National Scholar Updates

The Hareidi Option


Many students from Modern Orthodox homes learn from Hareidi teachers at some point in their educational journey, an influence that plays a role in the “move to the right.” There are frequently not enough Modern Orthodox educators available, especially in schools outside of the American Northeast, such as those in Memphis and Chicago. Secondly, parents often lack the ideological awareness required to identify subtler Hareidi positions held by staff members. How many parents understand hashkafic differences among yeshivot and seminaries?[i]

            Beyond the above factors, some do understand the choice and make a pragmatic calculation. In the challenging times of our postmodern condition, a more Hareidi institution may be a safer bet for keeping children in the Orthodox orbit. Though the Hareidi dropout rate is larger than often acknowledged, we will assume here that Modern Orthodoxy has an inferior batting average. Understandably, parents and educators think that the Hareidi voice will keep their children more religiously observant. 

            Children who turn Hareidi will still share our love of Shabbat and Talmud Torah; they will appreciate the solemnity of Neilah and the joy of Purim. They can support one of the many Hareidi hessed organizations, such as those that provide meals at hospitals. If one lives in America, issues of avoiding army service and not receiving a secular high school education cease to be problems.[ii] Why not adopt this strategy?

            The ensuing pages will explain potential perils in this plan; indeed, no risk-free options exist in this world. We will explore various Hareidi positions that many Modern Orthodox Jews will find extremely problematic. I admit at the outset that some of this essay's examples highlight more extreme ideas in the Hareidi world. To counter the critique that I am cherry picking, I offer the following responses.

            I am not actually utilizing the most extreme voices such as Neturei Karta, Satmar hassidut, R. Menashe Klein, and the like. The voices I do cite are usually either significant rabbinic authorities (such as R. Wasserman, Hazon Ish, the Steipler, R. Dessler) or teachers at mainstream institutions (such as Chaim Berlin, Toras Moshe). The ideas surveyed have a place in conventional Hareidi discourse. Even if competing visions exist in the Hareidi orbit, someone joining the Hareidi world may not adopt more moderate versions. Furthermore, one cannot find other Hareidi leaders explicitly criticizing the positions outlined here. Thus, the risk of our children becoming attached to a harsher Hareidi view remains quite real. 

            A second critique of this essay could claim that the surveyed opinions have a basis in ma’amarei Hazal (talmudic and midrashic statements) and can be justified as is. I think that this will be true for some examples and not for others. In any case, my argument is not that none of this has rabbinic backing but that these are not positions congenial to Modern Orthodox Jews. For example, one can find traditional sources stating that, after a thousand years, the edict against polygamy has run out but we would think poorly of someone who relied upon that position. 

            Many of the sources involve disciples or family members citing prominent rabbis. I assert at the outset that I do not assume the accuracy of all of these stories. If the stories are true, my argument becomes stronger since it turns out that famous rabbis affirmed these ideas. If the stories are false, they still reflect a mode of discourse in the Hareidi world that goes unchallenged. Thus, the problem remains intact, albeit in less-intense form. We shall now explore Hareidi attitudes toward women, gentiles, Zionism, divine providence, faith, as well as other categories. This exploration reveals dramatic difference between communities. 




Modern Orthodox Jews resist the notion that men bear a higher ontological worth than women, but this idea appears in Hareidi literature. R. Dovid Kastel, a Rosh Kollel in Yerushalayim, writes that “a big portion of a woman’s purpose is to be a helpmate; therefore, men are more fundamental than women.”[iii] In his portrayal of the ideal Jewish family structure, R. Avigdor Miller, mashgiah in Yeshivas Chaim Berlin for 20 years, writes, “There cannot be two kings.…The wife is submissive…. He is the captain, but she is the First Mate whose counsel is respected.”[iv] When Rav Michel Shurkin, longtime rebbe at Toras Moshe, was disappointed about the birth of a daughter, R. Moshe Feinstein consoled him by saying, “What difference does it make to you if someone else raises the iluy (talmudic prodigy) who marries your daughter?"[v] Note that the consolation relates not to the worth of the daughter but to the cognitive capabilities of the son-in-law. 

Modern Orthodox Jews would not denigrate the intellectual capabilities of women in the way that some Hareidi literature does. R. Yisrael Eliyahu Weintraub, a one-time mashgiah in Yeshivas Chaim Berlin who moved to Israel and became a close confidant of Rav Eliezer Menachem Shach, writes that “men need to develop their knowledge and wisdom” but women were not given this role; rather, they have the ability “to be fully dedicated to someone higher than them.”[vi] He counsels husbands not to explain deep matters to their wives but to go with simplicity. A little fear of judgment never hurt anyone.”[vii] R. Miller concurs. He advises women to look good for their husbands and not talk too much: “Talking and talking, you’re advertising that you have nothing in your head at all.”[viii]

These themes find powerful expression in additional stories told by R. Shurkin. He relates a story from his youth in which his older sister asked their father to learn some gemara together. His father’s face turned white and then the father gave his daughter a 10-dollar bill and told her to go buy a new dress. Note that he did not distract the sister with Tanakh or with works of Jewish thought but with clothing. Men study the depths of Torah whereas women like pretty dresses. R. Shurkin subsequently asked why the sister could not learn and his father told the following story. The father met a European Rav with a single daughter to whom he taught Torah. However, this learned daughter was unable to find a shiddukh since she considered every fellow too weak in learning for her. According to the elder R. Shurkin, this episode shows the perils of educating women.[ix] What kind of world makes their peace with the idea that bright and educated women cannot forge a healthy relationship with a husband?            

More extreme versions of the need for tzeniut are rampant in the Hareidi world with the inability to show women’s pictures a prominent contemporary example. A book recording practices of the Steipler provides numerous examples. In his later years, he refused to read notes handwritten by women and would insist that the husbands write out the requests.[x] He would be careful not to walk between little girls in the street.[xi] He cites the Hazon Ish as saying that, in the times of the Sanhedrin, they would have killed women who wear pants.[xii] I think we can safely say that these sayings and practices convey an exaggerated sense of women as sexually charged individuals. 




R. Kastel writes that “gentiles only have seven mitzvot because they are truly nothing but only as a drop in the bucket and [exist] to help Israel.”[xiii] R. Miller affirms that the function of the nations is “to supply Israel with opportunities to gain Perfection.”[xiv] Many mainstream Hareidi works assume that gentiles are incapable of great acts. R. Itamar Schwartz’s popular Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh states that non-Jews never perform acts of selfless love.[xv] Similarly, R. Moshe Dan Kestenbaum’s impressive Olam Ha-Middot affirms that gentile acts of compassion are truly self-serving.[xvi] The same attitude spills over into approaches to secular studies. If gentiles bear such little worth, they would obviously not produce great works of wisdom. Rav Shurkin relates that a discussion once broke out in his shul questioning if culture has any value. His father overheard the conversation, lifted his eyes, and said “Culture, nivul peh” and the debate ended.[xvii] R. Shurkin cites a Maimonidean ruling that the gentiles hate us and pursue us and, his father wondered, given such animosity, how even secular Jews could involve themselves in gentile culture.[xviii] The irony of basing such opposition on Rambam, who wrote that Aristotle almost achieved the level of prophecy, is lost on Rav Shurkin. I think this approach to gentiles and their wisdom is quite foreign to Modern Orthodox Jewry.


Zionism and Secularism 


Both R. Elchanan Wasserman[xix] and the Steipler associate Zionist leaders with Amalek.[xx] According to R. Shurkin, a yeshiva fellow considering army service consulted with R. Moshe Feinstein who cited a tradition in the name of R. Chayim Soloveitchik that the Zionists are suspect of murder and one should not enlist.[xxi] The Klozenberger Rebbe sketched a contrast between the rest of Jewish history and the modern era. For some 1,900 years of exile, great rabbis led Am Yisrael and the Jewish people did not face total destruction. Since secularists took over the leadership, we lost 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, Russian and American Jewry face major assimilation, and the Jews in Israel are living as if in the Warsaw ghetto albeit with some weapons.[xxii] His account glosses over the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Chmielnicki massacres and the extensive suffering of Jews at many points in the long exile. Furthermore, granting that the Holocaust is a tragedy of greater proportions (something the Hareidi world tends to downplay), it is unfair to blame it on secular Jewish leadership without a clear causal connection. 

R. Weintraub is quite extreme in this regard. He forcefully rejected an initiative to pair yeshiva students studying with Israeli soldiers in which the yeshiva fellows would learn and pray on behalf of their brethren in combat. His objections include the fact that earlier gedolim (the foremost rabbinic authorities of a generation) did not create such projects, that this initiative comes from a false feeling of inferiority on the part of the yeshiva students, and that he does not want any form of partnership or relationship with the secularists.[xxiii] He cites Rav Velvel Soloveitchik’s reaction to the 1956 Sinai Campaign. 


Those who were saved were due to the merit of the bnei Torah because the merit of Torah causes wondrous salvation. Those who were killed, may the merciful one protect us, were because they (the Zionists) were involved in this and if they had not been involved, no one would have been killed. It emerges that only those killed are on the government’s account but they have no connection to the great salvation that occurred for that goes to the account of those toiling in Torah.[xxiv]                              


Let us survey the past 75 years of Jewish history. A Hareidi community decimated by the Holocaust was able to rebuild Itself and the world of yeshivot largely by reestablishing yeshivot and communities in the land of Israel due to the Israeli government allowing them to manage their own school system with a minimum of interference, offering health care and other services, and granting them an exemption from army service while other Israelis patrolled the Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian, and Jordanian borders and fought in multiple wars. Is this citation of Rav Velvel Soloveitchik the Hareidi reaction? Actually, we saved all the lives, and you did nothing! The lack of hakarat haTov (thankfulness) and the desecration of God’s name (observant Jews repaying generosity with animosity) are frightening. No Modern Orthodox Jew would advance such positions. 

This attitude generates some revisionist history. Let us hear again from R. Miller.


The Zionists (also “religious Zionists”) delight in accusing the East-European Torah-leaders as “responsible” for the destruction of the Six Million, because they were not enthusiastic over the Zionist settlement of Eretz Yisrael. But it is common knowledge that the Torah-scholars founded the Jewish community in the Holy Land, and that the Zionists refused immigration for the orthodox.[xxv]   


We appreciate a declaration about not blaming the Torah leaders but that is no excuse for blaming the Zionists. His “common knowledge” is based on Ben Hecht’s Perfidy about which Deborah Lipstadt has said “he makes claims in there about the Labor Party, about Ben Gurion, not caring about what was going on in Europe, which is, again, historians now show, has simply not stood the test of time."[xxvi]                                                                                                               




The previous discussion leads us to different conceptions of providence. What is the balance between human activity and divine governance in how the world runs? R. Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, mashgiach at Ponevezh yeshiva, states that human endeavor actually produces nothing since God truly directs the world. The natural order is an illusion which the pious can overcome and thereby function in a more miraculous fashion. One classic formulation of this mode of thought says that humans must engage in hishtadlut (proper human effort), but they should realize that the effort does not truly bring about the desired result.[xxvii] I suggest that most Modern Orthodox Jews function with a worldview rooted in Rambam[xxviii] and Abravanel,[xxix] which recognizes the reality of the natural order and the ability of humanity to impact within that order.

R. Hayim Shmulevitz, Rosh Yeshiva at the Mir Yeshiva in Yerushlayim, cites two potential hashkafic positions. One says that the faithful can flourish with no efforts in the natural realm at all. The other disagrees and demands effort but everyone agrees that the effort has no direct impact. Hazal said “Greater is the one who enjoys the work of his hands more than the God fearer” (Berakhot 8a). I would have thought that this statement endorses human efforts. R. Shmulevitz explains that working individuals clearly experience how efforts play no role in achieving success and that realization is a major advantage.[xxx] He does not identify a possibility found in rishonim affirming the natural order and the human ability to manipulate the resources within it.[xxxi]       

Let us see where a R. Dessler or R. Shmulevitz style starting point can lead. R. Nosson Sherman cites R. Shimon Schwab as saying, “I am convinced that what protects our brothers and sisters in Israel is the merit of the kollel families that endure poverty and hunger for the sake of Torah.”[xxxii] Even ignoring the over-romanticizing of the kollel lifestyle, note how the soldiers receive no mention. The Hazon Ish writes that prayer accomplishes more than hishtadlut.[xxxiii] According to Rav Shurkin, when Rav Moshe Feinstein heard of a fellow working on a cure for cancer, he responded that “Even if he found the cure for cancer, it would not be worth the bittul Torah (distraction from Torah study).”[xxxiv] We end up in a place where heroic human efforts to better the lives of others lose their worth.  Only such a vantage point could explain the complete lack of gratitude toward the Israel Defense Forces.

Another factor may also play a role in downplaying the helpful efforts of secular Zionists. Earlier. we encountered the idea that gentiles are incapable of authentic benevolence. Secular Jews may not fare better. R. Avigdor Miller asserts that “Atheists, and disbelievers in a Torah from Sinai, are obviously insincere in any declarations of principles of any kind; they can have no more principle than birds or insects.”[xxxv] Such a perspective makes it very difficult to give credit to secularists.      

A more intensive conception of divine providence often leads to a more simplistic application of reward and punishment models. After a terrorist attack on a bus returning from the kotel in the summer of 2002, R. Weintraub explained that the mixture of women and men on the bus violated principles of tzeniut which is why the merit of prayer at the kotel did not save the passengers.[xxxvi] To be fair, he does not claim that the attack was a direct punishment for the lack of tzeniut but it still seems an extreme reaction to coed bussing. 

Matters get much more extreme when we turn to R. Avigdor Miller. R. Miller thinks we can understand the Holocaust due to the unprecedented level of assimilation in Germany. He finds various “measure for measure” items bolstering his theory:


Because the German Jews had spiritually destroyed their synagogues by Reform and by imitation of Churches, the Germans wrecked and burned the synagogues in the “Crystal Night.” German Jews bore gentile names; therefore the Nazis restored their Jewish identity by issuing a decree that every Jew must add the word “Israel” to his name and every Jewess the word “Sarah.”            

Because, for the first time in Jewish history, women had ceased to cover their hair, the Germans shaved them bald in the death camps. Because the virtues of chaste dress and behavior were diminished in imitation of the gentiles, they were marched naked to the gas chambers, and Jewish women were subjected to every barbarous indecency before being killed.     

Because they had so revered the physicians, especially the German specialists, they were subjected to the malicious experiments and torments which the German physicians imposed upon them.[xxxvii]


I believe no comment is necessary.   


Extreme Application of Values


R. Miller was likely led astray by his intense desire to justify God. When certain positive values become pushed to an extreme, other important values get unjustifiably shunted aside. The same phenomenon may explain how one could suggest that finding a cure for cancer does not excuse interrupting Torah study. The Hareidi world prizes Talmud Torah in a very impressive fashion; however, this may also prove to be an Achilles’ heel when taken to an extreme. R. Shurkin reports that when R. Elchanan Wasserman was learning in the Radin kollel, he received a telegram that his wife had given birth to a son. When he asked the Hafetz Hayim if he should return home, the latter answered, “Are you a mohel?”[xxxviii] I fully realize that travel was harder and infrequent in that era but perhaps rejoicing with one’s family in the birth of a child justifies missing some yeshiva time. 

A biography of R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv cites the childhood recollections of his daughter Bat Sheva, wife of R. Haim Kanievsky:


When we were children, he did not know us at all. He never spoke to us from good to bad. Only once a week, Shabbat afternoon, when he could not learn from a sefer because it was dark and he did not use the electricity, he would go out for a walk, and the children took turns accompanying their father. Do not think that he spoke to us; he consistently thought about learning, but it was an honor for the child to walk with father.[xxxix] 


Inconceivable that such a story would appear in a biography of R. Lichtenstein or R. Amital. I suggest that becoming a gadol actually involves the crucible of child rearing. 

According to R. Itamar Schwartz, a well-known story relates that R. Hayim Sanzer looked happy on the way back from his son's funeral. When questioned about this surprising mood, he answered with a parable. "A man waking in the street is struck in the back. He recoils backward to see who did it, and discovers that it was his good friend who clapped him on the back as a sign of affection."[xl] Here too, justifying God creates an idealization of a degree of indifference to the loss of one's child.   

An equally frightening tale appears in Shimusha Shel Torah, a work of stories from Rav Shach collected by R. Asher Bergman. R. Yosel Slutzker, later Rav of Slutzk, was orphaned from his father and was one of the best students in the Volozhin yeshiva. A letter arrived from his mother asking him to come home because she was struggling to maintain the family business. R. Hayim Volozhin hid the letter from his student. A second letter complained that she received no response to her first letter and R. Hayim hid that one as well. The third letter said that a fire had left them destitute. The fourth letter, from a sister, related that the mother was dying. The fifth letter reported that the mother had passed away and begged the brother to return home and care for younger siblings orphaned from both parents. R. Hayim hid all the letters and only showed them to his student years later. He explained that all these distractions were the Satan trying to prevent the development of a Gadol haDor (the greatest rabbinic authority of a generation).[xli] In contrast, Modern Orthodox Jews would say that caring for your mother and siblings in times of need is a crucial part of cultivating greatness.         




It is commonly assumed in Hareidi literature that the existence of God is obvious to any fair-minded person. Therefore, skeptics and heretics function dishonestly by allowing desires to influence their judgment. Hedonistic impulses distort their analysis. Rav Wasserman, [xlii] R. Dessler,[xliii] and others adopt this position. This interpretation of kofrim (heretics) allows religious individuals to both assume they are clearly correct while accusing their opponents of bad faith. The only drawback is that the position is false. Some atheists may have ulterior motives but certainly not all of them. I personally have gone through stages when it seemed difficult to affirm Rambam’s 13 principles. Many students, desperately wanting to believe, have approached me with their theological questions. Some ultimately found their place within Orthodoxy while others did not. To accuse them all of simply hungering for cheeseburgers would be cruel and unjustified.   


Intellectual Understanding


Modern Orthodox Jews prize the use of the intellect even when confronting issues of Jewish theology. Some Hareidi voices prefer a simple faith which eschews analysis. R. Schwartz’s Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh says that we should only be asking “what” and never “why.” 


The attempt to understand God’s works—the very thought of this—shows the lowliness of a created being, who thinks he has the ability to understand. One cannot understand anything!! Not why we need to wash hands and not why we need to learn Torah. We only know what we have to do, and we do it because we were commanded.[xliv]


R. Schwartz does not address the fact that the majority of rishonim endorsed the endeavor of offering rationales for mitzvot. Interestingly, some rabbis apply this anti-intellectual orientation even to human behavior. R. Shurkin relates how R. Mendel Zaks contrasted two biographies of the Hafetz Hayim in order to convey a preference for the one penned by R. Moshe Meir Yosher. The other volume tries to explain the Hafetz Hayim’s actions, whereas R. Yosher simply records them.[xlv] Apparently, even human guidance should be taken on authority alone. I suggest that one could not possibly apply modeled behavior to novel situations unless one knows the rationale for the behavior. 


The Role of Gedolim


The Hareidi world puts much more emphasis on its rabbinic leadership than Modern Orthodoxy does. This includes granting them authority in political matters (Daas Torah), telling stories about their otherworldly qualities, and making them a consistent and central focus of religious discourse. Several prominent Hareidi voices explain that yeshivot exist to produce gedolei Torah, and the curriculum should reflect that even if it does not serve the needs of the bulk of students. R. Dessler famously preferred the Lithuanian model of Jewish education over the German one because it was more likely to generate great sages even if the German method more successfully produced committed ba'al haBatim. He justifies such a strategy despite his understanding that it will cause some to "separate from the Torah path" and he identifies with Rambam's elitism: "Let a thousand fools die and one sage enjoy."[xlvi] Modern Orthodox Jews will be wary of attributing that much stature to gedolim.


Hashkafic Diversity


R. Dessler writes that Hazal only argue in halakhic matters but not with regard to aggadic material since both positions convey aspects of the truth. Even when the gemara uses the word "u-pligi (and they disagree)" in an aggadic context, R. Dessler explains that it refers to portraying different angles on the matter rather than to actual dispute.[xlvii] Now, I do consider finding the truth in every side a valuable endeavor, but that does not mean that no disputes exist. For example, R. Dessler contends that Rambam and Ramban truly agree about Judaism's attitude toward medicine. Ramban states that, ideally the sick would turn to God and not to doctors but once people chose the natural order, they need to function within it and go to the doctor. According to R. Dessler, Rambam agrees and the medieval giant's robust endorsement of medicine is only for those who abandon the ideal path.[xlviii] The problem with his theory is that Rambam gives no hint of such a position, and it flies in the face of Rambam's consistent endorsement of the natural order.      

