Mishpatim Creating a Just Society
In the good old days of Rabbis, if
there ever was one, the Rabbi was not as he is today, a Preacher and service
leader, but the “ Final Decider”, the “Buck Stops Here” in the Jewish community
on all decisions of Halakhah, of Jewish law.
the story goes, two men come to the Rabbi with a suit . Says the plaintiff,” So
and so, the “gonif” owes me 200 rubles and this is the proof, here are the
documents,” .He then makes his case.
The Rabbi nods, You are right!
The Rabbi calls on the defendant,”
Respect Rov, That so and so, that “gonif” has no claim at all and I owe him
nothing, and this is the proof, and here are the documents.
The Rabbi nods again,” You are
All at once the Rabbi’s assistant,
the Shammes, has been listening patiently till now, blurts out,” But Rabbi,”
How could they both be right.?!”
And the Rabbi nods, “ You, too, are
All joking aside, at the core of
Judaism is the need to make critical decisions, decisions about who is right
and wrong, what is permitted, what is forbidden, not just in the obvious things
we think of, in kashrut or Shabbat, but in the moral and legal realm as well.
That is all wrapped up in the framework
of what we call “ Halakhah”, which we can translate literally, as “Going”, or
figuratively, we could say,” if you talk the talk, you gotta walk the walk.”
No sooner do we finish with the
revelation of God at Sinai in the previous portion, Yitro, with its grand
vision in thunder and lightning, that we come to this portion , Mishpatim,
which forces us to deal with very mundane issues, issues that don’t belong in
heaven, but belong on earth, in every day dealings between people.
We are presented with a broad mix of
what are called “ Case laws”, so to say,” In case of a, then b”, what is termed
“casuistic law”; this is in contrast to the absolute statements we have in the Ten
Commandments, termed “apodictic law.” So we have examples from the treatment of
male slaves as opposed to female slaves, issues of miscarriage as a result of a
brawl, which leads the famous “lex talionis”-“Eye for Eye”--- what are grounds
for self-defense, what are the conditions for making restitution in case of
theft, and so on. Many shirt and succinct cases that lead to mountains of
As you can see from this, although
we would like to see Judaism summarized into a simple phrase,” al regal achat”,
while standing on one foot, like “Love
your Neighbor”, we see that our Torah wasn’t written for people seeking simple
From a Jewish perspective, law and
justice stand at the very center of the universe. They stand at the very center
of our entire concept of religion. That
means that legal procedure is itself sacred, although we may sometimes
be perturbed by what seems to be nit-picking.
We Jews are a people of law, which
is often difficult for people of other religions to comprehend. Very often, we
are decried as a religion of law, as opposed to a religion of love, a very common
historic Christian polemic against Judaism, but it is in the loyalty to the
idea of law, whether it be the religious obligations, or the social
obligations, that a Jew gave expression to love of God and love of neighbor.(
Frankly, there is also a lot of Canon Law in Christianity).
Even among modern Jews, who
obviously do not observe Jewish law, even in such a setting, the concept of
what is accepted and what is not is important still holds sway.Even if I wish
to do whatever I will, I still want to know if it is kosher or treif, and even
if the modern Jew enjoys the treif, he still wishes that the Rabbi would
pasken, declare, it kosher.
Rabbi Harold Schulweis described
Jewish life as a tennis game, with halakhah as the net between the courts. You
can raise the net, or lower the net, but the net must still be there. Once you
get rid of the net, there’s no game, since then every move is over the net. Our
concept of law, of halakhah, is the net in the game of life.
In particular, the net of life must
be the net of civil and criminal law. It goes back to Abraham. God expressly
states that he must declares his plans about the wicked cities of Sodom and
Gomorrah because he knows that Abraham
will instruct his descendants in justice.
Jews have a penchant for going to bat even for the villain who doesn’t deserve
it. We think back to Abraham , our ancestor, who goes to war on behalf of the
people of Sodom and Gomorrah, not only to free his nephew Lot but also to free
them from an aggressor nation. Yet these
are the same villains of the infamous Sodom and Gomorrah.
Next, he pleads for them with God, Hashofet
Kol haaretz lo yaaseh mishpat? Will not the judge of all the earth not do
Even these, villains and miscreants
deserve due process of the law , and if just some case could be made for them,
just the presence of a minyan of decent people, then they should be spared. (Of
course, when it comes to his own son, he keeps quiet—you see, we don’t always
have the sense to speak up for ourselves!)
We see this thread run throughout
Even before Moses can receive the Torah
at Sinai, he needs to establish a system whereby he delegates judicial
authority to respected leaders form among the people.
In Deuteronomy, we are presented
with the dictum Shoftim ve shotrim titen lecha—“You shall appoint magistrates
and officials for your tribes.” Before anything else may be done, the very
first act must be the establishment of a legal and judicial system--without it,
the children of Israel cannot function. The Torah then declares: Tsedek Tsedek
tirdof Lemaan tihyeh veyarashta et haarets
asher Adonay noteyn lecha-
justice, shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land the Lord has
Later, the prophets would say: Vayigal
camayim mishpat. Let justice well up like the waters and righteousness like
a mighty stream.( Amos 5:24) This phrase served as a declaration by Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr in his great speech on civil rights.
It is true that law and justice
appear as values in other ancient societies—the ancient Babylonians, the
Greeks, the Romans, all understood that justice needed to be established. But
how did they look at it? As a mechanical necessity! Plato’s Republic is an attempt to set up the grounds for a
just society and he begins on the theme of what is justice and comes up with
his own explanation. As you read it, though, you sense that while his
discussion makes good sense, it is missing the passion and power. Justice comes
from reasonability for him, but for Moses, the Prophets and the Jewish people,
justice is powerful, overwhelming, “yigal kamayim” like a tidal surge of the
ocean, driven by the force of God.
