National Scholar Updates

Israel and the Nations--a Book Review

Eugene Korn, Israel and the Nations: The Bible, the Rabbis and Jewish-Gentile Relations, Academic Studies Press, Boston, 2023.

Reviewed by Rabbi Marc D. Angel

 

It isn’t easy being a “chosen people.” The history of the people of Israel has been replete with challenges of all kinds.

The Bible informs us of a covenant between God and our ancestors. God informed Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that their descendants would be a blessing to humanity. The prophet Isaiah (42:6) relates God’s wondrous promise to the people of Israel: “I God, in My grace, have summoned you, and I have grasped you by the hand. I created you, and appointed you a covenant people, a light unto the nations.”

Yes, the heirs of God’s covenant with Israel have brought great blessings to humanity. Our Bible has had massive positive impact on Western civilization. Our people have produced an incredible civilization based on righteousness and spirituality. Jewish individuals have made landmark contributions to humanity in so many fields of endeavor. That such a tiny people could have done so much for so many is one of the wonders of the world.

Yet, we have paid a high price. We have been maligned, persecuted, ghettoized and murdered in many lands over many centuries. We have been victims of inhumane treatment by Christians and Muslims who have claimed to have superseded us in the eyes of God.

We have the ideals of Torah and the prophets fostering respect for all human beings created in the image of God. But we have the reality of suffering at the hands of the very human beings we are supposed to respect.

So what is the role of Israel in its relation to the nations? How has the creation of the State of Israel established a new way of viewing old problems? 

Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn addresses these and other issues in his book Israel and the Nations: The Bible, the Rabbis and Jewish-Gentile Relations (Academic Studies Press, Boston, 2023). Dr. Korn has devoted many years to interfaith work and is one of the most thoughtful Orthodox Jewish workers in this field.

Part One of his book deals with God’s covenant with the People of Israel, and how this has been understood—and misunderstood—by various Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers. If Jews are to be a blessing to the nations, how is this to be accomplished?

Some argue for a pro-active stance. Jews should seek to spread knowledge of ethical monotheism by interacting with non-Jews. Others think Jews need not interact with non-Jews directly, but rather serve as models of religious/human excellence. Yet others do not seek interaction with non-Jews at all! Based on kabbalistic notions, they believe that the entire world depends on Jews fulfilling the Torah. So if we simply devote ourselves to Torah, that’s our contribution to humanity.

Dr. Korn examines each of these approaches and clearly favors the pro-active option. As Jews relate directly to non-Jews, we establish warm lines of communication. Jewish ideas and values are shared so that non-Jews can get a clear understanding of what our tradition teaches for the benefit of all humanity.

Part Two of the book deals specifically with Jewish relationships with Christians. While reviewing the historic hostility of Christianity to Jews and Judaism, Dr. Korn believes that the situation has improved vastly since the 1960s.  Pope John XXIII and the Nostra Aetate represented a sea change in Catholic teachings about Jews. Subsequent Papal words and deeds have fostered a respect for Judaism and a declaration that anti-Semitism is a sin against God. Dr. Korn suggests that Catholic revisions of ancient anti-Jewish teachings stemmed from guilt as a result of the Holocaust. How horrifying to confront the fact that so many Christians actively participated in the murder of millions of innocent Jews. 

Dr. Korn discusses the influential essay of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Confrontations,” in which the Rav opposed interfaith dialogue that involves theological issues. The Rav believed it was proper to work with Christians on common issues such as social justice, but the dialogues should not delve into the actual beliefs of each religion. Dr. Korn argues that the Rav’s views in “Confrontations” preceded the Nostra Aetate and was based on age-old fears that Catholics used “dialogue” as a means of converting Jews. But since Nostra Aetate, the Catholic church has specifically recognized that God’s covenant with Jews continues; that conversion of Jews is not a goal of Catholicism; that the State of Israel is recognized as the homeland of the Jewish People.  As the Catholic church reviewed and revised its teachings on Judaism and Jews, much of the Protestant world also became more receptive to respectful dialogue with Jews.

The establishment of the State of Israel has given Jews greater confidence in defending ourselves and our teachings. While Israel faces so much anti-Zionist/anti-Semitic ugliness from many non-Jews, Israel continues to thrive and to be a source of strength to Jews everywhere. But the more non-Jews know about Israel and Judaism, the warmer their attitudes become. 

Dr. Korn has presented a thoughtful volume that challenges us to think and re-think the Jewish views on interfaith relations. As an Orthodox rabbi as well as a PhD in philosophy, he offers deep intellectual knowledge along with insights gained from many years of personal experience with interfaith dialogue. If we are to be a “light unto the nations” it would be well to ponder the ideas Dr. Korn presents in this book.

 

 

 

Atonement and Renewal: Thoughts for Parashat Aharei Mot

Angel for Shabbat, Parashat Aharei Mot

By Rabbi Marc D. Angel

This week’s Parasha includes atonement ceremonies connected with Yom Kippur. Once each year, the high priest performed rituals on behalf of the people of Israel. When the Second Temple in Jerusalem was razed by the Romans in 70 CE, these rituals ceased. But we continue to have the observance of Yom Kippur in our synagogues.

On one hand, the annual Day of Atonement has a pessimistic quality to it. We know in advance that no matter how hard we try to be righteous, we will still need to repent next Yom Kippur. The cycle of repentance and atonement never ends.

On the other hand, the annual Day of Atonement has an optimistic quality to it. It reminds us that life is an ongoing process in which we can grow, improve, change. We admit our sins and shortcomings but we don’t get mired in guilt. We repent; we seek atonement from the Almighty. We start the New Year with a clean slate.

In one of his Teshuva lectures, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik commented on two aspects of the repentance process. We ask the Almighty for mehila, forgiveness; and we also seek kapara and tahara, spiritual cleansing and purification. 

Mehila is a technical matter. For example, if we owe a person money and we ask forgiveness of the debt, the person can indeed forgive our debt. We now owe nothing to that person; our slate is clear. But we haven’t necessarily changed our own ways. Yes, we had this debt forgiven but we might still have a tendency to run up other debts and continue to be irresponsible in our financial behavior.   Mehila forgives our sins but doesn’t mean that we’ve changed our ways.

Kapara and Tahara go beyond simply asking for and gaining forgiveness. These entail actual soul searching and the sincere desire to be cleansed of our negative qualities. We confess our sins to the Almighty and ask God to purify us, to help us change for the better. The goal of repentance is to make us into better people.

In the first chapter of his laws on repentance, Maimonides notes the requirement of making oral confession of sins. Unless we are able to verbalize our transgressions, we will find it difficult to achieve purification. It’s human nature to see our virtues but downplay our shortcomings. Rationalization is common: what I did wasn’t so bad; others have done much worse; I’m more righteous than most; God is compassionate and will forgive me. It is very difficult to say: I’ve done wrong; it’s my fault; I am responsible for my unworthy behavior.

When we repent and confess, we are accepting the challenge of recognizing our sins; but we are also undertaking to become better human beings. We seek God’s forgiveness; we ask God to cleanse and purify us; and we determine to move forward with heightened spirit and confidence.

At root, seeking atonement is a sign of a responsible human being. Confronting our weaknesses is a sure sign of our strength.

Israel Should Offer its Own Peace Plan

An Israeli Peace Plan?

by Rabbi Marc D. Angel

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

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

Agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

         

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik: Judaism and Modernity

The modern era in the Western world has witnessed numerous assaults on the patterns of traditional religious life. Science has changed the way people think; technology has changed the way they live. Autonomous, human-centered theology has come to replace heteronomous, God-centered theology. Rationalism and positivism have constricted metaphysics. Respect for authority and hierarchies has been replaced by an emphasis on individuality and egalitarianism. The challenges of modernity are symbolized by such names as Darwin, Schleiermacher, Freud, Einstein, Ayn Rand.

The modern era has also seen dramatic changes in the physical patterns of life: vast migrations from the farms to the cities; mass emigration (often as refugees) from one country or continent to another; shrinking family size; increased mobility; expansion of educational opportunities; phenomenal technological change.

Peter Berger has described modem individuals as suffering "spiritual homelessness." People have lost their sense of being part of a comprehensive, cohesive and understandable world.

For the Jewish people, the modern period has been particularly challenging. Jews were given the possibility of entering the mainstream of Western civilization. As the first winds of change swept into Jewish neighborhoods and ghettos, many Jews were enticed to leave traditional Jewish life behind. They hoped to gain acceptance into the general society by abandoning or modifying their religious beliefs and observances. Some went so far as to convert to other religions. The Haskalah--Jewish "enlightenment"--attracted numerous intellectuals who sought to modernize Jewish culture. The result was a secularization and objectification of Judaism.

The traditional religious framework was threatened by the Reform movement. Reform was an attempt of 19th century Western European Jews to "sanitize" Judaism by discarding Jewish laws and traditions. Reform wanted to make Judaism appear more "cultured" and socially respectable.

Whereas in previous eras, the masses of Jews accepted the authority of Torah and halakha, the modern period experienced a transition to the opposite situation--the masses of Western Jews no longer accepted the authority of Torah and halakha. In their desire to succeed in the modern world, many were ready to cast aside the claims of Jewish tradition. When large numbers of European Jews came to the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this phenomenon continued and expanded. A sizable majority of American Jews came to be affiliated with non-Orthodox movements or chose to remain unaffiliated with any movement at all.

