The Importance of Metaphor as a Thought Process

When speaking about images and symbols, metaphors give verbal representation of the images, pictures and symbols that are latent in mytho-poetic literature. Like the symbol, the metaphor transfers meaning from one domain to another. By the same token, the metaphor does not lend itself to literal, statistical, or reductionist thinking. The metaphor’s purpose does not merely inform–it is the language of meaning. Philosopher Paul Ricoeur points out that metaphors have a “cunning distortion” that is much more subtle than ordinary analogical language.

Metaphors tease the imagination, arousing it from slumber. They are evocative and create tension. Metaphors pulsate with movement and activity, transcending the boundaries of the written word. Metaphors serve as the bridges that link us with the realm of mystery; thus giving rise to new visions of reality that ordinary words would be incapable of portraying. Most importantly, they, compel us to encounter the image. What is true with ordinary metaphors applies even more so when dealing with biblical metaphors, which give rise to thought processes that impart our knowledge of God. Ricoeur further observes, “Metaphor, far from being limited to a linguistic artifact, is characterized by its epistemological function of discovering new meanings. . . . In this sense, metaphor is a thought process before being a language process.”

One of the deepest and most important theological attitudes about the latent power of metaphor derives from Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C.E.). Augustine observes that one of the major reasons people have difficulty in understanding the figurative expressions of the Bible is because they do not understand the subtle meaning of metaphors. A personal knowledge of the individual metaphor provides a far deeper appreciation of the reality it is alluding to. Metaphors present a pictorial view of reality—but the picture is by no means static. Each metaphor tells a pictorial story and should not be construed as if it is a mere adornment to the text. Augustine gives an example:

Many, again, by reason of their ignorance of hyssop, not knowing the virtue it has in cleansing the lungs, nor the power it is said to have of piercing rocks with its roots, although it is a small and insignificant plant, cannot make out why it said, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” (Psa. 51:7). Likewise, the ignorance of numbers, too, prevents us from understanding things that are set down in Scripture in a figurative and mystical way.

Thus to Augustine, if biblical metaphors seem foreign, or obscure, it is because we have not yet grasped the content of its imagery. In addition, without knowledge of the original Hebrew (a language that Augustine himself was not well familiar with), the reader will never go beyond a facile understanding of the Holy Text. Augustine adds the Bible’s metaphors and euphemisms are ambiguous for good reason–by meditating upon the image, we may uncover its deeper meanings.

The rabbis of the Midrash are in perfect agreement with Augustine on this point. Midrashic interpretation aims to uncover the meanings suggested by the different nuances suggested in the Hebrew language.

The ninth century Jewish philosopher and biblical translator, Saadia Gaon, believed that all religious discourse is bound by the limitations of human speech and experience. Saadia, observed that all human language (whether it be secular, or religious), is inherently anthropomorphic.

Without metaphors, language would be severely limited. Our words would not be able to convey even a fraction of what we think. Thus, if we wanted to speak of God in exact language, we would have necessarily to refrain altogether from describing Him as “hearing,” “seeing,” “being merciful,” or “desirous.” In the end, the only activity we could assign to Him, is existence!

A Remarkable Story About Napoleon’s Horse

Byline: Jan 29th, 3:30 PM

Let me tell you an anecdote about Napoleon Bonaparte’s narrow escape from the Suez. His adversary was not an army, but Mother Nature herself! At eight 8:00 AM, when the tide was low, Napoleon went to visit the legendary “Fountains of Moses.” After visiting the springs and speaking with some Arab sheiks, he started to return. Darkness had fallen; the tide was rapidly rising.

Local chiefs told him that it would be wise to camp along the shore until the morning, but Napoleon refused to listen to their practical advice. Gallantly, he called his Arab guide to lead the way. Nervously, the guide took the wrong road down the shore, wasting 15 minutes of  precious time. When they were no more than half-way down the shore, the fast moving tide rushed forward with what seemed to be lightning speed. The little troop fell into disarray, as the riders scattered in different directions. Only Napoleon and his guide were left alone. As the waters began to rise, Napoleon’s horse panicked and refused to move.

One of Napoleon’s tall escorts rushed into the waters, and carried Napoleon upon his shoulders while holding on the tail of the Arab’s horse.  In Dumas’ own words, the destiny of the world might have been altered by the death of a single man carried like a baby in the arms of a big fellow who happened to be his guard. Finally, the escort reached the other shore and gave a cry of relief. Only Napoleon’s  horse had drowned.  Napoleon was deeply shaken, he realized that he might have perished the same way Pharaoh did, in days of old.

At one point Napoleon remarked, “If the ministers of France would have seen this, they would have given one dandy sermon!”

After Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena some seventeen years, he told the story to Count Emanual De Las Cases, the French historian best known as the recorder of Napoleon’s last conversations on St. Helena, and wrote it in his Mémorial de Sainte-Hélene. The story suggests that if an experienced general like Napoleon could have had such trouble and barely escape with his life, all much more so it must have been for so many thousands of Israelites to cross the Sea of Reeds unharmed.

