Monthly Archives: May 2020

Is Ruth really a role model?

Ruth Gleaning in the Fields of Boaz | ClipArt ETC

When a biblical heroine comports herself differently from our modern expectations of whom we should emulate, is she still a heroine? 3 approaches

The Question

About a year ago, a Midreshet Lindenbaum alumna posed a thought-provoking question to me over WhatsApp about the character of Ruth. Her query unsettled me because it hit on a troubling issue which I didn’t know how to make sense of in a way that would satisfy her or myself. The student wrote that Ruth left her feeling confused. She is extolled for her extreme acts of kindness and self-sacrifice, abandoning her home to cling to her penniless, bereft mother-in-law, selflessly devoting herself to provide sustenance for both of them, and humbly doing anything that might vouchsafe for them a secure future. However, as the student wrote to me, it seems as though Ruth “is so committed to helping Naomi that her own identity is erased, and to me at least it seems to be contrary to the type of person that we’re supposed to strive to be.” In other words, she was asking, Is Ruth really a role model?  Is she the type of character we should put on a pedestal for ourselves, our daughters, our students to strive to emulate?  Chesed, generosity, self-sacrifice, devotion, and commitment are all laudatory traits, but Ruth seems to take them to extremes, perhaps one might even say unhealthy extremes.

The most disturbing scene in her short, four-chapter scroll, is when Naomi bids her to wash and beautify herself, surreptitiously slip into Boaz’s threshing floor at night, lie down next to him, and submit herself to whatever Boaz will instruct her to do.[1]  Surely, Naomi and Ruth must have desperately hoped and prayed for the fortunate ending that in fact transpires, but both of them must have been aware that the provocative scene could easily have ended very differently.  Do we seek to become the types of people who would so lose our own sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth that we would meekly acquiesce to be a pawn in such a plot, as Ruth does with her response “כל אשר תאמרי אעשה” – whatever you say, I will do? [2]

Approach #1: Ruth is more self-effacing than we ought to be, yet she remains a role model[3]

The first approach accepts that in fact Ruth has self-effacing qualities that are more extreme than what we should aspire to ourselves; this does not, however, detract from her standing as a heroine and role model. How so?

There are several possible answers. The same student who proposed the question initially herself suggested a particularly insightful one. She pointed out that the megilla opens by highlighting its historical context – “ויהי בימי שפט השפטים” (and it was when the Judges judged) – indicating that this is a critical nugget of information.  The era of the Judges was a disastrous one for the Jewish people, steeped in repetitive cycles of idol worship and then oppression by other nations in punishment for their abandonment of God.  The most oft-repeated phrase throughout the Book of Judges, the line that best encapsulates the era is “איש הישר בעיניו יעשה” — each person did whatever was right in his own eyes.[4]  It was an era marked by selfishness, insularity, and a lack of concern for anyone outside of oneself.  In such a time period, there could not have been a more perfect heroine or role model than Ruth.

The Rambam writes in Hilchot De’ot 2:2 that the best method for an individual to correct a character flaw is to go to the opposite extreme.  For example, if he suffers from arrogance, writes the Rambam, he “should sit in the least honorable seat and wear worn-out clothes which shame their wearer.” The Rambam explicitly writes that he does not believe it is ideal to subject oneself to humiliation; he recommends it only as a temporary corrective for someone suffering from arrogance.  He concludes, “So too should a person behave regarding all character traits. If he is on one extreme he should move to the opposite extreme and accustom himself to such behavior for a good while until he may return to the proper middle path.”

Perhaps Ruth demonstrates to us that the Rambam’s prescription for correcting an individual’s character traits is equally applicable on the national level. As a nation, Bnei Yisrael during Ruth’s time were falling prey to excessive selfishness; Ruth emerged on the scene and modeled unreserved self-sacrifice because that was precisely what was needed as a corrective measure. Ruth’s contemporaries trampled on others’ identities in order to assert their own; Ruth muted her own identity in order to restore Naomi’s.[5]  The people at Ruth’s time needed to behave selflessly not merely in appropriate amounts but precisely to Ruth-esque excessive degrees to serve as an antidote to their self-centeredness, and help them eventually achieve the “proper middle path.”[6]

Approach #2: Ruth is a role model of trust and faith

A second approach was suggested to me by a wise mother-in-law,[7] who pointed out that Ruth is not blindly heeding the instructions of just anyone; the disturbing command to seek out Boaz in the middle of the night has been issued by none other than Naomi, whom Ruth has learned to trust deeply and unconditionally through many years of living, breathing, eating, sleeping, suffering, and surviving side-by-side.  From all these experiences, Ruth has developed unswerving faith and confidence both in Naomi’s goodness and in her utter devotion to Ruth’s well-being.  Within the context of this relationship, Ruth’s blind obedience to Naomi’s plan is transformed from troubling docility to a praiseworthy act of trust and faith. A trusted, beloved parent asking us to embark on a questionable mission or to perform an arduous favor is entirely different than a random stranger requesting the identical thing.

This point resonated deeply with me. Yet, I was still somewhat unsettled, largely because of recent alarming incidents in which trusted figures, including rabbinic ones, have manipulated and abused unsuspecting congregants. Did I really want to convey the message to my students that they should unquestioningly agree to anything a trusted figure in their life asks of them?

A fascinating twist emerges from noting the specific time that Chazal selected for the reading of the Book of Ruth, the holiday of Shavuot. Numerous commentators have pondered the connection between the two.[8]  Perhaps the key lies in the fact that it was at Mount Sinai that Am Yisrael declared, “נעשה ונשמע!” – we will do and we will hear, placing submission to God’s will prior to, and not predicated upon, understanding it.  Perhaps Ruth and Noami’s relationship is meant to be a metaphor for our relationship with God.  Just as Ruth had developed unwavering trust in Naomi, leading her to ultimately submit to whatever Naomi would suggest, so too had Am Yisrael acquired steadfast faith in God over the course of the Plagues, the Exodus, and the Splitting of the Sea, culminating in their declaration of absolute commitment to His commandments at Mount Sinai. No human being deserves the kind of blind trust that Ruth places in Naomi, but God does. On the holiday of Shavuot when we relive our acceptance of God and His Torah, Ruth is the perfect heroine. Her traits of faith, obedience, and submission are precisely the ones to emulate in the realm of our relationship with our Creator.

Approach #3: Ruth is not as self-effacing as she appears

This final approach goes in a completely different direction than either of the first two.  It suggests that a close reading of the text of the Megilla reveals that Ruth is a much stronger, more proactive character than she appears at first glance.  First, it is Ruth’s own decision, and her decision alone, to cling so determinedly to Naomi.  In fact, Naomi repeatedly attempts to dissuade her, yet Ruth tenaciously holds fast.

More significantly, a neighbor of mine, Micah Gimpel, suggested the following fascinating read: The most disturbing scene of the Megilla is Ruth’s rendezvous with Boaz on his threshing floor. There are many troubling aspects[9] but for our purposes, the most problematic is Ruth’s obedient acquiescence to be a pawn in such a potentially humiliating, degrading plot.  Wouldn’t we want to teach our daughters and students to have the confidence and self-respect to resolutely refuse to participate in such a plan?  How can we possibly view Ruth as a heroine and role model?

What Micah pointed out is that Ruth may not be as passive and docile as she appears. When Naomi describes the plan, she essentially instructs Ruth to be merely a puppet, first her own and then Boaz’s, with no agency of her own. Naomi directs her to bathe, anoint, dress attractively, descend to the threshing floor, lie down next to the satiated and perhaps inebriated Boaz, uncover his feet, and then await his instructions for what to do next. In other words, in Naomi’s plan, Ruth is to pass directly from following her (Naomi’s) explicit, detailed instructions to following Boaz’s without a moment to think or act on her own.  And Ruth dutifully assents, “כל אשר תאמרי אעשה” – all that you say I will do.[10]

Everything begins exactly according to plan. Verse 5 informs us, “ותעש ככל אשר צותה חמותה” – Ruth does everything that her mother-in-law commanded her. She goes down to Boaz’s threshing floor, uncovers his feet, and lies down beside him to await the unfolding of events.  Boaz in fact awakens and is shocked to discover a woman at his feet.  He inquires as to her identity, and Ruth responds, “אנכי רות אמתך” – I am Ruth your maidservant. What happens next is the critical turning point.  According to Naomi’s plan, Ruth ought to be silent at this point and await Boaz’s instructions. But that is not what Ruth does!  She continues speaking, and seizes the opportunity to voice her own hope, nay her own demand: “ופרשת כנפך על אמתך כי גואל אתה” – spread your wing over your maidservant for you are a redeemer.  Rather than silently, passively await Boaz’s response to discovering a woman at his feet as Naomi had instructed her, Ruth veers from the script and takes matters into her own hands, demanding that Boaz do something to protect her and secure her future.[11]  Just as Esther has her transformative moment in her megilla when she ceases to follow everyone else’s commands[12] and pronounces one of her own,[13] this is Ruth’s moment of transformation.

Precisely at the moment when she might appear weakest and most submissive is exactly the moment when she charts her own future and directs the course of how it will play out.  Remarkably, Boaz endorses Ruth’s newfound bold, assertive voice by declaring “ברוכה את לה’ בתי” – blessed are you to Hashem, my daughter.  He then completes the role reversal by declaring that he will do all that Ruth says – “כל אשר תאמרי אעשה לך”, a remarkable turnaround from Naomi’s plan in which Ruth was supposed to do all that Boaz instructed.[14]   Even more striking is that these words echo almost verbatim the very language with which Ruth initially expressed her submission to Naomi’s plan – “כל אשר תאמרי אעשה”.[15]  The fact that Boaz now employs the identical phraseology to affirm his submission to Ruth underscores the stunning reversals that have taken place between the lines of this brilliant megilla.


We have explored three different approaches to understanding why Ruth’s seemingly self-effacing character is in fact a role model: that Ruth was in fact overly meek but she was a role model and corrective for her specific era; that Ruth’s blind faith in Naomi models for us the kind of deep trust and obedience we should strive to develop in our relationship with God (perhaps other trusted figures in our life as well); and that a close read indicates that Ruth is in truth a much more assertive character than she appears.  Whichever approach resonates most with you, I hope you feel as I do – that delving into the character of Ruth has enriched and deepened my appreciation of her, her megilla, and the myriad lessons hidden within its four chapters.

[1] “ורחצת וסכת ושמת שמלותיך עליך וירדת הגורן אל תודעי לאיש… ושכבת והוא יגיד לך את אשר תעשין” (רות ג:ג-ד)

[2] Ruth 3:4

[3] In theory, another approach could suggest Ruth is not meant to be a role model at all.  Not every character who appears in Tanach is a hero meant to be emulated.  However, to me it seems clear that she is portrayed as a positive character from whom we are supposed to learn how to behave ourselves in at least some way. After all, the megilla ends by delineating the direct line of descent from Ruth to King David.

