Rabbi Avi Weinstein

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More on Toynbee/Herzog

In Uncategorized on July 8, 2011 at 7:43 am

It is instructive to note that the date of the debate was 1961 where Toynbee all but says that Israel was a country born in sin.  He abhors the notion of the nation state and has little sympathy for the new kid on the block.  For those who think that the settlements are the crux of the conflict, look at the arguments that Toynbee makes that delegitimates the UN decision for partition–that same UN that soon will be used as a pawn for the unilateral declaration of Palestine.

Please don’t misunderstand, I believe an accommodation with Palestinians will have to be made, and the settlements create unnecessary friction that makes Israel too easy of a target, but it is also clear that they create a distraction from what used to be on the front burner which was Toynbee’s understanding of the conflict’s origins.

What has changed since then is that many in the liberal Jewish community have begun to buy Toynbee’s arguments hook, line, and sinker.  The settlement policy has made it easier for these Jews to not only disengage from Israel, but to actively condemn this colonial power in the heart of the Middle East.  The late Tony Judt was very much Toynbee’s heir, and although what is created in academia usually stays in academia–these arguments are part of popular political discourse beyond the ivory tower.

Anyone who believes that what’s at stake can only be dated back to 1967 should think again.

Yaakov Herzog, Arnold Toynbee, and Balam

In Uncategorized on July 7, 2011 at 3:17 pm

The following was a drasha I was commissioned to do for the Bronfman Youth Fellowships. I have to admit that it got me scorchin’.

Balam the gentile prophet makes his illustrious and problematic debut in Parshat Balak. He has a direct line to the God of Israel, and Balak, a Moabite leader, knows this. Balak is fearful of this upstart nation and sends some emissaries to ask Balam for help. “Come then, put a curse on these people for me.” (Numbers 22:6)

