National Scholar Updates

Biblical Models of Integrity and Models of Compromise


            Tanakh teaches a principled, religious morality to all humanity. The prophets and their followers stood tall and spoke out for principled religious morality against tyranny and immorality. Others, however, compromised principle and attempted to find a “balanced” way of juggling morality and other less positive values. Of course, the biblical Mordekhai is one of the paragons of the ideal religious position, defying the evil Haman while everyone else fell over in obeisance.

            There are many other biblical models—some exemplary, and some that fall short—worthy of our consideration. In this essay, we will consider four figures: Abraham’s nephew Lot, an obscure prophet named Micaiah son of Imlah, the prophet Jeremiah, and King David. Lot and David (specifically in the story we will be considering) compromised principle in favor of less positive values, whereas Micaiah and Jeremiah heroically stood for God and the ideal principles of the Torah.


Lot: Compromising Principle for Comfort


            Lot is one of the most fascinating figures in the Torah. As the nephew of Abraham and Sarah (known as Abram and Sarai during the first stages of the narrative), he joins them on their long journey to the Land of Canaan.

            From the very beginning, God repeatedly promises the Land to Abraham’s descendants. Abraham sees no possibility of biological descendants as he and Sarah are barren, so Lot seems like the obvious heir.

            Then, famine strikes, and Abraham, Sarah, and Lot descend to Egypt to obtain food. It is a traumatic experience, as Pharaoh takes Sarah as a wife. The episode ends well thanks to God’s direct intervention and protection of Sarah. Abraham and Lot emerge from Egypt much wealthier, as a result of Pharaoh’s gifts (Genesis 12).

            While Abraham and Sarah rebuilt their lives in Canaan afterward, Lot never forgot the fact that the Nile provided material stability for Egypt. Canaan precariously depended on rainfall, leaving its inhabitants prone for future famines.

            When the shepherds of Abraham and Lot quarreled over lands for pasture, Lot chose to move to Sodom. The Torah describes Sodom’s appeal: “Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it—this was before the Lord had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt” (Genesis 13:10). The steady rise of the Jordan River resembled that of the Garden of Eden and Egypt. Lot wanted that stability and comfort.

            The Torah immediately reports the price of that comfort: “Now the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked sinners against the Lord” (Genesis 13:13). By moving to the depraved city of Sodom, Lot abandoned the values and lifestyle Abraham and Sarah exemplified.

            Over the next several years, Lot married a woman of Sodom, and two of his daughters later married men of Sodom. Deeply entrenched as he was, he still maintained a sense of Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality. He invited the angels to his home when the other inhabitants of Sodom ignored the visitors (Genesis 19).

            Lot remained head and shoulders above the people of Sodom. Nevertheless, he compromised the dearest principles of the household of Abraham and Sarah by moving to the wicked city, all in the name of comfort. In the final analysis, he never won the respect of his neighbors, he lost his home, his two married daughters, and his wife. On a different plane, Lot also forfeited his position as the potential heir of Abraham and Sarah.

            Lot’s descendants, the nations of Ammon and Moab, were characterized by Sodom’s anti-hospitality culture:


No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord; none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the Lord, because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt, and because they hired Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Aramnaharaim, to curse you.—But the Lord your God refused to heed Balaam; instead, the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, for the Lord your God loves you.—You shall never concern yourself with their welfare or benefit as long as you live. (Deuteronomy 23:4–7)


            Yet, some trace of good remained in Lot, and that streak of hospitality was manifest in Lot’s stellar descendant, Ruth the Moabite. Ruth married Boaz, and became the great-grandmother of King David.

            The Lot saga reminds us of how easy it is for generally good people or institutions to be overly tempted by financial gain and comfort to the point where they compromise their integrity and core principles. Today’s Lots may rationalize this behavior on the grounds that everyone needs financial security. Nonetheless, the price they pay in compromising their values far outweighs whatever temporary gains they obtain.

The Torah enjoins us to emulate Abraham and Sarah—righteous, hospitable, principled individuals who stood firm in their faith and ideals. With all of their struggles, they worked hard to build a righteous family with authentic values, and they prospered among their neighbors.


Ahab and His Yes Men vs. the Prophet Micaiah


            In the ninth century bce, the wicked King Ahab and Queen Jezebel began a reign of terror in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. They made the worship of Baal into the official religion of Israel. Although people worshipped God also, they constantly wavered between God and Baal. Jezebel massacred the prophets of God and others who spoke up for the truth.

            King Ahab struck an alliance with the righteous King Jehoshaphat of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Ahab’s daughter Athaliah married Jehoshaphat’s son Jehoram. Although the alliance united the two kingdoms on the political level, it caused catastrophic religious and physical harm to the Southern Kingdom.

            The fiery Elijah served as the primary prophet who courageously opposed the wicked regime of Ahab and Jezebel. In one of the Ahab narratives (I Kings 22), a lesser-known prophet named Micaiah son of Imlah shines by maintaining his integrity against a powerful and corrupt establishment.

            Following a three-year lull in an ongoing conflict between Israel and Aram, Ahab decides to regain control of Ramoth-gilead, which Aram had captured in earlier battles. Ahab invites his ally, King Jehoshaphat, to join him in battle: “And [Ahab] said to Jehoshaphat, ‘Will you come with me to battle at Ramoth-gilead?’ Jehoshaphat answered the king of Israel, ‘I will do what you do; my troops shall be your troops, my horses shall be your horses’” (22:4).

            However, the righteous Jehoshaphat insists that they first consult the prophets to obtain the word of God (22:5). Ahab had some 400 prophets at the ready, and they offered a unified positive response to go to war: “So the king of Israel gathered the prophets, about four hundred men, and asked them, ‘Shall I march upon Ramoth-gilead for battle, or shall I not?’ ‘March,’ they said, ‘and the Lord will deliver [it] into Your Majesty’s hands’” (22:6).

            With such a unanimous prophetic response, one might have expected Jehoshaphat to enter the war without further hesitation. However, the prophetic response somehow left Jehoshaphat wanting a second opinion: “Then Jehoshaphat asked, ‘Isn’t there another prophet of the Lord here through whom we can inquire?’” (22:7).

            What signaled the need for further prophetic consultation? The 400 prophets spoke in God’s Name! Radak and Abarbanel consider this narrative in light of the overall Ahab narrative. Ahab and Jezebel supported Baal worship, and therefore these prophets must have been prophets of Baal. These idolaters tried to deceive Jehoshaphat by using God’s Name, but the righteous king saw through their evil ruse. Although reasonable, this interpretation goes beyond the local text and requires interpretation from the global narrative.

            It appears that the most likely approach requires a different way of thinking. Like the prophets of many ancient Near Eastern pagan nations, these 400 men were court prophets, who were on the king’s payroll. Receiving large salary packages and great royal honor, they understood that they must always support the king’s wishes. In this instance, Ahab clearly desired to go to war. Therefore, the 400 prophets repackaged the king’s intent into prophetic words. Any other message would have resulted in their getting fired, or worse.

            Jehoshaphat recognized that these 400 “prophets” were like pagan prophets, under their king’s thumb. True prophets of Israel served God alone. They regularly confronted kings and other powerful figures when they strayed from God’s ways. Therefore, Jehoshaphat demanded a true independent prophet, one who would honestly reflect God’s will.

            There was indeed such a prophet, Micaiah son of Imlah, available for consultation. The wicked Ahab despised him, and did all he could to silence Micaiah.

            First, Ahab expressed displeasure at the mere need to invite him: “And the king of Israel answered Jehoshaphat, ‘There is one more man through whom we can inquire of the Lord; but I hate him, because he never prophesies anything good for me, but only misfortune—Micaiah son of Imlah.’ But King Jehoshaphat said, ‘Don’t say that, Your Majesty’” (22:8).

            When that strategy failed, Ahab let his henchmen intimidate the prophet: “The messenger who had gone to summon Micaiah said to him: ‘Look, the words of the prophets are with one accord favorable to the king. Let your word be like that of the rest of them; speak a favorable word’” (22:13). Of course, the true prophet refused to kowtow to this pressure: “‘As the Lord lives,’ Micaiah answered, ‘I will speak only what the Lord tells me’” (22:14).

            When he arrives at the palace, Micaiah sarcastically mimics the false prophets. Irritated by the sarcasm, Ahab demands that Micaiah state God’s true prophetic message: “When he came before the king, the king said to him, ‘Micaiah, shall we march upon Ramoth-gilead for battle, or shall we not?’ He answered him, ‘March and triumph! The Lord will deliver [it] into Your Majesty’s hands.’ The king said to him, ‘How many times must I adjure you to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?’” (22:15–16).

            Micaiah then replies with true prophecy, suggesting that Ahab will perish if he goes to war against Aram: “Then he said, ‘I saw all Israel scattered over the hills like sheep without a shepherd; and the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let everyone return to his home in safety’” (22:17).

After dismissing the 400 prophets as false prophets who mislead Ahab, those court prophets attempt to intimidate Micaiah: “Thereupon Zedekiah son of Chenaanah stepped up and struck Micaiah on the cheek, and demanded, ‘Which way did the spirit of the Lord pass from me to speak with you?’” (22:24). Micaiah stood his ground despite the insult and the overwhelming numerical superiority of the opposition.

Ahab had hoped his yes-men would convince Jehoshaphat. He attempted to discourage Jehoshaphat from inviting Micaiah. His emissary pressured Micaiah to join the 400 court prophets. Zedekiah struck Micaiah, attempting to intimidate the prophet. All of these strategies failed.

The wicked Ahab therefore ordered that the prophet be imprisoned: “Then the king of Israel said… ‘Put this fellow in prison, and let his fare be scant bread and scant water until I come home safe’” (22:26–27).

The process of silencing Micaiah was complete. Ahab followed his initial decision and went to war, and met his fate on the battlefront as prophesied by Micaiah. What happened to the imprisoned prophet? We never find out. Perhaps he was released after Ahab’s death, perhaps he was forgotten and died in prison.

In addition to the tragic conclusions to the story, it is worth focusing on King Jehoshaphat’s role. He initially demanded a true, God-fearing prophet to convey God’s word. He knew Ahab’s 400 court prophets were fraudulent. He witnessed Ahab’s shameless intimidation of Micaiah. He heard Micaiah’s prophetic words. And despite all that, Jehoshaphat joined Ahab in war, almost losing his own life (see the rest of the chapter). He was a king and a powerful ally, and certainly could have opposed Ahab with greater force. However, Jehoshaphat demonstrates that no longer has the courage to stand by God’s prophet against Ahab and his powerful establishment.

Ahab thus developed a self-serving and well-financed system of court prophets; he intimidated, silenced, and cancelled true prophets; and he kept righteous voices like those of Jehoshaphat adequately silent so that he could achieve whatever he wanted. If Jehoshaphat had shown more resolve, perhaps the story could have turned out differently.


Jeremiah and the False Prophets


            Jeremiah began his prophetic career in 627 bce, and gained national notoriety when he first prophesied the destruction of the Temple during the wicked King Jehoiakim’s reign in 609 bce. He warned that if the Judeans would not improve their religious behavior, the destruction of the Temple and exile would follow. Unwilling to listen, the wicked king, the nobility, and the priesthood persecuted Jeremiah and attempted to have him executed.

            After the traumatic exile of Jehoiachin (Jehoiakim’s son) and 10,000 other leading Judeans 12 years later, there was widespread concern. Suddenly, Jeremiah’s bleak prophecies appeared to be materializing. Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia was rapidly conquering the world, and the tiny nation of Judah was extremely vulnerable. However, a group of false prophets arose in Judah who predicted a miraculous downfall of Babylonia followed by the return of Jehoiachin and the other exiles.

            On the political front, Egypt fanned the flames of revolt against Babylonia. This led King Zedekiah to host an international summit in 593 bce to discuss the formation of an anti-Babylonian coalition. The religious and political establishments opposed Jeremiah’s message of submission.

Jeremiah appeared at Zedekiah’s summit wearing a yoke, symbolizing that all the nations should submit to the yoke of Babylonia:


Thus said the Lord to me: Make for yourself thongs and bars of a yoke, and put them on your neck. And send them to the king of Edom, the king of Moab, the king of the Ammonites, the king of Tyre, and the king of Sidon, by envoys who have come to King Zedekiah of Judah in Jerusalem…The nation or kingdom that does not serve him—King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon—and does not put its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, that nation I will visit—declares the Lord —with sword, famine, and pestilence, until I have destroyed it by his hands. As for you, give no heed to your prophets, augurs, dreamers, diviners, and sorcerers, who say to you, “Do not serve the king of Babylon.” For they prophesy falsely to you—with the result that you shall be banished from your land; I will drive you out and you shall perish. But the nation that puts its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serves him, will be left by Me on its own soil—declares the Lord—to till it and dwell on it. (Jeremiah 27:2–11)


            After Jeremiah’s dramatic presentation, the false prophet Hananiah son of Azzur publicly confronted Jeremiah, breaking his yoke and announcing that Babylonia would fall in two years (Jeremiah 28). Of course, we are privy to the course of history. Jeremiah was indeed the true prophet, and Hananiah was false.

However, in the real time of the story, one must ask: How were the people—even the most sincerely religious ones—to distinguish between true and false prophets? This question was not merely a matter of academic interest. Jeremiah’s forecast of 70 years of Babylonian rule (Jeremiah 25:10–11; 29:10) came with political ramifications: Remain faithful to Babylonia or they will destroy the country. By predicting the miraculous demise of Babylonia, the false prophets supported revolt against Babylonia. These debates were a matter of national policy and survival.

Some false prophets were easier to detect than others. Their flagrant disregard for the Torah discredited them as true prophets—at least for God-fearing individuals who were confused as to whom they should follow. However, Hananiah son of Azzur and Shemaiah the Nehelamite (Jeremiah 29:24–32) both sounded righteous. Neither preached idolatry or laxity in Torah observance, and both spoke in the name of God. After each prophet made his case, Jeremiah “went on his way” (Jeremiah 28:11). There was no way for the people to know who was right, and therefore the nation would have to wait to see whose prediction would be fulfilled. Waiting, however, was not a helpful option. The false prophets were calling for revolt now, and Jeremiah was calling for loyalty to Babylonia now.

Elsewhere, Jeremiah bemoaned the mockery he endured for the non-fulfillment of his own predictions: “See, they say to me: ‘Where is the prediction of the Lord? Let it come to pass!’” (Jeremiah 17:15). Although Jeremiah ultimately was vindicated by the destruction, the prediction test of prophetic veracity was difficult to apply.

To address these difficulties, Jeremiah presented alternative criteria by which to ascertain false prophets. He staked his argument in the Torah’s assertion that a wonder worker who preaches idolatry is a false prophet regardless of successful predictions or signs:


As for that prophet or dream-diviner, he shall be put to death; for he urged disloyalty to the Lord your God (ki dibber sarah al A-donai Elohekhem)—who freed you from the land of Egypt and who redeemed you from the house of bondage—to make you stray from the path that the Lord your God commanded you to follow. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst (Deuteronomy 13:6).