[4] See for example Shoftim 17:6 and 21:25

[5] Naomi’s loss of identity is highlighted by her insisting on a name change for herself.  As she and Ruth are returning to Israel from the fields of Moav, Naomi tells the townspeople, “אל תקראנה לי נעמי קראן לי מרא כי המר שקי לי מאד” (א:כ) – Do not call me Naomi; call me “Bitterness (Mara)” for God has done bitter things to me.   It is incredibly significant then that at the end of the Megilla (4:17), the townspeople proclaim that Ruth’s baby should be to Naomi a “משיב נפש” – restorer of her spirit, and they (the women of the town) are the ones who bestow upon him a name, declaring that a son has been born to Naomi – “ותקראנה לו השכנות שם לאמר ילד בן לנעמי”.  Through Ruth and her son, Naomi’s spirit, her name, and her family line have been restored.

[6] Along similar lines, Dr. Yael Ziegler also posited that Ruth’s historical context provides the key, but she focused on Ruth as the prelude to the era of Kings, rather than as an antidote to the period of the Shoftim.  She suggested that since monarchs are at such high risk of arrogance and utilizing their power to subjugate others, the Torah inserted the story of Ruth immediately prior to the inception of that era as a powerful message to maintain humility and a deep sense of service to others.

[7] Mrs. Chani Poupko

[8] A quick Google search will reveal a multitude of different answers

[9] Such as: What was Naomi thinking in sending Ruth out on such a mission?  Does the Torah approve of using such methods?  See Rav Mordechai Sabato’s article

[10] Ruth 3:4

[11] The specific language that Ruth employs amplifies the chutzpah thinly veiled in her request.  In their first interaction, Boaz praises Ruth for her devotion to Naomi and blesses her that she should be recompensed by God under whose wings she has sought refuge – “ישלם ה’ פעלך ותהי משכרתך שלמה מעם ה’ אלקי ישראל אשר באת לחסות תחת כנפיו” (ב:יב) .  In her transformational moment, Ruth expresses her demand utilizing strikingly similar imagery – “ופרשת כנפך על אמתך” – spread your wing over your maidservant.  Her bold message seems to be, “If you really believe I am so praiseworthy, do not leave it to God to protect me under His Divine wings; take action yourself and protect me under yours!”

[12] Esther 2:10, 2:15, 2:20

[13] Esther 4:15-16

[14] Interestingly, Megillat Esther contains almost an identical role reversal.  Initially, Esther does everything Mordechai commands her, even when she is queen of the land – “ואת מאמר מרדכי אסתר עשה כאשר היתה באמנה אתו” (אסתר ב:כ).  Yet, once Esther undergoes her transformation and issues a command to Mordechai, the Megilla relates: “ויעש ככל אשר צותה עליו אסתר” (אסתר ד:יז) – Mordechai did everything Esther commanded him.

[15] Ruth 3:4

ABOUT THE AUTHORDena Freundlich teaches Gemara and Halachah at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem. She also teaches Halachah at Midreshet Torah v’Avodah, and has lectured in many schools and institutions on topics related to Tanach, Halacha, and Gemara. Prior to making aliyah in 2010, she served as Talmud Department Chair at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School in Teaneck, NJ. She holds a BA in Biology and Jewish Studies from Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, an MA in Bible from the Bernard Revel Graduate School, and was a member of the first graduating class of YU’s Graduate Program for Advanced Talmudic Studies (GPATS). She lives in Efrat with her 3 children.

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Posted by on May 30, 2020 in Uncategorized


El encargo de traducir la Torá: la septuaginta

Torá Septuaginta

El 8 de Tebet, aproximadamente en el año 260 aec, en Alejandría, Egipto, el rey Ptolomeo ordenó a 72 eruditos judíos, seis por cada tribu de Israel, traducir la Torá al Griego. El Rey Ptolomeo intentaba demostrar la inexistencia de una interpretación judía unificada de la Torá, y por lo tanto tener una excusa para delegitimizar la tradición judía y humillar al pueblo de Israel. Para este efecto, los sabios judíos fueron colocados en cuartos de trabajo separados. Así, pensó el monarca griego, sería imposible que todos tradujeran de la misma forma el texto bíblico. Sin embargo, milagrosamente, todos los sabios tradujeron cada palabra de la Tora de la misma forma.

Esta traducción de la Torá es conocida como la Septuaginta (que en latín significa, «setenta»). A pesar de que fue hecha por destacados Sabios de Israel, la Septuaginta no se considera una traducción que sigue la tradición rabínica (La única traducción judía oficial de la Torá es la aramea «Targum Onqelos», realizada bajo la supervisión de rabbi Eliezer haGadol ca. 100 de la era común). Como se explica en el Talmud Yerushalmí (Meguilá 9), en muchos casos los autores de la Septuaginta se desviaron deliberadamente de la interpretación tradicional de la Torá y adaptaron el texto bíblico a la mentalidad griega y sus sensibilidades para evitar una situación de peligro para los judíos. Un ejemplo: En lugar de traducir «En el principio creó Dios…», tradujeron: «Dios creó en el principio». ¿Por qué? Porque para la mentalidad griega, la primera palabra de una oración se considera el sujeto de la oración. Si hubieran traducido «En el principio creó Dios», los griegos lo hubieron entendido como si un dios mitológico llamado «Bereshit», («En el principio», es decir, un dios que gobierna el tiempo, como el mitológico «Cronos» ) fue quien engendró a Eloqim, D-s ח»ו

La traducción de la Torá al griego fue considerada por la historiografía judía como un evento negativo. ¿Por qué? Porque la Biblia hebrea pasó a ser desde ese momento un libro que los gentiles se jactaban de comprender plenamente, incluso cuando ignoraban por completo el idioma original de la Torá, el hebreo, y la tradicional interpretación judía de la Biblia.

La Septuaginta fue también ampliamente utilizada por los judíos asimilacionistas para avanzar sus planes de sincretizar (combinar) los valores griegos y los judíos. Tres siglos más tarde, la Septuaginta allanó el camino para el avance de religiones «bíblicas» no-judías. Como lo explica Timothy McLay, «las Escrituras judías tal como fueron estudiadas, leídas e interpretadas en la lengua griega, fueron la base de gran parte, si no de la mayoría, del contexto interpretativo del Nuevo Testamento.»
A diferencia de los cultos paganos, que eran claramente antagónicos a la Torá, estas nuevas religiones estaban supuestamente basadas en la Torá! Irónicamente, la Biblia se interpretaba a voluntad y capricho para justificar ideas o creencias no-judías o incluso anti-judías ¡»en el nombre de la Biblia»! Toda esta nueva tendencia causó tragedias incontables para el pueblo judío durante siglos o milenios.

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Posted by on May 30, 2020 in Uncategorized


¿Eres, o te haces?

por Eliezer Shemtov

Hay dos tipos de letras, letras escritas y letras grabadas. ¿Cuál es la diferencia entre ellas? En lo más superficial: una letra escrita se puede borrar mientras que una letra tallada no se puede borrar (sin destruir la piedra en la que se encuentra). Esa diferencia se debe a una diferencia más profunda y esencial: una letra escrita se forma por medio de juntar dos cosas separadas —y así como se unieron, se pueden volver a desunir— mientras que la letra tallada proviene de la propia piedra. En otras palabras: la letra escrita es algo foráneo impuesto mientras que la letra tallada es algo autóctono expuesta.

O como lo habrá dicho el famoso escultor Miguel Ángel Buonarroti: “esculpir es fácil, sacas lo que sobra y así se libera la escultura atrapada”.

¿Qué tiene que ver todo esto con la ansiedad y la depresión?

Suele suceder que la ansiedad y la depresión son el resultado de una disconformidad o confusión en cuanto a la identidad personal. ¿Quién soy y qué es lo que realmente quiero, más allá de lo que me parece que quiero?

La gente gasta fortunas en la búsqueda de quién le pueda ayudar a descifrar dicha enigma.

Tener presente la diferencia entre letras escritas y letras talladas nos puede ayudar a identificar cuál es el mensaje tallado en la profundidad y esencia de nuestro ser y cuál es meramente nada más que algo extraño agregado que en vez de expresarnos, nos tapa y nos sofoca.

En su descripción de las tablas conteniendo los Diez mandamientos, la Torá dice1 : “Las tablas habían sido hechas por Di-s y la grafía era la grafía de Di-s, grabada sobre las tablas”. Referente a la palabra Jarut —grabada— utilizada en este versículo, dice Rabi Iehoshúa ben Levi2 : “No leas la palabra [solo] como Jarut (grabada) sino [también] como Jerut3 (libertad), ya que no hay alguien libre sino aquel que se dedica a la Torá.”

A primera vista parecería totalmente lo contrario: con sus tantas obligaciones y prohibiciones, ¿cómo podemos considerar que el libre es aquel que se dedica a la Torá? ¿No será más libre aquel que hace lo que quiere en vez de lo que le imponen, on sea justamente aquel que no se dedica a vivir de acuerdo a las limitaciones e imposiciones de la Torá?

En base a lo que explicamos sobre las letras escritas y las letras grabadas, podemos entender el tema. La normas de la Torá no son algo externo impuesto sobre nosotros como la tinta de la letra escrita; más bien nos permiten identificar, revelar, acceder y activar lo que se halla en lo más profundo de nuestra esencia. Tal como la letra tallada, nunca se borra. Puede suceder que la letra tallada se tape con polvo u otro sedimento. En ese caso, únicamente hace falta remover lo acumulado para restaurar el brillo original de nuestra propia esencia y nuestra conexión con ella.

En el Éxodo de Egipto nos liberamos de la esclavitud a un tirano externo, el Faraón, pero todavía seguimos esclavizados a un tirano peor: nosotros mismos. Nuestros instintos nos esclavizan de una manera que nadie ni nada podría hacer. Muchas veces nos convencemos que queremos seguir los dictámenes de nuestro instinto, que es lo que realmente queremos y al hacerlo estaremos libres. Al pie del Monte Sinaí aprendimos el gran secreto de la satisfacción y felicidad humana: a diferencia del animal cuya libertad y poder dependen de la posibilidad de satisfacer sus instintos libremente, el hombre verdaderamente libre y feliz es aquel que puede dominar a sus instintos y canalizarlos hacia un objetivo más allá de su mera satisfacción inmediata y efímera que no deja huella.

Si bien gastar produce satisfacción, no se compara con la satisfacción de una buena inversión.

Así que la herramienta de esta semana es: para poder definir qué es lo que realmente quieres, pensá si es algo que apunta a lo que eres o lo que solo pareces ser.


  1. Éxodo, 32:16

2. Pirkei Avot, 6:2

3. Dado que en la Torá las palabras aparecen únicamente con letras sin las vocalizaciones, en muchos casos es posible leer la misma palabra de distintas maneras, dando lugar a errores (Véase un ejemplo en Ialkut Shimoni al Hatorá, 938:34) o a interpretaciones más amplias (como en nuestro caso).

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Posted by on May 29, 2020 in Uncategorized


Cómo (no) luchar contra el mal

¿Con qué frecuencia deseamos ser más amables y más amorosos? ¿Quién no ha deseado poder frenar sus impulsos hacia la satisfacción de necesidades momentáneas? ¿Quién no quiere que sus buenas acciones eclipsen a las egoístas?

Todos tienen el poder de convertirse en la “mejor persona” que saben que son capaces de ser. Hacer cambios positivos es una parte continua del crecimiento espiritual. La pregunta es, ¿cómo?

Una perspectiva judía puede ayudar a responder eso.

