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Where Herzl Got it Wrong

An apology to my elementary school Rebbis

Credit where it’s due.

The epiphany of Theodor Herzl’s Zionist awakening inspired a movement and gave it direction.  Rav Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook referred to him in his Lamentation on Herzl’s death in 1904 as Messiah ben Joseph, a Messiah of the physical nation, a necessary precursor to the spiritual Messiah ben Judah, for which Herzl’s secularism disqualified him. But tying Herzl to the Messianic process in any role was not less—nor meant to be less—than a religious approbation, coming as it did from the newly appointed Chief Rabbi of Jaffa.

Herzl’s vision of The Jewish State was founded on a number of historical/philosophical assumptions: the need for a homeland, the right to a homeland.  It was also his view that antisemitism was based on the homelessness of the Jew.  The Jew belonged nowhere. Wherever he appeared in any country, he was an outsider, an alien. His intentions would always be suspect. Why is he here?  What is he after? But give the Jew his own homeland, said Herzl, and he is a visiting tourist or, even as a resident, he is part of a known quantity: a Jew who is rooted in Israel. Like an Irish American in Boston or a Shah and his wives shopping at Selfridges in London: a person who has a home, not to be necessarily feared or mistrusted.

But in this Herzl was wrong.  We have been in an authentic, established country for almost seventy-five years now, with a flag and a national anthem and four wins in the Eurovision Song Contest, and if the last few years has shown us anything, apparently antisemitism is doing very nicely, thank you.  It doesn’t matter whether we have a country or not.  People who have been polite enough to shut up about Jews since the Holocaust (“That was a little much, wasn’t it?”) seem to have been waiting under the rocks and in their holes until their time came around again.

And it has risen up once more with all its vile and venom intact, like the return of a child’s nightmare that we had hoped she had outgrown.  “Jews will not replace us!” Swastikas. Fires. Vandalized synagogues. Shootings. Beatings. Is “pogroms” too European a word?

So if it ends up that not having a homeland is not the cause of antisemitism after all, then what is? I don’t know.  In a recent published by the Washington Post[i] , Elie Wiesel is quoted as referring to antisemitism as an “irrational disease” which is, I suppose, his way of saying that he doesn’t know either.

I have sometimes wondered if it might not be related to Jews being too much like the smart-ass kid in the class: the one whose homework is always done on time, who gets A’s on tests and papers, who invariably knows the answers when the teacher asks him and can’t even be bothered to raise his hand to volunteer.  Everybody pretty much hates that kid.

And here are the Jews. We get “the law” on Sinai. It is a nitpicky, all-encompassing list of grand ethics and ridiculous minutiae, noble gestures and seemingly-arbitrary observances:  don’t interweave wool and linen; wear a leather box on your head; don’t cook a goat in its mother’s milk.

And we do it all—without asking anyone’s permission or offering explanation, generation after generation—although it separates us from everyone else in the world, makes us different, ridiculous, self-righteous.  And we won’t stop or moderate.  Christianity offers us a God of Love and an escape from ritual trivialities, and we are not interested. Islam offers us military conquest and an erotic paradise, and we are not interested. 

And apparently, this unrelenting loyalty does us no particular good. We are still despised, and we just keep going on, as if we think we know better, as if we are not even aware of what everyone else thinks.  The smart-ass kid in the class who doesn’t even care that they all hate him.

And maybe that’s not it either. Maybe I’m overthinking it. What do I know?

When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn in the 50s, our teachers, our Rebbis, were virtually all Eastern European immigrants, most of them with variations on thick Yiddish accents and very few of them with any training or aptitude for teaching.  Training Jewish Studies teachers to teach wouldn’t become an idea for another thirty or forty years.

But they had all studied in the best yeshivot in Eastern Europe and they knew to learn, as we say.  And because they had seen things we hadn’t seen, in the midst of teaching us the mishnayot on lost objects or the 39 activities forbidden on Shabbat, all of them would sooner or later slip in the midrash: “Rav Shimon ben Yochai says: It is well known that Esau hates Jacob.”

But we were ten or eleven years old and spoke English without an accent and had all been to Ebbets Field; so we all knew what was what.

“Oh c’mon, Reb,” we would say.  There were like two million Jews in New York, and we could walk practically wherever we wanted with kippot on our heads.  Anyone who wanted to run for office in New York would have to put on one of those silly black silk skullcaps and go meet with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The biggest comedians in America were all Jewish and would throw Yiddish phrases in all the time. Hell, half of Sid Caesar’s German babbling was the Yiddish I heard in shul every Shabbat morning after Kiddush. And was there anyone in the 48 states who didn’t know what chutzpah was?

We learned all about what it was to be American in Social Studies classes: all men are created equal, the land of the free, the home of the brave.  Of course, it was Brooklyn in the 50s, and there wasn’t one of us who had a black friend.  But the principle was the thing.  And we knew—from our parents no less than our teachers—that we were “the tired, the poor, the hungry, yearning to breathe free,” and there weren’t any us who didn’t pledge allegiance to the flag every morning and mean it.  The second major festival after the Pesach seder was Thanksgiving.  Really.  And every year, we celebrated our pilgrim ancestors eating turkey and corn with the Indians.

We were living in a Golden Era. And it really was.  It was the best place in the diaspora that Jews had ever known. We were ten years old and knew with the certainty that only a ten-year-old could have that this was the reality of the world and always would be.

Well, what can I say?

The Rebbis of my elementary school days are no doubt long gone by now, but I owe them an apology, and I wish I could tell them that.  They knew, I am sure, that we would figure it out sooner or later.  They always come back, those guys waiting under the rocks.  The economy, the politics, the weather: something.  Sooner or later they figure out that it is time to crawl on out and give it another try.

It is tempting—I will admit it—to draw parallels to other times and places: the German election of 1933, the Nuremberg Laws in ’35, Kristallnacht in ’38.  Tempting, but oversimple and unfair.  Washington in 2021 is not Berlin in 1938. Neither, for that matter, is Berlin in 2021. Or London, or Paris, or Vienna.

History does not repeat itself.  There are too many variables.  No two situations are really comparable and certainly not on the level of a one-to-one analogy.  Or as someone once put it, “Go out today and shoot Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and see who goes to war.”  So it is not, in the end, particularly useful to look at this incident or that and say, “Here comes Kristallnacht again,” or “Who do you think set the fire in the Reichstag this time?”  Too many variables. We have to stretch too far to try to make the equivalencies fit.

I took a course a long time ago with a Professor of Demographic History who admitted to me that the actions of one demographic group in a given time and place couldn’t really predict the actions of another group in another time and place.  “But,” he said, “there are things we can learn about trends.”

And that struck me as a decidedly reasonable and rational way to view all of these swirling, chaotic moments in history.  History doesn’t repeat itself, but there are things we can learn about trends.

So. Trends.  For reasons that neither Elie Wiesel nor I quite understand, many people don’t like Jews very much.  This anti-Jew feeling may be dormant among the population for significant periods of time, but during times of stress—strong nationalist movements in the host countries seem to be a common stressor—this view of the Jew as the disloyal outsider, the fifth columnist, often surfaces, leading to anti-Jewish rhetoric and then to violent activities, sometimes even to formal government anti-Jewish legislation.

How widespread? How violent? For how long? I don’t know. Trends, not analogies.  It could burn itself out.  It might carry on a little longer in this country or that. On the other hand, it could grow and expand, deepen and explode. 

So what are we supposed to do?     

You could have asked German Jews in 1935 and gotten a bucketload of different answers.  You can ask the same question now and get no fewer.

The important thing, I think, is to acknowledge that it is a difficult time and to consider your options.  Some options are obvious.

You could leave.  Mr. Herzl might have gotten the antisemitism pathology wrong, but he got a lot of other things right, and there is at last a country of Israel.  It is yours.  If you are a Jew, you are entitled by the Law of Return of 1950 to claim citizenship as a right.  As no Jew before 1948 could have done, you can fly in, go to the desk at the airport and say: I am a Jew. I want to stay here.

You could become active in some way, especially because you are not alone.  If there is an attempt in our time to reclaim America for “The Pure Americans,” this time Jews are not the only ones who are not pure enough.  There is active hate speech and incidents of violence against American citizens of colour, Asian-Americans, Latino-Americans, the LGBT community. This amalgam of the not pure enough already forms close to a majority of those who live in this country. It is a political conglomerate that has been defined for us by those Americans who desperately wish all of us not to be here.  It is a political movement already forming which needs supporters:  organizers, voices, contributors, patriots to stand together and claim what is due to all Americans by constitutional law and moral principle.  There are no doubt many ways, large and small, to become involved.

What I don’t think you should do is nothing: sit in the corner and wait for it all to quietly go away.  It might, of course; it often does sooner or later.  We clean up the glass and collect money to help those who need some assistance, listen to some speeches of comfort and resolve, and move on.   But even if it does all calm down in a month or a year or two—how long has it been so far?—you might feel a little sheepish explaining to children or grandchildren why it was that you decided to stay on the side and wait for it to pass.  Or to your friends who didn’t stand on the side and perhaps had to pay a price for trying to make a difficult time better.

No simple answers, I know.  Complex questions don’t generally have simple answers, no matter how it works out in Hallmark movies…and all in under two hours with time for commercials.  You live in a complicated world, and I know you didn’t ask for it to be this way.  But you don’t always get the choice, do you? 

And of course, if it doesn’t die down quickly, it becomes all that much more alarming.

[i] “Why Do People Hate Jews and Judaism” by Rabbi Benjamin Bleich,,

Copyright 2021 G.M. Levine

Originally published Times of Israel Digital Blogs June 16, 2021

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HaKol B’Seder

Why is allowing 100,000 people to go down a narrow staircase different from an 8-year-old fixing his kite with chewing gum?

About thirty years ago, I heard a story about an expert Israeli tech team that was hired by the American Army to do maintenance on a complex and perhaps secret computerized installation.  The army sat down with the team and gave them the Maintenance Manual.  It was, of course, complicated and intricate, but it boiled down to:

  • Every week do A, B, C, D, E, and F in order.
  • Every two weeks do G, H, I and J.
  • Once a month: K, L, M, N and O.

After a year, the Israeli team had the best record of maintenance of any tech team that had ever served the installation, and the army fired them. The Israelis simply wouldn’t do what they were instructed to do.

“We didn’t do A,” the head of Israeli team explained.  “A was stupid.  We did D before B because Yossi did those, and B was closer to his barrack than D.  C, we did every other week; it didn’t need every week.  We never found out what G and M were, but it seemed to be okay without them. As for N, the industrial adhesive we were supposed to use smelled bad, so we just used crazy glue.  K we liked.”

The story was told in praise of what is called “iltur” of “l’alter,” to improvise.  It is a trait of which Israelis are proud and to which they point as one of the keys to how the little country survived militarily in the face of a region of enemies dedicated to its extermination.  There is a story that after the long, difficult military capture of Safed in 1948, the Israeli army moved north toward the Lebanon-Syrian border.  Being low on munitions and with their forces exhausted, the Israelis spent some time in a “whisper” campaign to several local Muhtars that major reinforcements armed with heavy artillery were on their way north to take the border towns.  The whispers spread, the towns basically emptied themselves, and the towns were taken quickly.  Iltur.  This ability to improvise—to use whatever is available in creative ways—has sometimes been presented as one of the national characteristics not only of the modern State but of the Jewish people throughout the millennia of dispersal and persecution.

In the modern state, though, this quality is somehow tied together with the definition of the strength of the “new Jew,” the transformation of the Jew into the Israeli, the brave, unstoppable fighting machine.   That there is validity in the birth of this symbol is certain.  We are, all of us, so proud and so grateful to the women and men who bought us our Homeland with their strength and dedication and their blood.

To the generations that settled the land and built the new state, this Legend of the Israeli Warriors was more than a proud new symbol; it was a refutation of thousands of years of Jewish humiliation, the antithesis of the cartoon of the hypocritical, sycophantic Jewish moneylender of Medieval Europe: the coward, the cheat, the miser, selling out even God for a few pieces of silver.

So shameful was this traditional anti-Semitic trope to the New Israeli that the very existence of the Jewish people before the Modern State of Israel was an embarrassment.  While it was useful as a comparison, a demonstration of what we were no longer and would never be again, the very fact that such a humiliating portrait even existed, however false and bigoted its elements might have been, became abhorrent. It became almost a disgrace to even admit that there had ever been pre-Warrior Jewish people.