Strikingly, Jeremiah extended the Torah’s example of idolatry to include anyone who did not actively promote repentance. Since the false prophets predicted the unconditional downfall of Babylonia irrespective of any repentance on Israel’s part, they must be fraudulent:


In the prophets of Samaria I saw a repulsive thing (tiflah): They prophesied by Baal and led My people Israel astray. But what I see in the prophets of Jerusalem is something horrifying (sha’arurah): adultery and false dealing. They encourage evildoers, so that no one turns back from his wickedness. To Me they are all like Sodom, and [all] its inhabitants like Gomorrah. (Jeremiah 23:13–14)


More subtly, the Torah uses the expression, “for he urged disloyalty to the Lord your God” (ki dibber sarah al A-donai Elohekhem). This phraseology is used to refer to specific prophets only twice in Tanakh—when Jeremiah censured Hananiah and Shemaiah, the two false prophets who appeared the most righteous:


Assuredly, thus said the Lord: I am going to banish you from off the earth. This year you shall die, for you have urged disloyalty to the Lord (ki sarah dibbarta el A-donai). (Jeremiah 28:16)


Assuredly, thus said the Lord: I am going to punish Shemaiah the Nehelamite and his offspring. There shall be no man of his line dwelling among this people or seeing the good things I am going to do for My people—declares the Lord—for he has urged disloyalty toward the Lord (ki sarah dibber al A-donai). (Jeremiah 29:32)


Thus Jeremiah singled out the most undetectable false prophets so that those who genuinely wanted to follow God’s word would understand that they were as good as idolaters as they led the nation away from God by predicting unconditional salvation for undeserving people.

             Hananiah and Shemaiah may have been sincere dreamers who loved Israel. However, they were not driven to improve their society, and therefore necessarily were false prophets. In the end, their feel-good predictions contributed directly to the nation’s doom. King Zedekiah eventually capitulated to his nobles’ demands and revolted against the Babylonians, bringing about the destruction of the Temple and exile of the nation. During the final siege of Jerusalem, Jeremiah scolded Zedekiah for having ignored his counsel:


And Jeremiah said to King Zedekiah, “What wrong have I done to you, to your courtiers, and to this people, that you have put me in jail? And where are those prophets of yours who prophesied to you that the king of Babylon would never move against you and against this land?” (Jeremiah 37:18–19)


            Although some false prophets may have been sincere, there possibly also was some deficiency in that sincerity. While condemning false prophets, Jeremiah urged the Jews not to listen to them:


For thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: Let not the prophets and diviners in your midst deceive you, and pay no heed to the dreams they [Heb. “you”] dream (ve-al tishme’u el halomotekhem asher attem mahlemim). (Jeremiah 29:8)


The expression at the end of the verse is difficult to interpret, as is evidenced in the NJPS translation above. Radak submits the following:


Mahlemim: this means that they cause them to dream … i.e., you [the people] cause [the false prophets] to dream, for if you did not listen to their dreams, they would not dream these things. (Radak on Jeremiah 29:8)


Following Radak’s interpretation, Jeremiah’s critique of the false prophets includes an accusation of their being at least partially driven by a desire to please the people. A vicious cycle was created between the false prophets, the political leadership, and the masses. In contrast, Jeremiah was committed to God’s word no matter how unpopular that made him.

            Tragically, the Judeans failed to listen to Jeremiah, did not improve their religious behavior, and rebelled against Babylonia. Although he failed during his lifetime, Jeremiah’s staggering prophetic integrity, pitted against every echelon of society, remains immortalized in Tanakh as a shining model of standing against immorality and tyranny. Thousands of years later, we continue to be inspired and animated by his immortal words.



David and Mephibosheth: Being Overly “Even-Handed”


            King David is famed for his incredible righteousness, his inspiring prayers, and his powerful leadership over Israel as he brought his nation security by defeating nations that had bullied Israel for centuries. When we think of his sins, the episode of Uriah and Bathsheba quickly comes to mind. In this section, we consider a lesser-known saga in the Book of Samuel, from which we may learn from David’s mistakes.

David and King Saul’s son, Jonathan, enjoyed a singular friendship. Beyond their mutual love and admiration, the political dimension of their relationship was essential. In addition to offering his unwavering support to David, Jonathan repeatedly had David swear that he would not exterminate Jonathan’s family once David became king. Of course, David honored that request.

            Following Saul and Jonathan’s death and David’s assumption of the throne, David searched the kingdom for any living descendants of Jonathan. He learned that Jonathan had one son, named Mephibosheth. David planned to invite Mephibosheth to dine with him whenever he would like, and care for him. David could not have anticipated that he would be entering an incredibly complicated situation.

            It turns out that a man named Ziba, who had been Jonathan’s chief servant, had taken over Jonathan’s house! Mephibosheth, who was physically lame from childhood, lived with a wealthy patron east of the Jordan River. It appears Ziba forced Mephibosheth out and became the master of the house. Enjoying his transition from servant to mansion owner, Ziba lived like a king, boasting 15 children and 20 servants of his own.

            When David learns of this travesty, he immediately orders Ziba to return the house to Mephibosheth and to serve him:


The king summoned Ziba, Saul’s steward, and said to him, “I give to your master’s grandson everything that belonged to Saul and to his entire family. You and your sons and your slaves shall farm the land for him and shall bring in [its yield] to provide food for your master’s grandson to live on; but Mephibosheth, your master’s grandson, shall always eat at my table.”—Ziba had fifteen 15 and 20 slaves. (II Samuel 9:9–10)


David thus fulfills his promise to Jonathan, cares for Mephibosheth, and demonstrates how he “executed true justice among all his people” (II Samuel 8:15).

            Reluctantly, Ziba obeyed David’s decree and returned the house to Mephibosheth (II Samuel 9:11). Nevertheless, he longed for his former royal lifestyle and waited patiently for an opportunity to regain control of the house from his weak master.

            That opportunity arose years later, when David’s son Absalom rebelled against David. David and his loyal followers fled Jerusalem to the forest, feeling bewildered and abandoned. During David’s flight, Ziba brings food and donkeys for David and his weary men. He accuses Mephibosheth of treason against David, and David subsequently grants the house to Ziba:


David had passed a little beyond the summit when Ziba the servant of Mephibosheth came toward him with a pair of saddled asses carrying two hundred loaves of bread, one hundred cakes of raisin, one hundred cakes of figs, and a jar of wine. The king asked Ziba, “What are you doing with these?” Ziba answered, “The asses are for Your Majesty’s family to ride on, the bread and figs are for the attendants to eat, and the wine is to be drunk by any who are exhausted in the wilderness.” “And where is your master’s son?” the king asked. “He is staying in Jerusalem,” Ziba replied to the king, “for he thinks that the House of Israel will now give him back the throne of his grandfather.” The king said to Ziba, “Then all that belongs to Mephibosheth is now yours!” And Ziba replied, “I bow low. Your Majesty is most gracious to me” (II Samuel 16:1–4).


Ziba explains that Mephibosheth has harbored hopes for the return of the monarchy to himself! The narrative does not corroborate or refute Ziba’s claim. However, David knows Mephibosheth is physically lame and therefore may have been unable to make this journey. It also is puzzling as to how Mephibosheth would have expected to regain the throne. If Absalom wins the rebellion, he would become king. If he loses, David would remain king. In any event, Mephibosheth’s lameness makes it unlikely that he ever would vie for the throne. No less importantly, Ziba already has a proven track record of stealing this house, and therefore his credibility seems very low. There are good reasons for David to doubt Ziba’s story.

            Nevertheless, David appreciates Ziba’s generosity, and accepts Ziba’s story without being able to hear Mephibosheth’s side. David concludes that Mephibosheth is an ungrateful traitor, and therefore awards Ziba the house. Ziba is most pleased.

            David goes on to prevail over Absalom and the rebellion ends. Because the civil war had torn Israel apart, many rifts needed to be healed. A man from the Tribe of Benjamin, Shimei son of Gera, had gravely insulted David when David fled Jerusalem. As the victorious David returned to Jerusalem after the rebellion, Shimei arrived with a large delegation of 1,000 fellow tribesmen to apologize. Among them were Ziba and his 15 sons and 20 servants (II Samuel 19:18).

Ziba says nothing, but he is visibly present when Mephibosheth subsequently appears to David:


Mephibosheth, the grandson of Saul, also came down to meet the king. He had not pared his toenails, or trimmed his mustache, or washed his clothes from the day that the king left until the day he returned safe. When he came [from] Jerusalem to meet the king, the king asked him, “Why didn’t you come with me, Mephibosheth?” He replied, “My lord the king, my own servant deceived me. Your servant planned to saddle his ass and ride on it and go with Your Majesty—for your servant is lame. [Ziba] has slandered your servant to my lord the king. But my lord the king is like an angel of the Lord; do as you see fit. For all the members of my father’s family deserved only death from my lord the king; yet you set your servant among those who ate at your table. What right have I to appeal further to Your Majesty?” The king said to him, “You need not speak further. I decree that you and Ziba shall divide the property.” And Mephibosheth said to the king, “Let him take it all, as long as my lord the king has come home safe.” (II Samuel 19:25–31)


            Mephibosheth had not groomed himself from the moment David fled Jerusalem until this point. It appears that these gestures were signs of mourning and solidarity with David (Radak, Ralbag). Mephibosheth explains why he did not accompany David with the other loyal followers: He had ordered Ziba to take him on the donkey to flee the city with David, but Ziba rode off with the donkey, leaving the crippled Mephibosheth stranded in Jerusalem.

            Despite his accusations of Ziba’s slander (and likely disappointment that David had believed Ziba initially), Mephibosheth humbly expresses profound gratitude for all David had done for him and his family. He reiterates his abiding loyalty to David. Ziba remains silent, but no doubt his physical presence served to remind David that he had helped David during the rebellion.

Spread over three separate episodes, we may summarize the respective “narratives” of the two characters:

Mephibosheth: My father Jonathan’s house belongs to me. Ziba forced me out, and stole my home. You, David, justly returned it to me and ordered Ziba to serve me again. However, during Absalom’s rebellion, Ziba stole my donkey, left me stranded, bribed you and your men with food, and falsely accused me of treason. You see now that I am unkempt, having mourned for you and your kingdom from the moment you fled Jerusalem until now. Ziba’s story is an outright lie.

Ziba: I fed you when you were at your lowest point and expressed my allegiance to you. Mephibosheth supported Absalom and believed the throne would ultimately return to him. You, David, awarded me Jonathan’s house as a result of my loyalty and Mephibosheth’s treason.

Although the prophetic narrator falls short of outright justifying Mephibosheth’s claim, many facts support his narrative: Ziba is a proven house thief, Mephibosheth is lame, he was in a prolonged unkempt state, and it seems most implausible that Mephibosheth ever expected to regain the throne himself.

It is therefore shocking that David uses an “even-handed” approach to resolve the conflict: “The king said to him, ‘You need not speak further. I decree that you and Ziba shall divide the property’” (II Samuel 19:30). It is unclear if Ziba’s bribe inclined David to divide the property, or whether David simply did not want to be bothered any further because he had many other important matters to attend following Absalom’s rebellion.

            The evidence supports Mephibosheth. Instead of being treated as a criminal who exploits and abuses a handicapped man and steals his home, Ziba gains half of a mansion and continues to live as a prince. In the Talmud, Rav expresses outrage that David would rule in this manner:


Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: When David said to Mephibosheth: You and Ziba shall divide the estate, a Divine Voice emerged and said to him: Rehoboam and Jeroboam shall divide the kingdom. (Shabbat 56b)


In the earlier parts of David’s reign, he was famed for executing “true justice among all his people” (II Samuel 8:15). Now, however, his listening to patently unequal narratives to act “even-handedly” dealt a profound injustice to Mephibosheth, rewarded the dishonest Ziba, and, according to Rav, sowed the seeds for the nation itself falling apart.

By not standing for truth, justice, and principle, David directly failed his friend Jonathan and his family, and, ultimately, divided his nation. Through this intricate narrative, there is much we may learn from the prophetic author of the Book of Samuel.


Wrestling with the God of Revelation

Wrestling with the God of Revelation: Preserving Moral Necessity in the Face of Divine Text and Divine Encounter[1]

by Jonathan Arking


The Problem with Fundamentalism


In his wonderful new book, To Be a Holy People: Jewish Tradition and Ethical Values, Rabbi Eugene Korn sets out to examine and explain the relationship between the ethical/moral values and Jewish tradition.[2] In his chapter entitled “Moralization in Jewish Law: Divine Commands, Rabbinic Reasoning and Waging a Just War,” Rabbi Korn proposes four potential lines of reasoning in the face of a morally challenging divine command (such as perpetrating a genocide and mass slaughter of non-combatants during war).[3] The first two options are The Kierkegaardian Argument—in which one recognizes the tension between divine command and morality but suspends their moral judgment in favor of the divine command—and the Divine Command Morality Argument—in which divine commands are asserted to be constitutive of, or at least perfectly exemplary of, true morality. As Rabbi Korn articulates, neither option has backing in traditional rabbinic tradition. Further, both fail to satisfy the biblical reader concerned with the notion of moral necessity, the prioritization of acting morally as a necessary prerequisite for any action taken. The Kierkegaardian argument simply cedes the argument and admits that if one follows it, one will act immorally. The Divine Command Morality Argument at least makes the claim that one who follows it will always act in a morally perfect way, but is implausible in the face of epistemological concerns about both any specific reading of a sacred text, and contention over which texts are sacred. There is widespread argument over how to read nearly every passage in the Bible, and according to Jewish tradition, the text itself is multivocal and cannot be confined to one “correct reading.” This implies that were one to try to act morally only on the basis of strict hermeneutical interpretation, it would be impossible to act in a perfectly moral way because one could never attain, or at least never be sure they had attained, the true “objective” reading of the text.

Further, there is intense contestation as to what scriptures are divine and could serve as the basis for this type of fundamentalism; a Jew who reads their own scripture in a fundamentalist way is nonetheless likely to condemn a member of another religion who commits violence in the name of a fundamentalist reading of their own scripture and vice versa. One may try to argue that if they could establish the truth of their revelation (e.g., this text, not those other ones, was revealed by God), this worry of epistemology could be ignored. I think this is dubious given the assumptions one would need for such a claim to hold including not only that this text and not those others were the result of revelation, but also that the revelation was given by a morally perfect God. This is of course unprovable. There is no method of distinguishing between the revelation of a morally perfect God and, say, a non-physical entity capable of transmitting information that is not perfectly moral, without actually just morally investigating the divinely revealed text. Further, the worry about correct interpretation remains, as well as concerns of perfect transmission of the revelatory message. My point here is not that any given scripture is not morally perfect, only that a claim to its sanctity does not establish that on its own, as there are many scriptures that nonetheless seem to have competing moral visions, at least at times. It seems, then, that the moral perfection of a given text could not be known to the reader a priori and could only be the case upon investigation and subjecting the text to some external criterion, namely their own moral judgment. This, however, is exactly what Divine Command Morality is trying to object to.

There is a further moral problem with the Divine Command Morality Argument in that its method seems to itself call its morality into question; to determine whether or not to massacre innocent civilians, including children, on the basis of a reading of a verse rather than based on the atrocity such an act would be relative to the people it would affect seems seriously misguided. Morality, one might think, ought to be a response to the needs and situations of those whom we affect with our actions, not simply a hermeneutical game to be figured out regardless of how that may literally destroy the lives of many. The “necessity” of moral necessity is thus non-existent in Divine Command Morality, as actions are contingent on subjective readings of texts that are themselves contested as valid sources of fundamentalist morality, instead of responses to the real lives of real people in front of us.


In Defense of the Heretical Argument


The latter two options that Rabbi Korn presents are what he terms the Heretical Argument and the Casuistic Argument. Both arguments accept at least the prima facie moral incorrectness of the divine command, but while the former concludes that the moral imperative must therefore override the divine command, the latter attempts to harmonize the command and morality by introducing extenuating factors or new features to the command. While the casuistic argument is clearly the favored method of rabbinic tradition, as Rabbi Korn details, it does not succeed in truly resolving the tension between the divine command and morality. Simply put, the casuistic approach is methodologically, and not fundamentally distinct from the heretical approach. Rabbi Korn dismisses the heretical approach outright because “no religious tradition can use this argument and retain its theological coherence or moral authority.” The idea here is that once one accepts that morality ought to override an explicit command, any reason to follow any commands at all falls away. The text becomes nothing more than something to be shunned or accepted based on the subjective human reader. But is this less true for the casuistic approach? Is the decision to read a verse against its plain meaning, or to introduce contingencies found nowhere in the text, or to read a commandment entirely out of existence (as in the case of the wayward son) not a subjective human decision to reject the text in front of oneself? Additionally, it challenges the notion of approaching sacred text with integrity; it asks us to read a text against what we see with our own eyes, and then claim that the reading we are imposing onto the text is how the text actually ought to be read! Finally, the Casuistic Argument shares a deficiency with Divine Command Morality in that it emphasizes technicality rather than humanity, making moral action rely on stretched hermeneutics rather than on the actual “moral patients” from whom moral reality arises.