Nuestros Sabios enseñan1 que cada uno de nosotros tiene dos ietzers (inclinaciones) dentro de sí, uno que busca servir al alma e impulso espiritual, y otro que satisface el ego y apetitos físicos. Nuestro mayor potencial se logra cuando podemos canalizar ambas energías internas en la dirección de la mayor salud y santidad posibles. Esto requiere que participemos activamente en la inclinación positiva y trabajemos para transformar la inclinación negativa.

Con este fin, los pensadores judíos han debatido durante mucho tiempo el enfoque más ventajoso para el autorrefinamiento: ¿Debería una persona mejorarse a sí misma principalmente luchando o solucionando los impulsos negativos dentro de sí? ¿o centrando principalmente sus esfuerzos en hacer el bien, servir a Di-s y apoyar a otros? ¿Un enfoque lleva al otro? ¿Cuáles son sus respectivos beneficios y lógicas?

La mejor defensa es una buena ofensiva

En respuesta a esta pregunta, dos grandes maestros jasídicos del siglo XVIII, R. Aryeh Leib de Shpole (conocido como “Shpoler Zeide”) y R. Schneur Zalman de Liadi, fundador de Jabad-Lubavitch, discutieron sobre la mejor manera de cambiar positivamente el equilibrio en la lucha constante entre las inclinaciones negativas y positivas de uno. Esencialmente, sus enfoques respectivos pueden entenderse en la terminología clásica de conflicto: ¿Debería uno invertir su energía en asegurar primero una línea de defensa buena y sólida, o en lanzar una ofensiva temprana y audaz?

R. Aryeh Leib abogó por una postura más defensiva. Según esta perspectiva, la forma más efectiva de silenciar la voz interna de la negatividad es terminar cualquier relación con ella. Solo después de expulsar cada pensamiento, palabra y acción impíos, dijo, se puede dedicar energía a la realización del bien. Paradójicamente, este enfoque requiere que uno se concentre fuertemente en sus impulsos inferiores y rasgos negativos para identificarlos y deconstruirlos.

Para respaldar su posición, R. Aryeh Leib citó al Rey David: “Apártate del mal y haz el bien”,2 lo cual, explicó, significa que deben estar en ese orden: primero alejándote del mal y solo luego concentrándote en hacer el bien. Además, reforzó esta prueba de las escrituras con una analogía simple: “¿Tiene sentido traer muebles adornados a un hogar sin limpiarlo primero? ¿Cuál es el punto de los hermosos muebles si se colocan en la suciedad?”3

R. Schneur Zalman no estuvo de acuerdo; argumentó en apoyo de una estrategia más “ofensiva”. Él enseñó que, al enfocarnos y construir sobre las buenas cualidades ya presentes dentro de nosotros, podemos cambiar el impulso y disminuir la atracción magnética de nuestros sentimientos negativos. En lugar de poner el ego bajo el microscopio, lo que solo nos pone en contacto más cercano con la inclinación al mal, R. Schneur Zalman sugirió, en cambio, que deberíamos ir directamente al alma, por así decirlo. Como escribió claramente en el Tanya: “Quien lucha con un oponente sucio se ensucia”.4 La mayoría de los activistas políticos pueden dar fe de esto.

No te enfoques en ti mismo

El Rebe llevó este enfoque aún más lejos. De acuerdo con la enseñanza de Jabad, él estaba inequívocamente del lado de cuidar la bondad a través de la inmersión en la positividad y la luz, en lugar de en la deconstrucción de la oscuridad hasta el infinito. Él enseñó que al enfocar la atención en los demás, uno puede elevarse por encima de los pequeños reclamos y antojos del ego.

Cuando un hombre pidió consejo para vencer un impulso negativo que lo preocupaba, el Rebe le escribió esta carta:5

Ciertamente, este es solo el diseño del ietzer hará (inclinación al mal). [En general,] sería bueno para usted minimizar sus pensamientos sobre usted mismo, incluso sobre aquellos asuntos que parecen necesitar corrección, e intercambiar estos pensamientos por asuntos que involucren a otros. Qué bueno sería si esos pensamientos se enfocaran en Di-s.

Este cambio de enfoque está destinado a corregir nuestra tendencia natural a ser autoabsorbidos. Según el Rebe, incluso cuando ese enfoque egocéntrico se dirige a fines positivos, como el refinamiento del ego, todavía se está fijando en el yo y, por lo tanto, la persona no se conecta a Di-s ni a los demás. El Rebe buscó liberarnos de los estrechos confines del yo aislado activando nuestras naturalezas espirituales superiores al amor, al servicio y la conexión tanto con el Creador como con la creación para el bien de todos.

El poder de hacer el bien

Cuando las personas no toman medidas positivas, corren el riesgo de quedar atrapadas en el fango del pensamiento negativo. La mayoría de las personas han experimentado la frustración de tratar desesperadamente de no pensar en algo, creyendo que, si lo ignoran, simplemente desaparecerá. No lo hace; todo lo contrario, en realidad.

Sin embargo, al cambiar conscientemente su enfoque de los pensamientos negativos a la realización de buenas acciones, la persona puede hacer que sus impulsos negativos retrocedan gradualmente o incluso cesen por completo. ¿Por qué? Porque se ha pasado a algo mejor.

Cuando uno se enfoca en lo positivo, hay un suministro interminable de buenas actividades: trabaja como voluntario en la comunidad, da tutoría a un niño, dona comida y ropa a personas necesitadas, estudia, reza o recauda dinero para una causa digna. La lista de formas de tener un impacto positivo es interminable.

Las inclinaciones negativas se presentan en muchas formas diferentes: materialismo, avaricia, ansia de poder, arrogancia, distracciones, adicciones, ira e incluso impaciencia con los demás. Trabajar para analizar y reducir cada aspecto de la inclinación al mal puede llevar toda una vida. Actuar con intenciones amorosas y conscientes puede tomar solo un momento.

Cuando una persona se enfoca en “hacer el bien”, inevitablemente “se apartará del mal” como consecuencia natural.

“Un poco de luz disipa mucha oscuridad”.6

La noche es desterrada a través de la iluminación, no de la eliminación.

No arregles el pasado, construye el futuro

Un joven vino una vez al Rebe, avergonzado de haberse distanciado de la observancia judía. Ahora estaba de vuelta y buscaba un camino de penitencia por desviarse. El Rebe dijo: “No te concentres en tu pasado en este momento; más bien, preocúpate por servir a Di-s a través de la alegría, y te preocuparás del pasado en un momento diferente”.7

No comiences un nuevo viaje recordando todos tus pasos en falso anteriores, ya que es muy posible que te asuste cualquier progreso futuro. Comienza con movimientos pequeños pero tangibles en la dirección correcta. Estos primeros éxitos te ayudarán a generar impulso hacia tu meta, al mismo tiempo que te abren el apetito del alma por los frutos espirituales de la bondad y la positividad.

Levántate por encima de eso

La respuesta del Rebe para aquellos preocupados por sus impulsos o inclinaciones negativas fue: “¡Levántate por encima de eso!”. Esta no era una forma de decir: “¡Supéralo!” Más bien, quiso decir “levántate por encima de él (el impulso)” literalmente, en el ámbito espiritual.

Esto, él sabía, podría ser especialmente desafiante para los adolescentes inquietos. Cuando era adolescente de yeshivá, R. Leibel Kaplan se iba a casa después de cenar en la escuela. Aunque había comido, tenía la costumbre de dirigirse al refrigerador cuando llegaba a casa. No tenía hambre; solo quería ver qué había hecho su madre para la cena.

Fue al Rebe para ver si podía eliminar este hábito. Ahora, en la escala de impulsos e inclinaciones negativas, esto no ocupa un lugar destacado en la lista de “pecados terribles” de nadie, pero le preocupaba y estaba decidido a superarlo. El Rebe le aconsejó que se imaginara a sí mismo como el decano de un gran seminario rabínico o como CEO de una gran empresa, un puesto en el que su influencia sería tal que exigiría el respeto de sus compañeros. Si este fuera el caso, sugirió el Rebe, revisar la nevera después de haber comido estaría por debajo de su dignidad.8

Aquí, el Rebe le enseñó al estudiante a dejar un hábito negativo al proyectarse en un ámbito donde el hábito negativo estaba por debajo de él. El Rebe no se centró en el joven ni en la falta de refinamiento, y como resultado tampoco lo hizo el estudiante. El Rebe simplemente le pidió al estudiante que participara en una visualización que revelara su naturaleza superior.

No te dejes influenciar. Sé influyente

Dov Lent, un joven estudiante, temía que las distracciones y las tentaciones de su nueva universidad lo descarrilaran de vivir una vida observante de mitzvot. El Rebe lo alentó a que no permitiera que el ambiente secular del campus consumiera demasiada atención de él. “La mejor manera de lidiar con la inclinación al mal, y con un entorno desafiante en particular, es no pelear con ellos”, dijo el Rebe. “En primer lugar, ¡no te metas en un encuentro con ellos! Más bien, aleja tu mente de toda la tentación diciéndote a ti mismo: ‘¡Estoy ocupado! ¡No tengo tiempo para tales cosas! Tengo que aprender a hacer una mitzvá, tengo una mitzvá que cumplir, estoy ayudando a alguien”.

Años más tarde, R. Dov Lent informó que había pasado su tiempo libre en la universidad aprendiendo Torá con un compañero de estudio preocupado de manera similar. Además, ayudó a organizar Shabatones en el campus para toda la comunidad. “En lugar de que el entorno secular me influyera de manera negativa, pude influir espiritualmente de manera positiva”.9

No hay tiempo para el pecado

El famoso Rebe jasídico, R. Menachem Mendel de Kotsk (1787-1859) dijo una vez: “No espero que mis jasidim no pequen. Espero que no tengan tiempo para pecar”. Como su consejo para Dov Lent, el Rebe también fue un gran creyente de que no hay tiempo para pecar.

Para resaltar este punto, a menudo compartió10 una historia sobre el gran Sabio Talmúdico, R. Yojanán ben Zakai. En su lecho de muerte,11 con sus estudiantes reunidos a su alrededor, lloró, diciendo que había dos caminos delante de él, y que no sabía qué camino tomaría. Había estado tan ocupado en la vida que nunca había tenido tiempo de contemplar y evaluar su estado espiritual. Las buenas obras literalmente habían ocupado todo su tiempo.

No pelees, fluye

En algún momento, todos nos hemos encontrado ocupados e inmersos en lo que estamos haciendo que entramos en un estado de “fluir”. Este estado puede atrapar a un abogado que se prepara para un juicio, a un autor ansioso por terminar de escribir una novela, o a un nuevo padre bañando a su hijo. Tal compromiso intenso puede silenciar nuestra conciencia física hasta el punto de hacernos ignorar las necesidades corporales como el hambre o la fatiga. Cuando movilizamos nuestras energías para lograr una causa superior, estamos inmersos de forma natural y alegre en una positividad abrumadora.

Entonces, ¿luchar contra el mal o hacer el bien? ¡Hacer el bien! Siempre y en todos los sentidos.


1. Ver Tanya, capítulos 1-2.

2. Salmos 37:27.

3. Curiosamente, el movimiento Musar, que surgió entre los judíos ortodoxos lituanos en el siglo XIX, sostuvo la misma opinión: que los judíos deben examinar sus deficiencias e inclinaciones negativas de cerca, en un pensamiento profundo, para corregirlas.