As a result, for more than twenty years, the Holocaust was not an acceptable topic in Israel. It was not taught in schools.  It was not broadly researched or discussed.  The “old” Jews had not been warrior enough.  Six million were not martyrs; they were simply not good enough, not strong enough to resist. “They could have drowned the Nazis in their spit” went one critical phrase.  The criticism was nonsense.  There was resistance.  There was incredible bravery.  Jewish spit wasn’t much of a match for German machine guns, tanks, bombs.  The criticism was born of shame, not facts, and underlying it was a fear and insecurity that could not be spoken aloud.  What if we are not as invincible as we say we are?  What if Masada could fall again?  What if we don’t prove to be good enough?

I accompanied one of the early March of the Living student groups in 1990.  We flew from Poland to Ben Gurion, and many kissed the ground when we got off the airplane.  From there, they loaded us onto the buses and took us to . . . where?  The Kotel? Knesset?  No, Yad Vashem, to the Rapoport Memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto.  There are two parts to the memorial:  “The Last March” depicting the broken, defeated victims of the ghetto being led off to the death camps, and “The Uprising” showing the proud, strong women and men who stood up to fight heroically even a battle that could not be won.

The guide led our group first to “The Last March” and said to the students, “In Poland, we saw these Jews who were led to the slaughter and were sent off to die.” And then, he took us to “The Uprising.”  “And now, in Israel,” he said, “we will see the Jews who will never be defeated, who will never be beaten, the Jews who will fight and who will win!”

The early image of “The New Jews of Israel” was reasonable and even important in the early years of the State.  A self-image stressing our bravery, our self-confidence, our intelligence and initiative was an important role model to a people quite literally fighting for its survival, especially in light of the staggering annihilation of two-thirds of the Jews of Europe.  There had to be an icon to model to our children of confident invincibility in those most vulnerable years of our founding.

All of the traits that we invested in that crucial icon might have been best epitomized in the Israeli phrase: “HaKol B’Seder,” literally “Everything is fine,” but more correctly translated as: “We’ve got this.”   Whatever it is, we are ready for it.  And if we are not exactly ready, we will figure it out….or make something up….or improvise.  But we won’t fail because we don’t fail.  Whatever it is, we’ve got this.

Imagine this: You are eight years old, flying your kite in the park on a windy day, and one of the long wooden sticks (they are called “spars”) over which the kite fabric stretches suddenly breaks, flinging the kite to the ground.  You are very upset, but you are smart and innovative and brave and resourceful.  “I’ve got this,” you say.  You try a little scotch tape which doesn’t really hold well; then a whole mass of duct tape which actually makes the kite so heavy you can’t get it into the air.  Finally, you try a few pieces of freshly-chewed Bazooka, throw a little where the stick is broken to held the two parts together and stretch the rest of a gum out into a long sticky strand and wrap it around and around the stick to strengthen things. Then you give the gum two or three minutes to dry and the kite goes back up and you’re in business.

Your Mom and Dad are so proud of you, and you all laugh and watch the kite weave up and down on the air currents for about twenty minutes until it all comes apart again. But by then it’s time to go home for supper.

But you are not eight years old, and it is not a kid’s kite.  We are a 73-year old country, and it is no longer enough to be self-confident and creative and confident that you will figure things out as you go. “We’ve got this,” isn’t good enough anymore.

Thirty years ago, doctors and scientists were still trying to convince the Israeli army that soldiers could not be “trained” to do without sleep, any more than they could be “trained” to do without water or oxygen.  A physical body cannot survive without rest, but it took more than forty years for Tzahal to admit that soldiers had to be given time to rest.  We were supposed to be better than that.

How many children and others are injured each year on the trails throughout the country that run along the edges of heights and rock faces?  How can it be more than 70 years since the State was established and we have not yet put up railings and fences to protect children?  We’re got this.  You want to raise tough Israelis; you have to start by training children to face danger.  Like training our soldiers not to sleep.

We couldn’t be bothered to clean up the Yarkon and check the reliability of the temporary bridge over the river for the 1997 Maccabiah Games. We’ve got it. Everything is fine. And then the bridge collapsed, killing one Australian athlete and wounding more than sixty, and three more athletes died from infections they got from contact with the Yarkon, one of the most polluted rivers on the continent.  We didn’t have it.  We needed to have prepared and inspected and not simply rely on whatever chewing gum we had used to improvise the bridge.

And now Meron.

On April 11th, Aryeh Deri, Minister of Internal Affairs, announced that there were no problems with a mass of celebrants coming to visit Meron on Lag BaOmer.  We’ve got this.  After the world fell apart three weeks later, however, Rabbi Deri explained that he had been talking about concerns regarding a mass Covid spread event.  That was certainly not going to be a problem, he had insisted, because of how much open space there would be.

As for the landslide of human beings crushing people to death, that was, he said, “an act of heaven,” but it seemed to him now that it had happened, that it would be a good idea to examine and reconsider the infrastructure in place for the annual gathering before next year’s onslaught.

Thanks, Mr. Minister.  But we didn’t have it.  We didn’t have protection from the Covid spread any more than we did for the avalanche and stampede.  Look at the picture of something like 100,000 people jammed into Meron.  There was no two-meter or one-meter of six-inch gap between people.  No one with the sense God gave a duck could ever have expected that there would be.  We know what the mass gatherings are.  We have seen it at the weddings and the funerals that have been reported all year long.  But that’s the cost of religious freedom, isn’t it?  We’ve got it.  It always works out.  But we have been told for the last ten years that Meron was a tragedy waiting to happen.  No, no, it always works out.  HaKol B’seder.

The first job, ladies and gentlemen of the Government of Israel, is NOT to get your party re-elected.  It is to safeguard the lives and the safety of your citizens.  The Government of Israel was criminally responsible for allowing an overtly, unambiguously deadly gathering to take place when it was clear that there could be no possible way of constructing a safe, supervised system to guard human lives.

Every third grade yeshiva student learns that “Saving life takes precedence over violating Shabbat.”  Is there any more basic principal in our understanding of the structure of God’s law?  And if a life takes precedence over the sanctity of Shabbat, is dancing in front of the kever of Rav Shimon bar Yochai so important that tens and tens of thousands of people will be encouraged by their Rabbis, their Yeshivot, the tradition of the neighborhood to risk their own lives and, God have Mercy, the lives of their children on such a madness?

Please let me be wrong. Please.  But if in two weeks,  a wedding of an appropriately important Chassidic family is called or the funeral of a venerated Rabbi takes place, will we not see the same leadership that sent the masses to attend Meron call again for the masses to perform the mitzvot of “bringing joy to the groom and bride” or “accompanying the departed”?  And don’t worry about Covid.  And don’t worry about crowding?  And certainly don’t worry about the law and the lives and safety of others.

We’re got this.  Ha’Kol B’seder.

Copyright G.M. Levine 2021

Originally published Times of Israel Digital Blogs June 1, 2021

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WOMEN’S MODESTY IN OUR TIMES: some halachic considerations

This goes back a few years, and I will admit that even then I was a little behind the times.

I was meandering with a friend through the overcrowded streets of Me’ah She’arim at the kind of leisurely pace that most of us have romanticized in our nostalgia for the days when pandemics were part of the same cinematic dangers as vampires and zombies.  What awaited us just on the other side of Strauss was Brooklyn Bakery, the permanent monument to the best of the bake shops that those of us who grew up in Brooklyn carry always in a treasured place, complete with authentic bakery ladies and oversized black and white cookies.

As we walked along, drinking in the aura and avoiding the cars and baby carriages competing for space on the streets, I was suddenly brought up short by the sight of several Muslim women, covered overgenerously in black burkas or chadors, moving among the black-jacket-white-shirted hareidim, the little boys only a foot longer than their peyot and the floral-patterned little girls crowded in the streets.

I must have paused and stared; my friend turned to me and said, “What?”

I may have chuckled self-consciously.

“Is glatt kosher meat better than halal meat?”  I said, or something to that effect.

“Idiot,” my friend said. “They’re Jewish.”

And that was my introduction to the new trend in modest Jewish dress.

By now, even I know what this is all about, so that those of you who are more aware than I of the panorama of the world in which we live have known about this for years now.  Whole communities of Haredi Jewish women are appearing in public dressed in what is pretty much indistinguishable from the garb of their cousins, the daughters of Yitzchak’s older brother, Yishmael.  There are hareidi communities in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Bnai Brak and, it is to be assumed, other cities and settlements across Israel where Jewish women seeking to adhere to the spirit of true modesty have donned broad, black garments when seen in public so as to be seen as little as possible in public.

This is being done by Muslim and Jewish women for the same purpose: modesty, as taught by the children of Avraham to their descendants, found in the books of the Bible and Qur’an, and lauded and expanded in the books of the Talmud and Hadith and in countless later books of commentary and ethics in both religions.

I have little to say about the traditions of modesty in Islam, other than to suggest that our common heritage is reflected in this and in many other similarities in our traditions.  But about modesty in Judaism, I can perhaps say a little more.

I will admit that when I first became aware of this new trend, my reaction was somewhat defensive.  My wife and her generation of “modern orthodox” women—and, for that matter, my mother and her generation—could never be thought of as being in any way immodest in their dress, but they did not see it as necessary to eschew any colour that could be distinguished from black in daylight hours or to suggest that the physical shape which God had bestowed on them was more or less a pyramid with a ball of fabric on top.  They saw it possible, and even desirable, to appreciate styles and colours and, within the framework of Jewish law and custom, to be involved—dare I say enjoy—something of the brightness and variety of the world in which they lived.

I suppose there was a sort of emotional connection in my mind between Jewish women living in a brighter world and the well-known Talmudic recollection of the joyous days of Yom Kippur and Tu B’Av.

Said Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel:  There were no greater festivals for Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur. On these days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in white garments (borrowed, so as not to embarrass those who did not have . . .) and dance in the vineyards. And what would they say? “Young man, raise your eyes and see which you select for yourself. Do not look for beauty, but look rather for (good) family, (for) Favor is false and beauty is vain; but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised. Proverbs 31:30)” (Masechet Ta’anit)

Yet, one must be fair and note that according to many sources, this happy custom was only short-lived, lasting only during the period of the Temple, perhaps, others suggest, because the nation as a whole—men and women—were closer to God in those holier times and less apt to be open to inappropriate thought and desires when looking at dancing young women. Yet others note the possibility that this custom was prevalent before the full solemnity of Yom Kippur had fully evolved, that even as a “Day of Atonement,” it had not yet developed the unique, weighty earnestness which it has come to hold after millennia of our history. Significant in all of these approaches is the concept that the “appropriateness” of a joyful custom altered with the times.  Dancing before prospective marriage partners was only appropriate during a given time and then was apparently abandoned, if not formally outlawed.  This understanding of modesty relative to its time is by no means unique to the Talmudic period. It has been, and continues to be, part of the ongoing process of the development of halachah.

My parents, z”l, for instance, met at a Young Israel dance in Brooklyn in the late 1920s or early 30s.  At the time, social dances seemed like an appropriate measure to keep Orthodox Jewish youth of the post-immigrant generation together in a largely secular American society.  As I assume we all know, Young Israel would not sponsor—or tolerate—such social interaction any longer.  Another example: the tradition of tashlich, saying prayers by a flowing body of water on the first day of Rosh HaShanah is well known and well honoured.  It is highlighted in the Shulchan Aruch along with the laws of blowing shofar and the customs of eating apples and honey and rams’ heads to celebrate the coming of the New Year.  Indeed, I remember well in my youth—say, the 1950s and 60s—many, many of the boys and girls of the Jewish day high school of Brooklyn used to walk to Prospect Park on the first afternoon of Rosh HaShanah to say prayers, throw crumbs at the fish, and join together in what was perhaps the largest Jewish high school social event of the year.  I remember as well that virtually every Rosh Yeshiva and Rabbinic leader in the tri-state area would publish warnings for months before, insisting that it would be far better to postpone or ignore that lovely custom so as to be certain not to violate the more important traditions promoting modesty and forbidding the social interaction that the congregating together of masses of Orthodox Jewish young people might engender.  I have no doubt that many young Jewish men and women heeded this warning, although, as I recall, my friends and I, alas, did not—the point being that these rabbinical  authorities saw the time-honored custom of tashlich as inappropriate to a given segment of the Jewish population at this time.

Customs and even the approach to laws do change to meet the needs of the times. Unmarried women do not dance in the fields with the Rabbis’ blessings in front of unmarried men on Yom Kippur.  Young Israel does not sponsor dances. And, perhaps most often noted, the role of observant women in Orthodoxy is surely shifting.