I thus want to return to the heretical argument and work out some of the implications of what it would mean to adopt it, from the perspective of both hermeneutics and theology. This project stems from a desire to engage with all of the options at our disposal, even if the theological implications of doing so are challenging or beyond contemporary traditional norms. It also aims to preserve the integrity of reading sacred text as it is, even if that sometimes conflicts with how we think it ought to be. It should also be noted that in opposition to Rabbi Korn’s statement that one who adopts the heretical approach loses all moral authority, I contend that the so-called heretical approach may be the only path to preserve moral necessity—and thus any possible claim to moral authority. Even if one does opt for the casuistic approach, I believe the following analysis remains quite relevant, as the method of prioritizing one’s morality over the plain meaning of a sacred text is less relevant than its occurrence in terms of both hermeneutical and theological ramifications. Thus, for the remainder of this article we will be trying to think about the question: What does it mean to engage with a text as truly divinely inspired while also asserting that one will not act in accordance with that text if they believe it to be morally problematic?


Learning Normative Action through Imitating God


One of the primary themes of right action in our tradition is that of imitating God, the basic assumption being that if one imitates God, one will be acting correctly. This notion of imitatio dei appears a number of times throughout the Jewish tradition, as, for example, it does in Leviticus, when God proclaims, “You shall be holy, for I, your God Hashem, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). In the rabbinic tradition, there are a few explicit statements telling the reader to either act in certain ways or have dispositions in imitation of God:


And Rabbi Ḥama, son of Rabbi Ḥanina, says: What is the meaning of that which is written: “After the Lord your God shall you walk, and Him shall you fear, and His commandments shall you keep, and unto His voice shall you hearken, and Him shall you serve, and unto Him shall you cleave” (Deuteronomy 13:5)? But is it actually possible for a person to follow the Divine Presence? But hasn’t it already been stated: “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24), and one cannot approach fire.

He explains: Rather, the meaning is that one should follow the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He. He provides several examples. Just as He clothes the naked, as it is written: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21), so too, should you clothe the naked. He, visits the sick…so too, should you visit the sick. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, consoles mourners… so too, should you console mourners. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, buried the dead… so too, should you bury the dead.[4](Translation from Bold is from Sefaria and indicates literal translation, while non-bolded words are added to provide grammatical cohesiveness to the passage.)


Within this passage, we can see a number of important aspects of this rabbinic conception of imitating God. First, the very notion of “being like God” is taken as a biblical command. Secondly, it is immediately pointed out that it is impossible to truly imitate the rabbis’ conception of God. This may be for two reasons. First, this may be thought of as a literal impossibility. The God of the rabbis is a generally incorporeal, mighty to incredibly superhuman levels, the creator of the universe; God is a “devouring fire,” a being whose nature is radically unlike that of any person. But it seems that, in context, Rabbi Hama is making a moral claim: God is “a devouring fire, a jealous God.” The phrase “a jealous God” is absent in the Hebrew quotation in the Gemara. It is only implied and left for the reader to fill in on their own, as if acknowledging that God could not be imitated because God had bad moral qualities could not be stated outright. But this is exactly what Rabbi Hama seems to be insinuating when he responds to his own questions by asserting the proper moral virtues of God to be imitated, rather than any abstract characteristics of divine nature to which we ought to aspire.

            This notion of imitating God insofar as God “clothes the naked,” “visits the sick,” “comforts the mourners,” and “buries the dead,” but not God’s jealousy, is a fascinating theological statement by Rabbi Hama. Throughout the Bible we read of God’s care and love for the downtrodden, but also that “Hashem is a man of war.”[5] The multiplicity of God’s portrayals throughout the Bible allows, and maybe even forces, the rabbis to make specific decisions as to which aspects of God are to be imitated. As Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, an influential theologian and legal scholar within Orthodox Judaism in the twentieth century, writes, “The rabbis in the Talmud were guided by the insight: God forbid there should be anything in the application of the Tora to the actual life situation that is contrary to the principles of ethics.”[6] The ethics of imitatio dei are thus shaped by the moral sentiments of the reader; God can no longer be invoked as an excuse to act immorally because God is only to be imitated only insofar as we, the moral reader, deem it so. In order to preserve moral action, selective reading is necessary.


The Godwrestling Model of Navigating Morality and Integrity in Reading Sacred Text


However, within this rabbinic model of imitation of God, we of course run into the problem of demystifying our sacred texts and making ourselves into the arbiters of their worth. What is the purpose of Scripture if it cannot teach us how to live, but is merely a mirror off of which we reflect our own values? And does this model not ask us to ignore real literary evidence we may find in the text and ask us to claim that the text asserts something that we think it does not? This would seem to be both epistemically and psychologically untenable. I propose that we turn back to the talmudic passage to begin to formulate an approach to the dilemma. Interestingly, Rabbi Hama does not immediately answer his initial question of how to walk in the ways of God with his selectively picked examples that focus on God caring for the downtrodden. Instead, he first raises the stakes of the question by pointing out the potentially problematic nature of God as found in the biblical text. There is no attempt to read out of existence God’s jealousy even while there is a deliberate choice to see it as non-normative.[7] The text leaves open the question of how to theologically deal with the fact of a God (or portrayal of God) who is not worth emulating in all ways, but implies that it is a question that, while real and challenging, ought not to come in the way of acting morally. There is thus a two-tiered approach to the reading of biblical text. To preserve its authenticity, we ought to engage with it as we truly find it, reckoning with a portrayal of a jealous and violent God. But at the same time, the religious person needs to interact with it as a reader who locates their way of life in the biblical text. This requires not just that we read the Bible, but that we read a moral Bible, a Bible that preaches love and obligation and care for those who are in need. This is also consonant with a rigorous oral tradition that is not in fact committed to applying literal understandings of the Torah, but is already in the market, so to speak, of creative normative applications of divine texts. This overall process could lead to a Rawlsian-type “reflective equilibrium” in which the reader has both principles that ought to be expressed in the text, but also reads the text honestly in hope of informing and challenging those principles.[8]

            This dual approach to scripture finds a prominent voice in the work of Judith Plaskow, the author of the first book of Jewish feminist theology, Standing Again at Sinai.[9] As a feminist grappling with the absence of women in both the biblical and rabbinic traditions, Plaskow sees herself as both within the tradition, working to make true the conviction that Berkovits attributes to the rabbis, and as an outsider, seriously challenging the foundations and authority of the Jewish tradition:


I pronounce the Bible patriarchal; but in taking the time to explore it, I claim it as a text that matters to me. This double relation is not unthinking. It stems from my belief that the Jewish feminist must embrace with equal passion (at least) two different attitudes to Jewish sources.[10]


One could assert that the Bible is not patriarchal by misreading it, or one could embrace patriarchy because it is asserted in the Bible. To the moral and honest reader of the Bible, neither of these views is possible. Integrity demands that we not simply read our own values back into the text and that we do our best to understand the Bible on its own terms. But this cannot, according to Plaskow, lead us to either abandon the tradition or to accept it as it is.[11] Instead, it forces us into a space of grappling, or what Plaskow calls “Godwrestling.” Godwrestling is for Plaskow what occurs after moments of encounter with God, which “would need to be interpreted and applied, wrestled with and puzzled over, passed down and lived out before they came to us as the Torah of God.”[12] When one sees their own encounter with the biblical text as one of encounter with God, they too then must undergo Godwrestling, struggling over how to interpret and apply, wrestle with and puzzle over, that which they have encountered. This allows for an encounter with a biblical text that does not automatically happen to align with one’s values. But it also recognizes and accepts the necessarily subjective matter of grappling with and applying the biblical texts to our lives. This model thus preserves the necessarily dual natured encounter with the biblical text, the integrity based attempt to engage with what is written, and the subjective lens through which we read the Bible as in accordance with moral principles. It does so by embracing the complexity of engaging with God, a moment that requires us to challenge ourselves and our assumptions, and God as well.


Theological Responses to the Godwrestling Approach


            However, what might it mean that encounter with God requires us to rethink our conception of God? And, further, what does it mean that God’s revelation requires subjective mediation to preserve its prompting of morally perfect action?[13] This takes us to the brink of (if not over and into) the discussion of theodicy, and how to understand a God that seemingly acts unjustly. God’s moral imperfection is challenging both in its incarnation in God’s messages and revealed nature (as described in scripture), as well as its effects on the world as it relates to the suffering of the innocent. I see three main potential responses (although there certainly are more) to the challenge of how to understand God in light of a world and a model of reading sacred texts that denies God’s moral perfection: 1) God simply is not morally perfect. Moral mistakes arise in God’s revealed word and works because God does not have access to true morality; 2) God intentionally commands and acts in ways that call on humans to respond with protest against God. This serves as a means of moral education or test and helps improve the overall state of morality in the world. This approach could also include an appeal to moral progress and divine commands given as a concession to historical context that God wants us to overcome; 3) There is a distinction between God as an infinite, morally perfect being, and (the) God of history and revelation with whom humans interact. In the remainder of this article, I will try to present a view that makes sense of and incorporates all three responses. It is worth noting that there is no logical necessity in incorporating the different approaches, and one may find one sufficiently compelling or choose to join some together in different ways. Nonetheless, I intend for the process of incorporating these approaches to serve as a model of the type of thinking around this issue I personally find compelling. I will argue that a conception of God who has a highest order desire to be morally good but is limited in knowledge of moral perfection gives rise to human interaction with a God calling on humans to partner with God in bettering the world and God Godself. I present this view by rooting it in biblical and traditional Jewish texts. I do this not to prove its correctness within a biblical or rabbinic framework, but to convey my thoughts in a way that demonstrates their relation to the theological dialogue that has influenced me. I believe the content of the view stands on its own, but is best presented as continuous with and arising from the content it is commenting on.


Response 1: God Is Morally Limited


The question of theodicy, or justifying God, has been answered by one strain of Jewish thought by rejecting the project altogether; there is evil in the world that cannot be justified, therefore justification for God is impossible. In recent times, this has been notably presented in Elie Wisel’s The Trial of God, in which God is placed on trial for the suffering of God’s people and found guilty.[14] Similarly, in his paper “Judging God: Learning from the Jewish Tradition,” Episcopol Priest Daniel London relates the story of Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, who, on behalf of his people who are suffering, challenges God. London writes that through “his bold prayers of protest, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak acts as though he has the power and authority to kick God off His throne for not taking care of His people.” Thus, God is not justified at all, but condemned. According to London, “Levi Yitzhak offers no theology to reconcile the dissonance between the deified Torah and the God who fails to follow it. Instead he brings the dissonance to God in prayer and offers prayers of intercession for Israel.”[15] Theology cannot do the work to justify God because the distance between a morally perfect God and the reality we inhabit is simply too large. Instead, it must be conceded that God is morally limited; the world God has created and the scripture God has given are reflections of God, but this says more about the moral character of God than the works, which have already been judged as deficient. This notion of God’s moral limitation can be seen in the Torah in the case of God's desire to wipe out Israel after the sin of the calf. Nonetheless, Moses confronts God and convinces God not to destroy the people (Exodus 32). Further, God is seemingly bound by the limitations on God’s knowledge within the biblical narrative, including when God “regrets” that God had created humankind upon seeing the depths of their sin (implying God had not known this would occur). Michael Carasik further writes that “the unspoken assumption that implicitly underlies this repeated focus on God's testing the heart[16] is that when God wants to know what is in a particular human being's mind, God cannot sense it, but must deduce it.”[17] Given God’s failure to create a moral world, it seems plausible to accept these limitations on God’s knowledge, and given the moral imperfections of God’s teaching, plausible to accept the limitations on God’s moral knowledge, especially when this lack of knowledge is reinforced by the presumably sacred text itself.


Response 2: God Desires Our Protest


            Once we have posited God as limited, though, how should we interact with God and God’s lackings? Alternatively, we may ask, could we understand what we see as moral imperfections as consistent with a morally good or perfect God? Both questions lead us to the notion of protesting God in God’s name. The first instance of protest against God’s injustice in the bible occurs in Genesis 18, when Abraham is informed that God is planning on destroying the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham responds by challenging God, “Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”[18] Clearly, Abraham is holding God up to a standard external to God. But this is occurring not just as a chance encounter, but following the Bible’s telling of God’s internal dialogue in which God relates that God “singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of The Lord by doing what is just and right, in order that The Lord may bring about for Abraham what has been promised him.”[19] Thus, seemingly, God is aware of the potential for injustice in God’s plan and welcomes Abraham’s challenge to God’s decision. In this model of Abraham, faith in God is in God’s goodness, not as an acceptance of what is as a manifestation thereof, but in God’s desire to be called to the good. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks comments that “Abraham was the first person in recorded history to protest the injustice of the world in the name of God, rather than accept it in the name of God.”[20] God is, in this model, a call to morality, a call to hold others, even God, accountable. Abraham is just the first of a long list of prophets who act as intermediaries not just from God to the people, but from the people to God. As Yochanan Muffs, in his analysis of prophets interceding with God on behalf of the people, entitled “Who Will Stand in the Breach?: A Study of Prophetic Intercession,” details,


The prophet… is also an independent advocate to the heavenly court who attempts to rescind the evil decree by means of the only instruments at his disposal, prayer and intercession. He is first the messenger of the divine court to the defendant, but his mission boomerangs back to the sender. Now, he is no longer the messenger of the court; he becomes the agent of the defendant, attempting to mitigate the severity of the decree.[21]


To engage with God in the face of injustice is an act not of rebellion but the ultimate prophetic act of creating intimacy with God.

What is important about this approach is not just that it can be rooted back in the biblical text and thus adopted comfortably by the religious person, but that it presents a model of interaction with God that can make some sense of our challenge. In this model, what it means to interact with God has been radically transformed. The prophet, the person who is most intimately in communion with God, is not a passive recipient of the divine word, but a partner in a dialogue, engaging in reciprocal conversation to figure out the good. What it means to encounter God is to engage in Godwrestling, to bring oneself, with all one’s convictions and beliefs, into the space of the encounter. This therefore represents a nuancing of our treatment of Plaskow’s notion of Godwrestling, in which the encounter with the divine occurs for the human as an overwhelming passive experience that later gets forced into subjectivity so that it can be made sense of. Instead, here, encounter with God has a similar structure, but allows for a bringing of the subjective into the initial objective encounter; to encounter God in this way is to open oneself to being an active interlocutor with God, a partner God seeks and calls for.

In this vein is also the notion of divinely intended moral progress, or the notion that what we encounter as immoral was merely a concession to historical contingency that God would not want us to adhere to today. Slavery, for example, can be understood as something that the Torah thought ought not to be practiced, but that for historical reasons it could not abolished. Proponents of this view might then point to the reality of today in which slavery is not practiced and argue that this serves as evidence that this is what was truly intended by the divine.  Nonetheless, this view seems to give little guidance in regard to when we should invoke this notion and if it should be invoked proactively at all. Still, it presents a model of how to understand changes in practice against divine revelation as in line with what God truly wants of us.