4. Tanya, cap. 28.

5. Igrot Kodesh, vol. 4, p. 404.

6. Tanya, cap. 12.

7. Lo escuché de la persona a quien sucedió esto.

8. Como dijo R. Shlomo Zarchi.


10. Ver, por ejemplo, Full Devotion (Kehot, 2010), p. 63 ff.

11. Berajot 28b.

Por Mendel Kalmenson

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Posted by on May 29, 2020 in Uncategorized


We Don’t Need to Understand the Whole Torah to Embrace It

3761 BCE: The world is created, according to the Hebrew calendar ...

by Pini Dunner

Socrates, the father of Greek philosophy, is reported by Plato to have declared: “If I know one thing, it is that I know nothing.” This absurd statement is often referred to as the Socratic Paradox, but would more correctly be defined as an oxymoron, or a self-refuting statement.

In fact, Socrates reveled in making such confounding statements, and also enjoyed making his disciples feel uncomfortable by challenging anything and everything they ever said with clever refutations and pithy rebuffs. He single-handedly turned incisive rational thinking and logical argument into a sport — but with this most famous of his quotes, he readily admitted that it was all just a front. Ultimately, he knew nothing — or as he might have put it: he was constantly at the beginning of a new learning curve.

It has always struck me that the Socratic Paradox has a parallel in Jewish tradition. The Talmud records the dramatic moment when the Jewish nation received the Torah at Mount Sinai: “Rav Simai said, when the Jewish nation declared נַעֲשֶֹה  — ‘we shall do’, before saying וְנִשְמַע — ‘we shall listen’, 600,000 heavenly angels came down to every member of the Jewish nation and crowned each of them with two crowns, one of them to correspond with ‘we shall do’ and the other with ‘we shall listen’” (Shabbat 88a).

There is no greater paradox in Jewish history than this blind acceptance of Torah whilst at the same time declaring that it needs to be understood, albeit only once the Jews had already agreed to be bound by its requirements and restrictions. After all, if they were admitting that they “know nothing” by saying “we shall do,” why was there any need to later seek an understanding of the Torah by saying “we shall listen”? What would be the point?

Jewish tradition informs us that Torah is the ultimate expression of God’s will on Earth. In reality, as Maimonides makes clear, God and His will are entirely inseparable, which means that if God is infinite, the Torah must also be infinite. A human being possesses limited intellect; consequently, had the nation initially said “we shall listen” before saying “we shall do,” this would have indicated that they wanted to make a decision about their commitment to Torah based on what would have been by definition limited comprehension — as if it was possible for them to cogently opine on God’s infinite wisdom, and only then to accept it.

But by saying “we shall do” before saying “we shall listen,” they indicated their unconditional acceptance of God’s Torah, acknowledging their own inability to ever truly comprehend it fully. The question this forces us to ponder is where exactly the Jewish nation had acquired their ability to do this.

Rabbi Meir Shapiro (1887-1933), legendary founder of the Chachmei Lublin yeshiva, suggests that this incredible national characteristic originated with our patriarch Abraham. When God assured Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation, He told him to go outside and “look toward the heavens and count the stars.” Without thinking twice, Abraham went out and began counting the stars. The verse continues with God asking Abraham: “Are you able to count them? So shall be your offspring” (Gen. 15:5).

What was going through Abraham’s mind as he attempted to count the stars? It is totally impossible for a human being to count all the stars in the sky.

The answer would appear to be — that is just who Abraham was. If God asks you to do something, you do it — because God is God, and if He asks you to do something, you do it. Similarly, when the Jewish nation was told that they were about to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai, they immediately indicated that they were ready to receive it without going through a prolonged process of consideration and reflection to see if it all made sense.

That is what the verse means when it says: “so shall be your offspring” — God was telling Abraham: your descendants will also possess this trait of devoted loyalty to Me, so that when they are about to receive the Torah, they will declare “we shall do” before saying “we shall hear.”

The sheer magnitude of the Torah at every level means that if we are only willing to accept the Torah if we grasp it intellectually, our intellectual limitations will prevent us from ever understanding it. It is only by knowing that we know nothing that we can ever begin to know anything at all. In other words, “we shall do” has to come before “we shall listen.”

Meanwhile, the even greater paradox is this: if we are willing and ready to accept God’s Torah without first understanding everything, then we just might merit to understand it. I think that is a paradox worthy of Socrates himself, or, as he might have said, “Naaseh Venishma!”

Rabbi Pini Dunner is the senior spiritual leader of the Beverly Hills Synagogue.

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Posted by on May 28, 2020 in Uncategorized


Why Only Ten Commandments at Sinai?

The Ten Commandments | My Jewish Learning

By Yehuda Shurpin


If there are 613 commandments, why were ten commandments specifically given at Sinai, and in what way are they different from the other 603?


To understand this, we first need to clear up a very common misconception. Although in English (and for clarity’s sake, here as well) they are commonly referred to as the “Ten Commandments,” in Hebrew they are called the Aseret Hadibrot, the “Ten Statements.” Thus, the less common English name “Decalogue,” derived from the Greek words meaning “ten sayings,” is more accurate.

This isn’t mere semantics.

At Mount Sinai, contrary to common misconception, the Jews received the entire Torah, including all of its 613 mitzvahs, not just the Ten Commandments. The Midrash1 and classic commentators of the Torah explain how each of the Ten Commandments is really a general mitzvah, and they describe how each of the 613 mitzvahs is included in one of the ten statements.2

Furthermore, as the Midrash points out, there are 620 letters that make up the Aseret Hadibrot. This corresponds to the 613 mitzvahs plus the seven days of creation,3 seven Noahide Laws4 or the seven rabbinic mitzvahs.5

Even on a more basic level, the Ten Commandments contain more than just ten specific mitzvahs. For example, according to Maimonidies, the second statement actually contains four separate mitzvahs: (1) not to believe in any other god; (2) not to make graven images; (3) not to bow down to idols; and (4) not to worship an idol in the way it is customarily worshiped.

Yet the Torah itself in a number of places explicitly calls them the “Ten Statements.”6 So what is the significance of specifically ten statements?

The Covenant of Ten

When referring to the Ten Commandments, the Torah calls them the words of the covenant: “…and He inscribed upon the Tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.”7 In turn, the Tablets are called Shnei Luchot Habrit, “the Two Tablets of the Covenant.” Thus these Ten Commandments are meant as a covenant between G‑d and the Jewish people.

The Midrash explains that the Ten Commandments correspond to the Ten Utterances with which G‑d created the world (e.g., “Let there be light”), as well as the ten sefirot(Divine attributes or emanations), which are also the source of the corresponding ten faculties (kochot) of the soul.8

Additionally, the Midrash9 explains that the Ten Commandments are connected to the many other things in the Torah that are associated with the number ten: the ten generations from Adam to Noah, the ten generations from Noah’s son Shem to Abraham, the ten tests with which G‑d tested Abraham, the ten blessings our forefathers received, the ten plagues, the ten curtains of the Tabernacle, etc.

The number ten represents wholeness and completeness; thus, all of these ideas are interconnected, reflecting a common purpose.

Purpose of Creation

The Zohar states that “G‑d looked into the Torah and created the world.10” In other words, the Torah is the blueprint for creation.11

The mystics explain that the purpose for creation was that G‑d desired that we make a dwelling place for Him down here in this mundane, materialistic and physical world.12

Thus, our purpose is to refine ourselves and the world around us by using the physical world to serve G‑d, thereby uplifting the mundane and transforming it into something holy.

This is why the number ten is associated with the Torah as well as the creation of the world and the ten sefirot. Through the fulfillment of the Torah and its mitzvahs, we reach the completion of the purpose of creation.13


  1. See, for example, Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15.

2. See, for example, Rabbi Saadia Gaon, Siddur,Azharot; Rashi, Exodus 24:12; Rabbi Avraham ben Harambam, Exodus 20:14; Ibn Ezra, Exodus 20:2; Abarbanel, Exodus 20.

3. See Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15.

4. Baal Haturim, Exodus 20:17.

5. Shalah Hakodosh, Shaar HaosiyotOs Beit.

6. See Exodus 34:28Deuteronomy 4:13, 10:4.

7. Exodus 34:28. See also Deuteronomy 4:13.

8. Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah, Nosso 14.

9. See Midrash, ibid; Midrash Tadshe 10.

10. Zohar 2:161a. See also Yalkut Shimoni, Mishlei 942.

11. Midrash Tanchuma, Bereishit 1.

12. Midrash Tanchuma, Nosso 16.

13. See Torat Menachem, Maamarei Melukat, vol. 2, p. 67.

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Posted by on May 27, 2020 in Uncategorized


The Jewish Origins of the Christmas Story

The narratives of Jesus’ conception and birth as presented in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke echo Jewish history and cite Jewish prophecy. In that sense, the Christmas story can be said to have Jewish origins.

Prof.Amy-Jill Levine

The Jewish Origins of the Christmas Story
The Birth of Jesus, Gustave Doré, 1878. Wikimedia

When the stories of Jesus’ origins were first told, there was no separation between Jewish followers of Jesus and other Jews: Peter and Paul and Mary Magdalene did not cease to be Jews on Easter Sunday. Jewish followers of Jesus did not cease to be Jews, or to be recognized by others as Jews, for the next several centuries.

I appreciate the history behind and the artistry within the Christmas stories, even though I am not a Christian and I do not worship Jesus. If we Jews read these texts for ourselves, rather than have them filtered through shopping frenzies or sappy TV dramas, we can better understand why our Christian neighbors find them inspirational even as we recover connections to our own history. If we get some personal joy in recognizing that the Nativity narratives, which are magnificent pieces of literature, are substantially also Jewish stories told by Jews, so much the better.

New Testament Gospels

The New Testament opens with four “gospels” (a word derived from the Greek εὐαγγέλιον, “good news”) that tell the story of Jesus of Nazareth. The oldest account, the Gospel according to Mark, opens not with stories of Jesus’ birth but with Jesus coming to a man named John (the Hebrew would have been Yoḥanan), who was immersing (Greek: βαπτίζω) people in the Jordan River as a public testimony that they had repented of their sins.[1] He is known as “John the Baptizer” or, more conventionally, “John the Baptist.”

Mark (1:3) describes him as “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”[2] The citation is to (Deutero-)Isaiah, though the parallelism in the Hebrew shows that the verse should be punctuated differently:

ישעיה מ:ג קוֹל קוֹרֵא בַּמִּדְבָּר פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְ־הוָה יַשְּׁרוּ בָּעֲרָבָה מְסִלָּה לֵאלֹהֵינוּ.

Isa 40:3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of YHWH, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

In the Hebrew, the voice crying out tells the exiles in Babylon build a highway for their return to Jerusalem. Mark repurposes the quote, the first of many ancient prophetic texts that take on new meaning for Jesus’ followers.

