National Scholar Updates

The Hatred Syndrome

It is a strange feeling to be hated by people who don’t know you and don’t want to know you. It is perplexing to hear people calling for your death and the death of all your people without ever considering your humanity, your goodness, your contributions to society.

Haters don’t see their victims as fellow human beings. They create and foster ugly stereotypes. They promote outrageous conspiracy theories that dehumanize their targets.

Hatred is an ugly thing. It not only promotes hatred of the perceived enemy, but it distorts the lives of the haters themselves. Energy and resources that could be utilized to build compassionate societies are instead diverted to hatred, weaponry, death and destruction.

We have always been aware of an under-current of antisemitic and anti-Israel attitudes, but things today seem qualitatively and quantitatively different. We witness throngs of people throughout the United States and throughout the world who brazenly and unabashedly call for the annihilation of Israel and the murder of Jews. The public display of raw hatred is alarming.

I suspect that almost all of those spewing hatred of Israel and Jews don’t even know Israelis or Jews in person. They don’t hate actual Jews: they hate stereotypes of Jews. They are indoctrinated with propaganda and are fed a stream of lies about Israel and about Jews. The haters are steeped in their hateful ideology and are not interested in civil dialogue and relationship with actual Jews and Israelis. They know little or nothing about the connection of Jews to the land of Israel going back thousands of years, from Biblical times to the present.

So why do so many haters take aim at Jews and Israel? Some of this hatred stems from anti-Jewish religious teachings. Some of it stems from jealousy at the phenomenal success of such a tiny group. Some people spew hatred as a way of making themselves seem important, as though picking on Jews somehow makes them appear stronger and braver.

Erich Fromm has written of the syndrome of decay that “prompts men to destroy for the sake of destruction and to hate for the sake of hate.” Many people poison their own lives with hatred and only feel truly alive and validated when they express hatred of others.

When societies allow hatred to flourish, they are sowing the seeds of their own destruction. When universities, media and political forums condone blatantly anti-Jewish intimidation and violence, the infection spreads well beyond Jews. Civil discourse is threatened. Respectful dialogue is quashed.

All who stand for a civil society must not be intimidated by the haters, bullies and supporters of terrorism. The syndrome of hate eats away at the foundations of society. It must not be allowed to prevail.

Rav Nahman of Bratslav taught: The whole world is a narrow bridge (precarious), but the essential thing is not to be afraid, not to be afraid at all.


 


 

Judaism and Humanity: The Messianic Era

Introduction

 

            The Bible has a singular vision for Jews and humanity. Beginning with the unprecedented declaration in the first chapter of Genesis that all people are created in God’s Image (Genesis 1:26–27), the Torah and prophets present a program for Israel and humanity that can bring about a redeemed, harmonious, religious-ethical world.

            In previous articles published in Conversations, I have discussed the biblical ideas of the Chosen People and of loving the ger—the resident alien non-Israelite who dwells in the Land of Israel when Israel has sovereignty.[1] In this article, I summarize the conclusions of those two articles, and then discuss the prophetic messianic ideal of Israel and humanity. Rabbinic interpreters debate the boundaries of what the prophets envision as the ideal relationship between Israel and the nations in the future.

 

The Chosen People

 

            The Torah begins its narrative with Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, and not with the people or Land of Israel. All people belong to the same family created in God’s Image, with equal standing before God. God expects humanity to serve God and observe a basic level of morality, codified in Jewish law as the seven Noahide Laws.

God rejected humanity after the expulsion from Eden, the Flood, and finally the Tower of Babel. God then chose Abraham because Abraham chose God; Abraham taught his children and society about the religious-ethical lifestyle the Torah promotes for humanity.

            God’s choosing of Israel is an eternal choice, but the relationship is damaged when Israel sins. Israel’s exiles represent a separation, not a permanent divorce. God longs for Israel’s repentance and restoration of the ideal relationship between God and Israel. Similarly, God’s rejection of humanity with the Tower of Babel is a separation, not a permanent divorce. Non-Israelites who return to Godly behavior can become chosen again. All humanity will be redeemed in the messianic era.

One is chosen when one chooses God. For Jews, that means faithfulness to the God-Israel covenant in the Torah with its commandments. For non-Jews, that means faithfulness to the basic religious-ethical principles of the seven Noahide Laws.

Israel plays a special role as a nation of priests (Exodus 19:6). Israel’s priests have a genetic component (descendants of Aaron the Priest), have more commandments than regular Israelites, guard and serve in the Temple, and teach Torah to Israel. So too, Israel is a family within the community of nations, has more commandments than non-Israelites, guards and serves in the Temple, and teaches Torah to the world.

The Torah thereby establishes a particularistic religious system for Israel, while simultaneously promoting love and genuine respect of a diverse religious-ethical humanity.

 

The Resident Alien

 

            In the Torah (the Written Law), the resident alien in Israel must observe most laws of the Torah, be cared for and loved, and receive equal treatment. The resident alien is exempt from several laws that govern the unique covenantal relationship between God and Israel.

The Oral Law distinguishes between the ger tzedek (convert to Judaism) who is bound by all of the Torah’s laws and is loved and cared for by Jews, and the ger toshav (resident alien) who must accept certain minimal religious-ethical standards to live in Israel.

            The Oral Law teaches the core Jewish value of loving converts to Judaism. The Written Law teaches that identical love and inclusion of the resident alien, complete with rights and responsibilities. The Torah commands love, sensitivity, and fair treatment of all decent people living in the Land of Israel. Although we apply the laws of the Oral Law on the halakhic level, it also is critical to internalize the core values of the Written Law to envisage and build the ideal society.

 

The Messianic Future

 

We now turn to the focus of this article, prophecies that develop the contours of the ideal future for Israel and humanity. Several passages elicit debate among commentators, who disagree over the precise relationship between Israel and the nations in the ideal future.

 

Zephaniah 3:9

Nations Accept God

 

For then I will make the peoples pure of speech (safah berurah), so that they all invoke the Lord by name and serve Him with one accord. (Zephaniah 3:9)

 

After censuring the wicked societies of Israel and its neighbors, Zephaniah proffers a prophecy of consolation. All people will speak a pure speech and serve God in unity. Several commentators interpret the “pure speech” as referring to Hebrew (Rabbi Joseph Kara, Ibn Ezra, Radak). However, most explain that people will serve the one true God (Rambam Hilkhot Melakhim 11:4, Rabbi Eliezer of Beaugency, Abarbanel, cf. Berakhot 57b, Rashi on Deuteronomy 6:4). Abarbanel adds that Zephaniah’s prophecy represents the undoing of the Tower of Babel. People no longer will be confused of language nor retreat from God. Instead, religious and social unity will prevail. Both of these components remedy the rupture from the Tower of Babel, making this dual interpretation of Zephaniah’s prophecy particularly apt.[2]

 

Isaiah 2:2–4

Nations Join Israel in the Temple

 

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

 

In this celebrated prophecy, Isaiah envisions world peace in the context of universal worship of God. All humanity will serve God and will be welcome to the Temple. Yehezkel Kaufmann (1889–1963, Hebrew University) adds that this vision also serves as an antidote to the Tower of Babel.[3] Jerusalem represents the ideal metropolitan center, which attracts people to serve God.

We may add that the prophets generally do not enjoin Israel to actively proselytize throughout the world. Rather, they must build an ideal society and through that model inspire humanity. This picture aligns with God’s exhortation in Deuteronomy:

 

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)

 

Isaiah 56:3–7

Nations Join Israel in the Temple

 

Let not the foreigner say, who has attached himself to the Lord, “The Lord will keep me apart from His people”; and let not the eunuch say, “I am a withered tree.” For thus said the Lord: “As for the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, who have chosen what I desire and hold fast to My covenant—I will give them, in My House and within My walls, a monument and a name better than sons or daughters. I will give them an everlasting name which shall not perish. As for the foreigners who attach themselves to the Lord, to minister to Him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be His servants—all who keep the Sabbath and do not profane it, and who hold fast to My covenant—I will bring them to My sacred mount and let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices shall be welcome on My altar; for My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:3–7)

 

This prophecy furthers the invitation to all God-fearing people to serve God in the Temple. Evidently, some God-fearing Gentiles felt excluded, so the prophet responds that they indeed have access to the Temple.

            Rashi, Radak, and Abarbanel interpret this prophecy as referring to full converts to Judaism (gerei tzedek).[4] Ibn Ezra and Rabbi Eliezer of Beaugency, however, explain the prophecy as referring to righteous Gentiles. They cite Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the First Temple:

 

Or if a foreigner who is not of Your people Israel comes from a distant land for the sake of Your name—for they shall hear about Your great name and Your mighty hand and Your outstretched arm—when he comes to pray toward this House, oh, hear in Your heavenly abode and grant all that the foreigner asks You for. Thus all the peoples of the earth will know Your name and revere You, as does Your people Israel; and they will recognize that Your name is attached to this House that I have built. (I Kings 8:41–43)

 

Righteous Gentiles always are welcome to serve God in the Temple.

 

Isaiah 66:18–21

Will Gentiles Serve as Priests in the Temple?

 

For I [know] their deeds and purposes. [The time] has come to gather all the nations and tongues; they shall come and behold My glory…. And out of all the nations, said the Lord, they shall bring all your brothers on horses, in chariots and drays, on mules and dromedaries, to Jerusalem My holy mountain as an offering to the Lord—just as the Israelites bring an offering in a pure vessel to the House of the Lord. And from them likewise I will take some to be levitical priests, said the Lord. (Isaiah 66:18–21)

 

Depending on how one understands “from them,” it is possible to read the final verse in this passage as saying that some righteous Gentiles will serve as priests in the Temple. If that is the plain sense of the text, it is unparalleled in the Bible. Generally, the Torah prohibits any non-Aaronides—whether from Israel or the nations—from serving as priests in the Temple.[5]

            Classical commentators maintain that this prophecy does not countermand the laws of the Torah. Only Aaronide priests will serve in that capacity in the Temple. They disagree, however, over how to understand this prophecy.

            Rashi, Radak, Abarbanel, and Malbim maintain that non-Jews will bring Israelite priests and Levites back from exile with them.[6] Although those priests and Levites had assimilated while in exile, God will accept their repentance and allow them to serve in the Temple.

Alternatively, Rabbi Joseph Kimhi and Rabbi Eliezer of Beaugency submit that non-Jews will serve in the Temple by assisting the Aaronide and Levitic priests as the Gibeonites and netinim did from the time of Joshua through the Second Temple period:

 

 

That day Joshua made [the Gibeonites] hewers of wood and drawers of water—as they still are—for the community and for the altar of the Lord, in the place that He would choose. (Joshua 9:27)

 

And of the temple servants (netinim) whom David and the officers had appointed for the service of the Levites—220 temple servants, all of them listed by name. (Ezra 8:20)

 

Amos Hakham also interprets the text as referring to non-Jews serving in the Temple, but understands the verses figuratively. Righteous Gentiles will bring offerings in the Temple, and God considers those who sacrifice as though they are God’s attendants, like priests and Levites.[7]

            To summarize the respective readings according to the aforementioned commentators:

 

  1. Rashi: And out of all the nations…they shall bring all your brothers (=Jews)…to Jerusalem My holy mountain as an offering to the Lord…. And from them (=Jews whom the nations brought back who are of priestly and Levitic descent) likewise I will take some to be levitical priests, said the Lord.