Response 3: Protest Improves God


The third potential response to our dilemma I wish to consider is that protesting God is a means of improving God. This model appears, I believe, when we consider the conclusion of the book of Job. Throughout the book, we read of the unjust punishment of Job and Job’s argument with his interlocutors. The dialogue builds throughout, with Job calling out God Godself to be held to account for Job’s fortune. When, at the end of the book of Job, God reveals Godself from out of the whirlwind, we, the readers, expect some justification for Job’s mistreatment at the hands of God. Instead, we read as God overpowers Job by telling Job of God’s might in a thoroughly unsatisfying response; power is simply no excuse to not act well. Tellingly, after Job responds to God for a second time, acknowledging God’s might and therefore recanting, God no longer speaks to Job. It is as if God has destroyed Job’s faith in a God who cares for justice, and Job now recognizes the futility of arguing against a being who is unaccountable, and the Job-God relationship is therefore undone. Nonetheless, Job turns to God in the interest of those in need to conclude the book, praying on behalf of his interlocutors. There is thus little joy in the relationship Job has uncovered with God, but a hope, a refusal to let go of a conception of God that can help those in need. This then introduces a hopeful conclusion, one in which the reality of the dissonance between the world and God’s justice is acknowledged, but taken not as inevitable, and instead as a current reality we ought to work to repair. To continue one’s relationship with God in the face of God’s injustice is done not by recognizing that God could be better, that we could form a relationship in which it is we who hold God accountable. Even in the depths of the failure of God to justify Godself, Job turns to God because God is needed by those who are suffering, and God needs a prompting, a call of justice from God’s prophets in order to engage morally with the world.

By distinguishing between God as God wants to be and God as God is (at least when related to human action), we can conceive of this call to engage in moral improvement of a limited God as itself a Godly act. In Lurianic Kabbalah, a school of Jewish mystical thought that arises in Safed in the mid-sixteenth century,[22] creation occurs only via tzimtzum, or contraction. Tzimtzum occurred when the infinite God, the ein sof, contracted Godself in order to “make room” for the world. However, this forced the infinite God to limit Godself in vessels, which then broke because they could not contain God’s infinitude. In this model, God as Hashem or Elohim is simply the incarnation of the truly infinite ein sof that is necessarily broken because only a confined (and therefore incomplete) God could interact with the world without overwhelming it.[23] This then gives rise to the notion of tikkun, of fixing, which is the basis of the kabbalistic worldview, that when one acts well, one is literally repairing both the world and God. While he does not present as ontologically real kabbalistic metaphysics,[24] Jonathan Sacks appeals to a similar notion in his book To Heal a Fractured World, when he writes, “God, by entering the human situation, enters time, and thus uncertainty and risk.”[25] While I too am not inclined to take as literally true the kabbalistic notion of tzimtzum, the notion that God as God interacts with the world as necessarily constricted seems useful for our project. Specifically, it gives us the context in which we can talk about God having a higher form, or truer self, that we are trying to bring out when we engage in protest against the divine. When God acts unjustly, to argue with God is not just to refuse to release one’s moral commitments, but it is an act of divine tikkun, of bringing God’s actuality closer to alignment with God’s potentiality and God’s higher order will. In order to make sense of God’s limitedness and God’s moral imperfection in the context of a God who is nonetheless worth engaging with, we presume that God not only can be better, but fundamentally desires to be better and to be bettered by us, the reader of scripture and participant in the divine encounter. God is thus not fixed as a morally imperfect being, doomed to continue acting and revealing Godself in morally problematic ways, but instead can, just like ourselves, be redeemed by the power of human action.




In this article, I have asserted that in order to preserve the morality of one’s biblically rooted actions, one ought to subjectively read the bible through the lens of morality. Nonetheless, I maintained that one must concurrently affirm the text as they find it and acknowledge its problematic or immoral teachings. In order to make theological sense of this model of reading sacred text, I argued that one can accept God as morally limited while also desiring us to improve God through engagement with God. Thus, the act of subjectively reading normatively authoritative text ought to be understood as just such an engagement and thus an act desired by God Godself. It is an act of improving God and God’s message on earth, an act of tikkun that will bring about a better God and a better world.

While I have attempted to engage seriously with sources and scholarship, throughout the writing process it has been clear to me that this piece of writing is at least intending to follow the method that it sets out. Sources were appealed to not as authoritative but as explanatory, and I presented worldviews rather than arguments. By doing so, I hope to have given a glimpse into my own Godwrestling that comes out of my encounters with the text I take to be sacred, and thus shed light on the content of this article through its form. Whether or not I am entirely correct in my reading of scripture, or if I am in fact wrong about the nature of God, is less vital to the project than the genuine desire to make sense of the tension between moral necessity and the presumed reality and objectivity of the divine encounter.


Works Cited


Arking, Jonathan. “Halakhic Response to Meta-Halakhic Values,” Conversations issue 39, Spring 2022 pp. 76–89.

Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah, 14a.

Bamidbar Rabbah 13:16.

Berkovits, Eliezer. “The Nature and Function of Jewish Law.” Not in Heaven, Shalem Press,

2010, pp. 3–70.

Carasik, Michael. “The Limits of Omniscience.” Journal of Biblical Literature 119, no. 2 (2000):


Gutiérrez, Gustavo. On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis

Books, 1987.

“Isaac ben Solomon Luria.” Encyclopædia Britannica.

Korn, Eugene. To Be a Holy People: Jewish Tradition and Ethical Values. Urim Publications, 2021.

Lamm, Norman. “Amalek and the Seven Nations.”  In Faith and Doubt: Studies in Traditional

Jewish Thought. Jersey City: KTAV Pub. House, Inc., 2007.

London, Daniel DeForest. “Judging God: Learning from the Jewish Tradition of Protest against

God.” Journal of Comparative Theology. Harvard Divinity School, June 2, 2016.

“Lurianic Kabbala.” Encyclopædia Britannica.

Magid, Shaul. From Metaphysics to Midrash: Myth, History, and the Interpretation of Scripture

in Lurianic Kabbala. Indiana University Press, 2008.

Muffs, Yochanan. “Who Will Stand in the Breach?: A Study of Prophetic Intercession.” In Love

& Joy: Law, Language and Religion in Ancient Israel, 9–48. New York, NY: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1992.

Plaskow, Judith. Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective. San Francisco,

CA: Harper & Row, 1990.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard

University Press, 1971.

Sacks, Jonathan. “Covenant & Conversation: Lech Lecha: A Palace in Flames.” Rabbi Sacks,

February 9, 2022.

Sacks, Jonathan. To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility. Bloomsbury, 2013.

Sobrino, Jon. Jesus the Liberator. Burns and O., 1993.

Tanakh: A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures According to the Traditional Hebrew Text.

Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985.

Wiesel, Elie. The Trial of God. New York: Random House, 1979.



[1] This article has been adapted from a paper I wrote for the course “God and Humanity in Catholic Thought” in the Spring of 2022 at Princeton University. I would like to thank the professor of that course, Daniel Rubio, for his instruction and his comments on this paper, as well as my parents, Ronda and Dan Arking, and Esther Levy, who read drafts of this paper.

[2] Korn, Eugene. To Be a Holy People: Jewish Tradition and Ethical Values. Urim Publications, 2021.

[3] Ibid., 103–125.

[4] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Sotah 14a.

[5] In the Song of the Sea, Exodus 15: 1–19, recited daily in the Jewish liturgy.

[6] Eliezer Berkovits. “The Nature and Function of Jewish Law.” Not in Heaven, Shalem Press, 2010, pp. 3–70. Quoted in my own work, “Halakhic Response to Meta-Halakhic Values,” Conversations issue 39, Spring 2022 pp. 76–89. That work goes in depth into how and in what cases arguments from morality drive practical halakha (Jewish law).

[7]  Professor Daniel Rubio pointed out to me that this dilemma could also be approached by attributing mistakes to the biblical authors, who are not correctly communicating God’s will. However, if this is the case, we still have a problem of establishing criteria for which passages to read as properly divine and authoritative and which to read as mistakes. This process also could not just be one of discounting as divine all passages that challenge one’s established moral beliefs without running into the problem of reading the text with integrity on its own terms. While intellectually one may be open to the possibility of errors in scripture, I am not sure this is a viable path for many religious readers of the text who understand the text’s authority as dependent on its status as divine revelation.

[8] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 1971. The key difference between what I am proposing and actual reflective equilibrium is that this is not a closed system. While the biblical text may inform the principles the reader uses, these too need to be rejected or accepted on the basis of moral evaluation.

[9] Plaskow, Judith. Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective. San Francisco,

CA: Harper & Row, 1990.

[10] Ibid., 13.

[11] Plaskow is explicitly calling out some teachings of the biblical text itself as immoral and unworthy of being replicated, not merely commenting on interpretations of the text. Of course, one might think of all work within the text as “interpretation” and thus accept Plaskow’s general critique that the Bible “seems” to endorse patriarchy and has been interpreted that way, but that this is a feature not intrinsic to the text. I am not considering the possibility of a fully subjective approach to text in this article.

[12] Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, 33. Torah here is being used not just to mean the five books of Moses, but also “in the broader sense of Jewish teaching.”

[13] At this point in the article, I am assuming that, even upon a turn to the text, it is not found to be morally perfect. This is not necessarily so, and the remainder of the article thus loses a significant aspect of its weight to the reader who insists that even upon subjecting their sacred text to an external standard of morality it retains its claim to moral perfection.

[14] I found mention of this source in London, Daniel DeForest. “Judging God: Learning from the Jewish Tradition of Protest against God.” Journal of Comparative Theology. Harvard Divinity School, June 2, 2016.

[15] London, “Judging God: Learning from the Jewish Tradition of Protest against God.”

[16] Often understood as a statement of God’s omniscience and knowledge even of people’s inner thoughts. Carasik, Michael. “The Limits of Omniscience.” Journal of Biblical Literature 119, no. 2 (2000): 221–232.

[17] Ibid., 223.

[18] Genesis, 18:25.

[19] Genesis, 18:19.

[20] Sacks, Jonathan. “Covenant & Conversation: Lech Lecha: A Palace in Flames.”

[21] Muffs, Yochanan. “Who Will Stand in the Breach?: A Study of Prophetic Intercession.” In Love

& Joy: Law, Language and Religion in Ancient Israel, 9–48. New York, NY: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1992, 9. I first came across the work of Muffs in London.

[22] “Lurianic Kabbala.” Encyclopædia Britannica.

[23] “Isaac ben Solomon Luria.” Encyclopædia Britannica. and Magid, Shaul. From Metaphysics to Midrash: Myth, History, and the Interpretation of Scripture in Lurianic Kabbala. Indiana University Press, 2008.

[24] Sacks sometimes appeals to kabbalistic notions, such as tzimtzum and tikkun, but explicitly appropriates them for non-metaphysical uses.

[25] Sacks, Jonathan. To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility. Bloomsbury, 2013, 195.



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Our Journey in the Haggadah

                                                                                                                OUR JOURNEY IN THE HAGGADAH:



By Rabbi Hayyim Angel






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


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


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


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




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


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


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


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


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


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






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


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


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


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


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

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

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




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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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




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


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




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







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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


Galut, Self-Defense, and Political Zionism in the Halakhic Thought of Rabbi Ya’akov Moshe Toledano

               In this article I present and analyze concepts of Galut and of the modern Return to Zion found in a seminal responsum composed by Rabbi Ya’akov Moshe Toledano (1880–1960).[1] Born in Tiberias, scion of an illustrious Sephardic family in Meknès, Rabbi Toledano served as a rabbi in Corsica, Tangier, Cairo, and Alexandria, subsequently returning to Eretz Israel and serving as Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv from 1942 until his death. For a brief period toward the end of his life he also served as minister of religious affairs of Israel’s government.[2] In his creativity and career, he may be seen as reflecting attitudes and values common to a significant but insufficiently studied group, rabbinic scholars and lay leaders of the “Old Sephardic Yishuv,” whose members held Zionist ideals in high regard while remaining loyal to their traditional heritage.[3]

            Rabbi Toledano’s central halakhic publication was a collection of responsa entitled Yam HaGadol.[4] Several of these responsa express his deep identification with the Zionist Yishuv and his belief that halakha entailed supporting the Yishuv in various ways. Thus, he takes up the question whether halakha requires a Jew in Eretz Israel to employ only Jews and to buy only Jewish produce even if non-Jewish labor or produce is cheaper—and answers in the affirmative. Moreover, he stresses that this halakhic determination applies also with regard to the labor and produce of nonobservant Jews.[5] 

In another responsum, he determines that under current conditions, halakha forbids the sale of weapons to non-Jews, especially in Eretz Israel. Only when a state of true peace prevails between Jews and Gentiles can such sales be permitted.[6] 

In a third decision, Rabbi Toledano discusses the possibility of restoring a Sanhedrin-type institution. Coming out in favor of the position typical of the more radical wing of religious Zionism, he advocates the establishment in Jerusalem of a (halakhic) High Court for the Jewish people; a court which would also, if possible, restore semikha.[7]

However, it is yet another of Rabbi Toledano’s responsa that I wish to analyze here. In August 1929, there occurred a wave of Arab violence against the Jewish population in many places throughout Eretz Israel. Especially murderous were a pogrom in the old Jewish quarter of Hebron on August 24, in which 67 Jews were massacred, and a pogrom in the old Jewish quarter of Safed in which 18 Jews were murdered.[8] In neither of these cities was there even the semblance of a Jewish self-defense framework. In Yam HaGadol, published soon afterward, the following question is posed:


Does the mitzvah of settling in Eretz Israel apply in our times in a manner that obligates all Jews to obtain possession of the Land by all possible means? And, is it not halachically forbidden to teach the sons of Israel military tactics and methods of defense, so that they might fight and defend themselves against their enemies, should the necessity arise?[9]


A close reading of the question reveals an important conceptual differentiation that is further explicated in Rabbi Toledano’s response. Two very distinct questions are being asked. Only one of these questions, concerning the parameters of Jewish settling of Eretz Israel, is presented as relating specifically to current reality. The second question, regarding halakha’s view of the correct self-defense posture Jews should adopt, is understood to be one of basic principle, not contingent upon time or place; it is precisely because of this that Rabbi Toledano’s position on the matter is so striking. 

            Attitudes toward self-defense stem, in his analysis, not from the way Jews conceive of settlement of Eretz Israel but rather from their conception of Galut. An understanding of Galut was fundamentally mistaken, theologically and morally, had come to prevail in rabbinic circles; in consequence, many rabbis preached that Judaism advocated a passive-submissive response to persecution. The traditionalist Jewish masses in the Diaspora and in Eretz Israel had followed the teachings of these rabbis, reacting to attacks not by defending themselves, but by allowing themselves and their families to be slaughtered “for the sanctification of the Divine Name.” Rabbi Toledano wrote while it is not an easy thing to say, the truth must be stated outright: Rabbis who furthered (or continue to further) this attitude bear direct and unequivocal responsibility for Jewish blood that was unnecessarily spilled due to their misguidance. Here is the relevant paragraph, in full:


Many of our great rabbis, both in former generations and in current times, erred—and misguided the simple masses of our people—in the belief that as long as we are in this hard exile, we are forbidden to lift up our heads. Rather, we are commanded to bow ourselves down before every tyrant and ruler, and to give our backs to the smiters and our cheeks to them that pluck our hair (cf. Isa. 50:6); as if the blood of Israel had been forfeited, and as if He, blessed is He, had decreed that Jacob be given for a spoil and Israel to the robber (cf. Isa. 47:24). They thought that the [Divine] decree of [Israel’s] exile and servitude to the nations included slavery and lowliness, and that, as a matter of sanctifying the Name even at the price of one’s life, a Jew must forfeit his life and surrender himself like a slave or a prisoner of war to Israel’s enemies, even in a situation in which it would have been possible to resist them and retaliate in kind.

