National Scholar Updates

Remembering Justice Benjamin Nathan Cardozo

Remembering Justice Benjamin Nathan Cardozo

by Rabbi Marc D. Angel


Benjamin Nathan Cardozo (1870-1938) was one of the greatest American jurists. During his distinguished career, he served as Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals from 1926 until his appointment to the United States Supreme Court in 1932. He was known for his calm wisdom, personal dignity, and his commitment to social justice. His speeches and writings were characterized by clear thinking and graceful style.

            Cardozo was born into a Sephardic Jewish family that had roots in America since Colonial days. Among his ancestors were those who fought in the American Revolution. His family was associated with Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New York, founded in 1654; he retained his loyalty to Shearith Israel throughout his life, and was buried in the congregation’s cemetery upon his death.

            As a young attorney, recently graduated from the Law School of Columbia University, Cardozo had several interactions at Shearith Israel that reflected his generally traditional worldview. In 1895, as the congregation was planning to build a new synagogue building on Central Park West, a number of leading members were calling for reforms in the synagogue’s customs. For centuries, Shearith Israel had followed the ancient traditions of Western Sephardim, including the separation of men and women during prayer services. The reformers called for various changes, including a seating arrangement in the synagogue that allowed men and women to sit together. The congregation’s religious leader, Dr. Henry Pereira Mendes, strongly opposed the reforms. Tensions within the congregation came to a head at a meeting of congregants on June 5, 1895. A number of reformers put forth their motion to institute changes; Dr. Mendes and another synagogue leader spoke in opposition to their motion. Then the 25 year old Cardozo made “a long address, impressive in ability and eloquence,” in which he argued for the continuity of synagogue tradition. He pointed out that the congregation’s constitution provided for separate seating of men and women, following in the traditional patterns of Spanish and Portuguese congregations. It would be unlawful to violate the constitution. Aside from the legal point, Cardozo stressed the importance of maintaining synagogue traditions that had been established and maintained by generations of congregants. Regardless of one’s personal opinions or level of religious observance, the synagogue is a sacred space that should maintain its integrity.  Following Cardozo’s speech, a vote was taken: the motion to alter the synagogue customs was defeated by a vote of 73 to 7!

            In 1898, Cardozo gave a talk at Shearith Israel on Benjamin Disraeli, late Prime Minister of the British Commonwealth. Disraeli was born into the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community of London, but his father had his children baptized before Benjamin’s Bar Mitzvah. So he was a Jew by birth and by public perception; but was a Christian by formal religious profession. In spite of facing ongoing anti-Semitism, Disraeli rose to the top of the British government, a highly regarded confidant of Queen Victoria.

            The young Cardozo drew a thoughtful portrait of Disraeli’s personal and political life. He could not help but recognize the phenomenal rise to power of a man who was constantly subjected to anti-Semitism in spite of his having been baptized. Although Disraeli presented himself as a Christian, he never flinched from pride in his Jewish background. He described Christianity as a fulfillment of Judaism. Cardozo noted that Disraeli’s position was problematic:  “So we find it to the last—the same union of loyalty to the race and disloyalty to the faith, the same impossible effort to reconcile the irreconcilable and to treat the religious tenets of his manhood as a development of the religion in whose shelter he had been born” (Disraeli, the Jew, Essays by Benjamin Cardozo and Emma Lazarus, ed. Michael Selzer, Selzer and Selzer, Great Barrington, Mass, 1993, p.49). Cardozo noted that Disraeli—in spite of his tremendous successes—was ultimately a conflicted and lonely soul:  “The nation marveled at his wit; it laughed at his sallies; it applauded his intrepid spirit; but all the time, it must have felt within its heart that he was a stranger within its gates.”

            To his credit, Disraeli never apologized for or denied his Jewishness. Quite the contrary. He flaunted his Jewishness and presented the Jews and Judaism in positive lights. Cardozo offered an appreciation of Disraeli’s role vis a vis the Jewish people: “As we look back upon him now, we see, I think, that he affected us for good. He taught us to think worthily of ourselves—that indispensable condition, as men have often said, which must be satisfied before it can be hoped that we shall be thought worthily of by others.  He was himself, before all the world, a living illustration of the powers that are in us, of our resources, of our intellect, of our vigor; of our enthusiasm, of our diplomacy; of our finesse. … He might have stood for many other and perhaps greater things; he might have aided us in many other ways; but these he did stand for an in these he did aid us; and if the aid might have been greater, it none the less was great. It is something to have contributed a little to rousing the self-consciousness of a race, in waking it to a sense of its own dignity, and in waking others to a sense of its latent powers. In these days of Zionism, in these days of Herzl and Nordau, let us remember that we are working upon soil which Disraeli and men like him have helped posterity to till. By his own personality, as well as by his words and deeds, he seemed to weave into the woof of English public life some portion of the Hebraic spirit; to Hebraize the mid of the Protestant and the Puritan; and even to revive in his own day some glimmer of those ancient glories which it was one of the functions of his life to illustrate to the world. For that service at least, let us honor him tonight” ((pp. 65-66).

            In a series of lectures at Yale University in 1921, Cardozo reflected on the nature of the judicial process. “There is in each of us a stream of tendency, whether you choose to call it philosophy or note, which gives coherence and direction to thought and action. Judges cannot escape that current any more than other mortals. All their lives, forces which they do not recognize and cannot name, have been tugging at them—inherited instincts, traditional beliefs, acquired convictions; and the resultant is an outlook on life, a conception of social needs….We may try to see things as objectively as we please. None the less, we can never see them with any eyes except our own” (The Nature of the Judicial Process, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1921, p. 12).

            Cardozo’s own “stream of tendency” included a deep respect for tradition…but a keen awareness of the forces for change. While he understood that judges must not set aside existing rules at pleasure, he also criticized “the demon of formalism.” Judges must balance their decisions, taking into consideration the welfare of society. Cardozo drew on a Talmudic teaching that describes God as offering Himself a prayer: “Be it my will that my justice be ruled by my mercy.” He suggested that judges keep this prayer in mind during their own deliberations (pp. 66-67).

            In a keenly self-revelatory comment, Cardozo reminisced on what he had learned from his experiences as a judge. “I was much troubled in spirit, in my first years upon the bench, to find how trackless was the ocean on which I had embarked. I sought for certainty. I was oppressed and disheartened when I found that the quest for it was futile….As the years have gone by, and as I have reflected more and more upon the nature of the judicial process, I have become reconciled to the uncertainty, because I have grown to see it as inevitable” (p. 166).

            In a subsequent series of lectures at Yale, Cardozo noted that “law must be stable, and yet it cannot stand still….The victory is not for the partisans of an inflexible logic nor yet for the levelers of all rule and all precedent, but the victory is for those who shall know how to fuse these two tendencies together in adaptation to an end as yet imperfectly discerned” (The Growth of the Law,Yale University Press, New Haven, 1924, p. 143).

            Cardozo appreciated the need for balancing various tendencies—the faithfulness to precedents and the drive for change. It is not a simple matter to judge fairly and correctly. “In our worship of certainty, we must distinguish between the sound certainty and the sham, between what is gold and what is tinsel; and then, when certainty is attained, we must remember that it is not the only good; that we can buy it at too high a price; that there is a danger in perpetual quiescence as well as in perpetual motion; and that a compromise must be found in a principle of growth” (pp. 16-17).

            Cardozo’s vast erudition was accompanied with a profound sense of social responsibility, his own personal dignity, and a calm wisdom. He was serenely confident and competent; and at the same time, he was genuinely humble and self-reflective.

            He was a proud Jew. He was moderately observant of religious rituals, although not strictly so. He expressed his views on religion on various occasions. In 1927, he spoke at a dinner in honor of the 75th birthday of his rabbi at Shearith Israel, Dr. H. P. Mendes. In praising Dr. Mendes, he underscored the values of doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with the Lord. That same year, Cardozo spoke at a dinner in honor of his friend, Rabbi Stephen Wise. He again stressed the role of religion as an agent of social justice. “Religion is worthless if it is not translated into conduct. Creeds are snares and hypocrisies if they are not adapted to the needs of life….Has there been some social wrong, some oppression of the people, some grinding of the poor? That is a matter for religion. Has there been cruelty to Jews abroad or to colored men at home?....That is a matter for religion. Has the sacred name of liberty, which should stand for equal opportunity for all, been made a pretext and a cover for special privileges for a few? That is a matter for religion. (quoted in Andrew L. Kaufman, Cardozo, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1998, p. 190).

            But religion was more than social justice. At its best, religion must be marked by a selfless idealism and commitment to transcendent ideas. In 1931, Cardozo gave the commencement address at the Jewish Institute of Religion, and referred to Tycho Brahe, the 16th century Danish astronomer, who devoted long years to mark and register the stars, when people mocked him for this seemingly useless endeavor.  “The submergence of self in the pursuit of an ideal, the readiness to spend oneself without measure, prodigally, almost ecstatically, for something intuitively apprehended as great and noble, spend oneself one knows not why—some of us like to believe that is what religion means” (Kaufman, p. 190).

                             *     *     *


            When I began serving Congregation Shearith Israel in 1969, and for many years thereafter, the rabbis’ gowning room was the old office of the late Rabbi Dr. David de Sola Pool. Several photographs hung on the walls, including one of Justice Benjamin Nathan Cardozo which he presented to the Congregation in 1932 upon being appointed to the United States Supreme Court. He inscribed it: “To the historic Congregation Shearith Israel in the City of New York, with the affectionate greetings of its member.”   

            Thus, every morning and evening before synagogue services, I was greeted by the handsome visage of Justice Cardozo. Although he died before I was even born, so that I did not know him personally, I somehow felt a friendship and kinship with him. He was, for me, an entry way into the past of my congregation and community. His photograph conveyed the confidence and the judgment, challenging us to be faithful to the past and yet open to the needs of the present…and future.      


Cardozo, Benjamin N., The Growth of the Law, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1924.

__________________, The Nature of the Judicial Process, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1921.

Kaufman, Andrew L., Cardozo, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1998.

Selzer, Michael, Disraeli, the Jew, Selzer and Selzer, Great Barrington, 1993.





In his over 10 years of service to our Institute, Rabbi Hayyim Angel has reached thousands of people through his classes, books, articles, YouTube programs and more. He has been an articulate and erudite voice for an intellectually vibrant, compassionate and inclusive Orthodox Judaism.

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On Interpreting Midrash

In this study we will address the subject of rabbinic Midrash and Aggadah (the latter term usually designated for talmudic “Midrashim”) in the light of five of the leading authorities of the late Gaonic period and that of the early Rishonim, who lived in the tenth through the twelfth centuries. They are not in agreement with each other on all points, but they contain a common denominator regarding Midrash and Aggadah. In the second section we will survey a cross-section of Midrashim and Aggadot drawn from the Talmud and classical compendia of this material, restricting ourselves to those associated with Parashat Beshallah. It is our intention to point out that it is often clear from a careful reading of these sources that the authors did not intend their words to be interpreted literally.

Rab Sherira Gaon (906–1006, head of the Pumbedita Academy) wrote:

Those points brought out from scriptural verses called Midrash and Aggadah are assumptions. Some are accurate—such as Rabbi Judah’s statement that Simeon’s portion was included in that of Judah, for we find it corroborated in the book of Joshua—but many are not….We abide by the principle, “According to his intelligence is a man commended” (Prov. 12:8). As to the Aggadot of the students’ students—Rabbi Tanhuma, Rabbi Oshaya, and others—most of them [the realities] are not as they expounded. Accordingly we do not rely on Aggadot. The correct ones of them are those supported by intelligence and by Scripture. There is no end to Aggadot (Sefer ha-Eshkol, “Hilkhot Sefer Torah,” p. 60a).

Rab Hai Gaon, son of Sherira (939–1038, head of the Pumbedita Academy):

Aggadah and Midrash, even concerning those written in the Talmud, if they do not work out properly and if they are mistaken, they are not to be relied upon, for the rule is, we do not rely on Aggadah. However, regarding what is ensconced in the Talmud, if we find a way to remove its errors and strengthen it, we should do so, for if there were not some lesson to be derived it would not have been incorporated…Concerning what is not in the Talmud, we investigate—if correct and proper we expound and teach it and if not we pay no attention to it (Sefer ha-Eshkol, Hilkhot Sefer Torah,” p. 60a).

Rab Hai Gaon also stated: “You should know that aggadic statements are not like those of shemu‘ah (“heard,” a passed-down statement). Rather, they are cases of each individual expounding what came to his mind, in the nature of ‘it can be said,’ not a decisive matter. Accordingly we do not rely on them” (Otzar ha-Ge’onim to b. Haggigah, Siman 67).

Rab Shemuel ben Hofni Gaon (960–c.1034, head of the Sura Academy), in his Introduction to the Talmud (published in the Vilna edition at the end of Massekhet Berakhot, erroneously attributed to Shemuel Hanagid, translated and abridged by Rab Shemuel ben Hananya in the 12th century), stated: “Aggadah constitutes all the explanations in the Talmud on any subject that does not refer to a mitzvah. You do not learn from them except what seems acceptable to the mind…. Concerning the expounding on scriptural verses, each [sage] expounded what chanced to him and what he saw in his mind, so what is acceptable to the mind we learn from and the rest we do not rely upon.”

Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089–1164) in his Bible commentary often alludes to the importance of recognizing the inapplicability of Midrash to understanding the intention of the Torah. For example, concerning the variant between the two Decalogue passages in the Torah, wherein one states “zakhor (remember) the Sabbath day to keep it holy” while the other has “shamor (observe) the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” he comments:

…The sages said that “zakhor and shamor were said in the same pronouncement” (b. Shebuot 20b)…Heaven forbid saying that they did not speak correctly for our minds are meager in comparison to their minds, but people of our generation think that their words were intended to be taken literally which is not the case…It is not possible that zakhor and shamor were uttered simultaneously except as a miracle, but we must admit that even so there is a question, why was it not written zakhor ve-shamor in both the first and second formulation? And what about those other verses [of Decalogue variants], were they also said simultaneously…? The explanation is that when Hashem uttered zakhor (to remember the Sabbath day) everybody understood it means in order to observe it, so [in Deuteronomy] Moses wrote shamor.

Rambam (Moses Maimonides, 1138–1204), in a number of statements, addressed the basic concept Ibn Ezra was dealing with in the previous citation. He explicitly pointed out that situations that, by definition, are impossible to exist, cannot exist. In his words: “It is no deficiency in the One [God] that He does not conjoin contraries in one substratum, and His power is not affected by this and by other similar impossibilities” (Guide 1:75 [Pines 1974, 224]). “We do not attribute to God, may He be exalted, incapacity because He is unable to corporify His essence or to create someone like Him or to create a square whose diagonal is equal to its side” (226). “It has then become clear that, according to every opinion and school, there are impossible things whose existence cannot be admitted. Power to bring them about cannot be ascribed to the Deity…Accordingly they are necessarily as they are” (Guide 3:15 [Pines, 461]).

Rambam wrote extensively concerning the interpretation of rabbinic Midrash and Aggadah. In his Introduction to Perek Helek he points to the fact that the Mishnah sages themselves assume that even the Torah text must be read with logic and common sense. When confronted with a passage that looked impossible to take literally they resorted to allegorical interpretation. Rambam cites several examples. For example, in 1 Chronicles 11 the text relates some amazing deeds of King David’s warriors, such as killing a lion in the pit on a snowy day, which the sages understood allegorically. The narrative of the book of Job and the account of resurrection in the book of Ezekiel (chapter 37) were also interpreted allegorically by some sages. How much more so, asks Rambam, is it imperative to be rational when dealing with their own teachings, the aggadic and midrashic statements of rabbinic compendia?

Regarding those who interpret all Aggadot and Midrashim literally, he states:

…they destroy the Torah’s glory and darken its brilliance; they make God’s Torah the opposite of what was intended. He stated in the perfect Torah regarding the nations “who will hear about all these statutes and say, ‘What a wise and insightful people this great nation is’” (Deut. 4:6). But when the nations hear how this group relates the words of the sages in a literal manner they will say, “What a foolish and ignorant people this insignificant nation is.” Most of these expounders explain to the public what they, themselves, really do not understand. Would that they be quiet or say, “We do not understand what the rabbis mean in this statement or how to interpret it.” But they think they understand and endeavor to make known according to their poor understanding—not according to the sages’ intention—and expound at the head of the assembly the derashot of tractate Berakhot, the chapter Helek and other sources, literally, word by word. (Introduction to Perek Helek)

The formulations of the sages teach all sorts of valuable lessons. Frequently, they use the Torah text as a springboard to elaborate an idea or as a mnemonic device to anchor an insight and assist in its being remembered. In doing so they are often engaging in moral education and inspirational edification that in their days would have been difficult to accomplish in a straightforward manner. As long as the reader or listener realizes that a proposed interpretation of a text is not necessarily its true meaning, the interpretation often having no genuine (peshat) connection to the actual intention of the relevant verses, and that the highly improbable, often fantastic and sometimes impossible realities portrayed are not literal, no harm is done and a benefit is derived from the lesson.

It may also be that some sages, contrary to Rambam’s opinion, employed such methods even when they knew their audience thought that the literal message they expounded was intended to explicate the actual meaning of the passage. It appears that there were cases when they felt it necessary to do so. This would have been probable when they were dealing with minimally educated people who lived in social contexts that precluded them from access to scientific knowledge about realia or historical knowledge about events. Such people already believed in the fantastic, such that their taking an impossible interpretation literally created no conflict for them and only provided the benefit of the lesson.

