National Scholar Updates

New Areas of Religious Responsibility

New Areas of Religious Responsibility: An Essay[1]


By Daniel Sperber


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


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


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


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


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


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


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




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

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

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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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


And he continues (ibid. p. 32):


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[22] As the waste of seed.

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

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

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

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

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

Jewish Strength: Defying the Anti-Semites

It’s hard to recall a time in recent decades when we’ve seen more bad news for Jews. The massacre of Oct. 7; the alarming rise in antisemitism, especially on college campuses; the framing of Jews and Israel as white oppressors and colonialists; a protest movement that defends terrorists; biased media and education, etc.– everywhere we turn, we seem to find another threat.

In all this bad news, one piece of good news can easily get lost: we’ve never had more power to fight back.

Indeed, one can argue that the most significant Jewish development of the past 100 years is the transformation of Jews from a physically vulnerable people that went to its slaughter to a powerful people able to defend itself.

Given the rise in Jew hatred, it may sound odd to mention Jewish strength. But both thoughts can be true at once: We have a greater need to defend ourselves as well as a greater power to do so.

Israel’s 75-year history is the epitome of that idea. Surrounded by antisemitic animosity and constant threats to its survival, the Jewish state was forced to become stronger and stronger. With a greater need to defend itself came a greater power to do so. The massacre of Oct. 7 only reinforced that idea.

Now compare modern Israel to the Jews of Europe who trembled with fear 85 years ago as Jew haters prepared to take them to their deaths, all six million of them. Those Jews also had an enormous need to defend themselves– but zero power to do so.

If there’s such a thing as an afterlife, I can imagine six million Jewish souls in heaven right now smiling at the feistiness of their descendants.

Feisty we are.

Whether in Israel or in the Diaspora, the Jews of 2024 are anything but the Jews of Auschwitz. We are no longer weak. We are no longer invisible. We are no longer silent.

Everywhere there are threats, we see assertive Jews defending their people, whether through institutional gatherings, civic activism, social media, legal initiatives, street rallies, philanthropic involvement, academic activism, Super Bowl commercials, even flashy murals of Israeli hostages to greet attendees at the Academy Awards.

The Jews of 2024 make noise. We should never underestimate or underappreciate the power and the freedom to make that noise.

Pick any attack on Jews and you’re bound to hear Jewish noise. The United Nations may be shamelessly biased against Israel, but that didn’t stop Foreign Minister Israel Katz from addressing the UN Security Council yesterday, asking its 15 members to declare Hamas a terrorist organization and to pressure the group to release all hostages.

It was nasty of Oscar-winning filmmaker Jonathan Glazer to use his acceptance speech to hijack the Holocaust and bash Israel, but the backlash has been as loud as an Iron Dome rocket. Among the reactions was a letter from the Holocaust Survivors Foundation telling Glazer it was “disgraceful for you to presume to speak for the six million Jews, including one and a half million children, who were murdered solely because of their Jewish identity. You should be ashamed of yourself for using Auschwitz to criticize Israel.”

This week, Hebrew University suspended a law faculty lecturer, Professor Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, due to her involvement in a petition that accuses Israel of committing genocide in Gaza.

Throughout our post-biblical history, Jewish strength came from our tradition, our wisdom and our values. Today, our strength also comes from our ability to defend ourselves.

Jew haters may have the right to spew their hate, but Jews have the right to take them on, and we are using it.

The Anti-Defamation League has been chronicling that hate for years, while also taking action. Last week it held its annual Never is Now conference that attracted 4,000 attendees and featured speakers like Israeli President Isaac Herzog; State Department antisemitism envoy Deborah Lipstadt; Rabbi David Wolpe; author Dara Horn; philanthropist-activist Marc Rowan; and Daniel Lifshitz, an advocate for the hostages whose grandfather, Oded, is still in captivity.

“Antisemitism is not just a threat to Jews but to democracy,” said Lipstadt.

“We are not OK,” ADL head Jonathan Greenblatt said in his “State of Hate” address. “The world of Oct. 8 is one in which the perpetrators of the worst antisemitic massacre since the Holocaust are celebrated as heroes – not just in Ramallah or Beirut, but in London and New York and on campuses, including Harvard and Columbia.”

We are not OK, but we are blessed that we can do something about it.

Even if Israel may face opposition in some parts of our government, let’s never forget that the most powerful parliament in the world, the U.S. Congress, is strongly supportive of Israel, and that American political leaders across the board have joined the fight against antisemitism.

