Min haMuvhar

Stephen Neuwirth: In Memoriam

It is with great sadness that we record the untimely passing of Stephen Neuwirth, board member and major supporter of our Institute since its inception in 2007. Stephen was a well-respected attorney, a community leader, philanthropist…a really fine human being. We extend condolences to his wife, Nataly, and their four sons; to Stephen’s father, siblings and extended family.

Within the Jewish tradition, we find insights on how to confront and cope with tragedies.

The Psalmist cries: “Min haMetsar Karati Y-ah,” I call out to God from distress. When in pain, it is natural to cry out to God, to shed tears, to lament our sufferings and our losses. To cry out when we are in distress is a first step in the grieving process. 

“Tefillah leHabakuk haNavi al Shigyonoth.” Dr. David de Sola Pool has translated this passage: “A prayer of Habakuk the prophet, in perplexity.” After crying out at our initial grief, we move to another level of mourning. We are perplexed. We want to know why this tragedy has happened? We want to understand how to reconcile this disaster with our belief in God’s goodness. We are in a state of emotional and spiritual confusion.

“Mima-amakim keratikha Ado-nai.” I call out to God from the depths of my being. This statement of the Psalmist introduces the next stage in confronting tragedy. It is a profound recognition, from the deepest recesses of our being, that we turn to—and depend upon—God. It is a depth of understanding that transcends tears, words, perplexity. It is a depth of understanding and acceptance that places our lives in complete context with the Almighty. We may be heart-broken; we may be perplexed; we may be angry—but at the very root of who we are, we feel the solace of being in God’s presence. When we reach this deepest level of understanding, we find that we don’t have words or sounds that can articulate this inner clarity. We fall silent.

During his bout with pancreatic cancer, Stephen Neuwirth demonstrated profound faith and immense courage. He maintained a spiritual composure. He went beyond feelings of sadness and despair, beyond perplexity at his situation: he reached to the Almighty “mima-amakim”, from the very depths of who he was. His faith and strength of character inspired everyone who came into contact with him during his illness.

It is said that when a loved one dies, part of us dies too. But it is also said that when a beloved person dies, part of his life continues through us…through family, friends, associates, all who benefited from the person’s life energy. 

May Stephen’s memory be a source of strength, blessing and happiness to his family and to all who mourn his passing.



Jews Won't Be Scapegoats Any Longer

New York Daily News, September 18, 2020

Jews won’t be your scapegoat any longer



SEP 18, 2020 AT 5:00 AM


For centuries, Jews have been the world’s scapegoat. No matter how absurd the charge, haters have attributed all sorts of evils to this one tiny group of humanity. The great Tunisian/French writer, Albert Memmi, described the predicament: “To be a Jew is first and foremost to find oneself called to account, to feel oneself continuously accused, explicitly or implicitly, clearly or obscurely…There is that constant hostility, that noxious haze in which the Jew is born, lives and dies.”

The haters do not relate to Jews as fellow human beings, but as stereotypes. Their hatred is not aimed at this Jew or that Jew but at “the Jews.” In their warped fantasies, “the Jews” are responsible for all sorts of terrible things; they accuse the entire group, they spread lies and slanders, and ultimately they too often resort to violence.

In a world of over 7 billion people, the Jewish population is less than 15 million — an infinitesimal fraction of humanity. Yet the haters somehow think that this very diverse group of Jews constitute a threat to the world’s wellbeing. Conspiracy theories against Jews would be laughable if they weren’t so dangerous. The haters will readily believe any and every malicious motive and action of “the Jews.”

Jews, in all their diversity, share some common values: the importance of education; the centrality of family; the responsibility for social justice. Although they are such a tiny segment of humanity, Jews — as individuals and as a group — have contributed mightily to the advancement of humanity.

The haters have deep problems. They project their own evil intentions on their scapegoat victims. They think that they are stronger if they can oppress those who they perceive as being an easy target. They want to prove their own worth by tearing down others, rather than by actually raising themselves.

Jews have been the world’s scapegoats for many centuries. We have suffered scorn, ghettoization, violence and murder. We want to notify the world: We resign, we no longer will serve as your scapegoat. From now on, please take your fears and feelings of inferiority to your mirror. Instead of projecting evil on Jews — or any other group — heal yourself. Instead of seeking a scapegoat to relieve your frustrations, think of how you can be the best person you can be.

The Hebrew prophets of the Bible foresaw a time when people will no longer devote their energies to war and destructive hatred. We are, unfortunately, not yet living in such an ideal world.

But each person can either bring us closer to the goal, or drag us further from it.





Attending Synagogue When Sick; Dealing with Recalcitrants; Synagogue Kiddush--Rabbi Marc Angel Replies to Questions from the Jewish Press

Is it Proper for a person with a bad cold (or virus) to daven with a minyan?


Let’s begin with several related questions. Is it generally proper for someone to act in a way that is detrimental to his/her health? Is it proper for someone with an infectious disease to knowingly come into contact with people thereby endangering their health?

“Venishmartem me’od lenafshoteihem.” The Torah instructs us to preserve our health to the extent possible. We are not supposed to take irresponsible risks that undermine our physical wellbeing. If we are sick, we need to take care of ourselves. If we have bad colds, flus or covid we need to manage these illnesses properly and not do things that can worsen our condition.

Moreover, it is a basic moral responsibility to be concerned about the health of those near us. If we have an infectious disease, we should be as careful as possible not to transmit it to others.

If a person has a bad cold, flu or covid, should he daven with a minyan anyway? If he is a mourner who wants to say Kaddish with a minyan, should that override health concerns for himself and others?

If he is very sick, he should pray at home. Hashem surely understands the situation.

If, though, he feels well enough to attend a minyan, he should only do so in a manner that poses no threat to his health or the health of others. He should be masked. He should pray as far away as possible from others in the minyan. If he’s praying in a shul, he should sit off in a corner. He should not attend minyan in a crowded room.

Yes, one may feel a strong emotional, religious need to pray with a minyan. But health issues must take priority. Hashem knows what is in our hearts.



What is the proper thing to do when seeing someone who is mesurav l'din at a simcha, Jewish communal event, or some other place where you can't just leave?


If a person receives a summons to appear before a reputable beth din, it is halakhically mandatory to show up. But some people, for various reasons, choose to ignore the summons. They know that the beth din lacks governmental authority to force compliance.

The beth din system depends on the cooperation of the general community to bring pressure on recalcitrant individuals. If the mesurav l’din is made to feel as an outcast, this might prompt compliance with the beth din’s summons.

If the community wants an effective beth din system, then it needs to ensure that people comply with summonses issued by batei din. It needs to convince recalcitrant individuals by persuasion or through social ostracizing. It is generally best to avoid social contact with a mesurav l’din.

But it is important first to ascertain that the mesurav l’din is in fact acting irresponsibly. It may be that the person refuses to appear before a beth din, believing it to be biased or improperly staffed.

The problem is especially painful in cases involving a get, where one of the parties—usually the husband—refuses to appear before the beth din to effect a divorce. The recalcitrant party is not only guilty of disobeying the beth din, but is casting an ugly shadow on the entire halakhic system. People who use get-refusal to advance their own agendas are an embarrassment to our community and should be shunned to the extent possible until they comply.



What's the ideal and most appropriate format for kiddush--standing around, sitting at tables; lots of hot food, a few cold items?

 Why do synagogues sponsor Kiddush after Shabbat morning services? Why don’t people just come to pray and then go home to their own Shabbat lunch?