            Let me, then, state outright that—begging their pardon—they have caused the loss of individual lives and of entire communities of the Jewish people, who in many instances might have saved themselves from death and destruction, had the leaders and rabbis of that generation instructed them that they were obligated to defend themselves against aggressors, according to the rule “If a person comes to murder you, kill him first” (Sanhedrin 72a). 


Further reading of the responsum clarifies Rabbi Toledano’s understanding of the nature of the exile ordained by God. Galut, he explains, is a political category; that is, God decreed that the Jewish people be deprived of sovereignty and live as subjects of Gentile sovereigns in the various lands in which they lived. To be the subject of a state, says Toledano, entails that one obeys the duly enacted laws promulgated but the authorities, pay taxes, and the like; not that one be the object of insult and torture, and even less that one willingly acquiesces in such a role.

            Rabbi Toledano states that such a conception of Galut as deprivation of political sovereignty—but not including divine requirement of acquiescence to insult and torture—is the one borne out by classic Jewish sources. What exile, he writes, was more directly and specifically ordained than that of the children of Israel in Egypt? Abraham was clearly informed that the divine plan was for his descendants to be enslaved and afflicted by the Egyptians for 400 years (Gen. 15:13). Yet when Moses saw an Egyptian attacking an Israelite, he struck the Egyptian down (Exodus 2:11–12), for he realized that such an attack could not possibly have been ordained as part of Israelite bondage. So, too, Esther and Mordecai regarded it as completely legitimate that the Jews (living in exile in the Persian Empire) not only be saved from Haman’s genocidal plan, but also seek to retaliate against those who had planned to destroy them (Esther 8:11, 9:1–5).

            In addition to biblical instances, Rabbi Toledano cites two other types of sources. One is Sephardic folk tradition, according to which on the eve of the 1492 expulsion Don Isaac Abarbanel and other leaders of Spanish Jewry planned together to organize their communities to confront their enemies and fight against them (a plan foiled by a treacherous converso who revealed it to the authorities).[10] The other comprises descriptions by historians of the Jewish uprisings against Rome outside of Eretz Israel, during the first decades of the period after the destruction of the Second Temple. It is worthy of note that most of the events to which he refers in this context (i.e., the uprisings in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Cyrenaica) could not have been known to Rabbi Toledano from traditional Jewish historiography. Clearly, Rabbi Toledano’s halakhic methodology enabled him to attribute normative halakhic significance to non-canonical sources.[11]

If an uncowed defensive posture was the original and correct orientation advocated by Judaic tradition and practiced by Jews in biblical and post biblical times, how does Rabbi Toledano explain the contemporary gulf between that original view and current rabbinic attitudes? He explains that deviation originated within a specific historical-geographical framework: “It was only in France, Ashkenaz, and Russia that they demeaned themselves, and they never attempted to resist and defend themselves.” In recent generations, he adds, this attitude spread to many Sephardic communities, including Morocco, Persia, and Turkey. In other words, the ideology of submissiveness, widely regarded in traditional rabbinic circles as the authentic religious norm ordained by God for Jews living in a pre-messianic reality, is in fact (Toledano explains) an Ashkenazic heresy that subsequently corrupted many Sephardic Jews, whose own ancestors never stooped to such levels. Interestingly, Gershom Cohen similarly wrote that Medieval and Early Modern Ashkenazic Jewry advocated passivity as a religious value and idealized martyrdom, while Sephardic Jewry was active and dynamic.[12] Elisheva Carlebach critiqued this dichotomy as incompatible with historical fact. However, she concluded that while historically inaccurate, the dichotomy did reflect a clear historiographical difference: Traditional Ashkenazic historiography idealized passivity and martyrdom as religious ideals, while traditional Sephardic historiography idealized activism.[13]

In its fully developed form, writes Toledano, the religious glorification of this perverted notion of Galut had turned back even against the heroes of the pre-exilic era (who ostensibly should not have been bound by ideals of passivity) and attempted to modify their images in consonance with the supposedly eternal values exemplified in the figure of the submissive Jew:


When one reads works of homilies and musar composed by several recent rabbis, one finds that they believe Jews are religiously obligated to submit to all forms of suffering, insult, and physical degradation. They thought that this followed from [the ideal of] Galut or humility. As a result, some of them regarded as problematic the attitude of the patriarch Jacob, who said, “With my sword and bow,” and of Caleb, who said, “As was my strength then, so is it even now,” and they asked: “How could such saintly men boast of physical prowess?!”


Toledano refers the reader to the source of this critique of the plain meaning of Caleb’s words: Rabbi Haim Aryeh Leib Fenster’s introduction to Parashat Ki Tetze.[14] He adds that similar views can be found with ease in recent Ashkenazic rabbinical works. A reading in Mendel Piekarz’s impressive work on Polish Hassidic thought provides striking examples illustrating the Ashkenazic ideal of submissiveness in Galut as a religious virtue. Thus, Piekarz cites an 1880 homily by Rabbi Yehezkel Halberstam (1813–1899), who wrote that when faced with a threat a Jew should act with submissiveness, humility, and a broken heart—and flee.[15] So too, Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain (1855–1926) the second Rebbe of Sochatchov, wrote that Jews should maintain an inner sense of superiority over the Gentiles, but simultaneously act with humility and submissiveness as proper to the state of Exile, as the biblical author of Lamentations (3:30) instructed: “He should offer his cheek to he who strikes him.” Rabbi Bornstein explicitly contrasted this with “the attitude of the well-known sect [= the Zionists] who are unable to bear the submissiveness and the suffering of Galut.”[16] It is thus clear that Rabbi Toledano was not inventing a straw man but criticizing a major trend in Ashkenazic Hareidi thought of his time.

In characterizing this attitude, Rabbi Toledano employs a literary allusion of extreme force that could not fail to evoke a powerful reaction on the part of readers acquainted with classic talmudic culture. This posture, he says, calls forth the rabbis’ devastating critique of Zechariah ben Avkolas: “The piety of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkolas destroyed our temple, etc.” Toledano alludes, of course, to the well-known talmudic story (Gittin 55b–56a) describing a chain of events that led to the destruction of the second Temple. Perhaps best-known today is the first part of the tale, often referred to as “Kamzah and Bar-Kamzah,” which illustrates the moral and social callousness of Jerusalem’s Jewish elite on the eve of the First Revolt. In the second part of the story, the offended Bar-Kamzah maneuvers the Roman emperor into sending an imperial sacrificial offering to the temple of Jerusalem—an offering that Bar-Kamzah secretly blemishes in a manner rendering it unfit for a sacrifice according to Temple norms. 

            It is the third part of the story, however, to which Toledano alludes. Having received the animal sent by the emperor, the rabbis of Jerusalem convene to decide upon a course of action. Most, realizing the disastrous consequences of noncompliance, favor having the animal offered up on the Temple altar despite its minor blemish. But Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkolas speaks out in a different vein: Sacrosanct rules should not be set aside because of an imperial whim, lest a precedent be set. The rabbis give in to Zechariah, but are now faced with another quandary: If Bar-Kamzah reports to the emperor that the sacrifice was not accepted, this will be construed as an act of rebellion by the Jews—with dire consequences. The rabbis therefore conclude that the only way out is for Bar-Kamzah to be put to death. But Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkolas again rebukes them: This might lead people to incorrectly think that he who brings a blemished sacrifice is liable to the death penalty. Abashed by his devoutness and principled consistency, the other rabbis swing around to Zechariah’s position—and Jerusalem’s fate is sealed.

            In the talmudic story, Zechariah appears as the advocate of a principled policy, with the other rabbis tending toward a weaker line of “adaptation to circumstance.” In what sense, then, can Toledano, who supports a bold defensive posture vis-à-vis enemies of the Jews, identify his opponents, who preach adaptation to circumstance, as analogous to Zechariah? The answer lies not in the similarity of their specific proposals, but rather in their concept of value and norm; both first-century Zechariah and contemporary Ashkenazic rabbis identify true devoutness with unswerving commitment to set patterns of behavior, without the broader consequences of such behavior being recognized as a prime consideration in the decision-making process. In both cases, this narrow sense of what commitment to Torah entails leads to terrible loss of Jewish life. As Toledano puts it, with regard to the “Ashkenazic” glorification of submissiveness: 


This faulty humility, which rabbinical leaders instilled in the hearts of the multitude, caused an intensification of Galut, and postponed its end. And, alas for our sins, we recently saw this with our own eyes here in the Holy Land; for in the riots and disturbances which occurred in the year 5689 [1929], the number of deaths was especially great among our brethren who were yeshiva students or of the simple folk, who were educated to agree to suffer insult, to be dragged about, and to be victimized.


Misguided religious attitudes toward Galut thus affect mass behavior and contribute in no small measure to the perpetuation of the exile. Rabbi Toledano’s conclusion is clear:


Regarding the second question, then, “Is it not halakhically forbidden to teach the sons of Israel military tactics and methods of defense, etc.?” Why, according to the above, not only is it not halakhically forbidden, but it is a mitzvah and an obligation incumbent upon the rabbis and leaders of Israel, to institute mandatory daily lessons in these matters in all the talmudei torah and yeshivot, so that the students and youth be prepared to fight, in case an hour of need arises.


According to Toledano, then, renewed acknowledgment of Torah’s positive attitude toward self-defense must lead to a revised notion of Torah study; the curriculum of Torah institutions should reflect the role which their students are expected to fulfill as defenders of Jewish lives. As he noted previously, however, this was not at all the actual praxis of these institutions; yeshiva students—and, of course, their teachers—were far from exemplifying the values of Judaic tradition in this crucial matter.

            Until this point, Rabbi Toledano’s analysis and rhetoric have unfolded purely as a discourse on Galut. His critique of the “Ashkenazic” sanctification of Israel’s suffering in exile derives from the self-evident nature of the imperative of self-defense, and is supported by citation of scriptural and historical sources. His conclusion is that self-defense is “a mitzvah and an obligation” incumbent upon all Jews, wherever they reside. In other words, there is no inherent connection between the mitzvah of self-defense and any geographical locus, e.g., Eretz Israel. 

            Eretz Israel, however, is squarely on the agenda of Toledano’s responsum. The first question posed by the inquirer was, we recall, whether the mitzvah of settling in Eretz Israel applies in our times in a matter which obligates all Jews to obtain possession of the Land by all possible means. Accordingly, in the second part of his responsum, Toledano proceeds to discuss halakhic perspectives on the conquest and settlement of Eretz Israel. In a lengthy, detailed, and technical analysis he relates primarily to the opinions of medieval halakhists. His conclusion is that the two leading halakhic authorities who each developed a detailed position on this matter, Maimonides and Nahmanides, both agree that all Jews are at all times obligated in principle by Torah to do what they can to develop the potential of Eretz Israel, settle there, and gain possession of the Land. However, to be obligated in principle does not always entail obligation in practice. With regard to Eretz Israel, a specific question obtained: according to a midrashic tradition cited in the Talmud (Ketubot 111a), three vows limiting initiatives to gain control of Eretz Israel were divinely ordained in conjunction with the exile:


  • Lo la’alot ka-homah: Forbidding the Jewish people to initiate a collective campaign to regain sovereignty in Eretz Israel against the will of the nations of the world.
  • Lo limrod be-umot ha-olam: Forbidding Jews to revolt against sovereign powers in the lands of exile.
  • Lo lehisht’abed be-yisrael yoter midai: Forbidding the nations of the world to overly oppress the Jews.


To what extent does the first of these vows suspend or curtail the mitzvah of settling Eretz Israel, under the conditions prevailing in 1929?

            Rabbi Toledano argues that under contemporary conditions, the first vow cannot be construed as applying to the Zionist project, for two reasons:


  1. It is quite probable that the limitations originally imposed by the three vows should be understood as mutually contingent. Thus, should the nations not fulfill their obligation under the third vow to limit the oppression of the Jews (and they have not done so, notes Toledano), Jews would be freed from their limitations under the first two vows, and might try to regain Eretz Israel even in the face of Gentile opposition.
  2. The preceding claim, regarding the reciprocity of the vows’ validity, is (while correct) unnecessary for halakhic justification of the contemporary Zionist enterprise. The vow Lo la’alot ka-homah relates to a collective Jewish move opposed by the nations of the world, whereas in the twentieth century the nations have endorsed political Zionism through the Balfour Declaration and the mandate of the League of Nations. 


Strikingly noteworthy in Toledano’s position is the absence of messianism from his presentation of Zionism. His halakhic rationale for Zionism is not based on the claim that current events with regard to Eretz Israel represent a new historical phase or mode, or a materialization of prophetic promises of Israel’s restoration to Zion. In an important sense, Toledano’s understanding of Zionism stems from his understanding of Galut: Galut was not a divine decree obligating Jews to deny their group’s dignity, or forbidding them to affirm that dignity through forceful reaction to persecution. Even in the depths of Galut, Jews were always expected to regard themselves as a nation, in the most conventional, political sense of the term. Galut simply meant that the Jewish nation might not unilaterally attempt to avail itself of the usual instrument for safeguarding a polity, i.e., sovereignty.

Given such a notion of Galut, it follows that political Zionism does not involve or require any redefining or rethinking of previously held concepts regarding the place and role in history of the Jewish people. Rather, Zionism requires only that Jews realize that the political limitations imposed by Galut, expressed in the three vows, are not valid in contemporary reality. No longer constrained by these limitations, Jews can legitimately (as far as halakha and the Torah are concerned) attempt to achieve the ultimate political expression of nationality, i.e., sovereignty, to which they had always inspired. In and of itself, there’s nothing miraculous in the shift and ebb of international political constellations; thus, there is nothing in the emergence of a political moment favorable to Zionism which requires explanation or justification in terms of messianism or of divine intervention in the course of history. Religiously, one need not hold that Zionism’s validity is contingent upon current events being understood as reishit tzemihat geulatenu, the inception of eschatological reality. 

Yet Rabbi Toledano does allude to an aspect of recent developments as reflecting divine involvement—not directly in history, but in the realm of the psyche: God has inspired certain Jews to free themselves from the false consciousness of Galut propounded by contemporary rabbis and thus to reappropriate the authentic Judaic posture of self-defense and assertiveness. This psychological shift has enabled those Jews to seize the opportunity, provided by the international politics, for the Jewish people to regain sovereignty in Eretz Israel. As Rabbi Toledano puts it:


Let me praise the flowers of this new generation[17] who “awoke and wakened”[18] to revive oppressed hearts,[19] to engirdle themselves with a courageous spirit, and to restore the crown of Israel’s honor to its pristine glory. Indeed, it is with regard to this that the Bible says: “And I will give you a new heart and instill in you a new spirit.”[20]


There is a two-pronged irony here—both prongs directed at the conventional rabbinic establishment. On the one hand, God’s involvement serves precisely to eliminate the passive-submissive psychological attitude explicitly extolled by rabbis as the essence of correct Jewish conduct vs. Gentile persecution. On the other hand, God’s involvement is manifest specifically within the hearts and minds of the secular halutzim of the New Yishuv. Paradoxically, it is those whom those rabbis identify as the furthest from Torah, whose hearts and spirits reflect God’s concern for Israel. Indeed, God works in mysterious ways unacknowledged by the rabbinic “establishment.”


Some questions for further thought

Rabbi Toledano’s understanding of Galut, self-defense, and Zionism are fascinating in their own right. In addition, several significant directions for additional reflection and thought emanate from his responsum. These include:


Analysis of his halakhic methodology

Toledano integrates biblical, rabbinic, and historiographical sources in his discussion, and makes extensive use of reasoned arguments (s’vara) that are not contingent upon proof-texts. It would be of great interest to flush out the underlying methodological and conceptual assumptions that make possible such halakhic writing, and to explicitly develop their philosophical and religious implications.