Let’s go back to one of the cases
presented in Mishpatim, that of “ Makeh
ish”- One who strikes his fellow and causes death,” Mot Yumat”- he shall be
excecuted. How was this to be decided? What proof, what evidence, what
Rabbinic jurisprudence was very
exacting, especially in the case of murder. No violation of law was more
horrendous than that of murder--not even the other two cardinal sins of
idolatry and adultery came near--for as the sage Maimonides said, Murder
destroys the very civilization of the world.(Yishuv Haolam) In other societies of the time, not all people
were legally equal and one could easily buy his way out of a murder charge by
paying off the family, especially a nobleman who could buy off the death of a
peasant. It is even retained
explicitly in the Quran, which paraphrases our “eye for eye” but unlike the
Torah, allows for “ blood money” to be
offered,” If one is pardoned by the victim's kin, an appreciative
response is in order, and an equitable compensation shall be paid.”
This idea of buying off
murder is unconscionable in Jewish thinking.
and because execution was deemed the only proper punishment, the legal
procedures for a murder case were so stringent, that it became nigh impossible
for a court to convict one of full premeditated murder.
It is no wonder then, that Rabbi Akiba
declared that a court that put someone
to death once in seven, or even once in seventy years, was a bloody court.
However, even as the Rabbis made the application of the death penalty almost
impossible, they could not remove it from the books. This must remain, in
principal, on the books of any civilized society, even if it is never carried
out in fact, because the value of the human being must be made the one
sacrosanct principal of all societies.
There are many other examples that one
can go on, from this and other issues raised in this portion and parts of the
Torah. Some 3300 years of Jewish jurisprudence can be applied to modern issues
like internet privacy ( addressed , in principal, by Rabbenu Gershom a thousand
years ago) or intellectual property rights, covered in Rabbinic law under the concept
of “ Gnevat Daat”. “ Theft of Mind”, which applies not only to deception in business
practice but also to claiming to be the originator of an idea stolen from
someone else .
I have digressed somewhat, but you
can see, from these cursory examples, why the Torah and Jewish teachings would
want to define for us what are limits and boundaries of our actions but put
less emphasis on our minds and beliefs. As the Rabbis defined it, “No two human
beings can think alike.” Hence, so much
of an emphasis on “Mishpatim”, or laws,
civil and criminal, as well as ritual, because all actions have
consequences and while no to humans think alike, all humans ache alike.
There is a Latin phrase--fiat iustitia
et periat mundus--let justice be done, even if the world perish. Justice,
it would seem from that, is incompatible with the real needs of the world.
There is a seemingly comparable statement in Hebrew Yikov hadin et hahar -the
law shall go through even a mountain. But justice is not an end in itself, as
in the Latin phrase has it, but rather, it is the instrument on which the world
survives, and does not perish, "The Rabbis declared:The world exists
because of din, emet, veshalom--Judgement, truth, and peace. Judgement, carried
out in truth, leads to peace, and to the salvation of human civilization and
Shabbat Shirah Singing About Unsung Heroines of the Bible
I have a very dear
friend , a psychologist, who is a women, very Jewishly knowledgeable and
committed, who had a proposal to update the Hebrew word for God—Why not
feminize what has always been a masculine concept and instead of Elohim, create
a new word, add “kamatz-heh” the feminine ending, and make it—“Elohima”.
Well, other than mangling Hebrew grammar, it
may not be such a bad idea to recognize that in Judaism, while we have always
had a very masculine look at everything, there is also a feminine look at
This Shabbat is
called “ Shabbat Shirah”, the Sabbath of Song, because in this portion of
Beshalach, we read the “Shirat Hayam”, the Song at the Sea, the Song of
Deliverence that the children of Israel sang in as they saw the Egyptian forces
swept away in front of their eyes. Certainly we have, in this song, a very
masculine concept of God,” Ish Milchamah” , literally, “ A Man of War.”
However, at the very
end of the Song, we are introduced to Miriam, who leads the women in their own
song and dance of triumph, “ Ki Gao-Gaah—he has excelled and thrown both horse
and rider into the sea.” “Haneviah” the Prophetess,” The Sister of Aaron. Not
the sister of Moses, but the sister of Aaron.
Why not “ Sister of Moses”? Wait, Moses is
not called “ Navi” prophet, until the very end of the Torah. Miriam, our
commentators said, was already a “Prophetess” before Moses, when she was still
only the Sister of Aaron, forseeing that a Deliverer would be born. So, Moses,
the great, is upstaged by his sister!
The Song of the Red
Sea is paralleled by the Haftarah, the Song of Devorah. Here too, a song, a
very masculine song, of military triumph, but sung by a woman, Devorah, who is
very feminine-“ Em beyisrael”—“The mother of Israel” she describes herself, a
judge of the people, and the very triumph comes, not at the hand of the male
warrior, but at the hand of a woman, Yael. Here, too, the woman takes
precedence over the man.
There are some
less famous women of the Bible, besides the usual matriarchs or Queen Esther,
that have a lot to teach us. These are the Unsung Heroines of the Bible.
The theme of the
Shabbat is the Song of the Sea, and it marks the culmination of the Exodus, yet
where would the children of Israel have been if not for the women.
First, there are
Shifrah and Puah
. Had it not been
for Shifrah and Puah, there would have been no one left alive for Moses to
save. Pharaoh appointed these two women,
who were midwives, to, deliver all the Israelite children, with the orders to
kill all male children at birth, and allow only the females to live, females
who could later on be sold off for the harems of various government officials. All that we know about
these two women from the Bible is that they were God-fearing which means that
they had utter contempt for the Pharaohs orders,and, rather, saved all the
It is surely with
these two women that we have the invention of Hutzpah as a Jewish trait for it
is with Hutzpah that
they answer the Pharaoh, who is boiling mad at them. Their answer
surely ranks highest in the annals of pure nerve:
"These Hebrew women aren't like the Egyptians. They are wild
beasts; they give birth by themselves, without the aid of
Hagadah credits the women of Israel as a whole with saving the nation- the men
are despondent at Pharaohs order to slay the male sons and separate from their
wives in protest. There will be no more children. Our commentaries credit the
women, not the mean, with the determination to create a new generation despite
the threat hanging over them.