The basic answer is that Kiddush offers people the opportunity of socializing and gaining a sense of community. The Kiddush is an informal setting where congregants can renew old friendships and make new ones, where visitors can be welcomed, where the Shabbat spirit can be spread among old and young alike. It is an opportunity for those who live alone to celebrate Shabbat with a community.

How can the Kiddush accomplish these worthy goals? Each synagogue/minyan needs to do what makes most sense for their particular congregation. In some communities, Kiddush becomes a sit-down lunch…very nice, and often very expensive. In other shuls, the hope is for people to greet each other, take a bit of refreshment and then return home for their own Shabbat lunch.

Unfortunately, some people view the Kiddush as the most important feature of Shabbat morning at shul. They arrive at services as late as possible, and then hurry to fill their plates at the Kiddush. I’ve heard of people who actually call the local synagogues on Friday to see which shul provides the best food!

Shuls’ budgets must realistically plan for the weekly cost of Kiddush. The search for weekly Kiddush sponsors can be burdensome. In larger congregations where hundreds of people attend services each Shabbat morning, the costs involved are not insignificant.

Each synagogue/shul/minyan should strive to provide Kiddush that is appropriate for its community. There is no single ideal Kiddush format that is ideal for every community.



Modern and Pre-Modern Orthodoxy


In his book, The Perspective of Civilization, Fernand Braudel utilizes a concept that he calls “world-time.” Braudel notes that at any given point in history, all societies are not at the same level of advancement. The leading countries exist in world-time; that is, their level of advancement is correlated to the actual date in history.

However, there also are countries and civilizations which are far behind world-time, whose way of life may be centuries or even millennia behind the advanced societies. While the advanced technological countries exist in world-time, underdeveloped countries lag generations behind; some societies are still living as their ancestors did centuries ago. In short, everyone in the world may be living at the same chronological date, but different societies may be far from each other in terms of world-time.

Braudel's analysis also can be extended to the way people think. Even though people may be alive at the same time, their patterns of thinking may be separated by generations or even centuries. The characteristic of Modern Orthodoxy is that it is modern, that it is correlated to the contemporary world-time. Being part of contemporary world-time, it draws on the teachings of modern scholarship, it is open to modern philosophy and literature, and it relates Jewish law to contemporary world realities.

On the other hand, “non-modern” Orthodoxy does not operate in the present world-time. Its way of thinking and dealing with contemporary reality are pre-modern, generations behind contemporary world-time.

The differences between so-called right-wing Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodoxy are not differences in sincerity or in authentic commitment. Rather, the differences stem from different world views, from living in different world-times.

A Modern Orthodox Jew does not wish to think like a medieval rabbi, even though he wishes to fully understand what the medieval rabbi wrote and believed. The Modern Orthodox Jew wishes to draw on the wisdom of the past, not to be part of the past.

The philosophy of Modern Orthodoxy is not at all new. Rather, it is a basic feature of Jewish thought throughout the centuries. In matters of halakha, for example, it is axiomatic that contemporary authorities are obligated to evaluate halakhic questions from their own immediate perspective, rather than to rely exclusively on the opinions of rabbis of previous generations. The well-known phrase that “Yiftah in his generation is like Shemuel in his generation” (Rosh haShanah 25b) expresses the need to rely on contemporary authorities, even if they are not of the stature of the authorities of previous generations. We are obligated to be “Modern Orthodox,” to recognize present reality and to participate in contemporary world-time.

One of the weaknesses of contemporary Orthodoxy is that it is not “modern” in the sense just discussed. There is a prevailing attitude that teaches us to revere the opinions of the sages of previous generations, and to defer to those contemporary sages who occupy a world-time contemporary with those sages.

Who are the sages of the present world-time, who absorb the contemporary reality, the contemporary ways of thinking and analyzing? To be Modern Orthodox Jews means to accept our limitations, but it also means that we must accept our responsibility to judge according to what our own eyes see, according to our own understanding. It means to have the self-respect to accept that responsibility.

Modern Orthodoxy and pre-Modern Orthodoxy do not engage in meaningful dialogue because they operate in separate world-times. The sages of each generation are influenced by the social and political realities of their time. If many of our sages in the past believed in demons and witches, if they thought that the sun revolved around the earth, or if they assigned inferior status to women and slaves—we can understand that they were part of a world that accepted these notions. We do not show disrespect for them by understanding the context in which they lived and thought. On the contrary, we are able to understand their words better, and thus we may determine how they may or may not be applied to our own contemporary situation. It is not disrespectful to our sages if we disagree with their understanding of physics, psychology, sociology, or politics. On the contrary, it would be foolish not to draw on the advances in these fields that have been made throughout the generations, including those of our own time.

There is no sense in forcing ourselves into an earlier world-time in order to mold our ways of thinking into harmony with modes of thought of sages who lived several hundred or even several thousand years ago.

One of the nagging problems that bothers many thoughtful Orthodox Jews is how Orthodoxy has become increasingly authoritarian and obscurantist—how it has seemed to lock itself into a pre-modern worldview. There is a palpable drive to conformity—in dress, in thought, in behavior. Independent thinking—especially if inspired by “secular” wisdom—is discouraged or forbidden. It is as though people wish to pretend that findings of modern science may be casually dismissed; that women and men of today must think and act as they did in pre-modern times; that Orthodox life demands a strongly negative posture vis a vis modernity.

Thinking Jews should be standing up for a genuine modern Orthodoxy that insists on functioning in contemporary world-time. While facing modernity has its real challenges, not facing modernity will lead Orthodoxy into a cult-like existence-- out of touch with reality, out of touch with the needs of thinking and feeling human beings…out of touch with Torah itself.


A Spirituality Crisis

There is a feeling among many Jews, including many Orthodox Jews, that worship in the synagogue lacks adequate inspiration and spirituality. Among the complaints: the synagogue ritual is chanted by rote; the prayers are recited too quickly; the prayers are recited too slowly; the service is not understood by congregants; people talk too much in synagogue; the services do not involve everyone in a meaningful way.

Here are some of the “solutions” that have been suggested over the years, along with why they have not achieved full success:

Introduce Hassidic/Carlebach melodies—these may be more lively and inspirational than the usual synagogue music. Yes, for some people, singing such melodies is emotionally satisfying. But for many others, such music seems more like a hootenanny than a vehicle for addressing God.

Make the services more egalitarian. Yes, for some people this seems like a way of getting men and women more involved. Yet, the Reform and Conservative movements have been fully egalitarian for many years—without any perceptible improvement in the overall spiritual life of their communities. Indeed, these movements have been suffering from serious loss of membership, and from generally poor attendance at services. While newly established “partnership” services are popping up in the Orthodox world, it remains to be seen whether this represents a passing fad, or if these types of services will fall into the same patterns that have taken hold in the non-Orthodox egalitarian services.

Make services shorter; include more readings in the vernacular. Yes, for some people this makes the synagogue experience more palatable. But it is doubtful whether it brings people to a greater feeling of the presence of God, or whether it will inspire more people to actually attend services.

Introduce meditation practices. Yes, some people may find this helpful to their spiritual experience. But many others may find these practices an outside imposition on Jewish worship and may be repelled by this mode of spirituality.

Whatever suggestions are offered, one can come up with counter-arguments. Each individual and each community has different needs and expectations.

The “crisis of the synagogue” needs to be viewed, I suggest, in a much broader context. The synagogue is only one factor—and not the major factor—in the real problem we are facing. The real problem is: moderns are losing, or have already lost, their sense of intimacy with God. God is simply not a real presence in many of our lives. Even if we observe the commandments, study Torah and say our prayers, we may still not feel the awesome, overwhelming experience of living in the light of the Eternal.