R. Shimshon Pincus' popular Shearim beTefila shares the same tendency. The Vilna Gaon on Tehillim says that a wicked man with full bitahon in God will receive divine benevolence. This idea seems to clash with both Hovot Halevavot and Hazon Ish. The former says that bitahon only works for someone free of sin, whereas the latter says bitahon never meant that things will work out the way I want. Rather than just taking note of an important debate, R. Pincus asserts that they all agree; it just depends on the level of trust. The highest level of bitahon guarantees good results even for the wicked.[xlix]

 The approach is not only incorrect; it is also harmful. We will not be able to adequately analyze the strengths and weaknesses of two positions when I start out by flattening them into one identical stance. Secondly, it leaves all Jews bereft of a hashkafic range of opinions with which to select from and identify with. We need to present our students with different views of providence so that they can connect with the position that coheres with their experiences. Hareidi minimizing of hashkafic variance hurts the community. 


A Contemporary Example


Perhaps some readers will think that all the sources I cite remain in the abstract realm of theory and do not seriously impact on current Hareidi decision-making. Investigation of Hareidi responses to the war currently going on between Israel and Hamas reveals otherwise. A small number of Hareidi men did enlist in the IDF, and a larger number of Hareidim participated in providing food and other services for those called up to the armed forces. However, public statements by the leadership strike a very different note.   

R. Dov Landau, Rosh Yeshiva of Slobodka in Bnei Brak and currently considered one of the gedolim, said that R. Shai Graucher, a man tirelessly dedicated to hessed for IDF soldiers, is a mazzik gamur (fully destructive person) for distracting time and resources away from Talmud Torah. R. Meir Kessler, Rav of Kiryat Sefer, wrote against taking time from Talmud Torah to engage in hessed initiatives for the war. R. Yaakov Hillel advised not to siphon funds away from supporting yeshiva learning toward the war effort. R. Yitzchak Meir Morgenstern allowed volunteering drives to help the soldiers but only on condition that the observant Jews not identify and feel connected to the erev rav of secular Jewry. R. Simcha Bunim Schreiber, a Rosh Yeshiva of Nesiv Hatorah appointed by Rav Shteinman said in a siha (brief discourse) that we need not feel greater gratitude to IDF soldiers than to garbage men. Furthermore, he contended that almost no one serves in Tzahal (Israel Defense Forces) willingly. The last claim is empirically false; witness the many reservists who showed up for duty without receiving a tzav shemoneh (draft order). Lest one think that such sentiments only find expression in the Israeli Hareidi rabbinate, R. Aharon Feldman, Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisrael, explained why he is not in favor of special prayers for soldiers at the front. "I am afraid that if you start to be mispallel (pray) for soldiers, this will glorify tzahal and will create problems later when they start passing laws to draft yeshiva bochurim into the army."   

How did these rabbis arrive at a position with such minimal sympathy for the major sacrifices made and personal risks taken by Israeli soldiers? The categories outlined in this essay provide the explanation. If one thinks that the Torah study of kollel fellows provides greater protection than those physically protecting our borders, then it becomes easier to downplay gratitude to hayyalim (Israeli soldiers). If a community adopts one value as supreme and excludes other important values, then no breaks in Talmud Torah are allowed to help those in the field. Making sure that Torah study continues becomes so important that we cannot even recite individualized prayers for soldiers in danger lest the community come to glorify soldiers more than yeshiva fellows. Finally, other Hareidi rabbanim who might disagree with these positions are not able to publicly criticize them so that it will not seem that real hashkafic debates exist or to avoid saying that a gadol made a serious error in judgment. R. Schreiber did receive some pushback, but there was no public argument made against the comments of R. Landau or R. Feldman.    




We could discuss other issues dividing between Hareidim and Modern Orthodoxy such as Da’as Torah, the relationship between peshat and derash, Hazal’s knowledge of science, the value of human ethical intuitions, and potential misbehavior of biblical heroes, but this will suffice for now. My list even leaves out certain additional communal flaws such as protecting abusers from the government and dishonest portrayals of Jewish history. Thus, I did not paint the blackest possible picture. 

I myself benefitted from learning in Hareidi yeshivot yet would not send my children to such institutions and think that I have adequately explained why. Those considering such a move should mull over the many concerns raised in this essay. Perhaps one can minimize the dangers by identifying with more temperate Hareidi voices such as R. Aaron Lopiansky. Additionally, Hareidim who live in the United States can count on the reality that moderate voices have greater influence in America than in Israel. On the other hand, the three most extreme voices surveyed in this essay are R. Avigdor Miller, R. Elya Weintraub, and R. Michel Shurkin. The first spent his entire rabbinic career in America and the other two studied and taught in the United States before moving to Israel. No risk-free options exist in life, and the Hareidi lifestyle involves difficulties and dangers.

            Some opponents of this essay will undoubtedly state that I have no right to write critically about gedolim. In a world of hashkafic debate, there is no substitute for evaluating different positions and seeing which ones make the most sense. This is what I have tried to do above, and it seems to me that most Modern Orthodox Jews would identify with my preferences. In fact, limiting ideological discussion to citing rabbinical authorities rather than analyzing issues is another significant weakness of the Hareidi community.

            What are the potential practical ramifications of this essay? If one lives in an “out of town community,” there may not be non-Hareidi educators available. However, one may live in a city with various hashkafic educational options, and these factors could influence decision-making. These ideas could impact on choices of yeshivot and seminaries. Perhaps parents should investigate whether or not staff members send their boys to the army and their girls to sherut leumi (National Service) or the army. If not, these teachers are falling short in their ethical commitment to Am Yisrael, and their students are much more likely to be exposed to institutional staffs dominated by Hareidi ideology.       

Although my main target audience is the Modern Orthodox readership, I would like to also address any Hareidi readers. No one likes criticism, and I imagine your instinctive reaction will be defensive. Please write a strong defense, but also consider the possibility of points worth admitting to. For example, perhaps clearly state that you utterly reject R. Miller's explanation for the Holocaust and that the portrayal of R. Haim Volozhin's hiding emotional wrought family letters from his student does not cohere with your worldview. 

I have mixed feelings about publishing this essay. At the Mesivta of Long Beach, at Toras Moshe, and especially at Camp Munk, I encountered many fellows of outstanding character from a Hareidi background who would not identify with the worldview of R. Shurkin or R. Miller. I have no desire to insult them or hurt their feelings. At the same time, these ideas exist in the Hareidi world, and it seems worthy to confront them. Furthermore, even my old friends have been influenced by these currents. It may manifest in discourse about women and gentiles, in failing to acknowledge that soldiers protect Medinat Yisrael more than kollel students, or in attributing excessive knowledge or authority to the gedolim.  I think it important to argue for a different style yahadut.   

Modern Orthodoxy has many shortcomings, which I have written about in several other forums, and our community needs to focus the bulk of its energies on self-improvement.[l] We must encourage more of our talented sons and daughters to consider Jewish education as a career and find ways to make that more financially feasible. If we generated communities with more powerful religious commitment, fewer would look elsewhere in search of spiritual authenticity. Even given all of that, this essay suggests that the Hareidi option is not a viable solution.

[i] See the comments of Joel B. Wolowelsky in his Letter to the Editor, The Torah U-Madda Journal 8 (1998–1999), pp. 329–331.

[ii] Some object to my using the term "Hareidi" for the American version. If readers prefers to substitute "yeshivish" or "black hat," it will not change the basic argument. 

[iii] R. David Kastel, Darkei David Sotah Vol. 2 (Jerusalem, 5752) p. 313.

[iv] R. Avigdor Miller, Awake My Glory: Aspects of Jewish Theology (New York, 1980), pp. 339–340.

[v] R. Michel Shurkin, Meged Givot Olam (Jerusalem 5762) 1:60. 

[vi] R. Yisrael Elyiahu Weintraub, Iggerot Daat (5771) p. 168. 

[vii] Iggerot Daat, p. 200.

[viii] Q and A: Thursday Nights with Rabbi Avigdor Miller Volume 3 (2014) p. 314. 

[ix] Meged Givot Olam  I:15–16. 

[x] Orhot Rabbenu (Bnei Brak 5756), 1:197.

[xi] Orhot Rabbenu 1:197.

[xii] Orhot Rabbenu 1:226.

[xiii] Darkei David p. 314. 

[xiv] Awake My Glory, p. 147.

[xv] R. Itamar Schwartz, Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh Volume 1 p. 119. 

[xvi] R. Dan Kestenbaum, Olam ha-Middot (5772), p. 174.

[xvii] Meged Givot Olam 1:79. 

[xviii] R. Michel Shurkin, Meged GIvot Olam Volume 2 (Jersualem, 5775) p. 56.

[xix] Kovetz Ma'amarim (Jerusalem 5765) p. 202.

[xx] Orhot Rabbenu 3:147. 

[xxi] Meged Givot Olam 1:60.

[xxii] Cited in ki-she-Yahadut Pogeshet Medina ed. Yedidya Stern et. al (Tel Aviv 2015) pp. 238–239. 

[xxiii] R. Yisrael Eliyahu Weintraub, Einei Yisrael, (Bnei Brak 5770) pp. 433–434.

[xxiv] Einei Yisrael, p. 434. 

[xxv] Awake My Glory, p. 151.

[xxvi] BBC Documentary on Rudolf Kastner "Setting the Past Free." Lipstadt's comments are at the 20-minute mark. 

[xxvii] Mikhtav me-Eliyahu 1 pp. 187–206.

[xxviii] Moreh Nevukhim 2:29, 48. 

[xxix] Commentary on Devarim (Jerusalem 5744) p. 92. 

[xxx] R. Hayim Shmulevitz, Sihot Mussar (Israel 2013) Vayikra 69 pp. 301–303.

[xxxi] For an excellent analysis of these issues, see David Shatz, "Practical Endeavor and the Torah u-Madda Debate," The Torah U-Madda Journal 3 (1991–1992), pp. 98–149. 

[xxxii] R. Nosson Scherman, "Finding God in the Rubble," Jewish Action (Winter 2001) p. 20. 

[xxxiii] Kovetz MIkhtavim me'et Maran Ba'al ha-Hazon Ish (Bnei Brak 5741) p. 5. 

[xxxiv] Meged Givot Olam 1:23.

[xxxv] Awake My Glory, p. 104.

[xxxvi] Iggerot Daat pp. 271–272. 

[xxxvii] R. Avigdor Miller, Rejoice O Youth (New York, 1962) pp. 349–351.

[xxxviii] Meged Givot Olam, 1:27.

[xxxix] Ha-Shakdan: Pirkei Mofet Odot Yegiah, u-Peirot mi-Shkedato beTorah shel Rabbenu..R. Elyashiv  (Jerusalem 5770/5771) p. 63.

[xl] Bilvavi Mishkan Eveneh Volume 2 p. 179. 

[xli] Asher Bergman, Shimusha Shel Torah (Bnei Brak 5758) pp. 24–25.

[xlii] See his Ma'amar al Haemunah in Kovetz Ma'amarim (Jerusalem 5765) pp. 1–6. 

[xliii] R. Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, Mikhtav me-Eliyahu 1 (Israel 1990) pp. 173–174.

[xliv] Bilvavi MIshkan Evneh Volume 2, p. 294.

[xlv] Meged Givot Olam i:48–49.

[xlvi] Mikhtav me-Eliyahu 3 (Israel 2002) pp. 355–358.

[xlvii] Mikhtav me-Eliyahu 3 pp. 353–354.

[xlviii] Mikhtav m-Eliyahu 3 pp. 170–172.

[xlix] R. Shimshon Pincus, Shearim be-Tefila (Israel 5755) p. 80. 

[l] See my "Contemporary Challenges for Modern Orthodoxy," The Next Generation of Modern Orthodoxy ed. Shmuel Hain (New York 2012) pp. 299–317 and "Modern Orthodoxy and Discriminating Judgment," Conversations (Fall 2023) p. 1–6. 

Education, Morality, and Our Children


I must have been nine or ten the first time I learned about the Wannsee Conference. Wandering through the small Holocaust museum at our local JCC, I noticed the photo of the magnificent lakeside mansion where, in January 1942, 15 Nazi leaders sipped aged cognac and agreed on protocols for the deportation and systematic murder of 11 million European Jews. I recall reading the biographies of the men, and my mother pointing out that most held doctorate degrees. Years of academic study, the highest levels of intellectual achievement at Europe’s top universities, served to refine plans for the most barbaric plot in human history. The message was clear: Education does not ensure Morality.

I have thought about Wannsee often these last few months, as we have seen American college campuses ablaze with anti-Jew demonstrations, and administrators willfully blind to the meaning of slogans that call once again for Jewish genocide. I thought about it while I saw students lock themselves in libraries, fearful of their classmates banging and chanting while police directed the Jews to hide. Gone are last year’s trigger warnings, micro-aggressions, and anti-harassment policies. Absent are “diversity” officers paid to ensure a balmy “campus climate.” The most enviable institutions cannot or will not enforce their own rules, not when it comes to Jews.

I thought about the morality of those German PhDs as I read posts from my own college classmates calling Israeli soldiers “bloodthirsty” while dismissing Go-Pro videos of terrorist atrocities as “questionable.” And I wondered if education might actually destroy our moral sensitivity as I watched, live, the entirety of the December 5 congressional hearings, gripped with tension and wondering if the presidents of three of America’s most elite universities would come to their senses and plainly affirm their opposition to genocide. This was not supposed to be the hard question. It took years of education to buff away the ability to recognize a simple truth—screaming for Jewish genocide harasses Jewish students. 

And that simple truth leads me to ask a complicated question: Should Jewish parents send their sons and daughters to these schools? What is the impact on their own morality to be steeped in these environments for their formative years? What will this type of education do to them as human beings and as Jews? 

I’ve had the opportunity to speak with many students over the last several years. October 7 brought into the open dynamics that existed long before but were rarely discussed. But there is no doubt the outbreak of blatant Jew hatred, and the accompanying lack of visible effort to reduce or even condemn it, has had a profound impact on Jewish student life. 

Recent conversations with students break my heart. I heard from several how it’s “not that bad” on campus, yet they change their behavior anyway. Some remove the Jewish stars or kippah or summer camp t-shirts they’ve worn for years in order to erase their visible Jewish identity, hoping this will lessen harassment from classmates, or allow them to avoid discussions with unsympathetic “neutral” students and professors. Others complained about faculty excusing the massacres as “resistance,” canceling class to attend protests, allowing megaphone-bearing students to disrupt lectures, even having a Jewish student stand in the corner as a representative Jew.

One Jewish student talked about avoiding the grand front entrances of class buildings; she goes to class through the service entrances rather than cross the screaming crowds blocking the main doors. Another avoided class altogether because he couldn’t bear to face the classmate with whom he had spent endless hours working on problem sets; she was part of the groups that had sent the infamous letter blaming Israel while the massacres were still underway. What could he say to her? What if others agreed? Other students shared social media posts from classmates; one had posted “Let them burn!” on October 7, as gasoline-fueled fires were quite literally consuming entire families. To attend Harvard today, you must endure blatant Jew-hatred from classmates. 

Many will dissect how we got here, and how we can get out. But Jewish parents have a more immediate question to answer: 

Do we want this for our children? 

Jewish parents with children considering elite American colleges must ask themselves whether the pedigree is worth the price. The Jewish community has invested heavily in the Ivy League by every measure. We have built these elite institutions with our students, our faculty, our donations, and our scholarship. We have built Hillels and Chabads and dozens of other programs to support our Jewish students. And we have benefitted from the education and pedigree these universities provide, which have allowed American Jews to rise to the top of nearly every profession where education or social network matters. The benefits of these brand names on your resume last a lifetime. It’s a lot to give up.

As one whose life has been shaped by these connections, and whose children might potentially be as well, I nonetheless feel the temptation to abandon elite academia. Among the thousands of items I’ve seen since October 7, few stayed with me as much as the blunt honesty of Rabbi Yotav Eliach, Principal of Rambam Mesivta. As the world watched, NYU students tore down posters bearing the names and faces of the hostages, posted support for the atrocities on social media, and disrupted class with protests and chants to eliminate Israel “From the River to the Sea.” When an NYU admissions office sent a form email offering advice to early admission applicants, Rabbi Eliach wrote:


You sent me an email inviting my Orthodox Zionist Jewish students to apply early decision to NYU. Really?

Let me get to the point. You have too many faculty members and students who support Islamo-Nazi Hamas and Islamic Jihad Terror organizations. The slogans: Free Palestine, and From the River to the Sea Palestine will be free all mean one thing: GENOCIDE. Real Genocide of my People. Not imagined Genocide like the one that the protesters say happened or is happening to the Arabs of Gaza or the Arabs of Judea and Samaria. Since 1967 their populations have quadrupled … Your professors and students can chant that you want to throw us into ovens or the sea. I know: Free Speech. I guess all your “progressive” ideas of “Hate Speech” and “Microaggressions” don’t apply to Jews … You really expect us to send our sons and daughters to your school? … So they can be threatened and told that they should be burned, gassed, shot, raped, tortured? Really? And we should pay for the privilege of exposing our children to what you believe is “Education.” Think again.


Think again indeed. Even those without strong Jewish connection, or any at all, have come to doubt the value of an elite education. Harvard reported a 17 percent drop in early applications this year; a friend of mine who interviews for Harvard estimated that in the New York area, the numbers of early applications were more like 30 percent down. College advisors have reported that even those admitted to Harvard early are applying to other schools, something never seen before. Apparently, there are many who don’t find the current atmosphere attractive. 

In determining whether the benefits outweigh the costs, parents should consider the impact on identity, personality, and character of spending time in this environment.

First, what is the cost to everyday existence? The constant drumbeat of antisemitism prevents our kids from having a normal college experience. Indeed, the protestors acknowledge this as a goal—several hundred protestors storming Harvard’s main library during final exams brandished signs threatening “No Normal During Genocide.” This matters to all who want the best for their sons and daughters, who have worked hard to earn a spot at institutions and deserve equal, fair treatment. They deserve to feel welcome at their universities. They deserve the typical college experiences of making friends and attending class and pursuing extracurriculars without running a gauntlet of screaming accusers.

Even more important than their day-to-day experience, their fundamental character and identity transforms under these conditions. Since they attend college in late adolescence and early adulthood, as one’s ultimate values are forged, the situation many Jewish students now face will impact their outlook on Jewish identity for years to come. When students claim things are “not that bad,” they have learned to accept the abuse. They’ve accepted that their Jewish identity is risky to display and learned to manage, to understand the new reality. They may be as engaged as ever in their hearts, and enjoy celebrating their identity in Jewish spaces, but they hide their true identity in other environments.

Thankfully, some students continue to speak out, taking personal risk to appear in the media under their own names, calling out their professors, administrators, and classmates for allowing antisemitism to thrive. Most do not. Or they speak out anonymously. Even if they manage to resist actually believing the dominant propaganda excusing or justifying the attacks, they learn to speak the language of inaccurately explaining the outrageous antisemitism—not as menacing conduct that all decent humans should condemn, but as “free speech” reflecting a core principle of free society. When administrators fail to stem the tide of hatred, Jewish students adapt by inappropriately excusing those who threaten them with violence.

After a time, the antisemitic cancer may push to stage 2, where the students question their own beliefs. Jewish students (and faculty) repeatedly hear the message that in order to be on the side of good, to support human rights and freedom and minority rights, you must take a side, and that side is anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian. Any decent person would at least question their beliefs if everyone around them tells them repeatedly that they are not only incorrect but deeply immoral. At elite colleges, in an environment where students naturally admire professors and trust their perspective on the material, they are even more likely to doubt themselves. Similarly, students assume a level of integrity and intelligence in their peers, who also had to qualify for admission. When students hear day after day that Israel commits genocide, expulsion, and mass punishment, it becomes nearly impossible to feel confident in support for Israel and identification with fellow Jews who express such support. The insidious nature of this process by which “being a nice person” requires doubting your own fundamental beliefs and group affiliation has long term impact. Are our students learning to stand up for themselves and others? To take risks? To be willing to express unpopular beliefs? These are not just important for their Jewish identity, but for their success in life. 

Some students take this a step further and fully internalize the message that to be good means to oppose Israel. This takes root so deeply that they join one of the many virulently anti-Israel groups that deliberately seek Jewish membership. Jewish Voices for Peace, IfNotNow, and other groups recruit Jewish students to divide the Jewish community and support the lie that hatred for Israel can be separated from hatred for Jews. The profound idiocy of this position should be obvious. Roughly half of world Jewry lives in Israel, a proportion that is growing all the time. Targeting Israelis means directly targeting half of all Jews. Moreover, Jews the world over have ties of kinship and friendship with Israeli Jews. You can’t support those who murder, rape, behead, and burn alive Israeli Jews and claim you don’t hate Jews. Campus activists try to rebrand a sadistic massacre of Jews as “justifiable resistance” and claim they don’t hate Jews. They chant slogans that are known euphemisms for killing all Jews (“globalize the intifada”) and eliminating the Jewish state (“from the river to the sea”) and claim they don’t hate Jews. And it doesn’t matter if they are Jewish. Some Jews collaborated with the Nazis, too.