 

  1. Rabbi Joseph Kimhi: And out of all the nations…they shall bring all your brothers (=Jews)…to Jerusalem My holy mountain as an offering to the Lord.... And from them (=the non-Jewish nations) likewise I will take some to be levitical priests (=to assist the priests and Levites with attending roles), said the Lord.

 

  1. Amos Hakham: And out of all the nations…they shall bring all your brothers (=Jews)…to Jerusalem My holy mountain as an offering to the Lord.... And from them (=the non-Jewish nations) likewise I will take some to be levitical priests (=I will consider Gentiles who bring sacrifices as though they were priests), said the Lord.

 

Isaiah 19:18–25

Israel and the Nations are Chosen People When They Serve God

 

In that day, there shall be several towns in the land of Egypt speaking the language of Canaan and swearing loyalty to the Lord of Hosts; one shall be called Town of Heres. In that day, there shall be an altar to the Lord inside the land of Egypt and a pillar to the Lord at its border…In that day, Israel shall be a third partner with Egypt and Assyria as a blessing on earth; for the Lord of Hosts will bless them, saying, “Blessed be My people Egypt, My handiwork Assyria, and My very own Israel.” (Isaiah 19:18–25)

 

            Isaiah prophetically envisions Egypt and (evidently) Assyria accepting God in the future. This is the only place in the Bible where God explicitly refers to a foreign nation as “My nation.” All humanity may become chosen by choosing God through proper worship (generally understood as commitment to the seven Noahide Laws).

            Several interpreters reject the notion that any other nation can become God’s chosen people. For example, Targum Jonathan, Rashi, and Rabbi Isaiah of Trani reinterpret the verse as referring exclusively to Israel’s chosenness: Blessed be My nation [Israel whom I chose in] Egypt, and [to whom I showed miracles with] Assyria.

            Those who understand the verse as referring to God’s choosing Egypt and Assyria generally still give Israel a distinctive advantage. Ibn Ezra, Radak, and Abarbanel explain that all three nations will be chosen by God, but Israel is God’s inheritance (nahalah), enjoying the longest standing and permanent intimate relationship with God.

Amos Hakham recognizes the equality of the three nations in the verse, but suggests that Israel is mentioned last as the most beloved nation of God (aharon aharon haviv).[8] However, the smoothest reading of the verse appears to equate the nations as having chosen status when they embrace God in the future.

 

Ezekiel 47:21–23

Do Resident Aliens Receive Land in Israel?

 

This land you shall divide for yourselves among the tribes of Israel. You shall allot it as a heritage for yourselves and for the strangers who reside among you, who have begotten children among you. You shall treat them as Israelite citizens; they shall receive allotments along with you among the tribes of Israel. You shall give the stranger an allotment within the tribe where he resides—declares the Lord God. (Ezekiel 47:21–23)

 

            Ezekiel envisions a renewed map of Israel in his prophecy of redemption in chapters 47–48. All twelve tribes will return to Israel and live west of the Jordan River. The tribal allotments no longer will follow the ancient distribution from the time of Joshua.

            One of the striking differences between the original world order in biblical Israel and Ezekiel’s prophetic forecast for the ideal future is the allotment of land to gerim. As I discussed in my article on the resident alien, all biblical instances of ger refer to the resident alien, known in halakha as the ger toshav. Therefore, it appears that Ezekiel’s prophecy allots land to all decent people who live in Israel in the future.

            Because the Torah does not allocate land to the resident alien, Sifrei Numbers 10:29 reinterprets Ezekiel’s prophecy as referring either to atonement or burial, not to land acquisition.

Several commentators explain that the ger in Ezekiel’s prophecy is the ger tzedek, or righteous convert. In their reading, those who convert to Judaism prior to the messianic era will in fact obtain land in the messianic era (Rashi, Rabbi Eliezer of Beaugency, Abarbanel).

The smoothest reading of the verses, however, allocates land for resident aliens in the future.

 

Joel 3:1

Will Israelites and Non-Israelites Prophesy?

After that, I will pour out My spirit on all flesh (kol basar); your sons and daughters shall prophesy; your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. (Joel 3:1–2)

 

            Joel prophesies that in the future, God will pour His spirit on all flesh (kol basar). The ensuing words refer to various manifestations of prophetic inspiration. If Joel says that all humanity will prophesy in the future, this would be a unique prophecy in the Bible.

            However, Ibn Ezra and Radak observe that Joel refers to your sons and daughters. Interpreting the verse as referring to the same group, they maintain that Israelites will prophesy in the future, and Joel does not refer to all humanity.[9] In this reading, Joel’s prophecy is parallel to that of Ezekiel:

 

I will never again hide My face from them, for I will pour out My spirit upon the House of Israel—declares the Lord God. (Ezekiel 39:29)

 

            Abarbanel splits the verse into two components. Kol basar in the first half of the verse refers to all humanity, who will recognize and serve God. Abarbanel likens Joel’s prophecy to Zephaniah’s prophecy discussed earlier that all nations will speak with a pure speech to serve God (Zephaniah 3:9). The second half of the verse refers to Jews, who will attain actual prophecy (ve-nibbe’u).

            Although Joel’s prophecy does not appear to predict universal prophetic revelation, it calls to mind a Midrash which teaches the core value that all worthy human beings may attain prophecy:

 

I call to witness the heavens and earth, that whether a Gentile or Jew, man or woman, servant or maidservant; all is according to one’s actions, and to that degree divine inspiration rests upon him. (Tanna Devei Eliyahu 10)

 

Conclusion

 

We have considered prophecies of redemption that illustrate aspects of the future relationship between Israel and righteous Gentiles.

Zephaniah 3:9 envisions a united humanity serving God properly (Rambam, Abarbanel), thereby undoing the damage represented by the Tower of Babel (Abarbanel).

Isaiah 2:2–4 predicts the worldwide recognition and service of God in Jerusalem, the ideal metropolitan center. Israel’s living up to its role as a model nation of priests inspires the nations to join them.

Isaiah 56:3–7 combats any discriminatory attitudes Jews might have toward righteous Gentiles. All God-fearing individuals have a place in the future Temple (Ibn Ezra, Rabbi Eliezer of Beaugency).

Isaiah 66:18–21 envisages the nations of the world recognizing God’s glory, and bringing Jewish exiles with them to Jerusalem and the Temple. Commentators debate whether the passage predicts that Jewish priests and Levites will be allowed to serve in the Temple despite their assimilationist tendencies while in exile (Rashi), whether righteous Gentiles will serve as attendants for the priests and Levites (Rabbi Joseph Kimhi), or whether they will bring sacrifices and God will view them as though they were priests in the Temple (Amos Hakham). It is possible to read the prophecy as referring to righteous Gentiles to actually serve as priests in the Temple. If this is the text’s meaning, it would be a unique prophecy in the Bible. It also would contradict laws in the Torah that outlaw all non-Aaronides from encroaching on the Temple space.

Isaiah 19:18–25 foresees a future age when other nations accept God and will resume being chosen nations alongside Israel. Several commentators assume that only Jews can be a chosen people (Targum, Rashi), but others interpret the prophecy to mean that nations that accept God are chosen, and this appears to be the plain sense of the text (Ibn Ezra, Amos Hakham).

Ezekiel 47:21–23 uniquely forecasts that resident aliens will receive land alongside the Jews in the messianic era. Many commentators assume that this prophecy refers to righteous converts to Judaism (Rashi, Abarbanel), but the simple meaning pertains to resident aliens, who will own land in a newly redrawn map of Israel.

Although Joel 3:1–2 initially sounded like a unique prediction of universal prophecy, it appears more likely that the prophecy is limited to Jews (Ibn Ezra, Radak). However, a Midrash (Tanna Devei Eliyahu 10) stresses that all worthy people are eligible to receive prophecy.

May we further our own building of a model community, and may we inspire many others to this vision of a united, diverse, God-fearing moral society.

 

Postscript

 

            Although this study has focused on biblical prophecies, it is appropriate to note the debate in Jewish thought between Rambam and his opponents. Professor Menachem Kellner has written extensively on this subject.[10] Many great Jewish thinkers, including Rabbi Judah Halevi in his Kuzari, followed by the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Shneuer Zalman of Lyady, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the author of the Zohar, and others, believe in ontological essentialism. In plain English, these thinkers assert that Jews are essentially distinct and superior to non-Jews. This position leads its adherents to maintain that converts to Judaism are lesser than born Jews, since they were born with inferior souls. Additionally, this viewpoint generally rejects the possibility that non-Jews can attain prophecy.

It must be stressed that there is no biblical precedent for these ideas, nor is there much in classical rabbinic literature to support their contention. Kellner maintains that the degraded state of Jews in many medieval communities promoted this attitude as a means of maintaining self-esteem.

            In contrast to this widespread view, Rambam insists that there is no essential difference between Jew and non-Jew. All people must develop their intellect to know God and act morally. God chose Abraham because Abraham chose God, not because of any preexisting metaphysical superiority of Abraham. God gave the Torah to the people of Israel because of that choice, and not as a consequence of any inherent property in the people of Israel.

            This outlook leads Rambam to view converts to Judaism as true equals, rather than as inferior people born with lesser souls. After all, the Jewish people began as “converts” as well. Rambam also maintains that in principle, Jews and non-Jews may attain prophetic revelation if they develop themselves properly.

            Rambam’s stance on these issues dovetails the biblical portrait of Israel’s relationship with the nations.

 

Notes

 

[1] “‘The Chosen People’: An Ethical Challenge,” Conversations 27 (Winter 2017), pp. 38–47. “Love the Ger: A Biblical Perspective,” Conversations 36 (Autumn 2020), pp. 37–46.

[2] See further discussion in Hayyim Angel, “The Tower of Babel: A Case Study in Combining Traditional and Academic Bible Methodologies,” in Angel, Peshat Isn’t So Simple: Essays on Developing a Religious Methodology to Bible Study (New York: Kodesh Press, 2014), pp. 201–212.

[3] Yehezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel, translated and abridged by Moshe Greenberg (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), pp. 294–295, 386–387.

[4] Cf. Mekhilta Mishpatim 22; Exodus Rabbah 19:4–5; Tanna Devei Eliyahu 29; Rambam cites Isaiah 56:3 to demonstrate that there is no difference between born Jews and sincere converts to Judaism (Letter to Obadiah the Proselyte).

[5] Shalom M. Paul (Mikra LeYisrael: Isaiah 49-66 [Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2008, 575) and Joseph Blenkinsopp (Anchor Bible: Isaiah 56-66 [New York: Doubleday, 2003], p. 140) maintain that, according to this prophecy, foreigners will in fact be able to serve in the Temple as priests. Given the legal disparity between this interpretation and the rest of the biblical corpus, Blenkinsopp concedes that “These affirmations…must have been highly controversial, and we may be sure that they would not have been acceptable to the temple authorities at any time after the restoration of the Jerusalem cult.”

[6] Cf. Midrash Psalms 7.

[7] Amos Hakham, Daat Mikra: Isaiah vol. 2 (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 1984), p. 696.

[8] Amos Hakham, Daat Mikra: Isaiah vol. 1 (Jerusalem, Mossad HaRav Kook, 1984), p. 206.

[9] See also Amos Hakham, Daat Mikra: Twelve Prophets vol. 1, Joel (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 1990), pp. 17-18; James L. Crenshaw, Anchor Bible: Joel (New York: Doubleday, 1995), pp. 164–165.