If we are losing, or have already lost, a sense of intimacy with God, making changes in the synagogue service will not restore that intimacy. Whatever gimmicks we introduce, while possibly helpful to some, will ultimately fail, because they are focusing on symptoms rather than on the malady itself.

To a religious Jew who feels God’s presence in daily life, the synagogue service poses little or no problem. The synagogue is just one of many contexts in which one experiences the Divine. It is not the center of religious life, and certainly not the only place to feel God’s presence. One follows the synagogue ritual out of loyalty to tradition, out of solidarity with generations of Jews who have prayed in this manner, out of a spiritual quest to be part of the community’s prayers to the Almighty. But one also says private prayers any time of the day, in almost any place.

If we have personal spirituality, we can bring this into our public spirituality. If we can maintain, or regain, a living relationship with God in our daily lives, then our synagogue experience becomes much higher and much deeper.

Surely, a synagogue needs to do its best to help congregants re-establish intimacy with God; and it needs to conduct its prayer services in a manner that is conducive to spiritual experience and development. But it also needs to realize that it is an enabler of spirituality, not a substitute for spirituality. God doesn’t dwell only—or even primarily—in the synagogue. God dwells everywhere. Most of our lives are not spent in the synagogue, and most of our lives are deeply in need of relationship with the Almighty. If we can develop a full spiritual personality, we will find the synagogue experience to be a meaningful and vital aspect of our lives. We need to be working on how to become more sensitive to our souls, to our personal relationships with God. We need to imbue our daily lives with Torah and mitzvoth in such a way that these activities resonate within us, and raise our spirits.

When Bil’am blessed the people of Israel, he said: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; your dwellings O Israel.” The “tents” refer to our homes, the centers of our every-day lives; the “dwellings” refer to our synagogues and study halls. When we first have our “tents” in order, it is a natural extension to have our “dwellings” in order.

It is far from a simple matter for moderns to maintain, or regain, a sense of intimacy with God. Much of the time-spirit militates against genuine religious experience. Religion is not an easy way to God, and is not a short cut to spirituality. Treating symptoms without going to the root of our problem only makes the problem worse.

If we want our synagogues to be more spiritual, we have to be more spiritual ourselves. If we want our "dwellings" to be spiritually alive, then we first have to be sure that our "tents" are spiritually alive.

Across the Expanse of Jewish Thought: Book Review

"Across the Expanse of Jewish Thought," by Rabbi Hillel Goldberg

Reviewed by Rabbi Marc D. Angel


Archilochus, an ancient Greek poet, observed: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Sir Isaiah Berlin used this line as a metaphor for different kinds of thinkers. Some, like the fox, know many topics, have wide-ranging intellectual concerns. Others, like the hedgehog, have one central idea that dominates their thinking.

Rabbi Dr. Hillel Goldberg draws on the fox and hedgehog imagery in his new book, Across the Expanse of Jewish Thought (Ktav, 2022). He notes that he, like the hedgehog, has one central focus—Torah Judaism. But, like the fox, he also has a wide range of intellectual interests including science, history, philosophy, literature and more.

Rabbi Goldberg’s book is a classic example of the combined focus of a hedgehog and the expansiveness of the fox. He has a fine eye for detail. His studies in biblical texts and prayers hone in on words, patterns, and nuances. But they reflect the larger vision of works that put us in relationship with the Almighty. So it is with the structure of the book as a whole. He addresses particular themes in a penetrating manner…but also explores the larger meanings and implications of each topic.

The subtitle of this book is From the Holocaust to Halakhah and Beyond. This gives the reader an idea of the scope of material covered in this book. Rabbi Goldberg writes about holocaust theology and what we can learn from the survivors themselves. He explores themes in prayer, biblical commentary, musar, Jewish law, philosophy; and he offers biographical studies of Rav Kuk and Professor (Rebbe Dr.) Isadore Twersky.

Rabbi Goldberg is an engaging writer with a distinctive style. His prose is modulated. It gives the reader time to think, to digest the words. In discussing Abraham and the Akeida, Rabbi Goldberg writes: “This is the paradox: Abraham finds his own way to God’s way. Actually, however, Abraham transcends paradox. He does not have two separate sides. Now he is submissive, now he is creative: it is not this way. Abraham melds the will of God and the will of man. As much as possible for any human being, Abraham unifies Infinity and finitude.” (p. 171)

As a hedgehog, Rabbi Goldberg focuses on the detailed mandates of the halakha. As a fox, he seeks the meanings that undergird the details and that soar heavenward.  He writes: “By His love and grace, God issued halakhah as the sovereign over all ritual, ethical and social necessities; equally, by His love and grace, God endowed the human being with the capability and curiosity to unveil secrets of the universe.” ( p. 210) Rabbi Goldberg notes that halakha “creatively juxtaposes divine knowledge and human knowledge of the natural world. It shapes social reality and embraces other disciplines of divine knowledge.” (p. 212)

On a personal note, Rabbi Goldberg and I were fellow students at Yeshiva College during the 1960s. Even then, I learned to appreciate his soft-spoken, thoughtful manner of communication. Over these many years, I have learned much from his writings, and have enjoyed his masterful articles and editorials in the Intermountain Jewish News. When I read his works, I somehow feel that I am hearing his voice…calm, thoughtful, precise, challenging. More than a hedgehog, more than a fox: Rabbi Goldberg is a thinking rabbi who incorporates and transcends both.



Memoirs of a Sephardic Rabbi

Memoirs of a Sephardic Rabbi: A Book Review by Rabbi Marc D. Angel

“A Rocky Road,” by Rabbi Abraham Levy (with Simon Rocker), Halban Publishers, London, 2017.

Rabbi Abraham Levy has been associated with the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of London for nearly six decades. Those of us who have known him over the years have been impressed with his energy, optimism, single-mindedness, devotion, British elegance…and more.

And now, he has written a volume of memoirs in which he offers candid reflections on his long service as a Sephardic rabbi. Rabbi Levy highlights his many achievements, especially in the area of Jewish education for children and adults. He writes warmly of those congregants who supported his work, who shared his ideals, and who were genuine friends to him and his family.

But he does not shy away from the less pleasant aspects of his rabbinic life. He openly discusses conflicts between himself and others of the synagogue religious and lay leadership. Indeed, the book seems to jump from one crisis to the next, some within the congregation itself and some involving other factions in the Jewish community.

He entitled his book “A Rocky Road,” as an allusion to his upbringing in Gibraltar with its famous rock; and also to the fact that his years in the rabbinate were “rocky,” with plenty of ups and downs. Throughout his long rabbinic tenure, he stayed focused on his mission to provide religious leadership to his people. His Sephardic upbringing and worldview served him well.

Growing up in the warm Sephardic Jewish community of Gibraltar, he learned to love his Judaism and its many mitzvoth. “The Judaism we experienced was never a burden nor driven by anxiety or fear. It was part of our natural habitat.” (p. 11)  The happiness and naturalness of his childhood Judaism has imbued his religious life ever since.