In the face of tremendous defections from classic halakhic Judaism, the Orthodox community fought valiantly to maintain the time-honored beliefs and observances which they had inherited from their ancestors. But the Orthodox responses to the challenges of the modern situation were not monolithic. Some advocated a rejectionist stand, arguing that modern Western culture was to be eschewed to the extent possible. The "outside world," including non-Orthodox society, presented a danger to the purity of Jewish religious tradition; isolation was the best approach for Jews who wished to remain loyal to Torah and halakha. On the other hand, another Orthodox approach called for the active participation of Jews in general society while at the same time maintaining a strict allegiance to halakha. The task was to keep a balance of Torah with derekh eretz (worldly concerns/culture), Torah with madda (general knowledge).
These attitudes within Orthodoxy, as well as variations within the themes, have characterized Orthodox Jewish life since the mid-nineteenth century.

The strength of Orthodoxy has been its heroic devotion to Torah and halakha, even in the face of criticism and hostility. Orthodoxy alone maintains a total commitment to the Divine nature of the Torah and the binding authority of halakha. Orthodoxy is inextricably bound to all past generations of Torah observant Jews, and is faithfully confident that with the coming of the Messiah all Jews will return to traditional Torah life. Yet, it is the peculiar genius of Modern Orthodoxy to be thoroughly loyal to Torah and halakha while being open to modern thought and participating creatively in society.

Non-Orthodox detractors accuse Orthodoxy of being too bound by tradition, inflexible, unreceptive to modernity.
Non-Orthodox Jews have often found it expedient to stereotype Orthodox Jews as being "pre-modern," narrow-minded, irrational, insular, those who use religion as an escape from the realities of the world. They criticize Jewish law as being dry and tedious. They describe followers of halakha as unthinking slaves of ritual and detail, lacking in deeper spiritual feelings.

These criticisms and stereotypes are refuted in one name: Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik.

The Rav and Modernity

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, known to his students and followers as the Rav (the rabbi par excellence), is Orthodoxy's most eloquent response to the challenges of modernity and to the critics of Modern Orthodoxy. A Torah giant of the highest caliber, the Rav was also a world-class philosopher. In his studies in Lithuania, he attained the stature of a rabbinic luminary. At the University of Berlin, he achieved the erudition of a philosophical prodigy.

A Talmudic dictum teaches that the path of Torah is flanked on the right by fire and on the left by ice. If one moves too far to the right, he is consumed by fire. If he moves too close to the left, he freezes to death. Rabbi Soloveitchik was that model personality who walked the path of the Torah, veering neither to the right nor to the left.

The Rav's unique greatness made him the ideal symbol and spokesman of Modern Orthodoxy. In his own person, he demonstrated that the ideal Torah sage is creative, open-minded, compassionate, righteous, visionary, realistic and idealistic. He showed that one could be profoundly committed to the world of Torah and halakha and at the same time be a sophisticated modern thinker. Rabbi Soloveitchik was the paradigmatic 20th century figure for those seeking mediation between classic halakhic Judaism and Western modernity. He was the spiritual and intellectual leader of Yeshiva University, the Rabbinical Council of America and Mizrachi; his influence, directly and through his students, has been ubiquitous within Modern Orthodox Jewish life. He was the singular rabbinic sage of his generation who was deeply steeped in modern intellectual life, who understood modernity on its own terms; he was, therefore, uniquely qualified to guide Orthodoxy in its relationship with modernity.

The Rav was appreciative of many of the achievements of Western civilization. But he could not ignore the shortcomings of modernity. He was pained by the discrepancy between dominant modern values and the values of traditional religion. It is lonely being a person of faith in "modern society which is technically-minded, self-centered, and self-loving, almost in a sickly narcissistic fashion, scoring honor upon honor, piling up victory upon victory, reaching for the distant galaxies, and seeing in the here-and-now sensible world the only manifestation of being" ("The Lonely Man of Faith," p. 8). Utilitarianism and materialism, as manifestations of the modern worldview, are inimical to the values of religion.

In pondering the dilemma of a person of faith, the Rav explores a universal dilemma of human beings: inner conflict. He draws on the Torah's descriptions of the creation of Adam to shed light on human nature. Adam I is majestic; he wants to build, to control, to succeed. He is dedicated to attaining dignity. Adam II is covenantal; he is introspective, lonely, in search of community and meaning. He seeks a redeemed existence. Each human being, like Adam, is an amalgam of these conflicting tendencies. In creating humans in this way, God thereby underscored the dual aspect of the human personality. Human fulfillment involves the awareness of both Adams within, and the ability to balance their claims.

The Rav suggests that Western society errs in giving too much weight to Adam I. The stress is on success and control, pragmatic benefits. Even when it comes to religion, people seem to be more concerned with operating quantifiably successful institutions rather than coming into a relationship with God. In the words of the Rav: "Western man diabolically insists on being successful. Alas, he wants to be successful even in his adventure with God. If he gives of himself to God, he expects reciprocity. He also reaches a covenant with God, but this covenant is a mercantile one. ... The gesture of faith for him is a give-and-take affair" ("The Lonely Man of Faith," p. 64). This attitude is antithetical to authentic religion. True religious experience necessitates surrender to God, feelings of being defeated--qualities identified with Adam II.

By extension, the Rav is critical of modernizers and liberalizers of Judaism who have tried to "market" Judaism by changing its content. Any philosophy of Judaism not firmly rooted in halakha is simply not true to Judaism. The non-halakhic movements did not grow out of classic Judaism; rather, they emerged as compromising responses to modernity. Had it not been for the external influences on Western Jews, non-halakhic movements would not have arisen as they did. The litmus test of an authentic philosophy of Judaism is: is it true to Torah and halakha, does it spring naturally and directly from them, is it faithful to their teachings? If Torah and halakha are made subservient to external pressures of modernity, this results in a corruption of Judaism.

Modernity, then, poses serious problems for traditional religion. However, counter-currents within modernity offer opportunities. Already in the early 1940's, Rabbi Soloveitchik felt that the time had come for a new approach to the philosophy of religion. The "uncertainty principle" of quantum physics was an anodyne to the certainty of Newtonian physics. Thinkers in psychology, art and religion were proclaiming that human beings are not machines, but are complex organisms with religious, emotional and aesthetic sensibilities. Rationalism could not sustain and nourish the human soul. The Holocaust exploded the idealized myths of Western humanism and culture. Western civilization was moving into a post-modern phase which should be far more sympathetic to the spiritual character of human beings, more receptive to the eternal teachings of religion.

The Rav felt that a philosophy of Judaism rooted in Torah and halakha needed to be expressed in modern terms. Orthodox Jews needed to penetrate the eternal wisdom of the halakhic tradition, deepening their ability to cope with the challenges and opportunities of modernity and post-modernity. And non-Orthodox Jews needed to study classic Judaism on its own terms, freed from the negative propaganda of anti-Orthodox critics. After all, Torah and halakha are the patrimony of all Jews.

In his various lectures and writings, the Rav has provided a meaningful and powerful exposition of halakhic Judaism. He is a modern thinker, rooted in tradition, who has laid the foundation for post-modern Jewish thought.

Conflict and Creativity

The Rav has stated that "man is a great and creative being because he is torn by conflict and is always in a state of ontological tenseness and perplexity." The creative gesture is associated with agony ("Majesty and Humility," p. 25). As the Rav pointed out in "The Lonely Man of Faith," God created human beings with a built-in set of conflicts and tensions; this inner turmoil is a basic feature of the human predicament.

Religion is not an escape from conflict: it is a way of confronting and balancing the tensions that go with being a thinking human being. One must learn to be a creative free agent and, at the same time, an obedient servant of God.
Detractors of religion often portray religionists as seeking peace of mind by losing themselves in the spiritual realm.

Critics say: "it is easy to be religious; you do not have to think; you only have to accept the tenets of faith and you can avoid the responsibility of making decisions and facing conflict." To such critics, the Rav would say simply: you do not understand the true nature of religion. Religion is not a place for cowards to hide; it is a place for courageous people to face a totally honest revelation of their own inner being. Halakhic Judaism does not shield the Jew from ontological conflict: it compels him to face it directly, heroically.

It is precisely this inner tension and struggle which generates a lofty and creative understanding of life. Rabbi Soloveitchik's writings and lectures are vivid examples of religious struggle and creativity at their best. His use of typologies, his first-person reminiscences, his powerfully emotive use of language--all contribute to express his singular message: a religious person must live a creative, heroic life.

In his Ish ha-Halakha (Halakhic Man), the Rav notes that the halakhic Jew approaches reality with the Torah, given at Sinai, in hand. "Halakhic man, well furnished with rules, judgments, and fundamental principles, draws near the world with an a priori relation. His approach begins with an ideal creation and concludes with a real one" (Halakhic Man, p. 19). Intellectual effort is the hallmark of the ideal religious personality, and is a sine qua non of understanding the halakhic enterprise.

The Rav compares the domain of theoretical halakha with mathematics. The mathematical theoretician develops a system in the abstract; this theoretical construct is then applied to the practical world. The theoretical system helps define and shape practical reality. So it is with halakha. The classic halakhists immerse themselves in the world of theoretical halakha and apply halakhic constructs to the mundane world. The Rav observes that "both the halakhist and the mathematician live in an ideal realm and enjoy the radiance of their own creations" (Halakhic Man, p. 25).
The ideal halakhic personality lives in constant intimacy with halakha. Halakha is as natural and central to him as breathing. His concern for theoretical halakha is an expression of profound love and commitment to the entire halakhic worldview. This love and commitment are manifested in a scrupulous concern for the observance of the rules of practical halakha.

The sage who attains the highest level of relationship with halakha is one "to whom the Torah is married." This level is achieved not merely by intellectual acumen, but by imagination and creativity. "The purely logical mode of halakhic reasoning draws its sustenance from the pre-rational perception and vision which erupt stormily from the depths of this personality, a personality which is enveloped with the aura of holiness. This mysterious intuition is the source of halakhic creativity and innovative insight . . . . Creative halakhic activity begins not with intellectual calculation, but with vision; not with clear formulations, but with unease; not in the clear light of rational discourse, but in the pre-rational darkness" (Besod ha-Yahid ve-haYahad, p. 219). The halakhic personality, then, is characterized by conflict, creativity, imagination, vision. The world of halakha is vast and all-encompassing. One who reaches the level of being "married" to the Torah and halakha has come as close to eternal truth as is possible for a human being.

