National Scholar Updates

Naivety, Hope and Realism: Thoughts for Parashat Vayera

Angel for Shabbat, Parashat Vayera

By Rabbi Marc D. Angel

God informs Abraham that the people of Sodom are so wicked that He has decided to destroy them. Abraham protests: “Will You sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Perhaps there are fifty righteous people within the city, will You sweep away and not forgive the place for the fifty righteous that are in it?” (Bereishith 18:23-24).  The conversation continues until God finally agrees with Abraham to save the city if only ten righteous people are found within.

This episode is often cited as an example of how a religious person has the right to challenge God’s decisions. Abraham certainly must have realized that if God planned to destroy Sodom, He had good reason to do so. Yet, Abraham courageously challenged God, demanding mercy for the city if even ten righteous people could be found there. God acceded. Victory for Abraham, right?


The city—as God knew full well—did not have ten righteous people within. God destroyed the city with fire and brimstone. Only Lot and his daughters managed to escape alive.

What were Abraham’s assumptions when he negotiated with God?  Why didn’t he just ask God to spare the righteous of the city and let the wicked perish? Why did he think that ten righteous people in the city would justify God’s sparing the entire city? The general explanation offered is that Abraham believed that a “minyan” of good people had the power to impact on the rest of the community. They would set a good example, they would teach, they would turn the masses into a moral and upright society.

Abraham was courageous in confronting God. But he was also naïve. He thought that a wicked society should be spared if only ten good people still lived among them. But God had already viewed the entire city and deemed it hopelessly wicked. Even if there were ten such individuals, God knew that they were powerless to change the overall wickedness of the whole society.

What were Abraham’s thoughts after the destruction of Sodom? The Torah is silent on this. Abraham had negotiated with God in the hope of saving the city…but the city was destroyed. Abraham had gained nothing from his bargaining with God. Did Abraham learn anything from this episode? 

Maybe he learned to be less naïve. Originally, he did not want to believe that a few righteous people were unable to change society for the good. He wanted to believe in the ultimate goodness within humanity. If we only speak nicely to the wicked people they will turn to righteousness. If we only give bad people a chance, they will come to their senses and become moral and just.

God taught him otherwise. The people of Sodom were absolutely corrupt, lacking elementary decency. Their society fostered and perpetuated evil. A few good people among them couldn’t change them; but they would corrupt the few good people. Abraham learned that some wicked people are incorrigible. They are so steeped in evil, hatred and lies that they are beyond redemption.

But there is a twist to this story. Although God apparently wanted Abraham to be less naïve, He also appreciated Abraham’s naïve belief in the possible salvation of even very wicked people. God wanted to temper Abraham’s naivety but not eliminate it. After all, if Abraham was to teach monotheism and righteousness to the world, he had to maintain a belief that he could succeed in reaching everyone…or at least almost everyone.

The lesson: there are evil people in the world whose wickedness is so deep that they cannot be redeemed. Don’t be a naïve believer in the goodness of all humans and in their capacity to change for the better. But don’t completely give up your naivety. Keep trying, keep negotiating, keep challenging God and humanity. 

Because once you lose that naivety, the fire within you dies…along with hope for the ultimate redemption of humanity.


S. Y. Agnon: Thoughts on a Great Israeli Writer

On December 10, 1966 Shmuel Yosef Agnon, the great Israeli Hebrew writer, delivered a speech at the Nobel banquet on the occasion of his having been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Quoting from the Bible, the Jewish Prayer book and rabbinic tradition, Agnon was as clear as possible that he was a Jew, a faithful Jew steeped in Judaism. He pointed out the dilemma of the Jewish People living centuries in Exile, and now struggling to find their way back to their ancient homeland in Israel.  “As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem, and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem.” As he concluded his remarks, he said: “If I am proud of anything, it is that I have been granted the privilege of living in the land which God promised our forefathers to give us.”

Agnon (1887-1970) was born in Buczacz, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now Buchach, Ukraine. His original family name was Czaczkes. In 1908 he emigrated to Jaffa in the land of Israel. In 1913 he moved to Germany where he married Esther Marx; they had two children. The businessman and publisher, Salman Schocken, became Agnon’s literary patron and freed him from financial worries. In 1924, a fire broke out in Agnon’s home, destroying his manuscripts and library. Shortly thereafter he and his family moved to Jerusalem where he continued his career as a prolific Hebrew writer.

Agnon’s work is laced with biblical and Talmudic passages. His stories and novels did not always have powerful or complicated plots; rather, it was his style of writing that engages the reader. He is calm, wise, gentle. He tells his stories as though he is talking to you in his living room over a cup of tea, without pretensions or pomposity. The reader comes to see Agnon as an older, wiser friend…someone whose memories and thoughts have weight.

In his book, A City in its Fullness, he offers a nostalgic account of the town in which he was born and raised. His stories were about “former days, when the town stood in peace.” Agnon comments: “I was able to tell the things calmly and not in sorrow, and one would not have known from my voice what had happened to my town—that all the Jews in it had been killed. The Holy One, blessed be He, has been gracious to Israel: even when we remember the greatness and glory of bygone days, our soul does not leave us out of sorrow and longing. Thus a man like me can talk about the past, and his soul doesn’t pass out of him as he speaks” (p. 10).

There is irony in his words. He notes that all the Jews of the town were murdered, but then refers to the graciousness of the Holy One, blessed be He! How was the Almighty “gracious to Israel?” He lets them recount the past, including the tragedies, without dying of sorrow! Is Agnon speaking piously, in profound resignation to the will of God? Or is he mocking the notion of God’s being “gracious to Israel?”  Agnon was indeed a religious man; but he was not at peace with God’s treatment of the Jews.

 In spite of their sufferings in Buczacz, the Jews loved their birthplace. But after World War I, life became increasingly unbearable. Poverty was rampant. The government made constant decrees to the detriment of the Jews. “The old took comfort in the fact that they would soon die and not much longer have to endure their afflictions; they would be buried in the city where their ancestors were buried. The young looked toward the four corners of the earth for a place where they would be allowed to live. And the fewest of these few prepared to emigrate to the Land of Israel in order to work its land and to establish for themselves and their descendants a haven where they could be free of the yoke of Exile, which has been Israel’s burden since the day it left its land. Meanwhile, each saw himself living in the land of his birth as but a guest for the night” (pp. 560-61). This was the eternal Jewish dilemma—to be living in places of Exile for generations but always feeling as strangers. Agnon saw the return to the Jewish homeland in Israel as the key to Jews finally feeling really at home in the world.

In his book, A Guest for the Night, he describes having returned to his old town in Europe, that was now in terrible straits after the first World War. “I went to the Beit Midrash and stood before the locked door. Many thoughts passed through my mind in a short time, and this is one of them: the Beit Midrash still exists, but I am standing outside, because I have lost the key and cannot get in” (p. 83). He found a locksmith to make a new key for the Beit Midrash. He hired someone to keep the fire burning in the fireplace so that the place was warm. Slowly, men began to gather again in the Beit Midrash, if only to stay warm on cold winter days. The Jews had been living in this town for generations; the Beit Midrash was coming back to life.

And yet, this was still the Exile. The authorities had the power to oppress the Jews, even to expel them. “I was born in this town and spent most of my youth here—but an official, who was not born here and has done nothing here but enjoy the best the town can give, may come along and tell me: Go, you belong to another country and you have no permission to stay with us. I thought of my forefathers, whose bones are interred in the town’s graveyard….I thought of my other relatives who had bestowed many benefits on the townsfolk—and now the authorities, who inherited all these benefits, could come and expel me from the town” (p. 110).

When he ultimately returned to the land of Israel, he had inadvertently also brought a key to the Beit Midrash with him. He put the key in a box and locked it; he made a necklace and wore it around his neck. He recalled the Midrash that in messianic days, the synagogues and study halls of the diaspora will be miraculously transported to the holy land of Israel. But when will the messiah bring this redemption?  The key “is made of iron and brass, and it can wait, but I, who am flesh and blood, find it hard to endure” (pp. 508-9).

Agnon wonders about the sense of security felt by some Jews living outside the holy land. He tells the story of Mr. Lublin who lived in Leipzig and became a German citizen. Mr. Lublin wasn’t particularly observant religiously, and worked hard in his store to make a living and be a good citizen. Mr. Lublin believed that “Germany sees that all of us, all Germany’s Jewish citizens, sacrifice our children and our wealth for its war against the enemy, and is it possible that after all this they will still deprive us of our rights? Isn’t this so? Why are you looking at me like that?” (In Mr. Lublin’s Store, p.189). Why? Because the narrator (Agnon) thought Mr. Lublin was naïve to trust that the Germans would actually treat Jews fairly, as loyal citizens. No matter how many sacrifices Jews made on behalf of Germany, they were still always going to be victims, always strangers, always mistrusted. Exile was exile. Period.

Agnon has a particular nostalgia for authentic prayer. In his story “Hemdat the Cantor,” he describes how Hemdat ascended the prayer desk on the night of Yom Kippur. “And when he came to the pulpit he gripped it with his two hands, and cried out “’Oi!’ As if it were all-devouring fire. A sudden awe fell upon the entire congregation and all rose and stood and trembled….Hemdat raised his head, his eyes closed and compressed, groping in the air, his eyeglasses swimming in tears….He covered his face with his tallit down to his heart, and he began to give voice, every time in a melody sweeter than the last. Then I understood what Father meant when he said, He who has heard the Kol Nidrei of Hemdat, knows what Kol Nidrei is” (p. 58). The people were uplifted by Hemdat’s prayers. “For Hemdat prayed in awe and fear and feeling and with a broken heart, for Israel the holy nation, who sought to return to Him with a whole heart” (p. 59).

In reminiscing about his hometown of Buczacz, he tells of a man who recited the Musaf and gave him “a real taste of prayer.” The prayer leader had a pleasant voice, but “it wasn’t a voice we heard; it was prayer” (p. 100). The heartfelt longing and yearning of sincere prayer was what inspired Agnon. He was not impressed with external shows of praying, but with actual reaching out to God. In his book, To This Day, he quotes a woman: “’An intellectual’”, she said, ‘is someone who can recite Psalms without tears.’ I couldn’t have put it any better myself” (p. 53).

Agnon was prayerful, even as he realized that he was living in an unredeemed world, where God’s mercy was not always evident. He named one of his books To This Day “in the language of thanksgiving for the past and of prayer for the future. As it says in the Sabbath morning service: To this day have Thy mercies availed us and Thy kindness not failed us, O Lord our God. And mayst Thou never abandon us ever” (p. 175).

Agnon’s writings are sprinkled with wise insights that invite us to ponder his words. In describing a young man who rediscovered the Hebrew language and his connection with the land of Israel, Agnon writes: “he is meticulous with language and meticulous in all his actions. His hair is wild, but his thoughts are orderly. His clothes are in tatters, but his soul is intact” (Shira, p. 176). In his short story, “The Night,” he notes: “But there are guests who come no matter how tightly one’s door is shut, as they are the thoughts surrounding our actions.” And in his story “Between Two Towns” he meditates: “The good Lord created a vast world, with many people in it whom He scattered wide, giving each place its singular quality and endowing every man with singular wisdom. You leave home and meet people from another place, and your mind is expanded by what you hear.” 

And poignantly, he writes of “two Austrians who meet outside of town and one says to the other, ‘where are you going? And the other replies, ‘I’m off to the forest to be alone.’ ‘Why, I also want to be alone,’ exclaims the first. ‘Let’s go together’” (“In the Prime of Her Life”). This might serve as Agnon’s invitation to readers: I want to be alone, but I want you to come along with me so we can be alone together.  

Modern Orthodoxy and Discriminating Judgment

All groups need discerning judgment. Even Orthodox Jews who restrict their broader exposure and encounter mostly rabbinic influences must differentiate between more and less reasonable voices. After all, rabbis are quite capable of uttering foolish statements. Nonetheless, the challenge of developing the ability to evaluate ideas and positions expands for Modern Orthodox Jews who expose themselves to so many elements of both higher and lower Western culture. Where have we succeeded in availing ourselves of the best that culture has to offer—and where have we failed by taking in the worst?

How does the college education Modern Orthodox Jews so value aid them in this endeavor? On a daily basis, I rely upon the wisdom and inspiration of great Gentile and secular Jewish thinkers, and that wisdom animates my teaching. Wordsworth’s Nuns Fret Not beautifully captures why structure does not necessarily crush individuality or creativity but can even enhance them, a significant point for halakhically observant Jews. Denise Levertov’s On Tolerance powerfully conveys how the positive concept in the poem’s title can turn destructive. The practical skills learned in college enable a much more robust and varied tikkun olam. Those who stay in yeshiva until age 30 are unlikely to attend medical school and engage in cancer research. The gap between more open and closed approaches expands to massive proportions in Israel where the lack of secular education in the Hareidi sector makes entering most professions extremely difficult.

Openness enables a richer, more accurate, and less simplistic understanding of other groups. One who reads the essays of George Orwell or Atul Gawande will have a much harder time asserting that Torah provides all the required wisdom and that we should eschew non-Jewish authors. No work of contemporary Torah literature addresses the current question of care for the elderly with the insight and compassion of Gawande’s Being Mortal. Analogously, it is easier to refer to secular Zionists as an “empty wagon” when one does not witness up close their dedication to protecting and serving their nation in the IDF and when one remains ignorant of the gastronomic sacrifices made by all the vegans and vegetarians of Tel Aviv. A person who actually speaks with soldiers and reads literature about them would more likely realize the offensiveness of saying that studying Torah is more difficult and demanding than fighting on the frontlines (a statement recently said by Yitzchak Goldknopf, current head of the Agudat Yisrael party). 

The wisdom of Gentiles has proven pivotal in helping our community understand the scourge of sexual abuse. A person who only knows Shas (the entire Talmud) might not comprehend why victims could take two decades to speak up or how those who have been violated could put themselves in the identical position a second time, granting the abuser another opportunity. That person might also think that victims’ mental disorders automatically discredits their testimony instead of considering the possibilities that the abuse caused the disorder or that abusers prefer to prey upon the unhealthy and vulnerable. The knowledge generated by (Gentile) psychological research enables us to address such issues.   

A number of ideologies and institutions that admittedly include threatening elements have nonetheless proven a boon to our community. If feminism means downplaying the importance of family or seeing every spousal discussion about who should wash the dishes as part of a war to overcome the patriarchy, we correctly reject it. On the other hand, feminism and the need for an Orthodox response to the feminist challenge have led to greater educational and professional opportunities for women. We treasure the opportunity contemporary women have to encounter the profundity of our tradition first-hand and function as more learned Jews. Women can more easily make major contributions to society as doctors, lawyers, and mental health professionals. Paradoxically, the entire kollel enterprise, a world that tends to portray feminism as pernicious, only survives due to “kollel wives” in the workforce supporting their families.   

LGBTQ+ ideology often clashes with traditional Judaism but it too has had some positive impact. In 1976, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein wrote that no person naturally desires homosexual relations and those that want it are simply rebelling against God (Iggerot Moshe OH 4:115). Very few Orthodox rabbis would suggest this today, and we should honestly admit that the broader world has helped us realize how some individuals do indeed have intrinsic homosexual desires. We dare not add to their difficulties by accusing them of acting out of spite. Furthermore, justified theological commitments motivated some rabbis to too quickly support the reparative therapy of Project Jonah, which turned out to be a dangerous fraud. Here too, non-Jewish wisdom from the outside world had something to teach us.  

Finally, we have all benefited greatly from the institution of democracy. While we can marshal support for democratic themes in our tradition by citing Abarbanel (commentary on Deuteronomy 17), other rabbinic authorities such as Rambam (Hilkhot Melakhim 1:1) favored a monarchy and the idea that Judaism may not promote a specific position on the nature of national government. As Gerald Blidstein argued (Tradition Fall 1997), we can strongly endorse democracy and see it as an effective vessel for promoting Jewish values without thinking that our halakhic system necessarily calls for it. Democracy has allowed Judaism to flourish in the United States and has proven even more valuable in Israel, where it has enabled Jewish political parties who passionately disagree to function together and produce a thriving Jewish State despite immense military, economic, political, and cultural obstacles.  