It fascinates me to note that this shift is being seen not only on the right, but across the whole spectrum of Orthodoxy.  It is now something over a hundred years since Sarah Schenirer first disrupted hallowed ground in Poland by setting up the Bais Yaakov school system for girls as a means, it must be said, of trying to protect their Jewish commitment. Traditionally, Jewish girls were taught at home by their mothers which was all that was considered necessary. But at that point, the secular government was putting more pressure on families to educate their girls in state schools, and Schenirer saw a governmentally-approved Jewish controlled system as the best alternative available.

For all its good intentions, it was still seen by some at the time as unforgivably radical modernism, and it was only after the idea was deemed acceptable to the leader of Eastern European Orthodoxy, the Chofetz Chaim—albeit only as a temporary measure in a difficult time—that it gained acceptance from Agudas  Israel and then other factions.  The Belzer Rebbe announced that it was an acceptable measure for the Jewish nation although, of course, little Belzer girls would not be attending.

Bais Yaakov was a radical idea, a departure from traditional Orthodoxy which made its place into mainstream and finally far-right Orthodoxy in answer to the realities of the Jewish confrontation with the modern world.  And such movements are the development, growth, and ultimately the preservation of tradition. 

Fifty years ago, synagogues who countenanced women in shul politics limited their participation to creating Sisterhoods to raise money, set up Kiddush on Shabbat morning and hold play groups for the children.  I remember, some thirty years ago when a woman wanted to stand for election to the board of the synagogue where I lived, the Rav of the shul immediately flew to New York to try to consult with Rav Moshe Feinstein about the halachic perspectives of such an extraordinary step.  And now, in what is variously called Modern Orthodoxy or Dati Leumi, women on synagogue boards and committees raise no eyebrows.

It is many decades since Nechama Leibowitz was invited to come out from behind the mechitzah to give shi’urim to men; and we take for granted now that many of the most respected teachers and authorities on Tanach and Jewish knowledge are women.  Indeed, we are seeing the early generations of women Rabbis and halachic arbiters entering into formal positions in the Orthodox left. And while this movement on the left is widespread now, there are still those who are concerned that it threatens the traditional structure of the Jewish family which, they worry, has been the essential mainstay of Jewish stability and even survival since at least the destruction of the Second Temple and the coming of diaspora life.

On the far right, there are Jewish women who have been moved to greater stringency in their dedication to modesty.  While there are some who will see the movement to greater “hiddenness” as a sign of the retreat and even suppression of women in the haredi world—and in no doubt there are cases where this is so—it is also certainly true that many hareidi women see this as a personal empowerment, the right to participate more completely, more personally in the world of halachah in which they live.

These women have no desire to serve on the synagogue board or to be invited to speak from the pulpit.  Such positions would be not only alien, but halachically improper, distant by giant steps from their view of modesty.

It is important to point out here that many have noted that modesty for men and modesty for women in Jewish heritage are similar, but by no means identical.  Modesty has as its common general goal to not stand out, show off, or endeavor to appear better or in any way superior to any one else.  For men, this would seem to be a broad, general principle that applies in all aspects of life.  In our times, for instance, haredi men often dress in simple black suits, white shirts, black hats, so as to be in no way different one from the other. No one is wearing a paisley tie. 

We will expect the same modesty in manners of speech, actions and reactions with others, business practices, personal traits of all kinds:  to do what is right and just, to act with reserve and restraint. A respected friend of mine needed to expand his home to provide ample room for a growing family and their many friends. The expense was not a problem for him, but it was very important to him that the additions and renovations be done in the back of the house and not at the front of the sides, so that his house should look no different to passersby from that of any of his neighbors on the street.  Perhaps the approach is best phrased in the well-known words of the Prophet Micah: “O man, what is good, and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” (6:8)

Modesty for women is no doubt motivated by the same general value, but its applications are far more specific:

And even more so the woman must be committed to being extremely modest, to have all her dignity inward, and to hide herself from every man in the world in every possible way. Her eyes should be always down, and her speech moderate, and she should not be seen or found or revealed even a small part of her whole body that a man might see inadvertently. As the Rabbis said in Tractate Shabbat …he who looks at the little finger of the woman as looking at the place of vulnerability.  For this sin, and even in chambers, one should be careful. The sages asked her, what good deeds do you have in your hand? She replied that she had not seen even beams of her house. Her voice shall not be heard, for a woman’s voice is licentiousness. Not even one of her hairs is to be seen. The Zohar (III: 79a) placed great emphasis on this sin; and even in the most private chambers she must take care.  (Shelah, Sha’ar haOsios, “tznius”)

Modesty for women, then, is overwhelmingly, if not exclusively sexual. She is the source of sexual temptation: body, hair, voice, and it is her responsibility to prevent any such temptation from being presented or seen by any male, even inadvertently.

How she comes to embody this role in traditional Judaism is the subject of a fairly extensive library of discussion.  Certainly, the place of women within western society generally throughout its history, not excluding even contemporary times, is central to this position.  The man has been the breadwinner, the hunter, farmer, warrior, etc., and the woman has had “all her dignity inward.”  She is the mother, the caregiver, the home.  The biblical sexual taboo on menstruating women, even where their husbands are concerned, and the ascription to menstrual blood as a primary impurity or “separateness” are surely a part of the unique role—positive and negative—assigned to women in Jewish law.

Others point to the sin of Eve which in Judaism is not sex per se, but involves her tempting of Adam to violate the one law of the Garden of Eden.  Midrashim point as well to her identification with the “cunning” serpent who is clearly the villain of the temptation story and is tied midrashically to sexual lust for the woman and a desire to dethrone the position of the man in Creation by taking his place with the female.

In this light, one would understand that some segments of haredim in our time may find the ostentatious sexual liberalism of western society repugnant and threatening enough to call for a more stringent presentation of women’s modesty as a reaction, even as a defense.

From the broader perspective, it is fascinating to speculate about the differing reactions to the development of the place of women in society at the different extremes of Orthodoxy in the last half century.  Women on the left have experimented with embracing what they see as positive aspects of societal change while on the right, there are women who have adopted greater stringencies to protect their society from the negative aspects of such change.

Traditionally, adopting greater stringencies to guard against the violation of Torah law is seen as meritorious and praiseworthy—the fact that Moshe could not possibly recognize the practices of Shabbat after 4,000 years of chumrot is the source of great pride in Orthodoxy.  So many layers of restriction have been piled up to protect the forbidden activities of Shabbat from even being approached, that it would take some extraordinary efforts to violate them.

On the other hand, some have wondered if this obsession with stockpiling chumrot, of extending restriction upon restriction, has not substantially reduced from the joy that the Torah had meant for the Jewish people to have in their lives, in the performance of their mitzvot.  In our case, did God really mean for half of the population to eschew colour and pattern, flair and style from their lives, in order to be sure that they should not appear in any way and at any time as anything other than a draped shadow?

That is a question with no clear answer, and the very debate is emblematic of the tradition of debate and serious consideration that has exemplified the lifeblood of halachic development since Moshe.

One more halachic question occurs to me.  Rambam writes in Laws of Idolatry, Chapter 11:

It is not permitted to follow the practices of the gentiles, nor to be like them – not in dress, nor in hair, etc. As the text says: “Do not walk in the laws of the nations.”) Lev.20:23, “Take care, lest you stumble after them.”(Deuteronomy 12: 5). All of this is a single warning: that we should not resemble them – but the Israeli will be different from them and known for his dress and other deeds, as he is different from them in his knowledge and beliefs. And similarly the text states, “And I will separate you from the peoples.” (Leviticus 20:26).

While there are those who will understand this law as limited to idolatrous practices in context of the idolatrous practices forbidden in the rest of the chapter, the simple reading of the text would suggest that simply dressing like the gentile might lead to “stumbling after them,” to social interactions which might be a negative influence and would be forbidden for that reason.

One might legitimately find this confusing. After all, we are going to dress like somebody, whether we are dressing like non-Jews in America or India or China, or non-Jews in Saudia Arabia or Kuwait or, in honor of Shabbat, like 16th century Polish nobles. Unless we are going to invent some singular, unique dress—perhaps that was one of the purposes of tzitzit for men—we are dressing like some non-Jew someplace, sometime.  But, in truth, the adoption of the dress of Muslim women for the same religious reasons, albeit for a different religion, might be seen as something more pointedly problematic, a greater possibility of “stumbling” after them.

One might consider a solution to this which we have been used to at various times in our history, although not by our own volition.  The addition of a Jewish sign or symbol sewn on to the black burka would make clear that this was clearly not a Muslim religious garment but a Jewish one, that we are not following their practices, but undertaking our own.

The choice of what symbol or emblem to add to the garment should not be difficult.  In our times, the use of a Jewish Star would not be acceptable since many haredi  woman who do not support the political State of Israel would find wearing a national symbol objectionable.  Similarly, other nationalist symbols like a menorah would not be appropriate, as would tallit or tefillin, which are traditional male dress and not permitted to Haredi women.   A mikvah—a traditional women’s mitzvah—would certainly violate the very purpose of modesty for which the body covering is being worn.  Perhaps the beloved mitzvah of Friday night candles would be the most appropriate.

But the question of the best way of distinguishing this new development of Jewish modesty is certainly best left for the women themselves to decide.

Copyright 2021, Gary M. Levine


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Existentialism as a philosophy stressed free will and personal responsibility. Each person must choose the meaning of its[i] own existence. Meaning cannot be dictated or required by others. And that, really, is as far as I want to go into the parameters of Existentialism.

As it turns out, the development of “Existentialism” is a slow and thorny road that ended up going off in an infinite number of pathways leading everywhere and nowhere, so that, while it once meant something very specific, it became a term that was applied to virtually everything and ended up meaning almost nothing.  “The Greatest Existentialist Sale of Computer Hardware Ever Held!!” and so on. [ii]

So let us limit ourselves here to a very particular use of the term as it was used by some as an attack on religion.

Religion was said to be based on “Essentialism” which is the polar opposite of “Existentialism.”

Essentialism holds that everything has its “essence”, the thing that makes it what it is and always will be.  The essence of a corkscrew, for instance, is the removal of corks.  You may choose to use it to clean the wax out of your ears or to mark the position of land mines in a war zone, but those will be a misuse of the essence of the corkscrew which is and always will be the removal of corks.

To a person who believes in an imminent God, the Essence of the world has been, is, and always will be to seek God and serve His will. The world was created for this purpose. Human beings were created for this purpose.  First God created the Torah (or the New Testament or the Quran and so on) as the blueprint, and then He created the world to fit the blueprint. 

Therefore, religion would require the view that the Essence of each human being precedes its existence.

Existentialism, as a philosophy, focuses on the existence of the human being (not human beings in general, but each individual human being) as the source of meaning of all things in the world for that person. The human being must seek to develop its own essence. In other word, for every human being, its existence precedes its essence.

That difference of course is crucial. Existentialism means that there is no necessary goal to which a human being is bound.  On the contrary, it begins in the world with no essence. It is its moral obligation to discover or create its own essence, to build its own world, in effect, in accordance with its vision, ethical code, and experiences.

Clearly, then, the term “Religious Existentialism” is an oxymoron.  It tries to contain two opposites:  I was born with my essence already established, and now I will try to seek to find my essence.  So how did this strange term come about?

Religious people were, of course, offended by this promulgation of Existentialism.  It implied—as indeed it was meant to—that people who believed in God were nothing more than robots who lived their lives in a kind of mechanical obsequiousness to a set of rules they did not create and could not alter.  While there are no doubt people of religion who are as automatic as that, the mainstream of all religions calls for spiritual search and intellectual consideration. To seek God is to seek the interaction between the individual and its creator, and that interaction will be as unique as each individual: its strengths, weaknesses, aspirations and experiences.  To dismiss that distinctiveness as mob obedience is both oversimple and inaccurate.

Academics and intellectuals who sought to defend religion against this attack tried to demonstrate that a person of religious faith was certainly dedicated to seeking its essence. It was just that its essence was to be developed from within a broad and textured tapestry in which one might spend its whole life in contemplation and spiritual growth.

And so the term “Religious Existentialism” was born.  I am a person of religion, but that does not limit my free will or my search for meaning.  

It can be reasonably argued that the term, thus defined, isn’t really dealing with the attack of Existentialism at all. It is only trying to avoid the attack by redefining the terms somewhat.  But Existentialism in its heyday was a powerful force: a celebration of man’s triumph over the arbitrary dictates of states and systems and schools of thought.  Religious thinkers did not want to be excluded from this new philosophy, even though the philosophy formally excluded them. I may believe in God, but I can be an Existentialist too. And this was not simply a Jewish academic movement.  Scholars of many faiths insisted on the Existentialism underlying each of their belief systems.  In an age of independent thinkers, no one wanted to be dismissed as an automaton set to “fanatic.” 