Years later, when
the children of Israel wander in the desert, who remain loyal to Moses and to
God? Not the men, but the women. The
Rabbis were quick to notice this in the incident of the Golden Calf, Aaron tells the men "take your wives’
earrings and nose rings, and I will use it", but, instead, we are told,
the men brought only their own gold.
Why? It was obvious—the women wanted
nothing to do with a Golden Calf.
What of women of
physical courage. We all know about
Devorah, the judge, who organized the army of the
tribes to defeat the oppressive Canaanites, yet the final victory
was in the hands of another women, who has never gotten sufficient credit, Yael
. Yael is not even an Israelite . It is
Yael who takes the villain Sisera into her home and she alone kills the
general. Of her, Devorah sings, "Blessed above women is Yael, the wife of
Hever the Kenite, blessed above the women of the tents."
Yael, the activist, with the women in General Sisera’s court. These women
imagine their brave soldiers dividing up the women they have captured, and they
use a very degrading term” Rechem-rechmatayim”—These women are not more than a uterus—that
is their vision of a woman and they fantasize about the colored cloths their
brave warriors will bring back with them from the captured women. Right their
Devorah ends their vision with a denunciation” Kach Yovdu”- “Thus shall all
your enemies perish, O Lord”.
about women as actual warriors?
woman single handedly saved the people of Israel from a dictator in the time of
We know of Gideon,
a great hero, but we don’t know of Gideon’s son, Avimelech,a great tyrant. Whle his father refused the crown
of Kingship. Avimelekh tried to take it by force, murdering all his brothers
and then crushing any rebellion against him. One woman single-handedly stopped
him dead in his tracks.
Avimelekh led the charge
against the rebel town of Tevetz .An
unknown woman, who could have easily sat in her room, away from the battle
raging outside, took action. She took her only weapon, the millstone she used
to grind her flour. Nobody paid attention to an odd woman carrying her
millstone. She climbed to the parapet of the tower where the fight was raging,
spotted the enemy leader directly below her, and let the stone fall. Directly
on Avimelech. His skull is crushed, he
looks up to see the woman above, and is ready to die, not of his wound, but of
his shame. He begs his sword bearer to
run him through, lest people say that he had been killed by a woman. Yes,
justice done by a woman.
The women of the Bible
are also political negotiators, who, by their wise words, can save a city from
destruction. The town of Abel Bet Maacah gave refuge to an enemy of King David.
David's general, Yoav, is about to storm the city, about to destroy it and all
the inhabitants, when, in the midst of battle, a woman appears on the wall and
demands to speak to the general. Imagine the scene as the fighting suddenly
ceases so that this unnamed heroine can speak; "Our city is like a watchful
mother of Israel and you seek to kill her! Would you destroy the Lord's own
possession?" With that, she succeeds in arranging for the delivery of the
rebel into the general's hands and saves the city.
The most central concept of modern Judaism today is worship.
Surely whatever else Jews may do or not do, at least they come to the synagogue
to pray, even if only once a year. Yet, we find nowhere, in the Torah, an
explicit command to pray, nor do we find, in the worship of the Temple, any
concept prayers of that expressed the feelings of the participants until later,
when the Psalms are written.
Again, the is
credit due to not a man, but a woman.
Hannah,a barren women,
comes to the sanctuary at Shechem to silently pour her heart out in prayer at
the altar. Who enters but the High Priest ,Eli, who is dumbfounded at this? A
.women at the altar, mumbling, moving her lips, incoherent? Altars are for
sacrifices, not for what he presumes to be a drunken stupor. The great priest
cannot tell the difference between an honest outpouring of longing and faith
from a hang-over. It takes a simple country woman from the hills of Ephraim to
teach him. It is just this woman's prayer that forms the Haftarah read on the
first day of Rosh Hashanah.
The great bulk of the Bible
is the work of a special class of people known as prophets, and this, too, is
not an exclusively male domain as I mentioned with Miriam. Several centuries after Solomon, the Temple
had fallen in a state of disrepair .Finally, it was cleansed and renovated .The
High Priest found, in one of the chambers, a book of the Torah that had been
long forgotten. In excitement, he showed it to the King and they concluded that
something of a discovery of such a degree must be looked into in greater depth.
After all, according to the words of this book, dire consequences were in store
for the kingdom of Judea. It was natural then to rush to the foremost prophet
of the day and determine what that meant. To whom then did they turn? Not to
Jeremiah, whom we all know about from his writings ,but to a prophetess, Huldah.
It was she who validated for them the book, which we presume to have been the
fifth of the Five Books of Moses The woman, Huldah, was the prophet they
trusted for wisdom.
Think then, to
what we owe these women of the Bible, of
whom we hear little about yet who did so much in the course of the beginnings
of the Jewish people: saving the children form slaughter, delivering from
outside invaders, serving as wise counselors and prophets.
In truth there is no lack of great women.leaders, in later ages as
well. There was Bruriah-,wife of Rabbi Meir, who herself was author of certain
There was Rufina, the first Jewish woman president of a synagogue,
in ancient Greece, some 1800years ago. There was a women who headed
import-export operations in medieval Egypt.
There was a Hannah Ruchel-The Maid of Ludomir-the Hassidic- woman
Rebbe, who wore Tallit and Tefillin and preached to her Hasidic followers over
a century ago.
