Tag Archives: Deuteronomy

Is Modern Biblical Scholarship A Danger to Traditional Belief? (Part 2)

Me with James Kugel!

Me with James Kugel!

Picking up where my last post left off, I’m going to write down some of the notes I took on Dr. James Kugel’s talk at Lincoln Square Synagogue the other night. Dr. Kugel, beyond being an eminent scholar in the Bible and its early ancient interpretations, is a charming speaker with a subtle sense of humor (the same goes for his writing). He clearly enjoys the topics he writes about, and as a reader and listener, I find his attitude infectious.

Entertainingly, he began with a “PG13” warning. Biblical scholarship is not for everyone in his opinion. In fact, when asked to speak more loudly after he had listed some of the challenges that modern scholarship poses to traditional faith (he must have listed somewhere between 6 to 9 examples in quick succession), he joked that we were better off for not being able to hear him.

Some of the challenges arising from biblical criticism strike right at the heart of Jewish belief; the Torah implies (and later tradition asserts outright) that all of the Torah was given at Sinai, but the Documentary Hypothesis and its derivations argue there were many authors, who lived in different time periods. They also make this claim about several other books in TaNaKH (the Bible), and question whether or not King Solomon really wrote proverbs or the Song of Songs, and whether or not many stories in the Torah are historically accurate, including the Exodus, the conquest of Israel, and King David’s dynasty. (He mentioned that while some elements of the Exodus story have been affirmed by archeology, the evidence doesn’t seem to point to the Israelites having been there when the Torah implies.) And so on, and so forth.

In Dr. Kugel’s opinion, there are 4 ways for the faithful to approach modern biblical scholarship.

1) Dismissal of archeological evidence: Kugel thinks this is too hard to do, and he also mentioned that most Bible scholars are not out to disprove the Bible. The exception, he quipped, was in regards to the children of ministers who later become scholars. I think he really meant this though.

2) Some choose to accept what goes well with faith, and to ignore the difficult parts. Thus, we might say Isaiah has 2 authors (Ibn Ezra says this, after all!) but to say this about the Chumash itself is too hard, and we draw a line. Kugel doesn’t think this is a good idea, and he thinks if you accept the basic approach of the critics, then it is very hard to draw a line denoting when you no longer accept their conclusions.

3) To say “it’s right, but I don’t want to know”. It seems obvious to me why such an approach really doesn’t work. Kugel confessed that he is unable to live like this, and that he couldn’t hold himself back from studying research which is vital to the things he believes. In fact, he told us, it was the things that bothered him which brought him to the road he’s on now, and led to his career.

4) The fourth option isn’t hard if you think about it, or so Dr. Kugel told us. Or at least, it didn’t seem hard to him, since he’s adhered to this option for some 40 odd years.

The way Kugel phrased it, modern scholarship is NOT the truth about the Bible. Rather, it is the truth about a certain kind of way of looking at the Bible. As he explains it, modern scholarship is born in the Protestant Reformation when Protestants attacked Catholic readings of the Bible, which consisted of many oral traditions. This tactic served to undermine Catholic power and influence. The argument between the Catholics and the Protestants could be rephrased as follows: do the words of the Bible tell you the whole story? If yes, as the Protestants believed, then traditions which deviated from it should be ignored. If no, as the Catholics believed, then extra-biblical traditions were a vital part to understanding the words of the Bible. The Protestant motto was sola scriptura, “just the words (on the page) of the Bible”.

Of course, even with just the words on the page, interpretation was hard to pin down, and some people were being sentenced to death by Protestants for not keeping the Sabbath! Pinning down the objective meaning of the text being the goal, they sought to learn more about the text from just the words themselves.

What do they tell us?

If we just look at the words themselves, we’ll naturally have many questions about historical accuracy, since verification (as well as many details) is not included in the word economical Bible.This serves as the basis for modern scholarship, which to this day seeks to learn about the text from itself.

Jewish tradition, however, has a different perspective. Jews have never thought the Bible was just the words on the page, and we have always had an Oral Torah, with commentary and meaning clinging to every word. “An eye for an eye” now means money, and there are 39 categories of prohibited creative labor on the Sabbath, etc. Our Torah is incomplete without the oral traditions which came down with them.

But how old are these traditions?

Quite old, in Kugel’s opinion. Jubilees (c. 200 BCE) talks about Abraham’s 10 tests 400 years before the Mishnah does, and the Dead Sea Scrolls similarly contain many traditions which weren’t written down in Rabbinic writings until later on.