So what was Jewish Existentialism to be?

Well, what was Judaism? Going back fifty years or so, I can remember the academic discussions about the definition(s) of Jewishness.  We were, as I recall, a cornucopia back then.  Catholicism was a religion; Negro was a race; Spanish was a nationality.  But Judaism was a religion, a race, a nationality, a language, a history, a literature, a heritage, a culture. You name it; we had it.  

With all that laid out before us as a smorgasbord, existentialism was not only possible; it was pretty much inescapable.

A number of exercises we took students through during those endless Jewish Identity Workshops presented all of these options for defining Jewishness and then called upon each student to define its own, personal definition of being a Jew.  How much of your Jewishness is religion? How much nationalism? How much history? Culture? Etc.  Not only is there not one, simple exclusive essence of Jewishness, we pointed out; there are not even two Jews in the room with the same Jewish identity.

But while we certainly meant well by this open approach: a way of demonstrating that Jews in the Modern World were welcome to think and consider, to be creative and responsive; we also opened doors we did not realize we were opening.  If the elements of my Judaism could be chosen and shaped from a broad tapestry, why could I not add to the tapestry itself and choose from elements that had never been considered before?

I am reminded of Solomon Schechter and his doctrine of “Catholic Israel.” Rabbi Schechter, one of the leading thinkers and shapers of the American Conservative movement in the late 19th-early 20th Centuries, noted the confusion of discovering what Judaism was in a society which had many different standards and modes of practices and beliefs.  He noted the dispute in Talmud Bavli Berachot 45a regarding which b’rachah should be said over water. The dispute was solved by a Talmudist who said: Go out in the streets and see what the people are doing.

“Catholic” here means “all” or “whole,” and what Rabbi Schechter was suggesting is that the Rabbis understood that halachah does not develop in the rarified rooms of the Beit Medrash, but as it is practiced by the whole of Israel.  The “standard” mode of practice, then, is what the people choose to practice.  But, of course, Rabbi Schechter never conceived of the time when the people chose to practice nothing.

Well, seriously, has it come to that?

The apocryphal story that I have relates to a really excellent community high school in which I had the honour to work for many years.  The story goes that a mother came in front of the Board of the school and said, “In my Judaism, I believe in nothing; I practice nothing; I am involved with nothing.  Since this is a community school which is supposed to represent the whole community, you have an obligation to teach that one valid approach to Judaism is to believe in nothing, practice nothing and be involved in nothing.”

In the original version of the story, the Board laughed the woman out of the meeting.  It would surprise me if they would do that now.

Prof. Jack Wertheimer’s latest book, The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today (Princeton University Press 2018), examines the contemporary practice of Judaism in the United States.[iii]  Although he would not put it this way—and, in fact, goes to great pains to demonstrate that there are small groups in many denominations that are experimenting with innovative and creative ways to consider their Jewishness—it in nonetheless clear that, outside of the Ultra-Orthodox and the Modern Orthodox streams, whose total numbers are not substantial (about 10% of American Jews in the 2013 Pew Study[iv]), there are not a lot of Jews in America who believe anything or practice anything.

There are, nonetheless, many who see themselves as involved Jews: about 35% under the Reform banner and 18% under the Conservative.[v]  But what is fascinating is that in many, perhaps most cases, their “Jewish” involvement involves a personal definition of “what feels Jewish to me,” quite unrelated to any classic definition of Judaism. 

The archetype example is probably “Tikkun Olam.”  In the Talmud and in later halachic writings, a tikkun is simply a rabbinic “fix,” amending or slightly altering an existing practice to make it more useful or appropriate to its time or situation. “Tikkun Olam,” then, would be “fixing the world.” The phrase is best known from its use in the siddur in the Aleinu Prayer: “letakken olam bmalchut shadai,” to fix the world within God’s kingdom.  But it should be noted: 

  • first, that the prayer ties up fixing the world with “to remove all idols from the Earth, and to completely cut off all false gods; to repair the world, Your holy empire,”[vi] which, as we will see, is some wild and impassible distance from what the phrase is now taken to mean.
  • second, the prayer’s inclusion in the siddur may date back to the 3rd Century, but early manuscripts suggest that the actual spelling then was not  לתקן עולם, fixing the world, but לתכן עולם, to organize or design the world, which makes more sense in context.[vii]

The first use of Tikkun Olam which bears at least some semblance of connection to its contemporary usage seems to date back to the Zohar[viii] which uses the term to denote devotional attention paid to the doing of any of the biblical commandments.  One should not simply perform the mitzvah; one should do so with cognizance and devotion, even prefacing the mitzvah with the “leshem yichud” statement of intention to serve God with the mitzvah in order to help improve God’s world.

But in the Zohar’s usage, the reference was clearly to the performance of God’s commands. It was not a choice of what to do, but advice on how best to do what the Torah had told us to do.

In the 1950s, the definition got updated. It is said to have been a reconsideration of the term by Shlomo Bardin, the founder of the Brandeis Camp Institute in California. He appears to have decided that the use of the term in Aleinu—all textual evidence to the contrary—was a reference to Social Justice.[ix]  And thus the New World was born, strengthened certainly by the adaptation of the term in its new clothing by the United Synagogue Youth movement in 1970.[x]   

It required a small adjustment only: 

  • It is not that the Service of God makes the world better; rather it is making the world better which serves God.
  • Well perhaps not “God” per se.  God is not a requirement in Judaism.   The service of Judaism then.  Making the world better serves Judaism. Is Judaism.  
  • My Judaism is the improvement of the world. Tikkun Olam.

Fair enough.  But it does beg a significant question:

Who decides what the parameters of “social justice” may be?  If there is no necessary tie to a Jewish God, religion, history or culture, in what way is Tikkun Olam an expression of Jewishness?   In our times, many people will see “social justice” as including the support of: women’s right to abortion on demand; racial and religion equality through conversion and intermarriage; the democratization of individual freedom through equal options for all sexual preferences and practices, etc. If we are defining “Tikkun Olam” as social justice, and social justice is up to each individual to define, then what does any of that have to do with Jewishness?  

As a number of writers have noted: If my Tikkun Olam is Humanism, my practice of it will make me a dedicated Humanist, not a dedicated Jew. 

One last anecdote.  A student approached our Director of Guidance and asked, “Doesn’t Judaism teach that anything that consenting adults do in the privacy of their own home is their own business?”  The Director laughed and said, “Of course not.  A person is responsible not just to himself, but to God and the laws of the Torah.  What you just said was taught by Hugh Hefner and was called ‘The Playboy Philosophy.’ After all these years of Jewish education, how could you think that was a Jewish belief?”  And the student said: “I’m Jewish. I believe it.”

What we are seeing, then, is a rather bizarre inversion of Schechter’s Catholic Israel. Judaism is no longer to be defined through what the whole of Israel practices; we will now define Judaism in terms of what the whole of Israel does not practice but what I have decided that Judaism will be for me.

And thus:  The New Jewish Existentialism.

I need no longer examine my Jewishness to find the elements that define me personally.  I will now find the elements that define me personally and declare them to be my Jewishness. 

And who is to tell me no?  All of those many elements of the Jewish smorgasbord are open to me.  Who is to tell me that I cannot add another table or two and pile on new options that have no relationship to any historical description of Jewishness and declare them now to be new dishes in the grand feast?  

Everyone has to make its compromises to live in the complex world.  Reform does not ask for any necessarily required observance; Conservative has long sought newer and better ways to invite the non-Jewish partners of intermarried congregants to participate without sacrifice or inconvenience.  And according to the Pew study, a full 30% of American Jews declare themselves unaffiliated to any formal denomination.[xi] 

So what, in effect, is American Judaism? There may well be as many Channukah bushes in American Jewish homes as Channukiot.[xii]   And why not? For that matter, can I not declare the freedom to choose elements of any religion as an important element of my Existential Judaism? Jews for Jesus. Hebrew Catholics[xiii]. “I’m Jewish. I believe it.”

So what is American Judaism now, and, far more important, what is it fifty or a hundred years from now?  

In 1996, several leading Conservative academics wrote an article that continues to reverberate within the movement and beyond.[xiv] They suggested that the Conservative movement should be more focused on “inreach” than “outreach.”  Spending precious resources to try to encourage non-Jewish partners to convert or to bring children of intermarried couples into the synagogue have little chance of success since more than 90% of children of intermarried families will follow the majority culture.  Better, they suggested, to use those resources to try to encourage the Jews that are within the congregation to participate in their Judaism.  

But perhaps it is time for American Judaism to consider the question more broadly.  Is there in fact, a future to American Judaism?  

Yes, there will always be a small ultra-orthodox contingent. By effectively closing out the non-Jewish, non-religious world, the American Yeshiva/Haredi world will sit securely wherever they are, generally convinced that they are building the Real Jerusalem as God intended.  

But what of the rest? They are certainly within their rights in a democracy to do—or not to do—anything they like and call it Judaism or Neo-Judaism or whatever.  But whatever they may choose to call it, it will not be Judaism in any traditional or historic sense.

 Perhaps it is time to state the obvious:  that American Judaism, in “developing” to better enable the adaptation of the old Judaism into the American melting pot, is producing a new product that may carry the old name but has virtually nothing to do with the old product.  And as sad as that may be, it is neither shocking nor new.  We have lost Jews in similar ways in many different times in our history:  Hellenization, Christianity, Haskalah, and so forth. This is simply another variant on processes of assimilation that have affected minorities of all kinds when they find themselves surrounded by a different majority culture. 

The difference for Jews who see this process as a matter of concern, is that now there is somewhere to go.  This is not the place to talk about the nature of modern Israeli society.  But this much can be said:  It is a Jewish majority culture.  The “non-observant” majority overwhelmingly keeps some form of kashrut, does not party on Yom Kippur, attends a Pesach seder and knows that the holiday that they may not celebrate much in December is called Channukah.  And every kid is wearing a costume on Purim. Does that matter much?  I think it does; you may think it doesn’t. But it certainly matters some. 

Perhaps it is time to wish our brothers and sisters well in their journey to Jewish self-actualization in the new Catholic Israel, and to utilize the resources with which we are trying to convince them that not all their ancestors were mindless robots to try to convince them, instead, to seek to find their new Jewish values in a Jewish country.

[i]  I’m going to use “it” as the pronoun for a human being. “His/her” or “s/he” is unwieldy and reads as an awkward compromise –which I guess it was supposed to be—rather than a word.  Current practice is to use “their” which is not strictly correct grammatically, but is an honourable enough way to deal with it.  But in this piece, it is important to stress the question of individual choice in existentialism, and so I will use the neuter singular even if it does cost me the Nobel Prize.

[ii] Let me warn here against mixing up the adjectives “existential” and “existentialist.”  “Existential” means: pertaining to existence. “Existentialist” means: pertaining to an individual’s search for meaning.  “Is the world going to blow up on Thursday?” is an Existential question. “I have just turned 50 and have achieved everything I set out to achieve. Now what?”  is the classic mid-life Existentialist question.

[iii]  Prof. Wertheimer has been among the most widely-published and most-respected analysts of contemporary American Judaism for more than 30 years.  Disclaimer 1: Jack has been among my dearest friends for going on 60 years now.  I take pretty much everything he says as gospel. Disclaimer 2:  I note this connection between Jack and me whenever possible since it is one of my very few pretensions to intellect.

[iv], p. 48

[v]  Ibid

[vi]; the translation in the previous sentence was home-grown.

[vii] / עלינו לשבח

[viii]  תיקון עולם

[ix]   Noam Tzion, “The History of the Term Tikkun Olam in 20th Century America”

[x]  Ibid

[xi]  Pew, p.48

[xii] An absolutely heuristic assumption used for rhetorical effect.


[xiv]  Jack Wertheimer, Charles S. Liebman, & Steven M. Cohen, “How to Save American Jews,” Commentary 101, No. 1 (January 1996): 47-51.

 Copyright 2019, Gary M. Levine


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Part One: Henothism

Acknowledgements: I have spent some months ruminating about some of the ideas that are to be found in this article.  During that time, I discussed some of these ideas with a number of friends and colleagues, most of whom were kind enough to listen with more forbearance than I deserve.  My thanks to them:  my kids, Rabbi Chef David and Devorah, Aryeh and Deena; Ruthie and Rabbi Dr. Marty Lockshin; Prof. Morty Posner; my much-esteemed sometime-chavruta Julianna Lynch; my long-suffering wife, Joyce, who sat through five or six difference pontifications on this subject.  Needless to say, their patience notwithstanding, the ideas here are my own and all derision and excommunication should be directed solely at me.