It is the case today that numerous traditional adherents of the Torah were taught and teach to uncritically subscribe to a literalist view of Midrash and Aggadah and take the details as factual. Some are greatly disturbed by other approaches despite the many writings of our greatest rabbinical authorities, including the Geonim and Rishonim cited above. Since the methodology employed in our Torah studies accords with the general perspective of the nonliteralists, this is an appropriate opportunity to comment on the matter.

With the enormous advances in knowledge in recent times the situation is radically different from what it had been in past centuries. The most basic general education in modern times—indeed, merely being an alert individual living in present-day society—provides an immense amount of information in many areas and insight into many subjects that the Midrashim and Aggadot continually touch upon. An average person cannot but be deeply impacted by this knowledge, as elementary education, interaction with others, and the mass media are involved in this process. And many people are now accustomed to read widely and critically, think rationally, and approach knowledge with intellectual integrity. Today, as has been the case for well over a century, taking Midrashim literally tends to cause sincere individuals prodigious conflicts between their religious faith and their knowledge of reality.

Attempts to avoid the difficulties have generally promoted apologetics with numerous false harmonizing resolutions. For many, particularly the more educated and rationally oriented, and most seriously for those with intellectual integrity, these explanations have served to merely postpone the problems for a time.

All this has contributed to mass defection from tradition on the one hand and to the development of defensive measures to prevent exposure to contradictory knowledge on the other. The latter often includes discouragement, if not prohibition, of advanced general studies, insisting the Torah be studied without the benefit of modern scholarly research as well as strictly limiting interaction with and participation in the life of the wider society. Of course, such measures create further serious, negative consequences, impacting the psychological, social, and economic well-being of many. The solution requires that it should be acknowledged that the authorities cited above were basically correct and whatever consequences stem from that recognition must be confronted.

The teachings of the sages are often clearly recognizable as nonliteral to anyone who acknowledges that it is possible that they may be so. We will provide a sampling of different types of Midrashim and Aggadot that expounded on Parashat Beshallah. These Midrashim teach many wonderful and extraordinary lessons, which upon thoughtful consideration of text, theme and time frame will be seen as clearly not the intended meaning of the verses they are attached to. We will thus illustrate an important aspect of classic rabbinic methodology and help clarify the main point discussed above.

Examples of Classic Rabbinic Methodology

1. Rabbi Joshua the son of Levi expounded: ve-lo naham Elokim—God did not find it satisfactory (consoling) to bring Israel to its land quickly (Exod. 13:17). Why? It is comparable to a king who has 12 sons and 10 portions of land. If he distributes his lands then he will cause conflicts among his sons. He will wait until he acquires two more portions of land. Similarly, the land of Israel was not adequate for the 12 tribes. God decided to take Israel the long way around so that in the process they will conquer additional land which the two and a half tribes will take, thus making the land of Israel sufficient for all the tribes (Exod. Rab. 20:14).

This may be good advice to a father but surely not the intention of the verse. It is based on translating the letters of the word n-h-m according to another meaning the word could have, but not in its present context. Additionally, the interpretation counters the verse’s main message that the reason for taking the long route was so that the Israelites should not confront war soon. And if taken seriously, what does this comment say about the subject of the two and a half tribes?

2. Israel left Egypt hamushim (Exod. 13:18). The Mekhilta first interpreted that word as “armed” or “provisioned,” citing Joshua 1:14 and 4:12, generally considered the more straightforward explanation. It continues with other homiletical explanations based on the fact that hamesh means “five”:

[Hamushim means that] only one-fifth of the Israelites left Egypt [the others died], some say one in 50 came out, some say one in 500. Rabbi Nehorai says not even one in 500…as we expound…the Israelite women were giving birth to six children at a time. When did they die? During the three days of darkness, so that the Israelites buried their dead and gave thanks and praise to the Almighty that their enemies did not observe and rejoice in their destruction.

Several lessons are taught in this collection of explanations. It compliments the valor of a minority, in some times and places it is only a tiny minority, who hold fast to their beliefs against the assimilationist tendency of the many. Those who do not remain faithful do not share in the good that God brings to Israel. It stresses the value of keeping matters of national shame private. But surely the radically different interpretations of the “other explanations” are not addressing the meaning of our verse or describing the historical setting it presents.

3. Joseph had Israel swear they would take his bones with them out of Egypt (Exod. 13:19). Rabbi Levi stated: This is like a person who discovered that thieves had stolen his wine barrels and drank the wine. He told them: You drank the wine, but at least return the barrels. Joseph said to his brothers: You stole me alive from Shechem, please return my bones there (Exod. Rab. 20:19). This is valuable advice: A wrongdoer should be considerate of his victim and should minimize his wrongdoing. Even after a theft, the perpetrator could alleviate the harm he caused to the injured party. But this lesson has nothing to do with the true meaning of the verse.

4. Moses took Joseph’s bones with him from Egypt (Exod. 13:19). The Mekhilta comments:

How did Moses know where Joseph was buried? Serah, Asher’s daughter, was still alive and she had seen them bury Joseph. The Egyptians had made a metal casket for him and sunk it in the Nile. Moses stood by the Nile, cast a pebble in and called “Joseph, Joseph, the time for The Holy One, blessed be He’s fulfillment of His oath has arrived, give honor to Hashem, God of Israel, and do not delay us, for you are now holding up our departure. If you do not rise promptly we will be free from the oath.” Immediately Joseph’s casket floated to the top…Rabbi Natan says: Joseph was buried in the royal tomb of Egypt…And how do we know they also took the bones of the other tribal heads (Joseph’s brothers) with them, for he stated [in the oath he placed on his brothers], mi-zeh ittekhem (“from here with you” [Exod. 13:19]).

For some, the lengthy, fantastic account enhances the prestige of Moses and Joseph as well as of Serah, whose keen observation turned out to be so valuable. It highlights the value of proper burial and supports the concept that the individual survives bodily death. It brings out the importance of fulfilling vows made by parents. Rabbi Natan rejected the account outright for a more commonsense approach. In peshat there is no reason to assume that Joseph’s burial place was not known.

5. Rabbi Johanan commented on the verse ve-lo karav zeh el zeh kol ha-laylah (“one could not come near the other all through the night,” Exod. 14:20). When Hashem’s angel moved from being in front of Israel’s camp to the back of it, followed by the cloud—a defining moment in the Egyptians’ downfall—the ministering angels desired to utter a song. “The Holy One, blessed be He said to them: ‘The creations of My hands are drowning in the sea and you would utter a song?’” (b. Megillah 10b). It is a most elevating concept not to celebrate at the death of God’s creations, but it is not the intention of the passage.

A brief digression is in order: Angels are not independent beings with ability to act contrary to God’s will but are His messengers and manifestations of His activity. From the wind and burning fire (Ps. 104:4) to the “voice” that stopped Abraham from slaughtering his son (Gen. 22:11) to the appearance revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Exod. 3:2), the angel represents an aspect of God’s will and endeavors. The term for angel, malakh, related to melakhah (work), appears to designate its definition. In a strictly literary usage, angels served in parables to concretize certain thoughts. Concerning destruction of the wicked pursuers in our passage, an idealistic person would feel jubilation at the rescue of the righteous and sadness that it had to end as it did: with human beings, created in the image of God, dying. As Beruriah said, we should hope and strive to ensure that sins will be terminated from the land, not the sinners (b. Berakhot 10a). Rabbi Johanan represents the conflicting feelings by projecting them to God and the angels.

6. It was taught in a Baraita that Rabbi Meir said:

When Israel stood at the sea the tribes were quarreling, each one said, “I will be first to enter the sea.” The tribe of Benjamin jumped into the sea first, as it states, sham Binyamin tza’ir rodem (“There is little Benjamin their ruler” [Ps. 68:28]), al tikrei rodem, ella rad yam (“Do not read the word as ‘rodem’ [their ruler] but as ‘rad yam’ [he descended into the sea]”). Thereupon the princes of Judah threw stones at them, as it states [in the continuation of that verse], sarei Yehudah rigmatam (v. 28, a play on rigmatam, reading it as ragemu otam [“stoned them”]). Therefore, Benjamin was selected to become the “host” for the “Might” (i.e., the Holy of Holies is located in Benjamin’s portion of land), as it states: “u-ben ketefav shakhen” (“As he rests between His shoulders,” Deut. 33:12).

Rabbi Judah said, that was not how it was. Rather, each tribe said, “I will not be first to enter the sea,” whereupon Nahshon the son of Amminadab (the prince of the tribe of Judah) jumped into the sea first. This is as stated, “Ephraim surrounds Me with deceit, the House of Israel with guile. But Judah stands firm with God and is faithful to the Holy One” (Hos. 12:1), which is elaborated [by expounding several verses in Psalms] as follows: “Save me O God, for the waters have reached my throat, I am sunk in deep mud and have no standing” (Ps. 69:2–3) together with “Do not let the floodwaters sweep me away” (v. 16). Meanwhile, Moses was lingering in prayer. The Holy One blessed be He said to him, “My beloved are drowning in the sea and you are lingering in prayer before Me?…‘Speak to the Israelites that they should travel and you raise your staff and incline your hand over the sea and split it’ (Exod. 15:15 ff.).” Therefore Judah merited rulership in Israel, as it states, “When Israel left Egypt…Judah became His holy one, Israel, His dominion” (Ps. 114:1-2), Why did Judah ascend to the status…because “the sea saw [the he descended into the sea first] and fled” [ibid v. 3]). (b. Sotah 36b–37a)

There are several lessons here in faith and courage, in psychology and in proper behavior in an emergency. But neither side in the dispute between the sages is expounding the straightforward meaning of the Exodus passage or the other passages marshaled for evidence.

7. Upon the defeat of Pharaoh and his troops, the Torah states (Exod. 14:28): lo nishar bahem ad ehad (generally translated: “there did not remain from them even one”). Taking ad ehad to mean “until one remained,” Rabbi Nehemiah in the Mekhilta states that Pharaoh was spared. Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer (42) added in the name of Rabbi Nehuniah the son of Hakaneh:

When Pharaoh said, “Who is like You among the elim, Hashem, Who is like You, majestic in holiness” (Exod. 15:11), the Holy One, blessed be He saved him from the dead so that he would relate His power to others, in accordance with what is stated: “for this purpose have I allowed you to stand…and in order that My name be recounted throughout all the land” (9:16). Pharaoh became king in Nineveh…When the Holy One, blessed be He sent Jonah to prophesy that Nineveh will be destroyed, Pharaoh heard, rose from his throne, rent his garments, donned sackcloth and ashes [and brought the city to repentance].

Surely this is a most potent cluster of messages about repentance. It also is an extravagantly imaginative tale spreading over many centuries based on a most fanciful interpretation of a verse.

8. Israel called out, “Who is like You among the elim, Hashem?” (15:11). Among its explanations of the difficult word elim, the Mekhilta proffers the following:

“Who is like You among the illemim?” (interpreting elim as illemim, “mute,” based on their having similar letters and sounds). Who is like You that You can hear Your sons’ humiliation and be silent, as it states, “I have been silent from ages ago, I have been still and restrained, I will now cry as a woman in labor, both gasping and panting” (Isa. 42:14). That means to say, in the past God was silent and restrained, but from now on it will be different. “I will scorch mountains and hills, and dry up their vegetation, make rivers into islands and dry the pasture lands, I will lead the blind by a route they knew not, by a path they did not know will I guide them, I will make the darkness before them into light and the craggy places into a plain” (vv. 15–16).

This is a beautiful thought concerning the Exodus in the light of Israel’s past affliction. It is also a relevant hope and inspiration during the crushing difficulties the Jewish people were enduring at the time of the author of this Midrash, but surely it is not the meaning of the verse it is expounded upon.

9. Following the crossing of the sea, the Torah states: Then Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds (va-Yassa Moshe et Yisrael mi-Yam Suf) (Exod. 15:22). In a masterly synthesis of Midrashim, Rashi comments on the active causative verb: “Moses had to force Israel to travel because the Egyptians had decorated their horses with ornaments of gold, silver and precious stones, and Israel was finding them in the sea. The spoils of the sea were greater than the spoils in Egypt.” This constitutes an insightful commentary on the folly of the haughty and overconfident, as well as on the huge temptations Israel must rise above in order to serve Hashem. These include the problems often presented by opportunities, even those stemming from Hashem’s graciousness. But this interpretation is not an actual description of the circumstances of the verse being expounded.

10. Regarding the manna, “When the sun became hot it would melt” (16:21). The Mekhilta states: “Melted manna would flow into rivers and into the great sea, animals would drink that water, hunters would capture the animals and members of other nations would eat them and get a taste of the manna that descended for Israel.” This is an instructive lesson regarding indirect influence, perhaps reflecting the Mekhilta’s view of how the Torah’s message spread to the world, but not a depiction of a particular physical process.

11. In the battle against Amalek, Moses’ hands were faithful until the sun set (17:12). Midrash Tanhuma (Beshallah 28), cited by Rashi, asserts: The Amalekites were calculating through astrology the propitious time that they could be victorious. Moses stopped the sun and confused their calculations. The message is clear. The enemy may possess many skills and use all sorts of means against Israel, but steadfastness in commitment to Hashem will thwart them. The scientifically knowledgeable individual knows that such a statement, were it literal, would be depicting a miracle of the very highest order, which is not even hinted at and has no foundation in the text, and which was not cited by the other schools of sages. Clearly, it was not intended to be taken literally. And God cannot be manipulated by astrology or by any other means.

12. The following passage, dealing with topics of our parashah, appears in a talmudic discussion on the Mishnah’s statement of reciting Hallel toward the conclusion of the Passover seder (b. Pesahim 118b):

Rabbi Natan said, the verse “The faithfulness of Hashem is forever” (Ps. 117:2), was said by the fish in the sea. This is in accordance with Rab Huna, who said that Israel in that generation [of the Exodus] were of little faith. This is as Rabbah bar Mari expounded: What is the meaning of the verse “They rebelled at the sea, the Sea of Reeds” (Ps. 106:7)? This teaches that the Israelites were skeptical at that moment [upon crossing the sea] and said: “Just as we are ascending from the sea on one side so are the Egyptians ascending on the other side.” The Holy One, blessed be He then told the Minister of the Sea to spew forth [the dead Egyptians] upon the dry land. He answered, “Master of the Universe, does a master give a gift to his servant [the many corpses, food for the fish] and then take it back?” He responded, “I will give you [in the future] one and a half times their number.” He replied, “Can a servant make a claim to collect from his master?” He told him: “The Brook of Kishon will be My guarantee.” Immediately he spewed the bodies forth upon dry land and Israel came and saw them, as is stated, “Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the seashore” (Exod. 14:30). What is the meaning of “one and a half times their number?” Regarding Pharaoh it states, “six hundred choice chariots” whereas in the case of Sisera it states, “nine hundred chariots of iron” (Judg. 4:13). When Sisera came… Holy One, blessed be He brought the stars out of their orbits against them [Sisera’s army]…they became heated whereupon they went to cool themselves in the Brook of Kishon. Holy One, blessed be He said to the Brook of Kishon, “Go and deliver your guarantee.” Immediately, the Brook of Kishon swept them away and cast them into the sea, as it states, Nahal Kishon gerafam, Nahal Kedumim (5:21). What is the meaning of Nahal Kedumim, the ancient brook?” The brook that had been the guarantee in ancient times. At that moment the fish said, “The faithfulness of Hashem is forever.”

Major values are expounded here. In the midst of an enormous miracle on behalf of the Israelites, God regarded and alleviated their skepticism by further altering the natural order. Since this action clashed with another’s expectations of a benefit for his charges, God repaid the latter’s loss with interest. He accepted the argument that it was proper to have a guarantee and gave one. He permits His creations to think independently and present their viewpoints to Him. And He is interested in justice even for the fish. Many precedents for appropriate human behavior are exemplified here, particularly to counteract the hubris and disregard of others sometimes found among the affluent. Nobody should disappoint another with merely, “Sorry, I changed my mind, something came up.” Nobody should say, “I’m good for my commitment, you do not need a surety.” People are expected to argue for those who cannot do so for themselves. And everybody should be concerned with the welfare of even lower creatures, how much more so the lowly among man. But this finely crafted homily has nothing directly to do with the intention of the verses being expounded or of the existence of heavenly ministers complaining to God. As midrashic interpretations generally do, it views the whole Tanakh as one integrated unity from which snippets of verses may be expounded and linked with other snippets of verses regardless of their literary context or historical setting to produce a moral that is independent of the verses expounded.

Between the Talmudim and classical compendia of Midrash there are many thousands of statements commenting and elaborating on words and verses of Tanakh that contain great wisdom but are not the actual interpretation of those words and verses. And in subsequent times many rabbinic authors wrote in that style. Great caution must be taken in studying and teaching this material to gain the benefit without the harmful consequences described in the first part of this study. Rambam’s words are as relevant today as ever.





The Yeshiva and the Academy


The study of Tanakh is an awesome undertaking, given its infinite depth. This article will explore the approaches of the yeshiva and the academy to Tanakh study. We will define the yeshiva broadly to include any traditional religious Jewish setting, be it the synagogue, study hall, adult education class, seminary, or personal study. In contrast, the academy is any ostensibly neutral scholarly setting, primarily universities and colleges, which officially is not committed to a particular set of religious beliefs.

