coming together,” she says pensively. “God and Torah is the undercurrent of my entire path, how I got to this point today. Those five years of frustration at not getting a residency was God’s way of enabling me to stay home and spend lots of quality time with my son.”

Beyond this, Yehudit found those years at home allowed her entrepreneurial side to flourish. “Caring for an infant is a wonderful time for creativity,” she says. “I had the luxury of developing my ideas, conducting ultrasound research, and making connections with scientists around the world who now support the work I’m doing. Raising a child is a time to be creative, to explore oneself and let God guide you in a direction.”

How does Yehudit handle being an anomaly, an Orthodox woman in hi-tech, particularly while wearing a traditional Jewish head-covering?

“Observant women approach me all the time, saying that I am an inspiration. Just as I thrived as a mechanical engineer in a department comprised almost entirely of men, so too, I carry with pride the crown I wear on my head. Covering my hair is an obvious statement to me, that I have my priorities where they belong. I think it conveys the message that I’m a proud Jew, serving God through the technical background He granted me.”

Into the Future

After the awards ceremony, Yehudit didn’t stick around basking in accolades. She headed straight to the airport for a pre-planned visit of Jewish historical centers in eastern Europe. It was in Uman, at the grave of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, that she confronted an enormous quandary:

“My end-goal all these years was to finish my residency. I was scheduled to start residency at my dream hospital the following week. Yet with MonitHer looking so promising, I needed to decide: Should I throw myself 100% into running the company, or should I bring in someone else?”

In Uman, Yehudit got her answer. “I meditated and listened for a still, clear voice. The voice said: ‘Go and don’t look back.’ I had been focused on my medical career, but God had other ideas.”

Yehudit flew back to Israel and told the folks at Shaare Zedek she would have to cancel. They were upset, but understanding of her decision.

The WeWork prize money has been earmarked to build a hardware prototype of the actual home breast monitoring device. Experience shows that any medical hardware product requires lots of money and manpower – years of research, plus rigorous clinical studies to obtain FDA approval. Projections are that the product will be available to consumers in three to four years.

In order to focus more on the engineering and medical aspects of development, Yehudit is on the verge of announcing a co-founder, what she describes as “a powerhouse businesswoman who was CEO of a highly successful medical device company.”

MonitHer is just getting started, and it appears as if Yehudit is hurtling toward her destiny. In July, MassChallenge Israel selected MonitHer as a top startup of 2018, earning a spot at their prestigious innovation symposium in November. And she is currently competing to get to the WeWork Global Finals at Madison Square Garden in January 2019.

The challenging times are God’s way of leading us to something greater.

After years of adventures, including 8 universities on 3 continents, Yehudit is back where she belongs, thankful for the long and winding road. “When you raise yourself alone at age 8, it’s obviously very challenging, but it forces you to take charge of who you want to become,” she says. “The challenging times are God’s way of leading us to something greater.”

“We are democratizing early detection by bringing clinical grade diagnostics into the home, enabling the earliest most accurate detection of breast cancer possible.

“This is not about me,” Yehudit says with fire in her eyes. “This is saving lives – pikuach nefesh. Every minute, another life can be saved.”

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Posted by on August 22, 2018 in Uncategorized


Crimen y castigo

Ki Tetzé(Deuteronomio 21:10-25:19)

Rav Paul Seiger, excapellán de una prisión estadounidense, cuenta la historia trágica pero real de un homicidio que pudo ser evitado. Aparentemente la víctima había recibido una llamada telefónica de un hostigador, que le informó que habían fijado precio a su cabeza. Sin dudar sobre la seriedad de la amenaza, el hombre fue a la policía, pero allí le dijeron que no podían brindarle protección. Exactamente una semana después fue asesinado.

Hasta la promulgación de las leyes contra el acoso, había muy poco que hacer para protegerse de esta clase de amenazas. Pero incluso en la actualidad, las leyes siguen teniendo muchas limitaciones. La ley civil no contempla castigos preventivos. De hecho, al convertir al acoso en un crimen, los legisladores sostuvieron el principio de que no se puede castigar a una persona antes de que haya cometido un crimen. Lo único que hicieron fue definir al acoso como un “crimen”.

Pero imaginemos que fuera posible saber anticipadamente que alguien va a cometer un crimen. ¿Sería correcto poner a esa persona tras las rejas?

Esta pregunta es el eje del hijo rebelde, un tema importante de esta parashá. El hijo rebelde es un niño que, a pesar de la disciplina que recibe de sus padres, elige seguir el camino del mal. Él abandona toda semblanza de rectitud moral e incluso llega robarles a sus padres para satisfacer su codicia. Las acciones del pasado llevaron a que sea castigado por la corte… Pero de todas maneras se rehúsa a cambiar.

Al perder toda esperanza de que su hijo se rehabilite, los padres van a la corte para declarar que su hijo es un “ben sorer umoré”, un hijo rebelde. Si después de la investigación, la corte encuentra que el niño es un hijo rebelde, emiten la pena de muerte.

Los comentaristas de la Torá se refieren a la aparente dureza de este castigo. Para comenzar, debemos aclarar que el caso del hijo rebelde es solamente teórico. El Talmud dice que nunca se mató ni se matará” a un niño por esta ley. De hecho, hay tantas especificaciones para la implementación de esta ley que la existencia de un hijo rebelde es virtualmente imposible.

Si es así, ¿por qué la Torá dedica una sección entera a este tema? Los comentaristas explican que es para brindarnos muchas enseñanzas importantes.

En un nivel básico, la Torá enfatiza la profunda responsabilidad que tienen los padres al criar a sus hijos. La Torá advierte que si un niño no es disciplinado como se debe, eventualmente puede caer en actividades criminales. Aunque obviamente hay una multitud de factores, la verdad es que un hijo que se desvía probablemente sufrió de una carencia fundamental durante su infancia.

Rashi, cita al Talmud y explica este tema de manera más profunda: el duro castigo no es por crímenes ya cometidos, sino para evitar en el futuro actos criminales más severos. Si continúa por su camino del mal, el hijo rebelde se convertirá eventualmente en un delincuente, asaltará y robará. En lugar de esperar a que muera siendo mayor, con las manos manchadas por la sangre de sus víctimas, la Torá determina que debe morir antes de convertir a otros en sus víctimas y causar un mal terrible a su propia alma.

En un nivel práctico, los seres humanos no tienen la capacidad para saber si una persona cometerá o no un crimen en el futuro. Para nosotros, los castigos preventivos son inapropiados. Sin embargo, el Zóhar dice que para Dios es diferente, ya que Él lo sabe todo. A menudo, Dios trae dificultades sobre una persona no como castigo de un crimen pasado, sino como una medida preventiva en contra de un error futuro. Ante Dios están revelados tanto nuestro pasado como nuestro futuro potencial.

Al aproximarse las Altas Fiestas, esta es una enseñanza importante para tener presente.

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Posted by on August 22, 2018 in Uncategorized