The statement which Judaism has enshrined as the credo of its relationship to its God is recited in prayer twice daily and codified in law as the last words to be on the lips of every Jew at the time of death.

It is proclaimed in the Torah in Deuteronomy 6, in the chapter right after the repetition of the Ten Commandments.  The nation has come to the end of the 40 years in the desert, and Moshe is speaking to them for one of the last times before his death, the transfer of leadership to Yehoshua and the entry of the Jews into The Land of Israel. 

The verse is generally translated as:

”Hear O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”[i]

And while the verse is spoken of by virtually all contemporary Jewish sources as:   “The affirmation of God’s Oneness” or “God’s Uniqueness” or “God’s singularity,”[ii]  it is not at all clear that it was seen that way by early rabbinic sources.

What is Rashi’s difficulty?

Rashi,[iii] among the earliest and most authoritative of the medieval commentators, was an encycolopediast, and it is generally accepted[iv] that he sought the most basic interpretation unless there was overriding reason to reject it.  Rashi does not say that the meaning of the shema[v] is the acceptance of the Oneness of God. Rather, his interpretation is:

The Lord, who is our God now and not the God the nations, is destined to bethe One God (of all nations.)[vi]

This would seem to be a large detour from the simple explanation of the verse, especially because it does damage to the grammar of the verse.  There is no present tense state-of-being verb in Hebrew (e.g.: am, is, are)[vii].  In the absence of any other verbs, the state-of-being is assumed.  There are, in actuality, no verbs at all in our verse. (The simple meaning of the words in the verse are: “Hear Israel Lord our-God Lord One.”)   There are various ways to read this, legitimately adding present tense state of being verbs, e.g.:

  • Hear, Israel. The Lord is our God. The Lord is One.
  • Hear, Israel. The Lord our God is the Only Lord.
  • Hear, Israel. The Lord who is our God is One Lord.

But there is a verb form in Hebrew for the future tense state-of-being, and it is conspicuously absent in the Biblical verse, so that there is no simple reading that can be defended where the future tense “will be” is just assumed grammatically. Rashi’s commentary, then:

“The Lord, who is our God now andnot the God the nations, is destined to be the One God (of all nations.)”

 which assumes a future state-of-being verb (“is destined to be” meaning “will be”) in not grammatically justified, and is, then, not so much a translation of the simple meaning of the verse as a figurative interpretation of the significance of the verse, which is to say: Rashi rejects the simple translation.

We should note here there have been many commentaries over the centuries which have, indeed, been tethered to the simple meaning of the words and which have not found it necessary, as Rashi has, to seek a more figurative approach.

We note, for example, Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam[viii], who interprets the verse in its more literal sense.

The Lord alone is our God, and there is no other god with Him. Similarly, in Chronicles (Chr.2, 13:10) “As for us, The Lord is Our God, and we have notforsaken Him,” which is to say: you may follow golden calves, but as for us,The Lord, He is our God, and we have not abandoned him, as did the House ofYeravam.[ix]

The fact that many commentators see the simple explanation of the verse as the appropriate basic explanation only strengthens for us the question of why Rashi did not.[x]

God, the perfect author.

In trying to understand Rashi’s preference for a figurative translation over the obvious, literal one, I am going to suggest that Rashi does so based on another basic tenet of traditional Jewish textual analysis:

The Torah does not repeat itself.  

It is the traditional belief t at the Five Books of Moshe are the word of God, dictated by God to Moshe during the forty years of travel through the desert.  With that as an axiom, not only the sanctity of the Book, but also its perfection follow logically.  God is, after all, the perfect author.  He does not make errors or misstatements; He cannot be either imprecise or misleading.  His words, His syntax, His composition are the best—the only—words, syntax, composition which could be used to express what He wishes to say.  Everything that needs to be said has been said in the best way it could be said. It must then follow that God would never need to repeat Himself.  There are commentators who would give some allowance to poetic or rhetorical phrasing[xi], but Rashi is strongly committed to the view that the text is never redundant.

I am tempted to understand that Rashi’s rejects the simple explanation of the verse: that it is a statement of the Jewish dedication to monotheism, because we already know that Judaism is monotheistic.  Another verse restating it would be unnecessary repetition.   Therefore, Rashi must find another reason for the verse, another lesson or law that it is teaching, in this case: the promise that the monotheism which we have already accepted will one day be accepted by all the other nations.

And surely the Torah’s continual emphasis on the centrality of God to Judaism, of His Power, His Uniqueness, etc. are everywhere in Torah. Why should it need restatement here? In fact, have we not just had a restatement of our belief in God in the second presentation of the Ten Commandments in the chapter immediately preceding this one? And whereas there are some slight variations in phrasing of some of the commandments in Moshe’s recounting of the story of the Exodus in our parasha for the purpose, according to most commentators, of emphasizing certain points now, forty years after the revelation on Sinai, to this new generation that will be entering the land, there is no variation whatever in the wording of the first commandment.

I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt,out of the house of bondage.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;

And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

                                                                         – Exodus 20:2-6; Deuteronomy 5:6-10[xii]


Of course, one might suggest that nothing in that commandment actually denies the existence of other gods.  The focus of the first commandment seems, rather, to forbid turning to or worshipping one or more of those other gods. We are to have “no other gods before Me,” or to “make images of them or bow down to them.”  It doesn’t actually say that there are no other gods.   In fact, with the exception of the simple reading of the section in Deuteronomy beginning with our verse, the Five Books of Moshe do not seem anywhere to deny the existence of other gods, but to insist, rather, on their inferiority compared to our God, the God of Avraham.

Who is like Thee among the gods, O LORD? Who is like Thee, majestic in holiness, awesome in praises, working wonders?  -Ex 15:11

For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. Ex 12:12

Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods, because in this affair they dealt arrogantly with the people. Ex 18::11

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” –Ex 32:1-2

Traditional sources understand such statements as metaphor.  The bible is full of anthropomorphism (God’s outstretched arm, His mighty hand, etc.) and other images, necessary devices that God uses to explain in words, in human terms, aspects of His power. How, after all, can the Bible present the Power, the nature of God who is, in all ways, unique and beyond human comprehension: “The Lord is One”?  Is it not necessary—unavoidable–to present God’s absolute power metaphorically, in comparison to other power symbols to which the people can relate: kings, gods, forces of nature and so forth.  These images, then, do not reduce from the Jewish belief in monotheism; they are the only available imagery by which God can compose a perspective of Divinity within the framework of the experience and language of His people.

One cannot overstate how central to traditional Judaism is the certainty that Judaism as a religion and a philosophy begins with Avraham’s uncovering and commitment to the belief in One God. And yet that story, central as it is, appears nowhere in the Biblical text which is surprising to many Jews of all backgrounds.

Nechama Leibowitz (of blessed memory) used to tell the following story. She was once invited to lecture at a seminar for officers in the IDF, and stipulated in advance that each of them must bring a full Tanakh to her class. As motivated soldiers they did just that. Then, when she came into the classroom, she immediately told them to open their books and find her the well-known story about young Abram smashing his father’s idols.

After letting them struggle for a few minutes to find the story, Nechama tried to stop them, but they insisted that they all knew it, and so it just had to be there somewhere in the Torah. After a couple more minutes she interrupted them yet again, but this time she told them that they were right: Even though the story isn’t actually in the Torah, it should have been there! It just doesn’t seem to make sense, at the grand moment of “lekh lekha,” for God to suddenly turn to a 75 year old man about whom we know next to nothing (besides a few dry details about his family)…[xiii]

The earliest of the versions of the story of Avraham and the idols appears in Breishit Rabbah, among the first of the books of midrash, possibly assembled as early as the late Mishnaic or Early Jerusalem Talmud period [xiv]  Although brief references to Avraham being thrown into the fiery furnace by Nimrod, an important part of the story, appear in one or two places in the Talmud[xv], the story in full first appears in the text of Breishit Rabbah in the 6th or 7th Century.

R. Hiyya said: Terah was a manufacturerof idols. He once went away somewhere and left Avraham to sell them in hisplace. A man came and wished to buy one. ‘How old are you?’ Avraham asked him.’Fifty years’ was the reply. ‘Woe to such a man!’ he exclaimed, ‘you are fiftyyears old and would worship a day-old object!’ At this he became ashamed anddeparted. On another occasion a woman came with a plateful of flour andrequested him, ‘Take this and offer it to them. So he took a stick, broke them,and put the stick in the hand of the largest.

When his father returned he demanded,’What have you done to them?’ ‘I cannot conceal it from you,’ he rejoined. ‘A woman came with a plateful of fine meal and requested me to offer it to them.One claimed, “I must eat first,” while another claimed, “I must eat first.” Thereupon the largest arose, took the stick, and broke them.’Why do you make sport of me,’ he cried out; ‘have they then any knowledge!”Should not your ears listen to what your mouth is saying?’ he retorted.

Thereupon he seized him and delivered him to Nimrod. ‘Let us worship the fire!’ he [Nimrod] proposed. ‘Let us rather worship water, which extinguishes the fire,’ replied he. ‘Then let us worship water! ‘Let us rather worship the clouds which bear the water.’  ‘Then let us worship the clouds!’ ‘Let us rather worship the winds which disperse the clouds.’ ‘Then let us worship the wind.’ ‘Let us rather worship human beings, who withstand the wind.’ ‘You are just bandying words,’ he exclaimed; ‘we will worship naught but the fire.Behold, I will cast you into it, and let your God whom you adore come and save you from it.


What is the source of this midrash?  All we can say for certain is that Rav Chiyya is reporting it.  He lived at the transition of the Mishnaic to the Talmudic times.  Did he compose the midrash? Is he reporting an older tradition?

Rabbi Seth Kadish[xvii], who brought us the story of Nechama Leibowitz above, gives a reasonable and rational explanation of the uses of midrash.

It is typical of midrash to make use of gaps in the Torah—large or small, real or imagined—as opportunities for teaching important lessons. In this case a good argument can be made that the gap is real and significant.[2] The midrashic story of young Abram smashing his father’s idols is an attempt to explain why he was chosen, by portraying him as someone clever and inquisitive, a nonconformist devoted to the truth, who bravely confronted his family and society by vividly illustrating the foolishness of their idolatry.[xviii]

Midrash, Rabbi Kadish suggests, is a Rabbinic construct to teach a moral lesson by filling in a narrative gap in the Torah text. That there are many midrashim that serve this function is clear.  How else to explain conflicting midrashim expounding the same text: different lessons taught at different times and in different circumstances, both leaning on the same ambiguity of a text?

But Midrash is a broad ocean fed by many sources, and while some midrashim are clearly composed to offer moral lessons for their time, some are almost certainly older traditions which had accompanied their biblical text for many generations: some would say as part of God’s oral teaching to Moses during the forty years in the desert.  The story of Nechama Leibowitz and the IDF officers would suggest that, at least in terms of how the Jewish people have seen the origins of Jewish monotheism, the midrash of Avraham and the idols is ancient and definitive indeed, perhaps an integral oral tradition of the story of Avraham itself.   It would seem to be all but codified as such by Rambam.[xix]

But there is another approach—an approach quite antithetical to the traditional approach of Avraham’s sudden realization—which would see monotheism as less epiphanal than developmental.  Max Muller, an Oxford scholar of comparative mythology and theology in the latter half of the 19th Century, used the term “henotheism” to describe a religious approach which supported the worship of one god without denying the existence of other gods.[xx]

In this approach, henotheism is not simply one of the many options of religious belief, along with paganism and monotheism and many others;  fit is a process which leads over time from belief in many gods to belief in one.  Inviting a fascinating comparison to Rambam’s description of Avraham’s rational discovery of monotheism[xxi], henotheism would see a natural progression:  Human beings, overwhelmed by the powers of nature so far beyond them: the sun and moon, stars, storms, seasons, growth, great animals, etc, naturally deify them and call to them for help and protection.  In time, some gods become more important than others: gods of the sea to sailors; gods of biological nature to farmers; gods of animals and forest to hunters and as civilization develops over centuries, one god evolves from primary to only.

A simple reading of the text of the bible would not disallow henotheism as the process by which Israel, the nation, comes to monotheism.

Yes, Avraham commits to his God in the Covenant Between the Parts (Brit bein haBetarim)[xxii] absolutely. Indeed, from the first mention of God’s communication with Avraham[xxiii], there is no mention of Avraham’s interest or even awareness of any other gods. On the other hand, the famous midrash notwithstanding, there is no mention of God as the only god or an open rejection of any other gods by Avraham or his sons Yitzchak and Yaakov.