“This is no minor disagreement” in Kugel’s opinion. Modern scholarship is not interested in these traditions, but Judaism doesn’t think the Bible can be read without them. Because modern scholarship doesn’t focus on the Bible with its traditions, it should not be considered the objective truth about the Bible. Rather, when the scholarship is good, it is the truth about a certain conception, the “just the words on the page” conception, of the Bible.

As for us, we’re obsessed with the Oral traditions, which basically tell us how to fulfill the most basic idea of the Bible: How do we serve God?

If it seems the literal text of the Bible contradicts this goal, then the Sages informed us how to reread the verse. Why? Because the Oral tradition and the goal of serving God come before the literal text of the Torah. This may seem like a radical idea, but in truth, those of us who study Talmud know that the phrase “Don’t read it this way; rather understand it to mean…” is quite common.

The Torah serves as the first word in how to serve God, but this mission is continued and embodied in the Oral tradition, later written down in the Mishnah, Talmud, etc. Our oral tradition continues, and in Kugel’s opinion, now includes the prohibition of using electricity on the Sabbath. All of this in order to better serve God, in the most exact way possible.

When we stop to think about Kugel’s conception, Rabbinic Jews will probably find it easy to understand. Abraham is not the first monotheist in the Torah. Esau doesn’t really seem so bad. But the Sages read the literal words in light of Rabbinic theology, and we don’t read the Torah without the captions written in by the Sages.

In regards to the divine origin of the Torah, Dr. Kugel echoed Rabbi Leibtag’s point that modern scholarship simply cannot shine any light on this issue. We don’t know the rules of how God communicates with man, and the Torah doesn’t contain markings that tell us exactly how prophecy works. While scholars can help us understand the historical context of the Torah, in the end divine origin is beyond their purview.

However, Kugel asked, if divine origin can’t be proven (and if it can’t be disproven, it can’t be proven either), then why believe it? A rabbi once told Kugel that he thought the Torah is man’s response to the ineffable (too great to be expressed in words) God. In Kugel’s opinion, this approach is far from the truth. In fact, “ineffable” is the opposite of God’s policy. God is “extremely effable” in Kugel’s words.

What this means is that Judaism believes it is God’s policy to talk to man, and a lot. He comes into our world, and He interferes in it. A man made Torah is impossible in Judaism. Rather, God, who constantly speaks to man, comes down and gives it to us.

While we hold that God comes into our world, and that the Torah came from heaven, it is important to note that God has given it to us. There was a “hand off” (his phrase) from God to us, and now we’re in charge, and we’re responsible for interpreting the Bible.

Kugel concluded his speech by telling us that his words were basically plagiarized from his forthcoming book “The King in the Sacntuary”. I cannot wait to read it.

I’ll finish this section with Dr. Kugel’s quote of the night. He told us that a teacher in an Orthodox high school remarked to him that they were using his book, “How To Read The Bible”, to teach seniors about biblical criticism. “Don’t do that!” he responded. “It wasn’t written for people in 12th grade!”

The teacher,however, retorted that Kugel is fooling himself if he thinks seniors don’t know what biblical criticism is, and if they don’t know in high school, they’ll be in for a real shock when they get to college. At least with proper instruction, they will not find it so threatening.

I’ll finish off part 3 with some of the questions the crowd asked to Rabbi Leibtag and Dr. Kugel, and the answers they gave to them. I’ll also just mention here that after he was done speaking, Kugel twice said that he really had a lot more he wanted to say, but he didn’t have time. Some of what he wanted to say will be in his forthcoming book, and if I recall correctly, he told us at least one point he wanted to discuss is in his book on Jubilees, “A Walk Through Jubilees“. If you’re interested in it, go to a library, because it is prohibitively expensive.

Part 3 will also make explicit the disagreement between Dr. Kugel and Rabbi Leibtag that I mentioned in the last post, but if you’ve read both of them, you’ll be able to figure out what it is before I tell you.

If you’d like to submit a guest post or response, please contact me on Facebook or Twitter.



Filed under Miscellaneous, Tanakh/Bible

Equality Before God

I wrote this for Elana Sharp’s weekly Dvar Torah email list. Contact me if you’d like to be added.

In the beginning of Netzavim, we are given a list of the people “standing” before God, about to enter the covenant with Him. This list includes all elements of Jewish society, starting with “Your heads…every man in Israel:” and “Your children, your wives, and the stranger who lives in your midst…” (Deut. 29:9-10).