In the foregoing examples, the entire Orthodox world has benefitted from these ideas, but Modern Orthodoxy is more forthright in admitting our debt to broader intellectual society and in explicitly promoting the values of democracy and feminism. However, we cannot ignore the less savory influences of Western society. Many Modern Orthodox students head off to college eager to experience the life of heavy drinking, frat parties, and sexual license. Some actively participate in secular party environments, while others bring that cultural universe to the Hillel and enter Shabbat after a pregame of alcohol in the Hillel parking lot. This represents mindless adoption of some of the worst values the larger world offers. 

Clearly, many do not view university as an opportunity to study great ideas or acquire skills for bettering humanity. These missed opportunities are certainly not unique to young adults from the Jewish community, but that is precisely the point. Too often, we emulate secular society when we should distinguish ourselves by acting differently. Many see a university education as primarily a means to achieve a plum job and a large salary. Those who pursue investment banking jobs that will keep them in the office until eleven at night apparently prize money over family. I appreciate how paying multiple annual yeshiva tuitions and camping fees plus the high cost of a house in Orthodox suburbia generate the need for a large income. At the same time, the amount of money spent on Pesah programs should give us pause. For families that can afford it, purchasing takeout food for the holiday, still saving any family member from major Passover domestic chores while paying a fraction of the hotel costs might be a better demonstration of our values. The nature of most of these programs raises questions of hedonism in addition to materialism. Does anyone truly need a barbecue between lunch and dinner, and does the tearoom always need to be open?  

Furthermore, certain intellectual attitudes work against the inspiration of education. If we fixate on Shakespeare as a dead White male who discriminated against Jews, Moors, and women, we will never appreciate the power and wisdom of his writings. The desire to debunk does not allow for any genuine enthusiasm and reverence. In response to the debunkers, I note that people are complex, and the same George Washington who owned slaves had several remarkable personal accomplishments, including not just leading the successful American Revolution and serving as America’s first president but also delivering an influential address about religious tolerance at the Touro Synagogue and giving a very powerful Farewell Address emphasizing education and morality. We can remain in awe of Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner’s brilliance even if we recognize that he was not the easiest of personalities. Additionally, many humanities programs have replaced long novels such as Middlemarch or Les Miserables with courses on film, television, and comic books. In my opinion, this entails sacrificing depth on the altar of entertainment. Too many Modern Orthodox Jews quickly endorse whatever educational trends currently pass as gospel at Harvard and Yale. 

Moderns tend to emphasize choice and consent as values that supersede all others. This year, a very thoughtful student of mine has struggled to understand why “open marriage” is problematic if each spouse agrees to the arrangement. The convictions that certain things should not be done even to someone who consents or that some obligations do not stem from agreement seem foreign to her. People bear debts of gratitude to their parents despite the lack of choice involved. To some degree, the same applies to peoplehood and offers a reason why born Jews should feel a connection to their fellow Jews. Furthermore, a person can say that entering marriage requires consent but still believe the institution demands a single-minded loyalty and commitment to one’s spouse for it to flourish. I decide to get married but do not determine what a thriving marriage relationship consists of. 

As mentioned, feminism brought about many positive changes. However, some feminist assertions on behalf of women actually hurt women. When I suggest that college women should not attend the kind of parties where date rape represents a lurking danger, I am criticized for blaming the victim. Would anyone suggest that purchasing a good lock in a neighborhood known for robberies is blaming the victim? Clearly, the male perpetrators are the evildoers in this story—but we can still encourage potential victims to avoid giving criminals an opportunity.                

I am very sympathetic to women upset that so much Orthodox discourse revolves around tzeniut and dress codes. Modesty applies to men as well; it is about attitude and not just dress, and it should not dominate any seminary curriculum. On the other hand, the larger Western world’s attitude to women’s dress does women no favors. Do women walking around with extremely revealing attire empower them and encourage engaging with them as serious and thoughtful individuals? I have watched a number of Academy Awards YouTube videos and I am always struck by the juxtaposition of justified complaints that women over 45 cannot get major Hollywood roles expressed at an event where many of the women are half undressed but none of the men are. Female hosts criticize women being judged by their looks while wearing clothing that encourages that very message. 

Complaining about social media has become a cliché, but only because the complaints are valid. TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter are for the most part time-wasters, shallow instruments, training in the need for instantaneous gratification, and a replacement for genuine discourse with friends. The institution of Shabbat helps observant Jews reduce these addictions, but some restrictions of usage need to carry over into the week as well. Though it is an uphill battle, schools and parents need to jointly fight against constant smart phone usage. 

For me, no live options exist beyond Modern Orthodoxy. Denominations on the left lack firm commitment to our tradition regarding both knowledge and practice, while groups to our right have too many ethical and intellectual shortcomings. As Dr. Daniel Gordis once questioned, why is there a need for rabbinical schools from other denominations to offer courses in basic Hebrew when one needs much more knowledge than that to begin studying for the rabbinate? Conservative Jews on campus who care about Shabbat and kashruth are often sociologically forced into the Orthodox community. Secondly, regarding which issues have our co-religionists to the left sided with our tradition over current Western mores? Conversely, focusing on the Israeli scene, an entire community exempting itself from army service ends any thought of entering Hareidi society for me. On an intellectual level, the Hareidi world’s monolithic portrayal of Jewish thought, its whitewashing of the sins of biblical heroes and its insistence that Hazal (the Sages of the Talmud) knew contemporary science are not tenable positions. 

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 39b) faults Am Yisrael for following the corrupt among the non-Jews rather than the noble among them. For Modern Orthodoxy to succeed, we need to diametrically reverse that equation. Reviewing the list enumerated in this essay indicates that we have work to do. 


Great but not Perfect: Thoughts for Parashat Lekh Lekha

Angel for Shabbat, Parashat Lekh Lekha

by Rabbi Marc D. Angel

“And it will come to pass when the Egyptians see you that they will say: This is his wife; and they will kill me but keep you alive. Please say you are my sister so that it may be well with me for your sake and that my soul may live because of you” (Bereishith 12:12-13).

As Abram and Sarai flee the famine in Canaan, they reach the border with Egypt. Sarai is beautiful and Abram fears the Egyptians will seize her and kill him. He asks her to claim that she is his sister rather than his wife, and in this way (although Sarai may be taken away) Abram’s life will be spared.

If the Torah didn’t record this episode, we would never have known anything about it. In portraying Abram as our spiritual forefather, why did the Torah include this story that casts Abram in a negative light? 

Our commentators have been puzzled by this incident. Abram acts in a manner that places his wife in danger, that entails deceit, and that results in him reaping profit from his unsavory tactic. We would expect better of him. He and Sarai could simply have remained in Canaan and suffered through the famine along with all the others in the land. The Torah reports that Abram and Sarai came to Canaan with Lot and a retinue of others. Where were they during this episode? Why didn’t Abram call upon them to accompany him to Egypt and to serve as a protective force?

The questions are much stronger than possible answers.

Perhaps the Torah records this incident for posterity (and a similar incident later in the lives of Isaac and Rebecca) to teach us that even great human beings are not perfect in every respect. They sometimes fail. They sin. They are, after all, just human. They are not plaster saints who make all the right decisions at all times.

When we read of the shortcomings of our spiritual ancestors, we are taught that we can aspire to greatness even with our own faults and shortcomings. By bringing them down to human dimensions, the Torah allows us to raise ourselves.

In an article about “Gedolim stories,” Rabbi Simcha Feuerman points to the spiritual dangers of depicting our sages as being absolutely saintly, without internal conflicts. He wrote: “I have heard people complain about “cookie cutter” biographies of Gedolim, where one gets the sense that their inner struggles and challenges have been sanitized for fear that they will be a bad influence on others. When the struggles are left out of the story it compounds feelings of inadequacy and guilt among the readers, leading some to give up on attaining anything worthwhile in comparison to the unnaturally saintly lives depicted in these stories.”

Attempts to portray our biblical heroes or rabbinic sages as perfect saints is not only an affront to them and to truth: it actually promotes a religiously problematic worldview.

In our blessings, we thank the Almighty for having given us Torat Emet, the Torah of truth. The Torah does not flinch from negative features in the lives of our biblical heroes and ancestors. It does not engage in sugar coating or explaining away problematic behaviors. 

Barukh shenatan lanu Torato Torat emet.


Beyond the Victim Mentality

For many centuries and in many lands Jews have been victims. Even now, when most Jews live in democratic countries where we enjoy equal rights, we still fret about anti-Semitism. The Jewish defense organizations constantly remind us of the increase in anti-Jewish propaganda on social media, of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel demonstrations, of physical attacks against Jews.

Although for the most part we feel safe and free, the “victim mentality” still haunts us. 

The Jewish community has spent many millions of dollars to create Holocaust museums and memorials. It is praiseworthy and important to provide Holocaust education. But the down side is that we devote massive resources to emphasizing our victimhood. We like to think that the general public will feel more sympathy with us. And in many cases this may be correct.

But unless handled very well, Holocaust education can work against us. Unsympathetic people, not to mention outright anti-Semites, may view the Holocaust as an example of how Jews were slaughtered by the millions while the world did very little to stop the carnage. In a warped mindset, the Holocaust demonstrates that it’s okay to attack Jews. Even worse, the Jewish victims are blamed for having deserved to be massacred.

In the United States, Jewish spokespeople emphasize that Jews are perhaps 2% of the population but are victims of over 50% of hate crimes. The expectation is that people will be morally outraged to hear this information. Yet, neutral or unsympathetic people may draw another conclusion. If so many people are attacking Jews, it’s ok for us to do so also. Jews must deserve this treatment, otherwise why would they be singled out for so much antagonism?

We cannot ignore anti-Jewish and anti-Israel activity. We must do our best to defeat the haters.

But we need to get beyond the “victim mentality.” We need to do far more to foster a positive, confident and courageous Jewish people. We need to publicize and promote philo-Semitism. After all, vast numbers of non-Jews feel warmly about Jews, and are appreciative of the amazing contributions of Jews to education, science, medicine, law, the arts, social justice, government, literature etc. Many millions of Americans vote for and elect Jewish candidates to a wide range of offices. American Jews have exemplified the best aspects of the American dream. We are a hard-working, highly educated and socially responsible group.

While it is important to publicize anti-Jewish behaviors, it is also important—even more important—to publicize philo-Jewish behaviors.  Jewish defense organizations send out frequent press releases on anti-Semitic acts. They should be sending out (at least) an equal number of press releases highlighting philo-Semitic acts, calling attention to positive interactions between Jews and non-Jews. In order to offset bad trends, we need to encourage good trends.

When it comes to Israel, we are barraged by news about anti-Israel activity in colleges. The BDS movement receives an inordinate amount of news coverage as do politicians who voice anti-Israel animus. We need a barrage of news about all the goodwill shown by millions of people toward Israel. The general public needs to know how much good Israel does, how its technology improves all our lives, how its agricultural advances help nations in Africa and Asia, how it promotes culture, the arts etc. Instead of always seeming to be on the defensive, we ought to confidently let the world know of the incredible achievements of the tiny State of Israel and how it has managed to become a world leader in so many fields. This can be done in a sensitive and thoughtful way, without bragging and without undue self-congratulations.

Our Jewish organizations and each individual Jew can play a role in overcoming the “victim mentality." While fighting against all forms of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, we also need to project a positive and confident self-image. Opinion leaders—Jewish and non-Jewish—can mobilize to move society in a positive and respectful direction.

The “victim mentality” reinforces our victimhood. Let’s look beyond this; let’s develop a positive, confident mentality. We can do this…and it will make a vast difference for the better.



When Societies Implode: Thoughts for Parashat Noah

Angel for Shabbat, Parashat Noah

By Rabbi Marc D. Angel


The Torah describes the destruction of humanity in the days of Noah. It wasn’t due to idolatry or blasphemy but to the general breakdown in interpersonal relations. People were hedonistic and promiscuous. They robbed and cheated each other. 

The basic lesson of the Noah story is that humanity is capable of bringing on its own destruction. The deepening of corruption is insidious. A midrash suggests that thievery began on a seemingly small scale. People would take “free samples” of merchandise, not bothering to pay the merchant. They did not bother to consider that if all others were doing the same thing, the merchants would go broke and would be unable to provide goods in the future. People did not realize that theft—even on a small level—contributes to the overall breakdown of a society’s economic well-being.

The Torah alludes to the general breakdown in sexual morality. The strong and powerful took advantage of the weak. Women were treated as objects of gratification rather than as human beings with rights and feelings of their own.

A rabbinic teaching has it that Noah spent one hundred and twenty years building the ark. During this interval, he called upon people to repent their ways; but they ignored him or reviled him.

Societies (and empires) unravel when people lose trust in each other. This is seldom an abrupt dissolution, but—as in the times of Noah—a gradual breakdown in elementary decency. When cheating becomes rampant, when scammers fiendishly plot to rob others, when government officials and police take bribes to pervert justice—a society is in the throes of self-dissolution. Petty shop-lifting proliferates; smash and grab thieves grow ever more impudent; armed robbery and murder undermine society’s feeling of wellbeing. Law enforcement weakens, the justice system declines.

Societies implode slowly, almost without noticing, when sexual license becomes “normal”, when personal gratification becomes the main bond between humans. Often, the sexual license is promoted as a sign of liberation and freedom of expression. People can and do rationalize many negative things into positive. But that doesn’t change the underlying breakdown in social interaction.

When anyone calls attention to the factors leading to the implosion of society, he or she may feel like Noah building his ark. Few pay any attention. The corruption gets deeper and deeper until it eventually reaches a point of no return. The forces for good are simply overwhelmed.

The Torah describes the destruction of humanity as God’s punishment of pervasive immorality. But the ongoing lesson is that humanity is itself capable of bringing on its own demise. The Noah story is a warning to all future generations—including our own. If basic human decency, honesty and trust are lacking, the foundations of society dissolve. When cheaters cheat and exploiters exploit, they threaten all society. When a society allows the negative forces to prevail, it sows the seeds of its own destruction.

One Noah wasn’t able to turn his generation around, just as lone voices today are not able to stop the erosive trends. But if enough Noahs will stand strong, perhaps the negative forces can be set back.

Short Book Reviews

Book Reviews

Hayyim Angel


  • Rabbi Dr. Marc D. Angel, Sephardim Sephardism, and Jewish Peoplehood

  • Pesah and Sukkot: Insights from the Past, Present, and Future (The Habura)

  • Dennis Prager, The Rational Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy

  • The Koren Tanakh of the Land of Israel: Exodus



Rabbi Dr. Marc D. Angel, Sephardim Sephardism and Jewish Peoplehood (Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals: 2022), 266 pages.[1]


            Imagine an authentic vision of Judaism fully rooted in tradition. A vision that properly represents the particularistic covenant between God and Israel through the Torah and halakha. A vision that properly represents the universalistic aspect of God as Creator of the entire cosmos, where Israel has a vital role to play in the community of nations. A vision that learns from the best of traditional Jewish thinkers—Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and beyond, so that we may broaden our discourse in discussing complex contemporary issues. A vision that learns from the best of human wisdom. A vision that embraces the classical Jewish values of questioning, critical-mindedness, and diversity. A vision that demands that Jewish communal institutions be faithful to halakha, while incorporating all Jews, regardless of background or level of observance. A vision entirely true to the axioms of Judaism, while being humble enough to recognize that the rest of humanity may pursue its own religious worldviews. 

            For over half of a century, Rabbi Marc D. Angel has taught that we can realize this vision. After a long and distinguished career as Rabbi at Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, he founded the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals in 2007 to promote his religious worldview to a wider audience. 

All but one of the essays in this volume have been published previously in various books and journals. This collection reflects many of Rabbi Angel’s “greatest hits” in representing his grand religious worldview, his Sephardic role models, and the central tenets of the ideology that animate us at the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.

            Jewish diversity is celebrated by Jewish tradition, which mandates the blessing Barukh Hakham haRazim, the One who understands the inner thoughts of each individual, upon seeing throngs of Jews (Berakhot 58a). In contrast, the Talmud ascribes forced societal tyranny and conformity to the wicked city of Sodom, which used the notorious Procrustean bed on its visitors to ensure conformity (Sanhedrin 109b).