According to Mark’s account,[3] when John immerses or “baptizes” Jesus, Jesus hears a voice from heaven announce that he is God’s son. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke, both dependent on Mark as a source, begin differently by backdating the announcement that Jesus is God’s son to the time of his conception. Matthew begins with a genealogy starting with Abraham, continuing to David, and culminating with “Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born” (Matthew 1:16).[4]

Luke, reserving the genealogy to chapter 3, begins with the conception and birth of John to Zechariah and Elizabeth, an elderly, pious, and previously childless Jewish couple. Only after telling about this miraculous conception, modeled on the various stories of infertility followed by a birth in the earlier Scriptures, does Luke report that something more miraculous than a post-menopausal conception will occur, and that will be a virginal conception.[5]

These narratives were told to show that Jesus’ story is in continuity with the story of Israel, and to demonstrate that the events surrounding his conception, birth, and early childhood fulfilled texts from the Prophets that Jesus’ followers took to be about the Messiah. The following are a few examples of how Jesus’ followers understood his role as Messiah in light of Jewish texts.

Jesus as a Son of David

In the Second Temple period, there were multiple speculations about the Messiah. One dominant view was that the Messiah would be a descendant of King David, to whom God promised:

שמואל ב ז:יב וַהֲקִימֹתִי אֶת זַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא מִמֵּעֶיךָ וַהֲכִינֹתִי אֶת מַמְלַכְתּוֹ. ז:יג הוּא יִבְנֶה בַּיִת לִשְׁמִי וְכֹנַנְתִּי אֶת כִּסֵּא מַמְלַכְתּוֹ עַד עוֹלָם.

2 Sam 7:12 I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 7:13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.

Although this verse refers to Solomon, it does promise a perpetual line of Davidic kings.

The New Testament authors present Jesus as David’s heir. For instance, the Gospel of Luke recounts:

Luke 1:26 …the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 1:27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 1:28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings,[6] favored one! The Lord is with you.” 1:29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 1:30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 1:31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 1:32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David1:33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”[7]

Both Matthew and Luke list Joseph, the husband of Mary the mother of Jesus, as a Davidic descendant. However, their genealogies do not agree in certain specifics. According to Luke (3:23–38), the line goes through David’s son Nathan, and Joseph’s father is named Hiel. According to Matthew (1:2–16), the line goes through King Solomon, and Joseph’s father is named Jacob.

Matthew’s genealogy—the opening chapter of the New Testament—starts with a general statement:

Matt 1:1 An account of the genealogy (γενέσεως, cf. “Genesis”) of Jesus the Messiah (Χριστός, whence “Christ”), the son of David, the son of Abraham.[8]

Matthew then presents the genealogy beginning with Abraham and including other references to Jewish history as well as to four unexpected women. For example, Matthew explicitly notes that there are fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the deportation to Babylon, and fourteen generations from the exile to Jesus (Matthew fudges the numbers, and that last set actually has only thirteen names).

Hebrew readers would recognize that the number 14 equals David in gematria, in the system where each letter represents a number (ד=4 ו=6, ד=4). Greek readers had a similar system, called isopsephy, but the connection of the number 14 to David does not work in the Greek.

Next, by referring to “Jacob the father of Joseph” (Matt 1:6), the genealogy foreshadows the plot, for, as we will see shortly, this second Joseph, like the original Joseph son of Jacob in Genesis, will dream dreams (Matt 1:20–21, 2:13) and protect his family by resettling them in Egypt (Matt 2:14–15).

Matthew’s genealogy offers another important foreshadowing by naming four women. Instead of the expected Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, Matthew mentions:

  1. Tamar, the Levirate widow, who conceives twins when she tricks her father-in-law, Judah, into having sexual relations with her (Genesis 38).
  2. Rahab, the prostitute from Jericho (Joshua 2,6), whom the genealogy takes to be the mother of Boaz.
  3. Ruth, who convinces Boaz to marry her after she spent the night with him on the threshing floor.
  4. “The wife of Uriah,” better known as Bathsheba, who at the time she enters the genealogy is actually Uriah the Hittite’s widow and the wife of King David.

These women have several functions in the genealogy. First, Rahab and Ruth and possibly Tamar mark the presence of gentiles in the Davidic line and so anticipate the turning of pagans to the God of Israel. Second, they show a higher righteousness than the men with whom they are paired (see Gen 38:26, where Judah says of Tamar, צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי, “She is more righteous than I”). Finally, their stories, with unusual sexual markers, anticipate the story of Jesus’ conception

A Miraculous Conception

Despite the genealogical connection between Joseph and David, the Gospels present Jesus’ descent from David as legal rather than biological, since Joseph is not his biological father.

Claims that the Incarnation (becoming “flesh”) of the divine is a pagan import connected to stories of the births of Achilles to the goddess Thetis and the mortal Peleus (Iliad 20.206-07; 24.59), Aeneas to the goddess Aphrodite and the mortal Anchises (Iliad 2.819-22; 5.247-48), Asclepius to the god Apollo and the mortal Coronis (Didiodorus of Sicily 4.0.1, 3), Pythagoras to Apollo and the mortal Pythias (Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras 2), and so on,[9] miss Jewish sources that also recount miraculous conceptions.

That angels can father children is explicit in Genesis 6:1–4, and “knowledge” of this phenomenon is what makes Lemach panic in some non-biblical sources about the divine look of his son Noah (1 Enoch 16, Genesis Apocryphon col. 2). The Samson story also implies that the unnamed angel and not Manoah is Samson’s real father.[10] Philo of Alexandria hints that God was involved in the conception of Isaac (though not necessarily in a sexual way).[11] Some Jewish sources also suggest that the priest-king Melchidezek of Genesis 14 and Psalm 110 as a product of a divinely assisted conception.[12]

In none of these Jewish accounts, however, is the mother a virgin.

A Virgin Mother

In Luke’s Gospel, as we have seen, the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will have a child:

Luke 1:34 And Mary says to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”[13] 1:35 The angel responds, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”[14]

Matthew’s Gospel includes the reason why Mary’s virginity is essential to the story:

Matt 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 1:19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.[15] 1:20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 1:21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 1:22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 1:23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 1:24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 1:25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.[16]

To understand how Matthew finds a virginal conception in the Prophets, we need to compare the Hebrew and Greek (Septuagint) versions of Isaiah 7:14. In the Hebrew, Isaiah states,

ישעיה ז:יד לָכֵן יִתֵּן אֲדֹנָי הוּא לָכֶם אוֹת הִנֵּה הָעַלְמָה הָרָה וְיֹלֶדֶת בֵּן וְקָרָאת שְׁמוֹ עִמָּנוּ אֵל.

Isa 7:14 Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman (ʿalmah) is pregnant and shall bear a son, and she will call his name Emanu-El.”

When Isaiah was translated into Greek,[17] centuries before Matthew, ʿalmah was rendered as parthenos (παρθένος), which, at the time, meant both “young girl”—the Greek of Genesis 34 describes Dinah as a parthenos after she and Shechem had sexual relations—as well as “virgin,” as in the Parthenon, the temple to the virgin Athena. By Matthew’s time, parthenos was generally taken to mean “virgin.” Matthew, reading Isaiah in Greek, finds a virginal conception; other Jews, reading the Hebrew, do not.

Charges of Illegitimacy

Whether these nativity stories prompted charges that Jesus was the child of an illegitimate relationship, or whether they are responding to such charges, cannot be determine. We do know that such charges were made. For example, in his On the True Doctrine, Celsus, a 2nd century C.E. pagan philosopher whose work was preserved by the Christian writer Origen, suggests that Jesus’ mother “invented his birth from a virgin”:

[Jesus was] born in a certain Jewish village, of a poor woman of the country, who gained her subsistence by spinning, and who was turned out of doors by her husband, a carpenter by trade, because she was convicted of adultery; that after being driven away by her husband, and wandering about for a time, she disgracefully gave birth to Jesus, an illegitimate child, who having hired himself out as a servant in Egypt on account of his poverty, and having there acquired some miraculous powers, on which the Egyptians greatly pride themselves, returned to his own country, highly elated on account of them, and by means of these proclaimed himself a God. (Contra Celsum 1.28; Ante-Nicene Fathers, 4.1, trans. Frederick Crombie)

The Babylonian Talmud, similarly, refers to the idea of Jesus’ illegitimate conception twice, in passages expurgated from the standard Vilna printing. This version discusses someone called Ben Stada, who brought sorcery with him from Egypt (b. Shabbat 104b, Venice printing [also b. Sanhedrin 67a]):

בן סטד[א] בן פנדירא הוא אמר רב חסדא בעל סטדא בועל פנדיר[א] בעל פפו[ס] בן יהוד[ה] הוא אמו סטדא אמו מרי[ם] מגדלא נשי[א] הואי[ה] כדאמרי בפומדיתא סטת דא מבעלה.

[You call him] Ben Stada, but he is Ben Pandera (=Jesus)![18] (How could his father have two names?) Rav Hisda said: “The husband was Stada and the lover was Pandera.” But the husband was Pappos (=Joseph) son of Judah! Rather, his mother’s name was Stada. But his mother was Miriam Megadla Nashi![19] Rather, as they say in Pumbeditha “She strayed (satatda) from her husband.”[20]

We can see in such comparatively late Jewish texts an anti-Christian polemic. (Just as many Christians have rejected the anti-Jewish polemics of the Church Fathers, I think it is time for us Jews to show similar graciousness.)

The Heavenly Portent

Matthew tells of a heavenly portent accompanying the birth of Jesus:

Matthew 2:1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2:2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”[21]

This story is the origin of the famous “star of Bethlehem,” which inspired the Magi, sometimes (incorrectly) called “wise men” or identified as “three kings,” to travel to Jerusalem (Matthew 2:1-2). Magi, who today are Zoroastrian priests, were for Matthew pagan astrologers. The star was not Haley’s comet (seen in 12 B.C.E.), not a supernova (in the constellation Capricorn in 5 B.C.E.), and not a planetary conjunction (Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C.E.; Venus and Jupiter in 2 B.C.E.).

Stars do not function like GPS systems. Moreover, a heavenly body does not, as Matthew states, ἐστάθη ἐπάνω οὗ ἦν τὸ παιδίον, “stop over the place where the child was” (2:9). Had it done so, the house, and the earth, would have been incinerated. The “star” for Matthew is a being, like an angel. Philo, for example, defined stars as “living creatures, but of a kind composed entirely of mind” (Dreams 1.135).

Matthew is likely here alluding to Numbers 24:17, where Balaam predicts, דָּרַךְ כּוֹכָב מִיַּעֲקֹב וְקָם שֵׁבֶט מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל, “A star shall come out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” Allusions to this verse resurface in the second century C.E. when Rabbi Akiva refers to Simon ben Kosiba, the leader of the second revolt against Rome, as Bar Kokhba, “son of the star” (j. Taanit 4:5):

תני ר’ שמעון בן יוחי עקיבה רבי היה דורש דרך כוכב מיעקב דרך כוזבא מיעקב רבי עקיבה כד הוה חמי בר כוזבה הוה אמר דין הוא מלכא משיחא אמר ליה רבי יוחנן בן תורתא עקיבה יעלו עשבים בלחייך ועדיין בן דוד לא יבא

Simon ben Yochai taught: “Akiva, my teacher, would offer the homily ‘a star shall come out of Jacob’—‘Kosiba came forward from Jacob.’” Rabbi Akiva, when you would see Bar Kosiba, he would say, “this is the King Messiah.” Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta responded, “Akiva – Grass will grow on your cheeks and the son of David will not yet have come!”[22]

Other Jewish writers appear to be responding directly to Matthew’s narrative. For example, the Sefer HaYashar, a midrashic work from the early second millennium which rewrites much of the Torah, describes Abraham’s birth as follows:

ויהי בלילה ההוא עת הולדת את אברם ויבואו כל עבדי תרח וכל חכמי נמרוד וכל חרטומיו ויאכלו וישתו בבית תרח… וישאו את עיניהם השמימה בלילה ההוא אל הכוכבים ויראו והנה כוכב אחד גדול מאד בא ממזרח שמש וירץ בשמים ויבלע ארבעה כוכבים מארבע רוחות השמים : ויתמהו כל חכמי המלך וכל החרטומים מהמראה ההוא… ויאמרו איש אל רעהו אין זה כי אם הילד אשר נולד בלילה הזה לתרח…

And it was on the night in which Abram was born, all of Terah’s servants and all of the sages of Nimrod and his magicians ate and drank in Terah’s house… and they lifted their eyes to the heavens that night to the stars and they saw one big star coming from the east and it ran through the heavens and swallowed four stars from the four corners of the heavens. And all of the king’s sages and his magicians were stunned at this vision… and each said to his fellow that night: This must be on account of the baby who was born to Terah this night….[23]

For the midrash, Abraham had an earlier, bigger, and more important star than Jesus.