In sum, all of the people are present before God, “from your wood-choppers to your drawers of water”.

Now, isn’t that an odd way to summarize that everyone is present, to say from wood-choppers to drawers of water? Wouldn’t you say from the “heads of the people” to the drawers of water, or from the wood-choppers to the elders? Why does the Torah choose as examples two kinds of people who are most likely in the same rung of society, and a relatively low one at that!?

The answer is quite simple, and provides for us a great lesson in Judaism: Before God, there are no social classes, only servants who equally stand before Him.

Indeed, we are taught that all levels of society were present to enter the covenant, and that is important to note, so that we can understand that truly everyone was there. However, the Torah summarizes what “everyone” is for us: from the wood-choppers to the drawers of water, we are all equal before God, and “anyone” may be considered “everyone”.

This means that we each have the equal responsibility to serve God, and that no one may look to another level of society, higher or lower, to serve God for them. As individuals we are each obligated completely in this regard.

Of course, on the flip side, we see that we all receive equal credit for accepting the yoke of the Mitzvot upon ourselves, and we should not think that there will be someone else who has a greater standing before God than we do.

In this time of year, it is particularly relevant to remember that we are all standing before God, in a covenant with Him, so that we may focus on what is required of each of us.

Shabbat Shalom, and Shana Tova!


In Parshat Bea’alotekha a similar point is made, when Joshua runs to Moses and tells him that Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp (Num. 11:26-29). Joshua tells Moses “Kela’em”, which is translated variously as “stop them”, “imprison them” (Rashi), or “Kill them”. Moses, however, responds to his student “Are you jealous on my behalf? Would that all of the people would be prophets, and God would place His spirit on them!”

Not that Joshua was necessarily against the idea that all Jews should be prophets. Indeed, the traditional interpretation was that Eldad and Medad were prophesying that Moses was going to die and Joshua would take over, and this offended Joshua, who was jealous of the honor of his teacher. Presumably, we are taught this interpretation because the Rabbis assume that indeed, of course it would be good if all of the people would be prophets.



Filed under Parshah

You’re an Apikores!

One of my pet peeves is how much people throw around the term heresy in Orthodox Judaism. Why does this bother me? Because they have no idea what they’re talking about.

Fortunately for you, I was obsessed with the question of “what is Jewish heresy?” for some time, so I have done a lot of reading (for a layman) on the matter. Furthermore, I have been called a heretic, a kofer, and an apikores, you name it! So if you’re looking for someone with some personal experience in the area- you got the right guy.

Heresy, as it is generally understood in Judaism, is an idea or belief that deviates from dogma, or authoritative beliefs that must be held. To disagree with dogma means a person has broken with Judaism. There are a lot of arguments over why you cannot deviate from certain beliefs, but at any rate, that is the bottom line.

So, for instance, it is usually considered OK to have diverging opinions over whether or not the Red Sea split into two or 12, since this is not a question of dogma. However, whether or not the Torah is from heaven is the kind of argument that can legitimately lead to someone being called a heretic.

If we can prove that Judaism has a set of beliefs that qualify as “dogma”, than any beliefs or ideas that deviate from them are heresy. If we cannot prove it, we will have less success.

The most famous proposed set of Jewish dogmatic beliefs is the 13 principles of Maimonides, which includes things like proper beliefs about God, that Torah is from heaven, and that God will eventually resurrect the dead. Presumably, according to Maimonides, if you deviate from these beliefs you are a heretici.

Now you may say that the 13 principles are our dogma, and they are certainly the most popular candidate that I know of. But a lot of people will disagree with you, and Marc B. Shapiro wrote a book that is simply a list of accepted Orthodox scholars who disagree with the 13 principles. It’s not such a short book either.

Examples of principles that are disputed:

3)That God has no body:

I don’t know anyone myself who believes that God has a body, but Raavad, the most accepted rabbinic authority in France in his own lifetime, did. He writes in his critique of Hilkhot Teshuva 3:7 that people “greater than he (ie:Rambam)” believed God has a body. Ok, so maybe this one isn’t dogma.

6)Moses’s prophecy is the most superior:

Not so says the Ari and the Alter rebbe of Chabad, R. Shneur Zalman. Kabbalists have a better understanding (likutei amarim, ‘igeret hakodesh’, no. 19).

Also, Rav Yosef Albo and R. Tzvi Hirshy Chajes both hold the Messiah will have greater prophecy than Moses did.

7) Every verse of the Torah was given to Moses at Sinai.