The well-known midrashim of Genesis which talk about the active work that Avraham and Sarah do to bring the knowledge of the One God to the tribespeople around them:  “Avraham would convert the men, and Sarah, the women.” [xxiv] appear nowhere directly in text.  On the contrary, while the forefathers cling loyally to their God, we see no example where any of the forefathers speak against the validity of any god of any of the peoples with whom they come in contact. With the exception of the gods of those who attack the Jews, we see no general dismissal of the gods of other peoples and other countries except, perhaps, as a means of comparison, demonstrating our God’s unique strength.

Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods? who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?

The God of Israel as a geographical god

I am given to note here—with no source to support this—that it is of interest that God presents himself to Avraham and all his descendants as a National God, the God of the Land of Israel.  His first words to Avraham are:

Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.[xxv]

And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee,and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.[xxvi]

The initiation of this special relationship with Avraham and his descendants begins with the requirement that Avraham must go to “the land that I will shew thee.” The implication seems to be that the blessing is tied to the land.  This is stated even more explicitly in the Brit bein haBetarim, the formal making of Covenant between God and Avraham:

Indeed, if we follow all of God’s promises and assurances to the forefathers and then to Moshe and then to the whole of the enslaved people of Israel, the promise always connects the God of the Jews to the Land of the Jews.

A simple reading of the text all the way through to our pivotal verse under discussion would have no trouble seeing the God of Abraham as identifying Himself as the God of a specific geographical area in which He wishes His adherents to live and in which He promises to protect them, certainly a far more limited range of power and scope than the One God of All Things.

The Sh’ma as the transition to Monotheism

It is only now, after forty years of seclusion and focused education in the desert, that the new generation is ready to enter into the “promised” land, the land of their God and their People.  Now that they have been trained in the ethics and the laws, initiated into the fullness of the Covenant of Abraham, that Moshe may tell them the true nature of that Covenant. It is not only that the God of Abraham is the God of the People and Land of Israel; it is that the God of Abraham is the ONLY God, and that his relationship with the descendants of Abraham is a unique relationship—a special relationship that the One God has reserved for His Chosen People.

Hear O Israel: The Lord Our God, the Lord is One

With this statement, not only the nature of God’s power and His realm are redefined, but also the role of the Jewish people, who must now serve, not only as the people of their local god, but as the representative of the One God, the light unto the nations. It is only now, as Rashi says—although his rejection of the simple grammatical reading still requires our analysis—that God declares that He is not only the God of the Jews but will one day be accepted as the God of all peoples.

The impact of this announcement cannot be overstated.  Even with 400 years since Abraham to learn of God and His powers and now, after an additional forty years of revelation and the secluded training in the special relationship of this God and the people of Abraham, the Jewish people are not ready to be weaned away from the many gods of the nations that surround them.

And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? if the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word.[xxvii]

The draw of foreign gods will plague the nation throughout the Biblical period—some 1500 years after Moshe’s pronouncement here in Deuteronomy—and until the legislative period of the Mishnaic Period when Shmue’l Hakatan composes a curse upon  “the informers” (“v’la’malshinim”) for inclusion in the Amidah[xxviii]; exactly which informers are being referred to is the subject of interesting discussion, but it is clear that Rabban Gamliel II, the Head of the High Court, who asks Shmuel Hakatan to compose the prayer, sees dangers from surrounding pagan and/or non-traditional influences with which the Jews are still contending in the late 1st/early2nd Century CE.[xxix]  

Does any of this matter?

It is of interest to me that when I spoke to the friends and colleagues I mentioned in my introduction, about this hypothesis that the Sh’ma Yisrael may be, in fact, the first definitive statement moving Judaism from henotheism to monotheism, no one of this learned and perceptive group found the idea particularly heretical or even unreasonable.

Considering the virtually universal Jewish internalizing of the “Avraham and the idols” Midrash, as we saw in the anecdote of Nechama Leibowitz and the Army officers, I might have expected some serious opposition to my conjecture on the part of my learned friends. But the truth is that whether the birth of monotheism 3500 or 4000 years ago came about as a sudden realization or at the end of a more gradual process is of very little practical significance now, millennia later, when the western world has generally accepted that its major religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, share a common belief in the One God of all.[xxx]  All but the most fundamentalist of midrashists—those who insist on the literal truth of every Rabbinical midrash—while taking as an article of faith that Avraham broke the idols and was thrown into the furnace, will allow me to share their religion even if my eternal Jewish soul came to monotheism only some 400 years or so after their souls had learned the revealed truth.

When did the Midrash become important?

But it is of interest to wonder when this indispensable midrash gained its pre-eminence.  And this can only be speculation. The oral traditions of law, of custom, of story and legend, only begin to be written in the seething activity of the early generations of the Mishnah:  the era of the end of Prophetic Judaism and the beginning of Rabbinic Judaism, when revelation was being replaced by legislation and the authority of Judaism was being moved from the ethereal heavens to the study halls and the courts of law.

For all the importance that the midrash of Avraham and the idols has in our tradition, leading even to the reinterpretation of the Torah text itself, we cannot actually know when before the physical writing of Rabbinic texts the tradition of this midrash originated or when it gained its great importance.  It seems reasonable to me (which, of course, is no proof of anything) that it was to these first Mishnaic generations that this seminal midrash would have been most religiously and politically useful. 

The Temple lay in ruins, the Priesthood and the Monarchy destroyed; the era of the 2,000 year Diaspora was now beginning, and all that would stand between the continuation of the Covenant of Avraham and its disappearance was the authority of the Rabbis. The Jews would be surrounded in their exiles by foreign gods, outside influences, pressures of all kinds to assimilate into the cultures around them.  The legislative work of the Rabbis to preserve the exclusiveness of Jewish philosophy and practice is everywhere in the Mishnah and Talmud[xxxi].

The stress on legends that highlighted their uniqueness and the eternal significance of their special relationship with the Only God would have been particularly useful in this dangerous transition period.  No, we are not just like those around us.  Our God is not this pantheon or that agricultural Nature worship; we are nothing at all like this early Christianity which grew from our traditions and just fiddled a little with the kabbalistic emanations: one God, three forms, etc.  No, we are the pure believers in the indivisibility of the Oneness of God. And always have been, going back to our first father, Avraham, who found the God that no one else could fathom and made with Him an eternal covenant for all of his children for all times.  This is the heritage we must take with us wherever they send us, however they treat us, whatever alternatives they may offer us or try to force on us.  We are Avraham, disdaining the broken gods on the floor around us and ready, always, to enter the fire in the service of our God.

This would be the heart of the Jew that the early Rabbis would strive to implant within us and our generations, to carry us through wherever we might go, whatever might be done to us.

A personal epilogue

In some objective ways, this all matters very little.  Monotheism long ago triumphed in the West.  Although, we continue to lose Jews to our daughter religions and, perhaps more so, to agnosticism and atheism, our losses to paganism are probably relatively small.  There are even monotheistic versions of Hindu for interested Jews to slide into. Speculation of when and how the Jewish transition to Monotheism occurred is interesting if not necessarily confirmable, and we could really leave it at that.

But virtually all of my life, I have been drawn to the midrash of Avraham and the idols and its underlying presumption that Avraham came to God through the reasoning of his rational mind alone.  I have viewed the midrash as Judaic testimony to the existence of a rational proof for the existence of God.  And I have spent rather a lot of time trying to find it.  In this I have failed.[xxxii]

II found that the midrash or, more specifically, Rambam’s rational proof based on it was no more flawless than the proofs of Thomas Aquinas or St. Anselm or Descartes.  They all lead to “definitions” of God and not proof—at best, they may point to why “some god” must exist but offer no rational “proof” that His attributes are as Judaism defines them or that God need necessarily have any relationship at all with anything He has created.

I have had then to rely on Kierkegaard’s Leap of Faith that not only denies the possibility of a rational proof of faith, but the value of such rationality if it could, indeed, exist. But all of that is another essay, and many have, no doubt, been written.

This short meandering around the process of monotheism through henotheism has ultimately offered no more rational proof of God than any other approach, but it has had the comforting effect of describing a coming to One God through the illusion of an orderly process, rather than an epiphany or a revelation or a blind, irrational act of faith.  But that the process can be described rationally does not mean, of course, that the process itself is rational. 

But we continue to try.

“Small moves, Ellie. Small moves.”[xxxiii]

                                                              – Copyright Gary M. Levine, 2018

[i] Deutoronomy 6:4.  As always,the six people who know of the existence of this blog are more aware of thetexts than I am.  I include thesereferences only for the benefit of someone who might stumble across this whilelooking for some theological explanation of the trinity or the like.
[iii] 11th Century France
[iv] Nothing in Judaism is more than “generally” accepted.
[v]  The Hebrew word “sh’ma” is the first word ofthe verse. It means “hear.” “Hear O Israel.” And the verse is often simply referred to as “the sh’ma.”  I note this only for completeness’ sake.  I assume everybody already knew this.
[vi] Rashi on Deut. 6:4
[vii] And, again, the six of you need not explanation of all this.  Anyone looking for the trinity who happensacross this and would like a little more explanation, drop me a note, and Iwill be happy to elaborate.
[viii] 12thCentury France
[ix]  Rashbam, Deut. Ibid
[x] We note that there are, of course, many commentators throughout thegenerations that offered thoughtful explanations as to why Rashi chooses thisexplanation here. See especially a very lovely approach by Ramban.
[xi]  There is another discussion to have here which I am going to sidestep for the moment.  Let me only say that there is certainly a tradition in Biblical exegesis of “The Torah always speaks in the language of human beings.” This tradition acknowledges the limitation of human language to express the actuality of God who is beyond human understanding. Such metaphors as “His strong hand and outstretched arm” and other anthropomorphisms can only be appreciated as the broadest imagery for a reality which cannot be conceived of, much less perceived.
This “language of human beings” has been extended by some exegetes to perhaps include a poetical phrase, or rhetoric device which can be thought of as the use of the language of human beings.  Other exegetes reject such an approach absolutely.  As I say: interesting, but for another time.
[xii] King JamesVersion.  There are, of course, manyother translations, but I was brought up with the poetry of the King JamesVersion, and it still sounds like Bible to me
[xiii]  Rabbi Seth Kadish.
[xv]  Bavli, Pesachim 118a ; Bavli, Eruvim 53a
[xvi]  Breishit Rabba 38:13
[xvii] Smichah and MAs inBible and Jewish Education from YU; Phd in Jewish Philosophy from Haifa U
[xviii] Kadish
[xix]  Rambam, Hilchot AvodahZarah, Ch. 3
[xxi] Rambam, Hilchot AvodahZarah, Chap. 1
[xxii] Gen Chap. 15
[xxiii] Ibid, Chap.12
[xxiv] Avotof Rabbi Natan 2:27
[xxv] Gen 12:1-3
[xxvi] Ibid 17:7-8
[xxvii] I Kings 18:21
[xxviii]  Talmud Bavli Brachot 28:
[xxix]  See: Rabbi Dr. Alexander Carlebach on this topic:
[xxx] And by no means did that happen overnight.  Another time …
[xxxi] See everywhere in theMishnah and Talmud
[xxxii] I even wrote a book once that tried to build that proof. It failed also. Fortunately, it has been out of prints since about twenty minutes after it was published, so that anyone interested in reading it, can’t.
[xxxiii] “Contact”, WarnerBrothers,1997

PART TWO: The Locked-door Mystery

“I  think,” he said in a strained manner, “that I came to God not because I love Him, but because I did not.”   – Bernard Malamud, The Magic Barrel, 1958

You will remember locked-door mysteries. They were the staple of the classic mystery story.  The doors and windows are lockedfrom the inside and only the victim is in the room.  How did the killer get out?  The classics of the genre are a competition between the author and the reader: the solution is available, but the clues are planted so cleverly that the reader may miss them and be seduced into the wrong directions and the wrong conclusions.

To the rational mind, the search for God is a locked-door mystery; only the question is not: how does God get out; it is: how does man get in?

What does Judaism mean by the “Oneness” of God?  It is not simply that God is the only God or that he is uniquely Powerful or Omniscient and so on.  It is that God is a unity; He is a closed system; He is the Only and, since he is no way like anything human beings can comprehend, God is, quite literally, Incomprehensible. 

When God tells Moshe:

Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live. – Exodus 33:20 (KJV)

a more useful translation of “lo yir’ani ha’adam va’chai” would be “a living man cannot see me.” (There are among the parshanim who explain it this way, but this half of this piece is the one without end notes.)   It is not that the sight of God would kill a man with its grandeur or radiance or power or whatever.  Living man cannot see God because God is The Perfect Oneness and is not accessible to human understanding. 