[10] See especially Menachem Kellner, Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism (Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006); Maimonides on Judaism and the Jewish People (New York: State University of New York Press, 1991). See also his articles, “Chosenness, Not Chauvinism: Maimonides on the Chosen People,” in A People Apart: Chosenness and Ritual in Jewish Philosophical Thought, ed. Daniel Frank (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993), pp. 51–76, 85–89; “On Universalism and Particularism in Judaism,” Da’at 36 (1996), pp. v–xv; “We Are Not Alone,” in Radical Responsibility: Celebrating the Thought of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, ed. Michael J. Harris, Daniel Rynhold, and Tamra Wright (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2012), pp. 139–154.

Louis Jacobs and the Quest for a Contemporary Jewish Theology

Miri Freud-Kandel, Louis Jacobs and the Quest for a Contemporary Jewish Theology," The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization in Association with Liverpool University Press, 2023.

Review Essay by Rabbi Marc D. Angel

 

For some Jews, faith is not a problem. God gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai; we have an unbroken tradition of law and ethics authorized by the great sages of every generation. We do not merely believe in God as an abstract entity; we feel God’s presence. Fulfilling God’s commandments keeps us in constant relationship with God.

For some Jews, faith is irrelevant.  Life is lived without reference to God. The Torah and mitzvoth are not on the agenda. Such Jews are Jewish by birth, by fate, be ethnicity, by emotional attachment…but not by faith in God, nor through the mitzvoth, nor by deference to the great sages of the Jewish People.

For some Jews, faith is a basic component of life but faces nagging questions. Yes, the Torah is from Heaven…but what exactly is meant by that? Yes, the mitzvoth are commandments…but how does an eternal incorporeal God communicate commandments to people? Yes, our sages were great… but they had many disputes among themselves on basic issues of faith and religious observance. What is truth, what is conjecture, what are our options?

While the first two groups are relatively comfortable with their religious worldviews, the third group must negotiate conflicting pressures. Traditional faith is confronted with Bible criticism, modern scholarship and theologies, and an anti-authoritarian zeitgeist. 

Let’s talk about the third group.

These are thinking people deeply respectful of traditional Jewish beliefs and practices. They are religiously observant. Many—probably most—of them attended university and were exposed to scholarship that challenged or denied the foundations of their faith. They consider themselves to be religious Jews but they find that they must find ways to reconfigure classic principles of Jewish faith in light of the challenges of modernity.

Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a leading figure in British Jewry who belonged to the third group and who wrote significant works dealing with their concerns. Born in Manchester, he studied at Manchester Yeshiva and then at the kolel in Gateshead.  A devout Orthodox Jew, he later attended University College in London, earning a PhD. He served as rabbi of congregations in Manchester and London and became Moral Tutor at Jews’ College where he taught Talmud. He was in line to become head of Jews’ College but Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie blocked the appointment. He felt that Jacobs’ religious views had moved him outside of Orthodoxy. The “Jacobs’ Affair” pitted the religious establishment against Jacobs’ followers. When Jacobs was invited to his previous Orthodox pulpit, Chief Rabbi Brodie blocked the appointment. Jacobs’ followers then established their own synagogue and launched the Masorti movement in England.

Miri Freud-Kandel, Lecturer in Modern Judaism in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford, has authored a volume exploring the teachings and influence of Rabbi Louis Jacobs. Entitled Louis Jacobs and the Quest for a Contemporary Jewish Theology, it is published by the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization in association with Liverpool University Press, 2023.

Freud-Kandel provides a generous selection of quotations from Jacobs’ various volumes, allowing the reader to “hear” Jacobs’ own voice. But she also provides her own analysis, and points out strengths and weaknesses in Jacobs’ theological positions.

Jacobs believed that “the ancestral faith becomes meaningless unless it finds its response in the depths of the individual soul.” Moreover, “for a philosophy to be true it must be ‘true for me’….The life of faith demands our total commitment.” For Jacobs, faith was not an inherited system that one simply adopted; rather it was an internal spiritual process requiring considerable effort.

Jacobs did not believe it was possible to “prove” the truth about God, since God ultimately is far beyond human comprehension. But he thought that it was possible to approach a genuine faith by factoring in various arguments from reason, personal intuition, mystical insights. Jacobs wrote: “Few believers have arrived at belief in God by starting from the beginning to work it all out by reasoned argument.”  The individual Jew—thinking, processing, feeling, praying—must build a personal theology that leads to a meaningful faith in God.

Jacobs suggested a “liberal supernaturalism” that recognized the divine nature of Torah but that the Torah was mediated through human voices. He rejected the view, listed by Maimonides as one of the 13 principles of faith, that God literally dictated the Torah word for word as Moses copied it down.  Given the findings of Biblical criticism, Jacobs felt it necessary to posit a less literal way of understanding Torah min Hashamayim (Torah from Heaven). He bolstered his argument by citing various rabbinic texts that entertained the view that not every word of the Torah was written by Moses. His basic approach was to indicate multiple “kosher” ways of understanding Revelation that did not entail a literalist interpretation. He wrote: “To point to the human element in revelation is a far cry from implying that God is not the Creator of the Torah. On the contrary, it is God who makes Himself known through the human process of redaction. How this can be is a tremendous mystery, but then, so is how God can be in control of His universe and yet leave room for human freedom and human creativity.”

Jacobs’ interest was not so much in how the Torah came into being but how it was experienced as a spiritually powerful text that brought people closer to God. Similarly, mitzvoth are “commandments” in the sense that we find our way to the divine by observing them. Although this is circular reasoning, it reflects his desire to harmonize traditional beliefs with modern thought.

Jacobs did not claim that he had achieved the definitive Jewish theology but rather that he was expressing his own thinking. He insisted that contemporary Jews need to know what Judaism says to them now, not merely what our ancient and medieval rabbis taught. As Freud-Kandel summarizes: “Jacobs’ account of how God, Torah and Israel were to be understood in their different ways was intended to encourage Jews to work on their faith, to pursue their own individual quest, and to find meaning in Judaism through individual paths” (p. 211).

Freud-Kandel not only presents and evaluates Jacobs’ work, she also points to some of its shortcomings. She reviews various attempts made by other thinkers who tackled the issues that troubled Jacobs. But no one has written the absolutely final theology…and no one actually can do so. Each of us needs to think through the issues on our own.

Miri Freud-Kandel has written an important book that not only sheds light on the thinking of Louis Jacobs but helps readers gain a deeper understanding of what is at stake when traditional Jewish faith comes into relationship with modern and post-modern challenges. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Disease of Hatred: Thoughts for Parashat Tazria

Angel for Shabbat, Parashat Tazria

by Rabbi Marc D. Angel

Each morning, we pray that the Almighty will protect us from various evils including “slander and false accusation, hatred and calumnious charges.” Although we and our ancestors have prayed these words for many centuries, the evils have not disappeared. We continue to face slanders, hatred and vicious calumnies. We continue to pray that the Almighty will indeed protect us from all the evils we face.

This week’s Parasha includes laws relating to tsara’at, a disease which our sages associated with the sin of lashon hara, evil speech. The tsara’at is a physical manifestation of a spiritual illness. Even though the physical signs of tsara’at are no longer identifiable these days, the spiritual malady remains. Evil speech is a symptom of a deep and contagious social disease.

The recent World Happiness Report (spring 2024) notes that the United States ranks only 23rd among the countries of the world in terms of the happiness of its population. Israel, by contrast, is ranked 5th.  In spite of all the problems facing Israel—terrorism, war, economic sanctions etc.—Israelis remain among the happiest people in the world. Israelis feel that their lives mean something, that they are working for a better future.

So why is the United States doing so poorly? And why are American young people, in particular, suffering from a lack of happiness and meaningfulness in life?

Much of the problem stems from increased patterns of hatred, divisiveness, and lashon hara. American society has a tsara’at that is not being dealt with in an adequate manner. Extreme groups utilize mass media to spread lies and hatred. Hateful cult-like leaders promote anti-Semitism, racism, political violence. Universities—that should be bastions of humanism—have become hubs for violence and extremism.  In too many circles, it has become fashionable to emphasize all the faults of America and to downplay the amazing historic achievements of this country.

An increase in anti-Semitic rhetoric and intimidation is a sign of the spiritual tsara’at of America (and much of the world!). The slander, false accusations, hatred and calumnious charges are unsettling—not only to Jews, but to all who foster a civil society in which all people are treated fairly and respectfully. Unfortunately, blatant lies against Jews gain credence among hateful and/or ignorant people. But once hatred goes unchecked against one group, the venom spreads.

In the United States, an assortment of hate groups emerge, each spewing its own brand of lashon hara: white supremacists, black supremacists, radical liberals, radical conservatives, anti-Asians, anti-immigrants etc.  When a society is plagued with so many manifestations of hatred and divisiveness, it promotes societal malaise. It is difficult these days to be able to honestly describe America as “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” So many people are unhappy. The current political, intellectual and spiritual leaders of the country have not addressed the problems seriously enough and have not been successful in creating a more positive and unifying message.

The Torah states that one plagued with tsara’at needed to undergo a purification process. Similarly, a society suffering from spiritual tsara’at needs to examine the roots of its disease and to purify itself. Leaders in all strata of society need to mobilize against the hatred that is cutting at the soul of our nation. We not only need to speak and act against hatred and bigotry; we must articulate a positive message about civil society, about the values that make America a bastion of freedom, about working together to build an idealistic national consensus.

The antidote to lashon hara—evil speech—is lashon hatov, beneficial and constructive speech. As we say in our daily prayers each day: “My Lord, guard my tongue from speaking evil and my lips from uttering deceit.”

Our Journey in the Haggadah

                                                                                                                OUR JOURNEY IN THE HAGGADAH:

HOW ITS NARRATIVES AND OBSERVANCES ENABLE US TO EXPERIENCE THE EXODUS[1]

 

By Rabbi Hayyim Angel

 

 

 

 

INTRODUCTION

The Haggadah is a compilation of biblical, talmudic and midrashic texts, with several other passages that were added over the centuries.[1] Despite its composite nature, the Haggadah in its current form may be understood as containing a fairly coherent structure. It creates a collective effect that enables us to experience the journey of our ancestors. As the Haggadah exhorts us, we must consider ourselves as though we left Egypt, actively identifying with our forebears rather than merely recounting ancient history. The exodus lies at the root of our eternal covenantal relationship with God.

 

The Haggadah merges laws with narrative. Its text and symbols take us on a journey that begins with freedom, then a descent into slavery, to the exodus, and on into the messianic era. Although we may feel free today, we are in exile as long as the Temple is not rebuilt. Many of our Seder observances remind us of the Temple and we pray for its rebuilding.

 

The Haggadah also presents an educational agenda. Although most traditions are passed from the older generation to the younger, the older generation must be open to learning from the younger. Often it is their questions that remind us of how much we still must learn and explore.

 

This essay will use these axioms to outline the journey of the Haggadah, using the text and translation of Rabbi Marc D. Angel’s A Sephardic Passover Haggadah (Ktav, 1988). This study is not an attempt to uncover the original historical meaning of the Passover symbols or to explain why certain passages were incorporated into the Haggadah. However, perhaps we will approach the inner logic of our current version of the Haggadah and its symbols as they came to be traditionally understood.