Halakhic Activism

Rabbi Soloveitchik emphasized the Torah's focus on this-worldy concerns. "The ideal of halakhic man is the redemption of the world not via a higher world but via the world itself, via the adaptation of empirical reality to the ideal patterns of halakha. ... A lowly world is elevated through the halakha to the level of a divine world" (Halakhic Man, pp. 37–38).

Whereas the universal homo religiosus believes that the lower spiritual domain of this world must yearn for the higher spiritual realms, halakhic man declares that "the higher longs and pines for the lower." God created human beings to live in this world; in so doing, He endowed human life in this world with dignity and meaning.

Halakha can be actualized only in the real world. "Halakhic man's most fervent desire is the perfection of the world under the dominion of righteousness and loving-kindness--the realization of the a priori, ideal creation, whose name is Torah (or halakha), in the realm of concrete life" (Halakhic Man, p. 94). The halakhic life, thus, is necessarily committed to this-worldly activism; the halakhic personality is devoted to the creation of a righteous society.
The halakha is not confined to sanctuaries, but "penetrates into every nook and cranny of life." Halakha is in the home, the marketplace, the banquet hall, the street, the office--everywhere. As important as the synagogue is, it does not occupy the central place in halakhic Judaism. Halakha is too vast and comprehensive to be confined to a synagogue.

Rabbi Soloveitchik argues that non-halakhic Judaism erred grievously in putting the temple at the heart of religion. "The halakha, the Judaism that is faithful to itself ... which brings the Divine Presence into the midst of empirical reality, does not center about the synagogue or study house. These are minor sanctuaries. The true sanctuary is the sphere of our daily, mundane activities, for it is there that the realization of the halakha takes place" (Halakhic Man, pp. 94-5).

Consequently, halakhic Judaism is realistic, idealistic and demanding. Halakha is concerned with every moment, with every place. Its sanctity fills the universe.

Halakha is unequivocally committed to righteous, ethical life. The Rav points out that the great sages of halakha have always been known for their lofty ethical standards. The halakha demands high respect for the dignity of others. "To recognize a person is not just to identify him physically. It is more than that: it is an act of identifying him existentially, as a person who has a job to do, that only he can do properly. To recognize a person means to affirm that he is irreplaceable. To hurt a person means to tell him that he is expendable, that there is no need for him. The halakha equated the act of publicly embarrassing a person with murder" ("The Community," p. 16).

The ethical demands of halakha are exacting. One's personal life must be guided by halakhic teachings in every situation, in every relationship. The halakhic worldview opposes mystical quietism which is tolerant of pain and suffering. On the contrary, halakhic Judaism "wants man to cry out aloud against any kind of pain, to react indignantly to all kinds of injustice or unfairness" ("Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah," p. 65; see also, U-Vikkashtem mi-Sham, p. 16). The Rav's stress on ethical activism manifested itself in his views on religious Zionism. He accepted upon himself the mantle of leadership for religious Zionism; this placed him at odds with many Orthodox leaders who did not ascribe religious legitimacy to the State of Israel. Rabbi Soloveitchik eloquently insists that the halakha prohibits the missing of opportunities. After the Holocaust, the Jewish people were given the miraculous opportunity to re-establish a Jewish state in the land of Israel. For centuries, Jews had prayed for the return of Jewish sovereignty in Israel. Now, in this generation, the opportunity was being offered. For the Rav, it would be tragic and unforgivable to miss the gift of the moment. Not to respond to "the knocking of the beloved," not to respond to God's message to the suffering people of Israel--this would be a tragic error of terrible magnitude. This was not a time for hesitation: this was a time to embrace the opportunity of a Jewish State, an opportunity granted to us by the Almighty. The Rav conveyed a certain impatience with those who did not respond religiously to the new Jewish State. Like the Shulamith maiden in the Song of Songs, they were drowsy and hesitant at the very moment the beloved had returned. They were not fully awake to the significance of the moment, and the halakhic and ethical imperatives which flowed from it.

Interiority

All true religious action must be accompanied by appropriate inner feelings and thoughts. The exterior features of religious behavior must be expressions of one's interior spiritual sensibilities.

Yet in non-Orthodox circles, it has long been fashionable to deride halakhic Jews as automatons who slavishly adhere to a myriad of ancient rules and regulations. They depict Orthodox Jews as unspiritual beings who only care about the letter of the law, who nitpick over trifling details, whose souls are lost in a labyrinth of medieval codes of law. To such critics, Rabbi Soloveitchik would answer quite simply: you do not understand the halakha; you do not understand the nature of halakhic Judaism. Interiority is a basic feature of the halakhic way of life.

Halakha relates not merely to an external pattern of behavior. Rather, it infuses and shapes one's inner life. "The halakha wishes to objectify religiosity not only through introducing the external act and the psychophysical deed into the world of religion, but also through the structuring and ordering of the inner correlative in the realm of man's spirit" (Halakhic Man, p. 59).

For the halakhic Jew, halakha is not a compilation of random laws; it is the expression of God's will. Through halakha, God provides a means of drawing nearer to Him, even of developing a sense of intimacy with Him. To the outsider, a person fulfilling a halakhic prescription may seem like an unthinking robot; but this skewed view totally ignores the inner life of the halakhic Jew. It does not see or sense the inner world of thought, emotion, spiritual elevation.

The halakhic Jew must expect to be misunderstood. How can others who do not live in the world of halakha possibly understand the profundity of halakhic life? How can those who judge others by surface behavior be expected to penetrate into the mysterious depths of a halakhic Jew's inner life? Those who stereotype Orthodoxy are thereby revealing their own ignorance of the true halakhic personality.
"Halakhic man does not quiver before any man; he does not seek out compliments, nor does he require public approval. ... He knows that the truth is a lamp unto his feet and the halakha a light unto his path" (Halakhic Man, p. 89). The halakhic personality strives to maintain and develop inner strength. One must have the courage and self-confidence to be able to stand alone. Self-validation comes from within one's self, not from others. "Heroism is the central category in practical Judaism." The halakhic Jew needs the inner confidence "which makes it possible for him to be different" ("The Community," p. 13).

Knesset Israel

Halakhic Jews feel inextricably bound to all Jews, even those who are unsympathetic to them and their beliefs. "Judaism has stressed the wholeness and the unity of Knesset Israel, the Jewish community. The latter is not a conglomerate. It is an autonomous entity, endowed with a life of its own .... However strange such a concept may appear to the empirical sociologist, it is not at all a strange experience for the halakhist and the mystic, to whom Knesset Israel is a living, loving and suffering mother" ("The Community," p. 9). In one of his teshuvah lectures, Rabbi Soloveitchik stated that "the Jew who believes in Knesset Israel is the Jew who lives as part of it wherever it is and is willing to give his life for it, feels its pain, rejoices with it, fights in its wars, groans at its defeats and celebrates its victories" (Al ha-Teshuvah, p. 98). By binding oneself to the Torah, which embodies the spirit and destiny of Israel, the believer in Knesset Israel thereby is bound to all the generations of the community of Israel, past, present and future.

The Rav speaks of two types of covenant which bind Jews to Knesset Israel. The berit goral, the covenant of fate, is that which makes a Jew identify with Jewishness due to external pressure. Such a Jew is made conscious of Jewish identity when under attack by anti-Semites; when Israel is threatened by its enemies; when Jews around the world are endangered because of their Jewishness. The berit goral is connected to Jewish ethnicity and nationalism; it reminds the Jew that, like it or not, he is a Jew by fate.

The berit yeud, the covenant of mission and destiny, links the Jew to the positive content of Jewishness. He is Jewish because he chooses the Jewish way of life, the Torah and halakha; he seeks a living relationship with the God of Israel. The berit yeud is connected with Jewish ideals, values, beliefs, observances; it inspires the Jew to choose to live as a Jew. The berit goral is clearly on a much lower spiritual level than the berit yeud; the ideal Jew should see Jewish identity primarily in the positive terms of the berit yeud. However, the Rav does not negate the significance of the berit goral. Even if a Jew relates to Jewishness only on the ethnic level, this at least manifests some connection to the Jewish people. Such individuals should not be discounted from Knesset Israel, nor should they be disdained as hopelessly lost as Jews. Halakhic Jews, although they cling to the berit yeud, must recognize their necessary relationship with those Jews whose connection to Jewishness is on the level of berit goral.

Ultimately, though, Jewish tradition is passed from generation to generation by those Jews who are committed to Torah and halakha. Thus, it is critical that all Jews be brought into the category of those for whom Jewishness is a positive, living commitment. Jewishness based on ethnicity will not ensure Jewish continuity. The Rav credited the masorah community with transmitting Judaism from generation to generation. The masorah community is composed of those Jews for whom transmission of Torah and halakha is the central purpose of life. It was founded by Moses and will continue into the times of the Messiah. Members of the masorah community draw on the traditions of former generations, teach the present generation, plan for future generations. "The masorah community cuts across the centuries, indeed millenia, of calendaric time and unites those who already played their part, delivered their message, acquired fame, and withdrew from the covenantal stage quietly and humbly, with those who have not yet been given the opportunity to appear on the covenantal stage and who wait for their turn in the anonymity of the 'about to be'" ("The Lonely Man of Faith," p. 47).