At the beginning,
I mentioned my friends suggestion, to give God a feminine side-but this too was
done—in the Midrashic lore, as “ Shekhinah” , God’s presence, and in Kabbalah,
as “ Matrona”, the Lady, or “ Malkah” the Queen, so that God has a masculine
and a feminine aspect that balance each other.
Now , in our day, we
look to our women to shoulder the burden of Judaism -side by side-or even ahead
of the men. We have women on the bimah, women as Rabbis and Cantors, women as
Leaders of synagogues and Jewish communal organizations, a woman. as Head of the State of Israel. We hope that this new openness will lead to a
greater creativity and a flourishing of the spirit of Torah in the 21 st century.
Bo ( Exodus Ch. 10 -13 ) The Alien and the Unaffiliated
A Jewish peddler walks into a Shtetl
in the Old World and is dismayed to see that nobody talks to him, nobody pays
any attention to him, and nobody is ready to offer him any assistance.
He then goes to the middle of the
town square and blasts out in Yiddish: Gevalt,
Men harget yiden!” “Help! They are killing Jews!”
Suddenly the whole town comes
running to find out what the horrible news and they demand of him,” Where is
Oh, he replies, don’t you know the
only way to get a Jew’s attention is by screaming “Gevalt.”
That is true for so many issues that
we have to deal with in American Jewish life—we often deal with it when we feel
A short time ago, a study was
released by Pew Research, which, quite reasonably led many of us to cry “
Gevalt!”. I will get to that concern after a digression into our Torah portion.
Today, in the portion of Bo, we have
the last plagues and the Children of Israel set out from slavery to redemption.
This is the great event in our
consciousness--the event of the liberation from Egypt. It is the Birth of a
At the end of this reading, we are
given a set of distinct instructions for both the first Exodus and for all
future commemorations of this earthshaking event.
There are two terms similar in sound used in here that apply to our issue. Look at Ex:.12:
44 Ben nechar lo yochal bo--No alien shall eat of the Pesach offering until he undergoes
circumcision to show that he has entered into the covenant of Abraham. The word
for alien here is ” nechar”, from which we have the common Hebrew term
for non-Jew- Nochri, the alien.
Another word is closely associated
with it in this portion, the word karet-cut off. Turn back to Ch 12:19
kol ochel mahmetzet, ve nikhreta hanefesh hahi me-adat yisrael-“ whoever eats
that which is leaven, that person shall be cut off from the people of Israel.” Nikhretah-he
will be cut off. To refuse to participate in this great national commemoration
is to be cut off from the nation and from God.
The alien, nochri, must enter
the covenant of circumcision, to partake in the Passover, while the Hebrew who
refuses to partake in the Passover has cut himself off, nichrat, made
alien. One goes in, the other goes out; one joins, one leaves. The two words
share two letters of the 3 letter root word. That’s
the beauty of Hebrew grammar.
[An aside refresher for those who
forgot their Hebrew grammar. Basic Hebrew words, as in all Semitic languages,
have a 3-consonant root. To this one adds prefix, suffix, and vowel sounds to
make create an immense vocabulary of verbs and nouns. Sometimes, words may drop
one of the consonants or double a consonant to add to the variety and confusion
of determining what the root is.]
These same two concepts, nekhar, the alien,
and nichrat, cut off, alienated, also appear in the command for
circumcision given to Abraham--look back to Bereshit 17:10-14. Abraham is
commanded to have all the males in his entourage circumcised--including those ben
nekhar asher lo mizarakha hu "the
son of the alien who is not of your descent," and further down--whoever ,
male, in your entourage, who does not have himself circumcised, vnikhreta
hanefesh hahi meameha--et briti hefar--that soul is cut off from your
people, he has annulled my covenant.”
Why do I want to bring your
attention to the interplay between these two words. Why do all this switching
back and forth?
These are peculiar words.
Someone once tried to explain the
Arabic language--a relative of Hebrew. Every word has three meanings . It means what it means, it means just the
opposite, and it means something about camels. The Hebrew version is the same
without the camel ( and some may say that we just substitute a chicken for the
These words that I am throwing out
--nekher-alien and nikhrat-cut off-both mean what they mean and
mean just the opposite. One is rooted in the consonants nun-chaf-resh—the
root for knowing someone, the other chaf-resh-taf, the root for cutting.
The words mean what they mean and mean the opposite and
they are used in this portion in tandem.
The word-nikhrat, is the
passive of karat,cut off. In the sense of cutting off, it is used for
divorce, for example,sefer kritut, a book of cutting off, eliminating,
sending away, or for example , karet, the ultimate punishment in the Bible, being removed from the community and from the
presence of God, a fate worse than death.
It also means its opposite! It means
to bring close, to bind permanently--it is used to make a binding covenant. likhrot brit, to cut a treaty, as- when
nations enter permanent alliance, or when Abraham makes his covenant with God, or when
the children of Israel stand at Sinai. The word used is--koret brit--to
cut, to make, a covenant.
The other word is-nekhar--the
root of alien, to foreign, as in ben nekhar. In the sense of lehitnaker
,a reflexive verb, it is to make oneself a stranger. It means to hide from
recognition, or to ignore.
It also means its very opposite, in
the form hiker, recognize, be familiar with, know someone.
Joseph sees his brothers vayakirem vayitnaker, he
recognizes them, Yakir, and he pretends not to know them, yitnaker. Known
and unknown in the same root word in the same sentence and the same breath!.