He also learned that a religious leader must identify with his community and must strive to create a sense of family among the various members. In a sermon he delivered in 1977, Rabbi Levy “reflected that a rabbi can only be effective in his work if he is prepared to identify with congregants in their times both of joy and festivity and of sorrow and calamity. A rabbi could not be a detached spectator.” (p. 42) 

In a sermon he gave on Rosh Hashana in 1987, marking his 25th anniversary with his congregation, he stated that “while there had been quiet and productive years, a few had been tempestuous and unhappy. I compared the role of the rabbi to that of a shofar. The protracted single blast of tekiah was a wake up call, urging people to think what more they should do to improve the religious lives of themselves and their children. It didn’t always make the rabbi popular…The broken three-note sequence of shevarim, the sound of lament, represented the rabbi’s sharing in the troubles of his congregants and holding their hand in times of need. The staccato burst of teruah—blown in biblical days as a rally to war—was a summons to action. For if I believe that something needs doing I will continue to blow the notes of teruah into everybody’s ears until hopefully it gets done.” (p. 62)

Rabbi Levy, like most (all?) rabbis, had to deal with various synagogue leaders who were less than ideal. “When it came to lay leaders, I always made a basic distinction: there were those who brought honour to the office and those who sought honour from the office…I prayed for honorary officers who were successful in their careers and happy at home because if they were frustrated or unfulfilled, they tended to make the rabbi’s job more difficult.” (p. 116) How difficult it is for a rabbi—and for the congregation as a whole—if synagogue leaders are rude, egotistical, control-freaks. Improper leaders, bent on seeking honor for themselves, end up causing vast damage to the spiritual and material health of the congregation.

Rabbi Levy’s Sephardic ideology shines through his book of memoirs.  He expressed pride in the fact that Sephardim “can present a religious interpretation of Judaism which does not have an ideological adjective such as Orthodox or Reform attached to it…We Sephardim, with a little give and take, have always managed to have only one Jewish community.” (p. 143)

In looking back on his rabbinic career, he confessed: “I have tried not to deviate from the values I inherited from my parents and their family before them. We all remain sentimentally attached to the traditions we grew up with, but I continue to espouse the classical Sephardi outlook out of conviction that it remains important in a polarized Jewish world…I remain a defiant centrist.” (p. 235)   As the religious ground has shifted to the right, “I came to occupy a lonelier position in the middle of the road.” (p. 233)

Rabbi Levy broods over the growing dissension within the Orthodox community, and within the larger Jewish community. Factionalism is rife. Extremism increases. Harold Levy, the former warden of Jews’ College, once remarked: “We are becoming a dumb-bell religion.” He meant, we are becoming thin in the middle and heavy on the extremes. (p. 111) Rabbi Levy takes genuine pride in the school he established and which has provided strong Jewish and general education to its students. Many families have become more religiously observant thanks to the influence of the school. Yet, some of the graduates have gone on to become more “right wing” Orthodox, and have turned away from the classic Sephardic religious moderation.

    In reading Rabbi Levy’s “A Rocky Road,” we call to mind another road mentioned in a poem by Robert Frost, The Road not Taken.  “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--/ I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference.” Rabbi Abraham Levy, as a young man, could have chosen many roads to live a happy and fulfilling life. He chose the rabbinate, a road less traveled by—and that has made all the difference to him, his family, and his community.






Generational Continuity: Thoughts for Parashat Vayhi

Angel for Shabbat, Parashat Vayhi

by Rabbi Marc D. Angel


Among Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s lectures was one that dealt with the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. “A grandfather stands before his newly born grandchild filled with paradoxical thoughts. Feelings of renewal merge with fading memories of the past.”

A grandparent gazes at grandchildren with a sense of wonder. Fifty, sixty and more years may separate them. The grandparent is part of the “old generation,” while the grandchildren are part of a new world with new challenges and opportunities. Yes, the grandparent feels a sense of family continuity—but also a sense of anxiety. Will we—of different generations—feel a sense of harmony, a common history and destiny? Will we be able to talk to each other heart to heart? Or will alienation set in? Will the grandchildren have different life agendas than we have?

The larger question is: how can we hold our community and culture together from generation to generation? How do we avoid the ubiquitous problem of “the generation gap”?

The Mishnah (Eduyot 2:9) cites the opinion of Rabbi Akiba, who stated that parents transmit 6 characteristics to their children: physical appearance, strength, wealth, wisdom, longevity. The sixth quality is “mispar ha-dorot lefanav”, the number of generations before them. But what exactly does this mean?


Children are not born into a historical vacuum. They are heirs to the generations of their family going back through the centuries and millennia. In the case of Jewish children (and grandchildren), they are not only heirs to their particular family’s traditions, but “inherit” all the previous generations of the Jewish people going back to the time of Abraham and Sarah.

The challenge to the older generations is to transmit to the new generations a feeling of connectedness with the past. We introduce our children and grandchildren to “the number of generations before them”, so that they come to see the biblical characters of thousands of years ago as part of their own group of close friends. We teach them that “we” were slaves in Egypt; that “we” were redeemed; that “we” built the Temples in Jerusalem; that “we” went into exile. Rashi and Rambam “are” our teachers. Our earlier generations continue to live in our memories, and are a presence in our lives. We want our children and grandchildren to understand that they are engaged in a life-long dialogue among all the generations of their family and of their people. What a wonderful gift to give children! And what a tragedy when this gift is not conveyed!

In a traditional religious setting, there need not be a generation gap where alienation sets in between the generations. In some unique, mysterious way, the different generations see themselves as contemporaries. We share a spiritual outlook, a set of ideals, a style of living according to the mitzvoth. We have the gift of “the number of generations before us”.

In this week’s Parasha, Jacob gives his blessing to his grandchildren, Joseph’s sons, praying that “the angel who redeemed me from all evil will bless the lads; and let my name be named on them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.” Jacob wanted continuity from generation to generation; he wanted the grandchildren to cherish the names and ideals of their grandparents and forebears; he wanted the family to grow and prosper, spreading the word of God throughout the land.

These are the blessings we pray for our own children, grandchildren and generations yet to come. Od Avinu Hai, Am Yisrael Hai.



Dealing with Intermarried Family/Friends; Sitting on the Floor; Owning Guns--Rabbi M. Angel Answers Questions from the Jewish Press

How should we treat friends and family members who inter-marry?


Each situation is unique and needs to be evaluated separately. There isn’t one correct or effective answer to this question.

Halakha distinguishes between a mumar le-tei’avon (who sins for personal pleasure) and a mumar le-hach’is (who sins defiantly). Often, Jews who intermarry are in the first category. They happened to meet a non-Jewish person, entered a friendly relationship, and fell in love. Such individuals may still maintain a strong Jewish identity and may want their children to be raised as Jews. In these cases, it often is best to maintain cordial relationships with the intermarried relative or friend in the hope that they will eventually come closer. Perhaps their non-Jewish spouse will convert.

When a Jewish woman intermarries, her children will be halakhically Jewish. We certainly would want the children to be raised as Jewishly as possible. Alienating their mother would be counter-productive.

In the case of a mumar le-hach’is, we would naturally feel less conciliatory. The person has willfully and spitefully chosen to break with the Jewish people. We would have strong feelings of betrayal. Yet, even in these cases, we need to consider the Jewishness of future children. Even if the mumar le-hach’is deeply disappoints us, we should think long and hard before cutting off all connections with him or her.

Intermarriage rates continue to rise, and the Orthodox community is not immune. The stigma that once attached to intermarriage has been diminishing even among many who identify as Orthodox Jews.  Whether we like it or not, dealing with intermarried relatives and friends is an ongoing challenge. The quality of hesed is an important asset.


Is it proper to casually sit on the floor (say, to play with one's children or at kumsitz) when it is not Tisha B'Av?


The real question is: why shouldn’t one sit on the floor to play with one’s children or at a kumsitz?  The halakha has many prohibitions, but there’s no prohibition to sitting on the floor.