            Teaching Sephardic thinkers, customs, and history to all Jews is valuable on many levels. Halakhic decisors must consider the learned opinions of both Sephardic and Ashkenazic responsa before reaching conclusions on today’s complex halakhic questions. Educators must be informed of the rich diversity of Jewish traditions and convey them as part of the wholeness of the Jewish people. Rabbis and teachers cannot be expected to know every custom or legal opinion, but certainly can be held to the standard of teaching an openness to diversity and willingness to learn new ideas and customs. On the negative side, Rabbi Angel cites several painful personal experiences from when he was a student, where several rabbis and teachers negated the validity of long-standing Sephardic practices and traditions.

            When people shut down other valid opinions, Judaism itself is harmed and the Jewish community suffers. Overly dogmatic, authoritarian, or superstitious worldviews likewise compromise the grand religious tradition of the Torah which instills a pursuit of truth, embraces debate, teaches openness, critical-mindedness, and humility, and grows closer to God through arguments for the sake of Heaven.

            Many of Rabbi Angel’s articles were previously published in our own journal, Conversations, or in other publications largely of the Orthodox world. However, his reach extends far beyond that. One essay, entitled “Sephardim, Sephardism, and Jewish Peoplehood,” was published in a collection of essays by the Central Conference of American Rabbis of the Reform Movement. Rabbi Angel expresses the need for all Jews to highlight the strengths of their respective communities and come together under the Sephardic communal model where institutions are committed to halakha while people represent the range of observances. He even dares to dream that


The day will surely come when all Jews—of whatever background—will come to view each other as “us”—as one people with a shared history and shared destiny….I think that not only will ethnic divisions become increasingly irrelevant, but the division of Jews into religious “streams” will also decline. A century from now, I don’t think it will be important for Jews to identify as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal or any other subdivision (16).


Another essay, entitled “Theological Unity,” is based on the remarks of Rabbi Angel at a conference at the United Nations on “Religious Pluralism and Tolerance” under the sponsorship of the Kingdom of Bahrain. We are part of one humanity, all created in God’s Image, who have much to learn and appreciate from one another.

            Through over 53 years in the rabbinate, Rabbi Angel has consistently advocated these principles and has articulated models of how the entire Jewish community can benefit from this worldview. This new collection of essays is a wonderful entry point into Rabbi Angel’s vision—and with that an entry point into several of the great luminaries and ideas that Judaism ever has produced. 

We thank all of our members and supporters at the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, for helping us promote and realize this vision in schools and communities worldwide.



Pesah: Insights from the Past, Present, and Future (The Habura, 2022)[2]



            It has been delightful becoming acquainted with The Habura, a recently founded England-based organization that has been promoting thoughtful Torah learning since 2020. It is headed by Rabbi Joseph Dweck, Senior Rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Community of the United Kingdom (see

            The Habura promotes the inclusion of Sephardic voices and ideas in Jewish discourse, coupled with an openness to the broad wisdom of the Jewish people and the world. In this regard, their work strongly dovetails ours at the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.

            Their recently published Pesah volume contains an array of 20 essays. The first two are by Sephardic visionaries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Rabbis Benjamin Artom (1835–1879, Hakham of the Spanish and Portuguese Community of the United Kingdom) and Ben Zion Uziel (1880–1953, first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel). The rest of the book is divided between contemporary rabbis and scholars, and younger scholars who participate in the learning of The Habura.

            The essays span a variety of topics pertaining to Pesah in the areas of Jewish thought, faith, halakha, and custom. The authors stress the need for different communities to remain faithful to their interpretive traditions. Too much of the observant Jewish world has capitulated to a stringency-seeking approach that ignores dissenting opinions and fosters conformity. The essays in this volume seek to rectify this outlook. Sephardim, Ashkenazim, and other communities should be true to their halakhic traditions and customs, and learn from one another instead of striving for conformity with the most restricted common denominators.

            In this brief review, I will summarize three of the essays I personally found most enlightening.

            Rabbi Dr. Samuel Lebens addresses a surprising formula early in the maggid section of the Haggadah: “If the Holy One, blessed be God, had not taken us out of Egypt, then we, our children, and our children’s children would have remained slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” On its surface, this claim seems unsustainable. After all, there is no Pharaoh today. Are we really to think we would be slaves to Pharaoh?

            No. We are supposed to pretend that we otherwise would still be slaves. This theme at the outset of the maggid relates to the statement toward the end of maggid, “In every generation, people are obligated to regard themselves as if they had come out of Egypt.” We must imagine that we ourselves were redeemed from Egypt, and we therefore experience the slavery and redemption in our Seder.

            Lebens argues that in addition to elements of faith and community-building, all religions have a component that arouses the imagination. Sometimes, we imagine based on a reality. For example, we believe God really did create the cosmos. However, it is imperative to also live our lives constantly seeing ourselves as God’s creations (see Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on the first of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20). 

On other occasions, tradition demands that we pretend so that we live our lives in a certain way. It is insufficient to merely believe that God redeemed our ancestors from Egypt thousands of years ago. The Haggadah then demands that we imagine ourselves to have been enslaved and redeemed. If we do not invoke our imaginations, we remain distant from the identification required to transform our identity and actions. If we internalize the religious program of the Haggadah, we become more sensitive toward the underprivileged, since we too were enslaved and redeemed.

            Daniel Osen also exploits the Haggadah’s directive, “In every generation, people are obligated to regard themselves as if they had come out of Egypt.” He employs this concept to explain the puzzling omission of Moses in the Haggadah (Moses is mentioned once in passing in most contemporary versions of the Haggadah, but in earlier versions of the Haggadah even that reference was absent). 

This phenomenon is commonly explained as a means of highlighting God’s central role in the exodus. Osen adds a dimension by noting that we may experience the exodus better in our imaginations if we do not dwell on a specific historical person. This interpretation creates a direct relationship between God and the Jewish people of all generations.

            Rabbi Abraham Faur uses the Pesah narrative in the Torah to reflect on alarming contemporary trends toward tyranny in secular Western culture. A basic feature of utopian societies is that one is forbidden from criticizing the ruling class. To suspend critical thinking—the great threat to tyrants—the political elite will suppress anything that promotes scrutiny. 

            It is specifically the family unit promoted by the Torah that enables people to oppose tyranny. Faur quotes Frederick Engels, who wrote in 2015 that Marxism attempts “to end home and religious education, to dissolve monogamy in marriage…to shift mothers into factories, to move children into daycare nurseries…and, most of all, for society and the state to rear and educate children.”

            Tyrants recognize that promiscuous people with weak family bonds will become submissive citizens of the state. Contemporary “woke ideology…is an intentional attempt to promote values that contradict the family structure.”

            Jacob brought his family to Egypt ish u-beto, every man arrived with a family (Exodus 1:1). Pharaoh attempted to destroy Israelite families, first by enslavement, then through the secret murder of infant boys, and then finally publicly decreeing that Israelite boys be drowned. 

            Tyrants also control the information released to the public, and censor or punish anything that contradicts their narrative. The new Pharaoh suddenly forgot that Joseph had saved Egypt, and instead promoted fear and hysteria against the Israelites. A person raised in Egypt would not have known that there were alternatives to the enslavement and murder of the Israelites. In contrast, a strong family might be able to think critically, because it has access to traditions and memories older than the tyrannical state.

            Tyrannies often pretend to act for the best of the people, but critical-minded people see through their hypocrisy and lies. Pharaoh is a banner example of this evil: When Moses approached Pharaoh after the plague of hail, he demanded that all adults, children, and animals be released to the wilderness to serve God. Pharaoh responds, “may the Lord be with you, if I send you and your children; behold that evil is before you…the men may go and worship the Lord” (Exodus 10:10–11). Pharaoh presents the journey into the wilderness as dangerous for women and children, and therefore permits only the men to go. Pharaoh thereby postures as the protector of women and children.

            Of course, the family-oriented, critical-minded Israelite women saw through Pharaoh’s outrageous pretense as a defender of human rights, since Pharaoh had decreed the murder of their sons. He could not care less about the welfare of them or their children. They followed Moses into the wilderness with their children, and sought out God’s word at Sinai.



Sukkot: Insights from the Past, Present, and Future (The Habura, 2022)[3]



The Habura’s recently published Sukkot volume contains an array of 18 essays. The first two are by Sephardic rabbis of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Rabbis Abraham Pereira Mendes (1825–1893, Jamaica, England, and the United States) and Hayim David Halevi (1923–1998, Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv). The rest of the book is divided between contemporary rabbis and scholars, and younger upcoming scholars who participate in the learning of The Habura.

            The essays span a variety of topics pertaining to Sukkot in the areas of Jewish thought, faith, halakha, and custom. In this brief review, I will summarize three essays that I found most edifying.


            Rabbi Joseph Dweck explores the unusual commandment to rejoice on Sukkot (Deuteronomy 16:14). It is curious that other faith traditions viewed the changing of the seasons to autumn (in the northern hemisphere) as cause for bleaker holiday reactions. Roman Catholics observe All Soul’s Day, which appears in Mexico as the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). This holiday translates to the more widespread Halloween. The Angel of Death is even nicknamed “The Grim Reaper,” reflecting the incoming gloom of winter that follows the harvest season. How does Sukkot become such a profoundly joyous time?

            A central theme of Sukkot is the fleetingness of the physical world. This realistic perspective enables us to experience joy while recognizing that it is temporary. Sigmund Freud wrote an essay entitled “On Transience,” in which he asserted that life’s transience helps us appreciate the preciousness and beauty of each experience.

            Rabbi Dweck believes that Freud has identified the root of our joy on Sukkot and concludes, “When we can come to this understanding about the world, we can truly come to embrace and accept life on its own terms—and in doing that, we can truly know happiness.”

            Pursuing a different angle into the theme of joy on Sukkot, Gershon Engel explains that nowadays, we emphasize our dependence on God rather than relying on the permanence of our homes (e.g., Rabbi Yitzhak Aboab, Menorat HaMa’or III, 4:6). Of course, the biblical Sukkot revolved around the harvest. This holiday was uniquely joyous in ancient Israel, as the harvests were in and farmers did not need to rush home as they would after Pesah and Shavuot. 

            By transferring the meaning of Sukkot from agriculture to more universal religious themes, Jews were able to preserve a sense of joy on Sukkot even after the termination of the agrarian life that had characterized our people for much of our foundational existence. 

Engel quotes Benjamin Disraeli in his classic work Tancred, who expressed awe in the Jews for retaining their sense of joy on Sukkot while in the exile:


The vineyards of Israel have ceased to exist, but the eternal law enjoins the children of Israel still to celebrate the vintage. A race that persists in celebrating their vintage, although they have no fruits to gather, will regain their vineyards. What sublime inexorability in the law! But what indomitable spirit in the people!


            Addressing the halakhic question of wearing tefillin on hol haMo’ed (the intermediate weekdays) of Pesah and Sukkot, Yehuda J.W. Leikin observes that the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds both appear to suggest that wearing tefillin on the middle days of Pesah and Sukkot is normative. 

The three halakhic pillars behind Rabbi Yosef Karo’s Shulhan Arukh—Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi (Rif), Rambam, and Rabbenu Asher (Rosh), all agree that wearing tefillin on hol haMo’ed is the proper observance. While several other leading medieval rabbinic authorities, including Rabbi Shelomo ibn Aderet (Rashba) and Rabbi Avraham ben David (Ra’avad), maintain that tefillin should not be worn, Rabbi Karo generally follows his three pillars of rabbinic ruling.

            In this case, however, Rabbi Karo forbids the wearing of tefillin on hol haMo’ed, and rules prohibitively because the Zohar strongly opposes the wearing of tefillin on hol haMo’ed (Bet Yosef, Orah Hayyim 31:2). Rabbi Karo reports that in Spain, the original practice was to wear tefillin on hol haMo’ed until they discovered the Zohar’s prohibition. In contrast, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Rama) maintains that Ashkenazim should wear tefillin, following the ruling of Rabbenu Asher (Rosh). 

            Thus, the Sephardic practice to refrain from wearing tefillin on hol haMo’ed reflects an unusual move from classical halakhic sources to kabbalah. Leikin concludes that Rabbi Yosef Karo may have been inclined to accept the kabbalistic ruling in this instance, since there also were great halakhists who also opposed wearing tefillin on hol haMo’ed.

            There are many other fine essays in these Pesah and Sukkot companions, and we look forward to future volumes from The Habura.




Dennis Prager, The Rational Bible: Genesis (Regnery Faith, 2019)[4]


            Dennis Prager is far better known as a political commentator than a Bible Scholar. Nonetheless, he is animated by his belief in the Torah and its enduring moral messages for humanity. His commentary, as the book’s title suggests, is rooted in a rationalist approach to the Bible.

            Whether or not one agrees with all of his politics or individual interpretations of the verses, Prager’s commentary is strikingly relevant when he emphasizes the moral and theological revolution of the Torah and the vitality of its teachings to today’s overly secularized Western world. Rather than serving as bastions of moral teachings and American values, universities are increasingly at the vanguard of attacks against God, the Bible, family values, Israel, and the very notion of an objective morality. Prager pinpoints several of the major differences between the Torah’s morality and the dangerous shortcomings of today’s secular West.

            Throughout his commentary, Prager makes his case for belief in God, providence, the divine origins of the Torah, and the eternal power of the Torah’s morality. He also offers a running commentary on the Torah, bringing insights from a wide variety of scholars and thinkers, as well as from his personal experiences. In this review, we will focus exclusively on the former, as it is here that Prager’s commentary makes its greatest contributions.

God’s creation of the world teaches that there is ultimate purpose to human existence. Atheists reject God’s existence. If all existence is random happenstance, however, there is no ultimate purpose. Additionally, the Torah posits that God is completely separate from nature. God gave human beings a special role, and the moral God demands morality from humanity. Science teaches science, but it cannot teach right from wrong, or even if there is a right or a wrong. Science cannot provide ultimate purpose, since it studies only the physical universe (7–8).

            The world began as chaotic (tohu va-vohu, Genesis 1:2), and God created order through a process of distinctions. According to the Torah, the primary responsibility of humanity is to preserve God’s order and distinctions. The creation narrative in Genesis distinguishes between God and the universe, humans and animals, and sacred and profane. Elsewhere in the Torah, God distinguishes between people and God, good and evil, life and death, and many others. The battle for higher civilization essentially is the struggle between biblical distinctions and the human desire to undo many of those distinctions. Prager concludes with a chilling assertion about the contemporary secular West: “As Western society abandons the Bible and the God of the Bible, it is also abandoning these distinctions. I fear for its future because Western civilization rests on these distinctions” (14).

            Pagans believed that the gods inhere in nature. This belief led to the need for people to propitiate the gods and offer sacrifices. By stressing that God is outside of nature, the Torah revolutionizes the role of humanity vis-à-vis the world. People must rule and conquer the earth, meaning that the world was created for human use (1:28). People must not abuse nature or inflict unnecessary suffering on animals, but people rule the world. Among other things, this belief led to the invention of modern medicine to fight diseases. Prager warns of a relapse to the pagan worldview: “Many secular people in our time romanticize nature, perhaps not realizing—or not wanting to realize—that either humans rule over nature or nature will destroy humans” (27). 

Without the values of the Bible, people lose their uniqueness as being created in God’s image (1:26), and instead become insignificant parts of nature. British physicist and atheist Stephen Hawking said, “We humans [are] mere collections of fundamental particles of nature.” When God is diminished and nature is elevated, human worth is reduced (104). Finally, without God, people are simply another part of nature. There cannot be any good or evil behavior for humanity, just as we would not call an earthquake evil. “Therefore, as ironic as it may sound to a secular individual, only a God-based understanding of human life allows for free will” (505–506).

