Monthly Archives: November 2019

Avraham and the Impossible God: The Challenge of Akeidat Yitzchak

by Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo

The most tragic figure in the Bible is God, said the famous Talmudic scholar Saul Lieberman. Indeed. No one has been more misunderstood than God. But let’s be honest; it’s His own fault. After all, one day He appears in the Torah as the Creator of the universe, full of mercy and love, while the next moment He’s utterly annoyed when He doesn’t get His way-especially when His creations don’t listen to His commands. He splits the Red Sea for the Jews, saving them from their arch enemies, the Egyptians, and then leaves them without food and drink in the desert until they rebel and ask whether He really exists. The paradoxes abound. In several instances He rescues His people who are in Exile, while at other times He refrains from stretching out His hand as the Jews suffer one pogrom after another. He first carries them on His wings in Spain, but then makes them undergo the cruel Inquisition. He helps them find a safe haven in some northern European countries, but subsequently allows a Holocaust of such brutality that one is nearly forced to conclude that He no longer cares and has simply disappeared. To further confuse His people, He performs miracles during the establishment of the State of Israel, and again with the astounding victory of the Six-Day War, only to make a sudden about-face and throw Israel’s citizens into the disastrous Yom Kippur War, which claims the lives of many Israeli soldiers and traumatizes the entire nation. God seems to yo-yo through history, alternating between fits of anger and offers of mercy. By displaying these many inconsistencies He becomes downright impossible to handle. Who else ever had such a track-record of the most radical paradoxes? And this is not all. Things get worse. This God requires unconditional submission to His demands and threatens to wipe out His people if they don’t listen to Him. To add to the confusion, He seems completely surprised when many of His creations start sincerely wondering why they should follow Him. It is especially the Jewish people, the “apple of His eye,” who constantly experience these devastatingly unsettling paradoxes. They pay the highest price, and the consequences are too overwhelming to deny. They begin to ask themselves what they should do with this God. Many feel no longer obligated to observe His commandments. Some deny His existence, but most see this denial as a copout and conclude that He is indeed the most tragic figure in history, and one needs to show Him mercy and be somewhat obedient. Such is also the history of the first Jew. God promises Avraham that he will have a child who will father a special nation that will promote this God and His ethical demands. It is clear from the beginning that God is more in need of this nation than Avraham is. His prestige depends on it. Through this nation, He and His purpose for the world will be known. Avraham can’t wait to embark on his great mission, and once he has a son he will do anything to build up this unique nation for the sake of God. Who wouldn’t want to serve such a God and take on this great assignment? Finally, Avraham gets his son, but the blow is not too far off. Not only is it disastrous, but it seems set up to destroy any possible belief that this God is merciful. To his utter shock, Avraham is asked to sacrifice his son as a token of his complete commitment to this very God! The God Who is in dire need of this nation, and therefore of Avraham’s son, ruins His prestige and undoes His goals in one stroke-no son and no nation! God appears to be committing spiritual suicide. After all, what will become of Him without this nation? What is Avraham to do now? Should he rescue God from Himself and refuse to have a hand in this suicide attempt? Or perhaps he should become an atheist, since such a God cannot exist! But Avraham chooses neither of these options. His total commitment to this God prompts him to make the greatest mistake in all of his life. He listens and is prepared to give up his son without even a fight, thinking that this is what it means to be really religious-even if it undermines God’s prestige and brings an end to His goals. Avraham still lives in the world where man submits unconditionally to any god, whatever its demands. He is still a child of his times; subordination is seen as the pinnacle of religious devotion. Only when God, by way of His angel, shouts No! “Do not lay a hand on the boy,”[1] just a second before his knife touches the skin of his son, does Avraham wake up from his so-called religiosity. Avraham still has to learn that his willingness not to kill his child far surpasses his earlier commitment to make an end to his son’s life. The angelic messenger calls, “Avraham, Avraham!” repeating his name twice because the command to desist and not sacrifice is harder to accept than the original commandment to kill. It goes against the trend of what it means to be religious. Yet, not to listen is greater proof of commitment to this “Jewish” God than is the willingness to sacrifice in honor of this God. The wake-up call is loud and clear! The impact of this message is far more shocking and forceful than that of the earlier call to kill. This God is an entirely different God. Capricious and unpredictable but, strangely enough, also demonstrating that human life is holy and may not be taken except in self-defense. Until this incident, Avraham believed that it was permitted to object to God only if He was about to damage His reputation by doing a great injustice such as destroying the cities of Sedom and Amora. In that sense, he surpassed Noah whose reticence prevented him from even protesting when God told him that He would destroy all of mankind with the flood. Avraham had already realized that the Jewish God is different from all the other gods among whose followers he lived. To let the world perish is not what this God desires. So Avraham fights back. But once he loses the battle and is unable to convince God to leave these cities of Sedom and Amora alone, he concludes that Noah must have been right after all. There is no point in fighting God’s will. What Avraham fails to see is that while he loses this battle, God clearly encourages Him to give it a sincere try so as to win. God listens to his arguments. When Avraham contends that if there were to be 50, 40, 30, 20, even 10 tzadikim, then these cities should be spared, God doesn’t respond by telling him to mind his own business. On the contrary, He clearly indicates that He might be convinced, if Avraham’s arguments were better or the circumstances different. But Avraham apparently fails to get this point. He seems to conclude that since he didn’t succeed, there’s no point in arguing with God any longer. Why would God listen to man’s subjective arguments? What could man possibly know about God’s reasoning? So Avraham doesn’t argue with God when He asks him to sacrifice his son. God may be incomprehensible, but He is consistent. He knows what He is doing. Who am I to argue? This God, however, Who is the Creator of heaven and earth, teaches Avraham not to give up. He shows him that He is open to discussion and would have listened to his case in favor of his son. Now that Avraham is silent, God takes up the argument that Avraham ought to have made but didn’t. What Avraham should have done for God, God now does for him. He tells Avraham, You ought to have fought Me. You should have told Me, “Far be it from You! Shall the whole world’s Judge not do justice?”[2] God now needs to save Himself and His mission despite Avraham’s religiosity! He must ensure that the Jewish people will come into being, notwithstanding Avraham’s readiness to forgo that possibility. Avraham is thus exposed to an aspect of God that is both blasphemous and ethical. This God appears to be unstable, but He is also a God of incomprehensible magnitude, power and moral supremacy: One Who is prepared to listen to man, take him seriously, and even be defeated by him! Who can make sense of this God? Avraham begins to learn that God is tragic because He makes Himself appear as a God Who lacks all qualities of a real god, but in truth is greater than all idols. God appears to experience all the human emotions: love; anger; involvement; indignation; regret; sadness; and so on. By so doing, He gives the seal of divinity to the very essence of our humanity. He implicitly says to man: “You cannot know what is above and what is below, but you can know what is in your hearts and in the world. These feelings and reactions and emotions that make up human existence are, if illumined by faith and rationality, all the divinity you can hope for. To be humane is to be divine: as I am holy, so you shall be holy; as I am merciful, so you shall be merciful.” Thus, there is only one kind of knowledge that is open to man, the knowledge of God’s humanity.[3] Suddenly, Avraham learns that to be religious is to live with a God Who carries contradictions and incongruities. Consistent gods are idols because they don’t teach man how to live in a world that is full of dichotomies and inconsistencies. To be religious means to know how to navigate unresolvable conflicts, to be bold enough to negotiate, and to stand upright even when failing. It is in the unresolved that real life is lived. Only that can lead man to true religiosity. Avraham learns that a God Whom one fully understands is only half a God. Because a life without dichotomies is a life not lived. The overwhelming paradoxes are what portray life in its full force and reality. Indeed, this God of many contradictions is the only God man can really worship: tragic, yet sublime. To serve Him means not only to obey, but also to protest. At Mount Sinai, Moshe warned the Israelites, “Be careful not to climb the mountain and touch its edge.”[4] How true is the Kotzker Rebbe’s interpretation—be careful when you climb the mountain, not to touch just its edge. Go all the way!  
[1] Bereishit 22:12.
[2] Ibid. 18:25.
[3] Dr. Yochanan Muffs, “God and the World: A Jewish View,” in his book The Personhood of God: Biblical Theology, Human Faith and the Divine Image (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2005) p. 177.
[4] Shemot 19:12.

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Posted by on November 15, 2019 in Uncategorized


Negative Capability

by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

I have written about the binding of Isaac many times in these studies, each time proposing an interpretation somewhat different from the ones given by the classic commentators. I do so for a simple reason.