So yes, the bad news is that there’s a greater need to defend ourselves, but the good news is that all around us are signs of our ability to do just that. We need not apologize for our influence and our activism to protect Jewish rights. That activism also includes the freedom to dissent. Jews are not a monolithic voice, which is part of our strength.

Our strength also comes from our multiple and diverse contributions to America, which date to the very beginning of our American journey. As Lipstadt said, our fight is America’s fight. As grateful beneficiaries of the American Dream, we are ideally suited to bring it back to life.

I saw this anonymous note in Reddit recently that moved me:

“We are not weak, we are Jews. We are the ones who wrestled with angels. We are the ones who dragged Nazis out of South America to stand trial in the homeland. We are the ones who rescued more than 100 hostages in Entebbe in the pitch black of night. We are the ones who rose from near obliteration to absolute shining examples of productive citizens. We will continue to show the world how we alchemize fear and trembling into courage and success.”

Throughout our post-biblical history, Jewish strength came from our tradition, our wisdom and our values. Today, our strength also comes from our ability to defend ourselves, as fundamental a value as there ever was one. We may be under attack from haters, but unlike our ancestors, now we can fight back.

Be Strong: Thoughts for Parashat Pekudei

Angel for Shabbat, Parashat Pekudei

by Rabbi Marc D. Angel


Many years ago, a young lady came to my office to discuss the possibility of her conversion to Judaism. She was raised in Saudi Arabia to American parents in the American military. She grew up hating Israel and hating Jews—although she had never met either an Israeli or a Jew.

When she reached college age, she came to the United States to study here. She met Jewish students and found that they were nice people, not at all like the stereotypical Jews she had learned to hate as a child. She began to study Judaism. She learned about Jewish history and about modern Israel. She eventually met, and fell in love with, an Israeli man.

In due course, she converted to Judaism, married the Israeli, established a religiously traditional household, and had children who attended Jewish day schools when they came of age.

We discussed the remarkable transformation of her life…from a hater of Jews and Israel, to an actively religious Jew, married to an Israeli Jew. In one of our conversations, she mused: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all haters could suddenly find themselves in the shoes of the ones they hate? If only people really understood the hated victims by actually living as one of them!”

She came to this insight through her personal experiences. She overcame blind hatred by literally becoming one of those she had previously despised. She wished that all haters would at least try to see their victims as fellow human beings rather than as unhuman stereotypes. If only people could replace their hatred with empathy!

While this is an important insight, it obviously eludes many people. Our societies are riddled with racism, anti-Semitism, anti-nationality x or anti-ethnicity y. It seems that many people prefer to hate rather than to empathize. They somehow imagine that they are stronger if they tear others down. In one of his essays, Umberto Eco suggests that human beings need enemies! It is through their enemies that they solidify their own identities.

Yet, if we truly want to be strong individuals, we need to define ourselves by our own values—not by who we hate or who we see as our enemies. A person with inner strength is a person who can empathize with others, can overcome hatred, and can find fellowship even with those of different religion, race or nationality. Hatred is a sign of weakness, a defect in our own souls.

This week's Parasha brings us to the end of the book of Exodus. It is customary in some congregations for congregants to call out at the conclusion of the Torah reading: "Hazak ve-nit-hazak, hizku ve-ya-ametz levavhem kol ha-myahalim la-do-nai." Be strong, and let us strengthen ourselves; be strong and let your heart have courage, all you who hope in the Lord. This is a way of celebrating the completion of a book of the Torah, and encouraging us to continue in the path of Torah study so we may complete other books as well.

I think that a phrase from the above-quoted text can be interpreted as follows: hizku--strengthen yourselves, be resolute; ve- ye-ametz levavhem--and God will give courage to your hearts. First, you need to strengthen yourselves, develop the power of empathy and love. Then, God will give you the added fortitude to fulfill your goals. If we strengthen ourselves, we may trust that the Almighty will give us added strength.

Be strong, unafraid, empathetic; if we hone these values within ourselves and our families, we may be hopeful that the Almighty will grant us the courage to succeed in our efforts.



Learning the Lessons of the Holocaust

(This article by Rabbi Marc D. Angel originally appeared in the Inaugural Issue (January 2024) of Lingap, the official publication of Sanlingap, Inc., in the Philippines. The editor-in-chief of this publication is Carlos Cristobal.)