Contrast this progression with the attitudes of Israeli Jews their same age, called upon to fight for their very survival while coping with unimaginable losses. I want my children to know what they stand for and to be willing to defend it. I want them to inhabit the spirit of Sergeant First-Class Joseph Gitarts z”l, a computer science student who served in the Tank Corps, in a note to his parents: “I lived a good and interesting life, at the same time I was never afraid of death. I could have hidden and stayed away. But it would go against everything I believe and value and who I consider myself to be.” 

American college students need not risk their lives in their Ivy League dorms, but parents do take risks in sending their children to institutions that allow antisemitism to shape their character. To ensure their students’ moral compass remains intact, parents must continue guiding their sons and daughters throughout their college years. By encouraging them to courageously represent their Jewish identity, beware of internalizing the hatred, and deepen their connection to Jewish values seeking truth and independent thought, our actions can help our students preserve their values while acquiring an education.



Saadia Gaon’s Solution to Anthropomorphisms in His Tafsîr

Saadia Gaon was born in 882 CE near the Upper-Egyptian city of Fayyúm as Se3adyah ben Yosef, or, in Arabic, Sa3îd ibn Yūsuf.  Already from an early age, Saadia was a prolific writer and the author of important works such as several dictionaries, a polemic work against the Jewish sect of the Qara’ites, a work on the Jewish calendar, and one of the first Jewish prayer books, to name a few. 

At the age of 36, Saadia was noticed by the leaders of the great Jewish community of Babylonia (present-day Iraq) and was invited to assume the title of Gaon and, as that title implies, to head one of the world’s two most prestigious Talmud academies, which was then located in Baghdad. Incidentally, Saadia was the first person from outside Babylonia ever to be appointed as Gaon.  Saadia Gaon would remain in Baghdad until his death in 942. 

In this article, I want to discuss his influential Arabic Bible translation, which he named the Tafsîr[1], and specifically how he deals with the problem of divine anthropomorphisms. At the same time, we cannot avoid looking at his certainly most famous work, Kitāb al-‘Amānāt wa’l-I3tiqādāt, better known under its Hebrew name Sēfer ‘Èmūnōt we-D­­ē3ōt, or in English The Book of Beliefs and Opinions.  The reason for discussing certain aspects of The Book of Beliefs and Opinions is that it sheds important light on Saadia’s philosophy underlying his Bible translation; the Tafsîr which, by the way, does not include the entire Hebrew Bible but merely the Five Books of Moses, and the books of Isaiah, the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, and Daniel.

Let us now discuss those elements of Saadia Gaon’s philosophical outlook that impacted the wording of his Tafsîr, and how his perceptions are rooted in the intellectual trends of his time and environment.

In Saadia’s days, the Muslim world was rife with philosophical activity, and the city of Baghdad was its buzzling epicenter.  With the Muslim conquest of the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain, these vast territories had been brought under one cultural umbrella and with Arabic as the common lingua franca, communication and exchange of ideas had become a reality. Once a growing corpus of ancient Greek philosophic and scientific texts became available in Arabic translation, a considerable section of the intellectual elite developed an appetite for all things classic, philosophy being among the top tier topics.

This embrace of philosophy took place across the religious spectrum of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. People from all over the Arabic world and from all three religions came together to discuss matters of philosophy in interdenominational groups, often even including Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Buddhists. 

One of the new insights that had taken root was that Divine revelation was not the only path to knowledge and truth. The God-given human faculty of Reason was another way to acquire truthful insights. And as both strategies are tools bestowed by the same Almighty God to achieve knowledge, if applied correctly, both Reason and Revelation should lead to the one, same truth. In other words, accurate reasoning should lead one to the same insights as presented by Holy Scripture while a correct understanding of Scripture cannot not contradict Reason

The idea that true Revelation cannot contradict Reason, must necessarily have an impact on the way religious traditions are understood. Sometimes Reason may yield to Revelation, for instance when scientific insights are rejected based on a traditional understanding of holy texts, and at other times Scripture is reinterpreted to match contemporary rational, scientific, or philosophical insights. 

In the process of reaching conclusions on issues of truth, such as the existence of God, eternity, justice, free will, reward and punishment, etc., in many cases Reason or Revelation – or both – must be redefined for the two to harmoniously meet.  Naturally, regarding the precedence that either Reason or Revelation receives in this process, there is a continuum of approaches. When faced with an apparent conflict between text and logic, on one end of the spectrum some thinkers may have no scruples to reconsider established textual interpretations, while for people on the opposite end, this would be an outrageous notion. 

At this point, the exercise of defining the relationship between Revelation and Reason, is called Kalām, an Arabic translation of the Greek word Logos (logic, reason, and speech). This choice of terminology is interesting in more than one way.  When according to the Bible and the Qur’an God creates the world through speech (Gen. 1:3 “Wayyōmer ‘Elohîm yehî ‘ōr, wàyhi ‘ōr” – God spoke: ‘Let there be light!’, and there was light”; Sura 36:82 “Innamā ‘amruhū ‘idhā ‘arāda ‘an yaqūla lahū kun, fa-yakūn” – “All it takes when He wants something, is to say to it: ‘Be!’, and it is.”), the implication for Kalāmists would be that He also creates it with logic, wisdom, and according to reason.

Let us now turn to the most relevant motive within Kalām thought that impacted Saadia Gaon’s Tafsîr, i.e. the notion that God is One. For Kalāmists, this notion meant much more than simply the belief that there is only One God.  The word One can be a quantitative numeral in the sense of ‘only one god’ (and no more): not four gods, not three, not two, but only One God. However, those involved in Kalām took the notion of God’s Oneness to a much deeper level as to mean that God’s essence is One, and that there is no oneness like God’s Oneness. Nothing is as one as God is One.  For instance, if – let’s say – you hold an apple in your hand, that is one apple. However, the apple is not inherently one… it consists of parts: its core, its flesh, its peel, etc. God, on the other hand, being essentially One, cannot be subdivided into parts.  Naturally, this presented some contention between Jewish and Muslims Kalāmists on the one hand, and Christians on the other, concerning the dogma of the Trinity.

Furthermore, anything in the physical world, including all objects and bodies, firstly consists of parts and secondly has certain limitations and confinements. Physical bodies have a top and a bottom, arms, legs, a head, a torso, etc. Therefore, most Kalāmist thinkers concluded that God cannot be or have a body. Furthermore, while God is Unlimited and Omnipresent, an apple is only one in its state of being separate from other apples, which is only possible because of its limited character. Certainly, an apple can be in your hand, on the table, in the fridge, hanging in a tree, and floating in a river. All these positions are possible, but they cannot be possible at the same time. These locations are possible due to a change in location, change being the key term here. God, on the other hand can be everywhere at the same time without change. 

How does not changing relate to the notion of Oneness?  According to many Kalāmist thinkers, something that changes is by definition not consistent, and is therefore not one. According to this line of thinking, an apple that starts out green and hard, then turns red and juicy, and later becomes brown and putrid, shows different configurations and is therefore not inherently one. 

As anything in the created, physical world goes through some kind of change, it follows that only God is truly One.  When we let this train of thought sink in, we will soon discover that this philosophical notion of Oneness must cause a plethora of problems when it comes to reading, interpreting, and translating the Bible. In Scripture, God is frequently described both with physical features and as going through changes. Let’s start with some examples of physical features scripturally ascribed to God. 

In Genesis, God is described as walking through the Garden of Eden. We are informed that God led out His people with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, His eyes traverse the entire world, His ears may hear our prayers, we are told about the words of His mouth, and that the earth is His footstool. Such human-like descriptions of God are called “anthropomorphisms”.

An often-utilized solution to solve such discrepancies between the literal reading of Holy Scripture on the one hand, and rational insights on the other, is the application of metaphor. According to this approach, Scripture is given to imperfect people, some of whom are unable to conceive of God in more abstract ways. For this reason, God revealed His word “in the language of men”, meaning in the way that most people are used to speaking and understanding. Such anthropomorphic descriptions should however be understood as metaphorical references to underlying, less physical truths. 

As alluded to before, different approaches emerged within the wider Kalām movement. At one end of the spectrum, there were thinkers that showed an inclination to give precedence to logical insights and reinterpret their Holy Scriptures and traditions accordingly.  Within the Muslim community, this approach was represented by a school called the Mu3tazila. Mu3tazilites rejected any notion of divine physicality and took every anthropomorphic reference to God in Scripture as a metaphor.  On the opposite end of the spectrum were the traditionalists who postulated that everything in Scripture must be taken at face value. An intermediate position was taught by the school of the so-called Ash3arites who asserted that God is not physical while all scriptural descriptions of God are nonetheless true in a literal sense. However, one should not try to solve this contradiction through philosophizing, but instead accept the Quranic statements as a divine mystery.  If we want to place Saadia Gaon in one of these three categories, we clearly find him in the camp of the Mu3tazilites. In his Book of Beliefs and Opinions, he clearly and avidly rejects the notion of divine anthropomorphisms. 

In Saadia’s days, many Kalāmist thinkers believed that the time had come, at least for an evolved group of people to understand these deeper meanings behind such physical descriptions. Saadia tried to facilitate this higher understanding in his Tafsîr.  Let’s look at some examples.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­God’s hand. Ex. 9:3 “Behold, the hand of the Lord will bring a terrible plague on your livestock.”  In line with his philosophy, Saadia translates this into Arabic as fa-‘inna ‘āfat Allāh kā’ina fî mawāshîka[2]  (“Behold, the plague of God is present in your livestock”).  
Saadia is however not always consistent in avoiding the use of the Arabic word ‘hand’ (yad).  Deut. 26:8 for instance is translated very literally as “God (Allah) brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand (bi-yad shadîd) and an outstretched arm (dhirā3 mamdūda)...”  It is worth noting though that the Arabic word yad can also mean ‘power’, ‘authority’, ‘control’, or even ‘favor’.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­God’s mouth.  Ex. 17:1  The Israelites traveled from place to place “according to the mouth of the Lord”, is translated by Saadia as 3alā qawl Allāh (“…according to the word/speech of God”).

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­God’s ears. Num. 11:18  “For you have wept in the ears of the Lord” is translated in the Tafsîr as (“For you have wept before the Lord”).

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­God’s eyes. Deut. 11:12   “The eyes of the Lord are always upon it (upon the Land)” is rendered in Arabic as wa-dā’iman 3inâyatuhu bihā.  Even though the Arabic word 3inâya is directly related to the word for eye (3ayn), it is not to be understood as eyes. The meaning is rather a bit less physical, instead meaning ‘seeing’, ‘inspecting’, ‘surveying’.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­God’s face. Deut. 34:10  “There has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”  First, a comment on ‘the Lord knew’. Many who are familiar with Biblical Hebrew will know that the verb yā3 ‘to know’ means more than merely being acquainted with someone. Instead, it denotes a very intimate kind of knowing, one that is usually reserved for spousal interactions. Concerning the phrase ‘face to face’, Saadia could have chosen a literal translation of the word “face”, which would not necessarily constitute an anthropomorphism. Just like the Hebrew word panîm can mean several things besides ‘face’, so too the Arabic word wajh Saadia could have chosen the phrase wajhan bi-wajh which means both ‘face to face’ as well as ‘in private’, or ‘directly’.  Nonetheless, Saadia Gaon chose something else instead, but the different manuscripts are not in agreement on what that something else was. A 1893 Paris publication of the Tafsîr by Joseph Derenbourg has Saadia’s version as li-‘anna Allāh 3arrafahu mushāfihanwhich means “For God orally (verbally) made known to him; informed him.”  Two observations are in order here: By using the expression mushāfihan (‘orally’ or ‘verbally’, i.e. not via dreams or visions), Saadia avoids any anthropomorphic perception that could be caused by the expression face-to-face. Secondly, he renders the word ‘to know’ into Arabic as a causative verb (3arrafa/informed instead of 3arafa/knew), meaning, instead of ‘He knew him’, he translates ‘He made him know’, ‘He informed him’.  We will see Saadia resorting to a causative understanding of verbs in other examples as well.  However, in the 2015 printed and vocalized edition of Rabbi Yantob Chaim haCohen[3], which no doubt is based on a different manuscript as Derenbourg’s, the Tafsîr reads “Li-‘anna Allāh nājāhu shifāhan”  (For God verbally entrusted in him; confided in him). 

Num. 6: 25  “May the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you.”
In this case, Saadia applies a literal translation of the word “face” (wajh), which as we already mentioned does not need to be an anthropomorphism. In addition to face, wajh also can mean ‘intention’, ‘direction’, or ‘reputation’.

Remarkably however, in the next verse: Num. 6: 26, the Gaon does not render panîm as wajh.  “May the Lord lift up His face (countenance) over you and give you peace” is rendered as “wa-yaqbal bi-qadihi wa-yuayyir laka salām”. This phrase makes for a somewhat puzzling Arabic, but I believe it can be best translated as “May He kindly direct His good intentions towards you and give you peace.”

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­God smelling.  In Gen. 8:21 Saadia transforms two anthropomorphisms in one verse (i.e. God smelling and God having a heart) by rendering the text “The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in His heart, never again will I curse the earth because of humans” as “God accepted the pleasing offering and said out of His own accord, ‘I shall not again…”

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­God sitting.  Ps. 29:10   “The Lord sat enthroned at the flood; yea He sits enthroned as King forever.” When read physically, sitting involves a bodily posture, which then implies a body and a certain part of the body, instrumental for sitting. The Tafsîr has “Inna Allāh, kamā naaba al-3ālam li--ṭūfān waqtan, ka-dhālika naaba mulk ‘ummatihi ‘abadan”; (Just like God once upheld the world during the flood, so too does He uphold the dominion of his nation forever.)

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­God rising. Num. 10:35 “Rise up, O Lord, and let Your enemies be scattered.”  Naturally, if God is to rise up in a literal way, it would seem like a change, a transition from either sitting to standing, or less physically, from inaction to action. Saadia Gaon’s solution is quite interesting. He has: “Qum yā Rabb, bi-naṣrinā!” Even though the Arabic imperative “qum!”, like its Hebrew equivalent, means ‘get up’, or ‘rise up!’, in combination with the preposition bi-, the meaning becomes ‘being concerned with something’, ‘undertaking’ or ‘executing something’.  By adding the preposition bi- and the object naṣrinā (our victory), this changes the meaning exactly to what Saadia would consider to be the deeper, underlying message of the verse: “O Lord, help us!”, and at the same time: “Accomplish our triumph!”

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­God resting.  Gen. 2: 2-3   God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day.  It is worth noting that Islamic polemicists frequently bring up such Biblical verses as proof that the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) have corrupted their Holy Scriptures. Because – thus goes the argument – it is preposterous to believe that God can become tired and in need of rest. While I personally have encountered this argument many times in my interactions with Muslims, I know of no proof that this line of reasoning was already used in Saadia’s days, but I believe it to be likely. Assuming that Saadia knew of this argument, it becomes especially interesting to see how he interprets these texts.

In his Book of Beliefs and Opinions, in his Treatise on God (II), Chapter XII, he writes (let me paraphrase): “Concerning anything involving God’s action, even though we call the Creator “Maker”, the meaning of such a term must not be understood in a corporeal sense. A physical agent cannot produce an effect upon anything before first acting upon himself. He must first himself move. Only then can he generate motion in something else. However, for God, He only needs to entertain the will to have a thing come into being.” (…)  Therefore, when Scripture speaks of the works of God, this must all be understood in this light, namely that when God creates something, He brings it into being without taking it in hand. Scripture may mention a Divine act (as in “And God made” - Gen. 1:7)  and sometimes the opposite of acting (as in “And He rested”).  However, just as “He made” was accomplished without movement or work, when it is said “He rested”, this was not a rejuvenation after labor or exertion. When the Scriptures say that God “rested”, it merely means that He discontinued His work of creation and production.  In other words, Saadia explains that the Hebrew verb shāvàt means the interruption of an activity: for God the interruption of creation; for humans the interruption of their daily work; every seven years, for the land the interruption of agricultural production. 

Gen. 2:2  “On the seventh day, God discontinued (wayyishbōt) all the work He had done.”  Saadia translates this as “wa-3aṭṭala fîhi shay’an ‘an yukhlaq[4]…” (“On it, He made anything discontinue from being created”). This translation exactly reflects the underlying meaning as explained by Saadia in his Book of Beliefs and Opinions, namely not that God took a break from working, but that He made His creation take a break on the seventh day. Instead of translating the intransitive verb wayyishbōas 3aṭila (‘to take a break‘), he rendered the verb as transitive (equivalent to a pi33ēl), meaning ‘to make something take a break[5].’ 

Ex. 20:11  For in six days, the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”  Saadia has wa-‘arāḥahā fî l-yawm as-sābi3 (“and He gave it rest on the seventh day”).Here we see Gaon’s resort to a strategy we encountered before, namely assigning a transitive meaning to an intransitive verb. 

Ex. 31:17   “…And on the seventh day, He rested and was refreshed (shāvàt wayyinnāfàsh).”  The Hebrew word nèfesh is used for both soul and breath, and the verb le-hinnāfēsh can be translated as catching your breath or as restoring one’s soul or spirit).  Here too, Saadia uses Arabic verbs with transitive meanings: wa-fî l-yawm as-sabt, 3aṭṭalahā wa-‘arāḥahā: “…on the seventh day, He interrupted IT (i.e. His work) and gave IT (i.e. creation) rest.”)

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­God speaking.  Num 1:1 “And the Lord spoke to Moses…”):  When studying the Tafsîr, we see that Saadia treats God’s speaking in two different ways, depending on the context.  When God speaks to someone, for example Abraham or Moses, he uses the regular expression kallama, such as here: Thumma kallama Allāh Mūsā.  It seems that Saadia Gaon does not consider this an objectionable anthropomorphism.  Indeed, when we read what Saadia says about God’s speech in his Book of Beliefs and Opinions, (paraphrasing Treatise II, Chapter 12): “When Scripture uses the expression ‘The Lord spoke’, the meaning of this statement is that God created speech, which He conveyed through the medium of air to the hearing of the prophet or the people in question. The Arabic language permits God’s speech to be characterized in accordance with our interpretation.”  On a sidenote, according to Saadia explanationthe Arabic does not cover a correct philosophical understanding of the opposite of speech, i.e. of silence.  Having said this, it is no surprise that we see throughout his Tafsîr the use of the verb kallama.  However, when the speech of God is mentioned in another context, not to address humans, but instead as the pronouncement of a decree, as in the story of creation: “God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light”, a different strategy is applied. There, Saadia writes “Shā’a Allāh ‘an yakūn nur, fa-kāna nūr” (“God wanted that there should be light, and there was light.”)


­­­­­­­­­­­­­­God being jealous.  In his Beliefs and Opinions, Saadia Gaon also takes issue with human-like functions, mental states, and emotions, such as:  God being jealous, God remembering, God regretting, etc. Some examples:  
Ex. 20:5  “For I, the Lord, your God am a jealous God.”  Saadia has here: “A-Ṭā’iq al-Mu3āqib” (“Powerful and Inflicting punishment”). 
God remembering.  Saadia Gaon explains in the Book of Beliefs and Opinions that Scripture’s description of God as ‘recollecting’, ‘remembering’, alludes to the deliverance of humans from a painful situation. He mentions  “God remembered Noah” (Gen. 8:1) and “God remembered Rachel” (Gen. 30:22).  Saadia claims that this both Hebrew (zākhàr) and Arabic (dhakara) have this same implication. That God’s ‘remembering’ is not to be understood in the human sense of the word becomes clear when we consider that the opposite word for remembering (forgetting) is never applied to God. When God desists from delivering His creatures, an expression is used as in Lamentations 2:1: “He remembered not His footstool.”
God regretting.   Gen. 6: 5-6  “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that all the impulse of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continuously. And the Lord regretted that He had made humankind, and it grieved Him in His heart.”  This last verse has no less than two striking anthropomorphisms, namely God regretting and God grieving.  By again using the strategy of making verbs transitive, Saadia comes with a remarkable interpretation:  “Fa-tawa33adahum Allāh ba3damā ana3ahum fi l-‘ar, wa-‘awala l-mashaqqa ‘ilā qulūbihim”  (“Then, after having created them on the earth, God distressed them and deposited hardship in their hearts.”) In other words, God Himself was not distressed by regrets, which would be a characteristic of mortal creatures, but gave the people distress as a punishment for their evil. Likewise, God was not grieved in His heart, but instead placed grief in the hearts of the wicked.
Seeing God.   We have seen how Saadia tackled anthropomorphisms rather successfully by translating physical descriptions with the allegedly underlying deeper meaning behind expressions like God’s heart, God’s ears, God’s eyes, God’s mouth, etc., as well as applying transitive translations to verbs that seem to be intransitive. However, this alone could not solve every case of anthropomorphism. 
The most difficult passages where people are described as having actually seen God would need a different approach. These are references such as “They saw the God of Israel” (Ex. 24:10).