In theory, the text analysis in the yeshiva and the academy could be identical, since both engage in the quest for truth. The fundamental difference between the two is that in the yeshiva, we study Tanakh as a means to understanding revelation as the expression of God’s will. The scholarly conclusions we reach impact directly on our lives and our religious worldview. In the academy, on the other hand, truth is pursued as an intellectual activity for its own sake, usually as an end in itself.

Over the generations, Jewish commentators have interpreted the texts of Tanakh using traditional methods and sources. Many also drew from non-traditional sources. To illustrate, Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (twelfth-century Spain, Italy) frequently cited Karaite scholarship even though he was engaged in an ongoing polemic against Karaism. Rambam (twelfth-century Spain, Egypt) drew extensively from Aristotle and other thinkers in his Guide for the Perplexed. Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel (fifteenth-century Spain, Italy) frequently cites Christian commentaries and ancient histories. In the nineteenth century, rabbinic scholars such as Samuel David Luzzatto (Shadal) and Elijah Benamozegh in Italy; and Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel (Malbim) and David Zvi Hoffmann in Germany, benefited significantly from academic endeavors.

Many other rabbis, however, have opposed the use of outside sources in explicating Tanakh.[2] These rabbis did not want assumptions incompatible with Jewish tradition creeping into our religious worldview. This tension about whether or not to incorporate outside wisdom into Tanakh study lies at the heart of many of the great controversies in the history of Jewish tradition.




In analyzing the respective advantages and shortcomings of the approaches of the yeshiva and the academy, it is appropriate to pinpoint the biases of each. The yeshiva community studies each word of Tanakh with passionate commitment to God and humanity, and with a deep awe and reverence of tradition. These are biases (albeit noble ones) that will affect our scholarship, and it is vital to acknowledge them. Less favorably, it is possible for chauvinism to enter religious thought, with an insistence that only we have the truth. Our belief in the divine revelation of Tanakh should make us recognize that no one person, or group of people, can fully fathom its infinite glory and depth. Finally, our commitment to Tanakh and tradition often makes it more difficult to change our assumptions with the availability of new information than if we were detached and studying in a neutral setting. Thus, academic biblical scholarship gains on the one hand by its ostensible neutrality. It may be able to see things that one in love with tradition cannot.

However, those professing neutrality may not always acknowledge that they, too, are biased. There is no such thing as purely objective, or infallible, human thought. For example, Julius Wellhausen, a liberal Protestant scholar of late-nineteenth-century Germany, is often considered the most important architect of the so-called Documentary Hypothesis. Building on earlier nineteenth-century scholarship, he asserted that different sections of the Torah were composed over several centuries, long after the time of Moses. He argued that some of the narratives comprise the earliest layers of the Torah. Then came the classical prophets, and only then were most of the legal sections of the Torah added. These strands were redacted by later scholars, he believed, into the Torah as we know it today.

Although many were quick to accept this hypothesis, Professor Jon D. Levenson (Harvard University) has demonstrated that it is an expression of liberal Protestant theology that goes far beyond the textual evidence. By arguing that later scholars and priests added the Torah’s laws, Wellhausen and his followers were suggesting that those later writers distorted the original religion of the prophets and patriarchs. According to Wellhausen, then, the Torah’s laws were a later—and dispensable—aspect of true Israelite religion. Instead of Paul’s related accusations against the Pharisees, these liberal Protestant German scholars dissected and reinterpreted the Torah itself in accordance with their own beliefs.[3]

The foregoing criticism does not invalidate all of the questions and conclusions suggested by that school of thought. Many of their observations have proven helpful in later biblical scholarship. We need to recognize, however, that the suggestions of Wellhausen’s school reflect powerful underlying biases—some of which go far beyond the textual evidence.[4]

The traditional Jewish starting point is rather different: God revealed the Torah to Moses and Israel as an unparalleled and revolutionary vision for Israel and for all of humanity. Its laws and narratives mesh as integral components of a sophisticated, exalted, unified program for life. The later prophets came to uphold and encourage faithfulness to God and the Torah.

In Tanakh, people who live by the Torah’s standards are praiseworthy, and people who violate them are culpable. So, for example, the Book of Samuel extols David for his exceptional faith in battling Goliath, and then mercilessly condemns him for the Bathsheba affair. This viewpoint reflects the singular philosophy of Tanakh—profoundly honest evaluation of people based on their actions. It would be specious to argue that the first half of the narrative was written by someone who supported David, whereas the latter account was authored by someone who hated David. Rather, the entire narrative was written by prophets who loved God and who demanded that even the greatest and most beloved of our leaders be faithful to the Torah.

Of course, truth is infinitely complex and is presented in multiple facets in Tanakh. Additionally, our understanding is necessarily subject to the limitations of human interpretation. Nevertheless, the text remains the standard against which we evaluate all opinions. Religious scholarship admits (or is supposed to admit!) its shortcomings and biases while relentlessly trying to fathom the revealed word of God.




The ideal learning framework espouses traditional beliefs and studies as a means to a religious end, and defines issues carefully, while striving for intellectual openness and honesty. Reaching this synthesis is difficult, since it requires passionate commitment alongside an effort to be detached while learning in order to refine knowledge and understanding. When extolling two of his great rabbinic heroes—Rabbis Joseph Soloveitchik and Benzion Uziel—Rabbi Marc D. Angel quotes the Jerusalem Talmud, which states that the path of Torah has fire to its right and ice to its left. Followers of the Torah must attempt to walk precisely in the middle (J.T. Hagigah 2:1, 77a).[5]

Literary tools, comparative linguistics, as well as the discovery of a wealth of ancient texts and artifacts have contributed immensely to our understanding the rich tapestry and complexity of biblical texts. The groundbreaking work of twentieth-century scholars such as Umberto (Moshe David) Cassuto, Yehudah Elitzur, Yehoshua Meir Grintz, Yehezkel Kaufmann, and Nahum Sarna has enhanced our understanding of the biblical world by combining a mastery of Tanakh with a thorough understanding of the ancient Near Eastern texts unearthed during the previous two centuries.

At the same time, it must be recognized that our knowledge of the ancient world is limited. We have uncovered but a small fraction of the artifacts and literature of the ancient Near Eastern world, and much of what we have discovered is subject to multiple interpretations. We should be thrilled to gain a better sense of the biblical period, but must approach the evidence with prudent caution as well.[6]

To benefit from contemporary biblical scholarship properly, we first must understand our own tradition—to have a grasp of our texts, assumptions, and the range of traditional interpretations. This educational process points to a much larger issue. For example, studying comparative religion should be broadening. However, people unfamiliar with their own tradition, or who know it primarily from non-traditional teachers or textbooks, will have little more than a shallow basis for comparison.

Religious scholarship benefits from contemporary findings—both information and methodology. Outside perspectives prod us to be more critical in our own learning. On the other side of the equation, the academy stands to benefit from those who are heirs to thousands of years of tradition, who approach every word of Tanakh with awe and reverence, and who care deeply about the intricate relationship between texts.[7] The academy also must become more aware of its own underlying biases.




Ultimately, we must recognize the strengths and weaknesses in the approaches of the yeshiva and the academy. By doing so, we can study the eternal words of Tanakh using the best of classical and contemporary scholarship. This process gives us an ever-refining ability to deepen our relationship with God, the world community, and ourselves.

Dr. Norman Lamm has set the tone for this inquiry:


Torah is a “Torah of truth,” and to hide from the facts is to distort that truth into myth.… It is this kind of position which honest men, particularly honest believers in God and Torah, must adopt at all times, and especially in our times. Conventional dogmas, even if endowed with the authority of an Aristotle—ancient or modern—must be tested vigorously. If they are found wanting, we need not bother with them. But if they are found to be substantially correct, we may not overlook them. We must then use newly discovered truths the better to understand our Torah—the “Torah of truth.”[8]


Our early morning daily liturgy challenges us: “Ever shall a person be God-fearing in secret as in public, with truth in his heart as on his lips.” May we be worthy of pursuing that noble combination.




[1] This essay appeared in Hayyim Angel, Revealed Texts, Hidden Meanings: Finding the Religious Significance in Tanakh (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav-Sephardic Publication Foundation, 2009), pp. 19–29.

[2] See, for example, the essays in Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures: Rejection or Integration? ed. J. J. Schacter (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1997). See also the survey of opinions in Yehudah Levi, Torah Study: A Survey of Classic Sources on Timely Issues (New York: Feldheim, 1990), pp. 257–274. This survey includes traditional approaches regarding exposure to sciences, humanities, and other disciplines.

[3] Jon D. Levenson, The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), pp. 1–32. See also Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1985, paperback edition), pp. 1–4, where he shows how many prominent Christian Bible scholars after Wellhausen continued with these Pauline doctrinal biases in the name of “objective” scholarship.

[4] For a thorough discussion of the Documentary Hypothesis, critiques of that theory, and traditional responses to the genuine scholarly issues involved, see R. Amnon Bazak, Ad ha-Yom ha-Zeh: Until This Day: Fundamental Questions in Bible Teaching (Hebrew), ed. Yoshi Farajun (Tel Aviv: Yediot Aharonot, 2013), pp. 21–150.

[5] Introduction to Exploring the Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, ed. Marc D. Angel (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1997), p. xvi; Loving Truth and Peace: The Grand Religious Worldview of Rabbi Benzion Uziel (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1999), pp. 69–70.

[6] For a discussion of the broader implications of this issue and analysis of some of the major ostensible conflicts between the biblical text and archaeological evidence, see R. Amnon Bazak, Ad ha-Yom ha-Zeh, pp. 247–346.

[7] Cf. the observation of William H. C. Propp: “Generations of Bible students are taught that the goal of criticism is to find contradiction as a first not a last resort, and to attribute every verse, nay every word, to an author or editor. That is what we do for a living. But the folly of harmonizing away every contradiction, every duplication, is less than the folly of chopping the text into dozens of particles or redactional levels. After all, the harmonizing reader may at least recreate the editors’ understanding of their product. But the atomizing reader posits and analyzes literary materials whose existence is highly questionable” (Anchor Bible 2A: Exodus 19–40 [New York: Doubleday, 2006], p. 734). At the conclusion of his commentary, Propp explains that he often consulted medieval rabbinic commentators precisely because they saw unity in the composite whole of the Torah (p. 808). See also Michael V. Fox: “Medieval Jewish commentary has largely been neglected in academic Bible scholarship, though a great many of the ideas of modern commentators arose first among the medieval, and many of their brightest insights are absent from later exegesis” (Anchor Bible 18A: Proverbs 1–9 [New York: Doubleday, 2000], p. 12).

[8] R. Norman Lamm, Faith and Doubt: Studies in Traditional Jewish Thought (New York: Ktav, 1971), pp. 124–125. See also R. Shalom Carmy, “To Get the Better of Words: An Apology for Yir’at Shamayim in Academic Jewish Studies,” Torah U-Madda Journal 2 (1990), pp. 7–24.

New Areas of Religious Responsibility

New Areas of Religious Responsibility: An Essay[1]


By Daniel Sperber


(Dr. Sperber is President of the Makhon haGavoah leTorah at Bar Ilan University. Author of numerous works in Jewish law, custom, and theology, he was awarded the Israel Prize by the State of Israel for his monumental contributions to Jewish scholarship.)


I would like to call attention to some new fields with which the contemporary rabbi has to acquaint himself and to learn their challenges and the possible approaches to giving them solutions. The obvious one is, of course, technology, which progresses with startling speed, presenting situations that never before confronted us. There is a huge literature on this subject, as is the case with medical ethics, business ethics, and so forth. But one area that I feel has been largely neglected is that of ecology. It may not really be new, but has hitherto been too little emphasized. In 2002, I wrote a short article in The Edah Journal 21, 2002, entitled “Jewish Environmental Ethics.” I began with a personal recollection based on changes that I had seen during a short part of my own lifetime. I wrote as follows:


A little more than thirty-five years ago, I served as a rabbi in India. When one went to India at that time, of course, one went to Nepal. So I took a week off and went to Katmandu. It was an absolute paradise. From this ancient, beautiful city, one could see the Himalayas covered in snow against pure azure skies. Running through the city was a pristine river called the Bagmati. It is a holy river, where people bathed. The waters were so limpid and pure, you could drink directly from them. The city was small and you could take a bicycle and ride eight or ten kilometers out to the surrounding, even smaller townships. These were ancient townships with gorgeous temples such as Badgaon. I thought then that if there is a Gan Eden Alei Adamot—a garden of Eden on Earth—this would be it. Had I wished to live in a land or city outside of Israel, it would have been Katmandu. I was offered very attractive jobs there. At that time, very few Europeans came to this part of the world.


A little over a month ago, my wife and I were invited to an international conference in Katmandu on conservation. It was planned by two organizations, the World Wildlife Fund, which is a massive well-known global organization, and the Alliance of Religions for Conservation (ARC), which consisted of representatives of twelve major religions, each trying to demonstrate that his respective religion had a clear interest in conservation and ecology. It was not the sort of conference in which participants tried to persuade one another of the higher ethical principles inherent in their respective religions. Instead, we were united in our goal of dealing with the challenges and dangers to the planet that we all inhabit.


The Earth is, at least so far, the only home we have. I am reminded of the midrash about a ship in which many people were sailing. When one of the passengers started to drill a hole underneath his seat, the others began to protest: “What are you doing? You are making a hole in the bottom of the ship.” He replied, “Well, it's only under my seat.” And so when I came to Katmandu, I came back to a completely different place. You couldn't see the sky. It was overcast, darkened by dirty, smelly clouds. The Bagmati was a cesspool and very much smaller that I had known it to be previously. It had shrunk to a size smaller than the Jordan, and it reeked. When you walked through the streets, you could smell the kerosene being used for cheap fuels in cars. My wife bought a pashmina—which is apparently what one has to get when one goes to this part of the world—and it smelled of paraffin. It had to be rinsed out. You couldn't see the mountains at all. You didn't realize that you were in the valley of Katmandu, surrounded by the highest and the most beautiful mountains in the world. You had to go out of the valley and climb another thousand meters or so in order to be able to see the actual mountains.


The city is now a huge, sprawling metropolis of over two and one-half million souls. Over a quarter of the population of Nepal is now concentrated in this urban sprawl. Those little townships ten miles away that I used to visit on a bicycle are all a part of the same city. They are linked up with no boundaries to demarcate borders. The roads are rutted. People walk around with cloth masks around their faces. If there was an ideal venue for an international conference to discuss conservation and ecology, this was it. Katmandu is now an example of how you can ruin the house in which you live, the garden you are meant to be enjoying.


I returned to this issue in a short article published in Bar-Ilan University's BIU Today, June 2008, pp. 8–9, entitled “The Jewish Mandate to Preserve and Conserve.” And finally in the journal Milin Havivin: Beloved Words, 5, 2010–2011, I revisited this subject in an essay entitled “Baal Tash’hit: Waste Not Want Not,” pp. 85–92, which I wish here to reprint as an introduction to the field. I would like to reintroduce some of its possible halakhic implications.




The biblical prohibition against wanton destruction is mentioned in two verses in Deuteronomy (20:19–20):

When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by forcing an ax against them; for thou mayest eat of them, and thou shalt not cut them down, for the tree of the field is a man ('s) life to employ them in a siege.

Only the trees which thou knowest that they be not trees for food destroy and cut them down: and thou shalt build bulwarks against the city that maketh war with thee until it be subdued.


While this biblical prohibition of ba'al tash’hit—”not to destroy,” is quite limited, for it refers explicitly only to trees the fruits of which are edible but not to fruitless ones, and this within the framework of siege warfare. It makes no mention of scorched-earth policies, blocking off water sources, and wanton destruction in general. However, the rabbis broadened the application of this prohibition. Thus, in the Sifre to Deuteronomy, ibid., sect. 203[2] we read:


“Thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by forcing an ax against them” (Deut., ibid.)—Are we speaking merely of “an ax,” or perhaps also [that one may not] draw away [from them their] water channel? Therefore we learn, “thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof—[meaning] in any way.[3]


Maimonides (in Hilkhot Melakhim 6:8) explains that they wish to cut off the water supply in order to dry up the trees, and his explanation is borne out by the reading in the Sifre Ms. London ad loc., “in order to dry up its trees.”[4]

However, this expansion still remains within the context of siege activities. The rabbis further broadened its application to apply to all sorts of situations, not merely during a military siege. Thus, Maimonides (ibid.)[5] applies this not just to whole trees but to fruit in general, and not only to trees and fruit but to all manner of food, utensils, clothes, etc. (ibid. 10).[6] And, indeed, this is surely the thrust of the biblical commandment. For if in times of war, and during an extended siege—“When thou shalt besiege a city a long time”—when the cutting down of trees serves a clear military purpose, such activity is forbidden, how much more so when there is less urgent a need, or no real need at all. Furthermore, even the barren trees may be cut down in order to serve as siege-engines to subdue the enemy, and presumably reduce potential loss of life on the part of the besieging army—from which we may logically and persuasively infer that the wanton destruction of barren trees, serving no real purpose, would also be forbidden. A further extension of the extended application of this principle is to be found in Sefer haHinukh (sect. 529). The author writes as follows:


… So too [there comes] under [the category of] this [prohibition] not to cause any sort of damage, such as burning or tearing a garment or breaking a utensil, and any similar kind of destructive activity…. And this was the way of the righteous and the men of [good] deeds… who would not even destroy a single mustard seed, and who would feel grief over any kind of waste and destruction they saw, and if they were able to save anything from destruction, they would do so with all the strength…..