The Torah, and Tanach generally, regard child sacrifice as one of the worst of evils. Child sacrifice was widely practised in the ancient world. In 2 Kings 3:26-27, we read of how the Moabite king Mesha, in the course of war against Israel, Judah and Edom, sacrificed his eldest son to the god Chemosh. Had the point of the trial been Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, then in terms of the value system of Tanach itself he would have proven himself no better than a pagan king.

Besides this, the name Abram means “mighty father.” The change of name to Abraham was meant to signify “father of many nations.” God said that He chose Abram “so that he will instruct his children and his household after him to go in the way of the Lord,” meaning that Abraham was chosen to be a role model of fatherhood. A model father does not sacrifice his child.

The classic interpretation given by most of the commentators is beautiful and moving. Abraham showed that he loved God more than he loved his own son. But for the reasons above, I prefer to continue to search for different interpretations. Unquestionably, there was a trial. It involved Isaac. It tested Abraham’s faith to the limit. But it was about something else.

One of the most perplexing features of the Abraham story is the disconnect between God’s promises and the reality. Seven times, God promised Abraham the land. Yet when Sarah died, he owned not even a burial plot and had to buy one at an exorbitant price.

At the very opening of the story (see parshat Lech Lecha), God called on him to leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s house, and promised him, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you.” Without demur or hesitation, Abraham left, began the journey, and arrived in the land of Canaan. He came to Shechem and built an altar there. He moved on to Bet-El and built an altar there as well. Then almost immediately we read that “There was a famine in the land.”

Abraham and his household were forced to go to Egypt. There, he found that his life was at risk. He asked Sarah to pretend to be his sister rather than his wife, thus putting her in a false position, (conduct which Ramban intensely criticised). Where, at that moment, was the Divine blessing? How was it that, leaving his land and following God’s call, Abraham found himself in a morally dangerous situation where he was forced to choose between asking his wife to live a lie, and exposing himself to the probability, perhaps certainty, of his own death?

A pattern is beginning to emerge. Abraham was learning that there is a long and winding road between promise and fulfilment. Not because God does not keep His word, but because Abraham and his descendants were charged with bringing something new into the world. A sacred society. A nation formed by covenant. An abandonment of idolatry. An austere code of conduct. A more intimate relationship with God than any people has ever known. It would become a nation of pioneers. And God was teaching Abraham from the very beginning that this demands extraordinary strengths of character, because nothing great and transformative happens overnight in the human world. You have to keep going, even if you are tired and lost, exhausted and despondent.

God will bring about everything He promised. But not immediately. And not directly. God seeks change in the real world of everyday lives. And He seeks those who have the tenacity of faith to keep going despite all the setbacks. That is what the life of Abraham was about.

Nowhere was this clearer than in relation to God’s promise of children. Four times, God spoke about this to Abraham:

  1.  “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you.” (Gen. 12:2)
  2.  “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted.” (Gen. 13:16)
  3.  “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then He said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Gen. 15:5)
  4.  “No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you.” (Gen. 17:5-6)

Four ascending promises: a great nation, as many as the dust of the earth, as the stars of the sky; not one nation but many nations. Abraham heard these promises and had faith in them: “Abram believed the Lord, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6).

Then God gave Abraham some painful news. His son by Hagar, Ishmael, would not be his spiritual heir. God would bless him and make him a great nation, “But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” (Gen. 17:21).

It is against this background of four promises of countless children, and a further promise that Abraham’s covenant would be continued by Isaac, that we must set the chilling words that open the trial: “Take your son, your only son, the son that you love – Isaac – and offer him up.”

The trial was not to see whether Abraham had the courage to sacrifice his son. As we saw above, even pagans like Mesha king of Moab had that courage. It was widespread in the ancient world, and completely abhorrent to Judaism.

The trial was not to see whether Abraham had the strength to give up something he loved. He had shown this time and time again. At the very beginning of his story he gave up his land, his birthplace and his father’s house, everything that was familiar to him, everything that spoke of home. In the previous chapter, he gave up his firstborn son Ishmael whom, it is clear, he also loved. Was there even the slightest doubt that he would give up Isaac, who was so clearly God’s miraculous gift, arriving when Sarah was already postmenopausal?

The trial was to see whether Abraham could live with what seemed to be a clear contradiction between God’s word now, and God’s word on five previous occasions, promising him children and a covenant that would be continued by Isaac.

The Rabbis knew that there were instances where two verses contradicted one another until a third verse came to resolve the contradiction. That was Abraham’s situation. He was faced with a contradiction, and there was as yet no further verse to resolve it. That was the test. Could Abraham live with uncertainty?

He did just that. He prepared himself for the sacrifice. But he told no one else. When he and Isaac set off on the third day on their own, he told the two servants who had accompanied them, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” When Isaac asked, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham replied, “God Himself will provide the lamb.”

These statements are usually taken as diplomatic evasions. I believe, however, that Abraham meant exactly what he said. He was living the contradiction. He knew God had told him to sacrifice his son, but he also knew that God had told him that He would establish an everlasting covenant with his son.

The trial of the binding of Isaac was not about sacrifice but about uncertainty. Until it was over, Abraham did not know what to believe, or how it would end. He believed that the God who promised him a son would not allow him to sacrifice that son. But he did not know how the contradiction between God’s promise and His command would resolve itself.

The poet John Keats, in a letter to his brothers George and Thomas in 1817, sought to define what made Shakespeare so great compared to other writers. He possessed, he said, “Negative Capability – that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Shakespeare, in other words, was open to life in all its multiplicity and complexity, its conflicts and contradictions, while other, lesser writers sought to reduce it to a single philosophical frame. What Shakespeare was to literature, Abraham was to faith.

I believe that Abraham taught us that faith is not certainty; it is the courage to live with uncertainty. He had negative capability. He knew the promises would come true; he could live with the uncertainty of not knowing how or when.

Shabbat Shalom

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Posted by on November 14, 2019 in Uncategorized


How the Jews Invented the Goy

by Tomer Persico

Two Israeli scholars examine the dramatic and surprising history of one of the oldest Jewish institutions: the sharp separation between ‘them’ and ‘us’

Saint Paul delivering the Areopagus sermon in Athens, by Raphael, 1515.

When the prophet Amos wanted to warn the Israelites against thinking that they would get preferential treatment from God, he said, in the name of the divinity, “I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir” (Amos 9:7). In other words, Israel indeed received personal treatment during the Exodus from Egypt, but other peoples, too, were the beneficiaries of an equally personal approach: The good Lord brought the Philistines up from Caphtor (Crete) and the Arameans from Kir (Mesopotamia). Don’t make a fuss.

Apart from the challenge to Israel’s exclusive chosen-ness, we see here a specific approach to non-Jewish peoples. It turns out that not all the “goyim” – gentiles – are the same. Upon some peoples the Almighty looks with affection. Upon others, not. A similar phenomenon appears in Deuteronomy 23, where the Torah lays down injunctions about the proper approach to different peoples. On the one hand, it’s clear that there must be no marriage with Ammonites or Moabites (“No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord”), but on the other, that negative feelings should not be harbored for Edomites and Egyptians (“You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your kinsman. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land”). Not only that, but the latter need not even be shunned: Marriage may be entered into with their sons and daughters.

To both Amos (eighth century B.C.E.) and the authors of Deuteronomy (seventh century B.C.E.), the specific attitude taken toward different ethnic groups in the region seems natural, but to us it registers as a biblical curiosity. Is it really possible that God looked after the Philistines? Is there truly a difference between Ammonites and Edomites? Would any contemporary rabbi maintain that Jews must not stand under the wedding canopy with French people, but that marriage with Americans is permitted? After all, every Israeli schoolchild knows: You don’t marry goyim.

And goyim, after all, are goyim. A simple tautology. On one side are Jews; on the other, all the rest of humanity. That is, all those who, despite the differences between them, are in essence the same. They are identical according to the most important criterion: They are non-Jews. Around this binary axis, we know, revolve laws and precepts, rights and obligations, and even distinctions between types of souls.

However, the verses cited above show that this wasn’t always so. The binary division into two human categories is unknown in the Torah, Prophets and Writings. In fact as two Tel Aviv University philosophy professors, Adi Ophir and Ishay Rosen-Zvi, explain in their groundbreaking book, “Goy: Israel’s Multiple Others and the Birth of the Gentile” (Oxford University Press, 2018), it was only at the end of the second century C.E. that Jews were able to take it to be obvious that all human beings other than themselves belonged to a single group – that is, that they are “goyim.”