Balam tells this mission, after consulting with God, in no uncertain terms that this is beyond his capability and sends these sorcerers on their way.  Balak, sends a more elite group to plead his case this time offering great riches as a reward for fulfilling his request. Balam asks God again who says that he can go. Balam goes which for some reason infuriates God who thwarts Balam’s journey by sending a threatening angel that only Balam’s donkey can see. (Enter Eddie Murphy). Balam beats the donkey urging him to go forward, but, instead, the donkey informs Balam of this obstacle, and berates Balam for not realizing what is going on. Only then, does Balam see the threatening angel who also chastises Balam for beating the donkey and not seeing what’s in front of him. (Weird) Balam offers to cancel the mission, but the angel tells him to continue on the condition that Balam hold to the script that God will give him.
Am I the only one that finds this to be a confusing narrative? Why was God angry when He was the one who had given Balam permission to go? Hadn’t Balam given the correct answer the first time when he told the emissaries, “Go back to your own country for the Lord will not let me go with you.”? (Numbers 22:13)
God’s fury indicates that the permission Balam was given was a hollow one. He was hoping somehow Balam would realize that the first response i.e. to leave the Jews alone, was the only answer. Why would the offering of riches, and the honor of an elite guard change God’s mind? Was there a begrudging tone when God finally acceded to Balam’s request? Possibly. God’s disappointment is in Balam’s lack of character. Whereas Moshe, Balam’s Jewish counterpart, would never have been enticed by riches, or “important” people, Balam had the temerity to ask again, because the offer was just too delicious. It is instructive that Balak does not threaten Balam, but instead, tempts him.  Balak knows his customers.
At first glance Balam looks like a decent, if not altogether noble sort of fellow. He does God’s bidding, but he is then shown up by none other than an ass. God, then sets Balam up to bless Israel, and Balam, realizing what he is up against, does just what he is told to do.
In rabbinic literature, Balam is portrayed as unequivocally evil, not the nice, but flawed person, the narrative here seems to suggest. He is viewed as responsible for the plague at the end of the parsha when Pinchas rises up to stop Israel from consorting licentiously with Moabite/Midianite women. The Midrash holds Balam responsible for this behavior because these people viewed him as the moral authority for their community.  His sanction of this behavior costs him his life, and later in Deuteronomy, his complicity is alluded to, but not explicitly rendered.  Everything with Balam is under the table.  He plays it both ways and stands for himself above all.
Even though he obeys God, the sages see him as doing everything he can to corrupt God’s people. He almost succeeds. His, is an abuse of office for personal gain and nefarious purpose. After being embarrassed by having to bless this people he tries to undo their uniqueness by corrupting them.
That is why nothing is as it might seem, because, in fact, nothing is. Balam wears the cloak and the aptitude of the Prophet, but intends to use this ability to expose Israel as a nation as corrupt as his own. This not only will aggrandize him, but will demonstrate that there is no such thing as Jewish exceptionalism.  Balam blesses the Jews as “a people that dwells alone.” (Numbers 23:9) In a multi-cultural age many bristle at the notion of Jews being different, but the millenia old story of Jewish continuity thwarts simple explanation.
Ask Arnold Toynbee who classified Jews, and a few other nations, as a “fossil” people, that after the second century they withdrew from civilization at least until the Napoleonic era. He found it remarkable that this unevolved people survived with what he condemned as a recalcitrant isolated entity.
When Ya’akov Herzog, then the Israeli ambassador to Canada, took Toynbee to task in a famous 1961 debate, Toynbee, like Balam, is disturbed by this community that is different and that does not fit easily into such comprehensive theories of civilization.
Herzog and Toynbee agree that there is something different about the Jews, but the gulf between them regarding what that is will never be crossed in this lifetime.  I just reviewed the debate which is available on Youtube. You’d think it was broadcast yesterday, and not fifty years ago. Toynbee’s position couldn’t be more current in some quarters, and Herzog’s rebuttle for many could not be more resonant. Balam understood Jewish exceptionalism and, according to the sages, wished to undermine it.
Toynbee, however, diminished the notion by declaring the isolation of the Jewish people a tragedy that kept them from “progressing”. He ascribes a special moral responsibility to Jews because of what they have endured therefore they should come under special scrutiny. It’s as if to say, “With great suffering comes greater responsibility.” No excuses for the tortured. They should know better. In fact, Toynbee compared the Israelis to Nazis, if not on a statistical level, certainly on a moral one.  “After all, you only have to murder one person to be called a murderer.”
For my part, I believe in the eternity and the uniqueness of the Jewish people, and like in Balam’s blessing, we will always stand, if not alone, at least apart, but I reject Toynbee for according to him, a Talmudic tradition that valued education sometimes more than life itself, was by virtue of its isolation uncreative and not “evolved”.
I would argue that we evolved in our own way, and ultimately not only the Jews but the entire world was richer for it.
Take a look at this debate and view these pyrotechnics first hand. I found it riveting and I bet many of you will too.
Yaakov Herzog was the son of Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog who was a Chief Rabbi of Israel. Yaakov Herzog was himself a Talmudic prodigy who chose public life over the rabbinate.

Half Shabbat Data: This Just In

In Uncategorized on June 29, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Dr. Scott Goldberg in The Jewish Week has weighed in with some data announcing that 17% of Modern Orthodox affiliated youth text, or should I say admit to texting, on shabbat. My last posting gave many reasons for why I considered this highly problematic. My friend, Aryeh Klapper, a well known scholar and educator, has a different take. Orthodoxy, in general, is ignoring the challenges of the digital century.  The ubiquitous necessity for electricity will make professions that require international travel very problematic. Once sensors are on all public sinks and toilets, once books are only available electronically, will the response be to retreat to professions that will not take us to China?  Will hotels be off limits, or will we be allowed to do our business with a shinui?  And what would that look like?

Given all the things teenagers could be doing, is contacting their friends the worst thing? He argues that there needs to be a revisiting of the prohibition in general given the way the world is changing.  He did concede that the moniker “half shabbos” does indicate a crisis of sorts.If students feel that they can pick and choose then shabbos for them at least is in trouble.

In a world where a satellite shoots an image every few seconds, where you walk by a house and a light goes on, where you walk in a room and lights go on, or off when you leave it, where is the coherent response in halacha on how to respond to these challenges? This is Aryeh’s larger point.  If such things will be permitted and by necessity they may have to be  in the future, then how does one rationalize prohibiting  battery operated cell phones? iPads don’t complete a circuit at all I’m told. Uh oh!