There is nothing else which is God, which can be compared to God, which can encompass God, not only as a Being, but as a concept. Only God is God.

Hast thou an arm like God? or canst thou thunder with a voice like him? Deck thyself now with majesty and excellency; and array thyself with glory and beauty. Cast abroad the rage of thy wrath: and behold every one that is proud, and abase him. Look on everyone that is proud, and bring him low; and tread down the wicked in their place.Hide them in the dust together; and bind their faces in secret. Then will I also confess unto thee that thine own right hand can save thee.  –Job 40:9-14 (KJV)

How difficult that concept is theologically is hard to overstate.  What does it mean to “worship”, to “love” a God who is beyond comprehension or understanding?

The Kabbalists, realizing the limitation inherent in communication with the One God, design a structure of sephirot or emanations.  We cannot perceive God;we can only perceive how God has chosen to interact with us, how He relates to us. And we can react and relate to each individual emanation.    Conflating these emanations into a system,we have “defined” a God structure that we can relate to as Our God, the God ofI srael.

And that may well be all we can do.  But have we entered the closed doorin which the inaccessible God sits?  Of course not. The rational mind cannot find God. God in His Actuality is beyond our ability to picture, to understand, to reach. The rational mind cannot find a way in. When the Torah says that

The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people. – Deut 7:7 (KJV)

may it not be hinting that the relationship with God as we have accepted him is not for everyone, is not fo rthe many.  How many can maintain this relationship with a God who is not accessible to the human mind, who cannot be found rationally?

Christianity brought God down to earth.  It gave him a physical presence.  There he was: born in a manger with a mother and surrogate father, sheep and oxen, visiting wise men, all in attendance.  He spoke, he walked among people, did miracles, wept, died-but-didn’t. There was a god to relate to, to understand, to talk to late at night when the world was falling apart:  My boss is like the Pharisees you had to contend with, defeat, overcome.  Help me be more like you.

 But although it was a mythology founded on Jewish sources, created initially by and for Jews in the Jewish land, the Jews as a people didn’t accept it. We were the fewest of all people.  What were we going to do with a god we could share a cup of wine with at the Pesach Seder? We could do that with Uncle Bernie and his latest girlfriend.  God is not a drinking buddy. He is God. The idea of a god-down-the-block was not just not seductive; it was insulting.  Do you think we would sacrifice everything we have sacrificed for Bruce Almighty?

So they moved Shabbat to Sunday, ate pork and brought god to the downtrodden of the pagans who were enthralled, and the world moved on.

But to us, God was still closed in his room.  We saw this; we heard that. We inferred; we considered.  But the only God we were interested in was the One too perfect to be found.

And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my backparts: but my face shall not be seen. – Exodus 33:23  (KJV)

Th eRambam, in the mitzvah of Loving God, says that the way one comes to love God is to learn and reflect on how much God has loved the Jewish people and everything He has done for them. And then, says Rambam,  one will come even“against his will”, as it were, to love God.  I will admit that I cannot understand the approach.  The rational Jew must see as well the centuries of suffering and sacrifice, death and torture, which has been part of the Jewish experience. And while the believing Jew takes on faith that the will of God is for the good and that all His ways are merciful, coming“against his will” to love God is hard for me understand.

The doors are closed, and I cannot be sure that what Ithink I hear coming from inside is in fact coming from the room or only from my desire to hear something.

(The Rabbis)…finally took a vote and decided that it were better for man not to have been created than to have been created, but now that he has been created, let him investigate his past  deeds or, as otherssay, let him examine his future actions. – Bavli, Eruvin 13b

PART THREE: The Cab Driver


I asked the professors who teach the meaning of life to tell me what is happiness.
And I went to famous executives who boss the work of thousands of men.
They all shook their heads and gave me a smile as though I was trying to  fool with them
And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along the Desplaines river
And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with their women and children and a keg of beer and  an accordion. 

                                                                                            –Carl Sandburg, 1917

Some weeks ago, I was in a cab, heading off to anappointment. The cab driver, who was not wearing a kipah, saw that I was, and after making some preliminary conversation, he looked back at me over his shoulder, and said, “So who wrote T’hillim (Psalms)?”

Okay. A friendly question.  I cover the bases: “The tradition is that it was written by King David,” I said, fooled into the assumption that he was really asking to get an answer. “But there were probably others as well.  Psalm 137, for instance, ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’. . . “

“Aha!,” he said and turned back to smile at me for a second.

“I mean, the Babylonian exile was like 400 years after . . . “

And here the trap closed.  We reached my destination, and the cab pulled over to the curb, but the driver was nowhere near ready to drop me off.  He put the cab in park, picked up a T’hillim from the front seat beside him and turned around as best he could to face me.

“Of course that was King David,” he said.  “That was the proof of the whole thing.”

“What was King David?”

“’By the Rivers of Babylon’,” he said.  “Of course King David wrote it.”

“He did?”

“Of course,” said the cabbie.  Broad smile. “That was the completion of the whole prophecy, the whole cycle.”

I nodded.  “The cycle,” I said.

“David couldn’t build the Beit HaMikdash, right?”


“Because he had been a fighter, a warrior,” he said. “And HaShem said he had too much blood on his hands.”


“But was that fair?” said the Cabbie

“I don’t know,” I said. “It wasn’t my decision.”

“Of course it wasn’t fair,” he said.  He was into it now.  He leafed through his T’hillim; he grinned.  It was like me working up to the punchline of my favourite joke.

“After everything King David did,” he said. “He fought off all the enemies of Israel. He built the nation. He gathered together the material for the Beit HaMikdash. And after all that, HaShem wouldn’t let him build it!?”

“Doesn’t seem fair,” I said.

“Of course not,” he said. “So what did HaShem do to be fair to David?”

I was stepping right into it and I knew it, but this was making the man so happy. “He let David’s son, Shlomo, build the Beit HaMikdash?” I said.

“No,” he said, shaking his head and pointing at me simultaneously. “He showed David that Israel would survive, that the Jerusalem he had built and the Beit HaMikdash he had been preparing would keep the Jews together.”

“Showed him what?” I asked.

“The Babylonian Exile!” The trap snapped shut.  Now it all came together.

“That was four hundred years later,” I said.

“Ruach HaKodesh,” he said, waving me away.  I had the kipah and knew nothing. “RuachHaKodesh.”  (The Spirit of Prophecy. Literally “The Holy Spirit.” Catholics had it as “Holy Ghost” for a long time which was fun on Halloween. The implication of all of this is a prophetic or holy spirit of communication sent by God to man.)  So that David would know.”

He was waiting for the question, and I could never have been cruel enough to disappoint him. “Would know what?”

“That the Beit HaMikdash would save the Jewish people, “ he said, and I swear if he could have reached over the seat from where he was sitting, he would have pounded me on the shoulder. “That one day,when Bnei Yisrael went into exile, it would be David’s city and the Beit HaMikdash he prepared for that would save us all!”

“I see.”

“’If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,’” he was quoting now. “’May I forget my right hand.’  It was David haMelech who saved the Jewish people, and HaShem showed him that ash is reward for everything he had done.”

“An angel has no memory.” – Barbarella, 1968

I did not mention—because he wouldn’t have understood what I meant —that David haMelech’s reward, as my cabbie had grasped it, entailed the destruction of the First Temple, the slaughter of tens of thousands of Jews, the loss of the monarchy, the loss of Jewish sovereignty over their land.The great victory of David haMelech my cabbie saw had meaning only within the destruction of his temple, his monarchy, his Temple.  No.  The cabbie was holding his T’hillim and grinning like Charlie Bucket with a golden ticket.  God had rewarded David bys howing him the centrality of Jerusalem, its monarchy and its Temple as the eternal consciousness of the Jewish people.

He sat back now and smiled again.  I made several comments , noting how much I had learned from his analysis, overtipped him and shook his hand as I stepped out of the cab.

And what is my point?

Only this: that the cabbie was in the room.

I was outside—I have always been outside—looking for a door that could not open, trying to hear something, to glean the reality of God connecting with his eternal people, and my cabbie, flipping through the pages of his T’hillim, was inside, understanding it all, explaining to God how the universe worked and why all was right with the world.  Maybe his feet were up the couch and they were sharing a beer.

There is a leap of faith even for those who seek God, not with their intellect, but their emotions, who do not look to understand Him with their rational minds, but to feel Him in their hearts.  Even there, one must put aside the way things“work” and seek instead the way things “are.” Can I explain that? Of course not. It is nonsense: non-sense. It is God who is the author or the reason and therefore beyond it. What some of the medievals would have called “God’s transrationality.

One of my favourite commentaries on the Akeidah—the Sacrifice of Yitzchak—says:

God told Avraham that “from Yitzchak will your seed be called,” and so hebelieved that.  And then God said “youwill kill Yitzchak” (even though Yitzchak had no children as yet), and Avrahambelieved that.

Although these statements could not both be true, they were of necessity both true since they were both the word of God.  The contradiction they must have caused in the mind did not matter; the conflict they must have caused in the heart did not matter.  God is God. God is One and Perfect.  Whatever God says must be true, even when it cannot be true.

Does this leap of faith of the mind and of the heart mean that man is called upon to abandon the only tools he has been given to interpret the world around him: his mind and his heart?  Is the price of coming to God the abandonment of how God has created man within the world and of the gifts with which He has endowed man to live within the world?

Or perhaps the impossibility of the question is of no matter; perhaps what God demands is to reach the limit of the intellect, the limit of the emotions, and then to reject it all and to deny all thought and feeling,experience and memory, and to enter the room with no door and to see a God who cannot be seen.

Three kinds of souls, three prayers:
1) I am a bow in your hands, Lord. Draw me, lest I rot.
2) Do not overdraw me, Lord. I shall break.
3) Overdraw me, Lord, and who cares if I break.

 – Nikos Kazentzakis,Report to Greco, 1965

MOSHE; hide and seek

siddur haggadahAs I have noted in other entries discussing Jewish texts, the several people who know about this website are all at least as knowledgeable about Judaic texts and customs as I and need none of the exposition I offer here.  I do this just in case someone might accidentally happen upon this page, in this case perhaps looking for some article about the children’s games that might have been played by Biblical characters. For that lone pilgrim, I present enough background information to offer the gist of the ideas being presented.

The Amidah or Shmoneh Esrei is the central and, indeed, defining prayer of every Jewish prayer service.  It is said three times on weekdays, four times on Shabbat and holidays, and five times on Yom Kippur.  The prayer always opens with three blessing of praise to God and closes with three blessings of thanksgiving.

The central section—between the opening and closing blessings—varies. The daily Amidah contain thirteen requests of God.  The holiday Amidah makes specific references to the holiday being celebrated.  The unique fifth prayer service on Yom Kippur, the Ne’ilah Amidah, calls upon God’s mercy and forgiveness as the gates of heaven close on the holiest day of the Jewish year.

As would seem appropriate to the prayer designed to enable each Jew to approach God personally, the first words of the central section in the various Amidot acknowledges God:  “You have sanctified the seventh day.” “You established the Shabbat and wanted its sacrifices.” “You are One, and Your name is One.” And so on throughout the year.

Except for one Amidah.  Only one Amidah throughout the year does not begin its central section with the recognition of God. It is the Shabbat morning (Shacharit) Amidah:

   “Moshe will rejoice, for You have called him a faithful servant.”

Which is nice for Moshe. It is worth asking why he will rejoice because You already called him a faithful servant, but let us leave that for another time.

The singular reference to Moshe in the Shacharit Amidah is actually all the ore interesting because of all of the holy days of the year, Shabbat is the one that has the least to do with Moshe.  Why?

All of the holidays of the Jewish calendar are based on just that: the Jewish calendar.  That calendar is a lunar calendar based on twelve lunar months and, seven out of every nineteen years, an additional second month of Adar.  All of these months are not, in Biblical law, predetermined by math or theology decree.  Rather, they are announced by the High Court when two witnesses come to testify that they have seen the first sliver of the New Moon in the sky.  That testimony initiates the Court’s decree of the New Moon, and the holidays of that month will then be set based on that decree.  If, for instance, two witnesses come this evening to testify, and the court establishes the month of Nisan based on that testimony, all of Israel will now count fifteen days from this evening to begin the celebration of Pesach. And similarly all the other holidays of the Jewish calendar, each according to the Court’s decree of the month in accordance with the testimony of witnesses.

That whole process is Biblically commanded (Leviticus, Chap. 23), which is to say God gave the law of the decreeing of months and the setting of the days of the holidays to Moshe, who taught it to the Jewish people.