In its biblical sense, the word “goyim” means “peoples.” For the “goy” to become what he is today, it was necessary to change him from a noun referring to a collective group, to a private essence, to the attribute of the individual. Ophir and Rosen-Zvi’s book, the first work to trace the origins of the “goy” (an early excerpt of which was published in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition), offers a precise account of how this happened and which social and religious needs this development fulfilled.

Scholars Adi Ophir, left, and Ishay Rosen-Zvi.

In the Scriptures, then, a goy is a people. Israel itself is a “holy goy,” whereas in connection with non-Jewish outsiders the Bible used the terms ger and nokhri (stranger, foreigner), which are roughly equivalent in meaning. They are differentiated from the people of Israel principally by their customs, but non-Jews do not belong as individuals to meta-categories shared by all of them. There is no binary division in terms of essence.

According to Ophir and Rosen-Zvi, an attitude of general antagonism toward non-Jews first appears in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Exogamy (“assimilation,” in current parlance) became the greatest sin, through its representation of non-Jews as being impure. For the purpose of making a between Israel and other peoples, then, Ezra and Nehemiah made use of the precepts relating to defilement and purification – that is, they used the law, and in practice the book of laws, an object they brought to the people that dwelt in Zion, and which they consolidated as a significant social institution. However, the goy as a generic individual did not yet exist.

Both the Bible and other writings that were not included in the canon (Maccabees, Ben Sira and a range of other texts that Ophir and Rosen-Zvi analyze), definitely maintain that Israel is differentiated from the peoples in the region, but they do not see those peoples in monolithic terms or as sharing a common essence. Ophir and Rosen-Zvi’s study presents the various possibilities for understanding the distinction that’s made between Israel and the others. The Book of Jubilees avers that the surrounding peoples behave immorally; the Qumran sect equated foreignness with non-observance of the laws of purity and impurity; Philo thought the Children of Israel were capable of communicating with God better than others, and so forth.

The sharp distinction between the Children of Israel and everyone else is first seen, according to Ophir and Rosen-Zvi, in the figure of Paul. This brilliant Hellenist Jew considered himself the apostle of the Christian gospel “to the gentiles,” and precisely because of this he needed to define that category more thoroughly and carefully than his predecessors. Paul made the conception that “goyim” are not “peoples,” but rather a general category of human beings, into a central element of his thought.

New message

Paul’s central project – an enterprise that would later be known as “Christianity” – was the establishment of a universal society of different peoples united as a community of believers. This is the Church (ekklesia). The epistles he wrote to various communities in the Mediterranean Basin are testimony to these efforts. At the heart of the vision he propounded is the distinction between Jews and gentiles: namely, between those who were privileged to enter into the old covenant, and those who are now invited to enter into the new covenant, via the New Testament. Manifestly, the distinction is built on the Law: The Jews uphold the laws of the Torah, the gentiles do not.

“Conversion on the Way to Damascus,” by Caravaggio (1601).

In Paul, everything is connected. In order to bring the gospel to the gentiles he needed the distinction between those who uphold the Torah and those who do not, and his gospel was simultaneously personal and universal. Paul promised personal redemption by the Messiah, while also endeavoring to establish a general, worldwide community of believers. In this community – in the Church – he promised, there would be no differences: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). However, this is so only because the Law of the old covenant will no longer play a part – until then it’s the Law that differentiates Jews from all the rest.

In other words, the erasure of ethnic, class and gender differences is something that applies to all of humanity – all will become Christians belonging to one church – but to arrive at that point, it’s necessary to distinguish between Jews, the ethnic group that was chosen by God and received the Torah, and all the rest, whose time had now come to be raised to the level of “Israel of the spirit.” The need to delimit “all the rest” in one inclusive category, which on the one hand is universal and on the other is capable of undergoing privatization and of pertaining to each specific person – led the “apostle to the gentiles” to treat the goyim as a generic essence. Hence, the genesis of the term “goy” as a general term referring to a non-Jewish individual.

In the centuries that followed, both the Church and the Jewish sages evoked Paul’s binary dichotomy. The distinction between Jews and gentiles took root as an essential element, revolving around ethnic particularism and the observance of the biblical law – or the annulment of them. Halakha (Jewish religious law), which developed in the first centuries of the Common Era, reinforced this approach and built higher walls between the Jews and all the rest. In direct contrast, nascent Christianity took shape, rejecting the law and seeking to create a community of believers who would be potentially open to every person in the world.

In the wake of this categorical transformation, the Talmudic sages reinterpreted biblical terms that had become problematic. A clear example is the process the term “ger” underwent. In the Bible, the word means, simply, “stranger” (“for ye were strangers [gerim] in the land of Egypt”), and often it refers to the foreigners living among the people of Israel. With the binary division into Jews and gentiles, the ger, too, undergoes bifurcation. In places where the Bible refers to the ger as a part of the community, the term was reinterpreted to mean ger tzedek – a “righteous” ger, meaning one who converted to Judaism – for it is inconceivable that a person who belongs to the community should not be a Jew. In places where the Bible attributed to the ger deeds inconsistent with Judaism (such as eating carrion), the sages termed him a ger toshav – a “resident stranger” – meaning, just another gentile. The binary division retroactively rewrites biblical categories.

The goy has another role. The sharp division, Ophir and Rosen-Zvi explain, was also used to entrench the Jew’s connection with God. In the absence of God’s presence in the Temple, without divine revelation, and without God’s strong hand operating in the world, God was muted, and disappeared. The fact that all the different peoples essentially became one “goy,” generic and abstract, made it possible to toughen the boundary, physical and metaphysical alike, between the Jews and all the rest. Thus their special connection with God is emphasized. The sages, living in a world void of temple and of prophecy, needed the emergent halakha and the clear dichotomy between them and the rest of humanity in order to fortify their relationship with the divine.

Although the roots are there already in Paul’s theology, the Mishna is the first source in which the “goy” appears generically and privatized. The goy served as a vital halakhic category, one that generates a binary division. The halakha developed around this division and enabled the sages to use the distinction to serve a detailed, systematic discourse of separation and dissociation. The goy also advanced the concept of history as a mythical narrative and not a natural sequence of events. Babylonians, Greeks and Romans are not separate political adversaries, they are different manifestations of a uniform alien presence that is pitted against the Jewish people. History assumes a metahistorical meaning.

The Kiryat Shaul military cemetery. When non-Jews according to Jewish law participate in the national struggle, they are accepted as Israelis, but they still can’t be buried in Jewish cemeteries. Moti Milrod

Jews by need

Ophir and Rosen-Zvi’s study sheds light on a significant blind spot. The two uncover a dramatic historical development and for the first time elucidate the history of one of the oldest and most important Jewish institutions. The “goy” has been one of the pillars of the Jewish tradition since the period of the Tannaim (the sages of the Mishna, circa 10-220 C.E.), and the same dialogue of segregation and separation, along with the same mythic approach to history, is of course still with us today.

At the end of their book, Ophir and Rosen-Zvi ask whether it is possible to imagine a Jewish existence that does not arise from the negation of the goy, that is not dependent on the goy to define himself. I think it is, and it seems to me that the answer to their question is simpler and more accessible than is usually thought. A Jewish life of that kind already exists in both the United States and Israel, and it is based on the supplanting of God and of the halakha, as the fulcrum of Jewish identity, by the nation-state.

The nation-state, and the ethos and mythos it stands for, transforms different people, and sometimes also different ethnic groups, into a single community. It does this for Jews in different ways in the United States and in Israel, but in both cases the notion of the “goy” fractures and loses some of its meaning. In America, Jews typically treat their neighbors – non-Jewish American citizens – not as strangers separate from them, but as colleagues and partners in the great American liberal project. The rates of exogamous marriage are both proof of this, and the expression and realization of that project.

In Israel, too, identification with the nation-state overcomes the traditional taboo against exogamy. This is done not in concurrence with the liberal ethos, but by basing Jewish identity on nationalism and on the national struggle. Here we can see that when non-Jews, according to halakha (immigrants under the Law of Return), participate in the struggle against non-Jews according to halakha and to nationality (Muslim Arabs), they are accepted into the community of the Israeli nation, and hence are considered Jews for the purposes of friendship, communal life and marriage. Indeed, when the fact that halakha prohibits their burial next to people who are considered Jews by the Rabbinate is (re)discovered by the media, public outrage ensues. Partnership in the Israeli national project is enough to turn them into non-goyim.