On Keeping “Half Shabbat” or Teenage text addictions

In Uncategorized on June 26, 2011 at 7:41 am

The Jewish Week has uncovered a new scandal.  Frum adolescents keeping shabbos except when it comes to texting.  They call it keeping “half shabbos”, maybe they should say “sho…shabbos” without the “mer”, or maybe it should be a faux shabbos.  Two people on my facebook page linked this story for dramatically different reasons. Shades of Rashomon.  One poster, an Orthodox rabbi who works with college age youth, and the other, a less than halachic Jewish communal professional.  The latter found the issue somewhat laughable. Kind of like, “Seriously, this is what’s got their knickers in a twist? Plllleasse!” The former wondered why these high schoolers find it so difficult to lay off their cell phones for one day a week, and why they text instead of just making a phone call? Even though boredom is given as one of the reasons, that doesn’t explain why texting was prevalent at a shabbaton. Presumably, there were many people to hang out with. What was the temptation?  As the article recounts:

At a recent campgrounds Shabbaton sponsored by a local Modern Orthodox high school, the teenage participants broke into small groups after the meals, as is usual, to talk with their friends.

On their cell phones.

Of the 17 students who attended the weekend program, said 17-year-old Julia, a junior at the day school, most sent text messages on Shabbat…

For some reason, a face to face conversation was deemed less fulfilling, or not fulfilling enough, than  composing a hackneyed 160 character missive in real time.  Well, kids will be kids, and as rebellions, or compulsions go, although sad and disappointing, it should not surprise, or scandalize anyone.  It does, however, raise some interesting questions.  Is compulsive texting a phase that is a consequence of having lots of time on ones hands, or will it remain a vital form  of communication that is tacitly permittedwell into adulthood?

I find texting useful when I need to convey information and do not wish to disturb the textee.  Say, I wished to announce that I had arrived safely, I would text “Landed”.  Similar terse messages are useful and efficient.  I would, however, find it profoundly annoying to use this medium as a primary form of communication, but obviously these kids do.  I cannot conceive how someone can rack up thousands of messages a month which means I have absolutely no handle on the nature of this phenomenon.

I do know, however, that if this is the part of shabbos one chooses not to keep, s/he is missing the point of shabbos altogether which is for a person to retreat within reason from all the technology around him and look inward.  One may argue that no Torah prohibition has been violated here (although that is not certain), but the individual has guaranteed that shabb0s as a totality will have less meaning and no impact on him in the largest sense.

The point of confining activity is so that habits of the spirit replace mundane daily routines.  If we only restrict ourselves, without replenishing our hearts and minds with reflective alternatives i.e. prayer, study, guests, and rest, then we have succeeded in making shabbos observance a misery.  The fact that the need to text is so overwhelming indicates a vacuum within a halachic framework that makes shabbos an empty shell that needs to be filled with something. Unfortunately, texting undermines the purpose and the essence of that structure.

Because I find it hard to imagine how anyone could send two thousand texts a month, I called my twenty-four year old daughter who during her undergraduate years was a serial texter. She is now married with a day job. I asked her if, now that she is married and a working adult whether the volume and the quality of her texts had changed.  She answered that she texts significantly less, and that she uses it primarily for making and confirming plans.  In college, it was the preferred medium for sharing news, and real time “conversation”.  Might this indicate that this is a phase that will burn itself out with more responsibility?

What she found disturbing about the new phenomenon was the brazenness of doing it out in the open at an organized youth activity.  Our house was a social center on Friday night when my daughter was in high school.  She said that even those who were not shomer shabbos wouldn’t have used their phones when they were hanging out in our basement because they respected where they were.

Ironically, it is the educational focus on halachic minutiae that contributes to minimizing the severity of this behavior.  If in ones head it is not  a significant transgression, then one can have her text and shabbos too–meaning that there is no difference between how one outside the shabbos framework and those ostensibly inside view the observance and desecration of shabbos.  Both say, “I don’t do drugs, I’m a good student, and I’m not so sexually active, so not only am I a good kid, my half shabbos identity makes me a good Jew. Driving on shabbos is technically a far more severe prohibition, but it does not invalidate the experience of shabbat any more than texting does.  The”Half shabbos” practitioners are measuring themselves by the values of the general community with pseudo-halachic ammo.

They also look ridiculous to the community that is now defining who they are. Why don’t you IM if you text? Your Ipad probably uses less electricity than your cell phone, so why not watch a movie? Does God want you to be bored on shabbos, how stupid is that? How, indeed?