 

THE FIRST FOUR STAGES: FROM FREEDOM INTO SLAVERY

 

Kaddesh: Wine symbolizes festivity and happiness. Kiddush represents our sanctification of time, another sign of freedom. We recline as we drink the wine, a sign of freedom dating back to Greco-Roman times, when the core observances of the Seder were codified by the rabbis of the Mishnah. Some also have the custom of having others pour the wine for them, which serves as another symbol of luxury and freedom. The Haggadah begins by making us feel free and noble.

 

Rehatz (or Urhatz): We ritually wash our hands before dipping the karpas vegetable into salt water or vinegar. As with the pouring of the wine, some have the custom for others to wash their hands, symbolizing luxury and freedom. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (Netziv, 1817–1893, Lithuania) observes that many Jews no longer follow this talmudic practice of washing hands before dipping any food into a liquid. Doing so at the Seder serves as a reminder of the practice in Temple times. We remain in freedom mode for rehatz, but we begin to think about the absence of the Temple.

 

Karpas: Dipping an appetizer is another sign of freedom and nobility that dates back to Greco-Roman times. However, we dip the vegetable into either salt water or vinegar, which came to be interpreted as symbolic of the tears of slavery. In addition, the technical ritual reason behind eating karpas resolves a halakhic debate over whether we are required to make a blessing of Borei peri ha-adamah over the maror later. On the one hand, we eat maror after matzah and therefore have already washed and recited the blessing of ha-motzi. On the other hand, it is unclear whether the maror should be subsumed under the meal covered by the matzah, since it is its own independent mitzvah. Consequently, the ha-adamah we recite over the karpas absolves us of this doubt, and we are required to keep the maror in mind for this blessing.[2] Interpreting this halakhic discussion into symbolic terms: while we are dipping an appetizer as a sign of freedom and luxury, we experience the tears of slavery, and we think about the maror, which the Haggadah explains as a symbol of the bitterness of slavery.[3] We are beginning our descent into slavery.

 

Yahatz: The Haggadah identifies two reasons for eating matzah. One is explicit in the Torah, that our ancestors had to rush out of Egypt during the exodus (Exodus 12:39). However, the Haggadah introduces another element: The Israelites ate matzah while they were yet slaves in Egypt. The Torah’s expression lehem oni, bread of affliction (Deuteronomy 16:3) lends itself to this midrashic interpretation.

 

Yahatz focuses exclusively on this slavery aspect of matzah—poor people break their bread and save some for later, not knowing when they will next receive more food (Berakhot 39b). By this point, then, we have descended into slavery. At the same time, the other half of this matzah is saved for the tzafun-afikoman, which represents the Passover offering and is part of the freedom section of the Seder. Even as we descend into slavery with our ancestors, then. the Haggadah provides a glimpse of the redemption.

 

To summarize, kaddesh begins with our experiencing freedom and luxury. Rehatz also is a sign of freedom but raises the specter of there no longer being a Temple. Karpas continues the trend of freedom but more overtly gives us a taste of slavery by reminding us of tears and bitterness. Yahatz completes the descent into slavery. Even before we begin the maggid, then, the Haggadah has enabled us to experience the freedom and nobility of the Patriarchs, the descent to Egypt with Joseph and his brothers, and the enslavement of their descendants.

 

MAGGID: FROM SLAVERY TO FREEDOM

 

A. EDUCATIONAL FRAMEWORK

 

At this point in our journey, we are slaves. We begin the primary component of the Haggadah—maggid—from this state of slavery.

 

Ha Lahma Anya: We employ the “bread of affliction” imagery of the matzah, since we are slaves now. This opening passage of maggid also connects us to our ancestors: “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.…Now we are here enslaved.” The passage begins our experience by identifying with the slavery of our ancestors, then moves into our own exile and desire for redemption.

 

Mah Nishtanah–The Four Children: Before continuing our journey, we shift our focus to education. The Haggadah prizes the spirit of questioning. The wisdom of the wise child is found in questioning, not in knowledge: “What are the testimonies, statutes, and laws which the Lord our God has commanded you?” To create a society of wise children, the Haggadah challenges us to explore and live our traditions.

 

Avadim Hayinu: We are not simply recounting ancient history. We are a living part of that memory and connect to our ancestors through an acknowledgement that all later generations are indebted to God for the original exodus: “If the Holy One blessed be He had not brought out our ancestors from Egypt, we and our children and grandchildren would yet be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.”

 

Ma’aseh Be-Ribbi Eliezer: The five rabbis who stayed up all night in B’nei B’rak teach that the more knowledgeable one is, the more exciting this learning becomes. These rabbis allowed their conversation to take flight, losing track of time as they experienced the exodus and actively connected to our texts and traditions.[4] This passage venerates our teachers.

Amar Ribbi Elazar: As a complement to the previous paragraph, the lesser scholar Ben Zoma had something valuable to teach the greatest Sages of his generation. Learning moves in both directions, and everyone has something important to contribute to the conversation.

Yakhol Me-Rosh Hodesh: The Haggadah stresses the value of combining education and experience. “The commandment [to discuss the exodus from Egypt] applies specifically to the time when matzah and maror are set before you.”

 

B. THE JOURNEY RESUMES

 

Now that we have established a proper educational framework, we return to our journey. At the last checkpoint, we were slaves pointing to our bread of affliction, longing for redemption. Each passage in the next section of the Haggadah moves us further ahead in the journey.

 

Mi-Tehillah Ovedei Avodah Zarah: We quote from the Book of Joshua:

In olden times, your forefathers—Terah, father of Abraham and father of Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and worshiped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from beyond the Euphrates and led him through the whole land of Canaan and multiplied his offspring. I gave him Isaac, and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Esau the hill country of Seir as his possession, while Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. (Joshua 24:2–4)

 

To experience the full redemption, halakhah requires us to begin the narrative with negative elements and then move to the redemption (see Pesahim 116a). However, the Haggadah surprisingly cuts the story line of this narrative in the middle of the Passover story. The very next verses read:

Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with [the wonders] that I wrought in their midst, after which I freed you—I freed your fathers—from Egypt, and you came to the Sea. But the Egyptians pursued your fathers to the Sea of Reeds with chariots and horsemen. They cried out to the Lord, and He put darkness between you and the Egyptians; then He brought the Sea upon them, and it covered them. Your own eyes saw what I did to the Egyptians. (Joshua 24:5–7)

 

Given the direct relevance of these verses to the Passover story, why are they not included in the Haggadah? It appears that the Haggadah does not cite these verses because we are not yet up to that stage in our journey. The Haggadah thus far has brought us only to Egypt.

 

Hi She-Amedah: The Haggadah again affirms the connection between our ancestors and our contemporary lives. “This promise has held true for our ancestors and for us. Not only one enemy has risen against us; but in every generation enemies rise against us to destroy us. And the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand.” The slavery and exodus are a paradigm for all later history.

 

Tzei Ve-Lammed: The midrashic expansion is based on Deuteronomy 26, the confession that a farmer would make upon bringing his first fruits:

My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. (Deuteronomy 26:5–8)

We continue our journey from our arrival in Egypt, where the passage in Joshua had left off. Through a midrashic discussion of the biblical verses, we move from Jacob’s descent into Egypt, to the growth of the family into a nation, to the slavery, and then on through the plagues and exodus. By the end of this passage we have been redeemed from Egypt.

Like the passage from Joshua 24, the Haggadah once again cuts off this biblical passage before the end of its story. The next verse reads:

He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deuteronomy 26:9)

In Temple times, Jews evidently did read that next verse (see Mishnah Pesahim 10:4).[5] However, the conceptual value of stopping the story is consistent with our experience in the Haggadah. This biblical passage as employed by the Haggadah takes us through our ancestors’ exodus from Egypt, so we have not yet arrived in the land of Israel.

 

Ribbi Yosei Ha-Gelili Omer—Dayyenu: After enumerating the plagues, the Haggadah quotes from Midrash Psalms 78, where Sages successively suggest that there were 50, 200, or even 250 plagues at the Red Sea. Psalm 78 is concerned primarily with God’s benevolent acts toward Israel, coupled with Israel’s ingratitude. Psalm 78 attempts to inspire later generations not to emulate their ancestors with this ingratitude:

 

He established a decree in Jacob, ordained a teaching in Israel, charging our fathers to make them known to their children, that a future generation might know—children yet to be born—and in turn tell their children that they might put their confidence in God, and not forget God’s great deeds, but observe His commandments, and not be like their fathers, a wayward and defiant generation, a generation whose heart was inconstant, whose spirit was not true to God. (Psalm 78:5–8)

 

Several midrashim on this Psalm magnify God’s miracles even more than in the accounts in Tanakh, including the passage incorporated in the Haggadah that multiplies the plagues at the Red Sea. From this vantage point, our ancestors were even more ungrateful to God. The Haggadah then follows this excerpt with Dayyenu to express gratitude over every step of the exodus process. The juxtaposition of these passages conveys the lesson that the psalmist and the midrashic expansions wanted us to learn.

 

In addition to expressing proper gratitude for God’s goodness, Dayyenu carries our journey forward. It picks up with the plagues and exodus—precisely where the passage we read from Deuteronomy 26 had left off. It then takes us ahead to the reception of the Torah at Sinai, to the land of Israel, and finally to the Temple: “He gave us the Torah, He led us into the land of Israel, and He built for us the chosen Temple to atone for our sins.”

 

Rabban Gamliel Hayah Omer: Now that we are in the land of Israel and standing at the Temple, we can observe the laws of Passover! We describe the Passover offering during Temple times, matzah and maror, and their significance. It also is noteworthy that the reason given for eating matzah is freedom—unlike the slavery section earlier that focused on bread of affliction (yahatz-ha lahma anya). “This matzah which we eat is…because the dough of our ancestors did not have time to leaven before the Holy One blessed be He…redeemed them suddenly.”

 

Be-Khol Dor Va-Dor—Hallel: The primary purpose of the Haggadah is completely spelled out by now. “In each generation a person is obligated to see himself as though he went out of Egypt.…For not only did the Holy One blessed be He redeem our ancestors, but He also redeemed us along with them.…” Since we have been redeemed along with our ancestors, we recite the first two chapters of the Hallel (Psalms 113–114). These Psalms likewise take us from the exodus to entry into Israel. R. Judah Loew of Prague (Maharal, c. 1520–1609) explains that we save the other half of Hallel (Psalms 115–118) for after the Grace after Meals, when we pray for our own redemption. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik adds that Psalms 113–114 consist of pure praise, befitting an account of the exodus from Egypt which already has occurred. Psalms 115–118 contain both praise and petition, relevant to our future redemption, for which we long.[6]

 

Asher Ge’alanu: Now that we have completed our journey and have chanted the Hallel thanking God for redeeming us, we conclude maggid with a blessing: “You are blessed, Lord our God…Who has redeemed us and redeemed our ancestors from Egypt and has brought us to this night to eat matzah and maror.” For the first time in the Haggadah, we place ourselves before our ancestors, since our experience has become primary. As we express gratitude to God for bringing us to this point and for giving us the commandments, we also petition for the rebuilding of the Temple and ultimate redemption.

 

THE REMAINDER OF THE SEDER: CELEBRATORY OBSERVANCE IN FREEDOM AND YEARNING FOR THE MESSIANIC REDEMPTION

 

At this point we observe the laws of Passover. Although there is no Passover offering, we eat the matzah and maror and then the festive meal (shulhan orekh). Our eating of the korekh, Hillel’s wrap of matzah, maror, and haroset together, reenacts a Temple observance (Pesahim 115a). Similarly, we use the final piece of matzah (tzafun) to symbolize the Passover offering, the last taste we should have in our mouths (Pesahim 119b).[7] By consuming the second half of the matzah from yahatz, we take from the slavery matzah and transform its other half into a symbol of freedom.