Why Bethlehem?

Matthew’s narrative continues:

Matthew 2:3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 2:4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 2:5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 2:6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”[24]

The Magi have the knowledge needed to follow the star and interpret its message about a king, but they need the Jewish sources to provide the details. Matthew’s message is that pagan wisdom can only get one so far, but not to the desired destination.

According to Matthew’s understanding of the Prophets, the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem because of the prophecy in Micah 5:1 (=5:2 in Christian numbering):

וְאַתָּה בֵּית לֶחֶם אֶפְרָתָה צָעִיר לִהְיוֹת בְּאַלְפֵי יְהוּדָה מִמְּךָ לִי יֵצֵא לִהְיוֹת מוֹשֵׁל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל.

And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, least among the clans of Judah, from you one shall come forth to rule Israel for Me.[25]

Matthew frequently cites Israel’s Scriptures to anchor the story of Jesus to the stories of the Jewish community. Bethlehem is also the home of King David, so the quote from Micah and the promise in 2 Samuel 7 are complementary.

Luke’s Census

Jesus is called not “Jesus of Bethlehem” but “Jesus of Nazareth”; the Gospels identify him as a Galilean, not a Judean. Thus, the Bethlehem birth required explanation. Neither the Gospels of Mark nor John mentions the Bethlehem birth. While Matthew presents Joseph and Mary as living in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth, and only later moving to Nazareth, Luke presents an otherwise unknown universal census to bring Joseph and Mary from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem:

Luke 2:1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2:2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 2:3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 2:4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 2:5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.[26]

The census would have reminded Luke’s readers of the tax revolt led by “Judas the Galilean” in 6 C.E. when Rome did decide to take a local census. Luke will later reference this revolt in the continuation of the third Gospel, the fifth book of the New Testament called The Acts of the Apostles.

Luke depicts the noted teacher Gamaliel as speaking against persecuting the followers of Jesus. Comparing their movement to other popular movements, Gamaliel states,

Acts 5:37 Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered.[27]

For Luke, the message to readers is that Joseph and Mary, and so their child, are not anti-Roman revolutionaries.

This depiction of Joseph and Mary coming to Bethlehem for the census then leads to the famous description of Jesus’ birth in a stable because “there was no room at the inn,” and to Mary’s subsequent placing the infant “in a manger.”

Luke 2:6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 2:7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.[28]

Despite legends of greedy innkeepers who would not accommodate Mary and Joseph—legends that play on anti-Jewish stereotypes—Luke says nothing of the sort. Despite recent claims that shepherds were “unclean” or that the innkeeper banished Mary from public space because giving birth made her ritually impure—again, anti-Jewish interpretations—the text has nothing to do with ritual purity. The point is that there is no room for them at the inn to give birth. Mary needed privacy. The reference to the manger is symbolic: a manger is a feeding trough, and Jesus will later compare his body to bread (see Luke 22:19).

Jesus and Moses

Returning to Matthew’s account, we find Herod commanding the Magi to seek the child, “and when you have found him, bring me word that I may also go and kneel before him” (2:8).[29] Herod has no such intention; he wants to kill potential rivals.

The Magi, after finding the child, receive their own dream in which they are warned not to return to Herod, and so they do not report back. Joseph too, escapes:

Matt 2:13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 2:14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 2:15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”[30]

Matthew here includes another “fulfillment citation,” the technical term for the New Testament’s citing of Jewish Scripture as fulfilled by Jesus or his followers.[31] In this case, the verse comes from Hosea:

הושע יא:א כִּי נַעַר יִשְׂרָאֵל וָאֹהֲבֵהוּ וּמִמִּצְרַיִם קָרָאתִי לִבְנִי.

Hos 11:1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. (NRSV)

Hosea is speaking of the exodus of Israel from Egypt, and Matthew identifies Jesus with Israel in this prophecy.

The story continues with Herod’s reaction, and another fulfillment citation:

Matt 2:16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the Magi, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the Magi.[32]

In this account, known as “Slaughter of the Innocents,” Matthew parallels Herod with Pharaoh (Exod 1:22) and Jesus with Moses (Exod 2:2–3). Just as Moses’ life is threatened when Pharaoh mandates that children be cast into the Nile, so Jesus’ life is threatened when Herod orders the massacre of the children. This paralleling of Jesus to Moses continues throughout this Gospel.[33]

Matthew next includes a fulfillment citation:

Matthew 2:17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 2:18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”[34]

The citation is to Jeremiah 31:14 (MT; 31:15 in Christian numeration):

ירמיה לא:יד[טו] כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה קוֹל בְּרָמָה נִשְׁמָע נְהִי בְּכִי תַמְרוּרִים רָחֵל מְבַכָּה עַל בָּנֶיהָ מֵאֲנָה לְהִנָּחֵם עַל בָּנֶיהָ כִּי אֵינֶנּוּ.

Jer 31:14 Thus says YHWH: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.

This prophecy originally referred to the children of Israel being taken into exile in Babylon,[35] but Matthew again understands it in reference to Jesus’ survival when the other children in Bethlehem were slaughtered.

Jeremiah’s next verses respond to Rachel’s weeping:

ירמיה לא:טו כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה מִנְעִי קוֹלֵךְ מִבֶּכִי וְעֵינַיִךְ מִדִּמְעָה כִּי יֵשׁ שָׂכָר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ נְאֻם יְ־הוָה וְשָׁבוּ מֵאֶרֶץ אוֹיֵב. לא:טז וְיֵשׁ תִּקְוָה לְאַחֲרִיתֵךְ נְאֻם יְ־הוָה וְשָׁבוּ בָנִים לִגְבוּלָם.

Jer 31:15 Thus says YHWH: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work,” says YHWH: “they shall come back from the land of the enemy; 31:16 there is hope for your future,” says YHWH: “your children shall come back to their own country.”

Matthew’s readers, were they to know Jeremiah 31, would likely have heard a prediction of the resurrection of the children; Jews—going to the next verse—hear the emphasis on the land that tends to go missing in the New Testament.

Anyone familiar with the book of Exodus could predict the next events in Matthew’s narrative. When Herod dies, again an angel appears in a dream to Joseph and tells him to return to the land of Israel (see Exod 4:19). He does, but instead of going to Bethlehem, he relocates to Nazareth in the Galilee.

In the next chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus meets John the Baptizer, and in his immersion under the waters of the Jordan recollects the crossing of the Reed Sea. Jesus then goes into the wilderness for a period of forty days—suggesting Israel’s sojourn for forty years in the wilderness as well as Moses’ forty days on Mount Sinai (Exod 34:28). Satan tempts him to engage in false worship (we recall the Golden Calf), but Jesus survives the temptation by quoting to Satan verses from Deuteronomy. Finally, like Moses, Jesus ascends a mountain and interprets Torah (Matt 5–7, the “Sermon on the Mount”).

And this is not the end of the story. Throughout the Gospels, we find more prophecies seen as fulfilled, and more connection of the story of Jesus to the story of Israel. With the advent of Christianity as a separate religion, it became very hard to see the Jewish roots of these traditions about Jesus, but when we bring knowledge of Jewish sources to New Testament studies, we find in the Nativity stories Jewish themes, Jewish history, and Jewish prophecy.


Is December 25 Jesus’ Birthday?

Neither Matthew nor Luke gives a date for Jesus’ birth, so how did December 25 become the (popularly) accepted date?

December 25 for the date of Jesus’ birth is first intimated in 221 C.E. in the writings of the Christian author Sextus Julius Africanus. He dated the conception of Jesus to March 25, the date he assigned to the day the world was created. If Jesus were conceived on March 25, then he would have been born nine months later, on December 25. But there are other possible explanations for the date, one pagan and one Jewish.

Pagan—The Roman emperor Aurelian instituted a festival, celebrated December 25, to commemorate the birth of Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun. That the winter solstice occurred a few days before added incentive to make the connection to rebirth. A holiday in place is easily adapted to a new religious concern.

Jewish—The followers of Jesus knew that his death occurred around the time of the Passover holiday; according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus’ Last Supper is a Passover meal, and Jesus dies on the first day of Passover; John depicts Jesus as being killed 24 hours earlier, when the lambs for the meal are sacrificed in the Temple. Some in the early Church concluded that Jesus’ conception and the crucifixion occurred on the same day, the spring equinox, calculated to March 25, and taking place around the same time as Passover. Again, were he conceived on March 25, his birthday would be December 25.

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Posted by on May 26, 2020 in Uncategorized


Jerusalem: 1948, 1967, 2020

by Gerald M. Steinberg

The bad old days of Jordanian control, when Jews were denied access to their holy sites, are proof that ‘shared sovereignty’ is a delusion

Jerusalem: 1948, 1967, 2020 | Gerald M. Steinberg | The Blogs

Jews fleeing Jerusalem’s Old CIty after the 1929 Arab Pogroms (courtesy: Library of Congress)

As a Jerusalemite, the degree to which the modern history of our city is mangled, distorted, and rewritten by journalists, foreign politicians and diplomats, and less-than-rigorous academics is a major source of frustration, particularly around the celebration of Jerusalem Day.

Almost inevitably, we are told that “East Jerusalem” and the “Old City were captured by Israel from Jordan during the 1967 war, without reference to the status of this city between 1948 and 1967. Outside of Israel, the false narrative portraying Palestinians exclusively as victims and Israel as “occupiers” has replaced the actual history, and substituted propaganda for justice.

The continuing impact of the 1948-1967 Jordanian occupation is central to understanding the broad Israeli rejection of grand peace plans to re-divide this city, including the mirages of “shared sovereignty” and internationalization. While such creative political architecture may sound good, the history of this period should remind us that in practice, such visions will return us to the bad old days,

Jews have lived in Jerusalem continuously, and were the majority population in the decades before the 1948 war. The destruction and ethnic cleansing of the ancient Jewish Quarter in the Old City began following the UN Partition Resolution on November 27 1947. Arab forces blocked the access road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and numerous Israeli efforts to end this blockade failed, with major casualties. As a result, few reinforcements were available, and on May 28, the Jordanian army (also known as the “Arab Legion”) completed the capture of the Jewish Quarter.