The Holocaust exemplifies the very worst qualities of humanity. The ruthless cruelty and systematic murder of 6 million Jews took place under the aegis of Germany, thought to be one of the most advanced societies in the Western world. Millions were murdered in cold blood not only by Germans, but by accomplices in many lands throughout Europe and beyond. 

How did so many human beings become torturers and murderers of innocent victims? How were blatantly false anti-Jewish stereotypes so readily believed by masses of people, including those who considered themselves to be religious?

When Jews--or any group--are dehumanized, then all humanity is on trial. Either we draw on our humane values and resist the haters and perpetrators; or we ourselves become accomplices to the crimes. Those who do nothing to resist evil are partners in the evil.

If the Holocaust teaches how inhumane people can be, it also sheds light on moral heroism--the heroism of Jews who resisted their enemies; the heroism of Jewish martyrs who died upholding their faith; the heroism of Christians who risked their own lives to save Jews; the heroism of those who spoke out and acted against Nazism and all the evil it represents.

The Jewish motto after the Holocaust is "Never Again." We won't allow this to happen to us again. But the motto goes beyond Jews. It calls on all human beings of all races, religions and nationalities to spurn the ideology of Nazism, to work for a humane and compassionate world, to see each other as fellow human beings and not as stereotypes.

The Holocaust shows how low humanity can sink. It is an eternal warning to all people to promote love, tolerance, mutual respect.  Once the humane values are compromised, tragedy ensues. It's not just about Jews; it's about all humanity. Wake up! See what is at stake! Never again means never again...ever!

Tribute to Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple: Leader of Traditional Judaism in Australia

Tribute to Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple: Leader of Traditional Judaism in Australia

by Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton, Chief Minister of The Great Synagogue, Sydney

Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple loved tefilla, Jewish liturgy. He enjoyed writing prayers, preparing guides to the service and planning special occasions. He arranged the memorial service for his predecessor, Rabbi Dr Israel Porush in 1991, and over thirty years later I selected Psalms for the service in his memory. As I did so I reflected on how appropriate they were:

The teaching of the Lord is his delight, and he studies that teaching day and night.

He is like a tree…whose foliage never fades

The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance

“Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call on me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honour him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.”

Rabbi Apple was a constant student and teacher of Torah, from the bookshelves of Melbourne University Library religion section that he worked his way through as a student, to the pile of Jewish books that he read on the deck of the ship that carried him from Australia to his training at Jews’ College in London in 1958, to the weekly instalments of Oz Torah that are still appearing on Facebook.

That passion did not fade in old age. Although he slowed down physically, he retained his intellectual vitality and continued to write on classic and contemporary issues to the end. I always knew that any email I sent him would receive a swift, precise, informative and helpful reply. 

As he told his last Neilah service as Rabbi of The Great Synagogue in 2004, he was grateful to God ‘for casting my lines in pleasant places’. He was happy at The Great Synagogue, for its ethos and traditions and for the wider role it encouraged. He worked hard, very hard in fact, for his thirty-two years there, as he had done during his thirteen years in the Bayswater and Hampstead Synagogues in London, and as he continued to do after retirement.

God saw his dedication to avodat hakodesh, his sacred work, and rewarded him with long life, with honour, and ultimately what was most important to him, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren following in the way of Torah and mitzvot.

Rabbi Apple was not destined for the rabbinate. His parents were synagogue goers Melbourne, but not Shomer Shabbat. Under the influence of mentors especially Dr Samuel Billigheimer and his own inclinations he adopted full halachic observance. As a university student in Arts and Law he started teaching others. He left for England in 1958 and it became clear over the next two years that he was set for a career in the pulpit.

The early Rabbi Apple, Rev Apple as he was in those days, was formed by a series of rabbinic models. Rabbi Jacob Danglow of St Kilda Synagogue remained an exemplar of a dignified minister who gave thoughtful sermons. In London, Chief Rabbi Brodie, Dr Isidore Epstein, Rabbi Kopul Kahana and others represented the different elements of the ideal rabbi, both more modern and more traditional, as teachers and as preachers. In his early positions he showed his energy and imagination. He started a range of initiatives for all ages at Bayswater between 1960 and 1965 and at Hampstead between 1965 and his appointment in Sydney in 1972.