Modern Orthodox readers should also be made aware that Rav Soloveitchik’s view (as reported in Nefesh harav) that Yehoshua wrote the last 8 verses of the Torah contradicts this principle. Of course, this opinion appears in the Talmud 3 times, and once in Sifrei.

According to Rambam, it is a mitzvah to hate and destroy anyone who disagrees with his principles. If you will read Shapiro’s book, you will see this list contains many of the Sages, so I would would recommend that you wait to act on this instruction until you have read the book thoroughly. It is called ‘The Limits of Orthodox Theology’, and it is published by the Littman Library on a print by demand basis.

I should add that according to most interpreters, Rambam would see the idea of Sefirot as encroaching on the unity of God, which is of course against his 13 principles. Again we see that kabbala is in hot water with him.

On the flip side, there are those who hold it is heresy to not accept the kabbala, but obviously Maimonides opposes this idea, as is made eminently clear in Kellner’s ‘Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism.’ I can’t imagine a person reading this book and coming away with another idea.

So kabbala might be a moot point, despite the almost daily attempt to claim it is dogma.

I highly recommend every book I have listed here, and I encourage everyone to stop calling each other heretics until they at least peruse a few of them. Also recommended is Doniel Hartman’s ‘The boundaries of Judaism’ and Kellner’s ‘Must a Jew Believe Anything?’.

Kellner’s fantastic book ‘Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought’ goes through several attempts at Jewish dogma in the two centuries following Rambam, and you can see there that at the very least, Judaism lacks an agreed upon set of beliefs, and even lacks an agreed upon definition of dogma!

In all this uncertainty, it appears that the norm has become to simply accept anyone who keeps the mitzvot as part of the team, an opinion Maimonides seems to vociferously oppose. At any rate, rationalists continue to daven with kabbalists, and in my experience, very few fights break out.

iI say presumably because Menachem Kellner holds this really only applies to the first 5 principles. He discusses this in his Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought, mentions this in ‘Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism’, and I believe he goes over this as well in his “Must a Jew Believe Anything?’. All are published by the Littman Library.


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus, Miscellaneous, Rationalism

Do the Mitzvot Count Outside of Israel?

A friend of mine once taught me a song some campers and counselors used to sing in Camp Moshava of Ennismore, which has the following line in it:

Everybody make Aliyah;

Mitzvot don’t count in Canada!”

Intuitively, we would say that not only is this opinion incorrect, but that it has no place in Orthodox Judaism. How could mitzvot not count somewhere? Is there a source for this assertion? Furthermore, what exactly do they mean when they say the mitzvot “do not count”?

I came across what i assume is the source for this in a book I’m researching for a paper, which is pretty exciting, since now we should be able to answer all of these questions. Of course, for all I know this could be in 35 midrashei halakha (unlikely as that seems to me), since I’m just not familiar with them. Having the opportunity to look at some now, I highly recommend it to everyone.

Anyway, in piska 43 of Sifre on Dvarim, it explains the following quote from Deut. 11:16-18:


הִשָּֽׁמְר֣וּ לָכֶ֔ם פֶּ֥ן יִפְתֶּ֖ה לְבַבְכֶ֑ם וְסַרְתֶּ֗ם וַעֲבַדְתֶּם֙ אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶ֖ם לָהֶֽם׃ 

וְחָרָ֨ה אַף־יְהוָ֜ה בָּכֶ֗ם וְעָצַ֤ר אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֙יִם֙ וְלֹֽא־יִהְיֶ֣ה מָטָ֔ר וְהָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן אֶת־יְבוּלָ֑הּ וַאֲבַדְתֶּ֣ם מְהֵרָ֗ה מֵעַל֙ הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נֹתֵ֥ן לָכֶֽם׃ 

וְשַׂמְתֶּם֙ אֶת־דְּבָרַ֣י אֵ֔לֶּה עַל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וְעַֽל־נַפְשְׁכֶ֑ם

16:Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and you turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them:

17:and then the Lord’s anger be inflamed against you, and he shut up the heavens, that there be no rain, and that the land yield not its fruit; and you perish quickly from off the good land which the Lord gives you.

18: And you shall lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul…1

In the Sifre2, the Sages explain that God is saying the following to the Jewish people:

Even though I am about to exile you from the Land (of Israel) to a foreign land, you must continue to be marked there by the commandments, so that when you return they will not be new to you.”

So basically, according to this source, for someone who lives outside of Israel, the mitzvot are just for practice, so that we know what we’re doing when we live in Israel again.