            It is not good for a human to be alone (2:18). People ideally were meant to marry and to live together in a community. In the secular West, there has been a dramatic decrease in marriage rates, and more people live by themselves than at any time in recorded history. Consequently, loneliness has become a major social pathology. A meta-analysis of 70 studies covering over three million people published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science concludes that “loneliness is now a major public health issue and represents a greater health risk than obesity and is as destructive to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” Prager also highlights the moral benefits of participating in a religious community. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks summarizes the research of Robert Putnam: “Regular attendees at a place of worship were more likely than others to give money to charity, engage in volunteer work, donate blood, spend time with someone who is depressed, offer a seat to a stranger, help someone find a job…. Regular attendance at a house of worship is the most accurate predictor of altruism, more so than any other factor, including gender, education, income, race, region, marital status, ideology, and age” (39-41). 

            God expressed grave concern over Adam and Eve’s eating from the Tree of Knowledge, lamenting that “man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:22). Prager frames the sin in Eden as the struggle over who determines morality. The Torah teaches that God does, but human sin is when people determine good and evil. When people usurp that right, people become god. “And it is precisely what has happened in the West since the French Enlightenment. Man has displaced God as the source of right and wrong. As Karl Marx wrote, ‘Man is God.’ And as Lenin, the father of modern totalitarianism, said, ‘We repudiate all morality derived from non-human (i.e., God) and non-class concepts’” (59). 

Human conscience alone cannot bring about a just society. Conscience can be easily manipulated when serving a cause. Conscience can be dulled when people do more and more bad. Conscience also is not usually as powerful as the natural drives—greed, envy, sex, alcohol use, and others can overpower the conscience. And finally, conscience does not always guide someone properly to do what is right. We need God to teach objective moral values (108–109). “Even Voltaire (1694–1778), a passionate atheist and the godfather of the aggressively secular French Enlightenment, acknowledged: ‘I want my lawyer, my tailor, my servants, and even my wife to believe in God because it means that I shall be cheated, and robbed, and cuckolded less often. If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him’” (239).

            Those who admire the achievements of successful people likely will strive to emulate them. Those who are jealous and resentful of the success of others become destructive. Rather than improving his offering, Cain instead envied Abel’s successful sacrifice and murdered Abel. The Philistines envied Abraham and Isaac, and therefore destructively filled up Abraham’s wells and persecuted Isaac (Genesis 26). Economist George Gilder (a non-Jew) wrote about this phenomenon in his book, The Israel Factor. He demonstrates that a society’s reaction to Israel’s successes is a predictor of their success or failure. Those who resent the outsized achievements of Israel are likely to fail morally, economically, and socially. Those who admire Israel and seek to emulate its achievements are likely to create their own free and prosperous societies (65). Prager draws a lesson for contemporary America: “The most notable exception to this unfortunate rule of human nature has been the American people. Until almost the present day, Americans tended to react to people who had attained material success not by resenting them but by wanting to know how they could emulate them. This seems to be changing as more Americans join others in resenting the economic success of other people” (308). 

            The Torah describes Noah as “a righteous man, blameless in his age.” The Sages of the Talmud debate whether the Torah’s addition of “in his age” diminishes his objective righteousness, or whether it makes Noah all the more impressive for standing above his wicked society. Although both positions are valid, Prager supports the latter view, observing that few people have the moral courage to reject their environment. Prager adds a more important point: Many are tempted to judge people of the past by our contemporary moral standards, rather than in the context of their time. As a result, we would conclude that virtually nobody who lived before us was a good person. For example, many of the founding fathers of America owned slaves, and America allowed slavery at the time of its founding. Since slavery is indeed evil, we may conclude that America’s founders were wicked and America itself was a bad place. However, it is vital to judge America in 1776 “in its age,” and not by the standards of our time. At that time, virtually every society practiced slavery. It was the values of America’s founders and Western Bible-based civilization that led to the abolition of slavery, and the thriving of freedom-loving and freedom-spreading society (91–93).

            After the flood, God concludes that God never again will destroy humanity, “since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth” (8:21). Prager uses this verse as a springboard to attack a modern Western belief, that people are basically good and corrupted by society. The belief emerges from the West’s abandonment of the Bible, and is associated with philosophers of the French Enlightenment such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). No rational person can believe that people are basically good. All children need moral teachings to learn the most basic decency. The unjust wars, slavery, child abuse, and so many other horrors of world history down to the present should be ample evidence that people must actively build a good society. The wrongful belief that people are basically good also is dangerous. Parents and schools will not invest time and energy teaching goodness if they assume that children are naturally good. God and religion become irrelevant to teaching goodness. Society, not the individual, is blamed for evil. Those who blame society try to change society, rather than teaching individuals to be better. In contrast, “The Torah teaches that, especially in a free society, the battle for a good world is not between the individual and society but between the individual and his or her nature” (109–115).     

            Making good people is the single most important thing parents can do. Loving children without teaching them moral responsibility turns children into spoiled narcissists. Parents must constantly emphasize goodness, integrity, and honesty, and praise these traits as most important. Parents also must morally discipline their children, rather than ignoring that responsibility. Teaching the Bible only can help, both because the Bible is unparalleled in its moral wisdom, and it is imperative for children (and their parents) to recognize God as the source of morality (132–133).


Dennis Prager, The Rational Bible: Exodus (Regnery Faith, 2018)[5]


            The God of the Torah is the most important idea of human history. Among its revolutionary contributions: The God of the Torah brings universal morality to the world. Good and evil are not merely societal opinions, but objectively real. God and morality give humanity hope for a better world. People have infinite worth and dignity and can elevate their lives in holiness. We aspire to universal brotherhood and human equality. There is a non-physical reality outside of nature, giving ultimate purpose to the universe. Human beings have free will and can and should make moral choices (93–97). These transformative ideas offer humanity the chance for redemption.

            Belief in one God is emphatically not identical to belief in the God of the Torah. The God of the Torah judges the moral behavior of every human being by the same moral standard. “A god in whose name believers cut innocent people’s throats, behead them, burn them alive, and rape girls and women—as is being done at the time of this writing by Islamist terrorists in the name of ‘the one God’—cannot be the same god as the God of the Torah, the God who gave the Ten Commandments, who commanded His people to ‘Love the stranger,’ and demanded holy and ethical conduct at all times. Likewise, those Christians who in the Middle Ages slaughtered entire Jewish communities in the name of Christ also clearly did not believe in the God of the Bible…” (132–135). 

            Prager maintains that without the God of the Torah, there is no way of demonstrating that murder is objectively wrong. The twentieth-century atheist philosopher Bertrand Russel admitted that he could think of no better argument against wanton cruelty than, “I don’t like it.” We need God to declare murder as an absolute wrong, and not rely on empty arguments such as “I don’t like it,” or “I think it is wrong.” A common contemporary argument posits that murder is wrong on utilitarian grounds: We don’t murder others because we don’t want others to murder us. However, this argument is an abject failure. Most murderers do not want to be murdered. They murder nonetheless because they think they can get away with it. For suicide terrorists who do not mind being killed in return, the argument becomes entirely irrelevant. Finally, evil ideologies can overrule the utilitarian argument. For example, Hitler insisted that the Nazi extermination of Jews was for the betterment of the human species. Prager concludes, “In sum, it is unlikely there has been even one would-be murderer in history who decided not to murder because of the argument, ‘We don’t murder others because we don’t want others to murder us’” (258–260).

            Prager cites Thucydides’ fifth-century bce History of the Peloponnesian War. Athens and Sparta were at war, and Athens pressured the island of Melos to support their war efforts. The Melians wanted to remain neutral, so Athens threatened Melos with destruction. “Is this your idea of fair play?” the Melians asked. The Athenians answered, “So far as right and wrong are concerned, there is no difference between the two. The strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.” Athens went on to besiege and destroy Melos, murdering the men and selling the women and children into slavery. Prager notes that 2400 years later, the nineteenth-century atheist Friedrich Nietzche wrote with contempt of those who sympathized with the Melians’ moral appeals. The God of the Torah repudiates this idea (322–323).

The Torah constantly emphasizes the significance of remembering our past. Remembering teaches us gratitude and wisdom. Remembering also connects us to the past and reminds us that we are part of an ongoing people and ideal. Pharaoh’s first act is to forget Joseph (Exodus 1:8). He therefore has no gratitude to Israel and instead wickedly enslaves them and decrees the murder of their baby boys. The Torah treats memory as an essential component of identity and morality. Prager extends this lesson to modern times. “Nations, too, are their memories. A nation that doesn’t remember its past…ceases to be the nation it was. This may be happening now in a number of Western European nations that teach their young people to consider themselves ‘world citizens’ or Europeans rather than members of a specific nation. It is also happening in the United States, where the level of ignorance of the American past among young Americans is unprecedented” (5–6). 

In our society, intelligence and knowledge are valued far more than wisdom. One terribly mistaken believer in secular education as a replacement of religion for moral values was Sigmund Freud, who naively wrote in 1927, “Civilization has little to fear from educated people and brain-workers. In them, the replacement of religious motives for civilized behavior by other secular motives, would proceed unobtrusively” (The Future of an Illusion). Knowledge and intelligence are useful for technology and science. However, societies need wisdom far more than intelligence or knowledge. Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea, and Iran all had or have intelligence and knowledge, but abused them for evil purposes. While the failure of German Christianity during the Holocaust (with a few notable heroic exceptions) is almost universally acknowledged, the moral failure of secular education and secular intellectuals in Germany is almost universally ignored (46, 136–138, 229–230). 

The commandment to honor one’s parents is the guarantor for the civilization to endure. Parents transmit culture, religion, and ethics. The breakdown of the family ensures the breakdown of the civilization. A standard feature of totalitarian regimes is to shift children’s loyalty from their parents to the state or ideology. Strong families serve as bulwarks against totalitarianism (258).

            Pharaoh initiated the ruthless slavery, but the entire Egyptian society went along with him. The same can be said of Nazi Germany, where most Germans were not as evil as Hitler. These and so many other similar stories teach that you do not need a great number of truly evil people to carry out massive evil. You need only: 1) Ordinary people who allow themselves to be indoctrinated by the truly evil people; 2) People who benefit from the evil; and 3) A paucity of courageous good people. Prager laments, “I am convinced courage is the rarest of all good traits” (9).

            The heroic midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, may not have been Israelites. Their inspiring morality lies in their fear of God (1:15–21). Fear of God is a necessary ingredient to build a society of moral individuals. Of course there are individual good atheists as there were good pagans. And there are numerous people who practice religion who are wicked. However, a universal moral code from a universal God who judges all humanity is the only way to build a moral society (10–11).


Dennis Prager, The Rational Bible: Deuteronomy (Regnery Faith, 2022)[6]


In Deuteronomy 1:13, Moses selected judges who were “wise, discerning, and experienced.” All three traits pertain to wisdom, not goodness. Of course, judges also must be good people, but that trait alone is insufficient for leadership. A good society is unattainable without wisdom. Prager observes that “there have always been people who were personally good—individuals who have good intentions and even a kindly disposition—who enabled evil to prevail.” 

On a personal level, parents who spoil their children without teaching them right from wrong may be good people, but they lack wisdom. On a global level, communism is the best example of good intentions without wisdom. Communism has killed approximately 100 million people, and enslaved a billion more. Their tyrannical leaders, and some of their supporters, are truly evil people. But many millions of their supporters sincerely believed that communism would build a better world for the future. However, they lacked moral and economic wisdom, thereby supporting and enabling the evil tyrants to obtain and retain power (6–10).

            The world’s freest society, the United States of America, is both a democracy and theocracy. Theocracy without democracy leads to an unfree society. Democracy without God leads to moral and intellectual chaos. George Washington stated, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports…reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” In a similar vein, John Adams remarked that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Prager observes that it is no accident that the two mottoes of the United States are “Liberty” and “In God We Trust” (283–285).

The Book of Deuteronomy repeatedly warns against following false gods. Prager enumerates several of today’s “false gods” (71–84). One of the most corrosive elements to the fabric of our increasingly secular society is the elimination of God and the Bible, and replacing its wisdom with an overvaluation of education and intelligence.

Prager quotes Professor Steven Pinker of Harvard University, who observes that “universities are becoming laughingstocks of intolerance.” Well-educated people disproportionately supported the Nazi party, as well as communism. The same is true for those today who hold anti-American and Israeli sentiments.

            In 2015 Prager participated in a debate at the prestigious Oxford Union at Oxford University on the subject of whether Israel or Hamas is a greater obstacle for peace in the Middle East. That this debate could even occur is truly terrifying, given the terrorist organization Hamas’ genocidal charter. Yet, the debate went on, and the majority of the over 400 elite students in attendance voted that Israel is the greater obstacle to peace, as this is what they are taught.

            The Book of Deuteronomy promises national reward for righteous behavior, and national calamity for wicked behavior and unfaithfulness to God. To the modern mind, such promises often appear to reflect a low-level religious system. Prager defends the Torah’s discourse on several grounds (142–143).

            First, the Torah could have omitted all reference to reward and punishment. This idealistic system is simply untrue to human reality. When people are rewarded for competent work, they work harder and more competently. This is why the capitalistic free market economy was the only system that enabled people to lift themselves out of poverty. Some are seduced by the Marxist socialist ideal of people being rewarded “according to their needs,” rather than for the excellence of their work. This ideology, however, eliminates the incentive to work hard. Further, who determines the “needs” of individuals? Generally not the individual, but the state. This is the road to tyranny and totalitarianism. Prager concludes, “And who doesn’t want to live in a just world? Only the unjust.”

            The Torah could have shifted focus to reward in the afterlife, but its entire agenda is to build a great society in this world.

            Finally, the Torah could have demanded faithfulness based on love of God. However, that argument would work only for the religiously elite few.

            Therefore, the Torah’s stress on this-worldly reward and punishment is the most effective means of promoting a universally righteous society.

            A central theme in Deuteronomy is gratitude. God blesses Israel with a beautiful, bountiful land. The religious hazard of that blessing is that Israel may in turn become spoiled and arrogant, considering their prosperity as their own achievement. Prager comments that “gratitude is the mother of both happiness and goodness.” The easiest way to undermine gratitude is to take something or someone for granted. Most people appreciate what they had only once they have lost it. Parents spoil their children when they give them everything, as children come to expect everything. Saying “thank you” is not merely polite etiquette; these words inculcate gratitude and appreciation. Jewish law has blessings for everything, including eating and even relieving oneself in the bathroom. These blessings, when taken seriously, infuse gratitude and happiness into the most mundane moments (154–156).

            In Deuteronomy 12:20, the Torah permits “secular slaughter” away from the Temple, enabling Israelites to eat meat outside of a sacrificial context. Prager uses this commandment to launch into a discussion regarding animal rights activism gone awry in the secular world. There is an increasingly prevalent value of people and animals being of equal worth. Prager quotes a 2003 PETA ad campaign, which appallingly equated barbequing chickens with the cremation of Jews in the Nazi death camps. They entitled their ad campaign, “Holocaust on your Plate.” It was a Jew at PETA who created that ad campaign, and he doubled down on his assertion that chickens and humans are of equal value when he was challenged. 

            In Deuteronomy 19:13, the Torah insists that we show no pity for murderers. The Torah understands that if we see the condemned, we naturally will have pity, and consider withholding the capital punishment. However, such pity ignores the true victims, namely, the person who was murdered and his or her family. In a debate on American television with the leader of an anti-capital punishment vigil being held in front of the prison where a murderer was about to be executed, Prager “asked the activist if he and his supporters had ever held a vigil in support of a murder victim’s family. I received no response” (303–304). 

We should lead the world in morality, but not promote a morality so far beyond realism that we subject ourselves to mortal danger. Prager quotes Rabbi Irving (“Yitz”) Greenberg reflecting on the modern State of Israel, surrounded by vicious enemies committed to Israel’s destruction: “If we Jews are five percent better than the rest of the world, we can be a ‘light unto the nations.’ If we are twenty-five percent better than the rest of the world, we can bring the Messiah. If we are fifty percent better than the rest of the world, we’ll all be dead” (316).

            Through these and so many other religious-moral teachings, the Torah was a revolution in world history, and continues to bring relevant, and sorely needed, teaching to the modern world.