It was during this period that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks came under his mentorship. Rabbi Apple officiated at Rabbi Sacks’ wedding because, as Rabbi Sacks’ wrote ‘Elaine and I knew that he was a very special human being. More than anyone else he care for Jewish students. He spoke our language. He was accessible, understanding, generous and wise. We loved him then. We love him now’.

That reveals a side to Rabbi Apple which is different to the more formal and reserved image often associated with him, but which was always revealed to those he mentored throughout his time in Sydney, the youngsters he took under his wing, the people who saw him in informal moments. He certainly felt that he had left The Great warmer, friendlier and less starchy than he’d found it. Rabbi Porush believed the same about himself too, and both can be correct, if we compare what they inherited and what they bequeathed.

When Rabbi Apple arrived in Australia all the major rabbis of the community shared his style of dress, of speech, of attitude. The followed the ideal of the cultured western European rabbi. Some of the young rabbis present at the end of his career had rejected this model of Torah Im Derech Eretz, a combination of Jewish and wider culture and a religiously-motivated engagement with the world. Rabbi Apple was aware of this and wryly contrasted their disapproving attitude with their continued and continual requests for his help and advice, which he gave generously and which often solved their problems. He did share with the new generation a preference for the rabbi as scholar and teacher over the old Anglo-Jewish model of pastor and functionary.

In Sydney his courage showed itself. In his last Neilah sermon at Hampstead he had been booed for calling for the end to their mixed choir. The choir at The Great Synagogue became all male at his insistence a year after he arrived. At the same time, as someone who was guided both by halacha and an inclusive ethos, he greatly expanded the role of women within the synagogue, most notably the Shabbat morning individual bat mitzvah, women on the Executive and through his support of the Sydney Women’s Tefillah Group. He made other major changes at The Great Synagogue; he introduced the Priestly Blessing and Israeli pronunciation into services.

Is there a paradox here? Was Rabbi Apple a traditionalist or a progressive? In a sense he was both. He was a Jewish religious leader at a time of transformative change. Sydney and Sydney Jewry altered more between his arrival and his retirement than in any other period of a similar length. When it came to substance, Rabbi Apple did not fear change. As well as his innovations within the synagogue, he pioneered and championed aboriginal reconciliation, interfaith dialogue with Muslims as well as Christians and he publicly favoured a Republic in the 1990s. That is because although his external forms remained traditional, and he loved and upheld the dignities, decorum and historic practices of The Great Synagogue, inside he possessed a marked progressive streak.

As someone raised in the 1940s, trained in the 1950s and who found his rabbinic style in the 1960s and 1970s, by the early twenty first century, he was bound to reflect the world in which he was formed, even as he helped to create the new world that we have inherited. What insights into both worlds we have lost now he is gone.

Rabbi Apple kept himself amazingly busy. Within The Great Synagogue he was a totally involved rabbinic leader. In any document relating to the Synagogue and its running, his handwriting is literally all over it. There were streams of booklets, and of course all the namings, marriages, funerals, and services week in and week out. His congregational efforts were not confined to the Synagogue building, but included his home, in his family surroundings. He was steadfastly supported by loyal colleagues and responsible and hard-working Boards.

Outside the Synagogue he was involved in a blizzard of organisations, the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies and the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the Australian Jewish Historical Society, the Sydney Beth Din, military and police chaplaincy, the universities, Mandelbaum House, the Bord of Jewish Education, the State and national rabbinical associations, interfaith bodies, freemasons and more. In what spare time he had, he wrote. His copious writings on history and Torah will be a lasting legacy.

What did Rabbi Apple achieve? He found The Great Synagogue large and strong and he left it large and strong. He guided many individuals, from a member who needed help to heads of government and state. He made a huge contribution to very many organisations, but ultimately his contribution was less formal. He said in that Neilah sermon in 2004

I have tried to build not edifices but attitudes, not buildings but bridges, not institutions but ethics. If Australians and Australian Jews are a little saner and more tolerant because I happened to be here, then I am content.

We can answer that his efforts were successful, through ceaseless restatement of the ideas he believed in most: truth, tolerance, respect, integrity, dignity, reason and faith, he made his impact. He should be content and Australian Jewry should be grateful.

On Interpreting Midrash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Examples of Classic Rabbinic Methodology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





The Great Privilege of Being a Jew

The Great Privilege of being a Jew

by Douglas Altabef


Let’s face it: the raging debate about Jews having white privilege is a bit absurd.