R. Eliezer of Metz, writing in twelfth-century Germany, in his Sefer Yeraim (ed. A. A. Schiff, Vilna, 1892–1902, p. 402, sect. 382 ad fin.) goes so far as to say,


And a person should take heed of this prohibition. For we have found that a great man was punished for this transgression, as it is written, “[Now King David was old and stricken in years;] and they covered him with clothes, but he got no heat” (I Kings 1:1), and [concerning this] the rabbis said: For he shamed garments, when he tore Saul's cloak, therefore he had no benefit from them (B. Berakhot 62b). And he who destroys, transgresses two prohibitions, “thou shalt not destroy”—lo tash’hit, and “thou shalt not cut down—lo tikhrot (Deut., ibid.).[7]


There is indeed ample talmudic evidence that the principle of lo tash’hit was applied to all manner of destruction. Thus, in B. Kiddushin 21a we read that Rav Huna tore his clothing in front of his son, and the Gemara asks: Surely he transgressed ba'al tash’hit! And in Shabbat 129a, Rava is said to have broken a bench in order to use it for firewood with which to warm himself, and Abbaye reacted in surprise that surely this constitutes a transgression of ba'al tash’hit.[8]

Thus wanton destruction, or, to use a different formulation, the wasteful use of natural resources, is clearly eschewed by biblical law, expounded and expanded by rabbinic law.

This, however, should be understood within a broader ideological context. For the reason given for not destroying the fruit trees, even for the purpose of optimizing military objectives, is because “thou mayest eat of them,” meaning they constitute a vital resource for the continuity of life. Even during periods of war, one must take into account the basic injunction to preserve the world's resources and its environment for future generations. Indeed, Adam, the prototypical human being, on entering the Garden of Eden, was enjoined “leOvdah u-leShomrah” (Genesis 2:15), “to tend it and to preserve it.” The Hebrew word “leShomrah” bears two meanings: to look after it and to preserve it. These two meanings, which might seem to be almost identical, in actual fact reflect two different though related notions, both of which are alluded to by the use of this biblical term. LeShomrah, looking after something, indicates that the thing does not belong to you, that you are its shomer, its steward. Adam, is being told, as it were, that “the world and all that is in it belongs to God” (Psalms 24:21), but that “haAretz natan li-vnei adam” (Psalms 115:16), that the earth has been given over to human beings to be tended and guarded over. LeShomrah also has the semantic meaning “to preserve” something for its continued use in the future. So we are mandated to preserve the world's natural resources, which are not really ours to waste, for the continuing benefit of future generations.[9]

The Rabbis went even further to warn against overindulgent wastage. Thus, R. Hisda (Babylonia, third century ce) says: Whosoever can eat bread made from barley, and eats bread made from wheat[10] transgresses the prohibition of ba'al tash’hit. And Rav Pappa (two generations later) added: Whosoever can drink beer and drinks wine, transgresses the prohibition of ba'al tash’hit (B. Shabbat 140b).[11] It is true that the Talmud indicates that these opinions are not accepted, for one should not eat inferior food, but rather care more for one's health than one's purse. However, from the above we can deduce that when the foods are equally healthy, we should prefer the cheaper brand. Indeed the rabbis regarded waste of monetary resources as something that the Bible strongly advises to be avoided,[12] and they waged a constant battle against the overindulgent use of luxuries, for “the Torah expressed concern for the financial resources of the individual—“HaTorah hasah al memonam shel Yisrael” (B. Yoma 39a, based on Leviticus 14:36). Hence, Jewish law enjoins us not to make demands that go beyond the means of the individual. And this, too, as we have seen above, comes under the category of ba'al tash’hit, as does excessive and wasteful use of any resources. And on the basis of such a principle Jewish communities throughout the ages instituted bylaws limiting overspending, such as wearing extravagant clothing and jewelry. We find detailed rules of this nature enacted by the heads of Italian Jewish communities at Forli in 1408, and followed by rulings in Spanish Castile in 1432, etc. And already in the period of the Tosafists in the thirteenth century, we learn how the rabbis of the Rhineland limited the extent of feasts and banquets. Limits were placed on the number of invitees to wedding and other celebrations, as well as the fare offered them at such banquets, and these local communal enactments are to be found throughout Europe right up until the Second World War.[13] Such measures were taken to protect the poorer classes from societal pressures as well as to preserve the precious resources of the communities. We see, then, the extent to which this concept has been expanded in its practical applications. And indeed, the great nineteenth-century scholar, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, saw ba'al tash’hit as “the most wide-ranging warning to man not to abuse the position he has been given in the world for moody, passionate, or mindless destruction of things on Earth” (commentary on Deuteronomy 20:20).


The preservation of our natural resources is a concept that permeates biblical and rabbinic thought. Let us consider one simple example, shemitah, the sabbatical year, as it has much to teach us. On a strictly agricultural level, one may not exploit the earth without pause. The soil cannot generate crops year after year without losing its nutrients. You have to let the earth, the soil, rest—“az tirtzeh haAretz et shabtotehah,” “then shall the land be paid her Sabbaths” (Leviticus, 26:34). We know that in the medieval era, the feudal system divided parcels of land into three fields, one of which was left fallow at any given time. This made for a double shemitah, as it were. Similarly it appears that in the Land of Israel in talmudic times the fields were left fallow once every two or three years, and not merely in the seventh.[14] The earth has to gather its strength, as it were, to recharge its batteries, in order to be able to continue to produce crops and remain fertile.[15]


At times we may argue that immediate short-term benefits—metaphorically the use of fruit trees for siege-engines—may justify long-term diminution of resources. The immediate and urgent necessity to deal with vast amounts of waste products—nuclear or less volatile—and distance them from population centers by dumping them in the sea, or burying them in unpopulated areas, may indeed offer attractive, utilitarian, short-term solutions—and usually politically satisfactory ones! However, the long-term effect of pollution, both of seawater and of fresh-water sources, constitute a threat to future life, and the momentary benefits of our generation—i.e., the immediate “siege benefits”—must in no way jeopardize our progeny's ability to eat “the fruit of the trees.”


Thus, the principle of ba'al tash’hit touches upon the most basic mandate of the conservationist—the absolute prohibition of wasting our natural resources.

One might argue: Surely there are other fruit trees, not in the immediate vicinity of the besieged city. We will use these trees for our immediate needs, and there will be enough elsewhere to satisfy our future requirements. The Bible clearly remonstrates against any such thinking. Ultimately, the planet on which we live has limited resources. We can optimize them to a certain extent, but in the final analysis we live in a “closed system.” Any wanton destruction and irreversible damage reduces these resources and diminishes capabilities of the survival of future generations. Furthermore, in view of the present world population explosion, this has become a far more acute problem. Uncontrolled deforestation for short-term monetary gains, dumping toxic waste into fresh water lakes as a cheap and easy solution for major industrial concerns, irresponsible disposal of nuclear waste, etc., have already done disastrous and irreversible environmental harm, bringing drought, famine, and widespread sickness to millions of Earth's inhabitants. It is against just such practice that the Bible enjoins us, prohibiting and warning us in its characteristically laconic fashion.


One does not have to be a Bible-believer to understand the incontrovertible logic of this argument. One just has to be willing to look slightly farther afield, beyond one's immediate needs and environment, and to think in a broader geographical and temporal context.

But for the believing Jew, on the other hand, saving electricity and fuel,[16] the reduction in the use of non-biodegradable materials, and a hundred other little things of which one is hardly consciously aware, but which reduce wastage—these all may be perceived as coming under the category of a positive mitzvah. Thus, the use of both sides of writing paper, changing to energy-saving devices, lighting systems, air conditioners, washing machines, etc., may all be viewed as the carrying out of a divine commandment. For there are halakhic authorities who regard the words “for thou mayest eat of them” as a separate positive commandment, i.e., eating in such a way as to enable the fruits to be eaten also in the future.[17] Indeed, one who does not take account of such matters, and even thoughtlessly indulges in wanton wastefulness, according to some rabbinic opinions transgresses three biblical prohibitions![18]


How much do we waste in our bar/bat-mitzvah and wedding celebrations, or in our weekly communal kiddushes? Whether it be the food, or the disposable dishes, the sumptuous invitations, and the overabundance of flowers—all of these could well be seen as coming under the possible category of ba'al tash’hit and should be weighed against communal norms and societal conventions.


The world in which we live can no longer be perceived as a place in which communities are disparate and unrelated because of their separate locations. Everything is inextricably interconnected, and what happens in one location can and does affect people who live in other parts of the globe. Sadna de-arah had hu, said the rabbis (B. Kiddushin 27b), “The land is one single block,” and never was this more evident and relevant than in our own “globalized” world. It is, therefore, our religious, as well as our humanistic duty to develop a greater sensitivity to conserving and preserving resources, and to see this as a central mitzvah that regulates all manner of our activities.

We all are acquainted with the famous story of Honi haMa'agel, who saw an old man planting a carob tree, and asked him, “How long does it take until this tree will bear fruit?” “Seventy years,” the old man replied. “But,” he continued,” as I came to the world and found carob trees that were planted by my grandparents, so too I am planting trees for my grandchildren” (B. Taanit 23a).


So we too dare not act merely for our immediate material benefits. We must think ahead precisely because there is a mandate of horashah, of bequeathing: A person must transmit what he has received to coming generations. Because it is not yours, you have no right to decline to pass it on to the next generations. And wasteful destruction of resources in tantamount to denying their continuing benefits to future generations.

It is, therefore, incumbent upon our religious leaders most forcefully to convey this message to their constituent communities, so that all can participate in the primordial mitzvah of leShomrah, and avoid the dire transgression(s) of ba'al tash’hit.[19]

So baal tash’hit is not only a socio-ecological commandment to protect us from the harm we do ourselves, but also a deeply religious mandate, underscoring our status of stewardship on a planet we do not possess and resources which ultimately we do not control.


On the other hand, it is clear that not all acts that might appear to be destructive, come under the category of baal tash’hit. Obviously, we are allowed to pull out weeds or to prune trees because such forms of “destruction” are for useful positive purposes. Thus, for example, when one is unable to access earth for the purposes of fulfilling the mitzvah of kisuy haDam—covering the blood of an undomesticated animal or bird after slaughter,[20] a garment may be burned to provide ashes for this purpose, even though burning a garment would ordinarily be forbidden, coming under the rubric of baal tash’hit.[21] And on this basis, namely that baal tash’hit, by its very definition, does not include “constructive destruction,” R. Shimon Greenfeld (1881–1930), in his Teshuvot Maharshag vol. 2, 1944, no. 243, s.v. veHinei lo, argues that the injunction against hashhatat zera (masturbation),[22] a sin of biblical severity,[23] if it be performed as a preventive measure, in order to avoid transgression, as, for example, on the part of a homosexual to avoid homosexual activity, then his “spilling of seed” is not “in vain,” and “he has not really committed a sin.”[24]


Already the great Kabbalist, R. Mosheh Cordovero (1522–1570) in his Tomer haDevorah (1589) chapter 3, wrote:


And wisdom will give life to all, as it is written, “and the wisdom will give life to its owners” (Eccles. 7:12), so will it teach life to all the world and cause them to have life in this world and the next and give them life…

And his mercies are spread over all creatures, so that they be not dishonored nor destroyed, since the supreme wisdom is spread over all creatures, inanimate, growing, live and articulate, and it is for this reason we have been warned against spoiling food, for on this [too], just as the supreme wisdom does not dishonor (or spoil) any existing object, and all is created from there, as it is written “and all You created is wisdom” (Psalm 104:24), so too should man's mercy be upon all His creatures, may He be blessed… . And accordingly, one should not dishonor anything at all, for all [have their roots] in wisdom, and one should not uproot any plant other than when needed, and not kill any living thing except when required…, [and one may do so] only to elevate them from the status of living creatures to articulate ones [i.e., to humankind] For under such circumstances one may pluck the vegetable and slaughter living [animals] to harm them into order to give them merit.


This, of course, is formulated in mystical terms. But the gist of the statement in halakhic terms is that “constructive destruction” is permissible, and does not come under the category of baal tash’hit.

Some might then argue that industrial pollution, to take a random example, is by no means wanton destruction, since it is normally part of the process of positive industrialization, one which certainly yields immediate or short-term beneficial results to society. Nonetheless, I would argue, on the basis of our earlier analysis, that it most surely comes under the category of baal tash’hit, since its harmful effect to the atmosphere is patently evident, and this negativity certainly outweighs any short-term merit it may profess to have.


This leads us on to yet another area in which I believe contemporary rabbis must develop a degree of competence, in order to be able to advise their constituents and influence them actively to involve themselves in social ethical investment. For irresponsible investment, such as investing in harmful products, for example those that contaminate our planet or impoverish sectors of the population, and even impair their health, is to be firmly and vociferously opposed.


Now there are those who say “Money doesn't smell,” or as the English proverb has it, “Money is welcome though it come in a dirty clout.” What they mean by this is that the source of one's wealth, and the means by which one accrued it, is largely irrelevant. One does with one's possessions whatever one wishes, good deeds or otherwise, without regard to their source.[25]

But this certainly is not the view expressed in the Bible. In Deuteronomy 23:19 we read,


Thou shalt not bring the hire of a whore, or the price of a dog, into the house of the Lord thy God for any vow: for even both these are an abomination unto the Lord thy God.


In other words, money gained by prostitution or other unsavory practices may not be brought to the Temple to fulfill the obligation of a vow. Or to formulate this in more modern terms: “tainted money” has no place in the house of God, even if the intent is to use it for an honorable cause.


However, it is not only inappropriate for “tainted money” to be presented to the house of God (cf. Malachi 1:7–8), but indeed, any God-fearing person should distance himself from such “spoiled goods.” It is for this reason that usury is forbidden by biblical and rabbinic law (Exod. 22:24, Lev. 25:36, Deut. 23:30, etc.), as it is also in Islamic law, although legal fictions were later developed to accommodate these laws to modern society and its economic infrastructure. Indeed, the Hebrew word for usury is neshekh, from the root nashakh, “to bite,” for usury bites into one's possessions as a beast bites into the flesh. And just as one may not extract usury, so too we read in Exodus 22:26–27,


If thou at all take thy neighbor's raiment to pledge, thou shalt deliver it unto him by the time that the sun goes down. For it is his raiment for his skin: Wherein shall he sleep? And it shall come to pass when he crieth unto me, that I will hear, for I am gracious.


And just as He is gracious, so too are we enjoined to be gracious (see B. Shabbat 133b; Y. Pe'ah, chapter I ad init.).

And to much the same end, the Sabbatical year annuls all debts, as we read in Deuteronomy 15:1–2:


At the end of every seven years thou shalt make a release [of debts]. And this is the manner of the release: Every creditor that lendeth unto his neighbor shalt release it; he shalt not extract it of his neighbor, or of his brother, because it is called the Lord's release.


And coming back to the subject of the “Sabbatical year” the rabbis devoted a whole chapter of the talmudic tractate Shevi'it to this issue.

For we have no absolute ownership over that which we possess (or think we possess). Our land, our property, our wealth is God's gift to us, and we are no more than guardians over it, enjoined to watch over it and preserve it for future generations. He bids us give tithes and other forms of charity from our earnings (e.g., Lev. 19:9–10, ibid. 23:22, Num. 18:21–24, 14:22–27, 28–29, 23:19–22), and preserve the sanctity—i.e., moral integrity—of our possessions. The sanctity of our possessions, and indeed the sanctity of the land we live on, is preserved by our judicious and ethical use thereof, and that which is “tainted” carries with it a stigma that bids us distance ourselves from it. As the rabbis have said (Derekh Eretz Zuta 2:8), “Distance yourself from that which leads to sin, and all that is like it;” or again (ibid. 1:12): “Distance yourself from the unsightly and all that is like it.” We have a further obligation to do all within our power to discourage the continuation of such unseemly activities.

Wealth poses numerous problems and challenges, as Meir Tamari, onetime chief economist to the office of the Bank of Israel, in his seminal work With All Your Possessions: Jewish Ethics and Economic Life, (New York/London, 1987, p. 25), wrote,


Ever since the dawn of history, material possessions and wealth have been seen as posing basic ethical and spiritual problems. All religions, therefore, have had to offer some perspective regarding the scope and legitimacy of economic activity. Judaism is no exception in this respect, though it differs radically from all other religions in the answers it provides to the relevant questions.


Two distinct sets of problems within the general issue of material wealth would seem to require a religious perspective: the proper allocation of time between work and spiritual activity (such as prayer, religious study, or the fulfillment of religious obligations), and the challenges to ethics and morality. Inequalities in wealth have given rise to injustice, theft, and often bloodshed, and the accumulation of wealth often looks as though it is linked to human lust. All of these behaviors are inconsistent with the ethical and moral teachings of almost all religions. In Judaism's approach to these and allied issues, we will be able to discover the foundations for a specific ethical framework with respect to economic activity, on the part of both the individual and society.