Why, then, are some people averse to sitting on the floor? The most obvious answer is that this is a practice associated with mourning. Some have an emotional/visceral discomfort with doing something that reflects mourning. Similarly, some disapprove of walking around the house in socks, since that also evokes the custom of not wearing leather shoes during Shiva or on Tisha B’Av.

If indeed someone has an aversion to sitting on the floor, that is a private decision. But for those who see this as a needless stringency, let them sit on the floor as they think best.


Is It Proper to Own a Gun?


The National Safety Council reported that in 2020 over 45,000 people died in the United States from gun wounds. While most entailed crimes of murder or suicide, over 500 people died through gun-related accidents. Having a gun in one’s house, unless carefully locked away, is an invitation to disaster.

If someone feels that owning a gun is vital to the safety of oneself and family, then one should train carefully on the use of the gun. One should be absolutely sure that the gun is kept locked and out of reach of others—including children—who could be tempted to use it unsafely.

Given the general rise in crime and the specific rise in anti-Jewish crime, it is (unfortunately) becoming more common to think about owning a gun as a means of self-defense. The problem is that owning a gun does not in itself provide safety. The criminals are more adept at gun use and are likely to act more quickly and more violently if resisted by an amateur gun-holder.

While I think it is preferable for civilians not to own a gun, it is understandable why some feel the need for a gun in order to defend themselves, their families and businesses. If one is to own a gun, though, he/she must be thoroughly trained on its use. The gun must be stored in an absolutely safe manner so as to avoid accidental shootings.

Instead of giving one peace of mind, owning a gun might have the opposite effect of causing ongoing anxiety. The exception would be where a person feels so threatened that gun ownership becomes imperative. Each person must evaluate the risk/benefit ratio of gun ownership.


Reflections on Torah Education and Mis-Education

Our community is deeply committed to the transmission of Torah from one generation to the next. We devote tremendous resources to ensure that our children and grandchildren become steeped in Torah knowledge and grow into Torah observant Jews. A critical concern must be how we and our schools transmit the words of Hazal to our students. Obviously, the teachings of our sages are of central importance; it is unfortunate, then, when the words Hazal are taught inappropriately. Religious education becomes mis-education.

In his introduction to Perek Helek, Rambam criticized a literalist, fundamentalist approach to the words of Hazal. Since the sages were wise and reasonable, their words obviously were filled with wisdom and rationality. When their statements seem to veer from reason, we must understand them as being symbolic, homiletical or hyperbolic—not literally true. It would be absurd to call for an acceptance of the literal truth of aggadic and midrashic statements which violate reason or which have later been shown to be factually incorrect.

According to Rambam, those who insist on the literal truth of all the statements of Hazal are not only doing a disservice to our sages, but are corrupting our religion. “This group of impoverished understanding—one must pity their foolishness. According to their understanding, they are honoring and elevating our sages; in fact they are lowering them to the end of lowliness. They do not even understand this. By Heaven! This group is dissipating the glory of the Torah and clouding its lights, placing the Torah of God opposite of its intention.” Rambam believed that demanding acceptance of Hazal’s words even when they were patently unreasonable or incorrect, was not a demonstration of loyalty to the rabbis; rather it was a serious demeaning of their intellectual credibility. Reasonable people would come to dismiss the rabbis as serious thinkers, and would lose confidence in their religious authority.

Rabbi Abraham, son of Rambam, noted that one must not accept the truth of a statement simply on the authority of the person who stated it. Rather, we must use our reason to determine its validity. Moreover, it is intellectually unsound to accept blindly the teachings of our sages in matters of medicine and natural science, since these were not their areas of expertise. “We and every intelligent and wise person, are obligated to evaluate each idea and each statement, to find the way in which to understand it; to prove the truth and establish that which is worthy of being established, and to annul that which is worthy of being annulled….We see that our sages themselves said: if it is a halakhah [universally accepted legal tradition] we will accept it; but if it is a ruling [based on individual opinion], there is room for discussion.[1]

Rambam and his son argued that one need not and must not suppress reason to be a religious person. We should not be expected to surrender reason when we evaluate rabbinical statements. Nor should we teach Torah to our children and students in a manner that demands blind obedience and suspension of reason. Otherwise, they will grow up one day and realize that we have taught them irrational or incorrect things; this will cause them to mistrust everything we have taught them.

These thoughts have come to mind recently due to a number of specific cases.

1.A ten year old boy’s day school class was told by their Torah teacher that dinosaurs never existed. Since rabbinic tradition teaches that the world is less than 6000 years old, it is not possible that scientists can be correct when they state that dinosaurs lived on earth millions of years ago. The boy told his teacher that he recently visited the Museum of Natural History in New York City and saw dinosaur bones with his own eyes! How could the teacher deny that dinosaurs existed? The teacher responded: “you did not see dinosaur bones. What you saw were dog bones that became swollen during Noah’s flood.”

2. A science teacher in a modern Orthodox day school was dissecting a sheep’s larynx as part of a science lesson for her eighth grade class. Some students noticed that the wind pipe was in front and the food pipe was behind it. The students said: this can’t be correct. We learned in Torah class that the food pipe is on the left and the wind pipe is on the right. That is why we recline to the left on Passover eve at the seder, so that the food will go straight down the food pipe. If we leaned to the right, the food would go to the wind pipe and we could choke. The teacher asked the students to look at the sheep’s larynx: they could see for themselves that the pipes were located one behind the other, not side by side. A student suggested that this may be true for sheep, but could not be true for humans. The teacher pointed out that the physiology for humans was the same. After class, the teacher discussed this issue with various Jewish studies teachers and administration members. Most had assumed that the pipes were side by side. Even when presented with the scientific facts, they were reluctant to accept this information. One teacher said: “I would find it difficult to teach something that goes against Hazal.” (But he apparently would not find it difficult to teach something that was demonstrably false!)

3. A junior high school class was studying the laws relating to washing hands in the morning. The teacher explained, following the Shulhan Arukh (O.H. 4:2-3), that the hands are washed in order to eliminate an evil spirit (ruah ra’ah). One is not allowed to touch the eyes or other sensitive parts of the body before washing hands, otherwise there is a danger that the evil spirit will cause harm. One student asked: what is the meaning of evil spirit? Most people in the world don’t wash their hands in the ritually prescribed way first thing in the morning. They touch their eyes and ears—but no harm seems to happen to them! Does the evil spirit only affect religious Jews, and no one else? The teacher told the student he was being impudent, and that it was a principle of faith that we should trust the wisdom of our sages. If the Shulhan Arukh says that there is a dangerous evil spirit on our hands in the morning, then that is absolute fact, not subject to doubt on our part.

4. While studying the Torah portion dealing with the marriage of Yitzhak and Rivka, students were told by their teacher that Rivka was three years old when she provided water to the camels of Abraham’s servant, and when she soon thereafter married Yitzhak. This, of course, is a midrashic teaching. A student asked: how was it possible for a three-year-old girl to water camels? It would have required far too much strength for any child so young. Moreover, if she were only three years old, why did her father ask her if she were willing to leave home to marry Abraham’s son: she would have been far too young to make such a decision. Also, is it reasonable to think that a forty year old man like Yitzhak would actually marry a three-year-old girl? The Torah’s description of Rivka certainly implies that she was much older than three. The rabbi responded: if Hazal say that Rivka was three years old, that’s how old she was! There is no room for further discussion.