Jews are basically a historical Rohrschach depiction of a People. In other words, we take the form, we are regarded through the eyes of those who perceive us.

For most of the past two millenia, Jews were certainly not regarded as being like other people. In Europe, we were first the Christ-rejectors/killers, who per Augustine, were being kept around in order to bear witness to our own degradation and supersession by the Church.

Not too much privilege there.

Come the Enlightenment, and we became the great chameleons of civilization. We could be morphed from usurious capitalists to stateless communists in the blink of an eye. We were vermin, who were still managing somehow, thanks to the Rothschilds, to control the world.

Pretty exhausting, if you ask me.

Jews were a subhuman race, who threatened the purity of the Aryans. But we also threatened the peasantry of Poland and Russia. And after the Enlightenment, we were a threat by virtue of the fact that many Jews sought to convert to Christianity in order to gain access to the higher reaches of their society.

In Muslim countries, we were tolerated as dhimmis, second class citizens. We couldn’t wear the same clothes as others, nor walk on the same sidewalk if it meant inconveniencing a passing Muslim.

So where is the privilege from? It comes from the now dirty word called “achievement.”

Jews who fled pogroms, death sentence conscriptions in the Tsar’s or the Sultan’s armies, who typically came to America with nothing, worked hard and saw their children and grandchildren rise.

Jews sacrificed, educated their children, embraced America and the American dream and vision, and they succeeded.

Somehow, that has a sinister ring to it. Somehow, to a great many people today,  that cannot explain what Jews are about. There must be some secret sauce, some hidden card that has made it all possible. Could that be our latent privilege?

Or is privilege what happens when you work hard and succeed? Besides achieving material success, and social acceptance, can you achieve privilege?

Well, allow me to let you all in on a little secret. I, a proud Jew, am wildly privileged. Not because I might or might not be white, but because through no work of my own, by happy Providence, I was born into a Jewish family of two wonderful Jewish parents and was raised to be the next link of the Jewish chain.

I was shown that, despite the mind-boggling persecution, disdain, vulnerability, powerlessness, instability and uncertainty of what it meant for thousands of years to be a Jew, I was somehow, nevertheless, a card carrying, bona fide Jew.

Meaning, that against any and all odds of historical endurance, I was allowed to come into the world as a Jew. I was privileged to stand on the shoulders of generations of ancestors who had decided, against all good common sense, to stay as Jews.

I had ancestors who were expelled from Spain rather than take the easy way out of kissing a cross and letting it all go.

I had ancestors who toiled in poverty and constant uncertainty in Galicia, and in the Ottoman Empire, yet who believed that they had been endowed with something worth keeping.

So yes, I am enormously privileged. Because I have had the privilege to validate the struggles and sacrifices of those who enabled me to do all of that.

And to top it all off, I packed up my privileged self and, together with my privileged wife and one of our privileged children, moved to Israel, which has to be the most privileged place on earth.

We moved to a place that for almost 2000 years was a dream, an idea, a memory, a yearning. But not really a place.

But through the will power, fueled by the suffering of all those generations who were - let’s be candid here - hated, despised and loathed by most everyone around them - of Jews who refused to give up the fraught privilege of being Jews, the place that was a dreamy memory, became a gritty reality.

And the gritty reality survived against the same kind of odds that Jews have been facing for close to forever. So, this place, Israel, succeeded, and of course by doing so, it must be guilty of unspeakable crimes against - you fill in the blank -because that is what it means to be a Jew.

You do things that shouldn’t be able to be done. You endure things that shouldn’t be put up with. That is part of the existential job description of what it means to be a Jew.

And I cannot imagine a greater privilege than the opportunity to be part of it all.


Remembering Justice Benjamin Nathan Cardozo

Remembering Justice Benjamin Nathan Cardozo

by Rabbi Marc D. Angel


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                             *     *     *


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

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


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

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

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

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

Ruminations on Rambam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Amos: The Social Justice Prophet


Historical Background[1]


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

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

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


Social Justice Directly Affects Israel’s National Fate


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

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

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

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

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


Prophecies against the Nations: God Hates Immorality


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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


Prophecy against Israel: Israel Must Act Morally


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


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


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

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


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


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

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


The Chosen People: Additional Moral Responsibility


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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




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


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


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






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

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

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

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

[5] Da’at Mikra: Amos, p. 16.

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

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

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

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

[10] Da’at Mikra: Amos, p. 44.