And indeed, in his 340-page book he attempts to paint a portrait of the vision of Jewish ethical economics.[26]

From a broader viewpoint, at a global level, we may note that “the capitalist free market, perhaps the greatest innovation of the modern economic system, one that has triumphed over its socialist and totalitarian foes, permits the individual to exert a good deal of control over his own private world. But capitalism is ill-equipped to redress injustice and inequity; in fact inequity is front-loaded into the system.”[27]

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, in his The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, (New York, 2002, p. ii), so eloquently stated:


The liberal democracies of the West are ill-equipped to deal with such problems. That is not because they are heartless—they are not; they care—but because they have adopted mechanisms that marginalize moral conditions. Western politics have become more procedural and managerial. Not completely: Britain still has a National Health Service, and most Western countries have some form of welfare provision. But increasingly, governments are reluctant to enact a vision of the common good because—so libertarian thinkers argue—there is little substance we can give to the idea of the good we share. We differ too greatly. The best that can be done is to deliver the maximum possible freedom to individuals to make their own choices, and the means best suited to this is the unfettered market where we can buy whatever lifestyle suits us, this year, this month. Beyond the freedom to do what we like and can afford, contemporary politics and economics have little to say about the human condition.


And he continues (ibid. p. 32):


Not only has the dominance of the market had a corrosive effect on the social landscape [and, we may add, the physical ecological landscape, too—D.S.], it has also eroded our moral vocabulary, arguably the most important resource in thinking about the future. In one of the most influential books of recent times, After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argued that “We possess indeed simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have—very largely, if not entirely—lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.” The very concept of ethics (Bernard Williams called it “that peculiar institution”) has become incoherent. Increasingly, we have moved to talking about efficiency (how to get what you want) and therapy (how not to feel bad about what you want). What is common to both is that they have more to do with the mentality of marketing (the stimulation and satisfaction of desire) than that of morality (what ought we desire).


And in what may seem to be an obvious statement, but I believe is a very significant formulation, he remarks (ibid. p. 42),


Religion and politics are different enterprises. They arose in response to different needs: in the one case to bind people together in their commonality, in the other to mediate peaceably between their differences.


Economic considerations play a key role in the political process. However, the single greatest risk of the twenty-first century (to paraphrase a Sacksian statement) is that economics become religionized. Religion should guide economics and not the reverse. Hence, ethics and morality should form the foundations of economic policy, whether at governmental or at non-governmental levels.


I therefore believe that it should be our aim, and indeed the universal aim of all faith groups, actively to encourage the socially responsible deployment of our assets and engage in a concerted effort to combat the use of unethical and harmful means to accumulate wealth. And this, of course, includes the use of industrial “short-cuts” with their immediate and very attractively financial returns, but also with their often devastating ecological effects.


What does all of the above mean from a practical Jewish perspective? Maimonides listed eight levels of charity, the highest being to give or loan or go into partnership or give work opportunities to the indigent in such a manner that he will be able to support himself and no longer be in need of charity. According to this criterion, microfinancing, as an example, in poor emerging countries, thus enabling the local population to move toward self-dependency, to improve their economic conditions as well their physical environment, must rank high on our scale of ethical activism. And all such ecological projects, be they in water purification, agriculture, forestry, etc., which will positively benefit local populations are also a clear religious mandate. Judaism sees every individual, irrespective of race or creed, as fashioned in the image of God, and hence, deserving of dignity and respect. Thus, the qualitative status of the individual, his freedom, his physical and economic well-being, and his legally recognized rights must be the concern of us all. The Jewish concept of tikkun olam must therefore address itself both to the amelioration of our environment, as well as to the bodily and socio-economic needs of the individual and, of course, to human rights. Within this broad spectrum of responsibility we should seek to dedicate our energies and our resources, and thus be ensured that we will be fulfilling the will of God.


[1] Bits and pieces of this essay have been previously published in a variety of places. Here I have tried to create a sort of mosaic, which gives a broad composite picture of the subject I seek to address.

[2] Ed. Finkelstein, New York, p. 239.

[3] On the relationship to trees in other cultures, see the very strange esoteric book called Cultus Arborum: A Descriptive Account of Phallic Tree Worship, anonymous author but by Hargrave Jennings, (the British freemason 1817–1890) privately printed 1890, which, however, contains much interesting information. Thus, on pp. 8–9 we read concerning India:


In a country like India, anything that offers a cool shelter from the burning rays of the sun is regarded with a feeling of grateful respect. The wide-spreading Banyan tree is planted and nursed with care, only because it offers a shelter to many a weary traveler. Extreme usefulness of the thing is the only motive perceivable in the careful rearing of other trees. They are protected by religious injunctions, and the planting of them is encouraged by promises of eternal bliss in the future world. The injunction against injuring a banyan or fig tree is so strict, that in the Ramayana even Rávana, an unbeliever, is made to say 'I have not cut down any fig tree, in the month of Vaisakha, why then does the calamity (alluding to the several defeats his army sustained in the war with Rámachandra and to the loss of his sons and brothers) befall me?

… As early as the Rāmāyana, the planting of a group of trees was held meritorious. The celebrated Panchavati garden where Sitá was imprisoned, has been reproduced by many a religious Hindu, and should any of them not have sufficient space to cultivate the five trees, the custom is to plant them in a small pot where they are dwarfed into small shrubs. Such substitutes and make-shifts are not at all uncommon in the ecclesiastical history of India. In Buddhist India, millions of miniature stone and clay temples, some of them not higher than two inches, were often dedicated when more substantial structures were not possible. The Panchavati consists of the asvatha planted on the east side, the vilva of AEgle marmelos on the north, the banian on the west, the Emblica officinalis on the south, and the asoka on the south-east.


Of course, this is to be seen in the context of Indian belief in the deities residing in trees. See, for example, the following mantra cited in Jitendra Noth Banerjeo, The Development of Hindu Iconography, Calcutta 1956, p. 206:


Oh, thou tree, salutation to thee, thou art selected for (being fashioned into) the icon of this particular deity; please accept this offering according to rules. May all the spirits which reside in this tree transfer their habitation elsewhere after accepting the offerings made according to rules; may they pardon me today (for disturbing them); salutation to them.


But here we have rather strayed from our main theme, into an area which require its own examination.

[4] Sifre, ed. Finkelstein, editor's note to line 2.

[5] Cf. B. Bava Kama 91b. And see R. Hayyim Josef David Azulai [=Hidah], Hayyim Shaal, vol.1, Livorno, 1892, no. 22.

[6] Cf. B. Shabbat 129a. And cf. Maimonides, Sefer haMitzvot, negative commandment no. 57.

[7] See the editor's note 4 ad loc., referring to Ba'al Halakhot Gedolot, negative commandments, nos. 218, 219. See further Ramban's additions to Maimonides's Sefer haMitzvot, positive commandment no. 6, who also regards lo tikhrot as a separate injunction, and “for thou mayest eat of them”ki mimenu tokhelas a positive commandment, differing on this point from Maimonides’s ibid., negative commandment no. 57.

[8] See R. Moshe of Coucy's Semag (=Sefer Mitzvot Gadol), negative commandment 229, who brings these and additional sources to this effect. See also B. Shabbat 67b, and Bava Kama 91b for examples of ba'al tash’hit.

[9] See my discussion on “Jewish Environmental Ethics” in The Edah Journal 2:1, 2002, pp. 1–5.

[10] See my note in Tarbiz 33, 1967, pp. 99–101, on the different classes of bread in talmudic times.

[11] See Shevut Yaakov of R. Yaakov Reisha, vol. 3, no. 71, that even for personal monetary or medical benefits the principle of ba'al tash’hit applies. On the trade and consumption of wine and beer in Amoraic Babylonia, see the extensive discussions of M. Beer, in his The Babyloniian Amoraim: Aspects of Economic Life, Ramat Gan 1974, [Hebrew] index s.v. yayin, shekhar, especially pp. 159–180, 318–324.

[12] See Rabbenu Bahya's commentary to Exodus 12:4, ed. Chavel, Jerusalem 1967, pp. 89–90; Torat Kohanim, Metzorah 5; Rosh haShanah 3.4 and Bavli ad loc.; B. Menhahot 76b; B. Yoma 39a, M. Negaim 12.5. For a full survey of this concept, see Encyclopedia Talmudit II, Jerusalem 1965, 240–245.

[13] This subject has been extensively discussed by Bezalel Landau, in Niv ha-Midreshiah 1971, pp. 213–226. See further S.W. Baron, The Jewish Community: Its History and Structure to the American Revolution, Philadelphia 1942, vol.1, p. 320, vol.2, pp. 301–307, 326, vol.3. , pp. 200–202; L. Finkelstein, Jewish Self-Government in the Middle Ages, New York 1964, pp.87, 262, 373 (clothing), 103, 143, 244, 374 (festivities).

[14] See J. Feliks, Agriculture in Palestine in the Period of the Mishna and Talmud, Tel-Aviv 1963, pp. 30–37 [Hebrew]. For the effects of irresponsible overexploitation of the soil in talmudic times, see my Roman Palestine 200400: The Land, Ramat-Gan 1978, pp. 45–69.

[15] For a further discussion of this issue see my article in The Edah Journal, ibid.

[16] See, for instance, the responsum of R. Yosef Hayyim, in his Responsa Torah leShmah, Jerusalem 1973, no. 76, who writes: “And I ruled for those whose custom it is to leave a candle with two wicks every weekday night to have some light in the house, and they leave the candlelight also while they sleep until the morning… that they should take out the wick while they sleep, and leave only one wick burning, since they do not need so much light while they are asleep and if they have two wicks [burning] together, it uses up [more] oil wastefully, and this constitutes ba'al tash’hit…”.

See also Sefer Kedosh Yisrael, on Reb Yisrael of Vishnitz, by Natan Eli' Roth, Bnei Brak 1976, pp. 228–229, who describes the extent to which the Vishnitze Rebbe was sensitive to ba'al tash’hit. He relates (ibid. p.228) that he would light his cigarette from a lit candle, rather than use a match, because specially lighting a match would be wasteful and constitute a transgression of the command, ba'al tash’hit. For further discussion on ba'al tash’hit see most recently Daniel Farbstein, “Be-gidrei Issur de-ba'al tash’hit,” Moriah 28, (325–326), 2006, pp.126–131.

[17] Rabbenu Hillel to Sifre Deuteronomy ibid.; Minhat Hinukh no. 629; Encyclopedia Talmudit 3, Jerusalem 1951, 335, note 8.

[18] R. Hillel's reading in the Sifre, ibid.

[19] For further bibliographic references to the issue of ba'al tash’hit, see N. Rackover, A Bibliography of Jewish Law, vol. 1, Jerusalem 1975, pp. 285–286 (nos. 7034–7044), vol. 2, Jerusalem 1990, pp. 278 (nos. 4660–4669), [Hebrew]. Additional discussions may be found in passing in Be'er Moshe, by R. Moshe Stern, Jerusalem 1984, vol. 3, no. 22, p. 26, on the extravagant spending in festive halls for banquets: “I was asked by a very learned scholar, [concerning the fact] that many times people make weddings… here in New York in large hotels… (But, much to our distress, what will they answer when they are called to order on the waste of money without any earthly benefit?)… And see further vol. 4, no.147, section 31, pp. 236–237:


Furthermore, I wish to alert people to a bitter phenomenon, that takes place here, namely, the waste of Jewish money in organizing weddings and other festivities. Lunacy has seized hold of almost every woman whose husband has an extra dollar in his purse, that for every such event she needs a new dress, and that it is shameful unbecoming to appear twice in the same garment. And in this way they impoverish their husbands with additional stupidities… which is a criminal act….Just the other day I was at a wedding that was full of flowers, and the experts said that the flowers cost thousands of dollars, may heavens be shocked!on the next day all these flowers are thrown into the garbage…. It is the duty of the rabbis to gather together and to decide to announce a prohibition against the excessive use of flowers, and costly garments for a wedding…. And without doubt it is within the power of the rabbis to protest, and all will hearken [unto them], for many are awaiting this, and they will all listen to their decisions and prohibitions. Would that it were so.

[20] Leviticus 17:13; Rambam, Hilkhot Shemitah, chapter 14; Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 28.

[21] B. Hulin 88b; R. Shneuer Zalman of Liady; Shulhan Arukh haRav, Hilkhot Shemirat haGuf ve-haNefesh, no.14.

[22] As the waste of seed.

[23] See Exodus 20:13; B. Niddah 13b, etc. See Entzyklopedia Talmudit, vol. 11, Jerusalem 1965, 129–141, for a full analysis of all aspects of this issue.

[24] See R. Chaim Rapaport, Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View, London Portland Oregon 2004, pp. 141–142 note 11.

[25] First published in For the Sake of Humanity: Essays in Honour of Clemen N. Nathan, edd. Alan Stephen, Ralph Walders, Leiden Boston 2006, pp. 303–307. I have made some modifications and additions at the end.

[26] Other books have confronted this subject. See, for example, most recently: Aaron Levine, Free Enterprise and Jewish Law: Aspects of Business Ethics, New York 1980; Moses L. Para, Business Ethics: A Jewish Perspective, USA 1997.

[27] David Sasha, “Cultural Diversity without Moral Relativism: A Review Essay of The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks,” The Edah Journal 3:2, 2003, p. 4. The following citations for Rabbi Sacks's book are quoted in Sasha's article.

Ruminations on Rambam

The Jewish Press newspaper has a feature in which questions are posed to a group of rabbis. I am one of the respondents.

A past question (February 12, 2021) struck me as particularly strange: “Should a frum Jew believe the sun goes around earth if the Rambam says it does?” My immediate reaction: how could anyone today, including a frum Jew, think that the sun goes around the earth? Science has advanced prodigiously since the 12th century, and Rambam himself taught that “a person should never cast reason behind, for the eyes are set in front, not in back.” Rambam relied on the best science of his time. And there can be no doubt at all that he would call on us to rely on the best science available in our time. He would be highly embarrassed by those who, basing themselves on Rambam’s own writings, posit that the sun revolves around the earth, rejecting the advanced science of today.

I concluded my response with these words:  “One of the great dangers for religion—and for human progress in general—is for people to cling to discredited theories and outdated knowledge. Those who cast reason behind thereby cast truth behind. And truth is the seal of the Almighty.”

What I took to be so obvious was apparently not so obvious to the other rabbinic respondents. One of them wrote that “it makes more sense to side with Rambam than it does with Copernicus.” Another respondent asserted that Rambam was not giving a lesson in physics but “was explaining the world according to the Torah.” And the final respondent thought it was “likely” that Rambam would agree with the findings of modern astronomy—likely, but apparently not certain.

How disappointing to realize that there are “frum” people today who feel comfortable denying modern astronomy based on words of a medieval sage. How sad for Rambam’s reputation!

Rambam was one of the greatest luminaries in Jewish history.  A pre-eminent halakhist, philosopher and medical doctor, he was also a brilliant and clear writer. Yet, in spite of his voluminous writings, he still remains misunderstood and misrepresented.

So while I was lamenting the column in the Jewish Press, I was simultaneously pleased to be reading a new book by Menachem Kellner and David Gillis, “Maimonides the Universalist: The Ethical Horizons of the Mishneh Torah,” (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, London, 2020). Both of these authors have written important works exploring the genuine teachings of Rambam based on a careful reading of Rambam’s own words in his various writings.

This new book offers an important approach to understanding Rambam’s Mishneh Torah—and the Rambam’s general religious worldview as well. By studying the concluding sections of each of the 14 books of the Mishneh Torah, the authors have demonstrated an ethical framework for this halakhic work. Rambam was not only concerned with presenting the laws; he was concerned with inculcating the ethical/spiritual foundations of the laws.

In his Guide of the Perplexed (3:51), Rambam pointed out that all of the Torah’s commandments exist “with a view to communicating a correct opinion, or to putting an end to an unhealthy opinion, or to communicating a rule of justice, or to warding off an injustice, or to endowing men with a noble moral quality, or to warning them against an evil moral quality. Thus all are bound up with three things: opinions, moral qualities, and political civic actions.” In the Mishneh Torah, Rambam applied this insight when presenting the halakhot.

In offering his ethical insights, Rambam does so in what Kellner and Gillis describe as a universalistic manner. Rambam often points to Abraham as a model human being…and Abraham discovered and served God long before the Torah was given. Abraham was not “Jewish;” he was a human being who longed to transmit proper beliefs and behaviors to society. At the precise midpoint of the Mishneh Torah, Rambam teaches “that each and every single human being can be as sanctified as the Holy of Holies” (p. 143). Jews and non-Jews can achieve true piety and spiritual perfection. Being “sanctified” does not depend on genetics but on one’s personal strivings.

In closing his chapter on the “Laws of Slaves,” Rambam notes that the halakha permits working a non-Jewish slave “with rigor.” But he goes on to offer an impassioned call for sensitive and considerate treatment of such slaves.  “Out of halakhah and aggadah, Maimonides constructs a halakhah that moves smoothly but pointedly from seeing the non-Jewish slave as an alien who can be treated as an inferior to seeing him as an equal fellow human being. The upshot is a statement of thoroughgoing universalism, as Maimonides builds towards the establishment of a truly Abrahamic society at the very end of the Mishneh Torah” (p.266).

The Torah offers Jews a distinctive way to understand and serve the Almighty. But Jews do not have a monopoly on God. All human beings, created in God’s image, have access to the Almighty…just as Abraham himself had access long before the time of Moses. Kellner and Gillis note: “The point of the Mishneh Torah as a whole is the creation of a society which gives its members the greatest chance of achieving their perfection as human beings. In this way, the end of the Mishneh Torah comes round to its beginning: just as the beginning of the work deals with matters that relate to all human beings, so do the last chapters” (p. 308).