 

After the Grace after Meals (barekh), we pray for salvation from our enemies and for the messianic era. By reading the verses “shefokh hamatekha, pour out Your wrath” (Psalm 79:6–7), we express the truism that we cannot fully praise God in Hallel until we sigh from enemy oppression and recognize contemporary suffering.[8] Many communities customarily open the door at this point for Elijah the Prophet, also expressing hope for redemption. We then recite the remainder of the Hallel which focuses on our redemption, as discussed above. Some of the later songs added to nirtzah likewise express these themes of festive singing and redemption.

 

CONCLUSION

 

The Haggadah is a composite text that expanded and evolved over the centuries. The symbols, along with traditional explanations for their meanings, similarly developed over time. Our Haggadah—with its core over 1,000 years old—takes us on a remarkable journey that combines narrative and observance into an intellectual and experiential event for people of all ages and backgrounds. In this manner, we travel alongside our ancestors from freedom to slavery to redemption. We are left with a conscious recognition that although we are free and we bless God for that fact, we long for the Temple in Jerusalem. La-shanah ha-ba’ah be‑Yerushalayim, Amen.

 

NOTES

 

 

 

 

[1]Shemuel and Ze’ev Safrai write that most of the core of our Haggadah, including the Kiddush, the Four Questions, the Four Children, the midrashic readings, Rabban Gamliel, and the blessing at the end of maggid originated in the time of the Mishnah and were set by the ninth century. “This is the bread of affliction” (ha lahma anya) and “In each generation” (be-khol dor va-dor) hail from the ninth to tenth centuries. Components such as the story of the five rabbis at B’nei B’rak and Rabbi Elazar; the Midrash about the number of plagues at the Red Sea; Hallel HaGadol and Nishmat; all existed as earlier texts before their incorporation into the Haggadah. “Pour out Your wrath” (shefokh hamatekha) and the custom of hiding the afikoman are later additions. All of the above was set by the eleventh century. The only significant additions after the eleventh century are the songs at the end (Haggadat Hazal [Jerusalem: Karta, 1998], pp. 70–71).

 

[2]See Pesahim 114b; Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 473:6; 475:2.

 

[3]The symbol of the maror underwent an evolution. Joseph Tabory notes that during the Roman meal, the dipping of lettuce as a first course was the most common appetizer. By the fourth century, the Talmud ruled that the appetizer must be a different vegetable (karpas) so that the maror could be eaten for the first time as a mitzvah with a blessing (The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah: Historical Introduction, Translation, and Commentary [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2008], pp. 23–24).

In Pesahim 39a, one Sage explains that we use hasa (romaine lettuce, the talmudically preferred maror, even though five different vegetables are suitable) since God pitied (has) our ancestors. Another Sage derives additional meaning from the fact that romaine lettuce begins by tasting sweet but then leaves a bitter aftertaste. This sensory process parallels our ancestors’ coming to Egypt as nobles and their subsequent enslavement.

 

[4]Unlike most other rabbinic passages in the Haggadah which are excerpted from the Talmud and midrashic collections, this paragraph is unattested in rabbinic literature outside the Haggadah. See Joseph Tabory, JPS Commentary on the Haggadah, p. 38, for discussion of a parallel in the Tosefta.

 

[5]Cf. Joseph Tabory, JPS Commentary on the Haggadah, p. 33.

 

[6]Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Festival of Freedom: Essays on Passover and the Haggadah, ed. Joel B. Wolowelsky and Reuven Ziegler (New York: Toras HoRav Foundation, 2006), p. 105.

 

[7]The word afikoman derives from the Greek, referring to anything done at the end of a meal, such as eating dessert or playing music or revelry. This was a common after-dinner feature at Greco-Roman meals (cf. J. T. Pesahim 37d). The Sages of the Talmud understood that people needed to retain the taste of the Passover offering in their mouths. It was only in the thirteenth century that the matzah we eat at the end of the meal was called the afikoman (Joseph Tabory, JPS Commentary on the Haggadah, p. 15).

 

[8] Shemuel and Ze’ev Safrai enumerate longer lists of related verses that some medieval communities added (Haggadat Hazal, pp. 174–175).

 

Orthodox Semikha for Homosexuals?

At https://www.jta.org/2019/05/27/opinion/we-orthodox-jews-desperately-need-gay-rabbis, R. Daniel Landes explains his decision to ordain a sexually active gay Orthodox rabbi. He argues that Jewish law must be open to this change.  Below I try to present R. Landes’ argument fairly, and why in my view it cannot be accepted. 

R. Landes has made an extraordinary effort to validate the Jewish bona fides of LGBTQ+ Jews who choose to identify with Orthodoxy, he invokes the principle of nishtanah ha-tev’a, that nature has changed and Jewish religious policy must change with it. This argument, that Nature has changed, is a Tosafist [Tosafot to b’Avoda Zarah 24b] construct explaining why the Tosafot, who usually regard Talmudic aggadah/narrative to be literally true, ignore Talmudic medical practices and prescriptions.  This claim, that nature has changed, is empirically false. And Orthodox Judaism posits that God’s omniscient will is memorialized at Leviticus 18:22, whose plain sense [=peshat] rendering unambiguously outlaws the male homosexual act.

 

  1. R. Landes’ decision to ordain a homosexual rabbi has evolved after many years of counseling young people with same sex attraction. He reviews and rejects the proposed suggestions currently given by Orthodox rabbis to those with same sex attraction.  Celibacy, “reparative” therapy, and remaining “in the closet” are ultimately unworkable solutions. R. Landes explains that his decision to explore the Halakhic literature on the topic is motivated by the fact that “gay Jews are asked to meet a virtually impossible standard of behavior.”  Consequently, R. Landes strives to reformulate the Biblical norm prohibiting the male homosexual act.

R. Landes is one of the very few modern Orthodox rabbis who has invested his energy, talent, and time to teach modern Orthodox rabbis how to confront and to apply the Jewish legal tradition to our post-modern reality.  He accepts the Yeshiva Orthodox perspective that the Talmud is a unified literary trove whose laws are binding and whose descriptions must be taken to be true. When Talmudic “facts” conflict with the observed  world, [a] we may not claim that the Rabbinic descriptions are flawed—because this ideological narrative invests, by dint of sanctity, its rabbinic elite, designated as gedolim, or “great ones,” with implicit infallibility and virtual, sovereign immunity [see https://www.yeshiva.org.il/wiki/index.php?title=%D7%94%D7%A9%D7%AA%D7%A0%D7%95%D7%AA_%D7%94%D7%98%D7%91%D7%A2%D7%99%D7%9D],  [b] instead these great rabbis posit that is Nature that has changed, opening the door to reconsidering current Halakhic policy.   What in fact has changed is what the human understanding of Nature actually is. R. Landes invokes this post-Talmudic concept, that Nature has changed, to reconsider the classical Orthodox Jewish approach to homosexuality.  After all, it is easier for this iteration of Orthodoxy to claim that Nature changes because God’s perfect law is neither changeable nor replaceable.  What has changed is secular society’s toleration, acceptance, and normalization of sexual license in general and homosexuality in particular. For fundamentalist secularists, one’s failure to approve of an individual’s right to choose, define, and act upon their chosen sexual identity renders that person a “homophobe,” a morally deficient, judgmental bigot whose moral worldview is unworthy of consideration. For R. Landes, the modern, secular, Progressive perspective is part of the contemporary collective conscience and moral consciousness. Jewish Law must accept and accommodate this new reality. However, the fact is that Nature did not change; what  has changed is the popular moral consensus. Maimonides explains [Introduction to the Yad compendium]  that the Oral Torah norms, the taqannot [“to do” enactments  that generate commandment blessings],  gezeirot [do “not do” ‘decrees’], and hanhagot [customary practices, edicts, and by-laws that, although legally obliging, do not generate commandment blessings] are Judaism’s only mandatory Rabbinic norms. I have found no precedent in the Halakhic literature that authorizes male homosexual behavior.  Rabbinic opinions, descriptions, or predilections [a] are not legislative acts and therefore [b] are not legally binding. In our observed experience, Nature has not changed and a sincere Orthodox commitment affirms that God’s Torah does not change unless the Law itself authorizes particular changes in practice or usage.   While we may not deny the Law, changing times may require alternative strategies or responses when confronting current challenges of religious non-compliance.  We are not obliged to insult sinners. We do not protest dancing and clapping on Simhat Torah because we would rather Jews sin in ignorance than knowingly rebel against the Rabbinic law that forbids clapping and dancing on Jewish holy days [bBetsa 30a]. The Torah clearly and explicitly outlaws the male homosexual act [at Leviticus 18:22]. One is permitted to struggle, complain, and express frustration with existential, ethical, and religious challenges.  According to pBerachot 7:3, Jeremiah defied the Great Rabbis’ ruling requiring that God be praised as “awesome” because God’s awe is only immediately experienced in the Temple, which at that time was in ruins, and Daniel refused to praise God as being “mighty” because Judah’s population was placed in chains and led into exile and God failed to intervene.  Job was not chastised by God for protesting his undeserved suffering [Job 42:7]. But the Torah’s most essential  directive is that faithful compliance with its norms is required. Genesis 1:3 reads “and God commanded, ‘light, be!’” The  Semitic root “amr” not only means “say.” In Aramaic, Arabic, and as here, in BiblicalHebrew, as in Psalms 33:8. “command” is the more appropriate rendering. The response is va-yehi or, “Light is,” literally “came into being.” This is the Torah covenant’s root metaphor, the Narrative that both informs and animates the Nomos, which are the prescriptive norms of the Torah’s legal order, to borrow the idiom of the late Robert Cover. One must not misrepresent the Torah’s “face” [bSanhedrin 99a], the Torah’s normative content as it stands, even and especially if we are uncomfortable with its prescriptions.  Like every legal order, Halakhah possesses what H.L.A. Hart calls “rules of recognition,” those secondary rules that determine whether a suggested legal norm is valid, or consistent with the Halakhic legal order. It is permitted to be frustrated with what Halakhah requires; what is essential is compliance. The Orthodox rabbi’s task is to interpret the Law as it stands, not to reformulate or reconstruct the Law in order to accommodate alien ideologies, social constructions of reality, or political agendas. By approving homosexual behavior, one makes peace with a secular ethos of sexual permissiveness, allowing the Progressive ideology to supersede the orthodoxy encoded in the canonical Torah to library. While allowing for flexibility in emergencies, or ad hoc hora’at sha’ah rulings [Maimonides, Mamrim 2:4], there is neither precedent nor place for this leniency when dealing with murder, idolatry, or sexual violations.

  1. If the Torah is taken seriously, one defers to the Torah’s Law as it is manifest in the most reasonable, plain sense reading of its canonical documents [Maimonides, Introduction to the Yad compendium].  The male homosexual act is an issur kareit [mKereitot 1:1]. The violations listed in this Mishnah are the most serious offenses in the Halakhic order.  The male homosexual act is also an instance of ‘arayyot, a sexual violation for which there is little room for flexibility. [That the homosexual act is a violation of ‘arayyot is confirmed by pSanhedrin 7  25:1. Thanks go to my learned son, R. Joshua  Yuter, for this reference].