Saadia Gaon explains in his Book of Beliefs and Opinions that what people saw was not God Himself, in His true essence, but rather God’s Glory (in Hebrew: the Kavōof God). This Kavōd is some kind of representation of God, created by God Himself, to allow people to perceive some Divine imagery. This Kavōd is also God’s messenger, and His exalted angel called “the Angel of God”. (N.b., the Angel of God is different from an angel of God.)  Some other names for this Kavōd are the Light of God, the Throne of Glory, and the Divine Presence(“Shekhiná”).

Ex. 24:10 “They saw the God of Israel. Under His feet was something like a pavement of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky.”  The phrase “They saw the God of Israel” is translated by Saadia as “They saw the Light of the God of Israel”, while he renders “Under His feet…”, as: “Below it” (i.e. below the light).

Ex. 24:17   [Torah:] “The appearance of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mountain.” [Tafsîr:] “The sight of God’s light was like a devouring fire…”

Ex. 33:18   [Torah:] “Show me, please, Your glory.” [Tafsîr:] “Show me Your light.”

Ex. 33: 22-23  [Torah:] “When My glory passes by, I will place you in a cleft of the rock. I will cover you with My hand, until I have passed by. The, I will remove My hand so that you will see My back, but My face shall not be seen.” 
[Tafsîr:] When My light passes by you, I will have placed you in a cleft of a rock. I will shade you with My clouds until its beginning has passed. Then, I will remove My clouds so that you will see the last end of My light, but its beginnings, you shall not see.”

We have seen how and why Saadia Gaon was determined to render an explanation, a Tafsîr, in which anthropomorphisms were addressed in a philosophically sound manner, according to the ideals of Mu3tazila Kalām.  Saadia was convinced that believers should strive to understand the deeper meanings behind physical descriptions of God. Saadia rendered such portrayals with what he believed were the underlying deeper truths. Sometimes he solved textual difficulties by interpreting intransitive verbs as transitive. Finally, he presented the idea of a created entity called ‘the Glory of God’, ‘the Light of God’, or ‘the Angel of the Lord’ which would account for all Biblical reports of people who are said to have seen God. Later in the development of Jewish thought, especially within the movement of the medieval “German Pietists” (Ḥasidē Ashkenaz) Middle Ages, Saadia’s notion of the ‘Glory of God’ would inspire entirely new forms of spirituality and mysticism.


[1] Arabic for exegesis or explanation.

[2] As Saadia Gaon’s original does not have vowelsand as it is doubtful that he intended for it to be read with ‘I3rāb and tanwîn according to the rules of classical Arabic grammar, I have avoided it in my transliteration.

[3] Yantob ayim haCohen, Torah Saadia Gaon, Jerusalem 2015

[4] Yantob ayim vocalization reflects the active form yakhluq (that he would create). In my opinion, that would only make sense if the word order were different: ‘an yakhluq shay’an. It that case, the verb should be taken as intransitive (wa-3aila), rendering “God took a break from creating anything”.

[5] In grammatical terms, an intransitive verb has no object, meaning it happens in/to oneself (e.g. sitting, thinking, resting, etc.) while a transitive verb does have an object (e.g. seeing, creating, freeing something).

The Land of Israel in the Bible

The Land of Israel in the Bible[1]


by Hayyim Angel


(Rabbi Hayyim Angel is the National Scholar of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, and teaches advanced undergraduate Bible courses at Yeshiva University.)


  1. Israel in the Book of Genesis



The Land of Israel as Divine Gift, Heart of the Covenant, and Oath


The Torah does not begin with Abraham, nor does its story begin in the Land of Israel. Instead, the Torah opens by presenting a vision for all of humanity. In his introduction to the Book of Genesis, Rabbi Obadiah Sforno (1470–1550, Italy) observes that only after the three failures of Adam and Eve, the generation of the Flood, and the Tower of Babel, does God choose Abraham and his descendants to teach religious morality to the rest of the world. The Torah celebrates Abraham as the first person who was not only personally righteous, but who was also committed to teaching righteousness to his family and society:


For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him. (Genesis 18:19)


Abraham’s family is filtered through the rest of Genesis until it becomes clear that God selects the descendants of Jacob as the Chosen People.[2]

            After Abraham arrives in Israel. God promises the land to Abraham and his descendants: 


The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “I will assign this land to your heirs.” And he built an altar there to the Lord who had appeared to him. (Genesis 12:7)


God reiterates this promise after Abraham’s nephew Lot—his presumed heir until that point—moves to the wicked city of Sodom:


And the Lord said to Abram, after Lot had parted from him, “Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west, for I give all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted. Up, walk about the land, through its length and its breadth, for I give it to you.” (Genesis 13:14–17).


God again solemnly promises the land to Abraham and his descendants in the “covenant between the halves”:


On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates....” (Genesis 15:18)


In these three instances, God grants the Land of Israel to Abraham as a unilateral gift. In chapter 17, however, God introduces the idea of a mutual covenant, fulfilled through circumcision:


I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring to come. I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their God. (Genesis 17:7–8)


            In addition to God’s promises to Abraham, God reaffirms the land covenant to Isaac and to Jacob. God’s gift of the Land of Israel to Abraham’s descendants specifically goes to Jacob’s line: 


[God said to Isaac:] I will assign all these lands to you and to your heirs, fulfilling the oath that I swore to your father Abraham. (Genesis 26:3)


And the Lord was standing beside [Jacob] and He said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants….” (Genesis 28:131–14)


And God said to [Jacob], “I am El Shaddai. Be fertile and increase; a nation, yea an assembly of nations, shall descend from you. Kings shall issue from your loins. The land that I assigned to Abraham and Isaac I assign to you; and to your offspring to come will I assign the land.” (Genesis 35:11–12)


Before Jacob leaves home to go to Laban, Isaac also gives Jacob the blessing of Abraham, which includes possession of the land:


May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples. May He grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham. (Genesis 28:3–4)


            In addition to the divine gift of the land and the centrality of the land in the God-Israel covenant, God swears the land to Abraham following the Binding of Isaac:


The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By Myself I swear, the Lord declares: Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favored one, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes.” (Genesis 22:15–17)


After Abraham demonstrates his absolute commitment, God gives Abraham the greatest assurance. Professor Jon Levenson observes that there is no explanation in the Torah as to why God chose Abraham initially, but God’s oath ratifies the covenant when Abraham passes this ultimate test. Abraham has vindicated God’s choice.[3] 

            To summarize, God repeatedly promises the Land of Israel to the Patriarchs and their descendants through Jacob. In addition to the land serving as a divine gift, it also plays a central role in the mutual God-Israel covenant. God also makes an oath to give the land to Abraham and his descendants following the Binding of Isaac.


Purchasing Land in Israel


Although the Israelites conquer the land at the time of Joshua, several land purchases merit biblical attention. Abraham purchased the first family holding in Israel, the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron and its adjacent field in which he would bury Sarah: 


Then Abraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites, saying, “I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial…. Let [Ephron] sell me the cave of Machpelah that he owns, which is at the edge of his land. Let him sell it to me, at the full price, for a burial site in your midst.” (Genesis 23:3–4, 9)


The Torah repeatedly refers to the sale of Machpelah, highlighting its significance. Abraham is buried there:


His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre, the field that Abraham had bought from the Hittites; there Abraham was buried, and Sarah his wife. (Genesis 25:9–10)


Jacob’s dying words are about this transaction. When his sons bury him, the Torah again mentions the purchase:


Then he instructed them, saying to them, “I am about to be gathered to my kin. Bury me with my fathers in the cave which is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, the cave which is in the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre, in the land of Canaan, the field that Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite for a burial site—there Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried; there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried; and there I buried Leah—the field and the cave in it, bought from the Hittites.” (Genesis 49:29–32)


Thus his sons did for him as he had instructed them. His sons carried him to the land of Canaan, and buried him in the cave of the field of Machpelah, the field near Mamre, which Abraham had bought for a burial site from Ephron the Hittite. (Genesis 50:12–13)


Later in Israel’s history, David purchases the plot that will be used as the future Temple in Jerusalem. The acquisition was originally the threshing floor of Araunah (known as “Ornan” in the book of Chronicles). Like Abraham, David refuses to accept the area as a gift and insists on paying for it instead. He even uses the same term that Abraham did: be-kesef malei, “the full price”:


But King David replied to Ornan, “No, I will buy them at the full price [be-kesef malei]. I cannot make a present to the Lord of what belongs to you, or sacrifice a burnt offering that has cost me nothing.” So David paid Ornan for the site 600 shekels’ worth of gold. (I Chronicles 21:24–25)


The other Patriarchal land purchase occurs when Jacob purchases a plot of land near Shechem, establishing the first land holding for the living in the nation’s history:


The parcel of land where he pitched his tent he purchased from the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for a hundred kesitahs. (Genesis 33:19)


When the people bury Joseph’s bones in Shechem at the end of the Book of Joshua, the narrative mentions the original purchase:


The bones of Joseph, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem, in the piece of ground which Jacob had bought for a hundred kesitahs from the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, and which had become a heritage of the Josephites. (Joshua 24:32)


The Bible’s ongoing interest in these purchases suggests a desire to guarantee Israel’s ownership of these three areas. One Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 79:7) similarly concludes that nobody can claim that Israel stole Machpelah, Shechem, or Temple Mount.


The Land of Israel as Central to the People’s Identity 


At the end of his life, Jacob asks Joseph not to bury him in Egypt but rather in Israel. Joseph agrees. Surprisingly, Jacob then makes him swear:


And when the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, “Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty: please do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial place.” He replied, “I will do as you have spoken.” And he said, “Swear to me.” And he swore to him. Then Israel bowed at the head of the bed. (Genesis 47:29–31)


Rashi and Ramban explain that although Jacob trusted Joseph, he believed that Pharaoh never would allow Joseph to go unless he was bound by an oath. Joseph in fact invoked the oath when requesting permission of Pharaoh:


And when the wailing period was over, Joseph spoke to Pharaoh’s court, saying, “Do me this favor, and lay this appeal before Pharaoh: ‘My father made me swear, saying, “I am about to die. Be sure to bury me in the grave which I made ready for myself in the land of Canaan.” Now, therefore, let me go up and bury my father; then I shall return.’” And Pharaoh said, “Go up and bury your father, as he made you promise on oath.” (Genesis 50:4–6)


Rabbi Shlomo Riskin,[4] however, observes that when Joseph appeals to Pharaoh, he speaks to Pharaoh’s court, that is, to Pharaoh’s underlings. Joseph was second in command in all of Egypt, so why did he not personally ask Pharaoh?

Rabbi Riskin explains that this was a moment of truth for Joseph. He had been struggling with his identity ever since he had become second in command some 25 years earlier. Pharaoh gave him the Egyptian name Zaphenath-Paneah and married him to a daughter of the priest of On (Genesis 41:45). Joseph was a success, and Pharaoh made it clear that Joseph was an Egyptian.

Rabbi Riskin explains the names of Manasseh and Ephraim in light of Joseph’s identity conflict. Manasseh represents Joseph’s new Egyptian identity: “God has made me forget completely [nashani] my hardship and my parental home.” Ephraim, on the other hand, reminds Joseph that Egypt never will become his true home: “God has made me fertile [hifrani] in the land of my affliction” (Genesis 41:51–52).

Jacob understood that Joseph’s identity would be tested severely by this request to be buried in Israel. Therefore, he made him swear. Joseph understood that by honoring his father’s will, he would be making a public declaration that his family identity belongs to Israel and not to Egypt. He therefore was afraid to confront Pharaoh directly. 

Joseph addresses his brothers on his deathbed: “Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, ‘When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here’” (Genesis 50:25). Joseph thereby confirms his Israelite identity by insisting that he will join his people in the future exodus. 




From the time Abraham arrived in Israel, God promises him and his descendants the land. This promise manifests as an outright unilateral gift, an essential part of a mutual covenant, and is ratified by divine oath after the Binding of Isaac. God repeats this promise to Isaac and Jacob, and the land goes to their line of descendants.

            Abraham’s purchase of Machpelah in Hebron and Jacob’s purchase of land in Shechem both receive significant attention, highlighting the permanence of these acquisitions prior to Joshua’s later conquest of the land.

            Jacob insisted on being buried in Israel, and Joseph needed to make a public statement that he too identified as an Israelite rather than as an Egyptian. On his deathbed, Joseph expressed his ultimate desire to be buried in Israel.


  1. Israel in Exodus through Deuteronomy


In Genesis, God makes an absolute, unbreakable covenant with Abraham. God promises that He will give the Land of Israel to Abraham’s descendants (through Jacob’s line) as an everlasting holding. The land is a gift under divine oath, and also is a central aspect of the God-Israel covenant:


I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their God. (Genesis 17:8)


In the rest of the Torah, however, God introduces a conditional aspect of this mutual covenant of the land. The blessings and curses in Leviticus 26, and several other passages, threaten exile if Israel sins:


I will lay your cities in ruin and make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not savor your pleasing odors. I will make the land desolate, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled by it. And you I will scatter among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword against you. Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin. (Leviticus 26:31–33)


Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you. (Deuteronomy 11:16–17)


One passage in Leviticus adds a poetic dimension. The Land of Israel is depicted as having a sensitive stomach, and it cannot tolerate grave sins. Sins cause the land to become ill and vomit out its inhabitants, whether Canaanite or Israelite:


Do not defile yourselves in any of those ways, for it is by such that the nations that I am casting out before you defiled themselves. Thus the land became defiled; and I called it to account for its iniquity, and the land spewed out its inhabitants. But you must keep My laws and My rules, and you must not do any of those abhorrent things, neither the citizen nor the stranger who resides among you; for all those abhorrent things were done by the people who were in the land before you, and the land became defiled. So let not the land spew you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you. All who do any of those abhorrent things—such persons shall be cut off from their people. You shall keep My charge not to engage in any of the abhorrent practices that were carried on before you, and you shall not defile yourselves through them: I the Lord am your God. (Leviticus 18:24–30; cf. Leviticus 19:29; 20:22–25)


In addition to sexual crimes, the Torah also includes Molech worship (Leviticus 20:3; Deuteronomy 18:9–12), murder (Numbers 35:33–34), leaving a corpse of an executed person unburied (Deuteronomy 21:23), and violating the sanctity of marriage (Deuteronomy 24:1–4) as sins that pollute the land. Later prophets present idol-worship as a sin that defiles the land.[5] Thus, sin causes the land to become defiled, leading to the exile of its inhabitants. 

            The Torah presents antecedents for the ideas of exile and land defilement from the outset of creation. After Adam and Eve sin in Eden, God curses the earth and banishes Adam and Eve from Eden:


To Adam He said, “Because you did as your wife said and ate of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed be the ground because of you; by toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life: Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you. But your food shall be the grasses of the field”…. So the Lord God banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the soil from which he was taken. (Genesis 3:17–18, 23)


The Torah also expresses the poetic notion that the land cannot tolerate sin after Cain murders Abel. Having swallowed Abel’s blood, the land no longer will produce for Cain, and Cain may not remain in his land:


Then [God] said, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground! Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth.” (Genesis 4:10–12)


Throughout Tanakh, God reminds the Israelites that the land is not truly theirs, and they can be exiled if they fail to live up to the God-Israel covenant.

            Joshua reiterates this threat shortly before his death, after the people already have possessed their land:


If you break the covenant that the Lord your God enjoined upon you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them, then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and you shall quickly perish from the good land that He has given you. (Joshua 23:16)


God also reminds Israel of the threat of exile for infidelity to their covenant, precisely at the ideal moment when Solomon dedicates the Temple:


[But] if you and your descendants turn away from Me and do not keep the commandments [and] the laws which I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will sweep Israel off the land which I gave them; I will reject the House which I have consecrated to My name; and Israel shall become a proverb and a byword among all peoples. (I Kings 9:6–7)


Sabbatical and Jubilee Years


When Abraham needed a burial plot for Sarah, he faced a paradox. On the one hand, God had promised the land to him and his descendants for the future. On the other hand, he did not own any of that land and therefore was a resident alien (ger ve-toshav) among the Canaanites: 


I am a resident alien [ger ve-toshav] among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial. (Genesis 23:4)


Abraham wanted to gain a foothold in the land to bury Sarah as a landowner, rather than simply finding a spot on the roadside to bury her as a nomad.[6]

            Even as the people of Israel are crossing the desert to possess their land, God insists that the land does not truly belong to them. Rather, it belongs to God and therefore the people must observe the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. They are resident aliens, just like Abraham:


But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident [gerim ve-toshavim] with Me. (Leviticus 25:23)


The Torah also links the threat of exile to the violation of the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years:


I will make the land desolate, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled by it. And you I will scatter among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword against you. Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin. Then shall the land make up for its Sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and make up for its Sabbath years. Throughout the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the rest that it did not observe in your Sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it…. For the land shall be forsaken of them, making up for its Sabbath years by being desolate of them, while they atone for their iniquity; for the abundant reason that they rejected My rules and spurned My laws. (Leviticus 26:32–25, 43)


Non-observance of these laws demonstrates that the Israelites do not recognize that the land is God’s, but instead consider the land to be their own. 

            At the very end of Tanakh, the Book of Chronicles reiterates this understanding when the people go into the Babylonian exile after the destruction of the Temple:


Those who survived the sword he exiled to Babylon, and they became his and his sons’ servants till the rise of the Persian kingdom, in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, until the land paid back its Sabbaths; as long as it lay desolate it kept Sabbath, till seventy years were completed. (II Chronicles 36:20–21)


Although Israel’s continued presence in their land depends on their faithfulness to the covenant and their recognition that the land belongs to God, the land remains a permanent inheritance of the people of Israel. If they go into exile, they will always return to their land and no other nation will possess the land:


I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their God. (Genesis 17:8)


The Book of Deuteronomy similarly reiterates the divine gift of the land to the people of Israel.[7] The Torah also restates God’s oath guaranteeing this gift.[8] Specifically at times of great sin and crisis, the prophets invoke God’s oath and eternal covenant with Israel. These include the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:13–14) and the destruction of the Temple (Jeremiah 7:3–7; 33:25–26).


The Threat of Prosperity and the Need to be Grateful to God


In addition to the Torah’s concern that the people of Israel never consider the land to be absolutely theirs, the Torah repeatedly praises the beauty and fertility of the land and warns against losing sight of the fact that all blessings come from God.


            During Moses’ initiation prophecy at the burning bush, God praises Israel:

“I am,” He said, “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. And the Lord continued, “I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings. I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the region of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites….” (Exodus 3:6–8)


This is the first of some twenty biblical references to Israel as the land of milk and honey.

            In Deuteronomy, Moses repeatedly warns against the hazard of prosperity. If the people forget that all is from God and they become ungrateful, they will soon lapse into unfaithfulness:


For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without limit, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper. When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you. Take care lest you forget the Lord your God and fail to keep His commandments, His rules, and His laws, which I enjoin upon you today… and you say to yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers, as is still the case. (Deuteronomy 8:7–18)


The Talmud derives the commandment for the Grace after Meals from 8:10, “when you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you.” The passage describes divine blessing, rather than using the typical language of commandment. However, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik observed that this verse must be read as a commandment. The continuation of the passage warns against what occurs when people do not bless God for their produce—they will forget God. Therefore, 8:10 must be a commandment of what Israelites must do to avoid this hazard, rather than a prediction of what they will do.[9]


Israel’s Dependence on Rainfall as a Religious Value       


The beautiful land depends on rainfall, requiring constant providential attention:


For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors, like a vegetable garden; but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven. It is a land which the Lord your God looks after, on which the Lord your God always keeps His eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end. (Deuteronomy 11:10–12)


Because of its consistent agricultural cycle, Egypt became a refuge during famines. The Torah likens Egypt to the Garden of Eden. Lot also moved to the wicked city of Sodom because it resembled Egypt and Eden in that the Jordan River watered the area and guaranteed fertility: 


Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it—this was before the Lord had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt. (Genesis 13:10)


God gave Israel a fertile land, but it is not consistently fertile as Egypt or Sodom. The latter are much easier places to obtain predictable prosperity. The consistent rising of the Nile and Jordan Rivers led to a state wherein people felt a sense of security and entitlement. There were no consequences to their sinful behavior, and both developed wicked cultures. Israel’s dependence on rainfall, in contrast, fostered a culture of constant attention to relationship-building with a personal God.

Ramban (on Deuteronomy 11:11–12) similarly explains that all people depend on God, but a sick person feels that sense of dependence much more than a healthy person. Egypt is like a healthy person, and Israel is like a sick person. Since Israel depends on rain, the people must constantly remain conscious of their dependence on God.


Professors Uriel Simon and Moshe Greenberg


Professors Uriel Simon and Moshe Greenberg contribute additional dimensions of understanding to the religious significance of the Land of Israel in the Torah. Professor Simon[10] observes that Abraham’s bond with the land is not natural, since he was not born there. Although God promises the land to Abraham and his descendants, Abraham must wait some 400 years for the fulfillment of this promise (Genesis 15:13–16). There is further uncertainty regarding the fulfillment of the divine promise because of the delay in Abraham’s fathering an heir who would perpetuate the covenant. 