The authors have produced a remarkable book that allows us to see Rambam not merely as a codifier of laws, but as a promoter of an ethical, universalistic humanitarianism. They have shown the ethical component in Rambam’s ending sections of each of the books of the Mishneh Torah. These ending sections “adjust the tendency of each individual book, generally in a universalist direction, and compose a balanced and integrated picture of halakhah, oriented towards universal conceptions of individual and social perfection. They guide the reader towards an understanding of all the ceremonial commandments as intellectually and morally purposive, and of the social commandments as infused with the divine, creating a sense of reciprocity between intellectual virtue and moral virtue” (p. 319).

Kellner and Gillis have written an impressive book that enables readers to enter more deeply into Rambam’s religious worldview. At a time when Rambam is subject to so much misrepresentation and misunderstanding, it is heartening to read a book that seeks to present Rambam’s teachings in a clear, genuine and convincing manner. Bravo and thank you to the authors.


Amos: The Social Justice Prophet


Historical Background[1]


Amos prophesied during the reign of Uzziah (788–736 bce). Uzziah reigned in the Southern Kingdom while Jeroboam II ruled the Northern Kingdom (789–748 bce). Jeroboam II reigned 41 years, the longest ever for a Northern monarch; and Uzziah reigned 52 years, the longest ever to that point for a Southern monarch (II Kings 15:1–7). The Book of Kings reports little about their lengthy reigns, except that there was strength and prosperity (see II Kings 14:23–29).

The success of this period has prompted many scholars to refer to it as a biblical “silver age,” second only to the golden age of David and Solomon. Tragically, many Israelites adopted a hedonistic, immoral lifestyle as a consequence of their newfound wealth and political power. They lived such opulent lifestyles, that they sold poor Israelites into slavery and engaged in other forms of corruption to meet their outrageous expenses. Their behavior earned them the fierce condemnation of Amos.

Amos stressed that fear of God and social justice were the keys to building an enduring future. Unfortunately, most people failed to heed him, leading to devastating Assyrian invasions and the exile of the Northern Kingdom.


Social Justice Directly Affects Israel’s National Fate


            The Torah equates service of God and moral behavior as all divinely commanded and of absolute importance. However, the Torah and the historical prophetic books referred to as the “Early Prophets” (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) focus almost exclusively on faithfulness to God when it comes to determining the fate of the people of Israel as a nation.

The Golden Calf, Spies, and other Torah narratives about Israel’s wrongdoings revolve around Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. God also threatens national exile for idolatry (and violation of the sabbatical year) when specific sins are mentioned as opposed to general evil (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 4:25–28; 6:14–15; 7:1–5; 8:19–20; 11:16–17; 28:14, 20, 47, 58). Following the Torah’s lead, the books of the “Early Prophets” ascribe national punishments and exile to idolatry and unfaithfulness, even as they treat moral sins with great seriousness as well.

            Amos’ great innovation on the biblical landscape is that Israel’s moral state directly affects its national destiny. Arguably, the Book of Amos is exclusively about morality and social justice. Despite the fact that Israel certainly had problems with idolatry in his time, Amos never explicitly condemns it—nor any other sin pertaining to Israel’s direct service of God. Instead, Amos excoriates Israel for serving God through sacrifice and other proper ritual observances while they maintained an immoral lifestyle.

            In contrast, Amos’ contemporary Hosea focuses primarily on Israel’s unfaithfulness to God because of their idolatry and related sins. Hosea’s message is far more consistent with the message of the Torah and the “Early Prophets,” that betrayal of God, generally through idolatry, leads to exile.

Amos’ central message may be summarized as follows: The Northern Kingdom of Israel has acted wickedly like the people of Sodom. Therefore, it will be devastated like Sodom via an earthquake,[2] other natural disasters, and the Assyrian invasion and exile.[3] Only at the very end of the book, Amos deviates from God’s harsh judgment and provides a glimpse of God’s love of Israel. The righteous remnant of Israel will endure forever and be redeemed in the future (9:8–15).


Prophecies against the Nations: God Hates Immorality


            The Book of Amos opens with prophecies against seven nations (1:3–2:5). Each nation has sinned unforgivably, and now will bear God’s wrath, expressed through the upcoming Assyrian invasion that will ravage the entire region. The sins of the six non-Israelite nations are immoral crimes, generally against Israel. The sin of Judah—the seventh nation on this roster—is general unfaithfulness against God and the Torah.

            Regarding the six non-Israelite nations, it is initially unclear if God punishes them because they are immoral, or because they are immoral against Israel and God loves Israel. For example, Amos’ first prophecy is against Aram:


Thus said the Lord: For three transgressions of Damascus, for four, I will not revoke it: Because they threshed Gilead with threshing boards of iron. I will send down fire upon the palace of Hazael, and it shall devour the fortresses of Ben-hadad. I will break the gate bars of Damascus, and wipe out the inhabitants from the Vale of Aven and the sceptered ruler of Beth-eden; and the people of Aram shall be exiled to Kir—said the Lord. (1:3–5)


The sins of the Philistines, Tyre, Edom, and Ammon follow the same pattern. These nations harmed Israel, and now God will punish them.[4]

The prophecy against Moab—the sixth nation on the list—becomes a litmus test for interpreters, since it refers to Moab’s immoral treatment of Edom, and not Israel:


Thus said the Lord: For three transgressions of Moab, for four, I will not revoke it: Because he burned the bones of the king of Edom to lime. I will send down fire upon Moab, and it shall devour the fortresses of Kerioth. And Moab shall die in tumult, amid shouting and the blare of horns; I will wipe out the ruler from within her and slay all her officials along with him—said the Lord. (2:1–3)


Based on the first five prophecies, which pertain to nations’ harming Israel, several commentators conclude that Amos’ prophecies against the nations reflect God’s love of Israel. Consequently, they interpret Amos’ prophecy against Moab in this particularistic spirit. For example, Ibn Ezra observes that Edom descends from Esau, the son of Isaac. Therefore, he maintains that the six prophecies against the nations reflect God’s avenging immoral sins against the descendants of Isaac. Alternatively, Radak, Abarbanel, and several other interpreters attempt to connect Amos’ prophecy to a narrative in II Kings 3:27, which (in their reading) might suggest that Moab’s wronging Edom also brought harm onto Israel.

However, Rashi appears to have the most likely reading. God is outraged by all human immorality, whether or not it is directed against Israel. This universalistic message best encapsulates Amos’ prophecies against the nations, and his entire book. For that matter, this message is consistent with narratives in the Torah such as God’s punishing Cain for murdering Abel, bringing the Flood, and destroying Sodom—events that have nothing to do with the people of Israel.


Prophecy against Israel: Israel Must Act Morally


No other prophetic book begins with a prediction of the downfall of other nations. Most prophetic books position their prophecies against the nations after prophecies to Israel. In his Da’at Mikra commentary, Amos Hakham suggests that Amos may have begun his prophecy with the downfall of other nations to catch the attention of his audience and gain him support. Israel would be happy to hear of the impending doom of their surrounding enemies. Amos then would be able to shock his audience with the climactic prophecy against the Northern Kingdom[5]:


Thus said the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, for four, I will not revoke it: because they have sold for silver those whose cause was just, and the needy for a pair of sandals. [Ah,] you who trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground, and make the humble walk a twisted course! Father and son go to the same girl, and thereby profane My holy name. They recline by every altar on garments taken in pledge, and drink in the House of their God wine bought with fines they imposed. (2:6–8)


The Northern Kingdom of Israel is the only group mentioned in Amos’ diatribe whose members inflict harm on fellow members of their society. All the other nations’ crimes involve their harming people from other nations. It is significant that Amos enumerates only ethical sins for Israel. Although Amos refers to worship at shrines, his intent appears to be that the Israelites think they are righteous by serving God through their religious rituals. God responds that these rituals are worthless and hypocritical when unaccompanied by ethical behavior (Amos Hakham[6]).

            The theme of Israel’s hiding their immorality behind the observance of religious rituals to God finds its fullest and clearest expression later in the book:


I loathe, I spurn your festivals, I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies. If you offer Me burnt offerings—or your meal offerings—I will not accept them; I will pay no heed to your gifts of fatlings. Spare Me the sound of your hymns, and let Me not hear the music of your lutes. But let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream. (5:21–24)


Prophets regularly stress that God does not need sacrifices and other religious rituals. They are acceptable to God only when accompanied by righteous moral behavior. Sacrifices and other acts of worship are essential aspects of Israel’s relationship with God, but immorality undermines the very validity of these acts of worship.[7]

            Amos regularly attempted to debunk widespread misconceptions among the populace. Wealthy Israelites wrongly believed that their wealth and military power demonstrated divine favor (see, for example, 6:4–6, 13). To counter these misguided attitudes, Amos links poverty and righteousness by referring to poor people as righteous and humble (2:6–7).[8] While of course in reality some poor people could be wicked and some rich people could be righteous, Amos used this extreme formulation to refute the people’s dangerous theology.


The Chosen People: Additional Moral Responsibility


Amos also deflated the people’s wrongful perception of the concept of the “Chosen People.”[9] The people believed that since God chose Israel, they were free to do whatever they wanted. Amos countered that God’s unique relationship with Israel implies that Israel has an even greater moral responsibility than other nations (Rabbi Joseph Kara, Ibn Ezra, Radak):


Hear this word, O people of Israel, that the Lord has spoken concerning you, concerning the whole family that I brought up from the land of Egypt: You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth—that is why I will call you to account for all your iniquities. (3:1–2)


            The Israelites’ confidence in their chosenness also led them to misunderstand the concept of “the day of God,” when God metes out judgment against wicked people. The Israelites believed that the day of God would be great for Israel, as it would signal God’s defeat of Israel’s enemies. Amos shatters this misconception, insisting that wicked Israel is vulnerable to the same judgment on the “day of God” that other wicked people are (Malbim, Amos Hakham[10]):


Ah, you who wish for the day of the Lord! Why should you want the day of the Lord? It shall be darkness, not light!—As if a man should run from a lion and be attacked by a bear; or if he got indoors, should lean his hand on the wall and be bitten by a snake! Surely the day of the Lord shall be not light, but darkness, blackest night without a glimmer. (5:18–20)


This prophecy relates back to the series of prophecies against other nations at the beginning of the book, which reaches its climax with Amos’ prophecy against Israel. This prophetic idea was shocking to the popular conception of religion, which imagined God smiting Israel’s enemies and then redeeming Israel regardless of Israel’s religious conduct.

            The book’s conclusion presents one of the starkest pictures of Israel’s chosenness in the entire Bible:


To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians—declares the Lord. True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir. Behold, the Lord God has His eye upon the sinful kingdom: I will wipe it off the face of the earth! But, I will not wholly wipe out the House of Jacob—declares the Lord. For I will give the order and shake the House of Israel—through all the nations—as one shakes [sand] in a sieve, and not a pebble falls to the ground. All the sinners of My people shall perish by the sword, who boast, “Never shall the evil overtake us or come near us.” In that day, I will set up again the fallen booth of David: I will mend its breaches and set up its ruins anew. I will build it firm as in the days of old. (9:7–11)


There is nothing special about the exodus from Egypt when Israel is immoral (Rashi, Rabbi Joseph Kara). Amos’ prophecy in 1:2–9:7, then, is characterized by God’s universalistic concern for social justice.

The Book of Amos then concludes with a dramatic about-face, in which God’s eternal love of Israel shines forth. God promises Israel’s eternality and eventual redemption (Rabbi Eliezer of Beaugency, Rabbi Joseph ibn Caspi). The future “day of God” will eliminate the wicked of Israel, but a righteous remnant will endure and be redeemed. In the end, Israel will not be completely eliminated like Sodom, but instead will be refined into a purely righteous nation and return to its ideal relationship with God.




            The people of Amos’ time wrongly distinguished between people who are “religious” and people who are “moral.” They concluded that as long as they went through the proper religious ritual motions, God approved of their actions. They supported their claim by considering their newfound wealth and political power to be divine blessings. They also relied on their faulty understanding of what it means to be God’s Chosen People.


          Amos forcefully attacked their misconceptions. Social justice lies at the very heart of the Torah. God holds all nations accountable for morality, including Israel. Israel’s being God’s Chosen People places additional responsibility onto Israel to serve as the model moral nation for the world. God rejects religious rituals when they are unaccompanied by a righteous, moral lifestyle.


           Unfortunately, most Israelites failed to heed Amos’ warnings, and instead attempted to stifle him (2:11–12; 7:10–17). They were consequently exiled by the Assyrians in the following generation. For the most part, these Ten Lost Tribes continue to be lost. However, Amos’ eternal message is as relevant now as then. His prophecies remind the Jewish people of their religious responsibilities to God, to themselves, and to humanity. Many people today, as then, create a dangerous dichotomy between people who are “religious” and people who are “moral.” Amos returns to the Torah’s message, that being God-fearing necessarily means rising to the highest levels of morality and responsibility for social justice. When Israel and the nations understand and embody this teaching, redemption is here.






[1] In this essay, I draw from the classical Jewish commentators, including Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, 1040–1105), Rabbi Joseph Kara (1050–1125), Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1164), Radak (Rabbi David Kimhi, 1160–c. 1235), Rabbi Eliezer of Beaugency (12th century), Rabbi Joseph ibn Caspi (1279–1340), Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel (1437–1508), and Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel, 1809–1879). I also integrate contemporary scholarship, most notably Amos Hakham, Da’at Mikra: Amos in Twelve Prophets vol. 1 (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 1990); Francis I. Andersen & David Noel Freedman, Anchor Bible: Amos (New York: Doubleday, 1989); Shalom M. Paul, Mikra LeYisrael: Amos (Hebrew) (Tel Aviv, Am Oved, 1994); Zev Weissman, et al., Olam HaTanakh: Twelve Prophets (Hebrew), (Tel Aviv, Dodson-Iti, 1997).

[2] See further discussion in Hayyim Angel, “Was Sodom Destroyed by an Earthquake? A Study of Biblical Earthquakes and Their Implications in Biblical Theology,” Nahalah 2 (2000), pp. 55–65; reprinted in Angel, Through an Opaque Lens (New York: Sephardic Publication Foundation, 2006), pp. 155–168; revised second edition (New York: Kodesh Press, 2013), pp. 123–134.

[3] The wicked city of Sodom becomes the biblical epitome of evil (see, for example, Deuteronomy 32:32; Isaiah 3:9; Jeremiah 23:14; Lamentations 4:6). It also serves as the symbol of God’s total destruction of evildoers (see, for example, Deuteronomy 29:17–22; Isaiah 1:9; 13:9; Jeremiah 50:40; Amos 4:11).

[4] Amos does not explicitly mention Israel as the victim when describing the immoral sins of the Philistines and Tyre (1:6–10). Nevertheless, most commentators reasonably assume that Amos is describing their conduct toward Israel.

[5] Da’at Mikra: Amos, p. 16.

[6] Da’at Mikra: Amos, pp. 13, 28–29, 36–37. See also Amos 4:4; 5:5; 8:14. Rashi, Rabbi Joseph Kara, Ibn Ezra, Radak, and several other classical commentators interpret these references as related to idol-worship, but it is unclear that Amos ever explicitly condemns idol-worship.

[7] See also, for example, I Samuel 15:22–23; Isaiah 1:10–17; Jeremiah 7:22; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:4–8; Psalms 51:18–21.

[8] Shemuel Ahituv discusses the linguistic and conceptual similarities between humble (‘-n-w) and poor (‘‑n‑y), which both derive from the same root (‘-n-y/‘-n-h). Cf. Isaiah 29:19; Psalms 22:25–27; 69:33–34, where the two terms appear together as poetic parallels (Mikra LeYisrael: Zephaniah [Hebrew] [Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2006], pp. 31–32).

[9] See Hayyim Angel, “‘The Chosen People’: An Ethical Challenge,” Conversations 8 (Fall 2010), pp. 52–60; reprinted in Angel, Creating Space between Peshat and Derash: A Collection of Studies on Tanakh (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav-Sephardic Publication Foundation, 2011), pp. 25–34; Angel, Increasing Peace Through Balanced Torah Study. Conversations 27 (New York: Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, 2017), pp. 38–47.

[10] Da’at Mikra: Amos, p. 44.

Rabbi Hayyim Angel's book review of Prof. Joshua Berman's Ani Ma'amin

Professor Joshua Berman (Bar-Ilan University) recently published a very important book on the interface between critical biblical scholarship and traditional Jewish faith. I reviewed his book in Tradition (Spring 2020), the journal of the Rabbinical Council of America. Enjoy the review, and I recommend the book!

Rabbi Hayyim Angel

National Scholar


Book Review[1]


Joshua Berman, Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith (Maggid, 2020), 321 pages


Joshua Berman has written a much-needed book for those in the Orthodox community who have read popular works on Bible criticism but who lack the tools to evaluate the merits of various theories or the religious implications of these theories. Informed by decades of research into both traditional and academic methods, Berman is uniquely qualified to address the religious and academic issues in the first book-length study of its kind.[2]

Berman’s primary argument in the first half of his book is that most purported faith-science conflicts arise from misunderstandings of the nature of academic truth. There are several influential academic Bible theories, such as the documentary hypothesis that posits multiple human authors of the Torah to account for the contradictions and redundancies in the Torah, or arguments that many narratives lack archaeological corroboration and therefore are fictional and irrelevant. Berman posits that these are based on anachronistic assumptions about literature, history, and law, rather than on the world of ideas in ancient Near Eastern texts and contexts. It is therefore critical from a scholarly perspective to shed these assumptions, and to attempt to understand the Torah as a literary creation of the ancient world. By doing so, we also may better appreciate the revolutionary religious and moral developments that the Hebrew Bible contributed to ancient Near Eastern culture and literature. These values transformed many areas of world culture.