The Jordanian commander, Abdallah el-Tal, boasted that “The operations of calculated destruction were set in motion… Only four days after our entry into Jerusalem the Jewish Quarter had become a graveyard.” (Disaster of Palestine, Cairo 1959) All of the Jewish inhabitants were exiled — the ethnic cleansing was complete. Jews were prohibited from accessing the Temple Mount, destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 AD, or at the Western Wall, which survived the destruction. (These were and remain the holiest sites in the Jewish religion.)

Even after the fall of the Jewish Quarter, the conquerors systematically desecrated all remnants of 3000 years of Jewish Jerusalem. 57 ancient synagogues, libraries and centers of religious study were ransacked and 12 were totally and deliberately destroyed. Those that remained standing were defaced, and turned into barns for goats, sheep and donkeys. Appeals were made to the United Nations and in the international community to declare the Old City to be an ‘open city’ and stop this destruction, but there was no response.

In addition, thousands of tombstones from the ancient cemetery on the Mount of Olives were used as paving stones for roads and as construction material in Jordanian army camps. After the 1967 war, Israelis who visited the cemetery on Mt. of Olives and saw the desecrated graves and smashed gravestones noted “that Jordanian soldiers and local residents had helped themselves to the stones to use as building materials.” Graves were broken into pieces or used as flagstones, steps, or building materials. In 1967, graves were found open with the bones scattered. Parts of the cemetery were converted into parking lots, a filling station, and an asphalt road was built to cut through it. The Intercontinental Hotel was built at the top of the cemetery. Sadar Khalil, appointed by the Jordanian government. as the official caretaker of the cemetery, built his home on the grounds using the stones robbed from graves to build it.

In 1967, immediately after the war, numerous photos were published showing Jewish gravestones in Jordanian army camps, such as El Azariya, and in Palestinian neighborhoods, used in walkways, steps, and pavement. When the war ended, and negotiations began, the Israeli representatives emphasized regaining access to Jewish Jerusalem. Article VIII of the Israel-Jordan Armistice Agreement, signed on 3 April 1949, called for the establishment of a Special Committee, “composed of two representatives of each Party for the purpose of formulating agreed plans ” including “free access to the Holy Places and cultural institutions and use of the cemetery on the Mount of Olives”.

Officials and international mediators solemnly declared that “There is a good chance that roads to the Holy Places will be opened so that Jews may be able to go to the Wailing Wall this Passover. The problem of access to the Holy Places has been left to the local military authorities to arrange, and there seems to be enough goodwill on both sides to make this possible.” This did not take place, and these clauses of the Armistice Agreement were never honored.

Promises continued, and Glubb Pasha, the British commander of the Arab Legion, pledged that “Jerusalem’s Arab and Jewish populations would be two separate cities ‘with free trade and exchange between each other.’ The Arabs would be perfectly willing to allow the Jews to have access to their shrines, notably the Wailing Wall, now inside the Arab-held Old City.” Although there were numerous discussions of this issue, and Israeli complaints, the Jordanians refused to honor the agreement, and the UN did not pass any resolutions against this treatment of Jewish religious institutions.

In 1954, a British delegation asked General Vagn Bennike, U.N. Chief of Staff, to convey a request to permit a small group of Jews (primarily of American and British citizens) “to cross into the Old City to offer prayers at the Western (Wailing) Wall”. Similar requests were addressed to American officials. In response to one such request, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Byroade responded that due to the “unfortunate tension” between Israel and Jordan, a “practical arrangement can not be worked out”.

In 1956, Maj.-Gen, E. L. M. Burns, Chief of Staff of the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization, was also asked to raise the issue of Article VIII violations and free access to the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem with the Jordanians and their British mentors. The United Nations was of no assistance in this issue, and ignored the discrimination and violations of the Armistice Agreement. Although debates on the now defunct internationalization of Jerusalem continued, there was no mention of the inaccessibility of Jewish holy sites.

The Vatican also ignored requests to intervene in order to allow Jews to visit their religious sites. In the UN, Ambassador Abba Eban noted that although the Christian and Moslem Holy Places were freely accessible to Moslem and Christian worshippers, “the Western Wall, the most hallowed sanctuary of Judaism and the most ancient shrine in the entire city is barred to all access by worshippers despite solemn agreements and undertakings.” In the Knesset, Israeli political leaders decried the fact that “This abomination had not shocked the world, which was so steeped in materialism that there would soon be no room left for the very concept of holiness.” On occasion, Jews were caught and detained when they attempted to cross the cease-fire line that divided the city, in order to pray at the Western Wall.

Every year, on Tisha b’Av, the High Holidays, and during the three pilgrimage holidays, the Israeli press, as well as political and religious leaders, recalled the fact that Article 8 of the Armistice Agreement was systematically violated, and urged the Israeli government “to show more activity in this matter”. Periodically, public groups renewed the appeal to the UN, the U.S., and the “great powers” to intervene and force Jordan to honor the commitments of Article 8, and end its refusal to allow religious Jews access to the Western Wall, “the most holy relic recognized by the Jewish religion.”

53 years have now passed since the Israel Defense Forces ended this siege, reunited Jerusalem with its ancient Jewish heritage, and began the rebuilding of the buildings destroyed and desecrated during the Jordanian/Palestinian occupation. For us, Jerusalem Day is a reminder of the necessity to learn and teach this history, and not allow the propaganda campaigns and invented “narratives” to triumph.

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Posted by on May 22, 2020 in Uncategorized



By Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz
The special holiness of Jerusalem stems from its being “the site that God will choose” (Deuteronomy 12:5), the city where God decided to establish His House, the Temple, so that His Presence should dwell there. This connection between God and the city of Jerusalem is found not just in Heavenly Jerusalem, in the spiritual part of the city, but also in earthly Jerusalem, the city as we know it. This may be compared to a geological fault. When the earth, which is composed of strata, is fractured as a result of various pressures, one section is displaced and pushed upward in relation to other sections, whereupon it can be seen that the strata are no longer continuous. Upper strata lie next to strata that formerly were much deeper. Similarly, in Jerusalem, instead of the upper and lower worlds being in normal relation, one above the other, they meet. Instead of the heavens being above and the earth below, there is a point at which heaven and earth are on the same plane.The Holy of Holies is the center of this world. In the Holy of Holies lies the foundation stone, from which the universe was founded.The contact between heaven and earth is expressed in its most radical form in the Temple’s holiest place – the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies, as described by our Sages, is unlike any other space known to man. “The place of the ark and the cherubim is not included in the measured space.” – the ark and cherubim occupy no space in the chamber (Bava Batra 99a). On every side, space remains as though nothing were placed in the center.
Photo by NICOLAS VAN RYK, VISUM/REDUXThe Holy of Holies is the center of this world. In the Holy of Holies lies the foundation stone, from which the universe was founded (Yoma 54b). According to the Midrash, this site is the source of the dust from which Adam was formed (The Midrash on Psalms 92). This site may be likened to the world’s “umbilical cord” – the point of connection to the Creator, the foundation and basis for all that was created in the wake of this single point. The Holy of Holies marks the central point of contact,which is ringed by the Temple Mount, the entire city, and finally all of the Land of Israel – all concentrated around the single point, around the place where the heavenly world and the earthly world touch.There are various central places throughout the world. There is a place that is the earth’s magnetic pole, and another place that is the earth’s geographic pole. These places are extraordinary and are marked by unusual phenomena: The compass goes haywire, and day and night are confused. They are exceptions to geography. Jerusalem, too, is such an extraordinary place, as it is a place where this world and the supernal world intermingle.Jerusalem lies at the margin of the material and the physical, on the edge of the nonphysical world.Jerusalem lies at the margin of the material and the physical, on the edge of the nonphysical world. In Pirkei Avot we are told of the miracles that occurred in the Temple – the sacred flesh never spoiled; no fly was ever seen in the slaughterhouse, and though the people stood pressed together, they bowed with ample space. We also learn of miracles that occurred in the city itself – neither serpent nor scorpion caused harm in Jerusalem, and so forth (Avot 5:5).The contact with the holy brings about a change in the laws of nature even in the outer circle of the entire city.Our Sages call Jerusalem “the pupil of the eye” (Kings I, 9:3). In fact, the eye is the only part of the body in which the nerve is connected directly to the brain. Outside impressions perceived by other parts of the body are filtered and processed, from the outside reach inside. In other parts of the body, the impressions are filtered and processed, but in the case of the eye, they enter directly, as they are. Jerusalem is an opening of this kind, a direct passage between the earthly world and the heavenly world. It is a gateway to heaven, a passageway from the physical to the spiritual. For this reason we pray in the direction of Jerusalem, as it says in Solomon’s prayer: “And they pray to You in the direction of their land which You gave to their forefathers, the city which You have chosen, and the House which I have built to Your Name”( Kings I, 8:48). Prayers are directed toward Jerusalem, via which they ascend heavenward.Jerusalem is an opening…a direct passage between the earthly world and the heavenly world. It is a gateway to heaven, a passageway from the physical to the spiritual.Because the pupil forms the link between the brain and the external world; hence, it must be guarded to the utmost. Likewise, Jerusalem is the most sensitive place in the world. When someone smites Jerusalem, the eye of the universe, it is as painful and dangerous as any blow to the physical eye. More than what happens anywhere else, things that happen in Jerusalem are liable to have implications for the whole world.The connection to the supernal worlds produces a flow of holiness through the Holy of Holies, Temple, and Temple Mount to the entire city – not just to the exalted things in the city but to all its physical parts: its houses, its stones, even its thorns, and all who dwell in it, great and small. The stones of Jerusalem are different; its thorns are all of gold.Jerusalem is “the city perfect in beauty” – more beautiful than many cities in the world. But the city’s beauty does not stem from handsome buildings or lovely external design. As a rule, the opposite is true. Jerusalem’s beauty, its sun and light and other beautiful things with which it is endowed, stem from its inwardness, from its holiness. The surplus of Jerusalem’s inwardness, the drops that overflow from its holiness, are what make it beautiful and give it grace.When something is truly beautiful; its flaws do not detract from its great beauty; on the contrary, they give it added grace.It does not matter whether the architecture of Jerusalem is extraordinarily beautiful or not. When one looks at the city as a whole, there is nothing more beautiful than it. When something is truly beautiful; its flaws do not detract from its great beauty; on the contrary, they give it added grace. Thus, even the things that are not beautiful about it join in forming Jerusalem; every part, every corner, and every crumb are there in order to add beauty.Jerusalem’s beauty slowly spreads to its various neighborhoods. Indeed, it takes some time until a new neighborhood is absorbed into Jerusalem and becomes part of it; its inhabitants must also with time turn into Jerusalemites. Just as when a person enters a perfume shop, perfume adheres to him whether he likes it or not, the Jerusalemite nature sticks to its inhabitants. To be sure, this process may sometimes take a generation, but ultimately everything is absorbed into Jerusalem, and this adds to its physical perfection.The importance of Jerusalem Day far exceeds the commemoration of the day on which the city was liberated from foreign rule. This day’s eminence is found in that it is celebrated in honor of this unique city, “a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys” (Song of Songs 2:1). It is a day that does not relate specifically to the destruction or rebuilding of Jerusalem, to its distress or to its beauty. Rather, it is day of thanksgiving and joy over the city’s very existence, joy over the fact we have merited to have in our world a point of connection with the supernal world.Jerusalem’s beauty, its sun and light and other beautiful things with which it is endowed, stem from its inwardness, from its holiness.The surplus of Jerusalem’s inwardness, the drops that overflow from its holiness, are what make it beautiful and give it grace.The holiday over Jerusalem is a new holiday; in former generations, we were not privileged to celebrate it. We did know that it is possible to offer praise and rejoice over Jerusalem even before it is rebuilt completely; that it is possible to give thanks for the fact that, despite the humiliations and after all the degradations, Jerusalem cannot be deprived of its uniqueness. We were unaware that we could give praise for the fact that even when Jerusalem Is degraded, its essential nature cannot be concealed. Jerusalem can be exiled and disdained, but it is still a royal city, like the palm. Even when it is in the depths of Sheol, it is still the source of blessing.The Prophet Isaiah prophesied: “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you who love her! Join in her jubilation, all you who mourned over her” (Isaiah 66:10). One should mourn over Jerusalem, but one should also be among those who love her. One should love not only her holy places, but also the city in its own right, as it is, with its neighborhoods and its cats, its fences and stones, the lunatics and the loafers are all part of it. One must love Jerusalem not just because it is home, but because there is no other place like it. For all these reasons, we hold a celebration, in honor of Jerusalem – earthly Jerusalem and Heavenly Jerusalem.
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Posted by on May 21, 2020 in Uncategorized