Israel’s connection to the land is not a natural bond; it is a connection of covenantal destiny. When a nation has a natural bond to its land, there is no constant threat of exile looming over the people. In contrast, when a nation has a covenantal relationship of destiny, this means that their rights to their land are based on a divine promise and are conditional on faithfulness to God. 

A nation with a natural bond to its land loses that connection when it is exiled, and that nation ceases to exist. In contrast, a nation of destiny can temporarily lose its land, but retains an eternal bond to its land even when it goes into exile. Natural possession of one’s land feels safe, but it deadens the heart of the nation since the people take their land for granted. Possession of land through destiny forces a nation to have constant attentiveness to God. Thus, the people of Israel never could take their land for granted, but also could retain their identity through their exile and long for a return to their land.

Professor Moshe Greenberg[11] explains that the Torah was given in the desert and its narrative ends with the people still in the desert. While many of the Torah’s laws are applicable only in Israel, the basis for the God-Israel covenant is the exodus and revelation at Sinai. If Israel is faithful to the Torah covenant, they will live safely in their land forever. If Israel is unfaithful, they can be exiled from land. Since the Torah transcends the Land of Israel, it remains fully binding outside of the land.




The Torah makes the conditional aspect of the covenant explicit, threatening exile for certain grave sins. One passage in Leviticus adds the poetic dimension of the land becoming ill from sin, leading it to spew out its inhabitants. There are no purification rituals for the land, and only exile can allow the land to recover from its defilement.

            The Sabbatical and Jubilee years convey the message that the land belongs to God and not to Israel. Non-fulfillment of these laws leads to exile, since Israel makes the false assumption that the land belongs to them. Even with exile, the land remains an eternal possession of the people of Israel and they will return to their land.

            In addition to Israel’s need to recognize that God owns the land, they also must be eternally grateful to God for the bountiful land and its produce. Proper gratitude lies at the heart of faithfulness to God, whereas ingratitude leads to unfaithfulness.

            The Land of Israel’s dependence on rainfall similarly creates a state of constant God-consciousness. Unlike Egypt and Sodom, which had the consistent rising of the Nile and Jordan Rivers, Israel felt their dependence on God at every moment.

            Professor Uriel Simon develops the idea of the people of Israel’s connection of destiny to their land. God’s promises to Abraham are delayed—and are contingent on—Israel’s faithfulness to the covenant. On the other hand, Israel’s bond to its land cannot be severed by an exile, unlike nations that have a natural bond to their lands. The people of Israel always will return to their land.

            Professor Moshe Greenberg highlights the fact that the Torah begins and ends outside of the Land of Israel to stress that it is an eternal covenant that transcends all land borders and applies wherever the people of Israel live. Israel is the place of ultimate fulfillment of the God-Israel relationship, but Israel has a covenantal relationship with God through the Torah everywhere.


  1. Israel in the Prophetic Books


The Book of Joshua


There is no biblical holiday to celebrate Israel’s entry to its land or Joshua’s conquest of the land. Joshua even uses the Torah’s language of a “proto-Seder” to commemorate the miraculous crossing of the Jordan River:


This shall serve as a symbol among you: in time to come, when your children ask, “What is the meaning of these stones for you?” you shall tell them, “The waters of the Jordan were cut off because of the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant; when it passed through the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off.” And so these stones shall serve the people of Israel as a memorial for all time. (Joshua 4:6–7)


He charged the Israelites as follows: “In time to come, when your children ask their fathers, ‘What is the meaning of those stones?’ tell your children: ‘Here the Israelites crossed the Jordan on dry land.’ For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you crossed, just as the Lord your God did to the Sea of Reeds, which He dried up before us until we crossed. Thus all the peoples of the earth shall know how mighty is the hand of the Lord, and you shall fear the Lord your God always.” (Joshua 4:21–24)


Israel’s memory is codified through the Torah’s holidays to perpetuate the foundational experiences of the exodus, the revelation at Sinai, and the sojourn through the wilderness. Although the Land of Israel is a central aspect of the God-Israel relationship, the Torah applies everywhere, and not just in Israel. 


The Temple in Jerusalem


David establishes Jerusalem as the political capital of Israel by moving there and building his palace (II Samuel chapter 5). He then establishes Jerusalem as God’s capital by moving the Ark there (II Samuel chapter 6). God does not permit David to build the actual Temple, but assures him that his son will rule and build the Temple (II Samuel 7). Solomon goes on to build the Temple and a palace for himself near it (I Kings 6–7).

Ramban (on Exodus 25:2) explains that the Tabernacle (and the Temple) create a perpetual re-enactment of the Revelation at Sinai. Both Sinai and the Tabernacle had a tripartite division of holiness: (1) The mountain’s summit is analogous to the Temple’s Holy of Holies, accessible only to Moses or the High Priest. (2) The middle of the mountain is analogous to the Temple’s Holy section, accessible only to the elders or the priests. (3) The base of the mountain is analogous to the Temple courtyard, where all people could gather to experience God’s revelation.

In addition to Ramban’s association of the Tabernacle-Temple with the Revelation at Sinai, several Midrashim ascertain connections between the Temple and the Garden of Eden. Ideally, Adam and Eve were supposed to follow God’s commands and remain in the Garden. Instead, they sinned and were expelled, and God guarded the Tree of Life with Cherubim: 


[God] drove the man out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:24)


In the time of Moses, the Torah replaced the Tree of Life with the Ark of the Covenant. Cherubim were placed above it, to guard it. The Tabernacle is the only other reference to Cherubim in the Torah, and the Book of Proverbs refers to Torah and Wisdom as a Tree of Life: “She is a tree of life for those who grasp her” (Proverbs 3:18) (Midrash ha-Gadol, Genesis 3:24). Thus, the Tabernacle and Temple become a manifestation of the perfection in the Garden of Eden, where all humanity can live in harmony and serve God.

            In addition to the Temple serving as the heart of the God-Israel relationship, Solomon also recognized the universalistic dimension of the Temple. In his prayer at the dedication of the Temple, Solomon stressed that all God-fearing people always are welcome. He expresses a longing for all humanity to recognize God:


Or if a foreigner who is not of Your people Israel comes from a distant land for the sake of Your name—for they shall hear about Your great name and Your mighty hand and Your outstretched arm—when he comes to pray toward this House, oh, hear in Your heavenly abode and grant all that the foreigner asks You for. Thus all the peoples of the earth will know Your name and revere You, as does Your people Israel; and they will recognize that Your name is attached to this House that I have built…. And may these words of mine, which I have offered in supplication before the Lord, be close to the Lord our God day and night, that He may provide for His servant and for His people Israel, according to each day’s needs—to the end that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord alone is God, there is no other. (I Kings 8:41–43, 59–60)


The worldview underlying Solomon’s prayer becomes a central feature of later prophetic visions, where the Temple serves as the religious center for both Israel and a God-fearing humanity.

            The narratives in I Kings chapters 3–10 present Solomon’s reign as the ideal period in Israel’s history. Solomon is a wise king who judges the people fairly and is a prophet. The nation is religious and unified. There is peace and prosperity. God’s Presence is manifest in the Temple. The nations of the world flood to Jerusalem to see the Temple and to admire Solomon’s wisdom. 

Later prophets use this imagery to depict the ideal messianic age. The only element they must add to their visions is that Israel’s exiles will return to their land. During Solomon’s reign, the Israelites still lived in their land and were not yet in exile. 


The Destruction of the Temple and Exile


At the ideal moment in Israel’s history, when Solomon dedicated the Temple, God warns that Israel can remain in this pristine state eternally only if they remain faithful to the Torah. If they violate the God-Israel covenant, they will lose the Temple and forfeit their right to remain in the land:


[But] if you and your descendants turn away from Me and do not keep the commandments [and] the laws which I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will sweep Israel off the land which I gave them; I will reject the House which I have consecrated to My name; and Israel shall become a proverb and a byword among all peoples. (I Kings 9:6–7)


Tragically, King Solomon opened the door to idolatry toward the end of his life (I Kings 11), leading to the division of the monarchy. Sustained idolatry through much of the remainder of the period led to the eventual exile of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians, and ultimately the destruction of the Temple and exile by the Babylonians.

            Living at the time of the destruction, the prophet Jeremiah understood that God’s very creation was coming undone and returning to its primeval chaotic state:


I look at the earth, it is unformed and void [tohu va-vohu]; at the skies, and their light is gone. (Jeremiah 4:23)


This reference harks back to the second verse of the Torah, before God created order:


The earth was unformed and void [tohu va-vohu], with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water. (Genesis 1:2)


The destruction of the Temple ends the vision of its serving as a new Garden of Eden. The people of Israel are exiled to Babylonia and to Egypt (see II Kings 25), reversing Abraham’s journey from the area of Babylonia as well as the exodus from Egypt in the time of Moses.

            The Temple and Solomon’s palace are destroyed together, as God’s kingdom and Israel’s kingdom fall to Babylonia:


He burned the House of the Lord, the king’s palace, and all the houses of Jerusalem; he burned down the house of every notable person. (II Kings 25:9)


The destruction of the Temple and the exile sound like they are absolute, and most surviving Jews believed that God had abandoned them. The end of the Book of Lamentations poignantly reflects this dark despair of the people:


Why have You forgotten us utterly, forsaken us for all time? Take us back, O Lord, to Yourself, and let us come back; renew our days as of old! For truly, You have rejected us, bitterly raged against us. (Lamentations 5:20–22)


Prophetic Visions of Hope


Confronting the people’s feelings of rejection, the prophets envisioned a time beyond the current reality and offered much-needed hope to the despairing people. In Isaiah 50, the prophet invokes the notion that the exile should be likened to a separation, but not a divorce:


Thus said the Lord: Where is the bill of divorce of your mother whom I dismissed? And which of My creditors was it to whom I sold you off? You were only sold off for your sins, and your mother dismissed for your crimes. (Isaiah 50:1)


Alternatively, Jeremiah posited an even more extreme position that the exile was a divorce, but God still was prepared to remarry Israel if the people were to abandon their idolatry:


[The word of the Lord came to me] as follows: If a man divorces his wife, and she leaves him and marries another man, can he ever go back to her? Would not such a land be defiled? Now you have whored with many lovers: can you return to Me?—says the Lord. (Jeremiah 3:1)


Regardless, the reality was the same: The God-Israel relationship is eternal. Either there never was a divorce, or there was a divorce with an ongoing invitation to return.

In his celebrated prophecy of the Dry Bones, Ezekiel depicts the people as feeling dead. God, however, will miraculously restore them to their vitality and to their land:


And He said to me, “O mortal, these bones are the whole House of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is gone [avedah tikvatenu]; we are doomed.’ Prophesy, therefore, and say to them: Thus said the Lord God: I am going to open your graves and lift you out of the graves, O My people, and bring you to the land of Israel….” (Ezekiel 37:11–12)


This vision was intended as a parable to Israel. Like dead bones, Israel felt hopeless. God promised that He would restore life to the nation and bring them back to their land.[12] 

            In Isaiah 51, the prophet invokes God’s eternal covenant with the Patriarchs, prophesying the nation’s return to Israel and the restoration of the state of being like the Garden of Eden:


Listen to Me, you who pursue justice, you who seek the Lord: Look to the rock you were hewn from, to the quarry you were dug from. Look back to Abraham your father and to Sarah who brought you forth. For he was only one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. Truly the Lord has comforted Zion, comforted all her ruins; He has made her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the Garden of the Lord. Gladness and joy shall abide there, thanksgiving and the sound of music. (Isaiah 51:1–3)


Israel’s mission is to serve as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6), the religious capital of the world that teaches humanity to return to the ideal state of the Garden of Eden:


In the days to come, the Mount of the Lord’s House shall stand firm above the mountains and tower above the hills; and all the nations shall gaze on it with joy. And the many peoples shall go and say: “Come, let us go up to the Mount of the Lord, to the House of the God of Jacob; that He may instruct us in His ways, and that we may walk in His paths.” For instruction shall come forth from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. Thus He will judge among the nations and arbitrate for the many peoples, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war. (Isaiah 2:2–4)


The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid; the calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together, with a little boy to herd them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion, like the ox, shall eat straw. A babe shall play over a viper’s hole, and an infant pass his hand over an adder’s den. In all of My sacred mount nothing evil or vile shall be done; for the land shall be filled with devotion to the Lord as water covers the sea. (Isaiah 11:6–9)


Prior to the destruction of the Temple, Jeremiah corresponded with the community already exiled to Babylonia in 597 bce with King Jehoiachin, instructing them to build a Jewish life while they waited for the restoration to their land. That restoration would come some seventy years after the rise of the Babylonian Empire:


Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, to the whole community which I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there, do not decrease. And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper…. For thus said the Lord: When Babylon’s seventy years are over, I will take note of you, and I will fulfill to you My promise of favor—to bring you back to this place. (Jeremiah 29:4–10)


The Jews were to retain their identity while living in the Diaspora, but they always knew that they would return home to Israel.




There are no biblical holidays to commemorate Israel’s entry into the land. The Torah thus creates a national covenantal identity that transcends the Land of Israel. Joshua’s ceremony of acceptance of the Torah after the people entered the land teaches that faithfulness to God lies at the heart of Israel’s remaining in its land. The Talmud adds that the Torah’s vision also looks outward to all humanity, as Israel has a role to play in building a model society and inspiring the nations of the world to the Torah’s level of religious morality.

            David and Solomon establish Jerusalem as God’s capital in ruling the world as well as the political capital of Israel. The Temple reenacts the Revelation at Sinai, and also functions as a taste of the Garden of Eden. Solomon expresses the vision of the Torah, that the Temple is open to all God-fearing people, and not only to Israel. Solomon’s reign reflects the messianic age.

            Tragically, the sin of idolatry contributed to the division of the monarchy, the exile of the ten Northern tribes, and ultimately the exile of Judah along with the destruction of the Temple. God’s very creation had come undone, and the Israelites returned to Babylonia and Egypt, reversing the journeys of Abraham and Moses. The people thought that the God-Israel covenant had come to an end.

            It required prophetic vision to look beyond the dark reality of the destruction and exile. Prophets proclaimed that the exile was a separation from God, not a permanent divorce. Israel might feel dead, but God will revive them. The Patriarchal covenant is in full, eternal force, and God will restore the Eden-like state of Israel. While in exile, the people must build institutions to retain their identity. But they always will return home to Israel.


  1. Israel in the Second Temple Period and in the Contemporary Period


A Miracle of History


Despite the intense despair of the people in the wake of the destruction of the Temple and the exile, Jeremiah offered a prophetic vision beyond the misery. There would be a full restoration to the land, but in the interim the Jews would need to build a strong Diaspora life:


Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, to the whole community which I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there, do not decrease. And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper…. For thus said the Lord: When Babylon’s seventy years are over, I will take note of you, and I will fulfill to you My promise of favor—to bring you back to this place. (Jeremiah 29:4–10)


After generations of exile, the nation experienced a shocking turn of events. Approximately seventy years after its inception, the seemingly invincible Babylonian Empire suddenly collapsed in the wake of the Persian onslaught under Cyrus. Even more remarkably, Cyrus permitted the Jews to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple. All of a sudden, the once seemingly impossible prophecies of Jeremiah were being realized before the people’s eyes. The Book of Ezra opens with a reference to Jeremiah’s prophecies, celebrating this miracle of history:


In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, when the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah was fulfilled, the Lord roused the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia to issue a proclamation throughout his realm by word of mouth and in writing as follows: “Thus said King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord God of Heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has charged me with building Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Anyone of you of all His people—may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem that is in Judah and build the House of the Lord God of Israel, the God that is in Jerusalem; and all who stay behind, wherever he may be living, let the people of his place assist him with silver, gold, goods, and livestock, besides the freewill offering to the House of God that is in Jerusalem.” (Ezra 1:1–4)


Ezra chapter 2 contains a lengthy list of the people who returned to Israel. The extensive coverage gives the initial impression that the Jewish response to Cyrus’ permission to return was overwhelmingly positive. This impression is diminished by the fact that only 42,360 people returned (Ezra 2:64). Evidently, most Jews chose to remain in exile. 


Zechariah’s Vision of a Wall of Fire Surrounding Jerusalem


The prophet Zechariah received a series of visions to encourage the Jews to complete the rebuilding of the Second Temple. One element he addressed was the shame people felt over the walls of Jerusalem, which continued to be breached after the Babylonian invasion:


I looked up, and I saw a man holding a measuring line. “Where are you going?” I asked. “To measure Jerusalem,” he replied, “to see how long and wide it is to be.” But the angel who talked with me came forward, and another angel came forward to meet him. The former said to him, “Run to that young man and tell him: ‘Jerusalem shall be peopled as a city without walls, so many shall be the men and cattle it contains. And I Myself—declares the Lord—will be a wall of fire all around it, and I will be a glory inside it.’” (Zechariah 2:5–9).


Zechariah challenged the public perception of the broken walls of Jerusalem as being shameful, as later reported in the Book of Nehemiah:


They replied, “The survivors who have survived the captivity there in the province are in dire trouble and disgrace; Jerusalem’s wall is full of breaches, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.” (Nehemiah 1:3)


Then I said to them, “You see the bad state we are in—Jerusalem lying in ruins and its gates destroyed by fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem and suffer no more disgrace.” (Nehemiah 2:17)


In Zechariah’s vision, the breached walls presented an opportunity to expand the borders of the city through a massive population increase. Instead of requiring physical walls for security, God would serve as a wall of fire to protect His people.

            Prophecies are not fulfilled automatically. People need to do their part to realize the potential of the moment.[13] In this spirit, Zechariah immediately follows his vision with a call to the Jews still living in Babylonia:


“Away, away! Flee from the land of the north—says the Lord—though I swept you [there] like the four winds of heaven—declares the Lord.” Away, escape, O Zion, you who dwell in Fair Babylon.... The Lord will take Judah to Himself as His portion in the Holy Land,[14] and He will choose Jerusalem once more. (Zechariah 2:10–16)


If the people want Jerusalem’s population to expand beyond the city walls, then the exiles need to leave Babylonia en masse and move to Israel! 

Zechariah also prophesies that God will personally purify the land from its stains of sin:


I will remove that country’s guilt in a single day. (Zechariah 3:9)



In Zechariah chapter 5, the prophet explains that God will eliminate sinners, and then sin itself from the land.[15] In our discussions of the Land of Israel in the Torah, we observed that there is no ritual to purify the land from severe sin. Only exile of the sinners and God’s intervention can allow the land proper opportunity to recover. God’s Presence and the people now can return to a restored land.

            Unfortunately, most Jews ignored Zechariah’s call to return and chose to remain in exile. The ideal vision never was fulfilled. In the final analysis, Jerusalem was better off with a wall. Approximately 75 years after Zechariah’s prophecy, Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem (445 bce). The city was so desolate that he decreed that one-tenth of the Jewish community must resettle in Jerusalem so that it would remain a viable city (Nehemiah 11:1–2).

Within two generations of exile, there was a severe change in the mentality of the Jews. Those who had been exiled feared that the God-Israel relationship was over, and they could not even envision praying to God while in exile: “How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil?” (Psalm 137:4). Two generations later, most Jews were comfortable remaining in exile. They lived a robust life in the Diaspora, and evidently no longer perceived the exile as the supreme punishment of the Torah. 

Putting the evidence together, several rabbinic sources consider the Second Temple period as a missed opportunity for the full messianic redemption:


If she be a wall, we will build upon her a turret of silver; if she be a door, we will enclose her with boards of cedar. Had you made yourself like a wall and had all come up in the days of Ezra, you would have been compared to silver, which no rottenness can ever affect. Now that you have come up like doors, you are like cedarwood, which rottenness prevails over. (Yoma 9b; cf. Kuzari II:24)


            Simultaneously, the very existence of the Second Temple and a flourishing Jewish community in Israel convincingly demonstrated that the God-Israel relationship endures beyond the exile and is eternal. Malachi invokes the rebuilding of the land as a sign of God’s abiding love of Israel:


I have shown you love, said the Lord. But you ask, “How have You shown us love?” After all—declares the Lord—Esau is Jacob’s brother; yet I have accepted Jacob and have rejected Esau. I have made his hills a desolation, his territory a home for beasts of the desert. If Edom thinks, “Though crushed, we can build the ruins again,” thus said the Lord of Hosts: They may build, but I will tear down. And so they shall be known as the region of wickedness, the people damned forever of the Lord. Your eyes shall behold it, and you shall declare, “Great is the Lord beyond the borders of Israel!” (Malachi 1:2–5)


Similarly, the leaders during the religious revival under Ezra and Nehemiah highlight God’s eternal covenant with Abraham and his descendants:


You are the Lord God, who chose Abram, who brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and changed his name to Abraham. Finding his heart true to You, You made a covenant with him to give the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite—to give it to his descendants. And You kept Your word, for You are righteous. (Nehemiah 9:7–8)


Professor Yehudah Elitzur


Professor Yehudah Elitzur[16] wrote from the vantage point of Jews returning to Israel after nearly 2000 years of exile, rather than simply after seventy years of Babylonian exile. This afforded him a broader perspective of the biblical passages.