  2.  I do concur with R. Landes that LGBTQ+ Jews need not  be banished from the Jewish community.  They should be treated like any other inconsistently observant Jew. God alone is their Judge, nobody else is authorized to judge them until they stand in their place [mAvot 2:4], which cannot be done. We are obliged to love and embrace other Jews, without condition. Orthodox affiliating LGBTQ+ individuals should be able to attend synagogues, without insult, count in minyan, without question, and circumcise their sons, without hesitation. 

  3. R. Landes’ reasons for normalizing the male homosexual act are that [a] people who are wired with same sex attraction were created by God with that wiring, [b] our understanding of nature has indeed changed, [c] modern people no longer stigmatize homosexual behavior or for that matter, non- marital, recreational sex, and [d] morally sensitive moderns are unable to believe in a perfect God Who creates people with urges that may not be satisfied with God’s approval.

  4. R. Landes applies the doctrine of ones, or coercionaccording to which a person is not considered culpable if she/he was compelled to commit an illegal act.  A moral agent must make a decision to commit an offense.  Since homosexuals are genetically wired and programmed to same sex attraction, they are compelled by their biology to behave as they do. Consequently, it is improper to condemn these individuals since they areprogrammed by their biology to behave in the way they do and it is likewise unjust to expel LGBTQ+’s from the Orthodox community.  R. Landes also argues that a gay rabbi is uniquely qualified to experience the tension, empathize, and minister to LGBTQ+ Jews who regard Orthodoxy to be their preferred spiritual address. Nonetheless,  R. Landes’ argument remains problematic. 

  5. The Torah posits that the human being is able to overcome one’s instincts, attitudes, and appetites and to choose to follow the Law. According to Jewish Tradition, the human person possesses both the yester ha- tov and yester ha-r’a, the impulse for doing good and the “evil” impulse of brute animal instinct for realizing immediate pleasure.  The Torah holds humankind accountable for its choices because God has endowed humans free will. God reminds Cain that desire is no excuse for improper behavioral choices [Gen. 4:7].  The argument from ones, that the homosexual is compelled to act in a specific way is actually addressed in the Oral Torah canon.  While negative, i.e. “do not do” commandments, are suspended when a Jewish life is in danger, this dispensation does not apply to the prohibitions regarding murder, serving other gods in any way or the God of Israel in an unauthorized fashion [the ‘avodah zarah idiom is mistranslated as “idolatry,” which is ‘avodah zarah but not its  only manifestation], and sins of a sexual nature [bPesahim 25a-b].  Here, R. Landes’ argument from ones, the compulsive force of sexual desire, is rejected by the Oral Torah norm.  Are we to also endorse license for heterosexual sex addiction? What is lacking is not the ability to resist improper behavior; what is lacking is the will.

  6. R. Landes’ proposed prescription, which while well intentioned, remains unacceptable. First, the entire Torah tradition forbids the male homosexual act, current apologetic casuistry notwithstanding. There is not even a rejected minority view on the subject in support of R. Landes’ claim.  To be authentically “Modern Orthodox,” this community must be Orthodox first and “modern” second. When conflicts arise between the dogmas of the current popular, secular, moral consensus and an uncontested, unambiguous Torah law, the Orthodox Jew of every stripe is obliged to affirm the Torah Law as it stands. To do otherwise makes humans the de facto legislators of the Law.  It is one matter to claim that the law is difficult to observe, and new strategies are needed to deal with contemporary challenges. For example, we are not really required to sit shiv’a [the seven day mourning period which begins after burial] for a child who intermarries because the Oral Law does not require that response and we ought to keep our doors open to the possibility of teshuva, a return to Jewish religious life. What we ought to do when dealing with Orthodox affiliating homosexuals is to be gentle, supportive, and avoid certain unresolvable, unhelpful, dead-end conversations.  What Orthodox Jewry may not do is to overrule or nullify any uncontested Torah Law, to declare an act that the Torah forbids to be permitted. If Orthodoxy permits what the Torah forbids, it undermines its own bona fides.  R. Landes’ revered teacher, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, viewed the Binding of Isaac, the ‘Aqeida, as the archetypal test [See https://www.refuathanefesh.org/the-darker-side-of-the-akeida/].  Humans are often challenged to act heroically, like Abraham’s heroic response to God’s call to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on Mt. Moriah.

  7.  LGBTQ+ Jews also encounter Aqeidah-like challenges. There is only One Judge who has the right to judge humankind as one judge [mAvot 4:8]. Sometimes we do not have satisfying answers to excruciatingly difficult questions.  While valuing R. Landes’ inclusivist instinct, I also fear that his approach unintentionally relativizes the Torah by permitting what it clearly forbids.  By ordaining an Orthodox rabbi, who teaches by example as well as word, who is not committed to living his life according to Orthodox Halakhah, R. Landes presents male homosexuality as Halakhically acceptable. Having seen the play A Chorus Line and having studied Plato’s Symposium, I understood these two works to portray homosexuality to be morally and socially normative.  This is not the Torah’s perspective. The instant the Torah becomes subject to finite, human judgment and amendment, it is no longer the Torah that is “the word of the LORD” [Isaiah 2:3].  If we ordain a sexually active gay “Orthodox” rabbi, we create a theological oxymoron. An Orthodox rabbi cannot affirm the Torah while regularly and knowingly performing an act that Torah law forbids. When the Torah ethic conflicts with the popular, secular consensus, the astute Orthodox rabbi will distinguish between historical habit, which is subject to change at the discretion of the local rabbi, and the unambiguous Written and Oral Law statute, which is not subject to review.

  8. Honest people can disagree without defaming the dissenter as “evil,” “homophobe,” or “pervert.” The current conundrum is how to accommodate Orthodox affiliating and affirming  LGBTQ+’s and remain honest to God and Torah compliance. 

Progressive Orthodoxy’s identity is being tested here. Is this Orthodoxy’s ultimate benchmark Torah law or the Progressive egalitarian ideal? When Progressive ideology conflicts with Torah law, which world view will prevail?    Oral Torah Orthodoxy is grounded in a shared communal commitment to the heftsa of a shared, normative library, and not the charismatic intuition of any gavra, or finite, mortal human.

  1. I concur with R. Landes that LGBTQ+ Jews should be welcome in the Orthodox community.  They are searching for authenticity, and are apparently prepared and willing to live with contradictions.  The Reform and Conservative streams have accepted homosexual behavior to be Jewishly normative, and are suffering a demographic implosion because they are perceived to be standing for nothing more than enrolling billing units to pay their professionals’ salaries.  Without an authentic message to sell, there will not be very many buyers for the religious product marketed for sale. Torah law may never be presented to be morally inadequate, because to do so leaves ultimate truths in the possession of finite mortals with political power and powerful egos, which are hardly sources of divine truth.  A formalist legal reading of Halakhah asks “what are the religious norms and narratives embodied in the Torah canon,” and will occasionally side with the Right [non-chauvinist patriotism is religiously healthy and owning private property is permitted] and sometimes will adopt positions that are identified with the Left [universal health care and education really are Halakhic entitlements].   There may be more than one legitimate Halakhic approach to many issues, but the Oral Torah values provide the normative benchmarks of Jewish propriety.

  2. How should Orthodox Jews to respond to R. Landes’ decision to ordain a sexually active homosexual male?  One common Orthodox reflex is to view any error as heresy. After all, for this Orthodoxy, Jewish Law is guided by the divinely inspired intuition of Great Rabbis, whose presumed greatness precludes assessment on the part of rabbis who lack their charisma and greatness.   However, Modern Orthodoxy’s philological approach to Jewish Law discovered a category called “error” [Hoshen Mishpat 25 and 34].   When Rabbi Emanuel Rackman suggested that modern women prefer to be spinsters than to remain unhappily married, against the hazaqah, or presumptive descriptive  reality proclaimed by Resh Laqish [bQeddushin 41a], R.  Joseph Soloveitchik suggested that R. Rackman was saying heretical words because he dared to suggest a  Halakhic ruling, one that questioned the accuracy of the Sages’ observation, that  a Hazaqah, an empirical doubt so remote that the Law assigns to it the status of certainty, might be subject to change. R. Rackman was not held to be a great Oral Torah sage who would, to this view, have a right to an opinion regarding the legal status of Hazaqah. A more appropriate response to R. Rackman’s claim would be “the course you propose appears to contradict these particular Oral Torah norms.  Please clarify.”  And if the Tosafot may claim that nature changed, without demonstration, R. Rackman’s claim that social conventions do change sounds reasonable. Jurisprudentially, R. Rackman’s position  is not without merit.  Jewry must obey Talmudic legislation, which is prescriptive.  The Hazaqot of the Sages refer to their reality as they saw it; these statements are descriptive observations, not legal norms, which are prescriptive “ought to do” statements. Hazaqot are findings regarding a discovered reality, or a narrative description of the reality to which the Law’s prescriptions are to be applied. If Rabbinic narratives were legally binding, we would be obliged to apply Talmudic medicine today. In other words, one must demonstrate and not merely proclaim that Hazaqot are not subject to change. They are human observations, not legislated, legal norms. The rabbis are only able to see reality with the eyes that they have [bSanhedrin 6b  and elsewhere].

  3. While R. Landes’ reasoning is unconvincing, his argument merits conversation if only because he forces the conversation to take the pain, pathos, and passion of living people into account when dealing with this vexing issue. Mainstream Orthodoxy must explain why R. Landes’ position is unacceptable; it may not argue that only its own Great Rabbis have the right to express a defensible, reasoned opinion because Talmudic Law locates normativity in the plain sense of the canonical Talmudic text, not in the charisma, intuition, office, or reputation of the canonical person.  It is the plenum of the Sanhedrin, not the assumed greatness of its individual members, that is legally binding [bSanhedrin 14b, ha-maqom goreim]. Those who agree with R. Landes’ decision must argue their case on its merits, and not dismiss as bigots those who believe that acting on male to male sex attraction violates Jewish Law.  Demeaning dissenters as “homophobes” is also out of order. Hoshen Mishpat 34 teaches that those who disagree have a right to be wrong, that their honestly held incorrect positions do not nullify their  Halakhic bona fides. By focusing on a formalist reading of the Oral Torah canon, the Orthodox Right will come to recognize that Jewish Law only forbids what by statute is forbidden [Beit Yosef, Yoreh De’ah 1:1] and therefore innovation per se cannot be forbidden. Not seeing an act being performed may not be taken as evidence that the act may not be performed [m’Eduyyot 2:2].  And the Orthodox Left must discover and articulate where its own defining limits are located and unconditionally affirm Orthodoxy’s defining red lines.  Unlike Elish’a b. Abuyah, who “severed [his ties to the Torah tree of life’s] roots [bHagigah 14b] abandoning the Halakhic life, and by dint of his apostasy, was denied the rabbinic honorific, R. Hillel denied the future coming of the Messiah ,  arguing that Israel’s messianic chit was spent during the time of Hezekiah   [b. Sanhedrin 98b], and his opinion, but not he, was rejected. Elisha rejected the Torah system, and the community rejected him. Hillel made a mistake, but he remained faithful to the Torah system.

  4.  The test to which “Liberal” Orthodoxy will be put—and judged—will be determined by the tone of its of its argument. Will its discussions be brutal or collegial? Will it try to persuade or will it resort to name-calling, derision, and intimidation? Will the public Orthodox conversation increase contention or peace in the Jewish world? Jewish law   requires that people be judged as generously as possible [mAvot 1:6 and Avot 6:6]. If Orthodoxy judges others ungenerously, the Righteous Judge will rightly judge Orthodoxy in the way it judged others [mSota 1:7].