5. A kindergarten student brought home a packet with pictures describing the story of Megillat Esther. One of the pictures depicted Vashti with pimples and a green tail. The child’s parent asked the teacher why she had included such an odd picture, when there was nothing in the text of the Megillah that warranted such a bizarre rendition of Vashti. The teacher replied that that is how she had learned the story, and that it was based on a midrashic description of Vashti. The parent asked why the teacher did not tell the students that this was from the midrash, and not in the text of the Megillah. The teacher responded that the teachings of Hazal in the midrash provide the true meaning of the text, and that there is no need to differentiate between the biblical text and rabbinic interpretation.

The above cases, reflective of the educational approach of many religious schools and individuals, are symptomatic of serious problems in the way our community transmits Torah teachings. The fundamentalist, literalist position—so vehemently criticized by Rambam—still holds sway among many Orthodox Jews. It is incumbent upon rabbis, teachers and parents to steer Torah education towards a rational and reasonable understanding of the words of our sages.

Torah and Science:

Since One God created both Torah and science, it is axiomatic that Torah and science can never be in fundamental conflict. Torah and science are manifestations of One God, the Author of truth. If Torah and science appear to be at odds on certain points, then either we have not understood Torah properly or we have not done our science correctly.

Scientific knowledge has progressed tremendously since ancient times. Each generation has contributed to the cumulative knowledge of humanity, and this process continues in our generation; it will continue in future generations as well. With the advent of new tools of research, scientists have been able to expand the horizon of scientific knowledge. If ancient or medieval sages believed that the earth is flat, that the earth is the center of the universe, or that the sun orbits around the earth—this can hardly be surprising, since that is what their level of scientific knowledge was in those times. Nor can they be faulted for not knowing things that were discovered or theorized long after their deaths. Rashi thought that the Atlantic Ocean was “the end of the world”; Rambam believed that the Ptolemaic system of astronomy was correct; Hazal thought that eclipses were signs of Divine wrath rather than predictable natural phenomena. It would be absurd to defend the outdated scientific views of these sages, since we now know that their views have proven to be incorrect. The sages based themselves on the best available scientific information; but later research and discoveries have led to more precise and accurate information. We need to address issues based on the current level of scientific knowledge. Let us turn to the question of the age of the universe, in light of Torah tradition and modern science.

Ancient Jewish sages calculated the age of humanity by adding up the ages of Biblical characters from the time of Adam. There were differences of opinion as to the exact age, since the Biblical account leaves some room for interpretation.[2] The Bible itself does not use the anno mundi (from the creation of the world) dating system, and the dating system that we currently use (5766 at the writing of this article) seems to have become widespread only after Talmudic times. The Tosafot (Gittin 80b, Zo Divrei Rabbi Meir) wonders why it is permissible to date bills of divorce from beriat olam, when in fact early divorces (and other documents) were dated based on the year of the ruling king of the land in which Jews resided.[3]

In fact, though, the current dating system does not date from the creation of the world, but from the creation of Adam. Literalists assume that the age of the world is reached by adding the first five days of creation to Adam’s age. This would mean that the world was created less than six thousand years ago—hence the impossibility of anything existing before that time. But we have unequivocal fossil evidence of beings that existed millions of years ago, and other scientific evidence that the universe came into being billions of years ago. The literalists solve the dilemma by denying the existence of anything prior to 5766 years ago. They dismiss scientific evidence as inaccurate, false, or based on wrong scientific assumptions. They stake their faith on the truth of the world being 5766 years old. Dinosaurs could not have existed millions of years ago; when we see dinosaur bones, we are really seeing “dog bones that were swollen during Noah’s flood”; or bones that God planted just to fool us into thinking the world was older than 5766; or bones which have been dated wrongly due to the ineptitude of scientists.

Yet, does the Torah really require us to deny scientific evidence in order to justify the anno mundi dating system? The Rambam would argue that the opposite is true, namely that we should seek truth and thereby come closer to the Author of truth. If science has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that dinosaurs existed millions of years ago, then we need to reject the literalist view that the universe is 5766 years old.

It has been pointed out that the six days of creation were not 24 hour days. Indeed, the sun was not created until the fourth day, so there could not have been a sunset or sunrise on the first three “days”. The word “days” might better be understood to mean “periods” of indeterminate length. At each period of the creation, there was a development from a simpler stage to a more complex stage. Since these six “days” of creation could have lasted billions of years by human calculation, then dinosaurs had ample time to live and become extinct before Adam and Eve were created on the sixth “day”.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan has cited classic rabbinic texts asserting that the world is much older than the 5766 years implied by our current dating system. The Sefer ha-Temunah, attributed to the Tanna Rabbi Nehunya ben ha-Kanah, suggests that there were other worlds before Adam was created. The Midrash Rabba on Bereishith 1:5 teaches that there were “orders of time” prior to the first day of creation recorded in the Torah. The Talmud records the view that there were 974 generations before Adam (Hagigah 13b).

Most interesting is the view of Rabbi Yitzhak of Akko, a student and colleague of the Ramban and one of the foremost Kabbalists of his time. In examining one of Rabbi Yitzhak’s important works, Ozar ha-Hayyim, Rabbi Kaplan discovered that Rabbi Yitzhak adduced that the universe is a bit over 15.3 billion years old! This theory by a medieval kabbalist, based on interpretations of Biblical and rabbinic texts, is remarkably close to the calculations of modern science that dates the “Big Bang” at approximately 15 billion years ago.[4] Rabbi Yitzhak felt no need to offer farfetched explanations to keep the universe within the 6000 year range. He, and his many pious colleagues and students, had no problem at all positing a universe that was billions of years old; they did not see this calculation as in any way impinging on the truth of Torah. It is significant, then, that we have legitimate traditions in Torah Judaism that view the universe as being far older than 5766 years.

Our schools should not be teaching our children that dinosaurs did not exist. They should not be telling children that the dinosaur bones are just “dog bones swollen in the flood of Noah’s time”. This is not Torah education, but mis-education. Not only is there no religious necessity to teach such nonsense; it is a religious mandate NOT to teach falsehood. To cloak falsity in the clothing of religion is to undermine true religion.

Likewise, in the matter of the location of the wind pipe and food pipe, it is educationally and morally unsound to teach patently false information in order to “validate” the mistaken notions of sages of earlier generations. The Talmud (Pesahim 108a) states that reclining backward or to the right is not a valid way of reclining, adding the explanation that leaning incorrectly may endanger a person by causing the food go down the wind pipe. Rashi states that this explanation refers to leaning backward. Rashbam, though, takes issue with Rashi and cites his teachers who claimed that the esophagus was on the right; when a person reclines to the right, this causes the epiglottis to open, increasing the possiblity of choking. (The more usual explanation is that the wind pipe is on the right, so that leaning to the right may result in choking.) Although neither Rambam nor the Shulhan Arukh cite this explanation, it was cited by the Magen Abraham and the Taz—and became a widespread teaching.[5] Yet, it is factually incorrect—and therefore certainly should not be taught as the reason why we recline to the left.

When teaching children to recline to the left at the seder, a suitable explanation is that in antiquity free people ate while sitting on couches. They reclined to the left so that their right hand would be available to hold their food. If someone should ask: don’t we lean to the left because that is where our food pipe is, the answer is: some people mistakenly thought this was the reason, but it is not the correct reason. The food pipe and wind pipe are not side by side.