In an essay on the religious significance of the Land of Israel in the Bible, Professor Elitzur reiterates the eternality of the covenant of the land alongside the threat of exile for unfaithfulness. Even if there would be an exile, no other nation will settle permanently in Israel. The land eternally belongs to Abraham’s descendants:


I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their God. (Genesis 17:8)


The ingathering of Jewish exiles to Israel in the contemporary period is a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that the land is an everlasting holding.

            Lands typically do not remain desolate when they are conquered. Normally, other people occupy them. However, God promises that the Land of Israel would remain desolate if the people go into exile:


I will make the land desolate, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled by it. And you I will scatter among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword against you. Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin. (Leviticus 26:32–33)


In the ancient halakhic Midrash Sifra, the Sages remark that the uninhabited land is a positive dimension within this prophecy of doom. The land remains uninhabited so that Jews could return to an empty land.

In the thirteenth century, Ramban witnessed the desolation in Israel when he moved there toward the end of his life. He understood this desolation as proof of God’s promise that the land eternally belongs to the Jews, and that God would return them to Israel one day:


[The desolation] constitutes a good tiding, proclaiming that during all our exiles, our land will not accept our enemies.... Since the time that we left it, [the land] has not accepted any nation or people, and they all try to settle it... This is a great proof and assurance to us. (Ramban on Leviticus 26:16)


In the nineteenth century, Mark Twain was flabbergasted by the fact that Israel was almost completely desolate. In his Innocents Abroad, he remarked: 


Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince... Can the curse of the Deity beautify a land? Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies.


Professor Elitzur observes further that the Canaanites who lived in the land prior to the Israelites succeeded in exploiting the natural resources of the land:


When the Lord your God brings you into the land that He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to you—great and flourishing cities that you did not build, houses full of all good things that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and you eat your fill. (Deuteronomy 6:10–11)


However, the Canaanites never became a unified nation. Joshua defeated 31 kings, each a ruler of an independent city-state. In contrast, the people of Israel formed a united nation, the only people ever to do so in Israel. Moreover, no nation after Israel could exploit the natural resources of the land. Instead, the land remained a barren wasteland for nearly 2,000 years.

Professor Elitzur invokes another rule of history: All other exiled people either assimilate into the dominant culture of the host nation, or else they are dominant because they come in large groups and take over the culture of the new land (e.g., the British in America, the Spanish in Argentina). 

Despite being a minority, the Jews never totally assimilated into their host nations. They also remained a minority and never were able to set up a Jewish land outside of Israel. The Torah’s curse that the people of Israel would be scattered and downtrodden in exile contains a hidden blessing, since they would always remain outsiders and therefore return one day to Israel.

The Jewish people and the Land of Israel belong to one another, and need one another. When they are together, both land and people flourish. When they are separate, Jews suffer and the land lies desolate.




At the beginning of the Second Temple period, the Jews were miraculously allowed to return to their land and rebuild the Temple. While many Jews did return, the vast majority chose to remain in exile. Instead of the full redemption occurring then, the opportunity was squandered. It appears that the non-return of many Jews contributed meaningfully to the failure to realize the messianic era.

            Although the ideal age did not occur in the Second Temple period, the Jews realized that God’s covenantal promises were indeed eternal. Their return to their land demonstrated God’s abiding love and commitment to the people of Israel.

            In the Torah, God promises that the Land of Israel is an everlasting holding for the people of Israel. The ingathering of exiles in the modern era, the land blooming after remaining desolate for nearly 2,000 years, and the fact that the Jews never completely assimilated nor formed a dominant culture elsewhere all fulfill divine promises. These facts are unique in human history, all attesting to the eternality of God’s promises.

            We live in a miraculous age with the Jewish people returned to Israel after such a lengthy exile. We cannot know how everything will unfold without prophecy. However, we may derive several religious lessons from the biblical corpus: (1) The return of the Jewish people to Israel confirms the biblical covenantal promises dating back to Abraham. (2) It is a fulfillment of God’s promise that the land would remain a barren wasteland in the absence of the Jews, and that it would flourish once again when the Jews return. (3) The people of Israel must be grateful to God for this gift, and never take sole credit for this remarkable achievement or for the rehabilitation of the land. (4) The modern State of Israel poses a challenge to world Jewry to live up to God’s covenant through the Torah, and to participate in rebuilding the land.




[1] An earlier version of this essay appeared in Hayyim Angel, Cornerstones: The Bible and Jewish Ideology (New York: Kodesh Press, 2020), pp. 1–51.

[2] For further discussion, see Hayyim Angel, “‘The Chosen People’: An Ethical Challenge,” in Angel, Increasing Peace Through Balanced Torah Study. Conversations 27 (New York: Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, 2017), pp. 38–47.

[3] Jon D. Levenson, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), p. 84.

[4] Shlomo Riskin, Torah Lights: Genesis (Jerusalem: Urim, 2005), pp. 307–312.

[5] See, for example, Jeremiah 2:7–8, 23; 7:30; 19:13; 32:34; Ezekiel 20:7, 18, 31; 22:3, 4; 23:7, 30; 36:18; 37:23.

[6] See Elhanan Samet, Iyyunim BeParashot HaShavua vol. 1 (second series) (Hebrew) ed. Ayal Fishler (Ma’aleh Adumim: Ma’aliyot Press, 2004), pp. 90–91. 

[7] See, for example, Deuteronomy 5:16, 28; 6:10–11, 23; 7:13; 8:10; 9:4–6, 23; 10:11; 11:9, 17, 21, 25; 12:1, 9; 15:4, 7; 16:20; 17:4; 18:9; 19:1–2, 8, 10, 14; 20:16; 21:1, 23; 24:4; 25:15, 19; 26:1–11, 15.

[8] See, for example, Deuteronomy 6:10, 23; 7:13; 10:11; 11:9, 21; 19:8; 26:3, 15.

[9] Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Birkon Mesorat HaRav, ed. David Hellman (New York: OU Press, 2016), pp. 11–12.

[10] Uriel Simon, “Biblical Destinies: Conditional Promises,” in Jewish Bible Theology: Perspectives and Case Studies, ed. Isaac Kalimi (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2012), pp. 79–87.

[11] Moshe Greenberg, Understanding Exodus (New York: Behrman House, 1969), pp. 9–17.

[12] This prophecy is so powerful that the writers of the Hatikvah drew from it when composing what became Israel’s national anthem. Ezekiel speaks of the exiles saying that “our hope is gone”avedah tikvatenu. The anthem triumphantly responds, od lo avedah tikvatenu, “Our hope is still not lost!” 

[13] For further discussion of this principle, see Hayyim Angel, “Prophecy as Potential: The Consolations of Isaiah 1–12 in Context,” in Angel, Revealed Texts, Hidden Meanings: Finding the Religious Significance in Tanakh (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav-Sephardic Publication Foundation, 2009), pp. 117–126.

[14] This verse is the only time in all Tanakh where the Land of Israel is called the Holy Land. Harry M. Orlinsky observes that Christians preferred calling the Land of Israel “the Holy Land,” whereas Jews preferred Eretz Yisrael. Only as Jews left their ghettos did some adopt the term “the Holy Land.” The term “Eretz Yisrael” referring to the entire Land of Israel also is rare in Tanakh, found only in I Samuel 13:19; Ezekiel 27:17; 40:2; 47:18; and II Chronicles 34:7 (“The Biblical Concept of the Land of Israel: Cornerstone of the Covenant between God and Israel,” in The Land of Israel: Jewish Perspectives, ed. Lawrence A. Hoffman [Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986], pp. 54–55, 64).

[15] See further analysis of this passage in Hayyim Angel, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi: Prophecy in an Age of Uncertainty (Jerusalem: Maggid, 2016), pp. 66–70.

[16] Yehudah Elitzur, “The Land of Israel in Biblical Thought” (Hebrew), in Elitzur, Yisrael ve-ha-Mikra: Mehkarim Geografiyim, Historiyim, va-Hagotiyim, ed. Yoel Elitzur and Amos Frisch (Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 2000), pp. 261–279.

I Do Good Deeds, Therefore, I Am


Virtue signaling is an affectation that has taken hold among many who profess to be virtuous. Living a truly virtuous life and actually doing good deeds appears to be optional. It seems that mindlessly shouting a prescribed slogan that often rhymes, on demand, at exceedingly high volume, is all that is required. 

This conception of idle virtue is antithetical to our Jewish tradition, where what a person thinks in the abstract is not as important as what a person does in practice. Leading a virtuous life means more than just good thoughts; it requires performing good deeds, referred to in the Torah as the mitzvoth (commandments). Notwithstanding René Descartes’[1] famous dictum that I think, therefore, I am,[2] the Torah’s view might better be expressed as, I have a soul and do good deeds, therefore, I am. 

Interestingly, Blaise Pascal, another noted mathematician and acquaintance of Descartes, also disagreed with Descartes on this subject. Many just cite Pascal’s statement[3] that the heart has it reasons, which reason cannot understand.[4] However, he went on to explain that it is the heart that experiences God and not a person’s facility to reason. Perhaps, though, Pascal’s figurative reference to the heart might be better understood as the soul. As the Bible[5] describes, God created Adam from a combination of earthly matter and spiritual essence.[6] As a result, he became a living being endowed with understanding.[7] It is the soul, which is the source of a person’s identity as an individual. 

Both Descartes and Pascal would have benefited from the landmark study done by Dr. Antonio Demassio.[8] He analyzed the role played by what is commonly referred to as the rational mind, which challenged the then prevailing view as to the way the mind functions, in his book aptly titled, Descartes’ Error.[9]

Dr. Damassio reports on his work with a patient who suffered a freak accident that impaired the functionality of his amygdala. This part of the brain is viewed as the seat of our instinctual or emotional behavior, as opposed to the frontal cortex, which is viewed as the rational portion of the brain. Dr. Damassio’s study suggests that decisions are actually made by the instinctual portion of the brain.  The cortex then rationalizes those decisions.

Indeed, many successful decision-makers do rely on what is typically referred to as a gut feeling; but which may be better defined as instinct. They are also rather adept at rationalizing those gut feelings. Given Dr. Damasio’s conclusions, we should be questioning whether our thoughts and decisions should necessarily be viewed as wholly rational. They may in fact just be flawed rationalizations of what our underlying instincts demand, which are not always wholesome or noble. Consider how this instinctual bias, insidiously cloaked in reflexive rationalizations, might yield self-serving decisions that may even be perceived to be altruistic, because of the deceptive functioning of the brain. Is it any wonder that the virtue-signaling crowd believe they are doing good by merely shouting a variety of slogans? Thus, the brain cannot be counted on to be wholly rational and, therefore, our implicit trust in our own rationality may be misplaced. What then can be done to remedy the problem?

The Torah offers a means of dealing with the matter. It begins with the realization that there is another aspect to the thinking process, which is embodied in our spiritual dimension, the soul. Indeed, Maimonides (Rambam) views the brain as an organ of the body, which is joined with the soul. The brain is then something akin to the central processing unit in a computer. The actual seat of character traits, knowledge, thought, and decision-making, is the soul. The soul’s perception and expression in the physical world, though, is limited by the constraints of the body, including the mind. Rambam,[10] therefore, applies a holistic approach to dealing with a person’s physical and mental, as well as, spiritual health, to assure the well-being and proper development of the person. Each of these essential components in the make-up of a person must be nourished in order to assure a good and productive life. How then to nourish the spiritual portion of the person and train the brain effectively to function in expressing the will of the soul? In this sense, the brain is a filter that can impair or distort the desires of the soul.

The performance of the mitzvoth is a means by which the soul trains the mind and body and habituates them to behave properly. By doing the mitzvoth, whole-heartedly and with joy, a person can achieve a higher level of consciousness and connection to the divine. This connection to the spiritual manifests itself in the good feelings that it engenders, which suffuse the mind and body. This blissful state is truly sustainable in that it is both long lasting and repeatable, by continuing to do good deeds.

It is noteworthy that some mitzvoth are classified as hukkim.[11] The term “hok” is derived from the word hakikah, something indelibly engraved in rock, like a picture.[12] It is suggested that, in modern parlance, it might be termed imprinting, in the sense of creating neural pathways in the brain. It results from the habitual behavior associated with the performance of a hok

In essence, as the Rambam[13] posits, the actions of the body affect the soul, and we can affect how we think by what we do. Consider how an athlete trains using repetitive routines (habitual behavior) to establish what is commonly referred to as muscle memory. The term is somewhat of a misnomer. Our muscles don’t have memory. The process of reacting to outside stimulus is controlled by our brain or, as the Rambam terms it, the soul. 

Following the Torah handbook of training and programming, neural pathways can be created (i.e., engraved or imprinted) in the brain. This is accomplished through the process of acting out Torah rituals and other observances of the commandments, which is a means of imprinting the brain. Because of the less-than-rational nature of hukkim ,[14] their performance is particularly well suited to bypassing the filter of the so-called rational mind.  In essence, they reach right into the instinctual and emotional part of the brain and create virtuous responses that become second nature and are more consistent with the needs of the soul. 

Establishing and reinforcing good patterns of behavior is an essential and fundamental part of this imprinting process. The effect of this kind of ritualized behavior and conditioning is to train and sublimate those instincts and emotions to higher purposes, nourishing our spiritual side, embodied in the soul. This, instead of reinforcing our baser instincts and desires traditionally associated with this part of the brain that are rationalized by the frontal cortex, as Dr. Damasio found. 

The Torah-derived patterns of good behavior include, for example, praying in a minyan, at specified times, observing the details of the Sabbath and holidays, or following other observances. By habitually acting out these rituals or other observances like hukkim with heartfelt joy, we not only imprint our brains with neural pathways, we also create a positive feedback loop, enhanced by our brain chemistry, which reinforces the good feelings we experience when performing these sacred rituals.

In this light, consider the recent desire by many soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces to wear tzizith as they fight the evil that is Hamas. The tzizit offer no real tangible protection in combat, and as the Midrash Tanhuma[15] notes, like other such hukkim,[16] there is an illogical character to the mitzvah of wearing tzizith. Yet, soldiers are donning tzizith every day just like the body armor they customarily wear, and the comforting feeling they experience putting on tzizith is undeniable. Tzizith are designed to serve as a symbolic reminder of the importance of performing the 613 mitzvoth. The ritual of making the blessing and donning the tzizith every morning, as well as the feeling of having the garment as an added layer close to the body, as a tangible form of spiritual body armor, is most heartening. 

Rabbeinu Bahya discusses the details of the parah aduma (red heifer) requirements,[17] another example of a hok. He notes that features of this ritual are not only devoid of logic—they appear to defy logic. Thus, the very same ashes of the parah aduma purify the ritually impure and defile the ritually pure. Rabbeinu Bahya goes on to explain[18] that the term hok also means boundary or limit.[19] Establishing boundaries and limiting our behavior is an essential element in the kind of habitual behavior that can imprint our brains with a positive message. It is one of the fundamental benefits of performing the mitzvoth. 

The Talmud[20] analyzes the nature of the soul. It does so, poetically, in parallel statements about the characteristics of the divine and the soul, as follows:


  1. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, fills the entire world, so too the soul fills the entire body. 

  2. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, sees but is not seen, so too does the soul see, but is not seen. 

  3. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, sustains the entire world, so too the soul sustains the entire body. 

  4. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, is pure, so too is the soul pure. 

  5. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, resides in a chamber within a chamber, so too the soul resides in a chamber within a chamber. 


Rav Bahya ibn Pakuda,[21] in his seminal work, the Hovot haLevavot,[22] describes the interplay between the body and soul, the constituent elements comprising a human being. Both are among the benefits God has bestowed on humankind. The body is visible, and the soul is invisible. Accordingly, Rav Pakuda asserts, a person has a duty to render to God visible and invisible service.

The visible outward service is the observance of the duties of the limbs. This includes praying, fasting, giving charity, learning the Torah and teaching it, making a Sukkah, waving a lulav on the festival of Sukkot, tzitzith, mezuzah. and similar precepts whose performance is completed by the physical limbs.

The invisible inward service consists of the fulfillment of the duties of the heart. This includes acknowledging the unity of God in our hearts, believing in God and God’s Torah, revering God and humbling ourselves before God, loving God, trusting in God, abstaining from what God hates, devoting our actions to God’s name, reflecting on the benefits God bestows on us and similar things, which are performed by the thoughts and sentiments of the heart, but are not associated with activities of the visible limbs of the body.

Rav Pakuda explains that the duties of the limbs cannot be performed properly unless they are accompanied by the will of the heart, longing of the soul to do them and desire of the heart to perform them. Cooperation between the body and soul is required for the complete service of God; no act can be complete without the agreement of the soul. Thus, the soul and the body must act in concert to perform the mitzvoth or the performance is not deemed whole and complete. Among other biblical sources, Rav Pakuda cites a verse in Deuteronomy[23] that one must love God with all of one’s heart, soul, and might. Indeed, as the title of the work Hovot haLevavot (Duties of the Heart) indicates, Rav Pakuda is particularly focused on devotion of the heart, as a critical and integral component of performing the mitzvoth. He cites the discussion in the Talmud[24] about how when rain was needed, the barometer for measuring who would be most successful in entreating God was not the amount of Torah the person studied. Rather, the determining factor among the sages was who had the most heart. The Talmud explains, this is based on the verse in Samuel,[25] that God seeks the heart. 

Rav Pakuda discusses the need for introspection and self-examination[26] as to a person’s service of God (i.e., performance of the mitzvoth). He also speaks about the need for a person to train oneself to do so, with all one’s might, diligence, and zealousness, until it becomes a habit. He goes on to explain that the primary purpose of the mitzvoth, which involve the body and the limbs, is to arouse a person’s attention to the feelings that must have in the heart and the mind, in furtherance thereof. In essence, it is the doing of the mitzvoth with the proper intent that nourishes the soul. Engaging in the performance of the mitzvoth with all of a person’s heart and mind and exerting oneself to the best of the one’s ability results in God opening the gates of spiritual qualities. Said another way, it enables the soul to be nourished. 

I believe the good feelings it engenders are a part of the self-reinforcing mechanism, designed to motivate a person to continue doing mitzvoth this way. Indeed, as the Mishnah in Avot[27] states, doing a mitzvah engenders doing another mitzvah.

Among the mitzvoth, is the obligation to love your neighbor like yourself.[28] Rav Pakuda presents this mitzvah in a most interesting way. He challenges a person to make a personal accounting regarding the person’s joining with people for furthering the general welfare, such as plowing or harvesting, buying and selling, and other societal matters. These are endeavors in which people should help each other, because they should love doing for their neighbors that which they would love happen to themselves and eschew doing harm to others. 

Rav Pakuda also asserts that the strengthening and rectification of the soul is through habituating it with morals and wisdom. It requires guiding it with words of wisdom, teaching it good traits and restraining from the bodily lusts. The strengthening and rectification of the body is achieved by providing it with various types of good, tasty food and drink, which are suitable to its nature, washing it with warm water, and supervising its benefits and needs constantly. However, he cautions that if a person’s thoughts are limited only to the needs of the body and all attention is focused on this object, then the person will neglect the improvement of the soul. Likewise, if a person’s attention is only directed toward rectifying the soul, then will neglect much of the needs of the body. It takes a balance. The key is for the person both to provide the body with the food it needs to function and the soul with the wisdom and moral conduct it needs. It is a potent example of the soul and body connection. Rav Pakuda also notes the verse in Ecclesiastes,[29] which states that a person should not be overly righteous so as not to bring desolation on himself, or overly wicked or a fool so as not to suffer an untimely demise. He explains that should not separate from the world nor seek to conquer the world and indulge in base desires beyond that which is appropriate for the satisfaction of religious and worldly needs. 

There is much contemporary discussion of the mind-body connection. The Jewish tradition approaches the substance of this matter from a somewhat different perspective. It recognizes that there is a soul and body connection. The mind, in this equation, is a part of the body apparatus. Thus, there is an obligation to keep not only the body, including the brain, in good health, but also the soul. 

The Bible[30] obligates a person to guard both his body and soul. Keeping both in good health and functioning properly requires a proactive approach. They are also interdependent and, therefore, there must be a coordinated healthcare program. In this respect, it is similar to treatment regimens that recognize the mind-body connection. However, many of the issues ascribed to the mind are rightly placed with the soul. 

            The brain in this construct is another organ of the body, much like the processor, memory, and other hardware in a computer. The body is the machinery it controls in order to perform a variety of tasks. In this analogy, the soul is the programmer and software that makes the computer and, by extension, the machinery of the body it controls, function. Without the software to run it, the mind and body are but a lifeless machine. The connection between the two is intimate. Each is integral to the functioning of the other.