In the United States, then, we are witnessing the fulfillment of the Pauline vision in which the last dichotomy, between Jews and “goyim,” is dissolving and the Jews, too, are being assimilated into the universal community of individuals. In Israel we are witnessing, as it were, the return to the biblical model (pre-Ezra and Nehemiah): Members of different ethnic groups receive different treatment, according to their attitude toward the Jewish people. There is no uniform conception of “goyim,” and marriage with part of the non-Jewish groups is permitted. These developments grind to a halt, of course, with ultra-Orthodox and some segments of Orthodox Jewry. Where halakha prevails, the goy is alive and well. He dissolves when it disappears, just as he did not exist before it was created.

Dr. Tomer Persico is the Koret Visiting Assistant Professor at the Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies at UC Berkeley, and the Bay Area Scholar in Residence for the Shalom Hartman Institute.

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Posted by on November 11, 2019 in Uncategorized


These Orthodox Jews Are Challenging Commonly Held Beliefs About the Tora

The Torah’s stories ‘contain contradictions and its laws are sometimes cruel and morally problematic.’ Says who? This Orthodox website, which offers alternative commentaries on the Jewish holy texts.

In this photo taken Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2011, Dr. Rafael Zer, editorial coordinator for the Hebrew University Bible Project, uses a magnifying glass to read a biblical script, at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. For many Jews and Christians, religious beliefs dictate that the words of the Bible are divine, unaltered and unalterable. But the ongoing work of the academic detectives of the Bible Project, as their undertaking is known, shows that this foundation text of Western civilization has always been more fluid than these beliefs would suggest, and that its transmission through the ages was messier and more human than most of us imagine. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

An academic uses a magnifying glass to read a biblical script, at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 2011Sebastian Scheiner / AP

Who wrote the Torah? Was it handed down in one fell swoop? And did the stories in it really happen? The official Orthodox Jewish position is that the Torah was given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai some 4,000 years ago and yes, everything written in it pretty much happened.

Which means that if you are Orthodox and skeptical of the so-called “Torah from Sinai” doctrine, you might not want to draw too much attention to yourselves — lest you be accused of heresy.

That’s why Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship), an online collection of commentaries on the Jewish holy texts, deliberately kept a low profile for the first six years of its life. After all, its main mission — introducing religious Jews to contemporary biblical scholarship, which assumes that the Torah was written by people over time and should not be taken literally — could be seen in some quarters as subversive.

So there was little incentive to make the flagship website of the project,, attractive, intriguing or even user-friendly when it launched in December 2012. As TABS co-founder Rabbi David Steinberg notes, “It served my purpose to keep it under the radar, and the fact that it looked so raw — almost like a blog — and was hard to navigate was actually convenient for us.”

But there’s only so long an online database of this sort can be kept under wraps, especially when hundreds of academics and rabbis, Jews and non-Jews alike, have contributed more than 1,000 articles.

Rabbi David D. Steinberg, left, Marc Brettler, Rabbi Zev Farber and David Bar-Cohn in Jerusalem, February 2019.

Rabbi David D. Steinberg, left, Marc Brettler, Rabbi Zev Farber and David Bar-Cohn in Jerusalem, February 2019.Courtesy of Rabbi David Steinberg

“We realized that we’d grown to the point where we’d become a fact on the ground and needed a new home,” says Steinberg. “In the past month alone, we had 70,000 people come to our site.”

This September, TABS launched its new and upgraded website. Articles and essays are now broken down according to topics and authors, and the homepage changes on a regular basis, rather than remaining static as it had in the past. In short, unlike its precursor, the new website looks like a proper online platform.

According to Steinberg, most of the funding for the revamped website came from private individuals — mostly Modern Orthodox Jews who preferred to give anonymously, he says, because of the edgy nature of the project.

More than a mere technical feat, this digital face-lift marks the official “coming out” of a project that has and will continue to spark controversy in the Orthodox world — mainly because it is operated by a team of self-identified Orthodox Jews who are not afraid to point out that modern notions of science and history don’t necessarily jibe with the stories in the Torah.

Indeed, as the site’s editor Rabbi Zev Farber notes in an essay contemplating the “Torah from Heaven” doctrine: “Women were not created from the rib of a man, snakes did not lose their legs because of sin, the terrestrial world was not drowned in a flood four thousand years ago, and at no time in history did humans live for 900 years. The same is true for the Torah’s description of history. The world [was never] made up of 70 nations, each the descendent of one of Noah’s sons. Israelites are not all descendants of a man named Israel any more than Americans all descend from a man named America or British from a man named Britain.”

The problem is not only one of accuracy, he goes on to say, but that the Torah’s “stories and legal collections contain contradictions, and its laws, although often inspiring, are sometimes cruel and morally problematic.”

An 18th-century edition of the Torah on display in Cologny, near Geneva, October 2019.

An 18th-century edition of the Torah on display in Cologny, near Geneva, October 2019.AFP

A Rashi decision

The driving force behind is Steinberg, who comes from an ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) background and is a graduate of both the prestigious Gateshead Yeshiva in northern England and the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Ironically, for someone who has devoted so much of his time in recent years to an academic endeavor, he never attended college or university.

Born in Bnei Brak, Steinberg grew up in Manchester, England, and after moving to the United States nearly 20 years ago was hired as a rabbi for the Orthodox outreach movement Aish Hatorah. Like most Orthodox Jews, he says he grew up relying on medieval commentators to gain a better understanding of the Torah. But he was often frustrated by the answers he received.

“You can’t compare what we know today about the world, about history and about archaeology with what Rashi knew nearly 1,000 years ago,” he explains, referring to the medieval French rabbi who is perhaps the best-known commentator of all. “So to study just Rashi today makes no sense when there are so many new scholars out there in the world of academia who can really enrich our understanding of Torah.”

Coming from outside the world of academia, he knew that if he wanted to set up an online database of contemporary biblical scholarship, he would need to enlist the help of a professional. Furthermore, he wanted someone religious who saw no contradiction between Jewish observance and biblical criticism, and who would lend legitimacy to his project.

Marc Brettler, a big name in the field who was professor of Bible Studies at Brandeis at the time and is now a professor of Judaic Studies at Duke, seemed like the perfect candidate. Affiliated with Modern Orthodoxy, Brettler is the co-author of “The Jewish Study Bible” (2004) and “The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously” (2012), and author of “How to Read the Jewish Bible” (2007). It took a few emails and one long face-to-face meeting, and Brettler was on board.

A screengrab from website.

A screengrab from website.Screengrab from

Explaining how he ended up becoming a critical Torah scholar, Brettler notes in an essay published on the website that he attended an Orthodox day school, where biblical criticism was generally ignored “except for a brief warning not to take any courses that deal with it in college.” He obviously did not follow that advice and when he discovered biblical scholarship in college, he says he became “hooked.”

“The questions that it dealt with were not new to me, but the answers that it offered were, and they were more elegant, simple, and compelling than what I had been taught earlier,” he wrote.

Steinberg and Brettler later recruited Farber, a graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School that is affiliated with the more liberal Open Orthodoxy movement. Recently, David Bar-Cohn, a rabbi and author now pursuing graduate studies in Bible at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, was brought on board to oversee the website’s transformation. 

So as not to shake things up too much, in the early days commissioned articles almost exclusively from religious academics. Slowly, it began expanding its reach and including rabbis and scholars outside the Orthodox Jewish world — in fact, outside the Jewish world entirely.

Its main focus was and remains commentary on the Torah portion of the week (parashat hashavua). But a quick browse through the upgraded website reveals articles on topics with a less timely angle, ranging from “How the prohibition of male homosexual intercourse altered the laws of incest” to “Do animals feel pain? Balaam’s donkey vs. Descartes.”

When the project was first launched, Steinberg had been living with his family in a closed ultra-Orthodox community in Passaic, New Jersey. He has since relocated to the more liberal Jewish community of Riverdale, New York. Explaining the move, he says: “No one wants to be called an apikores [heretic], and everyone wants to marry off their children. I’ve got seven of them.”

Writing in the Orthodox journal Cross-Currents in July 2013, Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer — a member of the Rabbinical Council of America (the umbrella organization of the Orthodox movement) — gave voice to what many detractors were thinking when the project initially went live. Referring to the widely held position of many of its contributors that the Torah had more than one author, he wrote: “This is heresy of the highest order.”