In our Torah reading. we read of the
alien who may not partake of the Passover offering, but the one who is the most
alien is not one who is born a stranger, but one who is known to us, one who
has been brought up as a Jew, and has chosen to hide from his people and his
God. Not a just an alien, but an absolute, committed alien, a Jew who has gone
Thus, the ancient translations and
commentaries reinterpret this verse to mean: The alien here is the son of an
Israelite who has left us, who has undergone shmat, abandonment of
Judaism . It is interpreted as such in
the Targum Onkelos, the Mekhilta, and in the father of all commentaries—Rashi. This
is the ben nekhar asher betokh yisrael--the alien who is among the
children of Israel--arel lev-uncircumcised of heart--for he has been
alienated from the Torah and from his father in heaven as much as the
uncircumcised in the flesh, the non-Jew.
We have, then two types which define
the Jewish situation today:
We have the non-Jew, ben nekhar,
the alien, who choses to become a Jew--instead of nekhar-alien, he
becomes a nikar-known to us, known to our tradition. The Jewish people
in ancient times was composed of vast numbers of foreigners, strangers, who
chose to become Jews. Entire communities
and even peoples were known to have converted to Judaism at one time or
other:-the Berbers of North Africa, the nation of Palmyra in what is today
Iraq, the kingdom of the Khazars in the Crimea. Even today, there is a significant
number of people who become Jews by choice.
I have officiated at many
conversions I can testify to many non-Jews who have made Judaism their religion
But I am very disturbed by, as I
mentioned at the start, the Gevalt, the
A few months ago, there was the
release of a major survey of American Jews attitudes and affiliations, down by
the Pew Research Center. The results were very shocking. In short, it portrayed
a movement down the ladder of Jewish dedication and commitment, which went, in
order—children of Orthodox moved to Conservative, children of Conservative
moved to Reform, children of reform moved to non-religious and non-affiliated,
and children of the latter—dropped off the radar.
One in five American Jews now describe themselves religiously as atheist,
agnostic or “nothing in particular.” In this survey, this group of Jews is
called “Jews of no religion” because they have no particular religion although they
have direct Jewish ancestry ( at least one Jewish parent) and consider
themselves Jewish or partly Jewish.”
These same Jews tend to have smaller
families and they tend to marry out of the religion by almost 80%. Two thirds
of these Jews say they are not raising their children in any Jewish way!
Do some simple arithmetic: 66% of
this 20% is 13% of all Jews whose children disappear form the community.Now,
start compounding.Outof 100 Jews today, 87 Jews tomorrow. One generation
further, and we are at 75, then 65, then 57. We add to this, however, a
potentially increased amount of marriage out, as the pool of Jews to choose
from shrinks, especially among generally highly educated Jews, while the number
holds its own or grows somewhat among those Jews who we might say, man the
barricades against all modernity at all costs.
This is a very hairy future for us,
in which the Orthdoox alone, while small, are holding their own, primarily by
high birth rate and successful Jewish education, but what of the rest of us?
My glimmer of hope in all this doom
and gloom is that there is what my father used to call, ”Dos pintele Yid”.”
Yid”, Yiddish for Jew, starts with the Hebrew letter , “pintele”,
Yud.”Pintele” is the smallest unit in Yiddish, a tiny spot, a
fleck, a micron. In Chasidic lore, there is, in every Jew, every Yid, no matter
how lost, a pintele Yid, a tiny fleck of a Jew, that remains, never
disappears, and like a tiny spark, with the right fuel, can burn bright.
We are, as one wit has put it, not
the Eternal People, but the Eternally Dying people. We have been written off in
the textbooks of history many times, 586 BCE, 70 CE, at the beginning of the
European Enlightenment, at the heyday of Marxism, and in 1964, on the cover of Look Magazine, The Vanishing American Jew. “Look” who
I have come across many whose
parents had hidden the fact of their being Jews for a variety of reasons, most
commonly, to spare their child of the torments and persecution of anti-Semites
or because of disdain for all religion. At some point, the Pintele Yid,
the hidden Jew still burns, and that person makes his return—the alienated is
no longer nochri, alien, and is back in the fold of the brit, the
covenant, nikhrat, cut and sealed, of Abraham with God.
Herein , is my faith, despite the
Pew report, that there is a pintele Yid, the tiny Yid, hidden, that
never vanishes. It is up to us to provide the fuel to make the tiny spark turn
into a flame.
Those who are ben nekhar--children
of the alien--who wish to come into our midst-to become part and parcel of the
Jewish people--we welcome gladly. At the same time, let us do all that is in
our abilities, to take the one who has been alienated, nikhrat, from our
people, and reach out, bring in , bring in to a community and a fellowship of
compassion and harmony. Amen.
Shemot-- Where Moses and Jesus Split Ways
This Shabbat, we are introduced to
Moses, the slave child who is raised into the Pharaohs household only to return
to his slave-roots now as a liberator. What figure is greater than Moses, as
the Torah itself says,” There never again rose a prophet like Moses.”
Nevertheless, the Torah is clear at its conclusion: Moses must die and be
buried in an unknown grave no matter what his greatness. Every year, when we
commemorate the Exodus from Egypt at the Passover Seder, poor Moses is left out
in the cold. The Hagadah as we have it tells us that we were delivered” Not by
a messenger, not by an angel” but by G-d himself. Salvation comes only from
G-d, not from any mortal elevated to divinity. Poor Moses gets only two
mentions, in an off the hand manner, in some quotations.
What happens to the concept of Moses
,“ The man Moses” as the Torah points out, is very important to our
understanding of how Jews and Christians differ.
I once asked some
congregants what was the happiest day in the year for them. One young couple
told me “ Dec. 25”. Yes. December 25, Christmas, was the happiest day of the
year for this very Jewish family. They had a small toy store. They were both so
busy in the months preceding Dec. 25 that they couldn't see their children,
except to feed them, get them to school, and to bed. Finally, on the 25th, the
store was closed, and mom and pop were home to play with the kids, and if it
was a good selling season, they had good reason to call it a yon tof. It
is true for many Jews who are in the retail business, that Christmas is truly a yom tov, a
festival, because the earnings from sales are critical for survival.