  5. My suggestion is that each party should stake its claim, and neither side should try to destroy the other.  At stake is the status of the Talmid Hakham, who by reflex advances peace and good willIf the LGBTQ+ community expects  any accommodation from institutional Orthodoxy, it cannot demand that Orthodoxy deny its first principles, either.  It is one thing to request that children of homosexuals be enrolled in an Orthodox day school and quite another to demand that a Torah norm be ignored or abolished. Questioning the moral probity of those who do not accept homosexual rabbis is an ironic if not coercive gambit for those who appeal to “pluralism.”   Tolerance is either a two way street or it is a dead end.   By impugning the Jewish integrity of Orthodox rabbis who are bound by their honest to God reading of the Torah canon, the LGBTQ+’s who are drawn to Orthodoxy will alienate their target audience. Coercion is out of place whether it is done by Right or Left.   Orthodoxy must learn to disagree with empathy and generosity; we should seek accommodation when possible rather than demand capitulation from dissidents. “The ways of Torah are pleasant, and all its paths are peaceful [Proverbs 3:17].” This too is Torah.

Israel Should Offer its Own Peace Plan

An Israeli Peace Plan?

by Rabbi Marc D. Angel

(This op ed appears in the Jerusalem Post, March 25, 2024)

As Israel is in the midst of a bitter war, it is difficult to be thinking about a peace plan. The government of Israel is adamantly opposed to the American push for a Palestinian State. This is seen as a reward for terrorism and a betrayal of the principle of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Agreed.

But the status quo is obviously not satisfactory, not for Israel and not for the Palestinians. Much of the world, even those countries most friendly to Israel, want to see an end to the endless conflicts in the region. The longer the war goes, the greater is the world's pressure to recognize a Palestinian State. 

What if Israel came forth with a realistic peace plan of its own? What if Israel would not only agree to a Palestinian State but would be the first to recognize it? What if Israel, instead of constantly being seen as an obstruction to peace, was actually the foremost promoter of a peace plan?

The precondition of such a plan would be that Israel will only negotiate with Palestinian leadership that fully recognizes Israel’s right to exist; that commits itself to maintaining peaceful relations with Israel; that makes a concerted effort to eliminate anti-Israel and anti-Jewish propaganda, educational material. In short, Israel should very much want a peaceful neighbor free of Hamas and Hamas-like ideologies.

If the United States and its Arab allies could find and encourage such a Palestinian leadership, this would be a great blessing to Israel and the Palestinians. If Israel would produce a peace plan that would put the onus on Palestinians to agree to peace, this would be a dramatic step forward.

We pray that Israel’s current war with Hamas will end with as great a victory as possible for Israel. The victory must be not only military, but also political and diplomatic. The amazing courage and sacrifices of Tsahal are awe-inspiring. Their victory on the battlefield should be followed by victories for Israel in the areas of diplomacy and politics.

Yes, it seems highly unrealistic to find a congenial Palestinian leadership able and willing to negotiate seriously with Israel. It also seems highly unrealistic for the current Israeli government even to consider a peace gesture. But moving forward will require visionary and courageous leadership. It is easy to dismiss peace talk as being in the realm of fantasy.

 David Ben Gurion is reported to have told his advisors: “We don’t need experts to tell us it’s impossible; we need experts to tell us how to achieve the impossible.” Israel has always been able to achieve the impossible in the past: it can strive to do so now.

         

CELEBRATING RABBI HAYYIM ANGEL'S 10TH ANNIVERSARY AS NATIONAL SCHOLAR OF OUR INSTITUTE

           CELEBRATING RABBI HAYYIM ANGEL’S 10TH ANNIVERSRY

       AS NATIONAL SCHOLAR OF THE INSTITUTE FOR JEWISH IDEAS AND IDEALS

 

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.

In celebration of his 10th anniversary with our Institute, the autumn 2024 issue of Conversations will include a collection of his articles.  We invite you to join in honoring Rabbi Hayyim Angel by contributing to the Scroll of Honor that will be included in this issue of Conversations.

For inclusion in the Scroll of Honor, contributions are due no later than May 1, 2024. Checks should be mailed to Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, 2 West 70th Street, New York, NY 10023. You may contribute on our website jewishideas.org, and then let us know that the donation is in honor of Rabbi Hayyim Angel by emailing us at [email protected]

 

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Higher Education and Jewish Education: Knowledge is Power

        About a decade ago, I noticed a blog post detailing harassment of Jewish students at an elite Ivy League women's college.  Duty bound, I forwarded the story to dear friend, a long time alumnus of that school. At first, she was disbelieving.  In time, she became irritated, then angry. Could this be the college she had attended?  Yet what then seemed shocking, now seems almost routine.  It has become common for Jewish students attending American institutions of high education to feel bullied, threatened, intimidated or silenced.  What should be done?  What can be done? 

     The current manifestation of anti-Jewish bias on American campuses is not the traditional disdain for Jews that had existed in higher education in an earlier time.  Jewish quotas at elite educational institutions before World War II were rooted in a kind of country club anti-Jewish animus.  Jews were pictured as pushy, foreign, untrustworthy or strangely alien.  Their achievements and tenacity threatened the good-old-boy Protestant, white upper class ruling establishment.   Hence, restrictions on the numbers of Jews admitted to ivy league colleges were often maintained and sometimes even openly pronounced.  This prejudiced attitude toward Jews proved increasingly difficult to retain given the political progress toward increasing equality and justice evidenced in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. Fortunately, this form of anti-Jewish prejudice has become a relic of the past.

     Today's higher education anti-Jewish animus is of a different stripe. It is fueled by the claim of injustice and oppression.  That claim--sometimes subtle and sometimes overt--resounds all over campus.  Classrooms have been increasingly dominated by professors who dogmatically condemn Israel (and usually only Israel, or only Israel and the United States).  Although reasonable people can dispute the extent of overlap between anti-Israel and anti-Jewish bias, these attitudes are most certainly far more than distant cousins.  Meanwhile, Pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli student groups such as BDS set the tone and fuel the political energy for campus politics.  They are supported by top and often middle-level administrators, whose careers to some extent depend upon their evident and continuous commitment to social justice.

    For Jewish students, it sometimes appears that there is no place to hide.  Hillel and Chabad can provide sanctuaries, but these shelters are often insufficient to withstand the political storm outside. Jewish community is an affirmative response to opposition and harassment, but the Jewish establishment often do not always speak forcefully or directly enough to the accusation that Jews embody or support unjust causes.  The question is: what else can be done to support the Jewish student who feels marginalized or attacked?   

     It is time, I suggest, for Jewish educators to help formulate a response to the charges of injustice and oppression frequently hurled against Jewish college students.  These students need to possess a knowledge of the facts that accurately defines contemporary Jewish reality. The truth about how and where Jews live today--in Israel, in the United States and in the various nations of the world--constitutes essential present and past knowledge necessary to counter the narrative that Jews are responsible for the uniquely predatory and repressive actions of the world's single Jewish state.  

     Hebrew school education about Jews in the contemporary world most often focuses on two broad themes.  The tragedy of the Holocaust is almost always taught and is often a centerpiece.  Jewish catastrophe, unfortunately, has been a recurrent Jewish concern throughout history.  The Holocaust raised the possibility of the eradication of Jewish life worldwide. The questions associated with it are endless.  What malevolency can explain such a possibility?  Why did it happen?  Why was more not done to resist it?  And how can an educator communicate to students of any age the incommunicable?

    A second theme of Jewish education about today's world has to do with the founding and flourishing of Israel.  The event's importance to Jewish life is self-evident. A possible end to the Diaspora is no small accomplishment.  Furthermore, there are other reasons to celebrate this achievement.  Israel's founding was a significant contributor to many Jews' sense of identity and pride worldwide.  If the Holocaust made Jews victims by turning them into corpses, Israel's founding, survival and continuous independence constitutes an enduring source of comfort and satisfaction for many Jews today.

       Unfortunately, these defining events in Jewish history prove largely irrelevant to the political battles waged upon today's campuses.  Said more precisely, the Holocaust and Israel's founding do not provide the Jewish student sufficient self-knowledge and factual awareness to equip them to withstand the withering opposition they often encounter.  Jewish students today gain little sympathy because of the Holocaust and past victimhood their people once experienced.  For this generation of students (both Jewish and non-Jewish) who live their lives so much in the present, even the appropriate sense of that horror has been largely lost. For that reason, a person's understanding and relationship to the Holocaust today no longer constitutes a basic element of most Jewish students' sense of self-identity, 

     Regarding the founding and prospering of Israel, the situation is even worse.  Israel may have been greatly admired in its founding but now that admiration is far from universal. As Joshua Muravchik put it in a well-known book title, with the passage of time David somehow became Goliath.   With growing power has come increased censure.  Condemnation of Israel has become the focal point of much modern day anti-Judaism, particularly on college campuses.  Increasingly, Jews are not identified with the positive achievements of a small, determined democratic nation but rather with an imperialist, racist state that deserves condemnation. In short, Jews are accused of supporting and governing a fundamentally immoral country.

    That Jews have been the unique object of total extermination, or that Israel was founded on noble ideals, does not do much to address or settle the current rounds of anti-Israeli criticism. The essence of that criticism is reflected in the application of a phrase repeated endlessly today.  The phrase is diversity, inclusion and equity. The mantra is repeated endlessly by politicians, by human resource department heads of major corporations and by big media.  Its effect is almost hypnotic. It is a shorthand formulation of how one achieves egalitarian justice.  The inclusive and diverse workplace is the ideal workplace.  The nation that has achieved true diversity and inclusion is both tolerant and fair.  This term even has replaced the traditional American standard for good government.  As stated in the Declaration of Independence, legitimate government had traditionally been defined as an entity that secures citizens' rights and governs according to their consent.  Essentially, it proclaims that citizens are free to make their way in the world and pursue their own course and their own happiness. The new standard is more radical, often prescribing outcomes rather than liberties.  Also, it is important to recognize that diversity, inclusion and equity are both goals and standards.  Their achievement is important, perhaps necessary. Governments and organizations must be held accountable.

     Admittedly, such standards are controversial and open to all sorts of objections.  But that is a different set of arguments deserving extended consideration elsewhere.  For now, the important point to realize is that this mindset has been taught to this generation of college students.  Increasingly, it has become the lens through which they evaluate social reality.  When looking at an Israel governed and supported by Jews, many will inevitably ask: Is it diverse?  Is it inclusive?  Does the society produce equitable results for all its citizens?  In other words, should I support or oppose it? A good number of these students will not be hard core opponents of the Jewish state.  Rather, they are likely to be open-minded and genuinely undecided, asking questions and seeking answers. Jews--and Jewish students-- must be better prepared to engage them.  The stakes are high.

     Examining Israel and contemporary Jewish life worldwide from this perspective will, I think, persuasively and objectively refute many of the harshest charges levied against Israel while correcting misperceptions about Jews and about Israel's moral status in the world.  It is important to understand to the extent such a teaching will supplement--rather than replace--different peoples' rationales for Israel's legitimacy and for protecting the fundamental human rights of Jews everywhere.  Nothing in this educational approach necessarily contradicts or negates deeply held positive beliefs about Israel or Jews.  One can still believe that Jews' claim to Israel is divinely ordained or historically determined. Or, alternatively, a person can still defend Israel's founding and policies according to the precepts of international law. Nor is the conviction that Jews everywhere are entitled to fundamental rights and decent treatment undermined by applying broad applied diversity and inclusion standards. As long as equity is understood as fundamental fairness, and not strict numerical representation, any diversity and inclusion discussion should prove non-threatening.