Authority, commitment, and critique

Rabbi Toledano is writing within the classical genre of halakhic responsa, which is based upon the acceptance of tradition and recognition of the authority of earlier scholars who created within that framework. Yet Toledano directs a powerful attack upon what had become a pillar of convention in the rabbinic community, and, indeed, in the traditional Jewish community at large: the understanding of the Divine decree of Galut as requiring submissiveness and as justifying suffering at the hands of the nations. Obviously, then, Toledano does not hold, that to be within the halakhic tradition means to accept as binding everything that has been justified by halakhic masters of the past, or to refrain from explicit criticism of generally accepted opinions. How, then, does he understand the relationship between halakhic authority and halakhic independence, between working within a tradition and subjecting it to a direct critique?


Continuity and change

Toledano’s claims that his perception of Galut harks back to a classic tradition that was accepted by Jews up to the expulsion from Spain. Are there real grounds for this claim? If so, what are they, and why and how were they subsequently supplemented by “Ashkenazic” submissive attitudes? If not so, then, what does Toledano’s adoption of a novel understanding of Galut indicate regarding the integrative and transformative capacity of the halakhic system vis-à-vis cultural and social change?





[1] This article is based upon (but not identical with) two earlier versions:

  1. “Sephardic Halakhic Tradition on Galut and Political Zionism,” in: Yedida K. Stillman and Norman Stillman (eds.), From Iberia to Diaspora: Studies in Sephardic History and Culture, Leiden, Brill, 1999, 223–234.
  2. Tziyonut Medinit u-Biqoret ha-Galut be-’Einav shel Ḥakham Sefaradi Artzi-Yisraeli,” in Zvi Zohar, He-Iru P’nei ha-Mizraḥ, 2001, pp. 285–297.

[2] Scholarly research on Rabbi Toledano includes inter alia: Moshe Ovadia, Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Toledano’s Biography and his Contribution to Jewish Historiography, M.A. thesis, Bar Ilan University, 5704/2003 [Hebrew]; ibid., “The Legal Discourse in Respect of the Status of Deserted Jewish Wives-Agunot in Light of Halachic-Jewish Law Responsa of Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Toledano,” in: The International Journal of Legal Discourse, 2,2 (2017), pp. 423–435; Izhak Bezalel, “The First Levantines in the Ottoman Period in Eretz Israel—Their Zionist Identity and their Attitude Towards Arab Identity,” in: Pe’amim 125–127 (2010–2011), pp. 75–95 [Hebrew]; Eliezer Bashan, “The Attitude Towards Secular Jews in Eretz Israel According to a Responsum of Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Toledano,” in: Qovetz ha-Tziyonut ha-Datit, vol. 2, Jerusalem 1999, pp. 80–86 [Hebrew].  

[3] On the attitude of the leadership of the Old Sephardic Yishuv to the Jewish national movement (Zionism) see: Penina Morag-Talmon, “Zionism in the Consciousness of the Sephardic Community of Jerusalem,” in: Hagit Lavsky (ed.), Yerushalayim ba-Toda’a u-va-Mahashava ha-Tziyyonim, Jerusalem 1989, pp. 35–46 [Hebrew].

[4] She’elot u-Teshuvot Yam HaGadol, Cairo, 5691/1931.

[5] Yam haGadol (above note 4), responsum #92.

[6] Ibid., responsum #57.

[7] Ibid., responsum #21.

[8] One of those murdered in Safed was advocate Meir Toledano, 30 years of age—and the youngest brother of Rabbi Ya’akov Moshe Toledano.

[9] Yam HaGadol, responsum #97. All further quotes in this article are from this responsum.

[10] I have been unable to find mention of this striking tradition in other sources—traditional or academic. In the introduction to his commentary on the Book of Kings, Don Isaac Abarbanel dramatically details his attempts to prevent the Expulsion, but makes no reference to planning an uprising. Sixteenth-century historiographical works such as Eliyahu Capsali’s Seder Eliyahu Zuta and Solomon Ibn Verga’s Shevet Yehuda also say nothing of a planned uprising. Twentieth- century research, such as Ben-Zion Netanyahu’s Don Isaac Abravanel (Philadelphia 1972) and Ephraim Shemueli’s Don Yitzhak Abarbanel ve-Geirush Sepharad (Tel Aviv 1963) are also silent on this topic.

[11] It seems that the rationale for this can be understood as follows: The actions of Moses in Egypt and of Esther and Mordechai in Persia obviously embody model Jewish behavior that should be emulated by all Jews. So too, Jewish leadership in heroic times—such as in the major communities of second century Diaspora Jewry—expresses in action norms to be followed by all Jews. Thus, non-canonical sources can inform us of behavior that is of canonical validity.

[12] Gerson D. Cohen, “Messianic Postures of Ashkenazim and Sephardim (Prior to Sabbethai Zevi),” in Max Kreutzberger, ed., Studies of the Leo Baeck Institute [=Leo Baeck Memorial Lecture, no. 9] (New York: Leo Baeck Institute, 1967), 115–156.

[13] Elisheva Carlebach, “Between History and Hope: Jewish Messianism in Ashkenaz and Sepharad”: third annual lecture of the Victor J. Selmanowitz Chair of Jewish History, Touro College, New York, 1998.

[14] In Rabbi Fenster’s work Sha’ar Bat Rabbim [vol. 5 (Devarim) (Piotrko 5680/1920) fol. 39a–b] he explains, that in biblical times all of the Israelites’ victorious battles were fought not by human prowess but by God; the Israelite forces just stepped out on the field of battle—and God vanquished their enemies. If so, what could Caleb possibly mean when he declared (cf. Joshua 14:11) that at 85 years of age he was still as strong as he was 45 years earlier? He meant, that just as 45 years earlier victory was not due to any physical strength he possessed but only to God’s will, so too at age 85 his situation is identical.

[15] Mendel Piekarz, Trends in Polish Hasidic Thought in the Interwar Years and During the Decrees of 1940–1945, Jerusalem, 1990. The citation is from p. 269.

[16] Ibid., p. 270.

[17] I.e., the Zionist youth of the New Yishuv, most of whom did not follow a lifestyle characterized by commitment to Torah.

[18] This phrase is a direct allusion to Song of Songs 2:7 and 3:5—traditionally interpreted to signify the awakening of God’s love for Israel in the messianic era. Indeed, these are the very same verses interpreted by the midrash in Ketubot 111a as enjoining the Jewish People not to attempt to prematurely awaken God’s love.

[19] Cf. Isaiah 57:15.

[20] Cf. Ezekiel 36:26.

Neither a Navi Nor a Ben-Navi: Confrontation At Beit-El (Amos 7:10–17)




There are numerous ways in which a person can stand up for a principle. It can be through action or inaction, speech or silence, song or march, it can be overt or even an internal stand known only to the principled actor.

In our history, there is one character-type whose job is fundamentally to stand on principle, to “speak truth to power” (to use a tired and grossly misused current cliché) and to be ready to declare God’s Truth to an unwilling and resistant audience. That is the “prophet,” the Navi who is God’s agent, sent with a message that no one ever wants to hear. There is no better place to find example after example of principled stands than in the books of our Nevi’im, books that have inspired generations of people to right wrongs, to insist on justice and to refuse to back down in the face of tyranny. I give you…Amos of Tekoa.




The 14 books of literary prophecy (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and 11 of the “Trei Asar[1]), in spite of their heavy emphasis on oratory, include numerous (auto)biographical narratives. While these are chiefly found in the three independent books, there are also mini narratives in a number of the smaller volumes included in Trei Asar. The nine-verse interaction between the prophet from Judean Tekoa’ and Amaziah, the high priest of the royal sanctuary at northern (Samarian) Beit-El, makes up the one such passage in Amos.

Before tackling the text, it is important to note that this interaction at Beit-El bears some significant parallels with another interaction at Beit-El. Amos’s adversarial dialogue is with a “Kohen” at the bama in Beit-El, and the king who is the focal point of Amos’s diatribe is Jeroboam ben Joash. But we have previously encountered a similar prophetic interaction. Just after Jeroboam ben Nebat establishes his two “alternate” worship sites at Dan and Beit-El to serve as a local and more convenient substitute for Jerusalem, an enigmatic visitor arrives there:


And, behold, there came a man of God out of Judah by the word of Hashem to Beit-El; and Jeroboam was standing by the altar to offer. And he cried against the altar by the word of the Lord, and said: “O altar, altar, thus says the Lord: Behold, a son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name; and upon you he will slaughter the priests of the high places that offer upon you, and men's bones shall they burn upon you” (I Kings 13:1–2).


Note the parallels—a “man of God” (i.e., a prophet) from Judea comes to the altar at Beit-El and prophesies destruction of the site. Jeroboam is seen as the direct target of the prophecy, and the priests of the high places (“kohanei bamot”) are explicitly identified as targets of God’s anger.

Is it possible that Amos deliberately chose Beit-El in order to reenact that earlier anonymous Judean prophet’s appearance there? Is it significant that the king in Amos’s time is the only one in the numerous dynasties that ruled Shomron to carry the pioneering king’s name? Perhaps. In our study of this confrontation, we will see even more parallels that draw these two meetings together.


The Text


Then Amaziah the priest of Beth-el sent to Jeroboam king of Israel, saying: “Amos hath conspired against thee in the midst of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos saith: Jeroboam shall die by the sword, And Israel shall surely be led away captive put of his land.” Also Amaziah said unto Amos: “O thou seer, go, flee thee away into the land of Judah, and there eat bread, and prophesy there; but prophesy not again any more at Beth-el, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a royal house.” Then answered Amos, and said to Amaziah: “I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet's son; but I was a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees; and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said unto me: Go, prophesy unto My people Israel. Now therefore hear thou the word of the Lord: Thou sayest: Prophesy not against Israel, And preach not against the house of Isaac; Therefore thus saith the Lord: Thy wife shall be a harlot in the city, And thy sons and thy daughters shall fall by the sword, And thy land shall be divided by line; And thou thyself shalt die in an unclean land, And Israel shall surely be led away captive out of his land.” (Amos 7:10–17)


Then Amazia the priest of Beth-El sent to Jeroboam king of Israel, saying: Jeroboam appointed non-Levites to act as his priests.[2]

We have no idea if the “priesthood” that Jeroboam established became dynastic, such that only the sons of his appointees could take over the position, or if it remained non-tribal. Although Jeroboam I established the sanctuaries as oriented to worship of Hashem, within a hundred years or so (Ahab’s time), those same sanctuaries may have been devoted to Ba’al worship. That is why the Rishonim here, without identifying Amazia’s tribal background, mark him as an idolatrous priest. If that is the case, then the priests would have been a whole new crop of devotees to Ba’al. Alternatively, with each change of dynasty (Jeroboam, Baasha, Omri, Yehu), there may have been a change in “religious leadership.”

Note that the end of the third vision (verse 9) and the first two verses of this narrative are the only places where Jeroboam is mentioned by name in the book.


Amos has conspired against you in the midst of the house of Israel: Amazia sees Amos as more than a troublesome prophet from the south; he perceives him as a rabble-rouser, whose rebukes and visions of doom have the potential to generate a popular rebellion against the crown.

The message here is odd, considering the content of the book until this point. Nearly all of Amos’s oratory is aimed at the aristocracy, the corrupt judiciary, and the royal house—hardly “in the midst of the House of Israel.” We must consider the possibility that Amazia sees Amos as a personal threat. Remember that Amos already warned the people not to go to Beit-El (or Gilgal or Beer-Sheva) to worship. If the leadership heeds him, the populace is likely to follow suit. That may be a threat to (at least) the livelihood of the priests at Beit-El. Perhaps the message that Amazia sent to the king, tinged with some hysteria, was intended to spur the king to action against Amos and was itself an exaggeration.

It is also possible that Amos was delivering some of these prophecies—notably, the visions in this section—in Beit-El, at the site of the royal sanctuary. Amazia’s words in the next few verses seem to support this back story. If so, celebrants and onlookers would have also heard him, and even if Amos did not intend his prophecies to speak directly to the people, they would have heard and been potentially inspired to rebel.

The word kesher, which appears approximately 20 times in the monarchic history,[3] appears only twice (with the meaning of “conspiracy”) in the words of the literary prophets.[4] In other words, although it is a somewhat regular feature of the narrative, describing the fate of dynasties, it was not often used in rhetoric.[5]


The land is not able to bear all his words: The image of the land having to “bear” words is a curious one. Radak reads “the land” as meaning “the people of the land,” and he explains that the people (who are presumably loyal to the crown) cannot bear to hear so many bad things about their own nation. Hakham, on the other hand, sees the phrase lo tukhal ha-aretz le-hakhil et kol devarav as a metaphor. His words are like bubbling wine, which, when put into a barrel, will burst the barrel. In the same way, his words are likely to generate a rebellion among the people.[6] Abravanel, without resorting to the metaphor-explanation, sees it the same way—as a warning against the potential of Amos’s words inciting rebellion against the king.

This approach presumes a significantly lowered sense of loyalty among the people. Their first response would not be to despise the “southern man of God” who threatens the king, but rather to side with him!

It is significant to note that there is a history, specifically in the north, of prophets identifying and anointing kings (such as Elisha in the case of Hazael and Jehu, and Ahija in the case of Jeroboam ben Nevat). It is not unreasonable to think that Amazia saw Amos as yet another prophet aiming to unseat Jeroboam and the house of Yehu and replace him with another king (who might be, in their eyes, a Judean vassal).

Paul points to the alliteration in this phrase—tukhal le-hakhil kol. A subliminal message of this alliterative scheme would be okhel ha-kol—that his words will lead to (or prophesy) everything in the north being devoured.[7]


For thus said Amos: This short phrase is heavy with implication. The priest uses the same familiar introductory “messenger formula” with which Amos himself had delivered the first series of oracles. Remember that this formula is used when relaying or delivering the words of a liege to a vassal. Thus, “Ko amar Balak,” “Ko amar Par’oh,” and “Ko amar Yosef.” The understated power of “Ko amar Amos” as a message to the king is clear—Amos presumes himself to be the lord over Jeroboam, his servant. That is, of course, not Amos’s position, but that is how Amazia wants to portray the Judean prophet to his king.

Secondly, and of no less significance, is the very phrase ko amar Amos. Amos would not have said ko omar (“thus say I”), but rather ko amar Hashem. This central and determinant piece of Amos’s prophecies is omitted. The conclusion that Jeroboam is intended to reach is that these are Amos’s words—not God’s! As such, corralling Amos as a rabble-rousing orator from the south is the right move—just as Jeroboam I sought to do to the anonymous Judean prophet at Beit El, two hundred years earlier (yet another parallel).


Jeroboam shall die by the sword: This paraphrased quote from Amos’s last vision is inexactly presented. Amos had reported in God’s name that the meaning of the anakh vision was


the high places of Yishak will be made desolate and the sanctuaries of Israel will be destroyed, and I will rise up against the house of Jeroboam by the sword.


In other words, the threat of the sword hung over the “house of Jeroboam”—i.e., his children. Indeed, Jeroboam’s son, Zachariah, was assassinated and killed by the sword. Amazia’s deliberate blurring of the message was intended to spur immediate and drastic action on the part of the royal house against the Tekoite interloper.


And Israel shall surely be led away captive put of his land: When we look back to Amazia’s first warning—“the land will not be able to tolerate/contain all of his words”—we observe a nearly polar divide among the commentators as to the intent of the phrase. Some, such as ibn Ezra and R. Eliezer of Beaugency, understood that the people naturally sided with their king, and they would not tolerate the threats uttered by Amos. However, we also saw the comments of others, notably Abravanel, who included the phrase as part of the threat. In other words, Amos is riling “the whole land” against the king. It is difficult to sustain this interpretation considering Amazia’s brief message, however. The first half—that Jeroboam will die by the sword—fits this read comfortably. But the second half—that Israel will surely be exiled—does not comport, prima facie, with this interpretation. For if the threat is against all of the people of the Northern Kingdom, why would this lead to a rebellion? It would more likely lead to a popular lynching of Amos!