As a general principle, we need to emphasize to our children and students that Hazal’s statements on science were based on their level of scientific knowledge. Our sages themselves admitted that the wise men of the non-Jews had greater knowledge in some scientific matters (Pesahim 94b). Rabbi Haim David Halevy observed: “If it becomes clear through precise scientific method that a specific idea expressed by our sages is not entirely correct, this does not mar their greatness, Heaven forbid, and their greatness as sages of Torah. Their words relating to Torah were stated with the power of the holiness of Torah with a kind of divine inspiration; but their other words on general topics were stated from the depth of their human wisdom only.[6]

Ruah Ra’ah:

Many of our sages in earlier generations believed in demons (shedim), malevolent metaphysical forces (e.g. ayin ha-ra), astrology, and other such things. So did many of the wise and learned non-Jews of those times. These beliefs are not only cited in the Talmud but in some cases also have entered into a number of standard halakhic codes. How are we to understand these sources, and how are we to explain them to our children and students? Let us consider one such concept, ruah ra’ah, as an illustration of how to address this issue.

The Shulhan Arukh (O.H. 4:2) rules that one must pour water three times on each hand upon awakening, in order to remove the ruah ra’ah, an evil spirit that clings to the hands. In 4:3, the Shulhan Arukh states that before washing the hands, a person should not touch his mouth, nose, ears or eyes. Since the unwashed fingers have a ruah ra’ah on them, touching these sensitive organs is dangerous.

Various commentators have offered explanations of the nature of this ruah ra’ah. Some say that it clings to the hands because during sleep a person’s hands may touch various parts of the body and become unclean (physically and/or spiritually). Others say that sleeping is akin to death; just as one needs purification when coming into contact with death, so one needs purification when awakening from sleep. The Zohar states: “For when a person is sleeping, his spirit flies away from him, and as his spirit flies off, an impure spirit is ready to settle on his hands, defiling them. So it is forbidden to offer a blessing with them without first washing.”[7]

While the halakha mandates the ritual washing of hands in the morning, is the belief in ruah ra’ah a religious requirement? Can the washing of hands be explained in another way?

Rambam cites the rule of washing in the morning, in the laws of prayer (4:2-3). Washing of the hands (and face and legs as well) is part of the proper preparation for coming before the Almighty in prayer. Rambam does not mention ruah ra’ah at all! He apparently believed that the obligation to wash before prayer was a matter of physical cleanliness and ritual purification, but was not connected to ruah ra’ah. Taking Rambam’s approach, then, we can observe and teach the practice of ritual washing in the morning without conditioning it on a belief in ruah ra’ah.[8]

While Rambam dismissed the notion of ruah ra’ah as the reason for washing hands in the morning, other sages were not as forthright. Though doubting that ruah ra’ah can cause bodily injury, they were reluctant to reject a belief recorded in the Talmud and other rabbinic texts. They resolved the problem by proposing that the ruah ra’ah existed in past times, but has lost its efficacy in modern times. The Maharam ben Habib, for example, pointed out: “in our times, we have never seen nor heard of anyone touching his eyes with unwashed hands in the morning, who then became blind [because of this]; therefore [it must be that] ruah ra’ah of the morning is no longer found among us.”[9] The opinion that ruah ra’ah has lost its efficacy in our times was also expressed by the MaharShaL, Eliyah Rabbah and others.[10]

Rabbi Haim David Halevy, a great posek who was also devoted to the Zohar, noted that there are many topics that transcend our understanding, including the concept of ruah ra’ah. The ruah ra’ah refers to matters in the spiritual world which are beyond our power of reason to comprehend. Yet, when he describes the fulfillment of the hand-washing, Rabbi Halevy provides a meaningful and reasonable explanation: “Since the intention of the heart is the essence of fulfilling commandments, it is fitting that one should think at the time of washing that in this way he prepares himself for the service of the Creator, just as a priest who washed his hands in the Temple.”[11]

Obviously, we must observe and teach the halakha of the ritual washing of hands in the morning. But we are not obliged to believe or inculcate a belief in ruah ra’ah. When teaching the Shulhan Arukh’s text on ruah ra’ah, we can explain that many people believed in this concept in those days; that Rambam did not even mention the term in his codification of the rules of washing in the morning; that it is not religiously required to believe in this concept. It can also be pointed out that various sages suggested that ruah ra’ah has lost its efficacy in our times, i.e. that it is no longer a relevant concept for us. We can explain hand-washing as a ritual purification after sleeping at night; or as a ritual purification in preparation for prayer. It is inappropriate to insist that children believe in ruah ra’ah as a tenet of our religious tradition. It is wrong to teach that touching one’s eyes, nose, mouth or ears with unwashed hands will cause bodily harm. It is pedagogically and intellectually unsound to compel students to accept things that are demonstrably false, and to dress such teachings in the garb of religious truth. This can only lead to the degradation of religion in the eyes of the students as they grow older and more sophisticated in their thinking. They may come to equate religion and superstition—a very dangerous and unfortunate eventuality.

The Nature of Midrashic/Aggadic Statements:

While some rabbinic opinion has favored a literalist interpretation of the words of Hazal, other rabbinic opinion has sharply rejected this approach.[12] Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes, an ardent defender of the wisdom of Hazal, made an obvious point: “There are several subjects in the Gemara whose meaning cannot be taken in a literal sense, because the text expounded literally would depict God as a corporeal being, and would also at times involve an act of blasphemy. We should, and we are, indeed, duty-bound to believe that the transmitters of the true Kabbalah, who are known to us as righteous and saintly men and also as accomplished scholars, would not speak merely in an odd manner. We must therefore believe that their words were uttered with an allegorical or mystical sense and that they point to matters of the most elevated significance, far beyond our mental grasp.”[13] Rabbi Chajes offered examples of rabbinic teachings that were stated rhetorically in order to stir the curiosity of listeners; that expressed profound ideas in figurative style; that employed parables and hyperbole. To take these midrashim literally would be to misunderstand totally the methods and the messages of Hazal. [14]

Rabbi Haim David Halevy pointed out that Hazal often disagreed with each other in their midrashic interpretations. It is impossible that two opposite opinions can both be historically true. For example, the Torah reports that after the death of Yosef a new Pharaoh arose over Egypt. Rav suggested that this referred to an actual new Pharaoh. Shemuel, though, interpreted this to mean that the same Pharaoh made new decrees against the Israelites. These statements cannot both be true.[15] Neither Rav nor Shemuel offered historical evidence or tradition to support his view; rather, their opinions flowed from their own reading of the Biblical text.

Hazal’s interpretations were often made to convey a moral lesson, not to comment on actual historical events. For example, Rav Nahman suggests that Yaacov and family, on their way to Egypt to reunite with Yosef, stopped at Beer Sheva and chopped down trees that had been planted by Abraham. They took this wood with them to Egypt, and kept it throughout the centuries of their captivity. When they left Egypt, they brought this wood with them, and used it in building the Mishkan in the wilderness. [16]This is a beautiful way of tying together the history of the Israelites with their original ancestor, Abraham. Yet, there is no reason to assume that Rav Nahman did historical research that led to this interpretation, and there is no compelling reason to believe that he had an ancient oral tradition on this point; nor did he claim to have one. The significance of his interpretation has nothing to do with its historicity, but everything to do with the lasting influence of Abraham on the children of Israel.

Since Hazal utilized various literary and rhetorical techniques, it is essential to approach their statements with care. It is also essential to recognize that their interpretations reflect their own particular views, rather than a clearly defined, divinely ordained oral tradition.