When the Orthodox community was populated with smokers, most of them, managed to hold off for twenty-four hours a week from what is considered one of the most notorious of physical and psychological addictions. Shabbos, for them, was that important.  If one who cares enough about shabbos to keep at least “half”, but not enough to withdraw from their cell phones, one wonders what they think they are doing? Is the half kept out of personal commitment, convenience, parental pressure?

I can hear the educators query. “What would you have me do, invalidate their entire practice?” For someone who is newly introduced to Judaism, certainly not, but for the student who would not thinking of davening without a mechitza–

maybe.

…and speaking of Paul Simon…

In Uncategorized on June 6, 2011 at 2:36 pm

Months ago I wrote a synopsis of the Maharal’s understanding of Hesed. A major point that was not explicit is that Hesed, compassion, by definition may be catalyzed by a need, but one is technically under no obligation to respond.  One does it only because one wants to, just as God sustains the world out of no personal need, but only because this is God’s will.

Two concrete examples:

Take this report from NPR about two high school grads from Goldsboro, North Carolina. This is exactly what the Maharal was talking about.

In a different vein see what Paul Simon did for a fan at one of his concerts. After Simon announced that he was going to play “Duncan” Rayna, a Simon devotee called out, “I learned to play guitar on that song.” She was invited on stage and this is what happened:

In both cases, it is the fact that these gifts came without expectation, merely out of one’s desire to make something wonderful happen in the life of another. Not only does it transform the recipient of such largesse, but those who witness it are enriched, and profoundly transformed by  the Divine potential of humanity. Anyone who has a heart is warmed by the power of everflowing love for those we know, and those we may not.

In listening and watching these stories unfold I welcome you to be part of that community. Now maybe just wonder why these stories make us feel so good.

So Beautiful, or So What?

In Uncategorized on June 6, 2011 at 9:32 am

Paul Simon’s latest, and certainly one of his greatest solo albums “So Beautiful Or So What” has been recently released. The music is evocative and the lyrics border on poetry. In my mind, the three most artful masters of contemporary song are not incidentally Jews. Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Paul Simon stand far and above the many talents who emulate and innovate at their feet.

Dylan gives credence to the Talmudic axiom that prophecy is now the province of children and the insane.  Barely coherent in speech, something magical happens when Dylan smiths a tune that shackles his flood of consciousness into a respectable order, and even a refrain. He is the least musical of the three, but the discipline of the simple tune makes his mad language accessible, powerful, and evocative of the traditional.

Leonard Cohen is truly a student of the spirit not afraid to let all that education emerge in song. He knows his Bible and observes Jewish tradition to a point. Musically, he is quirky, but his lyrics stand on the shoulders of poets and books that matter.  Like Paul Simon, for Cohen, it is only love that is sacred and eternal, and both return to those themes time and time again. Dylan, in contrast, is the master of the moment, the rant, and the opaque narrative.  If you don’t know what he means, that must indicate a modicum of profundity.

I always know what Cohen and Simon mean, and I always wish I would have thought of their words first.  The only way that Simon disappoints in this album is his reliance on Christian symbols throughout.  I always feel sorrow that somehow the richness of Jewish tradition evaded him, and therefore he avoided it.  His musicianship, however, and the arrangements of these songs, is something to behold.

I saw Simon in Jerusalem thirty years–a lifetime–ago. He was welcomed as a native son returned, and he was so visibly moved he tried to bring Garfunkel back the following year.  At the end of the third encore, someone threw a yarmulke up on stage. He picked it up from the floor, kissed it, and put it on his head. The not so religious crowd cheered with approval. Proof positive that Paul Simon had been to Hebrew school, probably had a Bar Mitzvah and never looked back.   This was the Bar Mitzvah trip he never had.

Cohen on the other hand, a son of the Montreal Jewish community subtly evokes his heritage throughout his oeuvre, and, more than all three, certainly knows his Bible. He entertained the Israeli troops during the Yom Kippur war, and despite the twists and turns of his spiritual journey, being Jewish and drawing from that heritage is very much embedded in who he is.  If you doubt this, just listen to, “If it be Your will”, or “Who by fire” both evocative of Jewish liturgy. His understated and haunting voice has echoes of the chanting of traditional Jewish prayer. Where Simon’s insights abound with emotional and sometimes spiritual intelligence, Cohen’s songs are anchored in the wisdom of the ages. To me, it is the difference between the tutored, and the untutored Jew.  With Dylan, it is the rantings of the quadraphrenic Semite.  The echoes are there, but as echoes tend to be, they are distorted. Making sense is just not a high priority.