It was this sort of feedback, Steinberg says, that caused him to hover in the shadows until now. But indicating his newfound sense of empowerment, he adds: “We’ve managed to build this up to something so big that if someone wants to attack me today, I say ‘gesundheit!’”

Judy Maltz

Judy Maltz

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Posted by on November 10, 2019 in Uncategorized


A Palace in Flames

by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Why Abraham? That is the question that haunts us when we read the opening of this week’s parsha. Here is the key figure in the story of our faith, the father of our nation, the hero of monotheism, held holy not only by Jews but by Christians and Muslims also. Yet there seems to be nothing in the Torah’s description of his early life to give us a hint as to why he was singled out to be the person to whom God said, “I will make you into a great nation … and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

This is surpassingly strange. The Torah leaves us in no doubt as to why God chose Noah: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generations; Noah walked with God.” It also gives us a clear indication as to why God chose Moses. We see him as a young man, both in Egypt and Midian, intervening whenever he saw injustice, whoever perpetrated it and whoever it was perpetrated against. God told the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I set you apart; I have appointed you as a Prophet to the nations.” These were obviously extraordinary people. There is no such intimation in the case of Abraham. So the Sages, commentators, and philosophers through the ages were forced to speculate, to fill in the glaring gap in the narrative, offering their own suggestions as to what made Abraham different.

There are three primary explanations. The first is Abraham the Iconoclast, the breaker of idols. This is based on a speech by Moses’ successor, Joshua, towards the end of the book that bears his name. It is a passage given prominence in the Haggadah on Seder night: “Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshipped other gods” (Josh. 24:2). Abraham’s father Terah was an idol worshipper. According to the Midrash, he made and sold idols. One day Abraham smashed all the idols and left, leaving the stick with which he did so in the hand of the biggest idol. When his father returned and queried who had broken his gods, Abraham blamed the biggest idol. “Are you making fun of me?” demanded his father. “Idols cannot do anything.” “In that case,” asked the young Abraham, “why do you worship them?”

On this view, Abraham was the first person to challenge the idols of the age. There is something profound about this insight. Jews, believers or otherwise, have often been iconoclasts. Some of the most revolutionary thinkers – certainly in the modern age – have been Jews. They had the courage to challenge the received wisdom, think new thoughts and see the world in unprecedented ways, from Einstein in physics to Freud in psychoanalysis to Schoenberg in music, to Marx in economics, and Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in behavioural economics. It is as if, deep in our cultural intellectual DNA, we had internalised what the Sages said about Abraham ha-Ivri, “the Hebrew,” that it meant he was on one side and all the rest of the world on the other.[1]

The second view is set out by Maimonides in the Mishnah Torah: Abraham the Philosopher. In an age when people had lapsed from humanity’s original faith in one God into idolatry, one person stood against the trend, the young Abraham, still a child: “As soon as this mighty man was weaned he began to busy his mind … He wondered: How is it possible that this planet should continuously be in motion and have no mover? … He had no teacher, no one to instruct him … until he attained the way of truth … and knew that there is One God … When Abraham was forty years old he recognised his Creator.”[2] According to this, Abraham was the first Aristotelian, the first metaphysician, the first person to think his way through to God as the force that moves the sun and all the stars.

This is strange, given the fact that there is very little philosophy in Tanach, with the exception of wisdom books like Proverbs, Kohelet and Job. Maimonides’ Abraham can sometimes look more like Maimonides than Abraham. Yet of all people, Friedrich Nietzsche, who did not like Judaism very much, wrote the following:

Europe owes the Jews no small thanks for making people think more logically and for establishing cleanlier intellectual habits… Wherever Jews have won influence they have taught men to make finer distinctions, more rigorous inferences, and to write in a more luminous and cleanly fashion; their task was ever to bring a people “to listen to raison.”[3]

The explanation he gave is fascinating. He said that only in the arena of reason did Jews face a level playing-field. Everywhere else, they encountered race and class prejudice. “Nothing,” he wrote, “is more democratic than logic.” So Jews became logicians, and according to Maimonides, it began with Abraham.

However there is a third view, set out in the Midrash on the opening verse of our parsha:

“The Lord said to Abram: Leave your land, your birthplace and your father’s house . . .” To what may this be compared? To a man who was travelling from place to place when he saw a palace in flames. He wondered, “Is it possible that the palace lacks an owner?” The owner of the palace looked out and said, “I am the owner of the palace.” So Abraham our father said, “Is it possible that the world lacks a ruler?” The Holy One, blessed be He, looked out and said to him, “I am the ruler, the Sovereign of the universe.”

This is an enigmatic Midrash. It is far from obvious what it means. In my book A Letter in the Scroll (published in Britain as Radical Then, Radical Now) I argued that Abraham was struck by the contradiction between the order of the universe – the palace – and the disorder of humanity – the flames. How, in a world created by a good God, could there be so much evil? If someone takes the trouble to build a palace, do they leave it to the flames? If someone takes the trouble to create a universe, does He leave it to be disfigured by His own creations? On this reading, what moved Abraham was not philosophical harmony but moral discord. For Abraham, faith began in cognitive dissonance. There is only one way of resolving this dissonance: by protesting evil and fighting it.

That is the poignant meaning of the Midrash when it says that the owner of the palace looked out and said, “I am the owner of the palace.” It is as if God were saying to Abraham: I need you to help Me to put out the flames.

How could that possibly be so? God is all-powerful. Human beings are all too powerless. How could God be saying to Abraham, I need you to help Me put out the flames?

The answer is that evil exists because God gave humans the gift of freedom. Without freedom, we would not disobey God’s laws. But at the same time, we would be no more than robots, programmed to do whatever our Creator designed us to do. Freedom and its misuse are the theme of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and the generation of the Flood.

Why did God not intervene? Why did He not stop the first humans eating the forbidden fruit, or prevent Cain from killing Abel? Why did the owner of the palace not put out the flames?

Because, by giving us freedom, He bound Himself from intervening in the human situation. If He stopped us every time we were about to do wrong, we would have no freedom. We would never mature, never learn from our errors, never become God’s image. We exist as free agents only because of God’s tzimtzum, His self-limitation. That is why, within the terms with which He created humankind, He cannot put out the flames of human evil.

He needs our help. That is why He chose Abraham. Abraham was the first person in recorded history to protest the injustice of the world in the name of God, rather than accept it in the name of God. Abraham was the man who said: “Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justly?” Where Noah accepted, Abraham did not. Abraham is the man of whom God said, “I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.” Abraham was the father of a nation, a faith, a civilisation, marked throughout the ages by what Albert Einstein called “an almost fanatical love of justice.”

I believe that Abraham is the father of faith, not as acceptance but as protest – protest at the flames that threaten the palace, the evil that threatens God’s gracious world. We fight those flames by acts of justice and compassion that deny evil its victory and bring the world that is a little closer to the world that ought to be.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] Bereishit Rabbah (Vilna), 42:8.

[2] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry, chapter 1

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, translated with commentary by Walter Kaufmann, New York, Vintage, 1974, 291.

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Posted by on November 10, 2019 in Uncategorized


The Plague of Fluency

by Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo

“And the Lord said: Because this people has drawn near, honoring Me with their mouth and lips while distancing their heart from Me, and their fear of Me is commandment of men learned by rote…”

[Yeshayahu 29:13]

In this biting critique, the prophet protests against one of man’s most common missteps made during prayer. In Jewish tradition, the art of prayer carries a paradoxical demand, which by now has resulted in a religious crisis. There is the need to carefully follow the words of the prayer book and never deviate from them, while at the same time praying with great devotion. For most of us it has become almost impossible to follow these texts without it becoming tedious. It may well be true that the earlier Sages had remarkable insight into the human soul and were able to compose words of prayer that could touch each human being in a unique way. Based on that, they determined what combinations of words were best suited to produce the prayer book.

But who can live up to this today? The repetition of words can easily become rote, causing them to eventually lose meaning and inspiration, thereby turning prayer into a mechanical performance. Martin Buber, who was not an observant Jew but was nevertheless a keen reader of the religious mind, called this der fluch der gelaeufigkeit, the curse of fluency.

Indeed this has never been an easy matter, not even for the most pious. All of us frequently succumb to the danger of prayer by rote, which can easily lead to other serious problems. The worshipers may be so arrogantly satisfied with themselves that they completely forget in front of Whom they stand while praying. They no longer speak or listen to God, but rather to themselves. Their prayer becomes a performance in which they themselves are the audience. Other times it may lead to a situation in which the worshiper doesn’t even hear himself since his mind is somewhere else altogether. In that case, there is no audience at all and the prayers end up in no man’s land. It is not uncommon to have a situation where an element of competitiveness sets in and a worshiper tries to outdo his neighbor. This may result in a game in which the objective is who can pray longer (or shorter). One no longer thinks of God but of one’s neighbor. We may call this an atheistic prayer. Some people seem to believe that God is deaf and begin to pray more loudly, almost yelling.