The Sifre continues:

A parable: A king of flesh and blood grew angry with his wife and sent her back to her father’s house, saying to her, “Be sure to continue wearing your jewelry, so that whenever you return, it will not be new to you.” Thus also the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel, “My children, you must continue to be marked by the commandments, so that when you return, they will not be new to you.”

Well, I think that pretty much confirms our reading that according to this opinion, we are commanded to perform the mitzvot for practice outside of Israel, which I assume is what campers at Ennismore mean when they say (or sing) mitzvot “don’t count in Canada”. Still, I think saying mitzvot don’t “count” is very misleading, and that is not the intention of the Sages here.

Anyway, the opinion of the Sifre here is also famously quoted by Ramban in his commentary on Levitcus 18:25 and he takes it very seriously, and personally I have come across many people in Israel who take this to be the normative opinion.

However, we should not forget that the Sifre lists another opinion just after this, which goes as follows:

Another interpretation: And ye perish quickly from off the good land (11:17): You will be exiled from the good land to a land that is not like it in goodness. R. Judah says: Good refers to Torah, as it is said, For I give you good doctrine-(In the Land of Israel)-forsake ye not my Torah (Prov. 4:2)- outside the Land.

This seems to imply that God is commanding us to keep the mitzvot even though we have been exiled, and implies no connection to their practice in Israel in the way the first opinion does.

While the first opinion assumes the mitzvot are really supposed to be performed in Israel, so that when we are outside of it they are only performed for practice, the second opinion says the verse is a warning/commandment to remember to keep the mitzvot no matter where we are, because it makes no difference; we are always commanded to keep the mitzvot.

This opinion is the simple understanding of the Mishnah in Kiddushin (36b) that “Any commandment that is not dependent on the Land (of Israel) must be performed outside of the Land, and any of them that is dependent on the Land is not performed except for in the Land.”

The gemara takes R. Judah’s opinion (which we listed earlier) as the normative one, so that mitzvot “(incumbent on) the body” apply anywhere in the world, while commandments that can only be performed in Israel due to their dependence on the Land-such as shmittah- do not. Of course, being that so many of the commandments have to do with the Temple, we should not forget how big this number is.

This seems also to be the opinion in Sifre 59, which appears to be cited by the gemara here as well, and of Sifre 613 as well. So, the mitzvot can be categorized into those that only apply in Israel, and the ones that apply everywhere, including every “Lo Taaseh” (prohibitive commandments), and I think this is also the opinion of the Talmud in Sotah 14A, where we are told Moses wanted to enter Israel so that he could practice the mitzvot specific to it.

Keep in mind, if the opinion that mitzvot are just for practice outside of Israel is correct, it seems likely that the entire first generation of Jews given the mitzvot practiced for nothing, or only so that their children would be familiar with the mitzvot when they would go into Israel 40 years later. This interpretation does not seem to be the simple reading of the giving of the Torah to me, but I’m not qualified to make that call.

Going further, my wife pointed out an even stronger question on this opinion to me: If the mitzvot are performed for practice outside of Israel, then we should practice all of the mitzvot- including those that pertain to the land- so that we are familiar with them.

Since we see that only mitzvot “of the body” are performed outside of Israel, while no practice is required for those of the land, we see the halakha presumes that mitzvot are actually commanded upon us no matter where we are, and some only apply to the Land of Israel.

Anyway, it seems from the sources we have just listed that the mitzvot do “count” in Canada, the U.S., etc. This being the case, the song should be edited a bit. Since it encourages children to make aliyah, I will try and leave the spirit of the song intact.

The new lyrics will say “Everybody make aliyah; Mitzvot still count in Canada!”. This will imply that it is a mitzva to make aliyah no matter where you live, which I think the Moshava people will approve of. This is of course despite the fact that Rambam famously does not codify living in Israel as a commandment.

I feel we have righted the wrongs of this song, and I can get back to my paper now.

Shabbat Shalom!

1Tanslation from the Koren Jerusalem Bible.

2I’ve taken the translation from the Yale Judaica Series, Volume XXIV, “Sifre on Deuteronomy”, which is translated, introduced, and annotated with notes by Reuven Hammer. (Yale University Press 1986)

3Both on parshat Re’eh, entitled “These are the laws” and “You should shatter” respectively.


Filed under Miscellaneous

“We Follow Our Rabbis Until It’s Inconvenient, Right?”

“We Follow Our Rabbis Until It’s Inconvenient, Right?”