Just one more thing, in Simon’s song “Love and blessings”, the opening sounds much like Randy Newman’s classic, “I think its going to rain today”. One of Newman’s lines is “Human kindness overflowin’ but I think it’s going to rain today.” Simon sings, “Love and blessings, simple kindness fell like rain on thirsty land.” Is Simon giving an artful nod to another great Jewish tunesmith? Well, maybe. For me, the opening melody clinches it.

Arnold and Dominique: The Arificial Distinction between Sins and Crimes

In Uncategorized on May 22, 2011 at 9:25 am

In today’s WAPO Juliet Williams makes what she feels is a much warranted distinction between a sex scandal and a crime.  Strauss-Kahn is accused of a sex crime, while the former Governor of California has admitted to scandalous behavior, but the two types of sexual impropriety should not be conflated.  She complains that the mass media has encouraged one to see the similarities of these activities without emphasizing the qualitative difference between an assault and a betrayal of trust. Defenders of Clinton did the same thing. Sins are a private matter, while crimes are public.  Certain crimes are forgivable, like lying about your sins, because they should have been left to be private in the first place.

Within a crime there is usually a sin, but in intimate matters sins abound whereas crimes are scarcer.  In matters between him and her crimes emanate in most cases from lack of consent. Sins, however, are derived from the rules dictated by the Higher Authority.  Arnold sinned, and so, allegedly, did Strauss-Kahn, but only Strauss-Kahn may, if convicted, go to jail.

This dichotomy between sins and crimes only exists in a bifurcated system of values.    The Talmud sees rape as a more serious version of other forbidden sexual relationships, but the severity is in degree, but not in kind.

Can you imagine being the so very visible yet innocent child of a scandal and how that might effect your sense of self, through no fault of your own? By clarifying that what Strauss-Kahn allegedly did is much worse, there is a wink and a nod to those men who cheat, those women who are complicit. And to those unwitting spouses who were the last to know, there is precious little sympathy.

Juliet Wilson declares that clearly what Strauss-Kahn may have done is worse than what Ahhhrnold has admitted to doing.  Tell that to Maria Shriver and their children. For once I’m on the side of blurring categories to say a plague on both behaviors and the resultant suffering that will certainly live long after the headlines. Both of their actions, alleged and admitted, have one thing in common. These men live in a reality that entitles them to not play by the rules. What they don’t realize is that their example matters. They give permission for others to do the same.

It would behoove us to not make light of one behavior in order to highlight the severity of another.  Each one is awful in its own right.

The unsung heroes in the sordid Strauss-Kahn episode are the NYPD. Maybe Strauss-Kahn thought that nobody would prosecute the head of the IMF at the word of a chambermaid, a “nobody”.  I imagine what he didn’t realize is that the NYPD viewed this as an attack on a fellow New Yorker, and no Frenchman is going to come in and have his way with one of ours–we don’t care who you think you are.

Good for them.

What if the rapture is a rupture?

In Uncategorized on May 20, 2011 at 8:11 am

How will the theologians adjust to the fact that the world is still here, and, all the faithful have yet to disappear? This is why the Talmud looks askance at those who try to ascertain the end of history. According to the Talmud and Midrash, by design the endgame was usually hidden, but even when revealed to individuals they were prevented, by sudden amnesia, from publicising the timing of the main event.

Rabbi Yonatan Ben Uziel, the first translator into Aramaic of the Prophets wished for Divine inspiration to do the same for the hagiographia כתובים of the Tanakh, but was refused by Divine decree. The reason given was that the timing of the “end of days” was encoded within them, and these were not to be known (Megilla 3a)

This is the cornerstone of the Jewish ‘this worldly’ pre-occupation. On the one hand, we are judged after we leave this world, but on the other hand, the work at hand is to make this world fit for redemption. Well maybe, a “deadline” would be helpful and get everyone moving? Such a theology would preclude the possibility of fulfilling the Torah’s commandments out of a deep love of the Torah. Instead, everyone would be committed out of fear for the consequences of the end time.