Torah: The Confrontation with Ourselves

we've talked about this you already have too many project cars ...

by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo

Torah study has become nearly impossible, and the problem lies not with the Torah but with the reader. Reading the text requires courage — courage not to open the Book and start reading, but courage to confront oneself. Learning Torah requires human authenticity; it means standing in front of a mirror and asking yourself the daunting question of who you really are, without masks and artificialities. Unfortunately, that is one of the qualities we, in modern times, have lost. We have convinced ourselves that we must be intellectuals, removed from subjectivity and bowing only to scientific investigation. Consequently, we have disconnected from our true selves. Because we humans are a bundle of emotions, passions and subjectivities, we cannot escape our inner world, much as we would like to.

Still, we formulate ideas. We may proclaim the rights of the spirit, but our ideas enter only our books and discussions, not our lives. They float around in our heads, rather than walking with us into the inner chambers of our daily existence. They don’t enter our trivial moments, but rather stand as monuments — impressive, but far removed.

People are no longer able to struggle with this inner Self, and therefore cannot deal with the biblical text. It stares them in the face, and they are terrified by the confrontation. All they can do is deny it, so that they may escape from themselves. Since they know that they must come to terms with themselves before they come to terms with the Book, they cannot negate it or disagree with it, as this requires them to deny something that they don’t even know exists.

Does that mean that these people are not religious? Not at all. Even religious people are detached from the spirit. They have elevated religion to such a level that its influence on their everyday life, in the here and now, has been lost. It is found on the top floor of their spiritual house, with its own very special atmosphere. It has become compartmentalized. But the intention of Torah is exactly the reverse. Its words, events and commandments are placed in the midst of the people, enveloped in history and worldly matters. What happens there does not take place in a vacuum, but in the harshness of human reality. Most of the Torah deals with the natural course of a person’s life. Only sporadic miracles allow us to hear the murmurs from another world that exists beyond. These moments remind us that God is, after all, the only real entity in all of existence. But the Torah is the story of how God exists among mortal human beings, with their ordinary troubles and joys. It is not the story of God in heaven, but of God in human history and personal encounter.

The text is the author of the people

The art of biblical interpretation is far more than just knowing how to give expression to the deeper meaning of the text. It is, after all, impossible to treat the biblical text as one would any other classical work. This is because the people of Israel, according to Jewish tradition, are not the authors of this text. Rather, the text is the author of the people. As a covenant between God and humankind, the text is what brought the people into being. Moreover, despite the fact that the people have often violated the commanding voice of this text, it created the specific and unique identity of the Jewish nation.

That is precisely why reading the text is not like reading a conventional literary work. It requires a reading-art, which unveils the unfolding of the essence and nature of a living people struggling with life and God’s commandments.

This reading calls for a totally different kind of comprehension, one that must reflect a particular thought process and attitude on the part of the student. George Steiner expressed this well when he wrote:

The script…is a contract with the inevitable. God has, in the dual sense of utterance and of binding affirmation, “given His word,” His Logos and His bond, to Israel. It cannot be broken or refuted.[1]

The text, then, must be approached in a way that reflects a human commitment to ensure that it indeed will not be broken or refuted. This has become a great challenge to modern biblical interpretation. Many scholars and thinkers have been asking whether the unparalleled calamity of the Holocaust did not create a serious existential crisis in which the text, by definition, has been invalidated. Can we still speak about a working covenant by which God promised to protect His people, after six million Jews — including 1.5 million children — lost their lives within a span of five years, under the cruelest of circumstances?

The reason for raising this question is not just because the covenant appears to have been broken, but also because history — and specifically Jewish history — was always seen as a living commentary on the biblical text. The text gave significance to history and simultaneously took on its religious meaning.

Can the text still be used in that sense, or has it lost its significance because history violated the criteria for its proper and covenantal elucidation?

Not for nothing have modern scholars suggested that there is a need, post-Holocaust, to liberate ourselves from this covenantal text in favor of shaping our destiny and history in totally secular terms. The Holocaust proved, they believe, that we have only ourselves to rely on, and even the return to Israel is to be understood as a secular liberation of the galut experience.

New commentary

It is in this context that “commentary” needs to take on a new challenge: to show not only how the covenant, as articulated in the text, has not been broken or refuted, but how in fact it is fully capable of dealing with the new post-Holocaust conditions of secularity.

Without falling victim to apologetics, biblical interpretation will have to offer a novel approach to dealing with the Holocaust experience in a full religious setting, based on the text and taking it beyond its limits. It will have to respond to the fact that God is the most tragic figure in all of history, making our lives sometimes sublime and other times disastrous. The biblical text is there to tell us how to live with this God and try to see meaning behind the absurdity of the situation.

But above all, modern commentary must make sure that the Torah speaks to the atheist and the agnostic, for they need to realize that the text is replete with examples of sincere deniers and doubters who struggled all their lives with great existential questions. The purpose is not to bring the atheists and agnostics back to the faith, but to show that one can be religious while being an agnostic and perhaps even an atheist; to make people aware that it is impossible to live without embarking on a search for meaning, whether one finds it or not. It is the search that is important; the end result much less so. Throughout the ages, the art has been to refrain from throwing such a pursuit on the dunghill of history. The struggle of homo religiosus is of the greatest importance to the atheist.

That many secular people no longer read the Torah is an enormous tragedy. The Torah is too important to be left to the believer. The beauty of day-to-day life takes on a different and higher meaning through the Torah, and that can evoke in atheists a faintly mystical anticipation, which they can experience when they are alone or when they watch a sunset at the beach. A voice is born, and it speaks to them; they feel a melancholy that calls forth something far away and beyond. They happen upon a situation that suddenly throws them over the edge, and they get taken in by the experience of a loftier existence. They realize that the god they were told to believe in is not the God of the Torah. The latter is a God with Whom one argues; a God Who is criticized and Who wants human beings to search, even if it results in their denial of Him.

This issue is related to other crucial problems. Surveying Jewish history, we see drastic changes in how the biblical text was encountered. In the beginning, it was heard and not written. At first, Moshe received the Torah through the spoken Word: “The Word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, for you to carry out.”[2] God may be unimaginably far away, but His voice is heard nearby and it is the only way to encounter Him.

At a later stage, the Word evolved into a written form. Once this happened, there was a process by which the spoken Word was slowly silenced and gradually replaced by the written Word. With the eclipse of prophecy, God’s Word was completely silenced and could then only be read. The Word, therefore, became frozen and ran the risk of becoming stagnant. At that stage, it was necessary to unfreeze the Word, which became the great task of the Sages and commentaries throughout the following centuries.

Relevance and eternity

Subsequently, a third element gained dominance. The text must be relevant to the generations that study it, while at the same time remaining eternal. Commentators throughout the ages have struggled with this problem. How does one preserve the eternity of the Word and simultaneously make it relevant to a specific moment in time? Many commentators were children of their time and clearly read the text through the prism of the period in which they lived. The perspective of eternity thus became critical. It was often pushed to the background so as to emphasize the great message for the present. Much of the aspect of eternity was thereby compromised, causing a few to wonder how eternal this text really is.

Other commentators wrote as if nothing had happened in Jewish history. This reflected the remarkable situation of the Jewish people in galut: its a-historicity. After the destruction of the Temple, Jewish history came to a standstill. While much happened, with dire consequences for the Jews, they essentially lived their lives outside the historical framework of natural progress. It became a period of existential waiting, with the Jewish people anticipating the moment when they would once again enter history. This eventually came about with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

Inevitably, then, some commentators wrote their exegeses in a historical vacuum. They hardly emphasized the relevance of biblical texts to a particular generation. Therefore, students were often confronted with a dual sentiment. While dazzled by a commentator’s brilliant insight, they were forced to ask: So what? What is the implication of the interpretation for me, at this moment in time? Here we encounter a situation in which relevance is sacrificed for the sake of eternity.

With the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland, Jews are confronted with an unprecedented situation, which has serious consequences for biblical commentary. Due to a very strong trend toward secularism, caused by the Holocaust, as well as other factors, the issue of relevance versus eternity has become greatly magnified.

Today, more than ever before, there exists a greater and more pressing need to show the relevance of the text. The radical changes in Jewish history call for a bold and novel way of understanding the text as a living covenant. At the same time, the drastic secularization of world Jewry and Israeli thinking requires a completely new approach to presenting the reader with the possibility of the Torah’s eternity. With minor exceptions, the religious world has not come forward with an adequate response.

Innovation in receptivity

Most worrisome is the fact that the majority of Jewish commentaries published today in Orthodox circles are compilations and anthologies of earlier authorities, and do not open new vistas. It is as if original interpretations are no longer possible. The words of God are treated as if they have been exhausted. This clearly reflects either a fear of anything new, or an inability to come up with fresh and far-reaching ideas. This phenomenon has overtaken a good part of the Orthodox scholarly world. Jewish commentary is becoming more and more about writing glosses upon glosses, instead of creating new insights into the living covenant with God.

No doubt, not every person is equipped with the knowledge and creativity needed to undertake the task. Years of learning are an absolute requirement before one can make a genuine contribution in this field. Still, one must be aware of the danger of “over-knowledge.” When students are overwhelmed by the interpretations of others, they may quite well become imprisoned by them and lose the art of thinking independently. Instead of becoming a vehicle to look for new ideas, their knowledge becomes detrimental.

What is required is innovation in receptivity, where fresh ideas can grow in the minds of those willing to think creatively about the classical sources, without being hampered by preconceived notions. Only then will we see novel approaches to our biblical tradition that will stand up to the challenges of our time.

Reprinted from Cardozo On The Parashah: Bereshit | Genesis, Kasva Press, August 2019,
available at Amazon and other online booksellers.

[1] George Steiner, “Our Homeland, the Text,” in The New Salmagundi Reader, eds. Robert Boyers and Peggy Boyers (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996), 107.

[2]  Devarim 30:14.

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Posted by on May 21, 2020 in Uncategorized