The masorah community actually embodies two dimensions--the masorah community of the fathers and that of the mothers. The Rav clarifies this point by a personal reminiscence. "The laws of Shabbat, for instance, were passed on to me by my father; they are part of mussar avikha. The Shabbat as a living entity, as a queen, was revealed to me by my mother; it is a part of torat imekha. The fathers knew much about the Shabbat; the mothers lived the Shabbat, experienced her presence, and perceived her beauty and splendor. The fathers taught generations how to observe the Shabbat; mothers taught generations how to greet the Shabbat and how to enjoy her twenty-four hour presence" (“Tribute to the Rebbitzen of Talne," p. 77).

The Rav teaches that Knesset Israel is a prayerful community and a charitable community. "It is not enough to feel the pain of many, nor is it sufficient to pray for the many, if this does not lead to charitable action" ("The Community," p. 22). A responsible member of Knesset Israel must be spiritually awake, must be concerned for others, must work to help those in need. "The prayerful-charity community rises to a higher sense of communion in the teaching community, where teacher and disciple are fully united" ("The Community," p. 23). The community must engage in teaching, in transmitting, in passing the teachings of Torah to new generations.

The Rav, Our Teacher

The Rav, through his lectures and writings, was the most powerful and effective teacher of Orthodoxy of our times. In his lectures, he was able to spellbind huge audiences for hours on end. His Talmudic and halakhic lessons pushed his students to the limits of their intellects, challenging them to think analytically. His insights in Torah were breathtaking in their depth and scope. Those who were privileged to study with him cherish their memories of the Rav. And those who have read his writings have been grateful for the privilege of learning Torah from one of the Torah giants of our time.

The Rav described his own experience when he studied Talmud. "When I sit to 'learn' I find myself immediately in the fellowship of the sages of tradition. The relationship is personal. Maimonides is at my right. Rabbenu Tam at the left. Rashi sits at the head and explicates the text. Rabbenu Tam objects, the Rambam decides, the Ra'abad attacks. They are all in my small room, sitting around my table."
Learning Torah is a trans-generational experience. It links the student with the sages of all previous generations. It creates a fellowship, a special tie of friendship and common cause. It binds together the community in a profound bond of love, and provides the foundation for future generations. Halakhic Judaism represents a millennial Jewish tradition dedicated to Torah and halakha, truth and righteousness, love and fear of God. It demands--and yearns to bring out--the best in us. One who strives to be a member of the trans-generational community does not suffer from spiritual homelessness.

When we and future generations sit down to study Torah, we will be privileged to share our room with Rashi and Maimonides, with Rabbenu Tam and the Rashba. And sitting right next to us will be Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, his penetrating insights leading us to greater heights in our quest to become "married" to the Torah.

References
Al ha-Teshuvah, written and edited by Pinchas Peli, Jerusalem, 5735.
Besod ha-Yahid ve-ha-Yahad, edited by Pinchas Peli, Jerusalem, 5736.
"The Community," Tradition 17:2 (1978), pp. 7–24.
"Confrontation," Tradition 6:2 (1964), pp. 5–29.
Halakhic Man, translated by Lawrence Kaplan, Philadelphia, 1983.
"The Lonely Man of Faith," Tradition 7:2 (1965), pp. 5–67.
"Majesty and Humility," Tradition 17:2 (1978), pp. 25–37.
"Redemption, Prayer and Talmud Torah," Tradition 17:2 (1978), pp. 55–72.
"A Tribute to the Rebbitzen of Talne," Tradition 17:2 (1978), pp. 73–83.
"U-Vikkashtem mi-Sham," Hadarom, Tishri 5739, pp. 1–83.

Thoughts for Pessah

How are we meant to help bring about the ultimate Geulah, especially in light of this very precarious moment for the modern state of Israel.

 

Response of Rabbi Marc D. Angel, Director, Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals

 

At the Seder, we eat the “Hillel Sandwich,” Korekh, which includes both matsa and maror. Rabbi Benzion Uziel, late Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, pointed out that matsa—eaten as the Israelites left Egypt—symbolizes freedom. Maror—bitter herb—symbolizes the bitterness of slavery. We combine these two symbols to remind us that freedom and slavery are intertwined. Even when we are enslaved, we have our inner freedom. Even when we are free, we have to worry about falling back into slavery.

Until Mashiah arrives, we simply don’t have full redemption. We are always experiencing a mixture of matsa and maror, freedom and suffering. Sometimes things are better and sometimes worse…but we are constantly engaged in personal and national struggle.

We are currently living in very challenging times for Israel and the Jewish People. We all feel the taste of maror, the bitterness of war, death, anti-Semitism, ugly anti-Israel hatred. But we also have the taste of matsa…freedom. The State of Israel is strong, vibrant, and courageous. The Jewish People worldwide are standing up for our rights and for the honor of Israel. We are literally eating “korekh”, matsa and maror together, simultaneously. 

It has been noted that the redemption from Egypt is attributed entirely to the Almighty. The Israelites themselves were relatively passive in the process of gaining their freedom. But the ultimate redemption will require us to participate actively. While Hashem will be the guarantor of our geulah, we will need to assume personal responsibility.

Along with our prayers, we each must stand with Am Yisrael in every way possible. We need action—communal, political, financial etc.—in support of Medinat Yisrael. We need to stand up against anti-Semites and anti-Zionists with fortitude…and we must prevail.

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

Holiness: Thoughts for Parashat Vayikra

Angel for Shabbat, Parashat Vayikra

By Rabbi Marc D. Angel

The book of Vayikra is known in the vernacular as Leviticus. This designation underscores that the book deals primarily with laws relating to the Levites…to the priesthood, Temple, sacrifices, purity laws. While this is a broad characterization, Vayikra covers many other topics relating to business, sexual morality, ethical principles etc.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has suggested that the general theme of Leviticus is holiness. “Holiness is not only what one does or does not do in the Temple, but something that applies even in places that have nothing at all to do with the ritual holiness of the Sanctuary of the Temple. It is a spiritual quality in its own right.”  Rabbi Steinsaltz understands holiness “to be a type of refinement, perfection, and exaltation, not necessarily limited to one particular point or area” (Talks on the Parasha, p. 193).

The essence of holiness is to place our lives in context with God. Whatever we do and wherever we are, holiness is a challenge for us to live up to our best selves. We are not only answerable to God; we are answerable to ourselves. Have we done our best? Have we lived up to our potential? Are we still aspiring to grow spiritually?

Holiness is a lifelong process that requires humility, persistence, and realism. We aren’t expected to be perfect, only to be as great as we possibly can be. This week’s parasha lists the various offerings that are to be brought for sins. The Torah acknowledges that we will sometimes fall short and it offers a way forward through repentance. Keep striving, keep growing, keep reaching beyond.

We sometimes hear educators and politicians telling young people: “You can be anything you want. You have unlimited potential.”  Although well intentioned, these statements are false. No matter how much one wants to be President of the United States or member of the Supreme Court, or a superstar athlete, or a gifted artist, or a mega-billionaire…very few will actually achieve these things no matter how hard they try. To tell students they can achieve anything they want is basically to set them up for failure.

A better message is: strive to live up to your own potential. Draw on your abilities to be the best person you can be.  Or, to put the message in Torah terms: be holy! Strive to live in context with the Divine. Live up to the talents that God has given you. Don’t squander your lives chasing false gods and false goals.

We live in a world where holiness seems to be out of fashion. Some live as though there is no God; others live believing in a god that condones hatred, violence, and falsehoods. 

The Torah reminds us and challenges us to be the best person we can be. Although it is difficult to block out all the negative static in our world, the quest for holiness keeps us human, humane and Godly.

 

Esther: Peshat and Derash in Megillat Esther

ESTHER

 

PESHAT AND DERASH IN MEGILLAT ESTHER[1]

 

By Rabbi Hayyim Angel

 

 

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

Elisha ben Avuyah said: one who learns as a child, to what is he compared? To ink written upon a new writing sheet; and one who learns [when] old, to what is he compared? To ink written upon an erased writing sheet. (Avot 4:20)

 

          Megillat Esther is among the most difficult biblical books to study anew, precisely because it is so familiar. Many assumptions accompany us through our study of the Megillah, occasionally clouding our perceptions of what is in the text and what is not.

          Any serious study of the peshat messages of the Megillah must begin with a clear sense of what is explicitly in the text, what can be inferred legitimately from the text, and what belongs primarily in a thematic exposition, using the text as a springboard for important religious concepts. This chapter will consider some pertinent examples from Megillat Esther.

 

PESHAT CONSIDERATIONS IN THE MEGILLAH

 

A. THE SAUL–AGAG REMATCH

 

          On five occasions in the Megillah, Haman is called an “Agagite.”[2] Several early traditions consider this appellation a reference to Haman’s descent from King Agag of Amalek, whom Saul defeated (I Sam. 15).[3]

          Similarly, several midrashic traditions identify the Kish of Mordecai’s pedigree (2:5) with Saul’s father (I Sam. 9:1).[4] From this vantage point, Mordecai’s recorded pedigree spans some five centuries in order to connect him and Esther to Saul. If indeed Haman is of royal Amalekite stock, and Mordecai and Esther descend from King Saul, then the Purim story may be viewed as a dramatic rematch of the battle between Saul and Agag.

          However, neither assumption is rooted in the text of the Megillah. The etymology of “Agagite” is uncertain; while it could mean “from King Agag of Amalek,” it may be a Persian or Elamite name.[5] Had the author wanted to associate Haman with Amalek, he could have dubbed him “the Amalekite.” The same holds true for Mordecai and Esther’s descent from King Saul. If the Megillah wished to link them it could have named Saul instead of “Kish” (Ibn Ezra). It is possible that the Kish mentioned in the Megillah is Mordecai’s great-grandfather rather than a distant ancestor.[6]

        Regardless of the historical factuality of the aforementioned identifications, a strong argument can be made for a thematic rematch between the forces of good and evil which runs parallel to Saul’s inadequate efforts to eradicate Amalek. In this case, the association can be inferred from the text of the Megillah itself.[7] The conflict between Mordecai and Haman as symbolic of a greater battle between Israel and Amalek is well taken conceptually, but it is tenuous to contend that the biological connections are manifest in the text. However, if the midrashim had received oral traditions regarding these historical links, we accept them—ve-im kabbalah hi, nekabbel.