The Koren Tanakh of the Land of Israel: Exodus

edited by David Arnovitz et al. (Koren Publishers, 2019), 305 pages. [7]

Koren Publishers has embarked on an impressive new project, a popular companion to the Torah presenting contemporary research on archaeology, Egyptology, flora and fauna, geology, the languages and realia of the ancient Near East, and other areas that elucidate aspects of the biblical text. It is presented in a similar engaging manner to the Hebrew series, Olam haTanakh, and like that Hebrew work was composed by a team of scholars who specialize in a variety of fields of scholarship. There are brief articles and glossy photographs, maps, and illustrations that bring these areas to light. Living up to the standard that the community has come to expect from Koren publications, the volume is an impressive work of graphic design, with a high aesthetic sense. Unlike Olam haTanakh, which also offers a running commentary on biblical books, The Koren Tanakh of the Land of Israel discusses specifically those background areas that may enhance our understanding of the text within its real-world setting.

This series is written from an Orthodox perspective. Its authors believe that God revealed the Torah to Moses, and they utilize contemporary scholarship as a tool for understanding God’s word. The articles generally are presented judiciously, rather than reaching conclusions that exceed the biblical and archaeological evidence. The volume does not purport to be original scholarship, but rather synthesizes contemporary academic scholarship in an accessible and Orthodox-friendly manner.

Here are a few brief examples of how the authors highlight elements of the background of the narrative and laws:


  • In Exodus 1:16, Pharaoh orders the midwives Shifra and Puah to “look at the birthstool” (u-re’iten al ha-ovnayim). In ancient Egypt and elsewhere in the ancient Near East, women used birth bricks to support their feet while they squatted. In Egypt, they used four bricks made of black Nile mud (9).


  • God redeems Israel from Egypt “by a mighty and an outstretched arm” (be-yad hazaka uvizroa netuya; e.g., Deuteronomy 4:34; 5:15; 26:8; Jeremiah 32:21; Psalm 136:12). This terminology appears almost exclusively in Tanakh regarding God and the Exodus. The authors quote Egyptologist James Hoffmeier, who suggests that these terms are related to contemporaneous Egyptian military terms referring to Pharaoh’s military might (khepesh=arm-power; per‘=one whose arm is extended). God specifically employs this terminology in the Torah to convey the message that God will defeat Pharaoh militarily (22).



  • Pharaohs were responsible for Maat, loosely translated as the cosmic order (Maat also was the name of a goddess in charge of maintaining that cosmic order). When the world turned to chaos during the plagues, Pharaoh would have been held responsible (37–38).


  • In Egyptian temples, the innermost compartment was the holy of holies. The room was maintained in complete darkness. A statue of the deity was kept in a cabinet, and no one but the High Priest was allowed to open the cabinet and touch it, or even to enter. On religious festivals, they took the statue out on a boat, kept in its cabinet and protected by a curtain so that no one could look at the statue. This insight from Egyptology is brought to deepen our understanding of why Moshe “hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” at the burning bush (3:6). “It might have been only natural,” the Koren commentary suggests, “for Moshe, with his Egyptian background, to cover his face before God. Egyptians were in awe and feared their gods, and it would have been his instinctive reaction to hide as soon as he realized he was encountering the Divine” (19).


  • The obscure orot tehashim (Exodus 35:7) used in the Tabernacle are likely best explained as deriving from an Egyptian word that refers to a certain type of Egyptian leather (195).


The authors generally present accurate readings of the biblical text and judiciously apply the relevant contemporaneous materials. Occasionally, however, they make excessive efforts to draw parallels between the Torah and its ancient setting. One such example is the discussion of the plague of darkness:


Then the Lord said to Moses, “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings. Pharaoh then summoned Moses and said, “Go, worship the Lord! Only your flocks and your herds shall be left behind; even your children may go with you.” But Moses said, “You yourself must provide us with sacrifices and burnt offerings to offer up to the Lord our God; our own livestock, too, shall go along with us—not a hoof shall remain behind: for we must select from it for the worship of the Lord our God; and we shall not know with what we are to worship the Lord until we arrive there.” But the Lord stiffened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not agree to let them go. Pharaoh said to him, “Be gone from me! Take care not to see me again, for the moment you look upon my face you shall die.” And Moses replied, “You have spoken rightly. I shall not see your face again!” (Exodus 10:21–29).


The authors ask: The plague of darkness is depicted in the Torah as the one that nearly cracked Pharaoh’s stubbornness. But why should this particular plague, which inflicted no damage, be so effective? The authors respond that the Egyptian sun god was the head of the Egyptian pantheon. In their mythology, the sun god rode a boat (called a barque) each day from east to west. He was born each morning, was in his prime at noon, and entered the Netherworld in the evening as an old man. During the night, he made his way through the Netherworld in order to be reborn in the morning, but a hostile chaos serpent named Apophis tried to stop him. When the sun rose in the morning, Egyptians could rest assured that the sun god had made it. Egyptians feared that if the sun did not rise in the morning, the world would descend into chaos. Therefore, the plague of darkness would have been particularly horrifying to Pharaoh and the Egyptians.

One may ask two questions against this explanation. First, does the Torah present the plague of darkness as the one that nearly cracked Pharaoh’s stubbornness? All Pharaoh says is, “Go, worship the Lord! Only your flocks and your herds shall be left behind; even your children may go with you.” This response is not substantially different from his reactions to several other plagues. Contrast that brief reaction with Pharaoh’s remarkable admission of error during the earlier plague of hail:


Thereupon Pharaoh sent for Moses and Aaron and said to them, “I stand guilty this time. The Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. Plead with the Lord that there may be an end of God’s thunder and of hail. I will let you go; you need stay no longer” (Exodus 9:27–28).


Or Pharaoh’s response to the plague of locusts:


Pharaoh hurriedly summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “I stand guilty before the Lord your God and before you. Forgive my offense just this once, and plead with the Lord your God that He but remove this death from me” (Exodus 10:16–17).


No less significantly, the Torah does not mention the sun or its failure to rise in its account of the plague. It appears more likely that the Egyptians faced a massive hamsin with thick dust blocking out all sunlight and preventing motion.

Overall, this new series is a welcome contribution to the growing body of Orthodox writings that draw the best from contemporary scholarship in the service of understanding Tanakh. The series also successfully presents the material in an accessible manner that will benefit people of all backgrounds. The high-quality scholarship, coupled with the engaging presentation, will make this series a valuable companion for learning Torah. We look forward to the publication of future volumes of the set as well.




[2]This review appeared originally on April 6, 2022, at

[3] This review appeared originally on October 21, 2022, at

[4] This review appeared originally on March 28, 2022, at

[5] This review appeared originally on April 3, 2022, at

[6]This review appeared originally on October 28, 2022, at

[7] This review appeared originally on January 15, 2020, at

The Future of the Prophets

Review of Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun's book Prophets Against Empires (in Hebrew),

Yeshivat Har Etzion Press: Alon Shevut, 2022.[1]



When historians catalog Jewish people's successes of the past 50 years, one of the undoubted great successes they will list is the rebirth and explosive growth of Tanakh study as an integral part of the Torah curriculum. Long sidelined in traditional yeshiva curriculum,[2] we are witnessing a veritable renaissance of knowledge and resources among scholars and laypeople alike. Corresponding with this outburst is a new appreciation of those biblical texts generally thought to be inaccessible, including the later prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of Twelve). In describing how this revolution came about, the name of Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun will undoubtedly feature prominently among the pioneers who blazed the way in restoring the  popularity of Tanakh study. One of the original staff members of Yeshivat Har Etzion, he was among the founders of Gush Emunim (which he would later break away from), Michlelet Herzog, as well as the settlements of Alon Shevut and Ofra. One of the most prolific writers and scholars in Israel, he is rightfully considered one of the pioneers of the modern religious approach, described by Rabbi Shalom Carmy as the "literary-theological" approach. Based on modern literary techniques, combined with insights from history and archeology yet infused with awareness of the traditional sources and commentaries, his approach is among the most influential among in modern Israel today.[3] His most recent work, "Prophets Against Empires," provides a creative and comprehensive overview to the difficult prophetic literature that flourished in ancient Israel from the mid-nineth century to the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 587 bce.

Throughout history, the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Book of Twelve were a locked treasure chest, containing tremendous pearls of wisdom, yet inaccessible to most. The biblical Hebrew is poetic and unfamiliar, an iron barrier between the reader and the prophets. Additionally, the prophetic books' lack of narrative structure, as well as generally not providing the historical background and context for what provoked the prophetic preaching create large obstacles between the prophets and the modern audience. These difficulties are not new; Martin Luther is often quoted as having complained:


They (the prophets) have a queer way of talking, like people who, instead of proceeding in an orderly manner, ramble off from one thing to the next, so that you cannot make head or tail of them or see what they are getting at. [4]


Historically, the lack of knowledge regarding the historical background of the prophetic literature has led some to argue that this knowledge is not necessary to comprehend their message. After all, the Talmud declares that “Many prophets arose in Israel, double the number of those who left Egypt; but prophecy that was needed for future generations was written, and that which was not needed was not written” (TB Megillah 14). Even the towering biblical scholar Nechama Leibowitz was quoted as stating that "Nineveh is New York is Tokyo!"[5] Since the prophets' message is eternal, its exact details are irrelevant. However, this focus on the timeless ignores the reality that the prophets attempted to convey timely messages to their listeners (and readers). As such, without an understanding of the historical background of the prophecies, their full import and ultimately impact would be lost. Additionally, as recent archeological discoveries continue to constantly increase and enrich our knowledge and understanding of the time period in which the prophets navigated, not applying this knowledge would deviate from the manner in which our earlier commentators operated.[6]

Influenced by Rabbi Bin Nun's focus on attempting to locate and recreate the historical background for the prophetic works, many of the latest commentaries attempt to understand the prophets' messages within their reality and milieu.[7] Now, Rabbi Bin Nun attempts to provide the comprehensive overview for a period of time that spans over 150 years and almost a dozen of the biblical prophets, providing both the historical overview of the era as well as locating the specific time when each prophecy was uttered. He divides the era into four distinct periods; two of which saw the ascent of the fortunes of the Jewish people, each followed by two rapid descents. The first period commences with the reign of Ahab, whose marriage to Jezebel the Phoenician ushered in a period of prosperity and success, combined with pagan corruption and idolatry. Jehu's assassination of Ahab's family begins a rapid descent, and for half a century, the people suffered under the assaults of Aram. However, two generations later during the reign of Jehu's grandson and great-grandson, Joash and Jeroboam, the northern kingdom of Israel regained its prosperity and ascendancy, concurrently with a dramatic change in the fortunes of the southern kingdom Judah under Uzziah. Both kingdoms expanded their borders to unprecedented heights; and in this period of material abundance and extraordinary military and political dominion, the two kingdoms worked in close cooperation. Finally, this idyllic period disappeared quickly. A devastating earthquake, Uzziah's fall from grace due to contracting the skin affliction tzara’at (commonly mistranslated as “leprosy”), the assassination of Jeroboam's son led to an extended period of political instability in Israel. This coincided with the reappearance of a more dangerous and militaristic Assyria on the eastern border which led to the relatively quick disappearance of the northern kingdom and the near extinction of the kingdom of Judah in the south. While discussing each of these periods, Rabbi Bin Nun attempts to locate the prophecies of each of the prophets who spoke at each time, connecting their words with the historical records. The book concludes with a brief summary of the lengthy reign of King Manasseh, and the people's final attempt to rebuild themselves under the reign of King Josiah.

The greatest strength and contribution of "Prophets Against Empires" is in Rabbi Bin Nun's almost unequalled tremendous breadth and depth of historical knowledge, in addition to his complete command of the biblical and traditional sources. In Jeremiah's attempts to renew the ancient covenant (Jer. 11), he has to wrestle with widespread Shabbat desecration (Jer. 17:22–27)—which enables Bin Nun to survey all the biblical texts that deal with business on Shabbat, from Exodus 16, Amos 8:5–6, Isaiah 1:15–16, and Nehemiah 13:15–22. Bin Nun is also up-to-date with all the recent developments in archeology. Reflecting on the miracle that Isaiah performed for Hezekiah, causing the sun to move backwards ten degrees (2 Kings 20:8–11), Bin Nun notes that Yigael Yadin found a sundial matching this description in the Cairo Museum.[8] Similarly, Isaiah's accounts in chapter 20 of the Assyrian campaign in the coastal region, specifically the attack on Ashdod in 713 bce, are corroborated from Sargon's own records and inscriptions found on the walls of the palace in his capital, Dur-Sharrukin.[9] The careful combining of all these disparate sources of knowledge together with Rabbi Bin Nun's tremendous exegetical imagination creates a masterpiece; the book is both an easy-to-read summary of a relatively forsaken period of Jewish history that makes the words of the prophets understandable and accessible, yet does not sacrifice depth and insight. Most importantly, as one proceeds into the work, one begins to form connections between the time of the prophets and ours.

One of the book's strengths is the division of the historical period into four distinct periods, which enable him to locate prophecies in their approximate historical context. Different times required differing prophets. The reign of Ahab required an Elijah to stand against him. However, Elijah could never envision the Jews being exiled out of their own land. Only when Amos appears, two generations later, when the Assyrian empire begins its meteoric ascent to the role of superpower, does the destruction of the Israelite kingdom and exile become real and imminent possibilities. Amos' rhetoric has to reflect this new reality.

Additionally, Rabbi Bin Nun capably notes that the book of Kings presentation of historical events is suspect chronologically. For example, chapters 4–8 of II Kings describe a northern kingdom that is beaten and subservient to Aram. Following the chronology, most commentators assume that the unnamed king of Israel is Ahab's son Jehoram. However, Rabbi Bin Nun notes that this decrepit situation does not reflect the state of the northern kingdom under Ahab's dynasty, which maintained a strong military and expanded borders. However, these chapters dovetail nicely with the political decline of the northern kingdom under Jehu and Jehoahaz as described later in the book (II Kings 10, 13). Therefore, suggests Rabbi Bin Nun, chapters 4–8 actually occur later chronologically, but are located earlier in order to present the prophet Elisha in a positive manner.

While dividing his historical recounting into broad time periods, Rabbi Bin Nun avoids dealing with some of the more difficult issues of the book of Kings' bewildering chronology. The number of years that Kings lists for each kingdom for the period of time beginning with the year when both Jehu and Ataliah ascend the respective thrones of Israel and Judah respectively under the final destruction of the northern kingdom diverge from both each other and the accepted historical record (Kings lists 143 years for the northern kingdom, 166 years for the southern kingdom, while the accepted historical record only spans 121 years). The problems have been known for generations; efforts to resolve them began in the second century ce, when R. Yose bar Halafta composed the Seder Olam Rabba, continue through the traditional medieval commentators and into modern-day scholarship, which attempt to account for newly discovered Assyrian (and other) records when reconciling the various discrepancies.[10] Wisely, Rabbi Bin Nun avoids murkying the clear waters that he has so painstakingly constructed by avoiding the minutiae of the competing chronologies found in both biblical sources and historical records.