Boy have I heard that (rhetorical) question a million times. This is usually how it goes.

Person A advocates a lenient position in Halakha, which some or many Rabbis disagree with.

Person B responds by asking a rhetorical question: “We follow our rabbis until it’s inconvenient, right?”.

With this little question, the responder implies that the aforementioned leniency was suggested out of a lack of commitment to Judaism. “Judaism is hard”, Person B tells us, “and you’re not trying hard enough”.

Let’s talk about this question for a moment, and examine whether or not it’s actually a good question that should be taken seriously. We’ll do this by looking at the implications of the statement.

1)“We follow our rabbis”: Now Orthodoxy is predicated on following Jewish law as set down in the Talmud, and interpreted and passed on through the generations. So there are many rabbis from over the generations who will be “our rabbis” to both sides in the aforementioned argument. However, not all rabbis are followed by everyone.

With this in mind, make sure that when a person starts telling you about who your rabbis are that you’re talking about the same people. Otherwise, the statement is already meaningless. For example, if somebody tells a Modern Orthodox person about the Satmar Rebbe’s view’s on Zionism, they are no longer dealing with shared leaders. Another example of this might be when a little girl asked my wife “why are you wearing red if you’re Jewish?”. Presumably, my wife and I do not have the same rabbis as that little girl and her family.

2) “Until it’s inconvenient”: This statement implies that halakha doesn’t take seriously when a person is inconvenienced. While I’m not an expert, I do know enough to say that’s not true. That’s why the Talmud discusses the concept of “istinus” (a particularly sensitive person) numerous times, why we are told God is sensitive to the economic needs of the Jewish people, why Hillel made the Pruzbol, why there is the concept of ‘tirkha d’tzibura’ (inconvenience to the congregation) and many other laws.

This is not to say that “inconvenience” is a valid reason to not follow halakha. But everyone should know that rabbis do care about what’s convenient for their followers, or at least that they should.

3)This statement shifts the conversation away from the actual content being discussed. Instead of saying “your statement is factually incorrect”, or any other statement that actually has substance to it, this statement is a personal attack on the commitment of another person. However, the personal commitment of the person advocating a lenient position is not what is up for discussion, so much as whether or not their statement is correct.

Being that oftentimes (or perhaps usually) the commitment of Person A, who advocates s a lenient position, is no less strong than anyone else’s, this actually turns into an unfair and often vicious accusation, which hurts the reputation of another person or a group of people.

How many halakhot are violated when someone tells you that “We follow our rabbis until it’s inconvenient, right?”?

A whole bunch.

So don’t imply you have the same poskim if you don’t, don’t imply that halakha does not take into account the condition of the Jewish people, and don’t attack people personally in what is at best a distraction.

I admit, you may encounter a person who actually argues that we should not follow halakha when it becomes inconvenient. At that time the statement we have just discussed (hopefully for the last time ever) will become perfectly relevant, if perhaps too sarcastic and rude. In that case, rephrase it as a polite question, and go for it.


Filed under Miscellaneous

If Not Now, When?

If I am not for myself, who is? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”-Hillel

This famous quote appears in Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers, 1:14), and while there are many interpretations, I would like to suggest that its meaning is actually a terse parallel to our understanding of Moses’ speech in Va’etchannan(Deut. 4:1-40), where he discusses levels or performing the service of God (https://thinkjudaism.wordpress.com/2012/08/02/dvar-torah-for-vaetchannan-instruction-and-encouragement-2/)

As we said, Moses urges the people of Israel to keep the mitzvot, telling them they must care about their own livesi, that it is better to seek wisdom and praise for itii than to live just for the sake of livingiii, and that even above seeking wisdom is the service of God that is performed out of a loving loyalty, which is called “cleaving”iv

With the goals of Moses in mind, I think we may now see that Hillel’s 3 short questions will each help to bring us to a higher level of Avodat HaShem (Service of God).

If I am not for myself, who is?”: Hillel tells us that we must love ourselves enough to be “for” ourselves, since there is no-one else who would or could do this on our behalf. This is addressed towards those who do not even care for themselves enough to be “for” themselves. While most of us find it obvious that we have to care about our lives, Hillel tells those who don’t understand this that it is the place to start, in a parallel to Moses’ urging to love ourselves as God loves us in Deut. 4:32-40.

Once we begin to care about ourselves and lead our own lives, we may realize that being in control means we are each responsible for the way we act and the direction our lives are going in. This is a parallel to v. 5-31,where Moses urges us to keep the mitzvot out of being “for” ourselves.