There is a way to salvage Abravanel’s approach, and it may be contextually (and textually) appealing. If the message that Amos is broadcasting is specifically anti-Jeroboam and his intent (per Amazia’s reporting) is to provoke a popular rebellion, then the second part of the message should be understood with a bit more nuance. Instead of reading the two clauses as sequential—first the king will be killed and then Israel will be exiled—read it as conditional. To wit—Jeroboam must die by the sword or else Israel will be exiled. These two verses comprise Amazia’s excited and near-hysterical message to the court. The next few verses are the direct dialogue between “priest” and prophet.


Then Amatzia said to Amos: Are we to understand that Amos was privy to Amatzia’s message to the king? Did Amatzia state it aloud, or was it sent as a private message to the court? Nothing in the verses above provides any guidance, but this verse may be indicative. If we interpret va-yomer here as, “Also, Amatzia said,” as numerous translations render it (KJV, JPS), then this would seem to be the second overt and public statement made by Amatzia. First he turned to a messenger, in the presence of those gathered as well as Amos, and sent his urgent message to the court. He then turned to Amos to confront him directly.

On the other hand, if we interpret va-yomer here as, “then Amatzia said” (as we have it here, per NET, CSB and numerous other translations), these may very well be the first words that Amos (or anyone else present) heard.


Seer! Go, flee yourself away to the land of Judah: Amazia uses a seemingly archaic term for a prophet—hozeh, literally “seer.” We will revisit this and the implication of Amos’s response below, where he references the term navi.


And there eat bread, and prophesy there: This is a most curious send-off. What does Amazia mean here? Why would Amos be eating bread “there” or “here”? Amazia sees Amos as an unwelcome southerner, out of his element and without the right to orate in the north.[8]


But prophesy not again any more at Beit-El: This phrase gives us the impression that Amos may have been at Beit-El for a while, presenting his prophecies. Why would he choose this location? Several answers come to mind. First of all, it was a royal sanctuary (mikdash melekh), where the king may have himself have come to participate in the cult practices. It was also a popular pilgrimage site.[9] In addition, it was originally chosen by Jeroboam (in addition to its storied past beginning with Yaakov) due to its proximity to Judah. It was, for a time, the southernmost city in the Israelite kingdom. This may have made it a “safer” place for Amos to preach, given that it was also quite a distance from the capitol in Shomron.  


For it is the king's sanctuary: Is the proper translation “it is the king’s sanctuary” or “it is a royal sanctuary”? The distinction makes quite a difference. In the first read, Amatzia is telling Amos to leave because this is the “property” of Jeroboam, and the king himself is liable to return at any point. In the second read (which I admit to favoring), it raises Amos’s effrontery to an insult to the crown—coming into a royal sanctuary and preaching against the king.

The phrase mikdash melekh (which we know from a more positive context, as R. Shlomo Alkabetz integrated it into Lekha Dodi) appears only once in Tanakh. Indeed, the notion of a mikdash melekh is familiar to us, but from foreign, pagan nations, where the divinity and the royal house sit at proximate corners of a blurry divide. In a sense, Amazia’s clumsy description of the altar at Beit-El says more than Amos could, although this is not a point that Amos ever directly attacks. The establishment of Beit-El was occasioned by Jeroboam’s fear that the people’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem would lead them to revert their allegiance to Rehoboam, and Jeroboam’s kingdom (or his life) would not last long. Beit-El (and Dan) were set up to provide a “local and convenient” place to worship Hashem. Yet it wasn’t long before Jeroboam turned the “off-site” sanctuary to God into a royal sanctuary, which it remained for at least two hundred years.


And it is a royal house: The concluding phrase here seals the point made above. The sanctuary is not a guarded place, off-limits to impurity and outsiders due to its connection with the divine. It is, instead, a royal precinct and, as such, someone coming with a message of doom against the kingdom is a true trespasser.


Then Amos answered, and said to Amazia: Again, we will assume that this interaction is public and that Amos is aiming his response at the assemblage, far more than at Amazia himself.


I am not a prophet, nor am I a prophet's son: At this point, we may note that Amos’s claim is that he is not part of a professional guild of prophets, nor is he a prophet by vocation. Rather, he is…


For I am a herdsman: Amos is a rancher, who herds animals. In other words, he is not part of the scholastic or ascetic class, but rather a “regular person.”


And a dresser of sycamore trees: The word boleis is a hapax legomenon (word unique in Tanakh), but the best hypothesis as to its meaning is the puncturing of sycamore figs; evidently this practice, which is still done in Egypt today, hastens the ripening of the fruit without exposing the fruit to worm infestation. This was only done during a short part of the season therefore it was possible for Amos to be both herder as well as a “sycamore dresser.”


And the Lord took me from behind the flock: This description is evocative, in no uncertain terms, of God’s words to David.[10] The notion is that, like David, Amos was not someone who sought this office, nor did he relish the awesome responsibility that comes with it. He was tending his flock, dressing his sycamores, when God plucked him up and sent him on his mission for the benefit of the entire nation.


And Hashem said to me: Although this is a necessary cog in the oratory, it does seem to underscore that which Amazia deliberately omitted. The words that Amos is delivering are not his own; they are God’s words and a divine message, ignored at one’s own peril.


Go, prophesy unto My people Israel: This completes the picture. Amos was sent; he did not “go.” When Amazia tells him to “go and flee yourself,” he expresses an assumption that Amos chose to come and may now choose to go. This is not the case, as Amos spells out for him.


Before moving on, I’d like to address two oddities in Amazia’s words. The priest speaks directly to Amos. Even though he referred to him by name in his message to the court, here he calls him hozeh—literally “visionary” or “seer.” What does this term mean?

This question becomes either clarified or intensified when we see that he tells Amos—seemingly in a derisive manner—sham tinavei, using the popular root for “prophecy” (from which navi derives). If we assume that the two words are synonymous and interchangeable—i.e., hozeh=navi—then the phrase is straightforward, and the differentiation in terms used is intended for rhetorical variety. If, on the other hand, the two words are distinct in meaning, then our question becomes exponentially more complex. Why did the priest call him by the unusual sobriquet hozeh and then tell him to no longer tinavei? This interpretive fork widens with Amos’s answer in which he avers that he is neither a navi nor a ben-navi, avoiding the term hozeh altogether. This does not augur well for those who would read hozeh as equivalent in meaning to navi. For purposes of their dispute, it would have been more impactful for Amos to deny his prophetic vocation by responding to the word hozeh and say, lo hozeh anokhi ve-lo ben hozeh. That is, of course, not the case.

A brief but vital tangent is in place here. We have only one character in Tanakh who is identified as a hozeh. That is Gad ha-Hozeh, who operates as David’s “court prophet” as early as his time on the run from Saul[11] and is most well-known for his role in the census punishment.[12] It is helpful to note that when he is first referenced in that story, the text uses seemingly redundant terms: “…and the word of Hashem was given to Gad the prophet (ha-navi), the seer (hozeh) of David, saying.”

Note that the term navi remains independent, but the hozeh belongs to David—hozeh David. Gad is also noted as one of the three authors of the chronicles of David’s life:


Now the acts of David the king, first and last, behold, they are written in the words of Shemuel the seer (ro’eh), and in the words of Natan the prophet (navi), and in the words of Gad the seer (hozeh).[13]


Other than the references to Gad, hozeh as a generic title is used disparagingly. When Ezekiel describes the false prophets,[14] he consistently returns to the word hozim and juxtaposes them with kosmim (wizards) several times. Indeed, the most famous kosem in Tanakh (Bilam) refers to himself as one who mahazeh Shadai yehezeh (“sees the visions of Shadai”)—but never calls himself a navi.

The evidence here points to an essential difference between a hozeh and a navi. The hozeh is a court prophet, who works in the employ of the king and serves as his royal oracle. Gad is first introduced this way; his first “visionary act” is to direct David where to move in his wanderings, and his most famous prophetic task is to lead David in response to God’s anger over the ill-conceived census and to identify the location of the altar. The court hozim referenced by Ezekiel would present prognostications favorable to the king. This is not to say that the members of such a group are never called nevi’im,[15] but overall the terms have an underlying difference.

Whereas a hozeh works for the king, the navi works for God; he brings God’s word to the court, the leaders, and the people. (Some have suggested that the root of navi is havei, bringer, i.e., of the Word.)

All of which means that Amazia assumes that Amos works in the employ of the Judean king. He has been sent to Beit-El, goes the thinking, in order to stir up the local populace against their king and to potentially restore sovereignty of the north to the House of David.

Regarding Amazia’s other odd phrase—“eat bread there,” this seems to point to the crucial difference highlighted above. Is the prophet in the hire of the court—does he “eat bread at the king’s table”? Or is he an independent person, carrying the unpolluted word of God?[16]

When Amos responds that he is not a navi, it is clear that he means that this vocation is not one he chose for himself. Ben-navi is a different story. We meet the benei ha-nevi’im in several contexts in Tanakh, chiefly in the company of Shemuel[17] and in the Elijah-Elisha circles.[18] They are a guild of students who, at least in Elisha’s times, had adopted a life of penury in their quest to “study” prophecy. It appears that they had guided meditation-type experiences in which they became more sensitized to receiving prophetic inspiration. Amos is claiming that he not only is not a navi by vocation, but he was never in the navi-school; he never studied for it.

He is, rather, a “regular” person, fully occupied by his chosen vocations. Having a mission to speak to God’s people was never his choice.

He is not a professional navi who “belongs” to a court; he represents one thing and one thing only—God’s word to God’s people. He is not about to return to Judea and eat bread there, for although he comes from there, he is not supported there. He is not in the employ of the southern king. It is possible that Amazia was not even aware of any other type of prophet, and Amos’s words bring home the point of the type of agent that he truly is.


And Hashem took me from behind the flock and the Lord said to me: Go, prophesy unto My people Israel: With this short phrase, Amos makes it clear that he was “plucked” from a hard-working but serene and pastoral life and thrown directly into the crucible of conflict with kings, priests, and judges.


Now therefore hear the word of the Lord: The causal ve-ata appears over 250 times in Tanakh, with 55 appearances in the literary prophetic canon, but it only appears this one time in Amos. The meaning—“and now”—is always presented as the back half of a causal relationship and is usually found in the middle of a passage.[19] In other words, “such-and-such has happened” or “God has done such-and-such for you,” ve-ata here is the appropriate response.

Amos’s use of ve-ata here is a bit curious. We would expect it to follow a rebuke or detailing of the crimes of the kingdom (or judiciary or aristocracy). Instead, it follows Amos’s autobiographic sketch of his call to divine agency.

Paul understands that ve-ata indicates a transition. Amos has concluded justifying his agency and now shifts (ve-ata) to the pronouncement. Hakham, on the other hand, interprets the use of ve-ata as causal: “Now that I’ve been tapped as a prophet, I have prophecy regarding you, Amazia…” This seems to be the most likely meaning of ve-ata, as it fits the usual usage in Tanakh.

What is unusual about this opening clause is that Amos punctuates his prophecy with the words “hear the word of Hashem”—but then, before actually stating the prophecy of impending doom, he recalls Amazia’s call for Amos to cease prophesizing to Israel. We would have expected the line shema devar Hashem to follow his repeat of Amazia’s attempt to throw him out, as follows:


Ve-ata ata omer lo tinavei al Israel, ve-lo tatif al beit Yishak

Lakhen ko amar…


In other words, the clause shema devar Hashem appears to be superfluous and somewhat clumsy.

We apparently must conclude that the line ata omer…Yishak is part of the words of Hashem. In other words, Amos is not speaking on his own behalf when he rebuffs Amazia’s attempt to have him silenced.


Ve-ata—and now, here is the prophecy that God has sent me to deliver: “You tell me (or Me) not to deliver prophecy against Israel and not to rebuke the house of Yishak. Therefore, this is what Hashem says…”


Amos’s paraphrase of Amazia’s words are not his own personal response; they are prophetic and part of God’s response to the attempt to silence God’s words at Beit-El.


You say: Prophesy not against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Yishak: Note that Amos uses tinavei in parallel with tatif.  The root natof means “drip,” as it is used in most of its infrequent appearances in Tanakh (there are 18 in total). For instance, in the opening lines of Devora’s song, poetically describing the cosmological reaction to God’s appearance at Sinai.[20]

This original meaning is then borrowed to describe, metaphorically, prophetic words of rebuke, which “drop down” from heaven.[21]This root is used with this meaning in Micah[22] and Job.[23]

The only other time that Amos uses the root natof is at the restoration prophecy of consolation at the epilogue of the book. There it takes the original meaning of “dropping” and inheres great blessing and grace. Why does Amos, whose prophecies are filled with rebuke, choose to use this word so sparingly and only here?

Keep in mind that Amos is standing at Beit-El, looking, as it were, “up” to the priest who is officiating at the altar. The difference between their perspectives on the prophet’s words could not be more diametric, as outlined above. The application of natof to prophecy implies a directional orientation—the words are coming down like dew (if comforting) or like harsh rain or hail (if threatening). It is specifically here, where Amos’s role and agency is directly challenged, that he stresses that his words are coming “down,” i.e., from above.

The alignment of hinavei with “Israel” and tatif with “Beit Yishak” is deliberate and elegant. The classic and familiar word navi is associated with Israel, beginning from the promise of prophetic continuation of Moshe’s leadership.[24] On the other hand, the “put-down” implied by tatif specifically targets “Beit Yishak.” The one other mention of “Yishak” in Amos’s prophecies, delivered just before Amazia’s angry reaction, made mention of bamot Yishak—the “high places” of Yishak.[25] As we discussed in analyzing this uncommon spelling in the prophecy of the anakh, this was a deliberate play on the name Yishak, turning it from a name of divine favor and joy to a name of licentiousness and frivolity. For Amos’s words to “drop down” on the “high places,” it would have to be a word that emanates from on high—exactly the point of Amos’s response to Amazia throughout.


Therefore thus says Hashem: Amos is already delivering God’s words. Why add this introductory phrase?

One possible explanation is that Amos’s words are made up of two segments. The first one, introduced with ve-ata shema devar Hashem, is God’s response to Amazia’s attempts to silence God’s prophet. The second is the prophecy that had already been given to Amos and for which he was sent to Beit-El in the first place.

This is a bit difficult, however. Amos reported three visions and, in the case of two, his own attempts at intercession. These presentations were presumably made at Beit-El, before being stopped by the priest. He continues with a fourth vision and it is commonly assumed that this takes place at the same setting of the first three—at Beit-El. In other words, the fourth vision was the final intended prophecy for Beit-El—not the harsh five-fold curse here.

Holding onto the notion that Amos’s words are to be understood as segmented into two, we might propose that they are both divine responses to Amazia. The first is a strong-arm rebuff of Amazia’s attempts to silence God’s prophet. The second is the concomitant punishment that will now befall Amazia and, presumably, his sovereign due to their attempts to silence Amos.[26]

In what may be an ironic twist, it is possible that this harsh pronouncement was originally intended for the king only. This is implied in the denouement of the curse—that Israel will be exiled. Perhaps since the priest tried to prevent the prophet from announcing God’s words to the king, these words now also apply to his minion at Beit-El.

As pointed out above, this curse has five prongs to it. This is a rhetorical pattern that Amos has used several times. There are five instances of punishment listed in 4:6–11, each of which concludes with “and still you have not returned to Me.” There is also the list of five cosmic wonders in chapter 4:13, as well as the curse of Amazia and/or Jeroboam in our verse.