I’m betting that the only thing special about tomorrow is that it’s shabbos, and my son’s fourteenth birthday.

Nevermind, however, I am sure some theological accommodation will be made and those dollars will continue to flow to those selfless televangelists. Sheeesh!

Parshat Behar: Give it a rest

In Uncategorized on May 13, 2011 at 11:18 am

One of the most dramatic and radical Biblical ideas is the concept of a mandated day off, or year off, or a do over every seven years when it comes to cancelling a debt.

Rashi, quoting the midrash,  is puzzled by the following verse:

And God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai saying: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them that when you enter the Land that I will give you, you shall let the land rest, a sabbath for God.

Rashi’s question?

What’s the connection between Mt. Sinai and the Sabbatical year?

In other words, why is this subject the one to be discussed on Mt. Sinai? These laws are not going to be observed for quite some time, what’s so important that cannot wait?

The answer lies in the verses that follow. The laws of the sabbatical year are enumerated in great detail, and although many commandments are not given the same treatment in the Torah, it is assumed that these details were rendered at Sinai, and that in fact there is noting special about the sabbatical year, it was chosen merely as an example. Some commandments will be more be given deper treatment in Deuteronomy, but here we learn the fact that the entire package was given at Sinai, even if much was not mentioned explicitly.

Still, why was this particular issue selected as the example when there are many subjects that require great detail as well? Why is it the commandment that requires land to lie fallow, debts to be cancelled, and freedom to those enslaved that gets the center stage here? Why, too, is it “a sabbath for God” and not for the Land?

The Torah as a whole has a deep appreciation for creativity and industry. Even in the desert we were builders, and the rituals commanded in Leviticus were often reminders that what we have done was not by our hands alone. For it is a human tendency to magnify ones contribution and minimize the  work of others.

Rest had to be mandated in all aspects of life because left to our own designs we would not take the time one day a week, or let the land lie once every seven years, or afford a neighbor a second chance to get on his feet by cancelling a debt (the Biblical version of bankruptcy).  Even if we know that we would be happier, the land would be healthier, and the society would benefit, such forward thinking often eludes us.

The Torah is unequivocal because these enforced vacations are for God, and His world and not exclusively or primarily for you. Your enjoyment is a bi-product, but for the world to be sustained the way God wishes we need to be in it for the long haul.

It could be that the reason these particular laws are detailed is because they are in the broadest sense, the framework within which the world works. Rest and relief from pressure of all kinds is a necessary component for industry and creativity.

Embedded in Jewish consciousness is the concept of a day, or a year of ingathering and nondoing that cannot be put off with the excuse that there is something more important that needs to be done. Other than the saving of life itself, there is nothing more important.

A side note. Once, I was watching the detective show Kojac in Israel in order to practice reading the Hebrew subtitles. Kojac says to his sidekick Stavros: “What’s that got to do with the tea in China, Stavros?” The Hebrew subtitle quoted Rashi, saying, “What do the laws of the sabbatical year have to do with Mount Sinai Stavros?

Many Israelis are unaware of how much Torah they actually know.

Shylock, Lex Talionis, and Parshat Emor

In Uncategorized on May 11, 2011 at 8:39 am

During the time William Shakespeare lived, it was hard to find a Jew in England. In fact, Jews had not been allowed to live there for several hundred years. Nevertheless, the archetype of the nefarious infidel Jew was alive and well in Christopher Marlowe’s, The Jew of Malta, and more notably in Shakespeare’s own Merchant of Venice. Mostly for worse, and not for better, Shylock does not only represent himself, but symbolizes the qualities that required a virtuous English monarchy to expel the Jews from her shores hundreds of years before Shakespeare lived; presumably, because their very presence corrupted the moral fabric of Christian England.

The idea of the Jew, lived in English imaginations long after Jews were no longer there, and was personified in Shakespeare’s Shylock. Just as most Americans know very little about Islam, my assumption is that the English rabble knew even less about Jewish tradition.  Some, however, may have known pieces of the Hebrew Bible. For instance, the principle of lex talionis, the law of retribution that is articulated as a general principle in this week’s parsha may have been known to many.