 

B. ASSIMILATION

 

          It is sometimes argued that the turning point in the Megillah is when the Jews fast (4:1–3, 16–17; 9:31), thereby repenting from earlier assimilationist tendencies demonstrated by their sinful participation in Ahasuerus’ party. According to this reading, Haman’s decree was direct retribution for their communal sin. However, the text contains no theological explanation of why the Jews “deserved” genocide; on the contrary, the sole textual motivation behind Haman’s decree is Mordecai’s refusal to show obeisance to Haman (3:2–8). By staunchly standing out, Mordecai jeopardizes his own life and the lives of his people.[8]

          Moreover, there is no indication in the Megillah that the Jews ever did anything wrong. On the contrary, the references to the Jews acting as a community display them mourning and fasting,[9] first spontaneously, and then at Mordecai’s directive (4:1–3, 16–17; 9:31). They celebrate their victory by sending gifts to each other and giving charity to the poor (9:16–28).

          Consider also Haman’s formulation of his request to exterminate the Jews: “Their laws are different from every nation” (3:8). Several midrashim find in Haman’s accusation testimony that the Jews observed the commandments and stood distinctly apart from their pagan counterparts.[10]

          Curiously, the only overt indications of foreign influence on the Jews in the Megillah are the names Mordecai and Esther, which likely derive from the pagan deities Marduk[11] and Ishtar.[12] However, the use of pagan names need not indicate assimilation of Mordecai and Esther, nor of the community at large.[13]

          Not only is there no textual evidence of Jewish assimilation—on the contrary, the Megillah consistently portrays Jews positively—but there is no rabbinic consensus on this matter either. The oft-quoted Gemara used to prove assimilation states:

R. Shimon b. Yohai was asked by his disciples, Why were the enemies of Israel [a euphemism for the Jews] in that generation deserving of extermination? He said to them: Answer the question. They said: Because they partook of the feast of that wicked one. [He said to them]: If so, those in Shushan should have been killed, but not those in other provinces! They then said, answer the question. He said to them: It was because they bowed down to the image. They said to him, then why did God forgive them [i.e., they really deserved to be destroyed]? He replied: They only pretended to worship, and He also only pretended to exterminate them; and so it is written, “For he afflicted not from his heart.” (Megillah 12a)

 

R. Shimon b. Yohai’s students suggested that the Jews deserved to be destroyed because of their willing participation in Ahasuerus’ party, but they did not state what was wrong with this participation. Song of Songs Rabbah 7:8 posits that the Jews sinned at the party by eating nonkosher food. Alternatively, Esther Rabbah 7:13 considers lewdness the primary sin at the party.[14]

          A contrary midrashic opinion is found in Midrash Panim Aherim 2, which relates that the Jews specifically avoided the party. Related sources describe that the Jews cried and mourned over Ahasuerus’ festivities.[15]

          Within the aforementioned rabbinic opinions, we find controversy over what was wrong with the party and the extent of the Jews’ participation (if any). But this entire discussion becomes moot when we consider that R. Shimon b. Yohai rejects his students’ hypothesis on the grounds that only Shushan’s Jewry participated; the Jews in other provinces never attended either of Ahasuerus’ parties.[16]

          R. Shimon b. Yohai then submits his own opinion: the Jews bowed to “the image.” Rashi avers that the image refers to the statue of Nebuchadnezzar erected and worshipped generations earlier (see Daniel chapter 3), while Meiri (Sanhedrin 74b) quotes an alternative reading of our Gemara, which indicates that the “image” was an idol that Haman wore as people bowed to him.[17]

          Both possibilities present difficulties: According to Rashi, the Jews were to be punished for the transgression of their ancestors, though there is no evidence that they perpetuated this sinful conduct. According to Meiri’s alternative reading, the question of R. Shimon b. Yohai to his students simply becomes more acute: only the members of the king’s court in Shushan bowed to Haman. Most Jews of Shushan, and all Jews from the outer provinces, never prostrated before Haman.

          In any case, the Gemara concludes that the Jews bowed without conviction. God “externally” threatened the Jews in return, that is, the threat was perceived, not real. The Gemara never resolves the theological question of why the Jews deserved such a harsh decree. The text of the Megillah consistently portrays the Jews in a favorable light, and the Gemara’s ambivalence over the theological cause of the Purim story only supports this positive assessment. In light of these factors, we must relegate discussions of assimilation to the realm of derekh ha-derash, that is, assimilation is something to be criticized, but the Megillah is not engaged in this condemnation—rather, it is concerned with other religious purposes.

         

C. RELIGIOUS OBSERVANCE

 

          The Megillah makes no mention of the distinctly commandment‑related behavior of the heroes, nor of the nation. Other than the term Yehudi(m), there is nothing distinctly Jewish in the Megillah. Most prominent is the absence of God’s Name. Also missing are any references to the Torah or specific commandments. In this light, the holiday of Purim could be viewed as a nationalistic celebration of victory. The only sign of religious ritual is fasting; but even that conspicuously is not accompanied by prayer. The omission of God’s name and prayer is even more striking when we contrast the Masoretic Text with the Septuagint additions to the Megillah—where the Jews pray to God and God intervenes on several occasions. In the Septuagint version, God’s Name appears over fifty times.[18] It appears unmistakable that the author of the Megillah intended to stifle references to God and Jewish religious practice. The second section of this chapter will address the question of why this is so.

 

D. MORDECAI’S DISOBEDIENCE

 

          Mordecai’s rationale for not prostrating himself involves his Jewishness (3:4), but the Megillah does not explain how. Many biblical figures bow to kings and nobles as a sign of respect, not worship; notably Esther bows to Ahasuerus in 8:3.[19] The text suggests that Mordecai did not want to honor the king and his command (see 3:2–4), but this explanation seems puzzling. Would Mordecai endanger his own life and the lives of all Jews[20] for this reason? Esther Rabbah 6:2 finds it unlikely:

But Mordecai did not bow down nor prostrate himself before him (3:2). Was Mordecai then looking for quarrels or being disobedient to the king’s command? The fact is that when Ahasuerus ordered that all should bow down to Haman, the latter fixed an idolatrous image on his breast for the purpose of making all bow down to an idol.[21]

 

Other rabbinic sources contend that rather than wearing an idol, Haman considered himself a deity.[22]

          Nevertheless, the text never alludes to idolatry in regard to Haman, nor anywhere else in the Megillah.[23] It appears that technical idolatry did not figure into Mordecai’s refusal to bow to Haman. In the second section of this chapter, we will consider alternative responses to this question.

          To conclude, certain midrashic assumptions are without clear support in the biblical text, and there often is disagreement in rabbinic sources. Both Mordecai and Esther’s biological connection to Saul and Haman’s descent from Agag of Amalek are debatable. There is no evidence of Jewish assimilation, nor is there testimony to overtly Jewish religiosity. Finally, it is unclear why Mordecai refused to bow to Haman, which is surprising given the centrality this episode has in the narrative.

          Although these ambiguities make an understanding of the Megillah more complicated, they also free the interpreter to look beyond the original boundaries of explanation and to reconsider the text and its messages anew.

 

THE CENTRAL MESSAGES OF THE MEGILLAH

A. AHASUERUS AS THE MAIN CHARACTER

          In determining the literary framework of the Megillah, Rabbi David Henshke notes that, viewed superficially, chapter 1 only contributes Vashti’s removal, making way for Esther. However, the text elaborately describes the king’s wealth and far-reaching power. This lengthy description highlights the fact that there is a different plot. The king’s power is described in detail because it is central to the message of the Megillah. Moreover the Megillah does not end with the Jews’ celebration. It concludes with a description of Ahasuerus’ wealth and power, just as it begins. The bookends of the story point to the fact that the Purim story is played out on Ahasuerus’ stage.[24]

          The other major characters—Esther, Mordecai, and Haman—are completely dependent on the good will of the king. For example, the political influence of Esther and Mordecai ostensibly contributed significantly to the salvation of the Jews. However, their authority was subject to the king’s moods. Esther knew that Vashti had been deposed in an instant. The king even held a second beauty contest immediately after choosing Esther as queen (2:19). When the moment to use her influence arrived, Esther was terrified to confront the king to plead on behalf of her people. The fact that she had not been summoned for thirty days reminded her of her precarious position (4:11).

          Mordecai, who rose to power at the end of the Megillah, likewise must have recognized the king’s fickleness. Just as the previous vizier was hanged, Mordecai never could feel secure in his new position.

          Rabbi Henshke points out that after Haman parades Mordecai around Shushan (a tremendous moral victory for Mordecai over his archenemy), Mordecai midrashically returns to his sackcloth and ashes (see Megillah 16a). After Haman is hanged, which should have ended the conflict between Mordecai and Haman, only the king is relieved, because the threat to his own wife is eliminated (7:10). Even after Ahasuerus turns Haman’s post over to Mordecai, Esther still must grovel before the king (8:1–6). The Jews remain in mortal fear because of the king’s decree, irrespective of Haman.