Many of Berman’s arguments in the first half of his book are summaries of his two earlier academic books published by Oxford University Press: Inconsistency in the Torah: Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism (2017), and Created Equal: How the Bible Broke from Ancient Political Thought (2008). Because Ani Maamin is primarily addressed to the Orthodox community, Berman is careful to demonstrate the continuity of his ideas and methodology with classical rabbinic sources. For example, he cites Maimonides and Gersonides when discussing the literary and historical context of the Torah, and he explores the thought of Netziv and Rabbi Zadok HaKohen of Lublin on the relationship between the Written and Oral Law.

Berman does an admirable job in challenging the central assumptions of the documentary hypothesis. For example, proponents of that foundational theory of Biblical criticism maintain that Deuteronomy was written as a new version of history and law intended to replace the earlier books of the Torah. Berman notes many examples, however, where Deuteronomy clearly relies on the earlier Torah narratives and laws, and cannot be read as a stand-alone work. Berman asks why the Torah would retain conflicting narratives and laws. The source critics who proposed the documentary hypothesis respond that the Torah is an anthology of competing traditions that were brought together by later redactors. Berman argues, however, that the Torah’s laws are not a compromise between different communities that had different laws, as the source critics argue. Rather, the collections of laws in the Torah are replete with conflicts without having their differences synthesized. “The sine qua non of a compromise document…is that it will iron out conflict and contradiction so that the community can proceed following one authoritative voice” (134). There are also no known ancient Near Eastern narrative anthologies of combined sources, nor compromise legal documents, to serve as precedents to this hypothesis. Finally, “why would the later author of Deuteronomy compose laws designed to replace laws spoken by God in Exodus, and replace them with laws whose authority is only that of Moses?” (135).

Regarding the documentary hypothesis theory of two spliced documents to create the Noah narrative, Berman identifies the many textual and methodological holes in that theory. Once again, there are no known examples of interwoven texts in the ancient Near East. Most strikingly, the complete flood narrative in the Torah features seventeen elements that are parallel with the Babylonian flood narrative, the Epic of Gilgamesh. Each purported document in the Noah narrative contains only some of these elements, whereas only the combined accounts (i.e., Genesis 6–9) contain all seventeen elements, in the same order as Gilgamesh. Based on these and several other arguments, Berman states that “the two-source hypothesis… should be rejected entirely on academic grounds, because it collapses under the weight of its own deficiencies” (126).

The architects of the documentary hypothesis mistakenly read the narratives of the Torah as they would evaluate modern histories, and therefore concluded that the Torah’s contradictions must have arisen from the hands of different authors. However, Tanakh has no concept of history in the way that we think of that discipline today. The authors of ancient literature, including Tanakh, harnessed accepted historical details for the purpose of exhortation. Pre-modern writers did not sift sources to paint as accurate a picture of the past as possible, but rather used what was known about the past to inspire and instruct. The listener would engage with these texts to learn the lessons those texts come to teach:

The Tanakh is a valuable account of the past, not because all it records is fact. It is a valuable account of the past because of the divine authority behind it; it is valuable because it casts the events of the past in a way that ensures that we come away with the most important messages those events have to teach. Our modern environment tells us we should read the news or learn about past events and then process the facts for ourselves, determine their meaning on our own. Our sacred sources insist that we come to the sacred texts in submission with the belief and commitment that this alone is the best way to understand the meaning and lessons of the events that are portrayed. This is how God has authorized that we relate to these events (25).

Berman warns that we should not fall into today’s historical bias, that “facts” which are considered “historical” are more valuable than other forms of teaching.

In this vein, Berman devotes a chapter to the historicity of the exodus from Egypt. Although we cannot hope to corroborate every point of the Torah’s narrative from extant Egyptian records, the Torah’s account contains several significant parallels to contemporaneous Egyptian artifacts and literary records that demonstrate the Torah’s deep cultural familiarity with Egypt at the time of the exodus.[3] The Torah built a series of religious and moral lessons upon a historical core.

Tanakh did break rank with other ancient foundational narratives of surrounding ancient Near Eastern cultures. Tanakh presents a historical continuum, and depicts real people and events that occurred in known geographical settings. Ancient Near Eastern myth is generally set in places not easily identified by their readers, addresses realities of human existence, focuses on a small number of figures, and typically employs supernatural events and figures. In stark contrast, God’s interaction with people in Tanakh is dynamic, and relates to many people over a long period of time. Berman observes that these fundamental differences reflect the different genre established by Tanakh:

The Tanakh is… a record of how God responds to Israel’s actions across the history of their relationship in covenant… The surrounding cultures of the ancient Near East believed that there was no force that unilaterally controlled world events; the gods were in tension with one another, and this tension played out in the chaotic turns of world events. By contrast, the Tanakh posits that the world is controlled by a God who purposefully directs human—that is to say historical—affairs according to His will… Writing in this new convention makes sense only if the Tanakh assumes that it is telling us about individuals that really lived and events that really happened (37–38).

Hazal and classical commentaries generally assume that biblical stories are historical, but there is meaningful debate on that subject as well. The primary endeavor of traditional commentary is to uncover the religious meaning of our sacred texts, and that is precisely what the original prophetic authors intended for their audiences.[4]

In addition to bringing their anachronistic sense of history into their analyses, the source critics who created the documentary hypothesis, influenced by Aristotle, also imposed an expectation of consistency. Since there are contradictions in the Torah, these critics argued, the Torah must be a literary product of different hands, as a single author would not contradict himself. Berman, however, challenges this assumption. Can we be certain that the authors of biblical Israel shared Aristotle’s notion that wise people do not contradict themselves? Shalom Carmy and David Shatz argue that:

The Bible obviously deviates, in many features, from what philosophers (especially those trained in the analytic tradition) have come to regard as philosophy… Philosophers try to avoid contradicting themselves. When contradictions appear, they are either a source of embarrassment or a spur to developing a higher order dialectic to accommodate the tension between the theses. The Bible, by contrast, often juxtaposes contradictory ideas, without explanation or apology.[5]

To account for the narrative discrepancies between Deuteronomy and the other books of the Torah, Berman appeals to analogies with Hittite vassal treaties. They often made treaties between themselves as suzerain (the more powerful king) and vassal nations (subordinate countries who depended on the suzerain for protection in exchange for loyalty and taxation). Among the numerous similarities between Hittite treaties and the covenant of the Torah, Hittite kings used updated language in their treaties to suggest changes in terms of the relationship between the suzerain and vassal. Hittites did not want the earlier versions of the treaty to be forgotten or supplanted. Rather, they retold stories with differences, and those differences were critical for understanding the change in the standing of the vassal. The vassal would understand these changes in this manner, specifically by reading the earlier and updated versions together. Imagine a cuneiform version of “show track changes.” Berman concludes that:

The Hittite kings “updated” the past to serve the needs of the moment… There was no desire to forget now the story had been told in previous generations. Rather, the retention of the previous telling of the history was crucial, even as that history was rewritten… Only by accessing the previous version of the history between the two kings would the vassal fully grasp the nuance of the new version of those events and properly digest the diplomatic signaling inherent in the telling… Every change in nuance between the accounts was carefully measured (101).

Similarly, Deuteronomy is a renewal treaty between God and Israel, who has been a rebellious vassal. The retold history highlights rebellions, leaving Israel on different terms with God as the people are about to enter the land. Deuteronomy is intended to be read along with the other, earlier Biblical books, not to replace them. Deuteronomy does not present a stand-alone recap of all Israel’s history, but rather reviews only several critical points of the covenantal history from Sinai onward, often highlighting Israel’s intransigence. Readers are expected to discern the nuanced differences to ascertain the change in Israel’s standing before God after a generation of rebellions.

While Berman’s critique of the documentary hypothesis is persuasive, and his alternative hypothesis is consistent with a contemporaneous ancient treaty-making technique, one might ask the same question that Berman levels effectively against the source critics: If Deuteronomy is a royal upgrade of a suzerain-vassal treaty where the nuanced differences redefine the relationship, why is the book largely presented in the mouth of Moses? Shouldn’t God as sovereign restate the treaty Himself? Berman maintains that Moses acts as God’s agent to tell them to recall the covenant, but it is unclear why God Himself should not command Israel to recall that covenant.

The conventional position adopted by classical commentaries appears closer to what is suggested in Deuteronomy: At the end of his life, Moses reviewed certain critical elements of the God-Israel relationship and gave them the tools for success in the Land of Israel in their relationship with God. Moses made rhetorical adjustments for his religious exhortation, and focused on events that strengthened the God-Israel relationship for future generations. This position arrives at the same approach as that proposed by Berman. We should read the narratives in the other books of the Torah alongside the accounts in Deuteronomy, paying close attention to the similarities and differences to ascertain the meaning of each passage. At the same time, this approach avoids making a complete analogy between Hittite treaties and the Torah, given that Moses is the speaker in Deuteronomy.

            Regarding the legal verses in the Torah, Berman rejects the source critics’ assumption that contradictions suggest different authors, with Deuteronomy intended as a comprehensive legal code to replace earlier codes. The critics’ theory is based on another modern assumption that the Torah and other ancient Near Eastern legal texts are comprehensive codes. This assumption is rooted in the usage of statutory law in America, England, and Germany that became prevalent in the 19th century. Statutory law is a comprehensive system that supersedes all earlier laws and is binding on the courts. However, until the early 19th century, a majority of Germans, Englishmen, and Americans used common law. In a common law system, judges arrive at decisions based on the mores and spirit of the community. Written laws serve as resources for making decisions, but are neither comprehensive nor binding on the courts. Law in the Torah is common law, as are the other law collections of the ancient Near East. The Torah never instructs judges to use the written law, nor does it provide a comprehensive code of laws. For example, there are no laws governing how to get married in the Torah, even though Judaism recognizes marriage as an institution governed by Torah law itself. Contradictions reflect different parts of an ongoing legal process and require a complementary Oral Law from the very beginning, since there is no way to use the Written Law exclusively to govern a society. Berman submits that Deuteronomy is Moses’ restatement and new application of earlier teachings of the Torah in anticipation of the people’s entry to the Land of Israel.

While the critics’ theories are again weakened by Berman’s analysis, one still may wonder why Hazal and classical commentaries, living in ages when common law was widespread, viewed contradictions between legal verses in the Torah as requiring resolution. While they would agree with Berman that we require an Oral Law and that the Written Torah is not a comprehensive legal code, it appears that they did view the Written Law as somewhat more binding on the legal system than what Berman’s analysis yields. Additionally, in the real time of Exodus and Leviticus, the people expected to enter the land shortly after Sinai, since the sin of the spies and God’s decree of forty years of wandering had not yet occurred. Why would these collections of laws not reflect a similar emphasis as Deuteronomy? Further study is required of the relationship between the laws in Deuteronomy and the other law collections in the Torah.

Having presented the usage of history and law in the Torah as following ancient Near Eastern conventions rather than modern conceptions, Berman identifies the revolutionary ideas of the Torah from within its ancient context. After enumerating several of the central innovations of the Torah, Berman concludes:

Throughout the ancient world, the truth was self-evident: all men were not created equal… [The world they created] was ordered around a rigid hierarchy, where everyone knew his station in life, each according to his class. For the first time in history, the Torah presented a vision… with a radically different understanding of God and man. It introduced new understandings of the law, of political office, of military power, of taxation, of social welfare… What we find in the Torah is a platform for social order marked with the imprint of divinity (178).


The Torah’s religious and moral sense so vastly eclipses anything produced by its neighbors that one can better appreciate what God wanted Israel and humanity to recognize:

See, I have imparted to you laws and rules, as the Lord my God has commanded me, for you to abide by in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.” For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the Lord our God whenever we call upon Him? Or what great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this Teaching that I set before you this day? (Deuteronomy 4:5–8)[6]

Berman’s book is vital for understanding the relationship between faith and academic Bible study, where we can benefit from those texts as useful tools in learning and appreciate the staggering revolution of the Torah within its ancient context. We should not impose our modern Western notions of history or Aristotelian consistency onto the Torah, nor should we impose our modern sentiments of statutory law onto the Torah. By focusing on the Torah’s eternal lessons, by attuning ourselves to differences between narratives to refine our understanding of the message of each passage, by recognizing that the Written Law was never intended as a comprehensive code of law but always required an Oral Law, we can maintain complete faith in revelation without hiding from the beneficial aspects of contemporary scholarship.

            In the second half his book, Berman places Maimonides’ formulation of the thirteen principles in Helek into its historical context, noting that Maimonides was the first Jewish thinker who included God’s revelation of the Torah through the uniquely superior prophecy of Moses as essential aspects of Jewish belief. This fact alone explains the rabbinic views that allow for minor narrative additions to the Torah through later prophets. Significantly, Maimonides does not include these elements of belief when ruling on who is a heretic in Hilkhot Teshuva. Berman analyzes the sources and concludes that Maimonides would consider one who believes that God revealed parts of the Torah to later prophets to be mistaken, but not a heretic:

The Rambam’s view in Hilkhot Teshuva is that one must believe that all of the Torah is from Heaven. If one believes that at God’s behest another prophet added to the narrative portions of the Torah, then for the Rambam, that person is erroneous in his belief, but not deemed a kofer baTorah [a heretic] (240).

Berman further argues that later posekim did not use Maimonides’s thirteen principles of faith to exclude people from the community when they were otherwise mitzva-observant.

            I leave it to the experts in pesak and Maimonidean studies to evaluate Berman’s arguments regarding the fate of the misguided. If Berman is correct, he makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the halakhic status, in Maimonides’ view, of much of contemporary Jewry, including many within the Orthodox community. Given Maimonides’ prestige and widespread acceptance as the primary source of the principles of Jewish faith, Berman’s analysis is exceptionally valuable.

Another productive avenue to arrive at the same communal conclusion is the position of Menachem Kellner, who surveys classical Jewish thinkers and concludes that Maimonides’ dogmatic view is a minority position. The majority adopt the view that one is a heretic only when one willfully denies a tenet espoused by Jewish thought, or willfully accepts a tenet denied by Jewish thought. Otherwise, one is mistaken but not a heretic.[7]

            Berman’s book is an important contribution to scholarship, and to our religious pursuit of truth in the context of Tanakh study. He challenges readers to examine critically the assumptions they bring to the text. Those who ignore ancient Near Eastern laws and narratives lose a vital tool to evaluate the eternal messages of the Torah. At the same time, it is possible to exaggerate the parallels and analogies between the Torah and other ancient Near Eastern texts. Regardless of the proper balance, Berman provides a fresh perspective on Deuteronomy and its relationship with the other books of the Torah, and expands our horizons in learning, methodology, and religious growth.


Rabbi Hayyim Angel, a member of Tradition’s editorial board, is the National Scholar at the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals and serves on the Bible Faculty, Yeshiva University.


[1] This essay appeared originally in Tradition 52:2 (Spring 2020), pp. 142-150.

[2] Another important, recent book that addresses related issues is Amnon Bazak, Ad HaYom HaZeh [Until This Day: Fundamental Questions in Bible Teaching], (Yediot Aharonot-Tevunot, 2013); see also my Review Essay, “Faith and Scholarship Can Walk Together: Rabbi Amnon Bazak on the Challenges of Academic Bible Study in Traditional Learning,” Tradition 47 (2014), 78–88. Bazak surveys various religious and academic challenges that arise throughout Tanakh study and its encounter with academic theories. Berman’s book contributes meaningfully to this discussion by focusing primarily on the assumptions of ancient Near Eastern writers, determining where there is overlap with Tanakh, and where Tanakh was revolutionary in its context. In the process, Berman also deflates several pillars of certain academic theories that many perceive as challenges to faith, as will be discussed in this essay.

[3] For further discussion, see, for example, James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (Oxford University Press, 1996); Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2003).

[4] See Hayyim Angel, Controversies Over the Historicity of Biblical Passages in Traditional Commentary,” in Angel, The Keys to the Palace: Essays Exploring the Religious Value of Reading the Bible (Kodesh Press, 2017), 115–131.

[5] “The Bible as a Source for Philosophical Reflection,” in History of Jewish Philosophy, vol. 2, ed. Daniel H. Frank & Oliver Leaman (Routledge, 1997), 13–14. Cf. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Days of Deliverance: Essays on Purim and Hanukkah (Ktav, 2007), 29.

[6] See also Jeremiah Unterman, Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics (Jewish Publication Society, 2017).

[7] Menachem Kellner, Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought: From Maimonides to Abravanel (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1986); Menachem Kellner, Must a Jew Believe Anything? (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1999). See also the review essay by David Berger, Tradition 33 (1999), 81–89. Kellner’s second edition of Must a Jew Believe Anything? (2006) contains a response to Berger’s review. See also Marc B. Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004), and Hayyim Angel, “Dogma, Heresy, and Classical Debates: Creating Jewish Unity in an Age of Confusion,” in Increasing Peace Through Balanced Torah Study. Conversations 27 (Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, 2017), 22–29.

Naming Names: Thoughts for Parashat Vaera

Angel for Shabbat, Parashat Vaera

By Rabbi Marc D. Angel

The Parasha opens with God’s words to Moshe: God hears the cries of the Israelites and will redeem them. God instructs Moshe and Aharon to go to Pharaoh and demand that the Israelites leave Egypt. After this dramatic opening, the Parasha abruptly gives a listing of the names of “heads of the fathers’ houses.” We learn the names of the family members of Reuben, Shimon and Levi, with special elaboration of the family line of Moshe and Aharon. After this interruption, the narrative continues with God’s instructions to Moses to appear before Pharaoh.