“…fracture in exchange for fracture, eye in exchange for eye, tooth in exchange for tooth.” (Leviticus 24:20)

I have translated the Hebrew word Tachat as “in exchange for” instead of merely “for”, because tachat is primarily used in a financial context. The rabbis when strongly reading this word, understood that this meant there would have to be some payment for the wound, and not that there would be a similar maiming of the perpetrator. The money reflects atonement more than financial compensation and the graphic language reflects the fact that the offender should see his payment as if he is giving his proverbial eye. This ruling dates back to at least the time of the Mishnah (200 CE) and most probably earlier.  The fascinating Talmudic discussion on this Mishnah uses quotes from the Mishnaic period as well.

It is often asserted that when Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount, he was critiquing what he perceived as the Jewish practice of his time:

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:38–39NRSV)

Given the fact that the Gospel of Matthew was written around the time of the Tanaim (first or second century), and that the Mishnah itself reflects discussion of earlier generations, at the very least, this understanding  displays ignorance of how the verse was interpreted by the Pharisee establishment. The tradition as recorded, never allowed for “an eye for an eye” to be taken literally. When one sees what is written in Baba Kama 83b, one is struck by how each tanna offers a unique way of learning that “an eye for an eye” refers to payment. It is clear that what is in dispute is how one derives this understanding but not the understanding itself. This indicates that the Mishnah reflects an undisputed practice that had been in effect for many generations prior to the codification of the Mishnah.

The Book of Matthew’s unvarnished rendering of the verse embedded in Christian consciousness that the Jew was obsessed by law and retribution, while Christianity was all about love and charity. It could also be that the Sermon on the Mount required a mastery of the pithy aphorism, and that accuracy was sacrificed for a more robust rhetorical punch. If Jesus would have said,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye which requires financial compensation and not actual maiming. But I say to you…”—he may have lost his audience right then and there.

Maimonides asserts that payment was the original and only intent of the verses, and even in the court of Moses himself an eye was never taken in exchange for an eye. He calls it a halacha leMoshe M’Sinai , an oral tradition that was given at the time the Torah was received by Moses at Sinai.  The maiming of individuals by a Jewish court was inconceivable to him because he saw the exegetical exercises of the Sages as unsatisfactory, and so therefore assumed that this tradition was not based on any Talmudic interpretation, but was the original intent of the verse. The Sages later merely justified this tradition by creatively parsing the verses with midrashic pyrotechnics.

Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, the original editor of the “Encyclopedia Talmudit” wrote an article about whether Shylock’s claim of a pound of flesh would hold up in a Jewish court.  He felt it was important to see whether Shylock was acting according to Jewish values or whether he was influenced by the English courts of his time. Would such a claim have any validity in Jewish tradition?

R. Zevin argues that a Jewish court would have thrown out the case because Antonio was only the steward of the collateral offered, and not the owner. The pound of flesh did not belong to him, but to the Almighty. God, Him/Herself, would have had to have been the guarantor. Just as a person cannot commit suicide because the One who gives life is the One who may take it away, so, too, one cannot offer a pound of “his own” flesh in payment. He never had the right to offer something that was never his.  To allow this possibility was maybe a Venitian, but more likely a Shakespearian mishugas, and not a Jewish one. In a Beit Din Shylock would have not have been allowed to make this condition.

He ends the article by quoting a famous liturgical poem that is in every selichot service most famously prayed during the ten days of penitence: The soul is Yours (God’s) , and the body is Yours (God’s), have mercy on Your labor.

In 1994, I was invited to the Palace of Saint James for a launch of an international translation series sponsored by Edgar Bronfman, and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, among others.  My translation of Gates of Light, a thirteenth century Kabbalistic lexicon, was one of six books from which people of various faiths were going to read. The Archbishop who was going to read from my work shared with me the selection he had chosen.  Although the book had scores of pages that gave serious reflections on prayer, tzedaka, wisdom, compassion, and love, he chose two pages where the word justice appeared at least twenty times.  In the most collegial, and amicable fashion, I felt that he was demonstrating what he most admired about the Jewish tradition, but also what he felt was a serious omission that only Christianity could provide.  Namely Jews are obsessed with getting theirs, but selfless love was something of which only a practitioner of Christianity is capable.

The argument of an “eye for an eye” versus “turn the other cheek”, unfairly framed as it was, is still alive and kicking (us).

This was a piece commissioned by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships Alumni Network