Besides the need for the worshiper to use all available techniques to overcome and fight this problem—careful study of the prayers, meditation and singing, to name a few—it is also the task of the chazzan to save his congregation from these pitfalls. He is to provide a living commentary on the prayer book while leading his congregants through the service. The intonation of his voice, his emotional connection to the prayers, his body language, and even his facial expressions should give new meaning to the services and transport his congregation to a different state of mind and heart. He must try to create a revolution in the souls of his fellow Jews.

It is not only prayer that is often the object of this curse of fluency, but also the reading of the Torah in synagogue. Some ba’alei korei (those who read the Torah before the congregation) have become such fluent readers that they run through the Torah text with great ease, at an amazing pace, and making no mistakes. You get the impression that they are skating over smooth ice while their minds are in a faraway world. Often the ba’al korei’s reading is done without the slightest show of emotion, or connection with the text, and you may sometimes wonder when he will actually fall asleep right on top of the Torah scroll, since he seems to be totally bored.

A Torah text must be rendered as a poem, read with all the intonations and vibrations as indicated in the trope (the traditional chanting of the readings, as notated by special signs or marks in the printed text but absent in the Torah scroll). The ba’al korei, like the chazzan, must totally throw himself into the text and experience it as if he has never read it before. He must feel involved, accompanying Yosef in Pharaoh’s prison and traveling with the Israelites when they find themselves in the desert on their way to Mount Sinai. The Torah text must hit him so that he walks away from it in a state of exaltation, overwhelmed by its message and implication. Only then has he actually read it as it was meant to be read. In fact, the reading should have such an impact on him that it may necessitate his stopping in the middle just to calm down from the emotions evoked by the text, and to ensure that he does not lose consciousness upon being struck by the divinity of its words.

It is the task of every chazzan and ba’al korei to educate himself and discover ways in which he can inspire himself and the congregation so as not to get trapped in this curse of fluency. Praying and Torah reading should be experiences never to be forgotten.

Religious leaders and thinkers today may have to seriously consider shortening the prayers, and even the Torah reading. In our times, when secularity has penetrated every facet of our lives, earlier standards of religious devotion are becoming more and more difficult to maintain. The quality of our prayers may have to take precedence over the quantity, and some of them may no longer work for us. They may be too exalted, or too emotionally distant from the minds and hearts of most worshipers for whom the services are long and often tiresome.

Praying to God can be risky.

We must make sure that we are not guilty of religious plagiarism and imitation. Even of ourselves.

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Posted by on November 10, 2019 in Uncategorized


The Light in the Ark

Image result for light in darkness
by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Amid all the drama of the impending flood and the destruction of almost all of creation, we focus on Noah building the ark, and hear one detailed instruction:

Make a tzohar for the ark and terminate it within a cubit of the top. (Gen. 6:16)

There is a difficulty understanding what “tzohar” means, since the word does not appear anywhere else in Tanach. Everyone agrees that it is referring to a source of illumination. It will give light within the ark itself. But what exactly is it? Rashi quotes a Midrash in which two Rabbis disagree as to its meaning:

Some say this was a window; others say that it was a precious stone that gave light to them.[1]

The precious stone had the miraculous quality of being able to generate light within the darkness.

Bartenura suggests that what is at stake between the two interpretations is the etymology of the word tzohar itself. One relates it to the word tzahorayim, meaning “midday.” In that case, the brightness was to come from the sun, the sky, the outside. Therefore tzohar means “a window, a skylight.” The other view is that tzohar is related to zohar, “radiance,” which suggests something that radiates its own light, hence the idea of a miraculous precious stone.

Chizkuni and others suggest Noah had both: a window (from which he later released the raven, Gen. 8:6) and some form of artificial lighting for the prolonged period of the flood itself when the sun was completely overcast by cloud and the world was shrouded in darkness.

It remains fascinating to ask why the Rabbis of the Midrash, and Rashi himself, would spend time on a question that has no practical relevance. There will be – God promised this in this week’s parsha – no further flood. There will be no new Noah. In any future threat to the existence of the planet, an ark floating on the water will not be sufficient to save humankind. So why should it matter what source of illumination Noah had in the ark during those tempestuous days? What is the lesson for the generations?

I would like to offer a midrashic speculation. The answer, I suggest, lies in the history of the Hebrew language. Throughout the biblical era, the word tevah meant an ark – large in the case of Noah and the flood, small in the case of the papyrus basket coated with tar in which Yocheved placed the baby Moses, setting him afloat on the Nile (Ex. 2:3). More generally, it means “box.” However, by the time of the Midrash, tevah had come also to mean “word.”

It seems to me that the Rabbis of the Midrash were not so much commenting on Noah and the ark as they were reflecting on a fundamental question of Torah. Where and what is the tzohar, the brightness, the source of illumination, for the tevah, the Word? Does it come solely from within, or also from without? Does the Torah come with a window or a precious stone?

There were certainly those who believed that Torah was self-sufficient. If something is difficult in Torah it is because the words of Torah are sparse in one place but rich in another.[2] In other words, the answer to any question in Torah can be found elsewhere in Torah. Turn it over and turn it over for everything is within it.[3] This is probably the majority view, considered historically. There is nothing to be learned outside. The Torah is illuminated by a precious stone that generates its own light. This is even hinted at in the title of the greatest work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar (see Bartenura above).

There were, however, other views. Most famously, Maimonides believed that a knowledge of science and philosophy – a window to the outside world – was essential to understanding God’s word. He made the radical suggestion, in the Mishnah Torah (Hilchot Yesodei Ha-Torah 2:2), that it was precisely these forms of study that were the way to the love and fear of God. Through science – the knowledge of “He who spoke and called the universe into existence” – we gain a sense of the majesty and beauty, the almost infinite scope and intricate detail of creation and thus of the Creator. That is the source of love. Then, realising how small we are and how brief our lives in the total scheme of things: that is the source of fear.

The case Maimonides made in the 12th century, long before the rise of science, has been compounded a thousand times with our accelerated knowledge of the nature of the universe. Every new discovery of the vastness of the cosmos and the wonders of the micro-cosmos, fills the mind with awe. “Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these?” (Is. 40:26).

Maimonides did not think that science and philosophy were secular disciplines. He believed that they were ancient forms of Jewish wisdom, that the Greeks had acquired from the Jews and sustained at a time when the Jewish people, through exile and dispersion, had forgotten them. So they were not foreign borrowings. Maimonides was re-claiming a tradition that had been born in Israel itself. Nor were they source of independent illumination. They were simply a window through which the light of God’s created universe could help us decode the Torah itself. Understanding God’s world helps us understand God’s word.

This made a significant difference to the way Maimonides was able to convey the truth of Torah. So for example, his knowledge of ancient religious practices – albeit based on sources that were not always reliable – afforded him the deep insight (in The Guide for the Perplexed) that many of the Chukim, the statutes, the laws that seem to have no reason, were in fact directed against specific idolatrous practices.

His knowledge of Aristotelian philosophy enabled him to formulate an idea that exists throughout both Tanach and the rabbinic literature, but that had not been articulated so clearly before, namely that Judaism has a virtue ethic. It is interested not just in what we do but in what we are, in the kind of people we become. That is the basis of his pathbreaking Hilchot De’ot, “Laws of ethical character.”

The more we understand the way the world is, the more we understand why the Torah is as it is. It is our roadmap through reality. It is as if secular and scientific knowledge were the map, and Torah the route.

This view, articulated by Maimonides, was developed in the modern age in a variety of forms. Devotees of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch called it Torah im derech eretz, “Torah with general culture.” In Yeshiva University it came to be known as Torah u-Madda, “Torah and science.” Together with the late Rav Aaron Lichtenstein zt”l, I prefer the phrase Torah ve-Chochmah, “Torah and wisdom,” because wisdom is a biblical category.

Recently, the science writer David Epstein published a fascinating book called Range, subtitled, How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World.[4] He makes the point that over-concentration on a single specialised topic is good for efficiency but bad for creativity. The real creatives, (people like the Nobel prize winners), are often those who had outside interests, who knew other disciplines, or had passions and hobbies outside their subject. Even in a field like sport, for every Tiger Woods, who had a feel for golf even before he could speak, there is a Roger Federer, who exercised his skills in many sports before, quite late in youth, choosing to focus on tennis.