Your wife will act the harlot in the city: R. Eliezer of Beaugency understands that this means that his (whose? Amazia’s? Jeroboam’s?) wife will voluntarily go out into the city and commit harlotry/adultery. The excess here is that, as he points out, a person violating a marital bond will typically do so discreetly, whereas, to heighten the shame, she will do so publicly.

Paul suggests that this is directed exclusively at Amatzia and that it is his wife who will act the harlot, heightening the shame (as it will be public knowledge), as the real Kohanim were banned from marrying a zona.[27]

Both of these commentators, one medieval and the other modern, assume that the act of tizneh is voluntary and brazen. This does not, however, fit the context. The rest of the curse is about an enemy conquering the land, killing their children, dividing up the land, and exiling the people.

I believe that the wife in question (again, whose wife? Perhaps everyone’s?) will be so desperate for food that she will turn to whoring. She will do so in the city, publicly, as she will be so far gone in her tragic circumstances that she will just focus on finding sustenance for herself and her family.[28]

This interpretation also fits the form of the verse. This is not a simple curse of five horrible things. It is a sequence, concluding (as these sequences often do) with exile. First, there will be such dire hunger that women (including wives of previously notable people) will offer their sexual favors for food. This suggests a siege—something that the people in Samaria were all too familiar with from their own history.[29] This is followed by an incursion in which the young people (fighters?) will be slaughtered, after which the land of the vanquished will be divided up by the victors. This progresses to the exile of the leaders, who have seen their own wives, children, and land taken from them. Now they will be led away from Israel to die “on impure land.” The curse concludes with and a complete exile of the people.


And your sons and your daughters will fall by the sword: Admittedly, the mention of daughters here seems to belie the proposal above that these are soldiers. There are two possibilities here. It is possible that the enemy referenced here is excessively brutal (and operating against their own long-range interests to boot), and they massacre everyone. But if that is the case, then why stop at the children? Why exile the leaders instead of killing them? We would expect the leaders to be killed first.

The other possibility—which is, I believe, more likely here—is that even in biblical times, young women would join young men at war when every person was needed. This is evidenced—again in Yoel—when he describes, yeitzei chatan mei-chedro ve-kalla mi-chuppata, “let the bridegroom go out from his room and the bride from her wedding canopy.”[30] Even though contextually this seems to be about joining the community in prayer during times of plague, Hazal read it as a call to conscription.[31]


And your land will be divided by the surveyor’s rope: The image of the conquering enemy dividing the spoils of the vanquished is fairly common in Tanakh.[32]


And you yourself will die in an impure land:  Is this “impure land” implying that all lands outside of Eretz Israel are impure? Or does it reflect specifically on dying in the land of the enemy? Prima facie, we would assume the former.[33] Yet, from the perspective of Israelite sovereignty and a recognition that conquest and exile represent an essential breach in the covenant, one might argue that it is specifically dying in the captor’s land as an eternal exile that constitutes the impurity.


And Israel will surely be led away captive out of his land: This is where all biblical downward spirals end—in Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 28, and throughout prophetic literature. The end of the relationship that the Torah confirms, and that Jewish history consistently reaffirms is shattered with exile.




We have explored one of numerous interactions between prophet and politician, the one representing the eternal voice of God and the other—the established aristocracy’s mewling for the status quo. Generations of students of the Tanakh, from all walks and across cultural borders, have drawn inspiration from the prophetic oratory of Amos and his colleagues; yet the words deserve—nay, they demand—much more attention than use as convenient slogans. If we are to take Amos seriously, we ought to take every word seriously and constantly deepen our connection with the text to discern ever greater depths to the eternal messages his words convey.




[1] Yonah is the exception, as, besides five words of prophetic message, the book is chiefly narrative.

[2] 1 Kings 12:28–29, 31.

[3] Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles.

[4] Here and Isaiah 8:12.

[5] See, however, Saul’s words in 1 Samuel 22.

[6] Da’at Mikra, p. 59.

[7] Mikra Le-Yisrael, p. 122.

[8] I will address the significance of “eating bread” later in this article.

[9] See Shoftim 19:18 and 1 Samuel 10:3.

[10] 2 Samuel 7:8.

[11] 1 Samuel 22:5.

[12] 2 Samuel 24 = 1 Chronicles 21.

[13] 1 Chronicles 29:29.

[14] Chiefly in Ez. 12–13.

[15] See, e.g., 1 Kings 22:6.

[16] Samet, Nili: “Between ‘Eat Bread There’ and ‘Do Not Eat Bread’: The Motif of Eating Bread In Two Stories in the Prophets and Its Relationship to the Perception of Prophecy in the Bible,” [Heb] in Masekhet: Say To Wisdom: You Are My Sister, vol. 2 (2004), pp. 167–181.

[17] 1 Samuel 10 and 19.

[18] 2 Kings 2 and 4.

[19] Notable exceptions are Deut. 4:1, 10:12.

[20] Shofetim 5:4; see also Psalms 68:9.

[21] Ezekiel 21:2, 9.

[22] 2:6, 11—five times in these two verses.

[23] 29:22.

[24] Deut. 18.

[25] 7:9.

[26] Whether this curse is aimed at the king or his priest—or both—depends on how we read the pronominal suffixes in this curse.

[27] Lev. 21:7.

[28] See Deut. 28:54–55; see, of interest, the comment of R. Eliezer of Beaugency on Joel 4:3.

[29] 2 Kings 6:25ff.

[30] Joel 2:16.

[31] m. Sotah 8:7.

[32] Joel 4:3.

[33] Per Ezekiel 36:20.

Investigating and Seeking: Thoughts for Parashat Naso

Angel for Shabbat, Parashat Naso

by Rabbi Marc D. Angel


“Investigate (dirshu) the Lord and His strength, seek His face (bakeshu fanav) continually” (I Chronicles 16:11).

For a religious person, relationship with God is a central feature of life. But how does one investigate and seek for the Almighty?

Dirshu—investigate God and God’s strength. Study the universe and God’s vast wisdom and creative power. Engage in philosophic speculation. Maimonides lists the first commandment of Judaism to “know” that God exists and governs the universe “with an eternal and infinite power, a power that has no interruption.” (Yesodei Hatorah 1:5). Intellectual striving for God is key.

Bakeshu fanav—seek His face. Intellectual knowledge of God is not enough for a religious soul. A personal connection is needed. But how does one seek God’s “face”—when we believe God to be incorporeal, lacking any physical features including a face? The phrase should be understood not in its literal meaning, but as a poetic way of seeking a personal “face to face” encounter with God.

Dirshu is our way of thinking about God with our minds.

Bakeshu fanav is our way of feeling God’s continual presence with our hearts.

Dirshu is about intellectual, philosophical, scientific exploration.

Bakeshu fanav is about prayer, spiritual closeness, heartfelt yearning.

This week’s Torah reading includes the blessing the priests give to the people of Israel. Interestingly, two of the three lines of the blessing refer to God’s face. “May the Lord shine His face on you…May the Lord raise His face unto you…”

The blessing for God to shine His face is a blessing for spiritual enlightenment, insight, a feeling that God’s warmth and light are ever-present. The blessing for God to raise His face is a blessing for direct relationship, for peace and spiritual wholeness.

The priestly blessing underscores the personal, ongoing relationship between God and us. We don’t only need to investigate and “know” God, we need to feel God’s presence, to “seek His face” and be blessed by His “face.”

The late Rabbi Harold Kushner told a story of a man who stopped attending his usual synagogue and was now frequenting another minyan. One day he happened to meet the rabbi of his previous synagogue, and the rabbi asked him where he was praying these days. The man answered: “I am praying at a small minyan led by Rabbi Cohen.”

The rabbi was stunned. “Why would you want to pray there with that rabbi. I am a much better orator, I am more famous, I have a much larger following.”

The man replied: “Yes, but in my new synagogue the rabbi has taught me to read minds.”

The rabbi was surprised. “Alright, then, read my mind.”

The man said: “You are thinking of the verse in Psalms, ‘I have set the Lord before me at all times.’”

“You are wrong,” said the rabbi, “I was not thinking about that verse at all.”

The man replied: “Yes, I knew that, and that’s why I’ve moved to the other synagogue. The rabbi there is always thinking of this verse.”

Indeed, an authentically religious person is always thinking of this verse, either directly or in the back of one's mind. Such an individual lives in the presence of God, conducts him/herself with modesty and propriety.

“Investigate (dirshu) the Lord and His strength, seek His face (bakeshu fanav) continually” (I Chronicles 16:11).







Drunkenness, Politics, Pessah and the Omer: Rabbi Marc Angel Responds to Questions from the Jewish Press

Is it appropriate for just anyone to get drunk on Purim?

The Talmud (Megillah 7b) quotes Rava’s opinion that one must become drunk on Purim so as to be unable to tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai.” But the same passage goes on to report that Rabba and Rav Zeira became so drunk on Purim that Rabba slaughtered Rav Zeira with a knife. The latter was revived only by a miracle. When Rabba invited Rav Zeira to a Purim celebration the following year, Rav Zeira wisely declined.

Some people read this passage but stop right after Rava’s opinion that one must become drunk on Purim. Others correctly read the entire passage and recognize that the anecdote is a blatant refutation of Rava. The Talmud’s lesson is: don’t get drunk; terrible things can happen if you become intoxicated.

Drunkenness is a shameful state. Maimonides (Hilkhot De’ot 5:3) states: “One who becomes intoxicated is a sinner and is despicable, and loses his wisdom. If he [a wise person] becomes drunk in the presence of common folk, he has thereby desecrated the Name.” In his section on the Laws of Holiday Rest (6:20), Maimonides rules: “When one eats, drinks and celebrates on a festival, he should not allow himself to become overly drawn to drinking wine, amusement and silliness…for drunkenness and excessive amusement and silliness are not rejoicing; they are frivolity and foolishness.”

Not only does drunkenness impair one’s judgment, it demeans a person in the eyes of others and in the eyes of God. Drunkenness is an affront to one’s own dignity and an affront to the ideals of Torah.


Is Torah-true Judaism inherently aligned with conservative politics, liberal politics, a combination, or neither -- or is this the wrong way to think about the Torah? 


Torah-true Judaism is inherently aligned with policies that foster love of God, respect for fellow human beings, and the wellbeing of society as a whole. We strive for a world of honesty, justice, peace, a world in which the ideals of our prophets can be realized.

Rabbi Benzion Uziel (1880-1953), late Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, wrote of our responsibility for yishuvo shel olam, the proper functioning of a moral society. Judaism demands that its adherents live ethical and upright lives. Religious Jews must feel troubled by any injustice in society and must strive to defend and protect the oppressed. Striving to create a harmonious society is not merely a reflection of social idealism; it is a religious mandate.

Sometimes Torah values are more aligned with conservative politics, and sometimes they are more aligned with liberal politics. Our real concern isn’t with political labels, but with the over-arching values that conduce to a more righteous society.

Although our concerns need to relate to society in general, we can’t ignore issues that specifically impinge on Jewish life and on the State of Israel. If conservatives or liberals promote policies that are detrimental to our physical and spiritual welfare, we obviously must oppose them. If they advance bills that weaken or endanger Israel, we have the right and responsibility to object. Our universal commitment to society does not negate our particular commitment to our own wellbeing.

In spite of the many problems Torah-true Jews face, we are optimists.  We believe, with the prophet Amos (8:11), that righteousness will prevail: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine in the land; not a famine for food nor a thirst for water, but for hearing the words of the Lord.” Amen, Kein Yehi Ratson!!


Is it proper to eat kosher l'Pesach rolls, pasta, cakes, pizza and "bread" on Pesach?

It’s best to leave it up to people to decide for themselves what they do or don’t want to eat on Pessah, as long as all the ingredients are kasher for Pessah. For those who want to add stringencies to the already stringent rules of Pessah, that’s their business. But no one should stand in judgment of others who choose not to add unnecessary stringencies. We should each worry about what’s on our own plates, not on what’s on the plates of others.

Moadim leSimha.


Is it proper to listen to a cappella music during Sefiras Ha'Omer?

The real question is: why would it not be proper to listen to such music during the Sefirah period? Although the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) reports a tradition that 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died between Pessah and Lag L’Omer, no formal mourning prohibitions are indicated for this period. Sefirah mourning practices are first reported in a Gaonic collection, Sha’arei Teshuva 278. The Shulhan Arukh (O.H. 493: 1-2) refers to the customs of restricting weddings and haircuts, but mentions no prohibition relating to music.

It seems that restrictions relating to music only developed in the Middle Ages, and not consistently throughout the Jewish world. In recent centuries, various stringencies have been added including the limitation of dancing, music, and even recorded music. Some now also wish to prohibit a cappella music. These prohibitions do not go back to the Talmud, Rambam or Shulhan Arukh. If people wish to adopt these stringencies, or if they are part of communities that consider these stringencies as obligatory minhagim, then that is their right.

But there is no fundamental halakhic prohibition to listening to music, let alone a cappella music, unless one has adopted this stringency as a minhag; or unless one follows posekim who rule stringently on this.




Two Tents: Thoughts for Parashat Bemidbar

Angel for Shabbat, Parashat Bemidbar

by Rabbi Marc D. Angel


“And the Lord spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they came out of the land of Egypt…” (Bemidbar 1:1).


The Torah refers often to the “tent of meeting” (ohel mo’ed) as the place where God communicates with Moses. But where exactly was this tent located?

It seems that the ohel mo’ed was another name for the mishkan—the sanctuary that was constructed in the center of the Israelite encampments while in the wilderness. The Torah goes to great length describing the exact measurements and materials in the construction of the mishkan. It specifies the clothing that the cohanim must wear, and the details of what kind of offerings are to be sacrificed. The ohel mo’ed/mishkan was the physical and spiritual center of the Israelites.

But Shemot 33:7, in a scene prior to the construction of the mishkan, informs us that Moses took the tent and pitched it outside the camp, “far off from the camp; and he called it the tent of meeting, that was outside the camp.”

Commentators and scholars offer various suggestions attempting to understand these two frameworks for the ohel mo’ed—one at the center of the camp and one outside the camp.  Perhaps the Torah is teaching us something essential about the proper functioning of religious life…and of civilization in general.

The ohel mo’ed at the center of the camp represents orderliness, organizational integrity, ritual propriety. All the tribes of Israel were arranged around the ohel mo’ed. This reminded the Israelites that their physical and spiritual core was God-centered. The ohel mo’ed symbolized a structured pattern of religious and communal life.

The ohel mo’ed outside the camp was a counter-force. If the tent at the center of the camp represented orderliness and organization, the tent outside the camp represented an unpredictable source of divine truth. It was a challenge and corrective to the central tent. Yes, religion and civilization require a structured central framework…but they also need an outside voice that doesn’t allow them to become complacent. Orderliness and ritual—while vital to society’s wellbeing—cannot be allowed to become stultified. An outside prophetic voice must constantly inject new insights and new approaches; it must inspire the central tent to stay alive and receptive to the needs of the people. Spiritual friction—while not always welcome or appreciated—is vital to the overall wellbeing of society.

In his novel, The Lost World, Michael Crichton offers a wise observation. “Complex systems tend to locate themselves at a place we call ‘the edge of chaos.’ We imagine the edge of chaos as a place where there is enough innovation to keep a living system vibrant, and enough stability to keep it from collapsing into anarchy….Too much change is as destructive as too little. Only at the edge of chaos can complex systems flourish.”

The two tents of meeting were, in a sense, keeping the community at the “edge of chaos,” a spiritual condition that required balancing stability and innovation, orderliness and spontaneity. “Organized religion” provides vital structure. But the voice from outside the camp prods innovation, creativity, re-evaluation. It challenges stagnation.

We need a strong and stable spiritual center. And we also need prophetic voices from outside the camp. The “edge of chaos” keeps religion alive and awake. It is challenging to stay on balance…but very dangerous to slip off the edge into chaos.