 

B. GOD AND AHASUERUS

          Most of the main characters of the Megillah have counterparts: Mordecai opposes Haman; Esther is contrasted to Vashti (and later Zeresh). On the surface, only Ahasuerus does not have a match—but behind the scenes, he does: it is God.[25] While God’s Name never appears in the Megillah, “the king” appears approximately 200 times. It would appear that Ahasuerus’ absolute power is meant to occupy the role normally assigned to God elsewhere in Tanakh.[26]

          Everyone must prostrate before the king’s vizier—how much more respect is therefore required for the one who appointed him! And one who enters the throne room without the king’s permission risks his or her life—reminiscent of the Jewish law of the gravity of entering the Holy of Holies, God’s “throne room.” Even the lavish parties at the beginning of the Megillah fit this theme. Instead of all the nations of the world coming to the Temple in Jerusalem to serve God (Isa. 2:2–4), all the nations of the world come to the palace in Shushan to see Ahasuerus’ wealth and to get drunk.

 

C. THE MEGILLAH AS SATIRE[27]

          Along with Ahasuerus’ authority and absolute power comes a person riddled with caprice and foolishness. Ahasuerus rules the world, but his own wife does not listen to him. He makes decisions while drunk and accepts everyone’s advice. Rabbi Henshke convincingly argues that the primary point of the Megillah is to display the ostensible power of a human king while satirizing his weaknesses.

          The patterns established in chapter 1 continue throughout the Megillah. Haman is promoted simply because the king wants to promote him. This promotion occurs right after Mordecai saves the king’s life and is not rewarded at all. Despite the constant emphasis on the king’s laws, Ahasuerus readily sells an innocent nation for destruction and drinks to that decision (3:11–15). Later he still has the audacity to exclaim, “mi hu zeh ve-ei zeh hu!” (who is he and where is he, 7:5). Despite the king’s indignant proclamation, the answer to his question is that it is the king himself who is the enemy of the Jews![28]

          The striking parallel between Haman’s decree (3:11–15) and Mordecai’s (8:7–14) further illustrates the king’s inconstancy: both edicts follow the identical legal procedure and employ virtually the same language, yet one allows the Jews to be exterminated while the other permits the Jews to defend themselves. The decree of self-defense rather than a repeal of Haman’s decree of extermination demonstrates that Ahasuerus is subservient to his own decrees to the point where he cannot even retract them himself (1:19; 8:8, cf. Dan. 6:9, 13, 15-16). Finally, the Bigtan and Teresh incident (2:21–23) serves as a reminder that the king’s power was precarious and that his downfall could arise suddenly from within his Empire.[29]

 

D. MORDECAI’S DISOBEDIENCE

 

          We may identify two layers of motivation for Mordecai’s not bowing to Haman: Rabbi Yaakov Medan asserts that Mordecai does not bow because he needs to send a strong message to Israel: passivity in the face of evil can cause even more harm in the future.[30]

          In light of Rabbi Henshke’s analysis, another answer emerges: Mordecai wishes to oppose the king’s command (3:2, 4). Once the king promotes Haman (especially right after Mordecai had saved the king’s life yet received no reward), Mordecai recognizes the fickle character of the king. Even further, Mordecai perceives that Ahasuerus had “replaced” God as the major visible power in Shushan. Thus Mordecai finds himself battling on two fronts. While superficially he opposes Haman, his defiance actually is also a spiritual rebellion against Ahasuerus. Therefore the text stresses that Mordecai was violating the king’s decree by refusing to prostrate before Haman.

          The Gemara lends conceptual support for this dual battle of Mordecai. After Mordecai learns of the decree of annihilation, he begins to mourn:

“And Mordecai knew all that had been done” (4:1)—what did he say? Rav says: Haman has triumphed over Ahasuerus. Samuel says: the higher king has triumphed over the lower king (Rashi: a euphemism for “Ahasuerus has triumphed over God”). (Megillah 15a)

 

According to Rav, Haman was the primary threat to Mordecai and the Jews. Mordecai bewails Haman’s manipulation of the weaker Ahasuerus. According to Samuel, Mordecai perceives that Ahasuerus was too powerful. That Ahasuerus allowed such a wicked individual to rise to power weakened the very manifestation of God in this world. Rav’s response addresses the surface plot, the conflict between Haman and Mordecai. Samuel reaches to the struggle behind the scenes—God’s conflict with Ahasuerus.

 

E. AN ALTERNATIVE TO THE WORLD OF AHASUERUS

 

          Instead of stopping at its satire of the king, the Megillah offers an alternative lifestyle to the world of Ahasuerus. As was mentioned earlier, the Megillah consistently portrays the Jews’ character in a positive light. In 3:8, Haman contrasts the laws of the Jews with the laws of the king. Thus Jewish laws and practices are an admirable alternative to the decrepit values represented by Ahasuerus’ personality and society.

          Ahasuerus is a melekh hafakhpakh, a whimsical ruler. His counterpart, God, works behind the scenes to influence the Purim story through the process of ve-nahafokh hu (9:1).[31] In the world of the hafakhpakh everything is arbitrary, self-serving, and immoral. There is no justice: a Haman can be promoted, as can a Mordecai. In contrast, God’s world of ve-nahafokh hu is purposeful and just.[32] Although the reader is left wondering why the Jews were threatened in the first place, God had justice prevail in the end.

          Even in their victory, however, the Jews remain entirely under the power of Ahasuerus. As a result, Purim is crippled as opposed to most other holidays:

[Why do we not say Hallel on Purim?]...Rava said: There is a good reason in that case [of the exodus] because it says [in the Hallel], “O servants of the Lord, give praise”— who are no longer servants of Pharaoh — But can we say in this case, O servants of the Lord, give praise—and not servants of Ahasuerus? We are still servants of Ahasuerus! (Megillah 14a)

 

 

CONCLUSION

          The showdown between Haman and Mordecai is central to the surface plot, whereas the more cosmic battle that pits God and Mordecai against the world of Ahasuerus permeates the frame of the Megillah from beginning to end.

          The reader is left helpless in the face of the question of why the Jews deserved this decree. The Jews appear completely righteous, and it specifically is the heroic integrity of Mordecai which endangers them in the first place. Yet the reader is led to confront God honestly, confident by the end that there is justice in the world, even when it is not always apparent to the human eye. This piercingly honest religiosity has been a source of spiritual inspiration throughout the Jewish world since the writing of the Megillah. The Megillah challenges us and brings us ever closer to God—who is concealed right beneath the surface.

 

 

 

[1] This chapter is adapted from Hayyim Angel, “Peshat and Derash in Megillat Esther,” Purim Reader (New York: Tebah, 2009), pp. 59-76; reprinted in Angel, Creating Space between Peshat and Derash: A Collection of Studies on Tanakh (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav-Sephardic Publication Foundation, 2011), pp. 186-201.

 

[2] See 3:1, 10; 8:3, 5; 9:24.

 

[3] Mishnah Megillah 3:4 requires that Parashat Zakhor (Deut. 25:17–19) be read the Shabbat preceding Purim. Mishnah 3:6 mandates that the narrative of Amalek’s attack on the Israelites in the wilderness (Exod. 17:9–17) be read as the Torah portion of Purim. Josephus (Antiquities XI:209) asserts that Haman was an Amalekite.

 

[4] See, for example, Megillah 13b.

 

[5] Yaakov Klein, Mikhael Heltzer, and Yitzhak Avishur et al. (Olam HaTanakh: Megillot [Tel Aviv: Dodson-Iti, 1996, p. 217]) write that the names Haman, Hamedata, and Agag all have Elamite and Persian roots.

 

[6] Cf. Amos Hakham’s comments to 2:5 in Da’at Mikra: Esther, in Five Megillot (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 1973); Aaron Koller, “The Exile of Kish,” JSOT 37:1 (2012), pp. 45-56.

 

[7] Hakham suggests that “Agagite” may be a typological name, intended to associate Haman conceptually with “Amalek,” i.e., he acts as one from Amalek (the same way many contemporary Jews refer to anti-Semites as “Amalek” regardless of their genetic origins). Jon D. Levenson (Old Testament Library: Esther [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997], pp. 56–57) adds that Saul lost his kingdom to David as a result of not killing Agag; now Mordecai will reclaim some of Saul’s glory by defeating Haman the Agagite—although the Davidic kingdom stopped ten years after Jeconiah was exiled (2:6).

 

[8] See discussion in R. Haim David Halevi, Mekor Hayyim ha-Shalem (Hebrew), vol. 4, pp. 347–351.

 

[9] Although the Jews’ mourning and fasting may indicate that they were repenting from sins, the text avoids any reference to what these sins might have been. These religious acts just as easily could indicate a petition to God in times of distress.

 

[10] See Esther Rabbah 7:12; cf. Megillah 13b; Abba Gorion 26; 2 Panim Aherim 68; Aggadat Esther 30–31; Esther Rabbah and Targum Esther 3:8. Carey Moore (Anchor Bible 7B: Esther [New York: Doubleday, 1971], p. 39) translates mefuzzar u‑meforad as “scattered, yet unassimilated.” Hakham (on 3:8) suggests this possibility as well.

 

[11] Mordecai is a variant of “Merodakh” (= Marduk). See Jer. 50:2; cf. II Kings 25:27 (~Jer. 52:31); Isa. 39:1. See Megillah 12b; Esther Rabbah 6:3; 2 Panim Aherim 62; Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 50; 1 and 2 Targum Esther 2:5, for midrashic explications of Mordecai’s name.

 

[12] See Megillah 13a (several alternative midrashic etymologies of the name Esther are given there as well). Yaakov Klein, Mikhael Heltzer, and Yitzhak Avishur et al. (Olam HaTanakh: Megillot [pp. 238–239]) maintain that the name Esther derives from the Persian word “star” (meaning “star” in English as well). They reject the derivation from Ishtar, since a shin in a Babylonian word (Ishtar) would not be transformed into a samekh in the Hebrew (Esther).