Lehavdil, it was precisely Maimonides’ breadth of knowledge of science, medicine, psychology, astronomy, philosophy, logic, and many other fields that allowed him to be so creative in everything he wrote, from his letters, to his Commentary to the Mishnah, to the Mishnah Torah itself, structured differently from any other code of Jewish law, all the way to The Guide for the Perplexed. Maimonides said things that many may have sensed before, but no one had expressed so cogently and powerfully. He showed that it is possible to be utterly devoted to Jewish faith and law and yet be creative, showing people spiritual and intellectual depths they had not seen before. That was his way making a tzohar, a window for the tevah, the Divine word.

On the other hand, the Zohar conceives of Torah as a precious stone that gives light of itself and needs none from the outside. Its world is a closed system, a very deep, passionate, moving, sustained search for intimacy with the Divine that dwells within the universe and within the human soul.

So we are not forced to choose either the one or the other. Recall that Chizkuni said that Noah had a precious stone for the dark days and a window for when the sun shone again. Something like that happened when it came to Torah also. During the dark days of persecution, Jewish mysticism flourished, and Torah was illuminated from within. During the benign days when the world was more open to Jews, they had a window to the outside, and so emerged figures like Maimonides in the Middle Ages, and Samson Raphael Hirsch in the 19th century.

I believe that the challenge for our time is to open a series of windows so that the world can illuminate our understanding of Torah, and so that the Torah may guide us as we seek to make our way through the world.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] Genesis Rabbah 31:11.

[2] Yerushalmi Rosh Hashanah 3:5.

[3] Mishnah Avot 5:22.

[4] David Epstein, Range, Macmillan, 2019.

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Posted by on November 2, 2019 in Uncategorized


Spinoza’s Blunder and Noach’s Misguided Religiosity

Image result for noah's silence

by Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo

In his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Benedictus Spinoza (17th century), the famous Jewish ‘philosopher apostate’, launches one of his most outspoken attacks on Judaism. Not mincing words, he accuses it of demanding obsessive and outrageous obedience:

The sphere of reason is….truth and wisdom; the sphere of theology is piety and obedience (chap. XV). Philosophy has no end in view save truth: faith…looks for nothing but obedience and piety (chap. X1V).  Scripture…does not condemn ignorance, but obstinacy” (chap. X1V).

In contrast to Jesus, who sought “solely to teach the universal moral law….the Pharisees (who were the Sages of Israel), in their ignorance, thought that the observance of the state law and the Mosaic law was the sum total of morality; whereas such laws merely had reference to the public welfare, and aimed not so much at instructing the Jews as at keeping them under constraint” (chap. V).

These are serious words from a great thinker and we need to ask ourselves whether his observations are correct, or not. Is Judaism indeed a religion whose primary purpose is to force people’s obedience to its demands and keep them under control?

England’s former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks cites a most remarkable midrash, which I believe challenges Spinoza’s critique while simultaneously proving his point.[1]

Commenting on Noah’s reluctance to leave the ark after the flood, the midrash makes the following biting comment:

Once the waters had abated, Noah should have left the ark. However, Noah said to himself, ‘I entered with God’s permission, as it says, “Go into the ark” (Bereishit 7:1). Shall I now leave without permission?’ The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, ‘Is it permission, then, that you are seeking? Very well, then, here is permission,’ as it is said: [Then God said to Noah] ‘Come out of the ark’ (Bereshit 8:15). Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai said: If I had been there, I would have broken down the ark and taken myself out.

There can be little doubt that this midrash confronts Spinoza’s critique head-on. It seems to express a lack of patience with submissive religiosity that stifles human autonomy, action, innovation and responsibility. It warns against the type of religiosity that is self-serving and dangerous, a concept best described by the untranslatable Yiddish/German word frumkeit. This refers to an artificial form of religious behavior, which in our days has become synonymous with the authentic way of Jewish religious living. Instead of agreeing with this sort of piety, the midrash bitterly attacks it as an escape mechanism and lack of genuine religiosity.

In our story, Noah is described as a man who lives in self-deception, believing that he has reached the pinnacle of religiosity while in fact he is unknowingly pretending. There is nothing dishonest about him. Noah, in all sincerity, believes that no man should make a move unless God tells him to do so. There is no place for religious initiative. There is only obedience. What he does not realize is that this attitude will lead to total havoc. It is the recipe for continued flooding, the termination of all human life, and consequently the elimination of the possibility for genuine religiosity. More to the point, it is exactly what God does not want. The great biblical message is that God wants man to be His partner in Creation, not His robot.

What does Noah say when God informs him that He will destroy the world? What does he say when God commands him to build the ark and then enter it together with his family and the animals?


Why? Because Noah is very frum, religious, and won’t challenge God. Who is he to do so? And so he enters the ark with a clear conscience. He is brave, obedient, and feels very good about himself. No doubt Noah prays Shacharit, Mincha and Ma’ariv daily. Surely he eats kosher and observes Shabbat but only because God tells him to do so. He obeys the letter of the law and will never go beyond the Divine demand.

What Noah does not grasp is that he is hiding behind his own misplaced religiosity. It is most convenient and carries no responsibility. All is in the hands of God. His argument is straightforward: If God decides that the world has to come to an end, how can man dare to interfere? Who is he to know what is right or wrong? There must be only obedience.

The ark is a marvelous place – it is comfortable, there is no need to steer it and nothing to fear. It floats on its own; one need not know where it is going. It has no sails for man to adjust to the winds. He just sits on his deckchair and waits for what will come.

The ark is a ghetto, both physically and mentally. It has no windows other than one on the roof allowing a view of Heaven.[2] One cannot even look outside to see what’s going on around it and hear the cries of millions who are drowning and desperately crying for help. No, the walls are too thick to hear any noise coming from outside. The ark is a highly secure place – an oasis in the storm of human pain and upheaval. True, inside the ghetto man has his tasks. Noah has to look after his family as well as feed the animals and take care of them. But that is all because he is commanded to do so. Nothing is done beyond his religious obligations. Noah is the homo religiosus par excellence. His is the ark of total obedience, and it is against this type of religious personality that Spinoza correctly protests.

But this is not the authentic religious Jewish personality. What would Avraham, the first Jew in history, have done? From reading his life story, it is clear that he would have refused to go into the ark. He would have fought God telling Him that it is unjust to drown all of mankind. He would have contested God’s decision, as he did in the case of the evil men in Sedom and Amora. And if God would have forced him into the ark, he would not have waited an extra moment to get out. He would have stood at the edge and destroyed the ark as soon as he saw land, just as Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai would have done.

Avraham, like Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai, proves Spinoza wrong. Noah does not represent genuine religiosity. Yes, many religious Jews believe that it is only in obedience that one must live one’s religious life. But that is not what the first Jew and authentic Judaism are all about. Judaism is a covenant between man and God, in which man is co-creator. God orders him to take action beyond His commandments. He is asked to build the world with the ingredients that God supplied at the time of creation. And when God destroys the world, it is man’s task to restore it.[3] He is obligated to storm out of the ark, protest and start rebuilding.

But God demands even more of man; he is also asked to be a partner in the creation of the Torah:

Once I was on a journey, and I came upon a man who went the way of heretics. He accepted the Written Torah but not the Oral Torah. He said to me: The Written Law was given to us from Mount Sinai; the Oral Law was not given from Mount Sinai. I said to him: But were not both the Written and the Oral Torah spoken by the Almighty? Then what difference is there between the Written and the Oral Torah? To what can this be compared? To a king of flesh and blood who had two servants and loved them both with perfect love. And he gave them each a measure of wheat and a bundle of flax. The wise servant, what did he do? He took the flax and spun a cloth. Then he took the wheat and made flour. He cleansed, ground, kneaded and baked the flour, and set it on top of the table. Then he spread the cloth over it and left it until the king would come. But the foolish servant did nothing at all. After some days the king returned from a journey, entered his house and said to them: My sons, bring me what I gave you. One servant showed him the wheaten bread on the table with a cloth spread over it, and the other servant showed the wheat still in the box, with a bundle of flax upon it. Alas for his shame, alas for his disgrace! Now, when the Holy One blessed be He gave the Torah to Israel, he gave it only in the form of wheat for us to extract flour from it, and flax to extract a garment…[4]

Man, then, is asked to be the constant co-creator of the Torah, making it more and more beautiful.