One of the novel exegetical tools that Rabbi Bin Nun presents to the reader is the concept that certain prophecies are restatements of older oracles being recycled by the prophets for rhetorical purposes. If a speaker today would tell his audiences that “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” clearly the orator wishes to draw a comparison between his listener's situation and that of Winston Churchill in World War II. Similarly, Rabbi Bin Nun argues that several prophecies are only comprehensible if understood as ancient oracles that the speaker is using to either shock or alarm his listeners. Amos himself alludes to the existence of earlier prophetic traditions when he warns his audience "Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light" (Amos 5:18). Clearly the prophet has to wrestle with an earlier understanding, common among the people, that the upcoming "day of the Lord" will see the destruction of God's enemies—only they can't imagine that they, the Jewish people, would be included in that group. We shall content ourselves with two examples of "old prophecies.” The first example encompasses Amos' opening verses, which describes a series of harsh punishments that await Israel's neighbors that encircle her, including Aram, Edom, the Philistines, and even Judah to the south. Suddenly, Amos' rhetorical trap springs shut, and the northern kingdom finds itself the recipient of the harshest prophecy of all.[11] Rabbi Bin Nun notices that many of the crimes that Amos accuses the surrounding nations of had been committed decades, if not a century earlier.[12] For example, Amos accuses Edom of the crime of "pursuing their brother with a sword" (Amos 1:11), which Rabbi Bin Nun connects with the events that occurred in the time of Jehoram the son of Jehoshaphat (see II Chronicles 21:9–10, 16–17). Similarly, the sins of Judah include "rejected the Law of the Lord, and they did not keep God’s statutes" (Amos 2:4), which would not have been true in Amos' time, when Uzziah sat on the throne, but would accurately reflect the reign of Amaziah, Uzziah's father. Therefore, he concludes that Amos is drawing his listeners in by regaling them with tales of divine justice from time gone by, only to surprise them with a new prophecy directed at them for their failings. He writes:


There is no point or significance to a declaration now, in the time of Jeroboam, that God will send a fire upon the house of Hazael in Damascus and upon the walls of Israel's other enemies; it all happened already. Amos's audience can look back nostalgically at the extraordinary string of victories that they experienced, and smile at the memory. It is precisely for this reason that Amos refers back to the ancient prophecy, which opened with God's condemnation of the terrible crimes of Aram against Israel—a prophecy that is familiar to his audience … Amos cites the ancient prophecy against each of the enemies as a necessary preface to his own prophecy concerning the crimes committed by Israel themselves. This latter prophecy is long and detailed, and its style differs from the brief enumeration in the earlier prophecy.[13]


The second, and perhaps most creative exegesis in the book, again evoking the usage of "old prophecies,” involves the opening verses of Hosea. Hosea is ordered by God to marry "a promiscuous woman” (in Hebrew, eshet zenunim) and have children with her. Together, they have two boys and one girl. The three children are given clearly symbolic and negative names; Yizreel, Lo-Ruchama, and Lo-Ami (meaning "the Jezreel valley,” a place seared into the nation's consciousness as a site of horrendous violence, "No mercy,” and "Not My people.” Rabbi Bin Nun will suggest that these names are clearly symbolic, but in an unexpected way. Chapter 2 in Hosea describes the bond between God and Israel one of husband and wife; however, since Israel has turned to Ba’al, whose worship Hosea dramatically describes, this connection has been tainted and desecrated. A tremendous problem exists. Hosea speaks in the time of the last kings of Jehu's dynasty, and later. Jehu, who lived at least half a century earlier, had completely eradicated Ba'al worship from the northern kingdom (II Kings 10:30), and no sources indicate that it ever returned. Rabbi Bin Nun asks: What point would there be in a prophet standing up to decry the harlotry of Jezebel, and the Ba’al-worship that she had introduced to Samaria, a whole century after it was no longer an issue? Again, Rabbi Bin Nun turns to Yehezkel Kaufmann, who argued that the first three chapters of Hosea should be attributed to an ancient prophet who spoke during the time of the house of Ahab.[14] After criticizing some of the weak points in Kaufmann's presentation, Bin Nun makes the following original suggestion. He suggests that any listener of Hosea would immediately recognize the promiscuous mother and her three wayward children. Clearly, Hosea was alluding to Jezebel, about whom Jehu exclaims, "What peace, so long as the harlotries of your mother, Jezebel, and her witchcrafts, are so many?" (II Kings 9:22). The daughter "Lo-Ruchama" (No Mercy) refers to Ataliah, the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel who slaughtered many of her own grandchildren during her coup d'etat (II Kings 11). The son "Lo-Ami" (Not My People) hints towards Achaziah, who had consulted with foreign gods and not a prophet of Israel (ibid., ch. 1); while "Yizre'el" was obviously a reference to Jehoram, who was killed in the Yizre'el valley (ibid., ch. 8). Again, the purpose of recycling the old prophecies is to shock Hosea's listeners out of their complacency and shake their self-confidence; by failing to maintain the high standards that God demanded of them, they had become as deserving of punishment and destruction as the house of Ahab.

As to be expected with a book with such an ambitious agenda, several prophets appear to be short-changed. Hosea, Amos, and Isaiah are seriously examined, and their prophecies are carefully parsed and assigned to where Rabbi Bin Nun assumes they were uttered. Specifically, Isaiah's historical and political prophecies, the events of Isaiah 1–12 and 36–39, are carefully assigned among the kings of Judah at that time. Chapters 2–5, which lambast the people for their arrogance and failure to utilize their affluence to improve the lives of their countrymen, Bin Nun identifies as having occurred during the reign of Uzziah, while the country was still prosperous. Chapters 7–12, which describe both the Syro-Israelite invasion of Judah in 734 bce and the encroaching Assyrian military are allocated to Ahaz and Hezekiah's reign. However, other prophets, including Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah are shortchanged in their presentation, receiving little more than a superficial introduction. Micah's vision of Judah's lowlands being ravaged by invasion (Mic. 1:9–16) is summarily assigned to the Assyrian invasion of 701 bce, even though the previous verses describe the northern kingdom of Samaria as still functioning (the capital would be destroyed in 721 bce).[15] More concerningly, in several places, Bin Nun's confidence in his dating suggestions border on speculation and circular logic, as opposed to concrete evidence. He argues that in the time of Ahab, there was a movement toward national unity, symbolized by the joining of the two royal houses together by marriage. His proof is Hosea 2:2: "And the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head.” However, as he noted, the very dating of Hosea 2 to the time of Ahab is itself a novel suggestion, as well as the fact that the verse is written in the future tense, and is not describing an event, present or past. Similarly, Rabbi Bin Nun confidently assigns Nahum's prophecy that the Assyrian empire will not arise again, to the communal Passover sacrifice that Josiah performs in the year 622 bce, in his eighteenth year. Arguing that the people needed encouragement, fearful of Assyrian reprisals, Bin Nun states that Nahum declared his words of encouragement at this time. "Trouble shall not rise up a second time…. So says the Lord: Although [the Assyrians] are in full strength, and likewise many, even so they shall be cut down, and [their time] shall pass, and though I have afflicted you, I will afflict you no more … [therefore] keep your holidays, Judah; perform your vows, for the wicked one shall no more pass through you; he is utterly cut off" (Nah. 1:11–2:1). However, the Tanakh does not explicit time mentioned for Nahum's prophecy. Midrashic tradition states that Nahum actually prophesied earlier, during the reign of Manasseh (Seder Olam 20). This, however, is not mentioned by Rabbi Bin Nun. This is an unfortunate and expected shortcoming of the book; given the need to summarize the time period without becoming too bulky, Rabbi Bin Nun often ignores the alternative approaches found within the traditional commentators.[16] Historically, the midrashic identification of Nahum's prophecy to a generation before Josiah appears more logical, as Nahum himself states that "[the Assyrians] are in full strength"—which accurately describes the state of the Assyrian Empire during Manasseh's reign, but not during Josiah's.[17] The last real king of Assyria, Assurbanipal, found himself on the defensive on many fronts as enemies began to attack his overextended weakened forces during the last decade of his reign, and upon his death in 626 bce Assyria faced a rebellion from Babylon, which seceded from the empire. In the political vacuum that followed, Josiah had already begun to reclaim many of the lands of Israel that Judah had lost. At this juncture, no one would have been fearful of Assyrian reprisals; Nahum's words would have been seen as redundant. 

Perhaps the strongest question that arises from Bin Nun's presentation of the prophetic literature is the role that he assigns the prophets. Binyamin Lau, in his work on Jeremiah, attempts to portray them as public intellectuals: "a man of letters … an outsider to the system, a gadfly who must summon all his literary or oratory powers to persuade the audience of his words—and of the mortal danger of ignoring them" (Lau, "Jeremiah", p. xiv). Bin Nun appears to maintain a similar approach, except that he appears to place the prophet into the role of government advisor. When Hezekiah ponders whether to oppose the Assyrians militarily, Bin Nun speculates that Isaiah and Micah argued.[18] While Isaiah counselled the king to maintain his focus on religious reforms, Bin Nun portrays Micah as leading a nationalistic, populist party demanding that the king fight with Assyria. In doing so, Bin Nun focuses on the middle of Micah's prophecy ("Should Assyria come into our land, and should they tread upon our palaces, we will appoint over them seven shepherds and eight princes of men. And they shall break the land of Assyria with the sword, and the land of Nimrod at its gates" (Micah 5:4–5); yet ignores the clear end of the prophecy:


And it shall come to pass on that day, says the Lord, that I will cut your horses out of your midst, and I will destroy your chariots. And I will destroy the cities of your land, and I will break down all your fortresses… (ibid., 5:9–10)


The suggestion that any prophet (let alone Micah, whom history remembers as the one who saved them from the Assyrian invasion; see Jer. 26:17–18) would counsel the king of Judah to embark on a reckless adventure to challenge the world's pre-existing military superpower is ludicrous, especially when the resulting consequences include the destruction of almost the entire kingdom.[19] More troublingly, however, is that in his attempt to portray the prophets in terms that are accessible to the modern reader, Bin Nun almost removes the divine aspect of their messages. It is precisely this dimension that separated the prophets from our understanding, but from their listeners as well. Prophets may have served as advisors, intellectuals, gadflies, and counsellors—but their role was to convey the divine message, and the humanizing of the prophets by reducing them to roles that we can comprehend tends to diminish their primary function; they are God's messenger to the people, nothing less. 

Finally, most readers have a propensity to condense all mentions of idolatry into one large mold. This tendency is fueled by the rabbinic statement that the Jewish people only worshipped idols in order to permit themselves to publicly engage in forbidden sexual relations (Sanhedrin 63b). In response, Rabbi Bin Nun capably discusses the theological issues that motivated the Jewish people to abandon single-minded worship of God for a syncretic approach to allow them to interact with the other nations. However, even after Bin Nun's masterful survey of the political forces that moved our prophets one fundamental topic of prophetic concern still remains underdeveloped. This is the question of social justice. That the prophets demanded economic justice and social equality is undeniable—yet unfortunately, the underlying questions that led to their concerns and complaints have not yet been addressed. Recent scholarship suggests that in addition to the ever-present factors of human avarice and greed, the prophets were railing against larger economic structural forces that inevitably led to economic inequality. For example, Marvin Chaney argues that the very institution of the monarchy with its accompanying centralized government set in motion forces that led to the schism between the urban elite and the rural peasants. Other social scientists who study the modern effects of urbanization on highly rural, agrarian communities argue, with some possible merit, that the same economic forces of wealth concentration were at play during this period in eighth-century Israel and Judah.[20] These issues, the effects of changing economic systems and realities, and the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of an elite few, should be very relatable to modern audiences, who struggle with the same economic forces as did the listeners of the prophets of Judah and Israel in the eighth century bce.

In conclusion, the above criticisms should not in any way diminish the appreciation we should have for the fundamental tour de force that Rabbi Bin Nun has produced. Certain great works can only be produced after a lifetime of committed and dedicated scholarship. Fortunately, Rabbi Bin Nun's herculean efforts, as embodied in this book, open the door to the prophetic works even wider, so that ultimately, Jeremiah's hopeful vision that "I will place My law in their midst and I will inscribe it upon their hearts, and I will be their God and they shall be My people. And no longer shall one teach his neighbor or [shall] one [teach] his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know Me" (Jer. 31:33–34) one step closer to fruition. 




[1] Ed. Note: An English version of this volume can be found at the Yeshivat Har Etzion Virutal Beit Midrash, beginning at (there are a total of 35 lectures in the archive).

[2] To understand the sidelining of See Mordechai Breuer, see "The Study of Tanach in the Yeshiva Curriculum,” Studies Presented to Moshe Arend, p. 229, "Mine'u Bneichem min ha-Higayon" ["Keep your children from Higayyon"], in the Memorial Volume Book for Rabbi David Ochs (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan, 1978), and Yaakov Beasley, “Of Fainting Maidens and Wells: Bible Study in the Yeshiva Curriculum, available online at

[3] See Hayyim Angel, "Torat Hashem Temima: The Contributions of Rav Yoel Bin-Nun to Religious Tanakh Study" for an excellent introduction and survey of his thought (Tradition 40:3), Spring 2007, pp. 5–18.

[4] Martin Luther, quoted in Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 2 (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 33. (Luther’s Works, Weimar edition, Volume 19: 350).

[5] Heard orally from several of her students. Hayyim Angel notes Yisrael Rozenson's suggestion that "Professor Nehama Leibowitz’s work on Jeremiah never gained popularity primarily because she did not associate prophetic books with their historical periods … regarding Nevi’im Aharonim, however, too vital a component is lost by ignoring historical setting, since prophets delivered their messages to specific audiences." Angel, "Bringing the Prophets to Life: Rabbi Binyamin Lau’s Study of Jeremiah,” Tradition 44:1, 2011, pp. 53–54 and footnotes 3, 4.

[6] For example, upon arriving in Akko in the year 1263, the Ramban saw an original shekel for the first time, and famously changed his understanding of its weight to align with interpretation of Rashi, even though he argues with Rashi's interpretation in his commentary to the Humash (noted in Sefer haIkkarim 3:16), and found in Dr. Yosef Ofer's work on the additions Ramban made to his commentary when he arrived in the land of Israel.

[7] Recent examples can be located in the Maggid Tanakh Series volumes on the later prophets. Both of Benjamin Lau's works on Isaiah and Jeremiah, Hayyim Angel's work on Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, as well as my work on Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (and upcoming volume on Joel, Obadiah, and Micah) contain either historical overviews of the prophet's time period, or in Lau's case, a reordering of the books' chapters into chronological order. However, it should be noted that while providing a general historical overview is recommended, the ability to definitely declare exactly which section was uttered in a specific year (except when otherwise noted) remains an extremely speculative act. See Angel, "Jeremiah", pp. 57–58. 

[8] Y. Yadin, "Ma'alot Achaz," Eretz Yisrael 5 (5719).

[9] To corroborate his recreation of the historical events, Bin Nun brings Chaim Tadmor, "Chet'o shel Sargon," Eretz Yisrael 5 (5719); G. Galil, "Ha-Yechasim Bein Yehuda le-Ashur bi-Yemei Sargon ha-Sheni," Tzion 57 (5752), pp. 113–133; N. Ne'eman, “Mediniutam shel Achaz ve-Chizkiyahu Klapei Ashur bi-Yemei Sargon,” Tzion 59 (5754), pp. 5–30.

[10] For examples of traditional commentators attempting to reconcile the contradicting verses regarding the dating of the various kings, see Rashi and the Radak's commentary to II Kings 14:22 and II Kings 15:8. For modern scholarship on chronology issues in the book of Kings, see E. R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983); Gershon Galil, The Chronology of the Kings of Israel and Judah (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996); M. Christine Tetley, The Reconstructed Chronology of the Divided Kingdom (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2005). A summary of these issues appears as an appendix in my upcoming Maggid Tanakh Series volume on Joel, Obadiah, and Micah. 

[11] This is commonly referred to in scholarship as "rhetorical entrapment,” where the speaker frames and disguises his message in such a way that the real meaning is not revealed until the listeners have fully engaged themselves. When the true meaning of the message is revealed, the listener is forced to render judgement on themselves. In addition to the beginning of Amos, other biblical examples of "rhetorical entrapment" include Nathan’s metaphor of the lone sheep to David, who orders the wicked rich person killed, only to discover that he himself is the wicked rich person (II Samuel 12), and Isaiah's metaphor of the Song of the Vineyard (Is. 5:1–7). See Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 144, for an expanded discussion of the usage of rhetorical entrapment in biblical prophecy and poetry.

[12] Bin Nun points out that this is first noted by Yehekzel Kaufmann, in "Toldot ha-Emuna ha-Yisraelit,” vol. III (Jerusalem 5732), pp. 59–63; see ibid., pp. 51–55.

[13] "Prophets and Empires,” pp. 51–52. John Barton suggests a similar rhetorical goal: Having won the people’s sympathy [through his expression of moral outrage], he rounds on them by proclaiming judgment on Israel too. This technique has two obvious advantages…he has gained his audience’s attention by flattering their feelings of superiority.… Secondly, it makes it much harder for them to exculpate themselves…since they have implicitly conceded that sin and judgment are rightly linked. (J. Barton, Amos’s Oracles against the Nations [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980], 3.)

[14] Toldot ha-Emuna ha-Yisraelit, vol. III, pp. 93–107.

[15] While Radak argues that the prophecy jumps from the events of 721 bce in verse 8 to the events of 701 bce in verse 9, Malbim convincingly argues that Micah laments the destruction inflicted on the lowlands during the Syro-Israelite invasion of Judah in 734 bce during Ahaz's reign.