 

[13] Even if pagan names suggest assimilation, it is possible that their host rulers gave them these names, as with Daniel and his friends (Dan. 1:7). Cf. Megillah 13a: “The nations of the world called Esther this after Ishtar.” At any rate, it is clear that Esther needed to conceal her Jewish identity, so her using the name Hadassah would have been unreasonable.

 

[14] Cf. Esther Rabbah 2:11; Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 48. Other midrashim look to other eras for theological causes of the Purim decree. Esther Rabbah 1:10 turns to the Jews’ violation of Shabbat in the time of Nehemiah. Esther Rabbah 7:25 considers the threat in the Purim story retribution for the brothers’ sale of Joseph. Esther Rabbah 8:1 blames Jacob’s deception of Isaac.

 

[15] See midrashim cited in Torah Shelemah I:52, 60, 61.

 

[16] Song of Songs Rabbah 7:8 concludes that even if only a few Jews participated in the party, all of Israel still could be held responsible because of the principle of arevut, corporate national responsibility.

 

[17] See, e.g., Esther Rabbah 6:2.

 

[18] For further discussion of the Septuagint additions, see Carey Moore, Anchor Bible 44: Daniel, Esther and Jeremiah: The Additions (New York: Doubleday, 1977), pp. 3-16; 153-262.

 

[19] See Gen. 23:7; 27:29; 33:3; 42:6; I Sam. 24:8; II Sam. 14:4; I Kings 1:23. Amos Hakham notes that the terms keri’ah and hishtahavayah (in Est. 3:2, 5) are collocated exclusively in regard to God, or to pagan deities.

 

[20] Mordecai is a hero, but it is less evident whether his actions always should be considered exemplary (majority opinion), or whether he should be considered a hero for reacting properly to a problem that he had created in the first place. See Rava’s opinion in Megillah 12b–13a; Panim Aherim 2:3. One also could argue that Mordecai was willing to assume personal risk but did not anticipate a decree of genocide against his people.

 

[21] See also Esther Rabbah 7:5; Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 50; Abba Gorion 22; Panim Aherim 46; Esther Rabbah 2:5, 3:1–2; Targum 3:2; Josephus, Antiquities, XI, 6.5 and 8; Ibn Ezra; Tosafot Sanhedrin 61b, s.v. Rava.

 

[22] Megillah 10b, 19a; Esther Rabbah 7:8. Cf. Sanhedrin 61b, with Tosafot ad loc., s.v. Rava.

 

[23] R. Yitzhak Arama was perhaps the first to argue that the reasoning of idolatry is derekh ha-derash. See Barry Dov Walfish, Esther in Medieval Garb: Jewish Interpretation of the Book of Esther in the Middle Ages (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993), p. 69. The closest implicit reference to pagan practices in the text is Haman’s lottery.

 

[24] R. David Henshke, “Megillat Esther: Literary Disguise” (Hebrew), in Hadassah Hi Esther (Alon Shevut: Tevunot, 1999), pp. 93–106.

 

[25] Cf. Esther Rabbah 3:10: “Everywhere in the Megillah where it says, ‘King Ahasuerus,’ the text refers to Ahasuerus; every instance of ‘the king’ has a dual holy-secular meaning” (i.e., it refers both to God and to Ahasuerus).

 

[26] Earlier commentators also address the issue of why God’s Name is not mentioned in the Megillah. Ibn Ezra opines that the Megillah would be translated for distribution throughout the Persian Empire; since pagan translators may substitute the name of a pagan deity for God’s Name, the author of the Megillah deliberately avoided referring to God. Rama (Yoreh De’ah 276) suggests that there was doubt whether the Megillah would be canonized (cf. Megillah 7a); therefore, they omitted God’s Name anticipating the possibility of rejection, which would lead to the mistreatment of the scrolls. For a more complete survey of medieval responses to this issue, see Barry Dov Walfish, Esther in Medieval Garb, pp. 76–79.

 

[27] For a thorough analysis of the use of irony in the Megillah, see Moshe D. Simon, “‘Many Thoughts in the Heart of Man...’: Irony and Theology in the Book of Esther,” Tradition 31:4 (Summer 1997), pp. 5–27.

 

[28] Megillah 16a: “And Esther said, ‘the adversary and enemy is this wicked Haman’ (7:6)—R. Eliezer says: this teaches that Esther began to face Ahasuerus, and an angel came and forced her hand to point to Haman.”

            One should not overlook Esther’s remark to the king (7:4): were she and her people to be sold into slavery, she wouldn’t have protested, indicating that the king and his interests are too important to trouble for anything short of genocide! Cf. 8:1–4, where Ahasuerus turns Haman’s wealth over to Mordecai and Esther but does nothing to address his diabolical decree. The king’s priorities are depicted as incredibly perverse in these episodes. Compare Megillah 11a: “‘He was Ahasuerus’ (1:1)—he was wicked from beginning until his end.” This Gemara penetrates beneath the king’s ostensible benevolence toward the Jews at the end of the Megillah, remarking that he was no better than before.

 

[29] Although Bigtan and Teresh failed in their efforts, King Xerxes—who often is understood by scholars to be Ahasuerus—was assassinated by other court officials within ten years of the Purim story (465). See Moore (Esther), p. 32. For analysis of the biblical and extra-biblical evidence to identify Ahasuerus with Xerxes and Esther with his wife Amestris, see Mitchell First, “Achashverosh and Esther: Their Identities Unmasked,” in ??????.

 

[30] R. Yaakov Medan, “Mordecai Would Not Kneel or Bow Low—Why?” (Hebrew), in Hadassah Hi Esther, pp. 151–170.

 

[31] R. Yonatan Grossman demonstrates how the entire Megillah is structured chiastically around the principle of ve-nahafokh hu (Yeshivat Har Etzion, Virtual Bet Midrash 2007 [http://vbm-torah.org/archive/ester/01ester.htm]).

 

[32] See R. Avraham Walfish, “An Ordinance of Equity and Honesty” (Hebrew), in Hadassah Hi Esther, pp. 107–140.

Orthodox Semikha for Homosexuals?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessings: Thoughts for Parashat Shemini

Angel for Shabbat, Parashat Shemini

By Rabbi Marc D. Angel

 

“And Aaron lifted up his hand towards the people and blessed them…” (Vayikra 9:22).

 

One of the beautiful age-old Jewish traditions is for parents and grandparents to bless their children and grandchildren, generally on Shabbat and holidays. This is a loving way to share their hopes and to invoke God’s blessings on their progeny.

The Torah reports blessings that Jacob gave to his children and grandchildren as well as blessings that Moses offered to the tribes of Israel. Aaron blessed the people during the ceremony dedicating the Mishkan.  The Torah assigned cohanim the ongoing obligation of blessing the community, a practice that continues to this day.

But what is the meaning of berakha, the Hebrew word for blessing? When we offer someone a blessing, what are we actually conveying?

A berakha reflects a desire to invoke God’s blessing since God is the source of all blessing. As a paradigm, the priestly blessing is uttered by the cohanim but the Torah specifies that “Va-ani Avarekhem,” and I [God] will bless them. So although human beings verbalize blessings, these are expressions of our hope that God will fulfill them. 

This is true of our blessings to others, but how are we to understand blessings we recite to God? We have berakhot whenever we eat, fulfill a mitzvah, and on many other occasions. Since God is the source of all blessing, what does it mean when we say barukh to God?

The word barukh is connected to the word berekh, knee.  When we “bless” God, we are actually saying: we bend our knees to You, we are dependent on You, we recognize Your sovereignty. Instead of translating the opening of a berakha as “blessed are You,” the translation should be “we bend our knees to You” or “we acknowledge You as the Source of all blessing.”

When we bless children, grandchildren or anyone else, we are praying that the Almighty will bless them accordingly. Offering blessings is an expression of love, respect and hope. Those receiving blessings absorb the positive feelings and intentions of those expressing the blessings.

There is an old Jewish tradition of saying 100 blessings each day as an expression of gratitude to the Almighty and an acknowledgement of our dependence on God. It would be well if we would extend this idea to offering blessings to our fellow human beings. The world would be a happier place if we could bless not just those who are closest to us but all those who act righteously and courageously. While curses deepen enmity among people, blessings promote love and mutual respect.

One who blesses is worthy of the blessings of the Almighty.

 

The Chosen People: An Ethical Challenge

The concept of the Chosen People is fraught with difficulties. Historically, it has brought much grief upon the Jewish people. It also has led some Jews to develop chauvinistic attitudes toward non-Jews. Nonetheless, it is a central axiom in the Torah and rabbinic tradition, and we therefore have a responsibility to approach the subject forthrightly. In this essay, we will briefly consider the biblical and rabbinic evidence regarding chosenness.

The Book of Genesis

A major theme of the book of Genesis is the refining process of the Chosen People. The Torah begins its narrative of humanity with Adam and Eve, the first people created in the Image of God. The Torah’s understanding of humanity includes a state of potential given to every person to connect to God, and an expectation that living a moral life necessarily flows from that relationship with God.

Cain and Abel, the generation of Enosh, Noah, and the Patriarchs spontaneously brought offerings and prayed without any commandments from God to do so. God likewise held people responsible for their immoral acts without having warned them against such behaviors. Cain and the generation of the Flood could not appeal to the fact that they never received explicit divine commandments. God expected that they naturally would have known such conduct was unacceptable and punishable.

Adam and Eve failed by eating of the Tree of Knowledge, but they were not completely rejected by God, only exiled. Cain failed morally by murdering his brother—and he, too, was exiled. Their descendants became corrupt to the point where the entire human race was overwhelmed by immorality.