The only holiday which does not follow from the teaching of Moshe to the people is Shabbat.  Shabbat predates Moshe.  It predates the Jewish people for that matter. The holiness of the Sabbath day stems from God’s creation of the world, so that the whole population of the world who was around to hear about it was Adam and Eve.  (And, for that matter, there is nothing in the Bible that suggests that God even talked to them about it at the time.)

Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.  Genesis 2:3

And all of that would suggest that of all the holy days of the year in which to decide to temporarily sidestep God in the Amidah and honour Moshe, Shabbat would be the least appropriate, the one in whose holiness Moshe had the least participation.  Certainly, there are many Biblical laws regarding Shabbat that Moshe received and taught the nation, but the day itself—the coming of the seventh day and its innate holiness—had nothing to do with Moshe.

A step back:

A number of things happened when the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 AD.  Historically, of course, it was the end of an independent (or even quasi-independent) Jewish state. It was the beginning of the 2,000 year diaspora and suffering and exile and other really bad things.  But it was also the beginning of Rabbinic Judaism.  With the Temple gone and the people exiled, it fell to the Rabbis to restructure Jewish law and practice so that it might remain alive and continue to develop even with its geographic and spiritual center gone.

Those first generations of rabbinic leadership were, in fact, the first generations of the Mishna, and the contributions of the Rabbis of the time cannot be overstated. It is the subject of many books, to none of which we will refer now.  I will note only one area of relevance: with the destruction of the Temple, formal worship was gone.  The Biblically mandated sacrifices were gone; the songs of the Levites were gone. It fell to the Rabbis to establish a replacement for the Temple service through which to maintain the Jewish liturgical connection with God until the Temple would be rebuilt.

Fortunately, there was a model.  During the first exile following the destruction of the First Temple in the 6th Century BCE, the Jews in exile would gather together to read the Torah and prayer services of a sort developed.  Even after the building of the Second Temple, the majority of the population remained in exile and continued to develop their local prayer services.  In fact, it is generally accepted that even in Jerusalem, worship by the people established itself during the Second Temple period parallel with the Temple Service of the Kohanim [1], so that the Talmud reports that at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, there were 394 synagogues in Jerusalem.[2]

But it would now be up to the Rabbis to formalize and structure the synagogue prayer services, and thus the early Tannaim (Rabbis of the Mishna) in the very first generation after the destruction ere responsible for the structure of the Amidah as we now say it.[3]

But the loss of the Temple service led to other rabbinic compositions as well.  The most universal of Temple sacrifices was the Korban Pesach, the paschal lamb which was to be offered by communal groups coming from all over the country so that all Jews could participate in the eating of the lamb on the night of Pesach. With the destruction of the Temple, the Korban Pesach could no longer be offered, and the Tannaim began immediately to develop a liturgical alternative. Indeed within a few years after the destruction, Rabban Gamliel has declared that the seder recitation must contain the mention of Pesach, Matzah and Marror. [4]

Of course, of all of the ceremonies of the Jewish year, the one where we would certainly expect to find the praise of Moshe is at The Pesach Seder.  The entire Book of Sh’mot, the story of the Exodus from Egypt, is intertwined with the story of Moshe who confronted Pharaoh, brought the ten plagues, took the Jews from slavery to freedom, split the Red Sea and brought the Tablets down from Sinai. And therefore it is more than surprising that Moshe’s name appears only once in the Haggadah, in a quotation from Sh’mot in the last line of a midrash brought by R. Yosi HaGlili.[5]  The reason for Moshe’s absence is not explicitly dealt with in the Talmud, but the general sense of the tradition is that the night of the Exodus should be set aside to focus on the power of God and His salvation of His people.  As the Haggadah suggests:

“The Lord took us out of Egypt.” Not through an angel, not through a seraph and not through a messenger. The Holy One, blessed be He, did it in His glory by Himself!

And while that seems reasonable enough in itself, it does not seem quite fair for the Rabbis to sidestep Moshe like that. Not that he would have objected; not that he wouldn’t have agreed with the decision wholeheartedly. Moshe was, after all, the most modest man on the face of the Earth. He would never have thought it inappropriate to ignore him altogether in order to praise the miracles of God.

And somehow, of course, that makes it seem all the more unfair

Now, I have not read this anywhere, nor am I aware of ever having heard it from anyone which means that I have no source for this. [6]  But it has occurred to me that since the early Tannaim who composed the Amidah prayer were also those who were the first authors of the Haggadah. And since they truly were ethical and righteous men (–Do we not read their ethical principles in Pirkei Avot?–), would not they felt the unfairness of omitting Moshe from the Retelling of the Exodus even more that you or I might?  And would it not have seemed to them only just that, having denied Moshe the recognition due him in the prayer in which it would have been most appropriate, that praise of him be quietly inserted in the prayer in which it might seem the least appropriate?

As I have said, I have no source for this (see footnote 6), and yet it pleases me to think of our Rabbis struggling to compensate Moshe, now some 1500 years dead, for the slight to his honour, necessary though it may have been.  Yes, the Power of the One God to redeem His people from slavery must be the lesson of the Pesach seder. Not Moshe, not angels, not circumstance nor fate, but only God, One and Alone.  But I like to think of the Rabbis in the Beit Midrash sitting around the table and asking each other: how can we honour our teacher Moshe, the most humble and most devoted of all of the servants of God?  Since we have removed him from where he most rightfully belong, where can we praise him where it might seem most surprising and therefore most special? Perhaps here, in the Shacharit of Shabbat, the holy day of God’s creation: perhaps we might note here that Moshe brought down the law?

It may not be so at all—how can I know?  But the thought of it has enriched both my Shabbat Shacharit and my Pesach Seder for many years now.  Perhaps it might enrich yours as well.

Chag Kasher v”Sameach.

[2] Trac. Sanhedrin 100a
[3] Trac. Megilla 17b-18a
[4] Mishna Pesachim 10:5
[5] And in some versions of the Haggadah that line is omitted.
[6] Having admitted that I have no source for this, it is obviously not possible that I could list a reference in this footnote.  In fact, I have only entered a footnote here for he benefit of those who skip the footnotes in articles like this but will think my seemingly independent idea all the more academically defensible since there is a footnote number at the end of the sentence.

Copyright 2017, Gary M. Levine, Jerusalem



compositeI live in Israel, but I don’t take much credit for the building of the State.  For one thing, I am as old as the State of Israel, and there was not much I was able to do prenatally to help.  But, more importantly, I pretty much just got here.  So the real work and the many, many sacrifices that built this state were made—and are being made—by better men and women than I.

But I will say this:  it is a whole lot easier to live as an Orthodox Zionist in Israel than outside it.

Part of that comes from leaving behind a lot of the introspection that serious Orthodox Zionists engage in, in the golah:  Am I an Orthodox zionist or an orthodox Zionist? How do I support The State and still oppose some of its policies? Where is the line between standing together with the Jewish community in support of Israel and separating from some of the Jewish community in support of Orthodox Zionism?  How can I be sure to be Orthodox enough so as not to have the quality of my Orthodoxy questioned by those who are loudly Orthodox, but not so much Zionist?  What are they going to say on CBC? How is it going to look in front of the other 98.9% of my fellow Canadians?  And on and on.

Some of those problems don’t really exist here.  We don’t much watch the CBC, and if we want to hear how everything we do is wrong, we can just read Ha’aretz.  We don’t have to defend the broad range of Israeli politicians against detractors. We are the detractors.  And in terms of how the non-Jews in our neighborhood feel about us, there are generally more important concerns than whether they are going to send a delegation to the next UJA dinner.

But I think the most important difference is that there are just a lot of Orthodox Zionists in this country.  We have a critical mass; we need no longer look over our shoulders.  There are certainly some dedicated religious Jews in Israel who feel that those who participate as Orthodox Jews as loyal citizens of The State are violating the holiness of the land and acting contrary to the will of God. No doubt, they will continue to think that way. But there are enough Orthodox Roshei Yeshiva, Pulpit Rabbis, poskim, thinkers, teachers, baalabatim, etc. that are honoured to participate in the Zionist State of Israel—and see this participation as the highest service of the will of God—that it guarantees that Orthodox Zionism will remain very much a part of the mainstream of Israeli philosophy and society—and very much a strong force in Orthodox philosophy and halachic development.

But in having clearly secured our place within Israeli society, it is in our relationship with our secular brothers and sisters that I would like us to harken back to the understanding that Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, zt”l, had of the spiritual nature of the Jewish State.  Rav Kook, drawing on the philosophical writings of Hegel and others, said that every state has a soul, an innate heart that makes up of the spirit of the nation, which guides it and inspires it as it grows and develops. And the soul of The State of Israel is God.  Even the secular Jews who came to the land to build it and to settle it were doing so unconsciously inspired by the “sparks” of Godliness within them to create the Homeland of the Jewish people that God had always intended.

I saw this once, perhaps twenty-five years ago, when we were fortunate to spend a year in Israel on a program for Judaic teachers in the Diaspora.  Among other facets of the program, our group visited many different educational institutions around the country, representing a broad range of Jewish institutions and philosophies.  One of these visits took us to the largest and most important campus for the training of Secular Judaism.  We reviewed some of the curriculum, heard about the educational goals of the secular school systems and met a number of the leading thinkers of the movement. Our final meeting was with a much-respected professor, considered the leading ideologue of the movement, the visionary of secular Jewish philosophy.  He outlined to us how secular Jews had created the state and how one day all of Israel would outgrow its superstitious past and reach true enlightenment.  When he finished, one of our group stood up and said, “Yes, sir. But what is it that you believe?” And without missing a beat, the professor said with some heat: “That no Rebbe with his little keppele is going to tell me that I am not Jewish too!”

And I think I laughed out loud—no points for tact again, I’m afraid—because what was the ideologue of secularism saying?  He was, in fact, making clear that his definition of authentic Judaism, the archetype of the Jewish soul, was just that Rebbe with his little keppele.  He could only define his Judaism in terms of “something other than” what he knew in his heart the soul of Judaism to be.

He was demonstrating a wonderful statement I once heard, whose author I had not been able to identify, that Israel is 100% Orthodox and 20% practicing.   We all know in our hearts what is the right path, even if we are not yet all on it.

Rav Kook understood—and preached—that the role of the Religious Zionist was to live a life as a religious Jew and as a Zionist as an example to all his/her fellow Jews of what it was to live the soul of the State.  He had faith that, in time, the way would become clear and the natural path to finding God as the soul of the State, the soul of the land, the soul of every Jew would become evident

In a far less metaphysical way, we can trace the normal inculcation of the generations in Israel to the majority culture of the State, which is Jewish.  An oft-quoted truism is that America did not conquer the world with armies and weapons but with Coca-Cola and Rock’n’Roll.  Children grow up in a culture, and the culture helps to define them.  Israel is the land of Jewish culture.  Our schools close for Rosh Hashanna, Yom Kippur and chagim.  Everybody: Orthodox, secular and in-between is wearing  costume on Purim.  And as for presents on Chanukah:

See this picture in your mind.  Perhaps ten years ago, several years before we made Aliyah, we came to Israel during the December break, when teachers get their week or two off, so all their students can head off to Disneyland and Majorca with their parents.  As it happens, that year Chanukah fell at the end of December  My grandchildren had lit their chanukiyot, and the sufganiyot and latkes were ready at the table.  My wife and I had emptied some of the toy stores in North York and Thornhill, and I had put all the presents into a big, black garbage bag.

Now, I am a man of some girth; in the words of a friend, I am one of those people who can be up the stairs and down the stairs at the same time.  And over these last years, my beard has gone quite white.  I have named each of the hairs after one of my students

So here I am. On the evening of December 24th, a laughing fat man with a white beard, coming down the stairs with a sack of toys for all the good girls and boys. And no one: not any of the grandchildren or their parents or even their jolly old grandpa is thinking of Christmas.

And not just my grandchildren.  And not just the Orthodox grandchildren.  It is Chanukah in Israel for all the Jewish children.  And even for those who will not be lighting a chanukiah, it is still Chanukah.  The holiday they don’t celebrate is called Chanukah.  And they know it, and their children will know it and their children’s children.

And, if you will excuse me, while I say that of all the Jewish children to come in the State of Israel, I do not believe I can say that of all the Jewish children to come in other countries.

Is this the triumph or practicing Judaism in Israel?  No, perhaps not yet.  But it is a step; it is the building of the path.  It is a matter of patience and of our faith that God comes, not in the fire and not in the whirlwind, but in the still, small voice.

It is part of the blessing that we have been privileged to see.

                                                                        Copyright 2016 Gary Levine


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