It is always confusing, when we
realize that Chanukah and Christmas usually come close to each other, except
for this year, when Hanukkah fell just on Thanskgiving. But confusion there is a plenty,
not just about the holidays, but also about what is Judaism, what is
Christianity, what is the same, and what is different.
The confusion is great because we are near,
yet so far apart. I recall two questions posed to me by our members who
attended a lecture given by a Catholic monk, who spoke on the Jewishness of
Jesus. How Jewish could Jesus have been?
The other question posed was whether
the obligation to love one's neighbor as one self had any basis in Judaism.
After all, the Christians claim that Jesus taught it.
This is especially a perplexing
issue, because, we are constantly told that there is, in the United States, a
Judeo-Christian tradition. We Jews used it, when we wanted to emphasize that
Christians should treat us better, and the Christian right-wing uses it, when
they want to make sure that right-wing Jews don't feel left out when they
attack the secular left.
This term "Judeo-Christian
tradition" implies that Judaism and Christianity are two variations of
same religion. But we are not the same tradition. If there is a common
tradition, it is a Judeo-Christian-Moslem tradition.
The truth is that we are alike, yet
we are very different. To add to the confusion, American civilization, while
built on European Christianity, is very much shaped by the Jewish roots of
There is no question, and indeed, no
Christian will dispute it today--Jesus was born a Jew and died a Jew. If you
follow the debates among Christian academic scholars today, you realize that
there is great doubt as to the authenticity of about most of what is written in
the Christian scriptures about the life of Jesus.
There is, however, a general
consensus that emerges out of scholarship that Christian ministers study in
It is, in short, that Jesus was
born, son of Joseph, by natural conception, to Mary, probably in Nazereth, not
Bethlehem, probably in spring-time, certainly not on Dec. 25. He probably
studied a little bit but not much because he is in the Galilee which had no
academies, and he probably spent some time in the wilderness with a group like
the Essenes of the Dead Sea scrolls. He probably was influenced by this group
because some of his teachings reflect their language.
He probably was a popular spiritual
figure, the type of a Hasid ,a
man of piety, to whom people attributed miracles, a type that is found in Jewish
traditions of the period. He probably preached a very nationalistic
anti-gentile morality; much of his rhetoric reflects the conflict between the
Jews of the Galilee and the Jews of Judea ( Later on, this would be
miss-understood as a conflict between Jesus and Jews.)
He probably saw himself as a
predecessor of the Messiah, perhaps a type like Elijah, perhaps he may have
thought of himself as the Messiah, but if he used the word, Son of God, it was
never in the sense of literally born to God, as distinct from a human father,
but in the sense of a direct personal relationship, a concept common in Jewish
writings of the period. More commonly, he used the phrase “ Son of Man’, which
was sued in some circles to indicate a quasi- Messianic figure.
He never preached against observing
the commandments, and he was against the Sadducees, the religious movement
represented by the Kohanim, the priests. He was in competition with the
Pharisees, the religious teachers who founded Judaism as we know it. While
Pharisee, in modern English, has come to mean a hypocrite, in all likelihood,
he was close to them, since he agreed on almost every point. He insisted that
his followers had to be more devout, not less devout, more observant, not less,
than the Pharisees.
None of the preaching of Jesus that
can be identified as his original statements in the first three gospels were directed against the Torah or against
observance of the commandments. He argued against the Sadducees--so did the
Rabbis of his day. He argued against the Temple priests--so did the Rabbis of
his day. He argued against the Pharisees-- so did the Rabbis, who were
themselves Pharisees, who preached against those who exaggerated or made a show of their
The argument against hypocritical Pharisees, attributed to Jesus, is a Rabbinic
argument,” Osim Maasey Zimri—They act like Zimri, a renegade, and demand
the reward of Pinhas, the religious hero.
He probably got in trouble with the
Temple authorities because he seemed like a rabble rouser, and was probably put
to death, by Pontius Pilate, who used the quislings whom the Roman authorities
had put in charge of the Temple as a way to cover his liability. Probably, the same Temple authorities tried to
coach him to speak in a way that would get him off the hook and not be
He probably died, was temporarily
buried in a Jewish tomb, and the body removed by the owner when he needed it
for a death in the family. Hence, the empty tomb.
That is Jesus the Jew. I say “
probably”, because, as one of my professors used to say about historical
speculation” Wuz U der , Chali?”
For a Christian, it is a matter of
faith. For a Jew, it is a matter of historic interest and speculation.
What about the question which was
posed to me that " Love thy Neighbor as Thyself" is distinctly
Christian? Christians often assume when they want to press their case against Judaism
that it is Jesus who made this the core principal of religious ethics. But goes
against Christian scriptures.
In the very Christian scriptures,
Jesus has a discussion with Pharisaic scholars and they agree on it completely:
The two central pillars of the Torah are--Shma Yisrael and Vehavat
lereekha—Love the one G-d and Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus the
Jew, like any Jew of his day, recognized that G-d is One and only One to whom
we owe our religious love and allegiance and in it follows as a corollary that
we have to love our neighbors. Jesus simply
quotes from the Torah, ”Love your neighbor”. This is used frequently in
Jewish sources of the period.
What about the Golden Rule? Jesus says “:Do onto others what you would
have done unto you”. It is but a variation of the popular slogan stated by
Hillel decades before. Frankly, it is found around the world in one or another
variation. The classic Jewish difference, as stated by Hillel, is that we can’t
stand moral abstracts. They are useless. So Hillel continues,” The rest is
commentary—go and study”. Without “ Go and Study”, the Golden Rule is just an
What about turning the cheek? It is a quotation from Lamentations,”
Eicha” , which we read on Tisha B’Av. What about the Sermon on the Mount?