At this point, God rejected most of humanity and restarted human history with Noah—the "second Adam." After the Flood, God explicitly commanded certain moral laws (Genesis 9), which the Talmud understands as the "Seven Noahide Laws" (ethical monotheism). Noah should have taught these principles to all his descendants. Instead, the only recorded story of Noah’s final 350 years relates that he got drunk and cursed his grandson Canaan. Although Noah was described as a good and righteous man, his story ends in failure. He did not transmit his values to succeeding generations.

As the only narrative spanning the ten generations between Noah and Abraham, the story of the Tower of Babel represents a societal break from God. It marked the beginnings of paganism and unbridled human arrogance. At this point, God appears to have given up on having the entire world perfected, and instead chose Abraham—the "third Adam"—and his descendants to model ethical monotheism and teach humanity.

This synopsis of the first twelve chapters of Genesis is encapsulated by Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno (sixteenth-century Italy). Only after these three failures did God select Abraham’s family, but this was not God’s ideal plan:

It then teaches that when hope for the return of all humanity was removed, as it had successfully destroyed God’s constructive intent three times already, God selected the most pious of the species, and chose Abraham and his descendants to achieve His desired purpose for all humanity…. (Seforno, introduction to Genesis)

In The Nineteen Letters, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (nineteenth-century Germany) arrived at a similar conclusion.

Nor was there any genetic superiority ascribed to Abraham and his descendants. To the contrary, the common descent of all humanity from Adam and Eve precludes any racial differentiation, as understood by the Mishnah:

Furthermore, [Adam was created alone] for the sake of peace among men, that one might not say to his fellow, my father was greater than yours. (Sanhedrin 37a)

Abraham and descendants thus became the Chosen People—a nation expected to do and teach what all nations ideally should have been doing. Indeed, Abraham is singled out in the Torah as the first teacher of these values:

The Lord said, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he has spoken of him. (Gen. 18:17–19)

The remainder of the book of Genesis revolves around the selection process within Abraham’s family. Not all branches would ultimately become Abraham’s spiritual heirs. By the end of Genesis, it is evident that the Chosen People is comprised of all Jacob’s sons and their future generations.

Although the book of Genesis specifies the role and identity of the Chosen People, two difficult questions remain. 1. Once Israel was chosen, was this chosenness guaranteed forever, or was it contingent on the religious-ethical behavior of later generations? Could a sinful Israel be rejected as were the builders of the Tower of Babel? 2. Since the time of the Tower of Babel, is chosenness exclusively limited to Israel (either biological descendants or converts), or can non-Jews again become chosen by becoming ethical monotheists (either on an individual or national level)?

Israel’s Eternal Chosenness

God addressed the first question as He was giving the Torah to Israel:

Now therefore, if you will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine; And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the people of Israel. (Ex. 19:5–6)

Thus, God’s covenant with Israel is a reciprocal agreement. If Israel does not uphold her side, it appears from these verses that she would cease to be God’s treasure. It is remarkable that the very beginning of Israel’s national identity is defined as conditional, rather than absolute.

Later prophets stress this message, as well. Amos states that Israel’s chosenness adds an element of responsibility and accountability. Infidelity to the covenant makes chosenness more dangerous than beneficial:

Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family which I brought up from the land of Egypt, saying: Only you have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities. (Amos 3:1–2)

Amos’s contemporary Hosea employed marriage imagery to demonstrate that Israel’s special relationship with God is contingent on her faithfulness to the covenant. As the Israelites were unfaithful in his time, God rejected them:

She conceived and bore a son. Then He said, "Name him "Lo-ammi"; for you are not My people, and I will not be your God. (Hos. 1:8–9)

However, this was not a permanent rejection from this eternal covenant. Rather, the alienation would approximate a separation for the sake of rehabilitating the marriage rather than a permanent divorce. The ongoing prophecy in the book of Hosea makes clear that God perpetually longs for Israel’s return to a permanent restored marriage:

And I will espouse you forever: I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, and with goodness and mercy, and I will espouse you with faithfulness; then you shall be devoted to the Lord. (Hos. 2:21–22)

The book of Isaiah makes the point even more explicit: there was no bill of divorce:

Thus says the Lord, Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement, with which I have put her away? Or which of My creditors is it to whom I have sold you? Behold, for your iniquities have you sold yourselves, and for your transgressions your mother was put away. (Isa. 50:1)

At the time of the destruction of the Temple, Jeremiah took this imagery to a new level. There was a divorce, yet God still would take Israel back:

It is said, If a man sends away his wife, and she goes from him, and becomes another man’s, shall he return to her again? Shall not that land be greatly polluted? You have played the harlot with many lovers; yet return to me! says the Lord. (Jer. 3:1)

Jeremiah elsewhere stressed the eternality of the God-Israel relationship:

Thus said the Lord, Who established the sun for light by day, the laws of moon and stars for light by night, Who stirs up the sea into roaring waves, Whose name is Lord of Hosts: If these laws should ever be annulled by Me—declares the Lord —Only then would the offspring of Israel cease to be a nation before Me for all time. (Jer. 31:5–6)

To summarize, Israel’s chosenness is conditional on faithfulness to the covenant. However, failure to abide by God’s covenant leads to separation rather than divorce, and the door always remains open for Israel to return to God. The special relationship between God and Israel is eternal.

Righteous Gentiles Can Be Chosen

Let us now turn to the second question, pertaining to God’s rejection of the other nations after the Tower of Babel. Can these nations be chosen again by reaccepting ethical monotheism? The answer is a resounding "yes." Prophets look to an ideal future, when all nations can again become chosen:

In that day five cities in the land of Egypt shall speak the language of Canaan, and swear by the Lord of hosts; one shall be called, The city of destruction. In that day there shall be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar at its border to the Lord... In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the land; Whom the Lord of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My inheritance. (Isa. 19:18–25)

Similarly, Zephaniah envisions a time when all nations will speak "a clear language," thereby undoing the damage of Tower of Babel:

For then I will convert the peoples to a clear language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve Him with one accord. (Zeph. 3:9)

Thus, God’s rejection of the nations at the time of the Tower of Babel similarly was a separation for rehabilitation, not a permanent divorce. Were the nations to reaccept ethical monotheism, they too would be chosen.

In halakhic terminology, non-Jews who practice ethical monotheism are called "Righteous Gentiles" and have a share in the world to come (see Hullin 92a). According to Rambam, they must accept the divine imperative for the seven Noahide laws to qualify as Righteous Gentiles. If they act morally without accepting this divine imperative, they should instead be considered "Wise Gentiles":

[Non-Jews] who accept the seven [Noahide] commandments are considered Righteous Gentiles, and have a share in the World to Come. This is on condition that they observe these commandments because God commanded them in the Torah.... But if they observe them because of reason, they are not called Righteous Gentiles, but rather, elah (printed editions: and not even, ve-lo) Wise Gentiles. (Rambam, Laws of Kings, 8:11)

[Regarding those printed editions that say ve-lo instead of elah: this appears to be a faulty text, and Rambam intended elah, i.e., that they are indeed Wise Gentiles. See Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi, Asei Lekha Rav 1:53, p. 158; Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Abraham’s Journey (2008), pp. 172–173; Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (Iggerot Ha-Ra’ayah 89, vol. 1, pp. 99–100, quoted in Shalom Rosenberg In the Footsteps of the Kuzari, 2007, vol. 1 p. 161.]

To summarize, then, one is chosen if one chooses God. For a Jew, that means commitment to the Torah and its commandments; for a non-Jew, that means commitment to the seven Noahide laws (see Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer 6, quoted in M. Greenberg, pp. 375–376). Non-Jews who are Righteous Gentiles are chosen without needing to convert to Judaism. God longs for the return of all humanity, and the messianic visions of the prophets constantly reiterate that aspiration.

Israel as a Nation of Priests

Although the door remains open for all descendants of Adam and Eve to choose God and therefore be chosen, Israel still occupies a unique role in this discussion. Israel was the first people to recognize God in this way. God calls Israel His "firstborn" (Ex. 4:22). Using the marriage imagery, Israel is God’s wife, which carries with that a special relationship.

Perhaps the most fitting analogy that summarizes the evidence is Non-Jew : Jew :: Jew : Priest. God employs this terminology at the Revelation at Sinai:

Now therefore, if you will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine; And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the people of Israel. (Ex. 19:5–6)

Being Jewish and being a priest both are genetic. A priest also is a bridge between the people and God and serves in the Temple on behalf of the people. Similarly, Israel is expected to guard the Temple and teach the word of God. Just as priests have more commandments than most Israelites; Israelites have more commandments than the nations of the world. The one critical distinction is that a non-Jew may convert to Judaism and is then viewed as though he or she were born into the nation. Nobody can convert to become a priest (though a nazirite bears certain resemblances to the priesthood).

When dedicating the first Temple, King Solomon explicitly understood that the Temple was intended for all who seek God, and not only Israelites:

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

In their messianic visions, the prophets similarly envisioned that Israel would occupy a central role in Temple worship and teaching the nations. All are invited to serve God at the Temple:

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

Rather than serving primarily as an ethnic description, the Chosen People concept is deeply rooted in religious ethics. It is a constant prod to faithfulness to God and the Torah, and contains a universalistic message that belongs to the community of nations. All are descendants from Adam and Eve, created in God’s Image. God waits with open arms to choose all those who choose to pursue that sacred relationship with Him.

Dr. Norman Lamm observes that "a truly religious Jew, devoted to his own people in keen attachment to both their physical and spiritual welfare, must at the same time be deeply concerned with all human beings. Paradoxically, the more particularistic a Jew is, the more universal must be his concerns" (Shema, p. 35).

For further study, see:

Symposium on "The State of Jewish Belief," Commentary 42:2 (August 1966), pp. 71–160, especially the articles of Rabbis Eliezer Berkovits, Marvin Fox, Immanuel Jacobovits, Norman Lamm, and Aharon Lichtenstein.

         

nd Aharon Lichtenstein.