And when I am for myself, what am I?”: However, Hillel tells us, having chosen to be responsible for ourselves, we are not to choose to live purely for our own benefit, since what would we be then? Someone who lives and serves God only for his own well-being has brought about the paradoxical situation where his mitzvot are directed towards worshiping himself! This is far from the best life we can choose.

Hillel instructs us that if a person worships herself instead of God, she must ask herself “what am I?” and be unsatisfied by the answer. This will bring her to work towards the goal of serving God out of a loving loyalty, and to “cleave” to Him, as Moses tells us in v.1-4.

And if not now, when?” Of course, once we have decided to strive towards the service of God in a way that is for the very sake of serving Him, it is altogether another thing to actually begin this process, since it is exceedingly difficult. Hillel thus encourages us to begin right away.

In short, Hillel’s questions do not seek answers, since the answer to 1) would be “no-one”, to two we would answer “lowly”, and to three, we would not answer at all, since it is a rhetorical question. Rather, he is a looking for a reaction to each of them, which will hopefully bring us to keeping the mitzvot in the best ways that we can.

iDeuteronomy 4:32-40

iiIbid. v.5-8

iiiIbid. v.9-31

ivIbid. v.1-4

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Why Does God Tell Moses to Look the Wrong Way?

Yesterday we read Va’etchannan, which begins with Moses’ rejected plea to enter the Land of Israel. While Moses is not allowed to go, God does tell him to “Go up to the top of the Pisga, and lift up thy eyes westward, northward, southward, and eastward, and behold with thy eyes, because you will not cross the Jordan (river)” (Deuteronomy 3:27)

The question (which someone pointed out to me in shul), is why does God tell Moses to look the wrong way? Israel is to the west of where Moses is standing, and even to look north(west) and south(west) may make sense. But why east? That is simply the opposite direction from where Moses should look!

We will suggest 5 answers to this question, but of course this list isn’t exhaustive, and you may find none are acceptable to you.

1) God tells Moses to look in all 4 directions as this is merely an expression for “look everywhere/around”. It does not literally mean he should look east, but rather that he should look as much as he likes. This would appear to be a sort of concession to Moses. God will not let him in, but will let him look.

2) It is an angry expression, meaning “look everywhere”. This is actually not quite the same. In this understanding, God tells Moses “Look as much as you want, but you will not cross the Jordan”. In this reading we understand God to be angry with Moses for asking, as He “was angry, and would not hear me”(v.26). Perhaps according to this reading we may understand that Moses was in fact allowed to look at Israel the entire time, and did not need special permission for this. After all, why would he? Therefore, when he asks to go in, God tells him he may continue to look all he likes, but that’s all he’ll get.

3) Perhaps we might look for a deeper lesson in this strange command to look in the wrong direction. I’ll split this suggestion into two for Mystics and Rationalists.

a) Mystical Interpretation- God tells Moses to look east to teach him about the status of the east. Just as the land of Israel (to the west) is inherently holy, so too the land of Jordan (to his east, which two and half tribes have recently decided to settle in) is inherently holy as well. Thus it is exactly like the rest of Israel.

b) Rationalist Interpretation- God tells Moses to look east to teach him that just as Jordan’s land (eastward) is not used for mitzvot, and is therefore not holy, so too Israel will not be holy if it is not used for the performance of mitzvoti.

4) My wife mentioned to me that she was once taught that God in fact transported Moses to Israel in a vision, and then told him to look around in all four directions. I have not found the source for this, but this obviously would answers our question as well.

To be honest, my immediate reaction to the question was to shrug, and suggest the first answer listed here. The classical commentators (or at least all the ones included in the Torat Chaim Chumash) don’t address this question at all, so I’m inclined to think they agree with me that it’s just an expression.

While this question isn’t the strongest one in history, I think it’s worth looking at because how we answer it tells us a little bit about how we each read Tanakh (Bible), and of course, because of the general value of learning.

Let me know if you can find the source for the last suggestion!

Shavua tov

iThis ties in nicely with the explanation (BT Sotah 14A) that Moshe wanted to enter Israel so that he could perform the mitzvot that are specific to it, which is cited by Abravanel and Chizkuni on 3:25.


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus, Miscellaneous, Parshah, Rationalism

Dvar Torah for Va’etchannan: Instruction and Encouragement

“And O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe…You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it…”(Deut. 4:1-2)

In this week’s parsha, we begin where we left off last week, towards the end of Moses’ historical survey. This leads into his instruction that they must keep the mitzvot. Tying his statements to some of the events he has just described, Moses explains that the Israelites must serve God in a four part sermon.