            The Rambam explains[31] that the soul animates the person and controls what the person feels and contemplates. It governs:


  1. Nutrition: The complex system in the body, which ingests food, digests it, processes into a form that can be assimilated, transported and stored within the body, so as to be available to provide the energy, when and where needed, to power the body and its functions. This includes maintenance, growth, and reproduction. It must also distinguish between what is useful to the body and what is not and then discards the waste.

  2. Sensation: The complex system of the five senses of sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch and the processing of that sensory input.

  3. Imagination: The power to recall impressions of various incidents after they are no longer perceptible by the senses, associate and disassociate them from other memories and develop new ideas that are not just recreations of previous perceptions of the senses. It can imagine things that don’t exist in reality.

  4. Simulation: The power that attracts or repels a person from something else. It can inspire a person to seek, flee from, appreciate, or reject something. Anger, desire, fear, courage, cruelty, mercy, hate, love, and other emotional states are a part of the simulative power of the soul. It expresses itself in actions of the organs and limbs of body it controls, such as the motions of the hands, feet, and eyes, as well as, the internal processes of the organs, which fuel fear, courage, or other emotional states.

  5. Conceptualization: The power to think and contemplate. It enables a person to acquire knowledge and distinguish between positive and negative activities. This includes both in the abstract realm of the spiritual and the applied realm of vocational activities, such as carpentry, agriculture, medicine, and seafaring. It also includes the power of discernment to enable a person to determine when one is suited to performing a particular activity or it is proper to do so. 


The Rambam notes that soul craves knowledge. It is the faculty, which God endowed us with, in order to comprehend knowledge. It has the ability to understand metaphysical concepts and recognize God and the majesty of God’s creations. The soul does not decompose upon death like the body. It is from God and it is eternal.[32]

If the soul has so much control over the body and, by extension our life, then where does the breakdown occur that enables a person to sin? Isn’t this so counter to the soul’s spiritual essence as to make it virtually impossible to happen? Yet as the Talmud[33] reports no person dies without sin. Why then do good people commit sins? 

The Rambam answers this question.[34] The actual performance of the mitzvoth or rebellion against the dictates of the Torah is effectuated by the soul’s sensory and simulative controls noted above. This is because they direct the actions of the body, which engages in virtuous or sinful actions. But the origin of these impulses lies elsewhere. It is in the conceptual facility of the soul that the problem begins. It can be as simple as belief in a defective idea instead of a true one. Often though, the problem is a much more subtle one. This is because a person has positive virtues and correspondingly negative ones. Intellectually, a person might make errors because of a lack complete and coherent knowledge, a misunderstanding, or a lack of clarity. In this sense, the concept of merely virtue signaling without concomitant good actions is a corrosive influence. Better to do good deeds and eschew the impotent signaling. What’s the point of talking about virtue and not actually acting virtuous by doing good deeds? It’s obnoxious and self-defeating.

The Rambam explains[35] that a healthy soul can be recognized by its good deeds and kind conduct. Illness of the soul is manifested by evil conduct, damaging actions, and reproachable deeds. The Rambam analogizes the symptoms of soul sickness to physical maladies. He notes that sometimes an ill person will suffer from confused senses. What is bitter might taste sweet and vice versa. Sometimes they might find unhealthy activities pleasurable and vice versa. They may even ingest harmful substances that a healthy person would shun. An unhealthy soul might similarly believe that wicked, undesirable, or unworthy actions are good and vice versa. He goes on to say that the wicked will seek motives that are in fact evil and yet because of their infirmity will characterize them as good. In essence, they seek pretexts to justify wrongful conduct and rationalize it. 

It appears that the Rambam, in the twelfth century, is describing what today might be described as the symptoms of virtue signaling disorder syndrome. He even notes that those who suffer from this condition typically don’t appreciate they have a problem and consider themselves healthy. The Rambam offers that left untreated, the illness of the soul just gets worse. Bad conduct doesn’t satisfy the soul; it merely increases its appetite. A soul doctor is required to diagnose and heal the spiritual ailments, much like a medical doctor is required to diagnose and treat physical illness. However, because of the integration of the soul and body, a combination of remedies is required, in order to cure a problem.[36]

The soul constitutes the center of a person’s consciousness, intellect, emotions, perception, and understanding. It is the soul that directs whether a person feels happy or sad or loves or hates something. The senses are also controlled by the soul. The soul is the source of a person’s imaginative facility, contemplative ability, and appreciation of metaphysical ideas. The Rambam speaks of how soul health is dependent on our moral conduct and taking the middle path. Improving our moral qualities heals the soul. Both the body (including the mind) and the soul must be healthy. If the body is not healthy then the soul suffers, as well. It is not able properly to apprehend the knowledge of God while unwell.[37] In essence, medicine treats the body and Torah the soul. A person can actively treat the soul by doing what is right and proper. The Rambam describes[38] the golden mean, which provides equilibrium among all sorts of excesses dictated by our inborn character traits, including extremes of even the virtuous ones. The key though is treating both as a part of a coordinated treatment plan.

In describing the soul, the Rambam uses terminology that is reminiscent of a discussion of quantum and wave theory. The soul is said to have form but not substance, akin to electromagnetic energy. This is unlike the body, which has both form and substance. The soul is invisible. Yet, it has observable effects, which manifest themselves in the actions of the body. 

The Torah provides a holistic approach to life that includes soul health to achieve enlightenment and nobility. The master training program, embodied in the Torah system of mitzvoth God beneficently bestowed upon us, includes hukkim. In this regard, it is important to appreciate the depth and full extent of what are considered the hukkim.

It is respectfully submitted that there are no real mishpatim, which could be expected to be enacted as a matter of course by those professing to be rational. Consider the vagaries of human nature and the ability of some segment of the society to rationalize and glorify what others perceive as undoubtedly and absolutely abhorrent. For example, on October 7, 2023, Shabbat-Shemini Atzeret, evil Hamas invaded Israel, brutally murdered over 1,200 Israelis, Americans, Europeans, Nepalis, and others from dozens of countries. In addition, Hamas maimed many thousands more, committed sadistic and unspeakable atrocities, and kidnapped Israelis, Americans, and others, including women and children, who they viciously abused and are continuing to hold hostage. They also murderously fired more than 7,000 rockets and missiles targeting innocent civilians in Israel. Although condemned by many, the world has not universally denounced Hamas’ evil conduct. Indeed, some even sought to rationalize this miscreant behavior, finding excuses and pretexts to justify the malign actions of Hamas. Alas, this is not the only example of atrocities that are ignored, including against Christians in Darfur and Muslim Uyghurs in China. So many can’t see because their vision is obscured and moral clarity impeded by their debilitating, misplaced, and biased focus on virtue signaling ideologically driven messages.   

It’s all too reminiscent of the Midrash[39] that described God offering the Torah to other nations before granting it to the Jewish people. Each nation God offered the opportunity to receive the Torah first asked what was in it before they could accept it. When told it contained a prohibition against killing, one nation answered that murder was an essential part of their ethic. Others balked at the restrictions on adultery. Another nation refused it because it prohibited theft and that was an accepted part of their cultural tradition. The sum and substance is that what some may think are ordinary and rational rules are not so obvious to everyone. The answer, ultimately, of the people of Israel was we will do and listen. In essence, it’s the doing part that’s critical and this involves performing the entire program, not just the part we profess to understand. After all, burdened as we are with our rationalizing mind, who are we really to know?

The Beit haLevi[40] in analyzing the nature of hukkim concludes that we don’t actually know the reason for any of the 613 commandments; it’s really all just speculation. 

All of the commandments are intertwined into one seamless whole, each dependent on the other, designed to yield refinement. Overdoing or underperforming any of the commandments is to be eschewed, because the entirety of the Torah is a divinely prescribed program to achieve this result. Missing a step or adding one will only serve to disrupt the finely tuned mechanism. Thus, even well-meaning attempts to ascribe reasons justifying the performance of some of the commandments, like the mishpatim, are fraught with danger. This is because trying to rationalize the performance of some of the commandments might lead to dismissing those, like the red heifer, which don’t make rational sense. Hence, the emphasis in the Torah on the hukkim as the correct approach to the commandments. 

It is suggested that the distinction between hukkim and mishpatim is not in the requirement of unquestioning performance, which effectively is applicable to both categories; but, rather, in the observable or hidden results of doing them. As Maimonides[41] notes, every commandment serves a useful purpose. In some cases, the usefulness is evident and in others not so much. 

Thus, a good physical exercise routine and diet can have positive and measurable effects on our physical health. We can also see the wonderful and most beneficial effects following the mishpatim has on how society functions. However, there are no observable conditions we can measure to determine the positive effect the red heifer protocol is having on our soul. Perhaps, that goes to the essence of the descriptive category of mishpatim as distinguished from hukkim. We can readily observe the visible difference fulfilling the mishpatim makes on relations among people. This should inspire us faithfully to follow the complete formula. After all, the overt parts can be seen to work in practice.

 Establishing good patterns of behavior through good training helps assure when the real test occurs that we acquit ourselves well. 

It is also important to think before acting, in order to fashion the appropriate response to a particular circumstance. An automatic, conditioned response is not always the answer. In life, it is sometimes difficult to recognize what is positive or negative in a particular situation. 

The Torah contains all sorts of rules that are designed to control our behavior. If a person wishes to eat the eggs in a nest, the mother bird must first be sent away, before the person may collect the eggs.[42] When besieging a city, it is commanded not to cut down the fruit trees.[43] The Bible also commands that the mother animal not be slaughtered on the same day as its young.[44]

The Bible permits eating only certain species of animals, with certain defined characteristics[45] and only certain specified fowl,[46] provided they are first to ritually slaughter.[47] In addition, among other things, the suet must also first be removed,[48] as well as the blood,[49] and the meat cannot be eaten with milk.[50] As to sea life, only certain fish with specified characteristics[51] are permitted to be eaten, not any others. These are but a few head notes of the many volumes of halakhic materials containing extensive detailed rules and regulations governing food and its consumption. 

We don’t know the particular reasons for each commandment. However, there is a pattern in terms of human behavior that they share in common; they serve to regulate it. Satisfaction is delayed and limited. A person is prohibited from just grabbing the limb of a live animal and chowing down on it.[52] This is a part of the balance prescribed by the Torah. It is an entire system in balance, which must be studied, mastered, and performed in order to function properly. Frankly, it is a life’s journey. 

The treatment of the body and soul requires a coordinated approach. Modern medicine has developed expertise in dealing with the body and the mind. Notwithstanding the understanding that there is a mind-body connection, it has been slow to develop integrated treatment regimens that deal with both as an integrated whole. It is frankly deficient in recognizing there is also a soul and body (and mind) connection. It is viewed as a vestige of ancient wisdom that has been eclipsed by modern medical practice, aimed curing the physical manifestations of disease. Investigating and dealing with the spiritual component of the equation as a part of a holistic treatment of the person is often viewed as an anachronistic practice. Modern wisdom in the form of medical science is viewed as the optimum approach. Healing the soul is viewed either as a psychological problem, better left to mental health experts or as a matter of ancient wisdom, better left to the person’s rabbi or other source of religious inspiration. 

This is due in part to the feeling that healing of the soul is not a matter of science, but rather a matter of metaphysics. After all, the soul can’t be seen. What can’t be directly or even indirectly observed is viewed as being outside the purview of medical science. Its diagnosis and treatment is not covered in medical textbooks and is not a part of a doctor’s traditional training. While the suffering endured by a soul may result in physical (including mental) manifestations, it is not a problem medical experts have been trained to handle. For an individual of faith, there is little choice but to seek separate medical treatment for the physical manifestations of illness from a medical professional and treatment for spiritual ailments from a spiritual expert. The concept of an integrated treatment plan that deals with both is foreign to Western medicine. 

The Talmud[53] reports an exchange between the Roman emperor Antoninos[54] and Rabbi Yehudah haNasi on the subject of the body and the soul that provides a conceptual insight into this matter. Antoninus poses the issue of how the body and soul can ultimately be judged by the heavenly court. He avers that the body can argue it was the soul that sinned. Furthermore, it is not present at the time of heavenly judgment, because by then it is dead and buried. The soul can argue that it was the body that sinned. Rabbi Yehudah haNasi responds with a parable. He asks Antoninus to consider the case of two guards stationed to protect the fruits in an orchard. One of the guards is lame and the other is blind. Neither can steal the fruits of the orchard on their own. However, the guards, acting in concert, can together steal the fruit. The lame person said to the blind that he should place the lame one on his shoulders. Acting jointly, in this manner, the lame person was provided with mobility and the blind person with a means of sight, sufficient to reach and steal the fruit. In this manner, they managed to pick the fruit and each ate the bounty they illicitly obtained together. Sometime later, the owner of the field came by, noticed the fruits of the orchard were gone and asked the two guards what had happened. The lame man answered he had no legs and therefore, he could not be guilty of the theft. The blind person also pleaded he had no sight and could not have seen his way to steal the fruits. The owner placed the lame guard on the shoulders of the blind one and judged them as one. Rabbi Yehudah haNasi then responded to Antoninus’ line of reasoning directly. He asserted that God casts the soul back into the body and judges them as one. 

 It is the body and soul, which together face the evil inclination and life. They should be treated as a whole. The good we do affects our soul and helps determine how we think. Virtue signaling serves no useful purpose. It is no substitute for actually doing good deeds, and it can lull us into falsely assuming otherwise. 

In a very real sense, we are what we do, and that affects the way we think. We are also not just the sum total of what we think or what we feel. We are also what we can become. Our charge should be, I do good deeds, therefore, I am. May we be blessed to follow the Torah program in its entirety and become the best versions of ourselves.





[1] A seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher. The statement is set forth in Part IV of Descartes’ book, Discours De La Méthode Pour Bien Conduire Sa Raison, Et Chercher La Verite’ Dans Les Sciences (Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences). It was reportedly originally published in French in 1637 and in Latin translation in 1644.

[2] In the original French, “Je pense, donc je suis” and in the Latin translation, “Cogito ergo sum.”

[3] In his book, Pensées sur la religion et sur quelques autre sujets (Thoughts on religion and on some other subjects), known as Pascal’s Pensées in English, in Part 4, Numbers 277–278 (of the paperback edition published by Dutton in 1958). It was, reportedly, originally published in French in 1670.

[4] In the original French: “Les Coeur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connait pas.”

[5] Genesis 2:7.

[6] Ibid. and Rashi’s commentary thereon, which explains that God blowing into man’s nostrils a breath of life as referring to the soul. This is based on the Midrash Rabbah 12:8, which describes how man was created from a combination of physical matter drawn from the physical world below and spiritual essence drawn from the spiritual world above. It states that the breath blown into man’s nostrils was the soul. The result is to make peace between (harmonize) the physical and spiritual realms. 

[7] Ibid. and Ramban, Sforno, and Radak commentaries, thereon, among others.

[8] A neuroscientist and professor at USC.

[9] The full title is Descartes’ Error: Emotion Reason and the Human Brain. It was originally published by Putnam (1994) and then by Penguin in paperback (2005).

[10] Maimonides, Shemonah Perakim.

[11] See Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ Covenant & Conversation (online at Hukkat (5771) Descartes’ Error (July 2, 2011).

[12] See Rabbeinu Bahya’s commentary on Numbers 19:2.

[13] Maimonides, Shemonah Perakim.

[14] See Midrash Tanhuma, Hukkat, Siman 7. On the one hand it is prohibited to wear a mixture of wool and linen (Deuteronomy 22:11), and on the other hand, this combination is permitted for tzizith. It is illogical, yet God commanded us to observe this mitzvah as a hok (Leviticus 19:19).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Leviticus 19:19.

[17] Numbers 19:2.

[18] In his commentary on Numbers 19:2.

[19] He cites, for example, the usage of the term in Jeremiah 15:22. 

[20] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakhot, at page 10a.

[21] An eleventh-century rabbi and philosopher who lived in Spain.

[22] In his Introduction to this work, which is also published in English translation under the title Duties of the Heart.

[23] Deuteronomy 6:5.

[24] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 106b.

[25] Samuel I, 16:7.

[26] As a part of his Eighth Treatise, Examining the Soul, in the Hovot haLevavot.

[27] 4:2. 

[28] Leviticus 19:18.

[29] 7:16.

[30] See Deuteronomy 4:9 and the Ha’amek Davar commentary thereon. See also Deuteronomy 4:15 and Ha’amek Davar commentary thereon. 

[31] Shemonah Perakim, Chapter 1.

[32] See also Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei haTorah 4:8–9.

[33] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, 55a, which reports that Rav Ammi made this statement.

[34] Shemonah Perakim, Chapter 2.

[35] Shemonah Perakim, Chapter 3.

[36] Ibid. The Rambam clearly states that the health and illness of the body is the domain of medical science. This is not a matter of faith healing. 

[37] Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Deot 4:1.

[38] Shemonah Perakim, Chapter 4.

[39] Sifrei, Deuteronomy 343.

[40] Beit haLevi commentary, on Parshat Ki Tisa, by Rabbi Joseph Dov haLevi Soloveitchik, the first Brisker Rav.

[41] Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 3:26.

[42] Deuteronomy 22:6–7.

[43] Deuteronomy 20:19–20.

[44] Leviticus 22:28.

[45] Leviticus 11:3–8 and Deuteronomy 14:4–8.

[46] Leviticus 1:13–19 and Deuteronomy 14:11–18.

[47] Deuteronomy 12:21. See also Deuteronomy 14:21, as well as Numbers 11:22.

[48] Leviticus 7:23–25.

[49] Leviticus 7:26–27.

[50] Exodus 23:19; Exodus 34:26; and Deuteronomy 14:21.

[51] Leviticus 11:9–12 and Deuteronomy 14:9–10.

[52] See Genesis 9:4 and Rashi commentary thereon. See also Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, 59a.

[53] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, 91a–b.

[54] He is reputed to be Marcus Aurelious by some (see the Jewish Encyclopedia entry on Antoninus in the Talmud). He was the adopted son of Antonius the Pious and sported his name in his full title, Marcus Aurelious Antonious Augustus. He also fits the timeline, as a contemporary of Rabbi Yehudah haNasi. Interestingly he was a stoic as well.

Conversation Guide Building Support for Israel

Conversation Guide: Building Support for Israel and Combating Antisemitism

With Non-Jewish Friends, Neighbors and Colleagues


What they need to know

  1. The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is terrible but it would end immediately if Hamas surrendered and released the hostages. Hamas deliberately uses the civilian population of Gaza, 2.4 million people, as human shields. Hamas exploits civilian suffering for propaganda against Israel. Hamas command centres, weapons storage and rocket launchers are located in the midst of schools, hospitals, UNRWA aid offices and homes. Resources that flowed into Gaza for years, such as building supplies and raw materials, were devoted to war-making as the top priority. Hamas built a huge tunnel system, more extensive than the London Underground, to conceal its terror apparatus and shelter its leadership. Hamas built no bomb shelters or civilian infrastructure for the civilian population. Why is Gaza dependent on imported food, water and energy? It is critical for the people of Gaza, not just Israel, that Hamas no longer control Gaza.

  2. News media focus heavily on civilian suffering in coverage of the Gaza war. News media almost exclusively show photos and video of the destruction in Gaza. They report incident by incident on deaths and show grieving family members. That is truly tragic. On the other hand, few stories portray the war from the perspective of Israel. We don’t hear how families of Israeli hostages are coping with their uncertain fate. We don’t hear from the families of Israeli soldiers killed or wounded in Gaza. We don’t hear about the more than 200,000 Israelis evacuated from border areas near Gaza and in the north under threat from Hezbollah who have no idea when they can go home.

  3. It’s not only up to Israel to minimize civilian casualties and suffering. If Hamas surrendered and released the hostages, the war would end and there would be no more civilian suffering. If Egypt opened its Gaza border to Palestinian refugees, they would be able to escape the war. Israel, for its part, tries to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza while fighting a war that it must win. Israel must value the lives of its soldiers equally with those of civilians in Gaza. Nevertheless, Israel urges civilians to evacuate from areas of intense conflict. It gives warnings when possible. But civilian casualties are inevitable given the dense, urban environment of the war and the deliberate strategy of Hamas to put civilians in danger and exploit their suffering. 

  4. Hamas is a terrorist, radical Islamist organization. Hamas has controlled the Gaza Strip since since 2007, when it ousted the Palestinian Authority from power. It broke a ceasefire when it launched a horrific, murderous attack on Israel on October 7, 2023. That attack took place early on a Saturday morning, the Jewish Sabbath and a holy day, Simchat Torah. In the attack, 3,000 terrorists killed 1,200 people, mainly civilians, committed systematic sexual violence, mutilated victims and took 253 hostages into Gaza. Hamas, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, is a proxy for the Islamic Republic of Iran, which arms and funds it. 