Commentators suggest that this break in the flow of the story was to provide the family background for Moses and Aaron. But this hardly explains why so many names of family members of Reuben, Shimon and Levi are mentioned. 

Perhaps the extensive listing of names at this juncture is conveying something beyond the lineage of Moses and Aaron. It is a striking contrast to the narrative in last week’s Torah portion.

In Parashat Shemot, we read that Pharaoh feared the growing numbers of Israelites in Egypt. He decided to enslave them and to have their male children murdered. Rabbi Hayyim Angel has pointed out that the Torah conspicuously avoids mentioning the names of any Israelites or Egyptians--except for Shifra and Puah-- from the time Yosef died until the birth of Moshe. (Pharaoh is a title, not a personal name.) People--both Egyptians and Israelites--had become nameless "things"--oppressors and oppressed, masters and slaves. When humans are reduced to "things," then both the oppressor and oppressed are dehumanized; they internalize false ideas about who they are and about their true worth as human beings.

In the generations between Yosef and Moshe, the Israelites had become a nameless mass of anonymous slaves. The condition of servitude erodes the self-respect of the victims so that they tend to lose their own identities.  Dr. Bruno Bettelheim, who had been a Jewish prisoner in a German concentration camp, wrote that the prisoners feared not only for their physical lives; they feared that they would come to see themselves as the Nazis saw them--as animals. "The main problem is to remain alive and unchanged...the more absolute the tyranny, the more debilitated the subject." 

After the protracted period of slavery, the Israelites needed to be reminded: we are human beings, we have names, we have personalities, we are not beasts of burden. Moshe’s initial challenge was to get the Israelites to recognize their own humanity. 

So this week’s Torah portion begins the process by recounting names and family relationships. Before Moshe and Aharon confront Pharaoh, they need to instill dignity and self-respect in the Israelite slaves. The listing of names is not an interruption in the narrative; it provides the groundwork for the liberation process.

Later in the Torah when the freed Israelites conduct a census, they are counted by “their families, by the houses of their fathers, by the number of names…” (Bemidbar 1:2).  They had regained their names, their selfhood, their self-respect. They were no longer anonymous slaves.

What was true for the Israelites of old continues to be true today. People should not be nameless blurs but should be individualized human beings with their own names and identities. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik stated this very well:  "To recognize a person is not just to identify him physically. It is more than that: it is an act of identifying him existentially, as a person who has a job to do, that only he can do properly. To recognize a person means to affirm that he is irreplaceable. To hurt a person means to tell him that he is expendable, that there is no need for him. The halakha equated the act of publicly embarrassing a person with murder" ("The Community," p. 16).

Freedom is not static but is a process. The first step and ongoing challenge is to remember and insist: we have names, families, and historical context. 





Thoughts on the Writings of Franz Kafka


   Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was a Prague-born Jew, one of the outstanding figures of modern world literature. His name has become an adjective: Kafkaesque. His writings feature eerie situations, disconnected characters, labyrinthine story lines.

     Kafka was raised in a moderately assimilated, German-speaking family, and was not given much of a Jewish education. Trained as a lawyer, he worked full time for an insurance company.  His great ambition was to be a writer, but during the course of his short lifetime he published very little. When he died, he left numerous manuscripts—diaries, stories, novels-- to his closest friend Max Brod, with the instruction that Brod burn all Kafka’s papers! Fortunately, Brod did not heed Kafka’s last wish. He devoted years to organizing Kafka’s papers and getting them published. Great fame came to Kafka…but only after he had died. During his lifetime, he mostly considered himself to be a failure.

     Kafka sensed that he could be a great writer; but he was a perfectionist who never seemed to be satisfied with his own work. In an entry in his diary, June 21, 1913, he wrote: “The tremendous world I have in my head. But how free myself and free it without being torn to pieces. And a thousand times rather to be torn to pieces than retain it in me or bury it. That, indeed, is why I am here, that is quite clear to me” (The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1910-1913, p. 288). His day job prevented him from devoting himself to his writing. In his diary (August 21, 1913) he complained: “My job is unbearable to me because it conflicts with my only desire and my only calling, which is literature. Since I am nothing but literature and can and want to be nothing else, my job will never take possession of me, it may, however, shatter me completely, and this is by no means a remote possibility….I am, not only because of my external circumstances but even much more because of my essential nature, a reserved, silent, unsocial, dissatisfied person…” (Ibid., p. 299). His diary entry for November 10, 1919 lamented: “I haven’t yet written down the decisive thing. I am still going in two directions. The work awaiting me is enormous” (Franz Kafka, Diaries 1914-1923, p. 190).

     For Kafka, writing was the essence of who he was; and yet he was unhappy with his writing…and with himself. In a letter (November 5, 1912) to his beloved Felice Bauer, he spelled out his dilemma: “Shouldn’t I stake all I have on the one thing I can do?  What a hopeless fool I should be if I didn’t! My writing may be worthless, in which case, I am definitely and without doubt utterly worthless” (Letters to Felice, p. 38). Kafka’s internal life was linked inextricably to his writing, as he explained to Felice (January 14/15, 1913):  “For writing means revealing oneself to excess; that utmost of self-revelation and surrender, in which a human being, when involved with others, would feel he was losing himself, and from which, therefore, he will always shrink as long as he is in his right mind….Writing that springs from the surface of existence—when there is no other way and the deeper wells have dried up—is nothing, and collapses the moment a truer emotion makes that surface shake. That is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around one when one writes, why even night is not night enough. This is why there is never enough time at one’s disposal, for the roads are long and it is easy to go astray” (Ibid., p. 156). He confided in Felice (March 4/5, 1913): “The trouble is, I am not at peace with myself; I am not always ‘something,’ and if for once I am ‘something,’ I pay for it by ‘being nothing’ for months on end” (Ibid., p. 213).

   Kafka’s life was peppered with failure. He had a very negative relationship with his father. Although he had several lovers, and was actually engaged to be married, he never did marry. He was unhappy with his office work. He wasn’t satisfied with his writing. He suffered from tuberculosis and died while just forty one years old. If it were not for the devoted efforts of Max Brod, Kafka would have been just another forgotten scribbler who made no perceptible impact on the world of literature. But as it happened, Franz Kafka, the Prague-born Jew who suffered so much and died so young, became a leading light in modern literature.

     Kafka’s works are characterized by unexpected and inexplicable events. In Amerika, an early unfinished novel, the main character is a European young man who has to flee to America; he befriends the ship’s stoker and they decide to work together once they arrive in the new land. But when the young man and the stoker go to the captain’s office, they find the captain speaking with a senator—who happens to be the young man’s uncle! The senator immediately takes responsibility for the young man and treats him very well. But at some point the nephew offends his uncle, who immediately disowns him. Left to his own devices, the young man has various adventures, most of which end badly.

     In his most famous novel, The Trial, the main character is simply identified as Josef  K. He seems to be a perfectly respectable man, but is one day confronted by officials who place him under arrest. K. asks: “But why?’ The men reply: “We weren’t sent to tell you that. Go to your room and wait. Proceedings are under way and you’ll learn everything in due course” (The Trial, p. 5). K. is outraged and wants to defend himself, even though he does not know what charges have been brought against him. K. is advised: “You can’t defend yourself against this court, all you can do is confess. Confess the first chance you get. That’s the only chance you have to escape, the only one. However, even that is impossible without help from others…” (p. 106). K. seeks help from others, to no avail. He thinks about submitting a petition in his defense, but that turns out to be another hopeless approach. The “court” itself is in a nondescript building, with a confusing group of officials and defendants scattered here and there. K.’s situation is a nightmare…but it is not a dream. It is reality, and his life depends on getting acquitted. He is told:  “Our judges, then, lack the higher power to free a person from the charge, but they do have the power to release them from it. When you are acquitted in this sense, it means the charge against you is dropped for the moment but continues to hover over you, and can be reinstated the moment an order comes from above” (p. 158). In other words, the accused is always condemned to live under threat of arrest. He does not know his crime. He does not know who is making charges against him. He does not have the opportunity to defend himself before a responsible panel of judges. He is guilty, and will forever be guilty, without knowing why, and without any defense.  The novel ends with two men coming to K. to execute him. “But the hands of one man were right at K.’s throat, while the other thrust the knife into his heart and turned it there twice. With failing sight K. saw how the men drew near his face, leaning cheek-to-cheek to observe the verdict. ‘Like a dog!’ he said; it seemed as though the shame was to outlive him” (p. 231).

     What was the shame that was to outlive K.’s execution? Perhaps it was the very shame of being human, of living in an unjust and unforgiving world, of suffering perpetual guilt even when one is innocent. The shame was not just K.’s. The executioners are shameful individuals; they are nameless and faceless bureaucrats who follow orders even when those orders are wicked and cruel. They commit cold-blooded murder under the guise of obeying the prevailing legal system. Did Kafka eerily foresee the Nazi era when Jews, innocent like K., were simply arrested, accused, imprisoned, murdered…all in the name of the Nazi legal system?

     Kafka’s sense of human helplessness is a theme in his novel, The Castle. K. is a land surveyor who receives an order to do some work for “the castle.” When he arrives, he is not at the castle, but in the village. A vast maze separates the castle and the village, and K. has a frustrating time trying to find his way to the castle. He seeks advice; he tries different strategies…all to no avail. As he remains in the village, he is ominously told:  “You are not from the Castle, you are not from the village, you aren’t anything. Or rather, unfortunately, you are something, a stranger, a man who isn’t wanted and is in everybody’s way, a man who’s always causing trouble…” (pp. 63-64). This is a classic Kafka dilemma. K. seems to be an honorable person with a respectable profession, a land surveyor; and yet, he is totally at a loss in the face of a massively complicated system he cannot negotiate. He doesn’t belong, he can’t belong, he will never belong. K. is the eternal misfit, the condemned stranger.

     The signature Kafka feelings of alienation fill his stories. In “Investigations of a Dog,” the dog complains: “But where, then, are my real colleagues? Yes, that is the burden of my complaint; that is the kernel of it. Where are they? Everywhere and nowhere” (The Great Wall, p. 23). In “The Burrow,” the mole digs a maze of holes in which it can feel safe from predators. But it never feels safe. “There have been happy periods in which I could almost assure myself that the enmity of the world towards me had ceased or been assuaged, or that the strength of the burrow had raised me above the destructive struggle of former times” (Ibid, p. 55). In his story, “He,” Kafka poignantly describes his dilemma: “He has the feeling that merely by being alive he is blocking his own way. From this sense of hindrance, in turn, he deduces the proof that he is alive” (Ibid., p. 154). In his most famous story, “Metamorphosis,” the “hero” turns into a despicable cockroach, unable to function within his family, at work, or anywhere else. Ultimately, he dies without ever having fulfilled his role as a human being.

     Some students of Kafka have viewed him primarily as an alienated and estranged Jew. Yet, his characters have no distinctive identifying qualities, and some don’t even have full names. Even if the characters may reflect the classic dilemma of alienated Jews in Western society, they obviously relate to the general human predicament in modern times: the growth of bureaucracies, the insignificance of individuals, the feeling of powerlessness against the “establishment,” the loss of traditional religious and sociological moorings. Kafka is widely read and widely respected because his writing touches moderns in a unique and piercing fashion.

     But Kafka’s Jewishness was an essential part of who he was. Even if he was not devoutly religious in a traditional sense, he identified as a Jew, he studied Hebrew, he attended Yiddish language dramatic presentations, and he felt a connection with the national Jewish aspirations connected with Zionism. In his diary (December 25, 1911) Kafka noted his Jewish roots: “In Hebrew [actually Yiddish] my name is Amschel, like my mother’s maternal grandfather, whom my mother, who was six years old when he died, can remember as a very pious and learned man with a long, white beard” (The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1910-1913), p. 197).  A few years later (December 17, 2013), he has the following entry in his diary: “The good strong way in which Judaism separates things. There is room there for a person. One sees oneself better, one judges oneself better” (p. 324).

     Kafka was not impressed with the “churchly” qualities of Germanic synagogues that attempted to be modern and dignified. He was drawn more closely to Eastern European Jewish immigrants who seemed to be genuinely religious. On Yom Kippur in 1911, he attended the Altneu Synagogue of Prague, which he described as having the “suppressed murmur of the stock market.” By contrast, though, he noted three pious, apparently Eastern Jews, in socks, bowed over their prayer books. They were praying humbly; two of them were crying (Ibid., p. 72). Kafka saw these Eastern Jews as more sincere religiously, more authentic.

     His sympathetic view of Eastern Jews was evidenced in a letter to Milena Jesenska (September 7, 1920). He described a hall where over one hundred Russian-Jewish emigrants were waiting for American visas, in a crowded, uncomfortable situation. Kafka wrote that “if someone had told me last night I could be whatever I wanted, I would have chosen to be a small Jewish boy from the East, standing there in the corner without a trace of worry, his father talking with the men in the middle of the hall” (Letters to Milena, p. 197).

     In a letter to Felice Bauer (January 10/11, 1913), Kafka reflects on the sad state of Jewish life. “Because the Jewish public in general, here at any rate, have limited the religious ceremonies to weddings and funerals, these two occasions have drawn grimly close to each other, and one can virtually see the reproachful glances of a withering faith” (Letters to Felice, p. 151). The loss of religious vitality was not restricted to Jews, but was a phenomenon of modernity. “Today there is no sin and no longing for God. Everything is completely mundane and utilitarian. God lies outside our existence. And therefore all of us suffer a universal paralysis of conscience” (Conversations with Kafka, p. 51).

     But the Jews faced greater insecurity and self-doubt than others. “Their insecure position, insecure within themselves, insecure among people, would above all explain why Jews believe they possess only whatever they hold in their hands or grip between their teeth, that furthermore only tangible possessions give them a right to live, and that finally they will never again acquire what they once have lost—which swims happily away from them, gone forever. Jews are threatened by dangers from the most improbably sides, or, to be more precise, let’s leave the dangers aside and say: ‘They are threatened by threats’” (Letters to Milena, p. 20).

     Kafka’s first-hand experience with anti-Semitism led him to wonder about the Jewish future. Writing in Prague (November 8, 1920), he made his concerns clear:  “I’ve been spending every afternoon outside on the streets, wallowing in anti-Semitic hate….Isn’t it natural to leave a place where one is so hated?...I just looked out the window: mounted police, gendarmes with fixed bayonets, a screaming mob dispersing, and up here in the window the unsavory shame of living under constant protection” (Ibid., p. 219). Like K. in The Trial, Kafka stood accused by people he did not even know, and who did not know him. He was oppressed, without knowing why, and without any satisfactory recourse to justice.

     Zionism was a logical answer for Jews who were in search of a safe space of their own, a place where they could shape their own lives and destinies. “The Jews today are no longer satisfied with history, with an heroic home in time. They yearn for a modest ordinary home in space. More and more young Jews are returning to Palestine. That is a return to oneself, to one’s roots, to growth. The national home in Palestine is for the Jews a necessary goal” (Conversations with Kafka, p. 105).

     His beloved Milena Jesenska wrote words of remembrance about Kafka as a posthumous tribute. “He was shy, anxious, meek, and kind, yet the books he wrote are gruesome and painful.  He saw the world as full of invisible demons, tearing apart and destroying defenseless humans. He was too clairvoyant, too intelligent to be capable of living, and too weak to fight….He understood people as only someone of great and nervous sensitivity can, someone who is alone, someone who can recognize others in a flash, almost like a prophet” (Letters to Milena, pp. 273-74).

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           I first read Kafka in our freshman English class at Yeshiva College. We were assigned to read “Metamorphosis,” and I was vaguely intrigued and repelled by the story. I went on a “Kafka binge,” reading one book after the other; and then I stopped reading Kafka for many years.

           For college age students, Kafka has a particular appeal. He is original, surprising; he doesn’t follow conventional patterns. His loneliness and alienation, his frustration with the “establishment,” his desire for personal greatness—these qualities resonate in the minds and souls of young aspiring thinkers and writers.  

           But then I came back to Kafka’s books much later in life, when I was well into “middle age.” Surprisingly, I found that Kafka still spoke to me clearly, powerfully, cogently. When I read his novels, I found myself laughing out loud at some of the absurd scenes; but I also found myself shaking within at the pathos, the dread.

           And now, as a man in my late 70s, I still read Kafka and find him powerful and pertinent. The world hasn’t improved much, if at all, from the time that Kafka was writing his ominous stories. He continues to be a prophetic voice. If only humanity would listen!


Amerika, Schocken Books, New York, 2008.

The Castle, Schocken Books, New York, 1974

The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1910-1913, ed. Max Brod, Schocken Books, New York, 1965.

The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1914-1923, ed. Max Brod, Schocken Books, New York, 1965.

Franz Kafka, Letters to Felice, ed. Erich Heller and Jurgen, Schocken Books, New York, 2016.

Franz Kafka, Letters to Milena, ed. Philip Boehm, Schocken Books, New York, 1990.

The Great Wall of China, Schocken Books, New York, 1970.

The Trial, Schocken Books, News York, 1998.

Balint, Benjamin, Kafka’s Last Trial, W. W. Norton Company, New York, 2019.

Brod, Max, Franz Kafka, A Biography, Da Capo Press, New York, 1995.

Janouch, Gustav, Conversations with Kafka, New Directions Books, New York, 2012.