Hai Gaon taught that the aggadah included statements by rabbis where “each one interpreted whatever came to his heart.” We do not rely on the words of aggadah, but view them as personal opinions.[17] Sherira Gaon taught that aggadah, midrash and homiletical interpretations of the Bible were in the category of umdena, personal opinion and speculation.[18] The Gaon Shemuel ben Hofni stated: “If the words of the ancients contradict reason, we are not obligated to accept them.”[19]

The non-literalist view of Hazal’s statements has a long and distinguished tradition including the Gaonim, Shemuel ha-Naggid, Rambam and his son, Ramban and so many others. In more recent times, the view was well expressed by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who noted that “aggadic sayings do not have Sinaitic origin….Nor must someone whose opinion differs from that of our sages in a matter of aggadah be deemed a heretic, especially as the sages themselves frequently differ.”[20]

When we teach midrashim/aggadot, we must be sophisticated enough to view these passages in their literary and rhetorical context. We must not force a literalist interpretation, especially when such an interpretation violates reason, or when alternative valid interpretations are also available.

Some sages examined the Biblical stories and calculated that Rivka was three years old when she watered the camels of Abraham’s servant. This calculation, recorded in Seder Olam, assumes that Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for Yitzhak immediately after the Akedah. Yet, the Torah itself does not specify if this occurred immediately after the Akedah or if there was a lapse of some years between stories. The Tosafot (Yebamot 61b, vekhein hu omer) reports a rabbinic calculation which concludes that Rivka was fourteen years old at the time she watered the camels! Thus, even within classic rabbinic literature there is a difference of opinion as to how old Rivka was. The view that she was three years old apparently wishes to underscore the unusual, even miraculous, qualities of Rivka. The view that she was fourteen years old apparently wishes to understand the text in a more realistic light. Rivka obviously was old enough and mature enough to water camels, to decide to leave home to be married, and to marry Yitzhak.

When discussing the age of Rivka, then, it is fine to relate the rabbinic tradition that she was three, as a midrashic way of underscoring the unusual qualities of Rivka, just as a midrash has Abraham discovering God at the age of three. But it should also be noted that a valid rabbinic tradition holds that Rivka was actually fourteen at the time (and Abraham was forty, forty-eight or fifty-two when he discovered God). This view, of course, is more reasonable. No parent or teacher should insist that a child or student must believe that Rivka was three “because Hazal said so”. Hazal also said she was fourteen! Midrashic statements are often made to convey a lesson, not to record historical truth. In presenting midrashim, we need to examine their underlying lessons.

When the midrash is taught as though it is an integral part of the Biblical text, this does violence to the Biblical text—and also to the midrash. Students should always be able to differentiate between what is stated in the text, and what is later rabbinic interpretation. This is especially true when midrashim present supernatural or very odd details; students may come to believe that these midrashic elements are actually part of the Bible. If they later reject these strange midrashim, they may feel they are actually rejecting the Bible itself—and this may lead to much spiritual turmoil.

A well known tendency of midrash is to glorify the righteous characters and to vilify the wicked characters. Biblical heroes become larger than life in their goodness; and Biblical villains are characterized by all sorts of vices and defects. This is part of the story-telling and moralizing method of midrashic literature. This midrashic method should be taught to students, so that they become familiar with the style of Hazal in praising the righteous and condemning the wicked. This method will help us to understand the midrash’s presentation of Vashti.

The text of the Megillah tells us very little about Vashti. We do not know why she refuses to appear at the command of the king. Her refusal could be interpreted very positively: she was modest, and she was courageous in refusing her husband’s inappropriate command. But the midrashic mindset wants to vilify Ahashverosh—and also his wife. It is suggested that Vashti descends from the wicked Nebuchadnezar; that is why she is a “good” match for Ahashverosh. They are both corrupt people. If she is part of Nebuchadnezar’s evil family, she too must be evil. Then why didn’t she appear at Ahashverosh’s command? The reason could not be because she was modest or courageous; that would impute virtues to her. So the midrash suggests, perhaps with outlandish humor, that Vashti was stricken with hideous physical defects—pimples and a tail—so that she was embarrassed to appear before the king and his retinue. That is why she refused to come. This depiction deprives Vashti of moral virtue, and makes her a comical character punished with physical defects symbolic of her wicked soul.

I wonder what the point is of teaching this midrashic interpretation to kindergarten children. It is unlikely that they will understand the midrashic method underlying this description of Vashti. Teachers may like to teach this in order to make the children laugh and have their imaginations aroused. Yet, in the long run this lesson does damage to the children unless the teacher makes it very clear that this is a midrashic vilification of Vashti, not the description found in the Megillah’s text. Hazal never claimed that their midrashim were to be indistinguishable from the Biblical text, nor should we make that claim for them.

The points made in this article should seem fairly clear and obvious to all those interested in proper Torah education. Yet, the fact is that much mis-education is found in our homes, synagogues and schools. A simplistic, literalist approach to the words of Hazal continues to be influential—and very widespread. This is not only intellectually and pedagogically unsound: it is a degradation of Torah and Hazal, as pointed out by the Rambam. We all need to raise our voices for the sake of Torah, truth and the religious wellbeing of our future generations.

[1].See his Ma-amar Odot Derashot Hazal, printed in the introductory section of the Ein Yaacov.[
[2] Azariah de Rossi (1511-1578) pointed out the discrepancies in the rabbinic calculations in his Meor Enayim, Vilna, 1865, in the section Yemei Olam. See especially pp. 64f and pp. 223f.
[3] See Isaac S. D. Sassoon, Destination Torah, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, 2001, pp. 4-5.
[4] Aryeh Kaplan, Immortality, Resurrection and the Age of the Universe: A Kabbalistic View, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, 1993, p. 9. See also Nathan Aviezer, In the Beginning, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, 1990.
[5] Rambam, Hilkhot Hamets U-Matsah 7:8; Shulhan Arukh, O.H. 472:3, and the Magen Abraham and Taz on this passage. The Tur, O.H. 472, inverses the opinions of Rashi and Rashbam.
[6] Asei Lekha Rav, Tel Aviv, 5743, 5:49
[7] The Zohar, translation and commentary by Daniel C. Matt, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2004, vol. 1, p. 70. See also note 524 on p. 69.
[8] See the discussion of the Arukh ha-Shulhan, O.H. 4, where he cites others who view the hand-washing as preparation for prayer.
[9] Cited in note 8 of Yalkut Yosef, by Yitzhak Yosef, Jerusalem, 5745, volume one of Tefillah, pp. 9-10.
[10] Ibid.

[11] Mekor Hayyim, Jerusalem, 5743, vol. 1, 2:5. For a discussion of Rabbi Halevy’s approach to halakha and kabbala, see Marc D. Angel with Hayyim Angel, Rabbi Haim David Halevy: Gentle Scholar and Courageous Thinker, Urim Publications, Jerusalem, 2006.
[12] For a discussion of both traditions in rabbinic literature, see my article “Authority and Dissent: A Discussion of Boundaries,” in Tradition, 25:2, Winter 1990, pp. 22f.
[13]The Student’s Guide to the Talmud, London, 1952, p. 201. See also his discussion on p. 208f.
[14] Ibid., chapters 26-30.

[15] Asei Lekha Rav 5:49.
[16] Midrash Rabbah ha-Mevoar, Jerusalem, 5748, vol.4, Bereishith 94:4
[17] Ozar ha-Geonim, ed. B. M. Lewin, Jerusalem, 5692, vol. 4 (Hagigah), pp. 59-60.
[18] Ibid., p. 60.

[19] Ibid., pp. 4-5,

[20] Joseph Munk, “Two Letters of Samson Raphael Hirsch, a Translation,” L’Eylah, April, 1989, pp. 30-35.