[16] It should not be surprising that Hayyim Angel levels similar criticism—the speculative nature of dating prophecies to a specific instant (as opposed to identifying the general milieu in which they occurred), as well as not referring to alternative voices within traditional commentators—at Binyamin Lau's work on Jeremiah ("Jeremiah,” pp. 57, 60). Lau is heavily influenced by Bin Nun; indeed, they collaborated on Lau's next work on Isaiah. In fairness, Bin Nun uses more classical commentary in this volume, and bringing every disagreement in it may have detracted from its readability.

[17] In our work on Nahum, we suggest that Nahum's words of encouragement are directed at King Manasseh, and provoke him to repent (see 2 Chr. 33), as the last verse of ch. 1 in Nahum contains clear allusions to Manasseh.

[18] Unfortunately, Bin Nun does not address the theological implications of his claim. How do two legitimate prophets, speaking in God's name, arrive at such conflicting interpretations of their visions? 

[19] Most commentators understand the earlier bellicose oracles in Micah as referring to future messianic times, and not as a prescription for Hezekiah. An alternative approach, which I adopt in the upcoming volume on Micah, argues that a close reading of these verses reveals that Micah is quoting his opponents and mocking them—do you think that you can simply invade Assyria?—so in fact Micah and Isaiah remain united in their opposition to Hezekiah's militaristic folly.

[20] Marvin Chaney, “Systemic Study of the Israelite Monarchy,” Semeia 37 [1986]: 72. In chapters 7 and 8 of Peasants, Prophets, & Political Economy (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017), Chaney argues that the intensification of agriculture that occurred during the reigns of Jeroboam II and Uzziah, increasing their participation in international trade, was the main factor behind the social crisis encountered by the prophets. For other approaches, see B. Lang, “The Social Organization of Peasant Poverty in Biblical Israel,” in Anthropological Approaches to the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 83f, and D. N. Premnath, Eighth Century Prophets: A Social Analysis (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2003). 

Created in God's Image?--Thoughts for Parashat Bereishith

Angel for Shabbat, Parashat Bereishith

By Rabbi Marc D. Angel

“So God created Mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Bereishith 1:27).

This verse has perplexed our sages for many generations. Since we believe God to be non-corporeal and not representable by any physical image, what does the Torah mean when it declares that humans were created in God’s image?

Various interpretations have been offered. Image refers not to any physical quality but to reason; or free will; or creativity; or spirituality. 

A widely-held teaching is that each human being is of infinite value since he/she is created in God’s image.  To harm a person in any way is to debase the Godliness within that human being. Jewish philosophers and social activists promote the view that each human life is infinitely precious; each person, in a sense, is an image of God and therefore should be honored as God is honored. Although this is a comforting and idealistic interpretation, it strikes me as being false.

History—including our own time—is replete with human beings who are the antithesis of Godliness. Can we really maintain that Stalin or Hitler were worthy to be honored for the image of God within them? Can we honestly see Godliness in terrorists, murderers, pathological haters?

In her recent novel, “The Enemy Beside Me,” Naomi Ragen describes the work of a woman who devotes her life to hunting down and prosecuting Nazis. The novel focuses on the mass destruction of Lithuanian Jewry, with the most heinous crimes against Jews committed by Lithuanians themselves. Can we say with honesty that the murderers, rapists and thieves were created in God’s image, that their lives were infinitely precious?

I can’t. 

Then what does the Torah mean when it states that God created human beings in His image?

 I believe this passage must be interpreted as stating a potentiality, not a fact. God endowed human beings with the possibility of becoming Godly. But this is a quality that must be developed by each person. Some are able to actualize this potentiality so as to be worthy of being in the image of God. Others, though, suppress the possibility of Godliness. They choose to defile the seeds of Godliness within them, so that in fact, they live and die without actualizing the image of God. Such people are not worthy of respect. On the contrary, they are to be deplored for having crushed the potentiality of Godliness within them.

When people strive to actualize the image of God within them, their lives are indeed infinitely precious. When they abort the image of God within them, they distort and defile the potential for Godliness within them. 

God planted His image in all of us, so that we can develop it and allow it to grow and flourish. To live as an image of God is not a guaranteed gift: it is the ultimate challenge.

Tanakh and Superstition: Debates within Traditional Commentary


The Torah rooted out many ancient pagan superstitions. Professor Yehezkel Kaufmann (1889–1963) pinpointed several critical features that fundamentally distinguish Tanakh from ancient Near Eastern literature. There is one supreme God above who is the Creator of all nature, and there are no forces competing with God. God is absolutely free. God is timeless, ageless, nonphysical, and eternal. Nature is a stage on which God expresses His will in history. Rituals do not harness independent magical powers and do not work automatically. Endowed with free will, people can defy God and even drive God’s Presence away. Evil does not inhere in universe but rather is a product of people sinning, and it undermines creation. Absolute standards of good and justice exist, and people may use their free will to build an ideal society.[1]


The overwhelming majority of Tanakh fits this description perfectly. God and the religious-moral behavior of humanity are explicitly responsible for nearly all events. This premise is so self-evident that one Mishnah dismisses any possibility of a “magical” reading of two Torah narratives that could have been read that way: Moses’ raised arms assisting Israel in the battle against Amalek (Exodus 17:8–16); and Moses’ using a divinely-commanded brass serpent to heal serpent-bitten Israelites in the wilderness (Numbers 21:4–9):


Is it Moses’ hands that make or break success in war? Rather, this comes to tell you, that whenever Israel looked upward and subjugated their hearts to their Father in heaven, they would prevail. If not, they would fall. Similarly, you can say concerning the verse, “Make a [graven] snake and place it on a pole, and everyone bitten who sees it will live.” Is it the snake that kills or revives? Rather, whenever Israel looked upward and subjugated their hearts to their Father in heaven, they would be healed. If not, they would be harmed. (Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 3:8)


There are instances, however, where some commentators interpret biblical narratives and laws in ways that differ from the above principles. This essay focuses on biblical passages that could be interpreted as reflecting powers that do not directly emanate from God. Among traditional commentators, there is diversity of opinion regarding the existence of forces beyond the divine. In most cases, Tanakh does not exhibit evidence of forces beyond God’s realm, but there are a few occasions where it might.[2] Religious educators must be particularly sensitive when teaching these passages with classical commentary, so that their students do not become superstitious.


Do Human Blessings and Curses Work Automatically?


Isaac’s Blessing to Jacob

            Isaac’s bestowal of the birthright is the central theme of Genesis chapters 25 and 27. Jacob successfully obtains the blessing through deception. Isaac upholds his blessing even after learning that he had mistakenly blessed Jacob:


Isaac was seized with very violent trembling. “Who was it then,” he demanded, “that hunted game and brought it to me? Moreover, I ate of it before you came, and I blessed him; now he must remain blessed!” When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst into wild and bitter sobbing, and said to his father, “Bless me too, Father!” But he answered, “Your brother came with guile and took away your blessing.” [Esau] said, “Was he, then, named Jacob that he might supplant me these two times? First he took away my birthright and now he has taken away my blessing!” (Genesis 27:33–36)


Given his knowledge of Jacob’s deception, why does Isaac conclude that “now he must remain blessed” (verse 33)?


            Following a Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 67:2), Rashi suggests that Isaac said “now he must remain blessed” (verse 33) only after hearing that Esau had sold the birthright years earlier (verse 36). Isaac thereby made a rational decision upon learning previously unknown (to Isaac) vital information. Of course, Rashi’s interpretation requires reading the verses out of sequence. In the text, Isaac appears to uphold the blessing immediately after learning that he was speaking with Esau. Most commentators therefore reject Rashi’s reading.

According to Rabbi Joseph Bekhor Shor and Ramban, Isaac’s blessing was prophetic and therefore could not be retracted. Ralbag and Abarbanel disagree and suggest that the blessing was not “automatic.” Rather, Isaac concluded that since Jacob had deceived him successfully, it must have been God’s will that Jacob should be blessed.

To summarize: Rashi, Ralbag, and Abarbanel interpret Isaac’s upholding the blessing as Isaac’s rational decision. Rabbi Joseph Bekhor Shor and Ramban maintain that Isaac’s blessing was an unretractable prophecy. In this latter reading, Isaac was powerless to annul even a misdirected blessing.

Regardless of the aforementioned debate, there is one other critical detail. Although Isaac was unaware (as far as we know), Rebekah received a prophecy during her pregnancy suggesting that Jacob would prevail over Esau:


The Lord answered her, “Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23)


            Moreover, several Midrashim and later commentators understand “the older shall serve the younger” (ve-rav ya’avod tza’ir) as ambiguous. It could mean “the older shall serve the younger,” but it also can mean “the older shall have the younger work for him” (Genesis Rabbah 63:7, Radak, Abarbanel). According to the Midrash, God stated the prophecy ambiguously since its favorable fulfillment for Jacob would occur only when Jacob and his descendants are faithful to God and the Torah. In the broader birthright narrative, then, Isaac’s human blessing also fulfills God’s prophetic plan. Even then, it does not work automatically but appears to be conditional on the future righteous behavior of Jacob and his descendants. According to all of the aforementioned readings, then, Isaac’s blessing reflected God’s will, and did not invoke some independent power that would bring blessing to Jacob and his descendants regardless.

In this spirit, Malbim (on Genesis 27:1) asserts that Isaac did not have the power to bestow divine blessings of chosenness. Rather, he had power over inheritance. The blessing to be God’s nation is solely in God’s hands, and that blessing depends on the religious worthiness of Jacob and Esau. Nehama Leibowitz agrees with this approach, and insists that Esau’s intermarriage to Canaanites (Genesis 26:34), rather than his sale of the birthright, forfeited his worthiness of the divine blessing. Isaac’s blessing of Esau could not have created the third Patriarch of the chosen nation.[3]


Noah’s Blessings and Curses

            After Ham’s shameful behavior toward his drunk and naked father Noah, Shem and Japeth respectfully covered their father. When Noah realized what had happened, he cursed Ham’s son Canaan and blessed Shem and Japheth:


He said, “Cursed be Canaan; the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” And he said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; let Canaan be a slave to them. May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be a slave to them.” (Genesis 9:25–27)


These blessings are fulfilled when the Canaanites—the descendants of Ham—are dispossessed by the Israelites—the descendants of Shem. Did Noah’s blessing and curse cause this critical event in Israel’s history?

            The answer is negative. God dispossesses the Canaanites because they were wicked (for example, Genesis 15:16; Leviticus 18:24–30; Deuteronomy 9:1–5). The Israelites receive the Land because of God’s covenant with the Patriarchs (Deuteronomy 9:1–5). The Israelites also do not retain the Land of Israel automatically. If they are wicked, God will dispossess them from their land as well (see, for example, Leviticus 26:31–33; Deuteronomy 4:25–28; 11:16–17; 28:64–68). Righteous behavior allows a nation to merit the Land of Israel, and wicked behavior leads God to expel a nation from the Land of Israel.

Like Isaac’s blessing to Jacob, then, Noah’s blessings and curses reflect the divine will, and play no independent role in the dispossession of the Canaanites nor in God’s awarding the Land of Israel to Abraham and his descendants.


Balaam’s Blessings and Curses

            A similar discussion arises over Balaam’s power to curse Israel. The premise of the narrative in Numbers chapters 22–24 is that Balaam’s powers were perceived as genuine, and God’s intervention on Israel’s behalf rescued Israel from the deleterious effects of the curse. Tanakh repeatedly invokes this story to demonstrate God’s love of Israel (see Deuteronomy 23:5–6; Joshua 24:9–10; Micah 6:5; Nehemiah 13:1–2).

            However, traditional commentators debate the “what if” of the narrative. Had Balaam actually cursed Israel, would that have harmed Israel? Several talmudic passages and later commentators take the premise of the narrative as factual, that is, Balaam indeed would have harmed Israel were it not for God’s intervention. However, other commentators maintain that Balaam was a charlatan. Moabites and Israelites alike believed in his powers, but they were objectively mistaken. Balaam could not arouse metaphysical powers to harm Israel against God’s will to bless Israel.[4]


Rachel’s Death in Childbirth

Rachel’s tragic death as she gave birth to Benjamin is heart-wrenching (Genesis 35:16–20). The Torah does not explain why she died. Following one Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 74:4, 9), Rashi (on Genesis 31:32) ascribes Rachel’s death to a curse uttered by Jacob when he proclaimed his innocence in stealing Laban’s terafim (household idols) several chapters earlier. Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen the terafim and hidden them in her saddle bag (Genesis 31:19, 34–35):


“But anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive! In the presence of our kinsmen, point out what I have of yours and take it.” Jacob, of course, did not know that Rachel had stolen them. (Genesis 31:32)


In this reading, Rachel tragically dies as a result of Jacob’s unwitting curse.

            However, most commentators do not link Jacob’s declaration of innocence to Rachel’s death. First, some do not think Jacob’s statement is a curse at all, but rather an exaggerated statement that Jacob would kill anyone who stole the idols (Ibn Ezra), or that Laban would have his permission to kill the thief (Radak).

            There also is no reason to think that human curses work automatically. When Joseph’s brothers emphatically denied stealing Joseph’s silver goblet, they stated:


Whichever of your servants it is found with shall die; the rest of us, moreover, shall become slaves to my lord. (Genesis 44:9)


Benjamin did not die prematurely as a result of this declaration.

            Rejecting Rashi’s approach, Ibn Ezra (on Genesis 31:32) observes that childbirth is dangerous. The only other recorded biblical childbirth death is that of the High Priest Eli’s son Pinehas’ wife (I Samuel 4:19–22). Nobody cursed her, and yet she died. There is no reason to believe from within the text that Jacob’s unwitting curse (if it was a curse at all) should be considered a reason for Rachel’s death.[5]



Do Head Counts Bring Plagues?

            During the commandment to build the Tabernacle, God commands that every Israelite man contribute one half-shekel toward a census:


When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled…the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the Lord’s offering as expiation for your persons. You shall take the expiation money from the Israelites and assign it to the service of the Tent of Meeting; it shall serve the Israelites as a reminder before the Lord, as expiation for your persons. (Exodus 30:12–16)


Regardless of one’s means, every man is required to give exactly the prescribed amount “to atone for your lives.” The silver from the original census was used to make sockets for the Tabernacle and hooks to connect the boards (Exodus 38:25–28). Every Israelite, rich or poor, thereby contributes equally to this aspect of the Tabernacle.

            Why, however, are people threatened with a plague if they do not give a half-shekel?

            Rashi submits that counting Israelites by head triggers the “evil eye” and brings a plague. Therefore, they must conduct every census using objects such as half-shekels and then count the objects. Rashi adopts the reading of the talmudic Sage Rabbi Eleazar: “Whosoever counts Israel violates a negative precept” (Yoma 22b).[6]

            To support his reading, Rashi invokes the narrative of King David’s census of Israel in II Samuel 24. Despite Joab’s protests, David insisted on counting. The census incurred God’s wrath, eliciting a devastating plague that claimed the lives of 70,000 Israelites:


The king said to Joab, his army commander, “Make the rounds of all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beer-sheba, and take a census of the people, so that I may know the size of the population.” Joab answered the king, “May the Lord your God increase the number of the people a hundredfold, while your own eyes see it! But why should my lord king want this?” However, the king’s command to Joab and to the officers of the army remained firm; and Joab and the officers of the army set out, at the instance of the king, to take a census of the people of Israel… The Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel from morning until the set time; and 70,000 of the people died, from Dan to Beer-sheba. (II Samuel 24:2–15)


Rashi asserts that David sinned by not counting with half-shekels or other objects, but instead counted heads.

            Ramban (on Numbers 1:2) rejects Rashi’s interpretation. Joab opposed the very census, and not its method (of not using half-shekels). There are other legitimate military censuses in Tanakh (see, for example, Numbers 31:4–5; Joshua 8:10; I Samuel 11:8, 13:15, 15:4; II Samuel 18:1). To explain the plague in David’s time, Ramban observes that David’s is the only military census in Tanakh taken during peace time, rather than at war time. It was unnecessary and displayed arrogance and a lack of trust in God. God plagued Israel as a consequence of a sin in faith, rather than because of the method of the census (see also Ralbag and Rabbi Isaiah of Trani on II Samuel 24).[7]

            It appears that Ramban’s objection to Rashi is compelling, and there is no connection between the commandment to take half-shekels in Exodus 30 and David’s sin in II Samuel chapter 24. How, then, should we understand the threat of plague in Exodus 30:12?