Quotations from the book of Psalms. What about the “Lord’s Prayer”? A Combination of popular religious phrases: “
Our father” is avinu shebashamayim:,” Hallowed be thy Name” is yitgadal
veyitkadash and so forth.
If Jesus lived and died as a Jew,
what then is Christianity? That is a different religion. It is a religion that
arose in the groups of followers, many who had come from various mystic and
zealous cults within the Jews of Israel, who gathered after his death,
followers desperately looking for the Messiah, who had not come. This group
drew into it Jews who had come from outside the land of Israel, Jews who
brought with them a mix of ideas from Greek mysticism philosophy, many of these
ideas that had become popular among Jews in general. Just as today, the most
militant of Israelis are those from America, so, in the land of Israel, at that
time, the most passionate, looking for something new, were those from the Hellenistic
world. Many of the themes that were prevalent in these groups for the century
or more preceding Jesus would be reflected in the religion about to be born.
The foremost among these was a Jew
from Tarsus, in what is now Turkey, Saul, also known by his Greek name of Paul.
He started as a Pharisee, an enemy of the followers of Jesus, so he claimed,
but he had a dramatic vision and then turned the tables on the early followers
of Jesus. He and other Jews from the Greek diaspora created a new religion whether
they realized it or not.
No longer was the law of the Torah
binding--only general ethics.
No longer did one's actions count
for getting into Heaven--only a blind faith in the salvation effected by the
death of Jesus.
No longer would life in this world
be redeemed, but all would be done aright in a life of the spirit, not the
flesh, after death.
No longer was God's hand to be seen
in deliverance of the nation from oppression, but in the life of the soul after
No longer was the Messiah a political
figure, but the literal son of God.
No longer was God one indivisible,
of no physical attributes, but God was in the flesh, like a human being, three
entities in one.
From this moment on, the new
religion, Christianity, was a new religion. When the Jews rebelled against Rome
in the year 70, the early Christian did all that they could to put as miles and
miles between themselves and the rebellious Jews.
Within a century after the death of
Jesus, Christian thinkers discussed the possibility of cutting off any
connection by disavowing the quote “old testament” of the Jews.
Now, you can see why the editors of
the Haggadah, who put the core text together for us in the centuries following
the split with Christianity, turned a cold-shoulder on poor Moses—not to demean
him, but to clarify the key difference between the Jewish concept of G-d as the
direct source of Salvation as opposed to the Salvation by faith in the death
and resurrection of Jesus.
As for the idea of Messiah, which
was translated in the its Greek equivalent,” Christos”, one anointed to high
position. For the Jew, the Messiah is a political-historical figure of the
future, indicating a world brought to universal justice and peace. For the
Christian, the Messiah is G-d made manifest in the past and indicating
salvation of the human soul and forgiveness of sin in the next life. That is a
faith issue which does not matter to us as Jews but is the critical difference
So we are left with what we share
and where we differ.
The new Pope Francis is doing
remarkable work and he is himself friendly towards Jews . However, we don't need the Pope's stamp of approval, nihil
obstat, and the Pope doesn’t need our kosher stamp, a hechsher . The same
goes for our relations with any other religious leader, Christian, Moslem,
Jain, Shinto, Hindu and so on.
We don’t need agreement on core
What we do need is willingness to
respect where we differ, and to work hand in hand, where we agree, to forge a
redeemed world. We look to the day, in the words of the prophet Micah, when all
nations shall go up to the mountain of the lord—each shall go up in the name of their Lord, said
the prophet, each nation with its own unique understanding and faith, be it in
the name of Jesus or Mohammed or Buddha, but we shall call upon the name of
the Lord, our God. We’ll do it our way. Amen.
We have made it through the
last of the chapters of the first Book of the Torah, Bereshit, Genesis. We have
gone from creation to the first Hebrew to the quarrel between the brothers that
leads to the elevation of Joseph as second only to Pharaoh in Egypt. We know,
of course, that the stage is now set for the drama that follows, from Slavery
The book ends with the death
of Joseph and his prediction to brothers that they will once again eventually
be returned to the land of Israel. So much of the final chapters of Bereshit
deal with Joseph, more so than even Abraham. What are we to make of the measure
of this man?
The story of Joseph has
enthralled the human imagination since antiquity. Mohamed is said to have
called it the most beautiful of stories and Voltaire, who generally hated all
things religious, called it the most valuable piece of literature to be
preserved from antiquity.
The story makes for high literature as well, A
great author such as Thomas Mann could create a trilogy on the account
Pop Culture has given us its
own version of Joseph—You all know the Andrew Lloyd Weber Musical, “ Joseph and
the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” with an Elvis Presley double as Pharaoh.of
Joseph and his brothers.
There is one key element to
Joseph that secures his reputation—his sense of loyalty and because of that,
his ability to resist temptation by the boss’s wife.
The theme of resistance to
seduction that is the turning point in
Josephs fortune pops up in an ancient Egyptian tale of Two Brothers written
probably about the time of our Joseph. There, it is the wife of the older brother
who makes her pass at the younger brother, which tells us that even in ancient
pagan Egypt there were rules against adultery . It also appears in the movie
that made Dustin Hoffman famous, “ The Graduate”. In the modern version, of
course, the hero succumbs quite easily to seduction by the neighbor’s wife.
That is how far we have gone beyond the Egyptian
Long before Rock Operas and
great novels, however, the Sages of ancient Israel knew the character of Joseph
very well and what they did to his character and to his personality beats out
anything the Creative Artist could imagine.
What we often call Jewish
legends are details taken from the Midrash, which are bits and pieces of
teachings and sermons given by the Sages many centuries ago as they sought to
highlight or downplay elements in the Torah in order to make a point.