    The obvious advantage of this sort of education is that it arms Jewish students in their confrontation with campus critics.  But there is another, more subtle benefit to be gained from such an educational approach.  The study of diversity and inclusion--in Israel and around the world--is rooted in practice.  It focuses upon what nations actually do and how people live and have lived and how they have been treated.  What can we expect and observe about how diversity and inclusion actually functions in the world? This real world emphasis avoids a common failure of much academic theory, which tends to adopt  utopian standards and programs and then selectively apply them to disfavored policies or nations. 

     Finally, a word about definitions.  The, discussion of diversity and inclusiveness are here couched in their most popular and appealing sense (as they seem to an idealistic student).  Diversity simply means being understanding of cultural, racial and other differences.  It suggests, in other words, that a person is open, non-prejudiced and tolerant.  Inclusion implies that no one is to be denied respect or opportunity. Equity, as we already noted, means fairness and due process. Therefore, American law and politics equity  often is taken to mean the strict representation of groups regarding the distribution of rewards (and penalties). That is not the way the term is used here. 

    We are also concerned that these terms, once so defined, be applied consistently, holding all nations and peoples to similar standards.  Such a requirement is important because of the emotional and seemingly semi- hypnotic response yielded by these ideas. Fashioned into a negative critique applied against the Jewish state, these terms can take the form of a radical indictment.  When this occurs, Israel stands accused of imperialism, apartheid, racial and religious bigotry and sometimes even genocide.  These are among the most grievous violations of the diversity, inclusion and equity standard imaginable.  BDS and related organizations repeat such charges endlessly and these accusations are today commonly echoed on college campuses. 

     Jewish education needs to address this critique head on, before Jewish students pursue higher education.  So far, this has not been done effectively.  What is required is a curriculum, or perhaps at least a class, that addresses these concerns by describing the ways Jews actually live in the world today.  Their actions and practices need to be seen in an international and historical context.  And, of course, as was previously noted, consistent moral standards need to be applied. 

     What would such a course of study look like?  No doubt, its creation represents a challenge to leading Jewish educators.  What follows is one possible formulation. It represents a very brief and sketchy outline of what such an education might look like:

Course of Study: Diversity, Inclusion and Judaism: Then and Now

Part I: Overview.  Three points need to be made here.  First, terms like diversity and inclusion are contemporary reformulations of traditionally important concepts in western thought and within Judaism, namely  the equal dignity of all human beings.  Second, while often proclaimed, the actual achievement of these goals throughout history has proven elusive.  Failure has been the rule, success the exception.   Third, Jews have suffered particularly because of this failure.  Anti-Judaism (i. e.. anti-Semitism) remains an enduring legacy. As Robert Goldwin has written, "Jews had suffered persecution almost everywhere in the world for Millennia."  Continuing, he observes, "they have been beaten, tortured, murdered, and hounded from country to country and even from continent to continent."

Part II: Jews in the United States. First, demographically and statistically, what do we know about Jews and contemporary Jewish life in America?  What (geographic, cultural, political , etc.) differences and similarities characterize the lives of Jewish citizens (e. g. Reform, Orthodox and secular Jews)?  What about the relationship between Jews and non-Jews? (The issue of assimilation could be considered here).  Finally, what social, economic or political trends are today noteworthy ? (The current spate of attacks on Jews might be mentioned).

     Second, what is the legal and political structure of the United States in respect to Jews? At the time of the Constitution's adoption, Jewish life in the states was surprisingly tolerant by contemporary-worldwide standards.  Yet Jews (and interestingly Catholics in Protestant states and Protestants in Catholic states) were not treated equally at the time of the Constitution's writing.  In many, there existed state churches, religious tests and other discriminatory practices. By contrast, the United States Constitution prohibited such religious oaths in the newly created government, a remarkable but much overlooked guarantee protecting freedom of conscience. In time, the two religion clauses of the First Amendment also became important protections of the right of Jews in the United States to practice their religion.

Part III: Jews in Israel. The creation of the modern state of Israel needs to be described.  Also the ethnic, racial and ethnic (and even religious) differences among Israeli Jews need to be explained.  Particular emphasis should be placed between the different Mizrahi/Sephardic and West European origins of the Israeli people.  Jewish emigration--especially from Russia and Ethiopia--might be highlighted.  Various religious movements among practicing Jews and secular Jews will also need to be recounted.  This diversity within Judaism and among Jews points to a different kind of diversity: that between Jews and non-Jews who are Israeli citizens.  Most predominantly, these include Christians, Druze and Arab Muslims.  This two part analysis should refute the too popular stereotype that Israel is a monolithic nation.  Rather, pointing to the multiple diversities that characterize Israel today raises the following question: given this great amount of diversity, how does a successful nation-state like Israel try to provide for inclusion?  Contemporary issues and challenges could be discussed and analyzed here.

   Next, there exists the need to the explain Israel's political and legal system and structure as a continuing effort to reconcile diversity and inclusion --in other words, to attempt the creation of a single community out of its many disparate parts.  Also this would be an appropriate place to describe and analyze the recent debate within Israel regarding the appropriateness of declaring itself to be a Jewish state.

Part IV: Jews in Arab Lands.  The number of Jews living in Middle Eastern Arab land has declined precipitously mid-twentieth century.  In some nations, almost all traces of Jews and Judaism have been eradicated, a phenomenon explained in detail by authors such as Bernard Lewis and Lyn Julius.  The contrast between the Israeli attempt to accommodate and integrate its Arab population and these Arab states' persecution of their Jewish residents is striking. The difference is highly significant and has been underappreciated, particularly by Jewish students.  An interesting example is what is now essentially a Jewish-free Egypt and the collapse of political influence and sheer numbers during the 20th century. 

   A short examination of why this happened--particularly an analysis of social, political and religious influences within Arab Middle East nations--could help explain how and why Jewish life and influence vanished from many of these countries. 

Part V: Jews in European Nations.  The pre and post Holocaust history of the treatment of Jewish populations in various European nations help provide a more rounded and complete picture of Jews' battle for respect and inclusion--first in a Christian society and then in the modern secular state.   Special emphasis upon England, Germany and France should be given.  Social and economic influences prove particularly important.  The resurgence of left and right wing anti-Judaism today should be pointed out.  Governmental and legal responses (such as the passage of hate crime legislation) could be explained and examined.

Part VI: Jews Elsewhere: Here there is room for a variety of Jewish experiences throughout the world.  For example, the Jewish immigration to Shanghai might be contrasted with the history of Jews in Ethiopia to give some idea of the rich and diverse history of Jews throughout the world and through time.  Although such a topic may seem remote to American students, there exists a wealth of information and research that can serve as a basis for an intelligent and illuminating discussion of the many variants of Jewish life.

Part VII:  What is a Jew? Even the question of who is Jewish is a profound and perplexing.  What is a Jew asked Rabbi Morris Kertzer some seventy years ago, hardly raising a new question. Is Judaism primarily a matter of birth?   If so, what or who counts?  Is having a Jewish mother or at least one Jewish parent essential?  If one chooses to consider oneself Jewish, is it merely a matter of self-definition or must the affiliation be formalized.  If so, how?  Who exactly are the Jews?  Certainly not a race.  But perhaps, to some extent, one or several ethnic identities.  Or maybe what is special about Jews is that they so strongly identify with the land (Israel)?  Could it be that they are a people?  If so, what constitutes their peoplehood?  Is it shared historical experiences or shared books?  Or is it a belief in a single God or perhaps in revelation itself?  If so, what do we make of those who declare themselves Jewish atheists? Was Spinoza really a Jewish thinker?  What about Karl Marx? Is Woody Allen a Jewish comedian? What is significant about this question of Jewish identity is its complexity.  Its many nuances speak to an important kind of diversity within Jewish thought itself.  And it stands in sharp contrast to the recurrent anti-Jewish caricature of "The Jew".  

    This vile image of the Jew--or something akin to it--has not gone away in our time.  Its strangest--and perhaps one of its most frightening  aspects--is its emergence full blown on American college campuses.  The evil Jew-- manifested most fully by allegedly imperialist, racist, colonial Israel, has today become little more than a vile campus cliché. Many older American Jews find the situation shocking.  Most Jewish students--to the extent they embrace their identity--are woefully unprepared to confront this challenge. That needs to change.  It is both a challenge and a task for Jewish education and Jewish educators.   Presented for your consideration above is a bare outline of what such an effort might look like. It is a small first step.  But, I hope, it is a step forward.

 

 

 

    

 

   

     

    

 

 

 

   

    

    

    

 

    

 

Is the American Dream Imploding?

Is the American Dream Imploding?

by Rabbi Marc D. Angel

(This article appears in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, March 13, 2024

 

My middle name is Dwight.

That name symbolizes a great American story.

My grandparents, born in Turkey and the island of Rhodes, arrived in the United States in the first decades of the 20th century. They settled in Seattle, Washington, in the emerging community of Judeo-Spanish-speaking Sephardic Jews.

My mother’s father was a barber. My father’s father had a shoe shine stand. They arrived in America with little money, little formal education, but great courage and hope. They left impoverished communities in the old world to raise their families in the land of freedom and opportunity.

Like most immigrants of that time, my grandparents wanted their families to adapt to America. Their children attended public school and grew up as a transition generation between the old world and the new. My generation were full-blooded Americans.

I was born in July 1945 and named after my maternal grandfather Marco Romey. But my mother added a middle name, Dwight, after General Dwight David Eisenhower. I was named after an American hero. I was an organic part of American life.

In school, we daily pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States. We learned about Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln. They were our forefathers. Our relatives served in the American military. Our mothers and aunts knitted clothes for American soldiers. We were in America not as guests but as equal members of society,

By my generation, almost all the grandchildren of immigrants, were well educated, hard-working and sincere believers in the American Dream. We were better educated and more affluent than our grandparents — exactly as they had hoped would happen. Our goal was to be constructive members of society and to contribute to the ongoing flourishing of America.

The virtues of America are often under-appreciated while the sins of America are highlighted and exaggerated. America is undergoing a spiritual, social and political implosion. It has become difficult to feel that we are “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” 

With our children and grandchildren, we thought that the American Dream would continue to thrive and expand. But it seems that American society is increasingly marred by antisemitism, racism and violence. The virus of hatred has infected political life, universities and businesses. The virtues of America are often under-appreciated while the sins of America are highlighted and exaggerated. America is undergoing a spiritual, social and political implosion. It has become difficult to feel that we are “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” The forces of hatred and divisiveness have become more brazen.

My middle name is Dwight, and I am proud to be a bearer of the American Dream. My name symbolizes the dream of immigrants to identify with America, to become full-blooded Americans. America is at risk of losing that dream. It needs to restore confidence and pride in America as a bastion of freedom and opportunity, a land where people of all religions and races can feel safe and secure, where everyone can work together for the betterment of society as a whole.

Let us not forget the American struggles for freedom, democracy and opportunity. Let us build on the American Dream for ourselves and for our future generations.

I want to believe in that future, sure as my middle name is Dwight.