Rabbi Saadyah Gaon (quoted in Ibn Ezra) submits that the annual half-shekel commanded in Exodus 30 is for support of the Tabernacle and the daily sacrifices. A plague results from laxity in contributing to the building fund and to the nation’s sacrifices, and not from conducting a head count. In this approach, there is nothing wrong with counting people by head. There is a problem with people refusing to contribute a minimal amount to participate in the Tabernacle and its service of the nation.

Alternatively, Rabbi Samuel D. Luzzatto (Shadal) maintains that Rashi has the best reading of Exodus 30:12, that there is a threat of a plague for conducting any census without half-shekels. However, the Torah reflects a popular superstitious belief that counting people can lead to a plague, rather than an objective reality.[8] This approach traces back at least as far as Rabbi David Kimhi (1160–1235) and Rabbi Joseph ibn Caspi (1279–1340), who explain several passages in the Torah as reflective of popular superstitions that are not objectively true.[9]

In either reading, the Torah does not teach that head counts elicit divine plagues. Religious sins such as arrogance, lack of faith, and non-participation in the national religious service incur God’s wrath.


Is There Black Magic?


            The Torah prohibits witchcraft as a capital offense (Exodus 22:17; Leviticus 20:27; Deuteronomy 18:9–13). Our commentators debate whether witchcraft exists, or whether witchcraft does not exist but the Torah prohibits its practice since many pagans believed in its efficacy and used magic in their idolatrous systems. Two biblical narratives bring this question to the fore: The Egyptian magicians in the Torah, and the Witch of Endor in I Samuel chapter 28.


The Egyptian Magicians

            Pharaoh’s magicians turn their staffs into serpents (Exodus 7:8–13), produce blood (Exodus 7:22), and produce frogs (Exodus 8:3). They are defeated during the plague of lice, which they could not replicate (Exodus 8:14–15), and the plague of boils which kept them from being able to appear before Pharaoh (Exodus 9:11).

            Some Sages in Sanhedrin 67b, followed by Ramban, maintain that black magic exists and that the magicians successfully used it. Other Sages in Sanhedrin 67b, followed by Abarbanel, assert that there is no magic and the magicians used illusion (ahizat enayim). Similarly, some Midrashim (Exodus Rabbah 9:10; 10:6) maintain that the magicians used black magic to produce blood and frogs, while others (Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer 19, Midrash HaGadol, quoted in Torah Shelemah Exodus 8:7) assert that the magicians cleverly found areas not yet afflicted, invoked their “magic”, and then the blood and frogs spread entirely from the divine plague.[10] In this instance, the Torah may be read either way.


The Witch of Endor

            Nearing the end of his tragic demise, King Saul turned to a necromanceress out of desperation to ascertain God’s will:


Saul disguised himself; he put on different clothes and set out with two men. They came to the woman by night, and he said, “Please divine for me by a ghost”…At that, the woman asked, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He answered, “Bring up Samuel for me.” Then the woman recognized Samuel, and she shrieked loudly…“What does he look like?” he asked her. “It is an old man coming up,” she said, “and he is wrapped in a robe.” Then Saul knew that it was Samuel; and he bowed low in homage with his face to the ground. Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me and brought me up?” And Saul answered, “I am in great trouble. The Philistines are attacking me and God has turned away from me; He no longer answers me, either by prophets or in dreams. So I have called you to tell me what I am to do.” Samuel said, “Why do you ask me, seeing that the Lord has turned away from you and has become your adversary? The Lord has done for Himself as He foretold through me: The Lord has torn the kingship out of your hands and has given it to your fellow, to David, because you did not obey the Lord and did not execute His wrath upon the Amalekites. That is why the Lord has done this to you today. Further, the Lord will deliver the Israelites who are with you into the hands of the Philistines. Tomorrow your sons and you will be with me; and the Lord will also deliver the Israelite forces into the hands of the Philistines.” (I Samuel 28:8–19)


            It appears that the witch successfully conjures up the deceased prophet Samuel’s spirit, and the characters saw and heard his spirit. This is the only biblical narrative that reflects a connection between the worlds of the living and the dead.

            Radak surveys several rationalist positions which reinterpret the story in light of their belief that witchcraft does not exist. Rabbi Saadyah and Rabbi Hai Gaon maintain that on this singular occasion, God miraculously brought Samuel’s spirit down. Alternatively, Rabbi Samuel ben Hofni Gaon maintains that the entire episode was fraudulent and Samuel’s spirit never appeared. The witch recognized Saul immediately but hid that fact so that she could fool him into thinking that she learned it through her magic. She made an educated guess that Saul would die, since the Philistines were powerful.[11] Ibn Ezra (on Exodus 20:3; Leviticus 19:31) also denies the existence of black magic and maintains that the narrative reflects the mistaken perception of the characters rather than objective reality. Rambam (Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 11:16) states more generally that all forms of witchcraft are both forbidden by the Torah and absolute nonsense derived from the pagan world. Only a fool would believe something so patently irrational (see also his discussion in Guide 2:46). This debate relates to the much broader discussion of how literally traditional interpreters understand biblical texts when confronting conflicts with reason.[12]

            Radak (on I Samuel 28:24) rejects the aforementioned readings. The narrative suggests that the witch really conjured up Samuel’s spirit, and there is no mention of divine intervention. Ramban (on Exodus 7:11; Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 18:9) also adopts the literal reading of the narrative and agrees that the witch successfully conjured up Samuel’s spirit using black magic. These commentators maintain that black magic is prohibited by the Torah, and most of its alleged practitioners are frauds. However, in principle black magic does exist and the Witch of Endor was a true practitioner.

Moshe Garsiel[13] adopts a position similar to Rabbi Saadyah Gaon cited above. The narrative clearly depicts the event as genuine, that is, Samuel’s spirit really appeared and communicated a prophetic message to Saul. According to Garsiel (like Rabbi Saadyah Gaon), Tanakh generally portrays witchcraft as fraudulent. In this unique occurrence, however, God miraculously sent Samuel’s spirit to communicate with Saul. The witch was shocked herself, and therefore screamed. She also immediately understood that only Saul would merit such a miracle, which is how she knew he was the king: “Then the woman recognized Samuel, and she shrieked loudly, and said to Saul, ‘Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!’” (I Samuel 28:12). This revelation was part of God’s punishment of Saul, and God specifically refused to answer Saul through legitimate means.[14]

To summarize, the plain sense of the text suggests that Samuel’s spirit genuinely appeared to Saul. However, there is no reason to conclude that black magic exists. Rather, this may have been a one-time miraculous occurrence, shocking even the witch herself who was used to deceiving her customers.


Can One Divine the Future with Signs?



The Torah prohibits divination of the future with signs (Leviticus 19:26). Nevertheless, two biblical narratives present ostensibly righteous figures divining the future with signs and they are successful, suggesting God’s providential approval.

Seeking a wife for Isaac, Abraham’s servant (midrashically identified as Eliezer, Abraham’s servant in Genesis 15:2) prays to God and creates a sign to ascertain God’s approval:


And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham: Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’—let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.” (Genesis 24:12–14)


After the servant prayed, Rebekah appeared, drew water for the people and the camels, and clearly was the perfect fit for Isaac. It appears that the servant’s divination of the future through this sign receives divine approval in the narrative.

            Similarly, King Saul’s son Jonathan boldly decides to attack a vast enemy Philistine camp accompanied only by his arms-bearer. He creates a sign that he interprets as signaling divine approval:


Jonathan said, “We’ll cross over to those men and let them see us. If they say to us, ‘Wait until we get to you,’ then we’ll stay where we are, and not go up to them. But if they say, ‘Come up to us,’ then we will go up, for the Lord is delivering them into our hands. That shall be our sign.” (I Samuel 14:8–10)


Jonathan goes on to win a spectacular victory and is the hero of the narrative.

            Despite their resounding successes, did Abraham’s servant and Jonathan violate the Torah’s prohibition against divination? Commentators debate the meaning of a talmudic passage:


Rab himself has said: An omen that is not after the form pronounced by Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, or by Jonathan the son of Saul, is not considered a divination. (Hullin 95b)


Rambam (Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 11:4) interprets this passage to mean that the divination of Abraham’s servant and Jonathan is forbidden divination.

            Rabad of Posquieres sharply rejects Rambam’s reading and insists that Abraham’s servant and Jonathan were righteous and acted appropriately, as is evident from the narratives. He concludes by saying that if Abraham’s servant and Jonathan were alive, they would whip Rambam with fiery lashes. Radak and Ralbag agree with Rabad and maintain that the signs of Abraham’s servant and Jonathan were permissible. Rabbi Elhanan Samet explains that Rabad, Radak, and Ralbag interpret the Talmud to mean that unlike the other signs discussed in that passage, which are considered unreliable forms of divination, the signs of Abraham’s servant and Jonathan were reliable. The Talmud is giving advice on appropriate divination.[15]

            Alternatively, Ran (Rabbenu Nissim on Hullin 95b) and Rabbi Joseph Karo (Kesef Mishneh on Rambam, Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 11:4) agree that the signs of Abraham’s servant and Jonathan were appropriate because they are rational. Abraham’s servant sought a hospitable wife for Isaac, and Jonathan interpreted the Philistines’ summoning him as giving him a military advantage. The Torah prohibits making decisions based on signs that have no rational basis, such as seeing a black cat.

            According to Rambam, the Torah outlaws all divination signs, rational or not. For the others, Abraham’s servant and Jonathan sought signs of divine providence using rational means and prayer. The plain sense of the narratives supports the majority opinion against Rambam, that Abraham’s servant and Jonathan acted appropriately and were blessed with divine assistance.[16]




            The plain sense of the biblical texts we have considered does not support the notion that human blessings or curses work automatically without divine support. There also is no evidence that a head count automatically elicits a plague. The plain sense of the narrative in I Samuel 28 (and possibly also the Egyptian magicians) might suggest the existence of black magic, but a number of commentators exclude that possibility and provide a fair alternative reading of the text. Regardless, the Torah outlaws sorcery as a capital offense. It appears from the plain sense of the text that the signs of Abraham’s servant and Jonathan are acceptable in the context of faith in God and rationality. Rambam rules otherwise, and prohibits all forms of divination.

            While some Midrashim and later commentators ascribe some of these events to automatically triggered forces, it appears that Tanakh indeed attempts to eradicate superstitions at their roots. God rules the entire universe, and people’s righteous or wicked behavior, not magic, determines God’s providential relationship with humanity.

            A final note to educators: While Rashi often is the exclusive commentator taught to children throughout much of Elementary School, educators of young children should give serious pause before teaching Rashi’s comments about the issues discussed in this essay. Since it is difficult to present complex and conflicting views on these subjects to young children, Elementary School students will necessarily adopt the view that Rachel died because of Jacob’s unwitting curse and that head counts invoke the “evil eye.” It is preferable to defer these discussions at least until High School, when children are old enough to learn the different sides of these debates.





[1] For further discussion, see, for example, Nahum M. Sarna, “Paganism and Biblical Judaism,” in Studies in Biblical Interpretation (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2000), pp. 13–28; Christine Hayes, Introduction to the Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), pp. 15–28.

[2] A different, and much broader, discussion pertains to rabbinic statements in the Talmud and mystical literature and later rabbinic interpretations, particularly that of Rambam. See, for example, Menachem Kellner, Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism (Oxford: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006); Marc B. Shapiro, Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters (Scranton: University of Scranton Press, 2008), pp. 95–150; H. Norman Strickman, Without Red Strings or Holy Water: Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2011).

[3] Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit (Genesis), trans. Aryeh Newman (Jerusalem: Eliner Library), pp. 277–278.

[4] For a survey of traditional opinions, see Yehuda Nachshoni, Studies in the Weekly Parashah: Bamidbar, trans. Raphael Blumberg and Yaakov Petroff (Jerusalem: Mesorah Publications, 1989), pp. 1091–1098.

[5] See further sources and discussion in Elhanan Samet, Iyyunim BeParashot HaShavua (second series) vol. 1 (Hebrew) ed. Ayal Fishler (Ma’aleh Adumim: Ma’aliyot Press, 2004), pp. 156–160.

[6] Rashi also follows Rabbi Elazar (Yoma 22b) on I Samuel 15:4, when King Saul counted his troops prior to his battle against Amalek: “Saul mustered the troops and enrolled them at Telaim (va-yifkedem ba-tela’im): 200,000 men on foot, and 10,000 men of Judah.” Rashi interprets “va-yifkedem ba-tela’im” to mean that he counted them using sheep, rather than counting them by head. Radak disagrees and interprets “Tela’im” as the name of a place (the NJPS translation cited in this note adopts this reading). In Radak’s reading, Saul did not specifically use objects, but simply counted his troops.

[7] In I Chronicles, there is a brief note of a related problem, that of counting all of Israel. God promised that Israel would be as numerous as the stars, and therefore a census is limiting: “David did not take a census of those under twenty years of age, for the Lord had promised to make Israel as numerous as the stars of heaven. Joab son of Zeruiah did begin to count them, but he did not finish; wrath struck Israel on account of this, and the census was not entered into the account of the chronicles of King David” (I Chronicles 27:23–24). From this vantage point, counting all of Israel in any form, half-shekels or not, remains the problem. However, military censuses are appropriate under normal circumstances.

[8] See further discussion in Moshe Shamah, Recalling the Covenant: A Contemporary Commentary on the Five Books of the Torah (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav, 2011), pp. 445–460.

[9] See Jerome Yehuda Gellman, This Was from God: A Contemporary Theology of Torah and History (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2016), pp. 122–123.

[10] Nahum M. Sarna observes that there is an Egyptian species of cobra rendered rigid by applying pressure to a nerve at the nape of its neck. When thrown to the ground, the jolt causes it to recover and it wriggles away (Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel [New York: Schocken, 1986–1996], pp. 67–68).

[11] In this reading, how could the witch have known that Saul was rejected by God? Samuel’s prophecy was not public knowledge.

[12] See Hayyim Angel, Controversies over the Historicity of Biblical Passages in Traditional Commentary,” in Angel, Increasing Peace Through Balanced Torah Study. Conversations 27 (New York: Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, 2017), pp. 10–21; reprinted in Angel, The Keys to the Palace: Essays Exploring the Religious Value of Reading the Bible (New York: Kodesh Press, 2017), pp. 115–131.

[13] Moshe Garsiel, Reshit HaMelukhah BeYisrael, vol. 2 (Hebrew), (Raananah: Open University Press, 2008), pp. 302–303.

[14] For a fuller discussion of rabbinic and Karaite views of the tenth-twelfth centuries and their influences, see Haggai ben Shammai, “From Rabbinic Homilies to Geonic Doctrinal Exegesis: The Story of the Witch of En Dor as a Test Case,” in Exegetical Crossroads: Understanding Scripture in Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the Pre-Modern Orient, ed. Georges Tamer et al. (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018), pp. 163–197.

[15] See further discussion in Elhanan Samet, Iyyunim BeParashot HaShavua (second series) vol. 2 (Hebrew) ed. Ayal Fishler (Ma’aleh Adumim: Ma’aliyot Press, 2004), pp. 389–407. An English version can be found at, accessed June 26, 2018.

[16] Jacob Milgrom adopts a similar perspective. Sorcery is when one tries to alter the future with magic. This practice is absolutely incompatible with monotheism and is a capital crime in the Torah since a magician tries to overrule God’s will. In contrast, divination is when one tries to predict future using signs. This practice could be compatible with monotheism if one claims to predict God’s future. Milgrom appeals to Abraham’s servant and Jonathan as examples that can be tolerated (Anchor Bible: Leviticus 17–22 [New York: Doubleday, 2000], pp. 1687–1688). Milgrom disagrees with Yehezkel Kaufmann, who maintained (like Rambam) that divination is incompatible with biblical monotheism.