The first argument Moses offers is that the Israelites should loyally and lovingly cleave to God, as they have just seen their own fates and those of the worshipers of Baal-Peor.

Second, he tells the people they should keep the mitzvot because they are “proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples”, who will praise them for keeping the commandments(v. 5-8).

Following this, Moses tells the Jews to keep the mitzvot “for your own sake” (4:15), because God is a jealous God, and a “consuming fire”(v. 23). To avoid decimation (v.26) the Jews must keep the commandments, and especially make sure to stay away from idolatry, as they were told by Sinai.

Fourth, the Israelites are told that “they have but to inquire” (v.32)about the past, and they will understand that it is imperative to serve the one God of history, who has taken them out of Egypt(v.33-40).

As you may have noticed, Moses ties each of his exhortations to events in reverse chronological order: His fourth statement corresponds to history and the redemption from Egypt, the 3rd(self preservation and avoidance of punishment) arises from Sinai, the 2nd (wisdom and glory from keeping the commandments) is associated with the giving of the specific commandments which followed this, and the first argument (loyalty) is associated with the loyalty and betrayal displayed most recently in the incident of Baal-Peor.

Why did Moses present his sermon in a backwards order? Shouldn’t he have listed them in the other direction?

In order to understand this seemingly backwards presentation, we will explain each of Moses’ statements a little more in depth.

The first argument Moses proposes is that the Israelites should serve God out of selfless and loving loyalty. This is the highest kind of observance, called “cleaving”, and often referred to as “Lishmah”. This is service of God performed for its own sake, and not for the benefit of the servant.

However, it is difficult to serve God “lishmah”, so Moses suggests that those who cannot do so should serve God out of a desire to earn the respect of the nations, who will be impressed by the wisdom of the commandments.

Noting, however, that not everyone desires respect or seeks wisdom, Moses tells the people that for the sake of the their own survival, they must keep the mitzvot. While it seems that the person who performs the mitzvot purely to avoid punishment is acting in a shallow and selfish manner, this is a place all of us are at one time or another, I think, and Moses wants us to perform the mitzvot, even if only for this reason.

Lastly, Moses almost begs the Israelites to merely “ask” questions, so that they might see the God of history commands them, has redeemed them, and they should serve Him.

While before it seems Moses is merely speaking with the people, it seems like he is begging them in his fourth statement, almost like he is trying to shake them to action. I believe this change in style is due to the fact that the members of Israel addressed here are passive, and retain a slave mentality.

Unlike the group of people who will keep the mitzvot in order to survive, this last group does not even care about themselves enough to do this! As slaves they were treated as though they were worthless, and they internalized this message, causing them to not even worry if they live or die.

Moses’ four statements take us from the highest level of service, to the lowest level of being possible. Moses presents the most desired first, in order to emphasize the importance for all to strive for this goal, before continuing down to more selfish reasons for serving God, before addressing those who do not even know enough to care about themselves at all.

Each reference to an event refers to the level the Israelites were at as they traveled from Egypt towards the Holy Land, starting from their low points, and going to their highest.

At first, when they were taken out of Egypt, the people had a slave mentality, and thought themselves to be worthless. No one can live with this attitude, which is a complete rejection of the value of being made in the Image of God. Moses begs the people to notice that God cares about them, has taken care of their ancestors and them, and therefore they should likewise do so.

After the people have learned of their own value, they will naturally begin to care about their own survival. At Sinai the people reached this point, and were treated accordingly.

However, when they received the commandments in more detail, many realized the wisdom in them, and that there is more to life than just being alive! This sense of selfishness can be a difficult state to reach.

Of course, Moses really wants the Jews to serve God for the sake of serving Him, because they cleave to Him with loyalty and love. This is the best possible way to serve God, and this is the level many of the people reached when they abstained from worshiping Baal-Peor.

In order to emphasize the desired nature of this level, Moses presented it first, and continued downward in order of most desired to least. It is now clear that his backwards presentation was intended to emphasize not only what is most desired, but also that he believes the people have progressed through landmark events, and may continue to do so with more time and effort.

Though God recognizes that we may reach incredible low points in our lives, and that we often act in ways that are less than perfect, Moses issues the challenge to work towards the highest level of service described here. We may take his words here to be both instruction and encouragement.

A challenge indeed.

Shabbat Shalom!


Filed under Miscellaneous, Rationalism