  5. The avowed goal of Hamas is to eliminate Israel and establish an Islamist regime in all of Israel-Palestine. All Jews would be expelled or killed, according to the Hamas Charter. For years after Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and up to the present, Hamas and other terror groups launched thousands of rockets into Israeli towns and nearby kibbutzim. Hamas built tunnels under the border to infiltrate into Israel and perpetrate attacks. Hamas has always firmly opposed a “two-state solution” and a peaceful, negotiated end to the conflict. Hamas has promised to repeat the October 7th attack again and again.

  6. Israel’s war aims are legitimate. They are: to destroy Hamas as the ruling power in Gaza; to rescue/recover the remaining 130 hostages (of whom perhaps fewer than 100 remain alive); and to prevent attacks like that of October 2023 from ever occurring again. The war, painful as it is on all sides, must go on until those aims are achieved.

  7. Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. Israel is the only country in which the Jewish people have sovereignty and control their own destiny. The Holocaust demonstrated what happens when Jews do not have a country. Jews are the indigenous people of Israel, dating back more than 3,000 years. King David established Jerusalem as the capital of Israel 1,000 years before the rise of Christianity and 1,600 years before the rise of Islam. Jewish communities continued to exist in Israel throughout the centuries after the Roman conquest and expulsions. For 2,000 years Jews constantly prayed for the return to Israel and Jerusalem. In the 19th century, political Zionism arose as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people and more Jews came to live in and work the land. In 1948, modern Israel was founded after an affirmative vote of the United Nations. Israel today is a Middle Eastern country; a majority of Israelis originate from countries in the Middle East and north Africa, not Europe. 

  8. It is false to call Israel an “apartheid state.” Palestinian citizens of Israel, also known as Arab Israelis, have full civil and political rights. They now number 2.1 million out of Israel’s 10 million population. Overwhelmingly, they do not want to live in a Palestinian state. 

  9. It is false to say that Israel’s occupation of Palestine is the root cause of the war. Hamas is determined to wipe out all of Israel inside and outside its 1948 borders. Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that controls the West Bank both reject Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. An independent Palestinian state could have been in place as early as 1948 but local Arab leaders and the Arab League rejected the 1947 partition plan and attacked the new State of Israel. Successive governments of Israel were willing to negotiate withdrawal from territories occupied in the 1967 war. In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza. Both Hamas and the PLO have greeted repeated peace-making efforts going back to the Oslo Accords of 1993-1995 with repeated waves of terror attacks. Palestinian terror attacks, culminating in the atrocities of October 7, are the cause of the war.

  10. Jews are currently experiencing an unprecedented wave of antisemitism and anti-Israel actions. Stimulated by the October 7 Hamas attack and the ongoing war in Gaza, increasingly aggressive pro-Palestine demonstrations have targeted Jewish institutions, neighbourhoods and individuals across the country. University campuses have become hostile zones for Jewish students. Jewish-owned businesses have been vandalized and fire-bombed. Jewish students are harassed on campuses. Pro-Palestine demonstrators chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Jews understand that as a call for the elimination of Israel and the extermination of every Israeli. Demonstrators praise the Hamas attack of October 7 as an appropriate response to Israeli occupation. They call Israel an “apartheid state” and a “colonial oppressor.” Jews who support Israel are said to be complicit in these “crimes.” They call the war in Gaza “genocide.” Those who falsely and grotesquely accuse Israel of genocide are themselves the advocates of genocide. The police law-enforcement response to pro-Palestine demonstrations has been uneven, varying from state to state, which emboldens the demonstrators.

  11. Anti-Israel and antisemitic attacks threaten the values of tolerance and mutual respect that sustain our social fabric. Imagine if Jews were to demonstrate against the Hamas attack at mosques or in Muslim neighbourhoods or at Muslim-owned businesses. If intimidating, hateful demonstrations are accepted as the norm, other groups may adopt such tactics. Demonstrators who literally and figuratively trample norms of democratic life would not hesitate to trample the institutions of democracy. 

What they can do

  1. Condemn the atrocities that Hamas committed on October 7: a surprise attack that violated a ceasefire on the Sabbath and a Jewish holy day; the murder of 1,200 people, mostly civilians, with gruesome violence and mutilation; taking 253 hostages, including women, children, men, the sick and the elderly; systematic sexual violence against women and men; and filming and posting video and images of the attack on social media.

  2. Support Israel’s just war against Hamas. Tell friends and family, colleagues and neighbours that the war must continue until Hamas is defeated or surrenders. Communicate that to news media with letters and commentary.

  3. Tell the government to: continue strongly supporting Israel’s just war; condemn the use of civilians in Gaza as human shields and the exploitation of their suffering by Hamas; demand that Hamas surrender and release the hostages unconditionally; cut off funding to UNRWA, which supported and gave cover to Hamas; reject the decision of the International Court of Justice to even consider South Africa’s groundless assertion that Israel’s war in Gaza is a genocide.

  4. Call out media bias against Israel in coverage of the war. Demand that news media balance reporting on civilian suffering in Gaza with reporting on: Hamas tactics that maximize civilian deaths and exploit suffering for political impact; the lack of action by other parties, such as Egypt, to alleviate suffering; Israel’s efforts to limit civilian casualties and expedite humanitarian relief; the sacrifices and losses that Israelis are enduring in the war, including the families of hostages, the experience of hostages held by Hamas, including sexual abuse and lack of medical attention, and the hardship of Israelis evacuated from border areas; Israeli soldiers killed and wounded, some of them because of efforts to avoid civilian deaths.

  5. Tell Jewish friends, neighbours and colleagues that you understand their distress about the war and rising antisemitism and offer support. This is a time to communicate and tell them you care. Listen to their concerns and consider how you can help. They may have experienced anti-Israel or antisemitic harassment. They may have been intimidated at a Jewish place of worship, community centre, university or business. They may have been challenged at school or in the workplace as a Jew or as a supporter of Israel.

  6. Speak out against hateful, inciteful demonstrations against Israel and Jews. When pro-Palestine demonstrators break the law, call on police to enforce the law. We should not allow trespassing on private property, intimidating behaviour, inciteful speech, and blocking access to institutions, public places and events. 

  7. Join with Jewish people when there are counter-demonstrations to show support for Israel and the resolve of the Jewish community. We should not cede the streets and neighbourhoods to pro-Palestine, pro-Hamas demonstrators. We should not accept that it is okay to bully and block access to people coming and going from Jewish institutions or public events. We should not tolerate it when demonstrators shout hateful and inciteful slogans and carry signs with such messages. Join us when we go out publicly to show our resolve and tell our side of the story.

  8. Stand with Jews and other religious and cultural communities when there are issues that threaten core American values. Freedom to practice religion, security, combating racism and hate, fostering tolerance and mutual respect, the rule of law and other such values are the bedrock of our civil, democratic society. We need to work together with allies issue by issue to protect the values and the way of life that we cherish.


May 1, 2024

Rabbi Hayyim Angel to teach six-part Zoom series about Shavuot readings

Rabbi Hayyim Angel will teach a six-part series on the biblical readings of Shavuot.

Hosted by Torah in Motion in Toronto, the classes are over Zoom. 

They begin on Monday, May 6, from 10:00-11:00 am Eastern. Please see below for dates and class titles.


The classes are open to the public (Torah in Motion requests optional donations on the registration page). 

Please register at:


The Tanakh Readings of Shavuot

Mondays, 10:00am Eastern

May 6
The Ten Commandments in Classical Commentary and Contemporary Scholarship

May 13
The Revelation at Sinai (Shemot Chapters 19, 20, and 24)

May 20
Ezekiel's Vision of the Celestial Chariot: Principles of Prophecy

May 27
'The Righteous Shall Live By His Faith': The Message of Habakkuk and Shauvot

June 3
The Complex Layers of Hesed in the Book of Ruth: Chapter 1

June 10
The Complex Layers of Hesed in the Book of Ruth: Chapters 2-4

IVF and the Alabama Court Ruling


In a first-in-the-nation decision, The Alabama Supreme Court recently issued a ruling declaring frozen embryos in that state to be “extrauterine children” for purposes of civil liability. This decision was the first of its kind in the United States. The case involved embryos destroyed at a hospital-based Alabama fertility clinic after an unrelated inpatient accessed the clinic storage tanks through an unsecured door, removed some vials containing embryos from a tank and then dropped them to the floor. As a result, embryos belonging to three patients were destroyed. In a lengthy opinion, Chief Justice Tom Parker and all but one of the other eight justices agreed that the couples can sue the clinic’s physicians and the hospital under Alabama’s wrongful death statute.  Their opinion relied heavily on the justices’ religious beliefs. In justifying the ruling, Parker wrote “[H]uman life cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God.”    In attributing human life to fertilized eggs - sometimes one cell, sometimes a few hundred – but certainly not capable of sentient life – the court determined that they are deserving of all the protections afforded living persons.

The public reaction was quick and, one suspects, surprising (at least to the justices), because clinics providing IVF (in vitro fertilization) in Alabama stopped their services immediately following this decision. Their actions stemmed from the fear of being brought up on criminal charges if fertilized eggs – embryos in current parlance – were discarded.  IVF involves 

fertilizing eggs with sperm in a laboratory and then transferring an embryo into the uterus of the woman wishing to conceive. Generally, only one embryo is transferred; the remaining embryos are then discarded if they are deemed not to be viable, or frozen for future use. Once the couple completes their family, they may choose to donate them to another couple but, understandably, many choose to discard them.

It was not only IVF that was threatened; it was virtually all Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART).  ART is the all-encompassing term that includes in vitro fertilization and its many spinoff technologies, including egg and embryo donation, surrogacy, preimplantation genetic testing and cryopreservation (freezing) of eggs, sperm and embryos. Since the first successful IVF baby was born in 1978, ART has been responsible for the birth of approximately twelve million persons. In the United States, where ART is thought to be underutilized due to its cost, nearly 100,000, or 2% of babies, are born from ART each year. In other countries, the utilization approaches 10%. Practitioners in the field – to include the host physicians, nurses, scientists and the myriad of professionals who daily devote themselves to building families – duly consider what they do to be the most pro-life and pro-family endeavors. 

The Torah-observant community was threatened by this Alabama ruling.  Not only was the ruling an unabashed and proudly announced decision to codify Christian interpretations of the Bible into secular law (something that we hope will eventually be declared unconstitutional), but ART is embraced by virtually all halakhists, this despite a conservative approach to abortion on demand without serious medical or psychological concerns.  The embryo, to be sure, has some protected rights, but it reaches full human status only on delivery of its head.[i]  Embryos have no such rights.  As the late Israeli Chief Rabbi Mordecai Eliyahu ruled, “The fertilized eggs that have been chosen for transfer to the womb should not be discarded but those that have not been chosen may be discarded. Regarding violation of Shabbat, the Halakha is that it is permissible to violate Shabbat to save a life, meaning one who has been born, but this has nothing to do with the type of [pre-implantation] embryos you are dealing with.[ii] Similarly, Rabbi Haim David Halevy, the late Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, ruled: “[All] the eggs that have been fertilized, while they are in the test tube, have no general or specific status as a fetus, and Shabbat laws are not violated on their behalf, and it is permissible to discard those that are not chosen for transfer [to the womb].[iii]

Of course there is a general obligation to avoid unnecessary hashchatat zera, destroying “seed” without purpose.  It applies not only to embryos but also to sperm and unfertilized eggs.  But it does not apply when these exist as part of a process to create life.  Indeed, nature itself creates unused seed.[iv] Biological research has discovered that, even in the youngest, most fertile women, the vast majority of fertilized eggs never implant and, of those that do, many will be lost to miscarriage. Although not perfect, nature is highly selective in letting only the minority of embryos to be born. Every embryo encounters checkpoints and hurdles that allow only the most fit to develop, which is why most babies that are born are healthy. It is an established fact, therefore, that most human embryos, whether fertilized in vivo or in vitro, will never be born. For better or worse, the complexity of human genetics is such that relatively few survive.

The nuanced view of Halakha is aligned with science and in contrast to Christian dogma. While the latter is quick to designate full personhood to a one cell fertilized egg, our sages do not mark that as the beginning of full human life. For us, human life begins only after implantation has occurred and the fetus takes form. Full human status is granted only after delivery.

It took a mere three weeks for the Alabama Legislature to pass a law that will protect IVF providers in from civil and criminal liability for embryo loss or damage during IVF treatments. But the bill is narrow in its scope. Although it reassures fertility specialists in that state that they are free from criminal prosecution, it does not reverse the damage done by the court’s decision to bestow personhood on every fertilized egg. Surely, we hope and pray that none of us finds ourselves personally involved in such situations. They are heartbreaking, no doubt. But, as Torah-observant Jews, these situations must not always lead to endless pain and suffering. To be pro-life halakhically means to support the use of IVF, when necessary, to build families, including lots of Jewish families. This is something that has taken on new urgency given the difficult times that are upon us.


[i] Ohalot 7:6

[ii] Teshuva to Dr. Richard Grazi, Tehumin 11:272-274, 1991

[iii] Teshuva to Dr. Richard Grazi , Assia 47-48 (12:3-4), 1990

[iv] The average seminal emission contains approximately 50-100 million sperm. Only one sperm cell is needed to fertilize an egg, and with most emissions none will get the chance. The average human female is born with approximately one million eggs (representing her entire lifetime supply) and 99.99% of those will never implant.

Thoughts for Yom Ha'Atsmaut

Yom HaAtzmaut is, like any birthday, a time of moral reckoning and of revisiting our collective story. The trauma and the sense of hopelessness we experience demand an effort to reframe our story and reorient our attitude to life in Israel and, given how events in Israel have impacted Jewry worldwide, to Jewish life itself.

Two narratives, interwoven with one another, have provided the basic conceptual framework within which the vast majority of Israelis have understood Israel and the present moment. It is time for a new vision, based on humility and lovingkindness, to shape a new narrative.

The first common narrative is the narrative of disempowerment and regaining of power. Following years of exile, culminating in the events of the Holocaust, Israel was founded as a safe haven for Jews and as a promise for the flourishing of Jewish life. This also provided a means for the deep seated Jewish vision of being a light unto the nations to find concrete expression. Human activism and taking history into our hands characterize this narrative, which is understood as distinct from the alternative approach, characterized by greater historical passivity, in anticipation of divine action and a supernatural messianic redemption. The sense of empowerment unfolded progressively in Israel’s life as successive military victories showed Israel’s strength, as agricultural and technological capacities made it a wonder to the world and a startup nation and as a miraculous reality was experienced as part of the day to day life of the nation-state. Admiration for Israel characterizes the better part of its history and forms part of the narrative itself. While Israel did not have a particular teaching or example to offer the world, its very existence was a source of wonder and inspiration.

The second narrative is internal. It is a narrative of unity, or the quest for unity, within Israel and the claim that Israel as a state unites and serves the entire Jewish people. Deep fissures within Israeli society have existed throughout the State’s history, but for the most part have been held at bay. A sense of unity has kept society together, especially in times of crisis and war.

The events that have unfolded prior to and since October 7th call into question both narratives. That day was a day of defeat and profound humiliation. By all accounts, despite an enormous show of power following that day, we have yet to emerge victorious from this war. Something has been broken in the national spirit. In parallel, the view of Israel, on the global stage, has sunk to a nadir we could have never imagined.

Almost universally, the second narrative ties to the first, as an explanation for our failure. Accordingly, the reason put forth for everything going wrong is our lack of unity. Internal weakening led to an external attack, from which we have yet to recover.

Both narratives reference the nation and its power and both put forth human/social reasons as the sole means of understanding our historical situation. As a consequence, there is a remarkable dearth of attempts to account for Israel’s condition in other terms, especially theological terms. For the most part, God is kept out of the picture. A history of Jewish introspection and attempting to account for the present moment by examination of the past is cast aside, as these narratives are accepted almost blindly.

There are many reasons why I consider these narratives inadequate to the task of accounting for the present moment and why, I believe, we must discover new narratives by means of which to make sense of this time. The magnitude of our fall from grace cannot be accounted for simply in light of divisive leadership or government policies. Too many factors came together to bring about October 7th, including the failure of intelligence and the particular state of lack of preparedness, for us to ignore the possibility that what happened was not simply a consequence of a set of bad political choices. Theologically speaking, God allowed October 7th to happen. We could have been protected as we were during the recent massive attack from Iran. We were not. This gives pause for reflection.

Similarly, the narrative of unity also falls short in its explanatory power. Divisions in Israel have always been there, nor has any real unity been achieved since October 7th. The notion of unity has itself been used with political convenience and no serious, let alone successful, work of healing national divisions is within sight. Again, theologically – why would God allow lack of unity to lead to these results, if no successful reversal of that reality emerges from events?

So, one wonders, surely one must learn something from this period. What are lessons we should draw from it? Amazingly, no significant insight or message for the moment comes forth from Jewish leadership in response to this question. Political leaders have no new insight to offer. Events simply affirm their previous political views. Religious leaders have been universally dumb in their response, at best echoing the unity trope, or calling for teshuva in the broadest terms. No chief rabbi, Hassidic leader, rosh yeshiva, leader of a particular denomination, or the like, has come forth with a message powerful and convincing enough to constitute the kind of lesson that would make sense of the events of October 7th and beyond.

In this situation, it is impossible to learn anything from the events of the past 7 months. How can one learn if the question is not posed and an answer is not put forth? Moreover, any attempt to learn will, of necessity, echo divisions within the people. Each group will learn lessons that affirm its position and invalidate the views of the other. We need to consider the present moment in terms other than learning historical or moral lessons.

If, as I believe, God has purposes in allowing events to unfold, these should be achieved regardless of our learning capacity and in spite of our collective limitations and fractures. Therefore, we must ask whether there is another way of approaching these events that is not learning from them. Perhaps our collective experience is more important than the lessons we draw. Perhaps our humiliation and the crushing of our ego are the purpose of events as they have unfolded. Perhaps our suffering has a purifying value, in and of itself. Perhaps it is time to own again elements of thought that we have cast aside, in the process of our empowerment. Perhaps the lesson of the purifying power of suffering in exile remains relevant and plays out in our history in ways other than empowering us to take history into our hands. Perhaps the relationship of human and divine action, and the sense of power that we take for granted must be recalibrated. Might all these not be summed up under one word – humility? Is our global humiliation not a moment for collective humility? What kind of Israel might come forth, at 76, if humility, rather than power, were the subjective goal to which we strive? How might the purpose of serving as light unto the nations, largely forgotten in past decades, be rediscovered in this light?

As I contemplated these issues, between Yom Hashoah and Yom Atzmaut , I went to pray, at the tomb of the Prophet Samuel. He was, after all, the great seer (that is what he is called in the Bible) who struggled with the balance between divine and human governance and the limits of human power, as expressed in the institution of Israel’s kingdom. As I prayed, a word came to me – lovingkindness. It was not what I had expected, and yet I think it offers a message that is crucial to the creation of a new narrative, and flows directly from the recognition of how central humility must be to our going forward.

Rather than saying we know what it is all about or that we have the power to draw lessons from events, we can acknowledge that we are overpowered by events and at a loss to comprehend them. We are also at a loss to heal our divisions. More fundamentally, we are at a loss to account for what the purpose of Israel – the State and the People – is at the present moment. And we all share in this existential situation. It applies to each and every sector in society. Each sector requires transformation. Each sector seems incapable of drawing lessons of relevance from the events of October 7ththough indicators for such lessons are present. We are, collectively, at a loss.

Once we recognize this, there is a different way of approaching our society and the world. The surety of truth and the conviction of ideology must give way to another, more humble approach. To me, the most moving testimonies of the Holocaust, and how meaning was found in suffering, are the stories of caring for one another. Showing lovingkindness in the midst of suffering was a form of maintaining human dignity, without any presumption of understanding. The moments that have moved Israeli society most since October 7th have, indeed, been moments in which lovingkindness was manifested.

If our narratives have failed, if our ego has been crushed, if we lack vision, if we are all in a state of collective darkness and despair –  there is still a fundamental way of being that can provide hope and keep us open to new understandings and realization. If we could only inculcate lovingkindness under all situations, both within and without, despite all divisions, recognizing our limitations and collective failure, if chesed rather than emet became our governing ethos, new horizons could  open up. With these a new narrative could emerge. It is the narrative of human efforts reaching their limit, and the acceptance of our frailty and limitation, as we await new revelations and new beginnings. The road along which we travel in this journey is paved by humility and lovingkindness.



Rabbi Hayyim Angel's Ruth class has been moved to 6:30-7:30 EDT

For the upcoming three sessions, Rabbi Hayyim Angel's course in the Book of Ruth in Fort Lee has been moved to a new time. It will be from 6:30-7:30 pm, EDT.

Upcoming classes will be held on Thursdays May 16, 23, and 30 (from 6:30-7:30 pm EDT) at the Young Israel of Fort Lee, New Jersey (1610 Parker Avenue):

Free and open to the public.

The lectures will also be available over zoom.

Zoom ID: 543 881 8506 Passcode: YIFL