Thus, we must first
sympathize with Mrs. Potiphar. Look what she had to deal with. Our Sages said
that Joseph was as beautiful as a violet, just like his mother Rachel. They
imagined a scene in which Mrs. Potiphar invites her friends over. She serves
them oranges and while they are peeling their oranges with their knives, in
walks Joseph. As they look, they are all so stunned that they begin to peel
themselves instead. She tells her guests: Do you realize that I have to withstand
this every moment of the day!
Now, what of Joseph’s
character? On the one hand, there were Sages who said that he was of exemplary character
and kept all the laws of the Torah in Egypt, even though they had not yet been
given. If he made the mistake of being at home on the fatal day of his downfall,
it was out of virtue—it was vacation day, when everyone else went to the
Theater for bawdy and raunchy humor. Joseph was above all that nonsense. As for
temptation, they said, he was constantly being tested by the beautiful maidens
of Egypt who tried to bribe him for his attentions. Potiphar’s wife, they said,
tried every trick in the book, not only bribery, but threats to jail him,
cripple him, and even send agents back to his homeland to murder his father.
None of that budged him. He was truly Yosef
HaZadik, Joseph the Righteous,
Pillar of the World.
On the other hand – you we
always have another hand. Our Sages taught that the greater the person,
the greater yet is the power of the yetzer hara, the passions, the
desires, the drives.
For example, they pointed out that ,
Joseph, is 17 is described as “ Naar”, still a boy. In other words, they said,
he acted like a dandy, a playboy- put on eyeliner, curled his hair, walked
gingerly on his toes. The text told us that he brought “ reports of wrong doings “ about his brothers
to his father. A snitch! The Sages elaborated—He out and out lied- He snitched-
He told his father-“Your sons eat meat while the animal is still alive, chase
after the local girls, and the senior brothers abuse their half-brothers.” You can sense how the interpreters are
starting to turn the screws on Joseph.
What happened when he found
his job with boss Potiphar. Now, all his youthful; pride has returned. He is
now Yafeh Toar Vyafeh Mareh
–Beautiful of form and fair to look upon. He returned to his old self, dandied
himself again, started eating and merry-making. In short, they accused him of
forgetting his father left behind in a distant land. Never once did he attempt
to send a message back home to reassure his father that he was safe! He was
instead imbued with his own sense of success and self-righteousness.
That is why, these Sages
said, G-d sent him what they called, “a female bear” to attack him.
They then ask if Joseph was
truly as innocent as it seemed on that fateful day.
Why, on this day, of all
days, when no one else was around , why did he decide he needed to work? Did he not realize that “ none of the men were
at home.” Well then, if he went to do malachto , “his work”, it was “ his” work, not his
bosses that he was going to do. What could “his” work have meant if not to be
available for the seduction. Then, when he finally refuses her demands, he
“leaves his clothes in her hands”. She didn’t have to tear it off—it came off
only too easily.
What was it then, that
finally made Joseph step back from the brink. What finally made Joseph
different from famous Senators or Generals and other great men in the news of
late who could not hold themselves back?
The Sages went on—he had
“outside intervention”. One tale suggested that he saw his father’s image, yet
another that he saw his mother’s image, and finally that alone served to remind
him who he was and what was expected of him.
Yet another midrash has it that finally G-d himself had to intervene ,
appear to Joseph and threaten that if he caved in, G-d would destroy the whole
world! Only that nuclear threat held Joseph back from the brink.
Now, we must ask, as we step
back from what clearly seems to be smear campaign: Why did the Sages engage in this
to seemingly demean one of the most popular figures in the Bible, one who seems
so admirable and noble? Why the muckraking, why the character smear?
Interestingly, we find such
criticisms of all of the great figures of the Bible. Who is as great as Moses,
for example? Yet there were Rabbis who said that he deserved his death at the
end because, at the start of his career, he killed the Egyptian taskmaster
without a fair trial.
Of King David, the Sages said
Saul was the better man.
Abraham was noble, yes, but
he delivered captives prisoners to his allies, instead of freeing them.
Elijah was cold-hearted,
because he denounced his people and had no faith in them.
None of the greats escaped
unscathed from the sharp critical minds of the Jewish commentators. Why would
they have done so ? To what benefit from destroying heroes?
It all makes sense if we remember that we are of an iconoclastic
faith- we shatter idols, even our own. We believe that no one is perfect. We
are iconoclasts—we must shatter idols. Idols are not just stone monuments. Any
entity or any person can become an idol to others. Even the finest person runs
the risk of becoming an idol to others.
For this reason,
our tradition treats our heroes -more roughly and with less respect
that any other religion.
Classical Judaism has no room
for cults of personality—we can’t let our heroes become small gods. Therefore,
Moses is buried in an unknown grave so that he can never be worshipped . Yosef
Hazadik, Joseph the Righteous, is knocked down a peg. No human being can be
considered immaculate, born immaculate, and certainly never be the incarnation
of G-d. Even the word Zadik which
we used to distinguish righteous people, does not infer a papal infallibility.
On principal, we don’t
believe in human perfection but we can speak of perfectibility. We can use the
term zadik, Righteous, to
indicate one who has strived to lead a righteous life and overcame great personal
stumbling blocks to achieve it. In so doing, we are saying that all of us are
capable of choosing either the right path or the wrong path. The great ones
were not born greater than us. We can not take the excuse that we have
obstacles in our lives. No. Look what obstacles Joseph had to overcome—his ego,
his vanity, the wiles of a temptress. He had
He was not blind to it all.
He overcame it all. That is the lesson for us.
We may not have Joseph’s good
looks, nor his clever wit and managerial skills. We may not have to deal with a
But we do have our own
strengths and our own gifts and we are given free will to use them for good and
to deal with our weaknesses. If Joseph could do it, and become a Zadik, then we
can do it too, in our own way.