Spinoza’s view is dangerous and misleading. It has done great harm to Judaism’s image. According to Herman Cohen, one of the great German Jewish philosophers of the 19th century, Spinoza is unwittingly responsible for much anti-Semitism.[5] Many Jewish sources prove beyond doubt that Judaism imposes great responsibility on the religious Jew. There is no hiding behind obedience. The truth is that those who are exclusively submissive are only partially in control. Obedience means taking action; it is not merely subjugation.

Judaism is fully aware of the fact that no law can prevent the enormous difficulties that even the most religious Jew encounters.[6] To identify Judaism as a kind of sacred rote behavior, which does not require any autonomous human action, is missing the point entirely. The detailed elaboration of the law in Talmudic tradition should not be confused with a simplistic conception of the human condition. Judaism constantly repudiates formalism because it often leads to a perverse form of religiosity. In fact, it warns against becoming a degenerate within the framework of the Torah.[7]

Spinoza’s assessment of the Jewish religious personality is entirely mistaken but is clearly rooted in all the religious Noahs of our world.[8] It is a warning to many religious Jews who know nothing other than what we may call negative obedience as opposed to positive obedience. Instead of asking great rabbis to solve all our problems, we should never forget that Judaism teaches us to stand on our own feet and make our own decisions. Of course, living one’s religious life in this manner is not without risks, but there is no authentic life choice that is risk-free. Religion, said the Kotzker Rebbe, is warfare. It is a fight against indolence and callousness that stifles personal responsibility.

Our religious lives should be inspired by the spirit of the Torah, but it should never develop into an obsessive form of subjugation, which the Torah abhors. We must make sure we do not turn into ‘ark-niks,’ getting drunk from guilt once we leave our ark and see the havoc we have created. We should rather be proud and sober Abrahamites.

[1] Covenant & Conversation, A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible, Genesis: The Book of Beginnings (Maggid Books & The Orthodox Union, 2009) pp. 43-47.

[2] See Rashi and Bereishit Rabbah on Bereishit 6:16.

[3] See my Thoughts to Ponder 250 and 251: “God is Unjustifiable,” Parts 1 & 2.

[4] Seder Eliyahu Zuta, 2.

[5] See Jüdische Geschriften, ed. B. Straus (Berlin: Schwetschke & Sohn, 1924) pp. 111, 290-372 (especially pp. 363 & 371), and preface by Leo Strauss.

[6] See Sukkah 52a.

[7] See Ramban on Vayikra 19:2.

[8] Spinoza’s attitude toward the Jewish religion may quite well have been influenced by the teachers of the Spanish Portuguese Community, in 17th century Amsterdam, who expelled him. Their rigid understanding of Judaism, possibly shaped by the ideology of the Catholic Church from which they had just escaped, impelled the Ma’amad (the lay leadership of this community) to take drastic steps against Spinoza. Still, the ban was very mild compared to the auto-da-fé of the Inquisition. See Antonio Damasio’s Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain. Dutch translation: Het Gelijk van Spinoza, Wereld Biblioteek (Amsterdam: 2004) Page 222.

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Noé, su problemática teológica

Image result for rainbow in the valley
por Edith Blaustein

La problemática teológica
Extraído de The Beginning of Desire de Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg.

Nos encontramos aquí con una de las problemáticas teológicas básicas, el enigma con respecto a la relación de Dios con la humanidad.
Las generaciones se levantaron y se rebelaron contra Él, la generación del Diluvio se rebeló, y la generación de la Torre de Babel se rebeló. Dios dijo: “Que desaparezcan, y que lo que estaba antes venga en su lugar”.

El exilio de la palabra

El retorno a la acuosidad es un retorno a la carencia de palabras. El drama de la generación que llevó al Diluvio y lo que siguió fue un drama sobre el lenguaje, sobre las paradojas inherentes a la capacidad humana de crear sistemas simbólicos. Se trata de un drama íntimamente relacionado a la civilización y sus conflictos.
Aparentemente las modalidades aquí descritas son las de lenguaje y silencio: las aguas son los siervos mudos, los seres humanos son los siervos que articulan.
Las paradojas son agudas, las aguas expresan una total aceptación del poder divino, mientras que el poder del hombre sobre el lenguaje representa una demarcatoria estrecha. Hablar como hablan los seres humanos, significa hacer elecciones en cada nivel de articulación. ¿Qué versión particular de la realidad es creada a través de la selección de palabras? ¿Qué es lo que no debe ser dicho? Dios tiene expectativas con respecto al lenguaje de los seres humanos y de su inteligencia.
La “rebelión” de la generación del diluvio puede ser entendida como un fracaso en el habla, en la comunicación con Dios e incluso en la comunicación entre los individuos. Hay una patología en la apertura de esta generación, que transforma la apertura en mutismo.
Noé comparte con su generación una patología que es llamada las fuentes cabalísticas llaman el exilio de la palabra. Y dado que en cada generación hay algo que perdura de la generación del diluvio, esta patología nos es conocida desde entonces. El lenguaje se volvió tan abierto que se tornó difuso… La comunicación entre los sujetos degeneró en un balbuceo de voces indiscriminadas. El silencio comprimido en el arca (en hebreo teivá significa caja y palabra) es el espejo, el alter ego de la cacofonía en el exterior.
En el Midrash la patología de esta generación es descrita diciendo “shetufim bezima”, bañados en pecados sexuales. El sentido de shetef, inundación, describiría una pasión indiscriminada que borra todos los limites. Esta noción resulta central en la vida de ese tiempo. La corrupción de la carne es una profunda desintegración de la identidad, reflejada en la intervención divina al “desintegrar toda la carne” (Gén., 6:13). Si la sexualidad es una forma de comunicación, entonces un pandemonio sexual tomó su lugar.

Éxtasis y bondad

El principal problema de la generación previa al diluvio es el llamado pecado sexual, la transformación del amor. El amor se identifica con la curiosidad, es la atención al mundo creado por el otro, la generación previa al diluvio carecía de ese sentimiento. Se aprecia en ellos una excesiva apertura, expresada en el deseo de conquistar a todos los seres reticentes. Esto es “gezel” una forma rapaz de sexualidad y cuando este modo es el que predomina, entonces la destrucción masiva indiscriminada de los seres y sus mundos viene como una locura que borra con agua todas las personalidades.
De acuerdo al Midrash de Bereshit Raba, la generación previa al diluvio percibe a Dios como ciego, indiferente y mudo ante el mundo. Ante esa sensación los seres humanos se sienten libres de ser iguales, ciegos indiferentes y mudos.
El silencio de Dios es una perspectiva filosófica que justifica la crueldad humana, si Dios ignora lo que está pasando justo frente a su línea de visión es como si fuera Él quien destruyera indiscriminadamente a toda una generación, entonces la sociedad humana esta liberada del yugo de la justicia y la responsabilidad.
“Y Dios recordó a Noé” está escrito: “un hombre justo sabe las necesidades de su bestia. Pero la compasión a los malvados es crueldad”. Él que es Justo sabe, incluso, las necesidades de los animales, aun en Su enojo. No es como los reyes humanos que envían sus legiones para acallar una rebelión y matan tanto inocentes como culpables. En cambio Dios, aun en una generación que Lo enoja, salva al justo de la generación. Dios sabe las necesidades de los hombres, pero la compasión al malvado es crueldad; esto es la generación del diluvio.

El silencio de Noé

Noé es salvado por lo que va a llegar a ser más que por lo que es.
El silencio de Noé, es esencialmente una metástasis con la enfermedad de su tiempo. Él no tiene curiosidad, no sabe ni le importa lo que le pasa a los demás. Sufre de la incapacidad de hablar a Dios o a sus semejantes. El también está prisionero de las “aguas poderosas”. La paradoja de Noé lo transforma, dentro del íntimo espacio del Arca, en una nueva persona, retroactivamente en un tzadik, alguien que alimenta y cuida.
Noé se transforma en un segundo Adam, ve un mundo nuevo pero recuerda el viejo. La nueva tolerancia de Dios puede ser una función de esta nueva auto conciencia del hombre. Este es el dominio de la cultura, parte de la imaginación y de la realidad, de la bondad y el éxtasis. Y este campo es la invención de Noé al elegir significados, identidades, versiones de un mundo que es nuevo y viejo a la vez.

Beginning of Desire de Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg fue publicado por The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1995.
Traducción libre de Edith Blaustein.

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