Of course this raises a much more serious question: How many Israelites actually crossed the Sea of Reeds? Inquiring minds want to know … stay tuned for more!

A Midrashic Deconstruction of the Miracle at the Sea

There is a well-known Midrash that tells of God’s reluctance to perform the miracle until He saw Israel make a move itself to deal with the prodigious problem.

All the tribes of Israel were afraid to jump into the water. Each tribe competed with the other in vacillation and retreat from the joint destiny of the nation.  Finally Nahshon ben Aminadav, a prince of the tribe of Judah, fearlessly, he jumped in, and then the members of his tribe followed, and soon all the people joined in.

An early but lesser-known Halachic Midrash tells the story differently: All the tribes competed with each other to be the first to plunge into the Red Sea, to show the way to the others.  In the heat of the competition, the tribe of Benjamin reached the water first. [1] But the message of this Midrash emphasizes the joint courage manifested by a combined effort of all of Israel helped make the miracle a reality.

Rather than passively relying on faith alone, the community stood together. When a faith community work toward a common purpose, great and unexpected things can occur for contrary to Euclid, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. Moderns refer to this concept as “synergy.”

It is unfortunate that of the two Midrashim, the first is better known.  Yet, the first Midrash is, after all, a tragic commentary on the lack of faith within Israel, which in turn prevented them from  working together in finding solutions to the nation’s immediate problems.



[1]For a complete compendium of this material, see R. Menachem Kasher’s Torah Shelmah, Vol. 4 pp. 67-68.

Did the Red Sea Really Split?

In the Hagadah, Jews everywhere chant the “Dyenu” (It would have been enough!) song. Let me give you one of my favorite stanzas that I translated for my students one year:

The Red Sea truly split in half

When Moses raised his mighty staff,

But if no sea had split in half, then dyenu!

This of course raises an interesting question: Did Moses’ mighty staff magically or supernaturally cause the sea to split as commonly portrayed in the movies? Or let us ask in more precise terms: How did the Sea of Reeds actually split? What are the clues of the text?

Details of the biblical story indicate that the splitting of the sea was facilitated by a strong east wind. Intrabiblical criticism suggests that other natural forces played a significant role as well. By the term “intrabiblical,” we mean other biblical passages that elucidate and amplify earlier scriptural narratives, e.g., Passage A expounds Passage B.

The first commentaries of the Bible were not Rashi, Ramban, or Ibn Ezra, or even the Targum; rather, the other biblical writers served as expositors. It follows that the exodus out of Egypt occurred as a direct result of a massive earthquake that devastated Egypt. The “death of the firstborn” in Egypt could fit this description, for as Rashi observes, “firstborn” could mean ‘preeminent,” hence, it alludes to the “flower of Egypt.” An earthquake could also explain how the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds since it was probably an aftershock that produced a low tide.[1]

Although the ancients were not historians in the modern sense of the term (for the first “modern” historian begins with Herodotus), they nevertheless transmitted ancestral memory through its poetry (e.g., the Odyssey). Consider the following biblical text:

With your arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah
The waters saw you, God;
the waters saw you and lashed about,
trembled even to their depths.

The clouds poured down their rains;
the thunderheads rumbled;
your arrows flashed back and forth.
The thunder of your chariot wheels resounded;
your lightning lit up the world;
the earth trembled and quaked.

Psalms 77:16-19

Personally, I have never believed or accepted supernatural interpretations; Jewish exegetes like Maimonides and Gersonides, stress how God typically utilizes natural law to achieve His purpose. Such an attitude allows for a more modern interpretation that does not strain the imagination. After all, the Torah speaks in the language of people, and language also includes poetry and hyperbole–the metaphors of our text.

Similar occurrences have been known to occur throughout history. From the works of the classical sources we learn that Alexander the Great, exploited a similar natural phenomena that enabled his men to ambush the more powerful Persian forces when he found a passage through the Pamphylian Sea in his conquest of the Persian Empire.[2] Once this occurs, human history changes forever. Isn’t it amazing how nature plays a decisive roll in how battles are ultimately determined?

Roman historian Livy records how the winds drove back the waters of the lagoon which enabled Scipio Africanis to capture New Carthage.[3]  Clericus in his commentary on the Pentateuch, also records a similar incident in the Engish-Dutch war in the year 1672. At that time,  the waters recessed at an extraordinary ebb and this natural phenomena  prevented the English from overtaking the Dutch armies.

Human history is often shaped by odd meteorological conditions. Continue reading “Did the Red Sea Really Split?”

Negotiating a Settlement with Pharaoh

Pharaoh asks: “Who are the ones that are going?” (Exod. 10:8).

Was he being serious?  For the first time Pharaoh tried to negotiate a deal before the threatened plague struck. Pharaoh shrewdly responds, “Your men may go and worship the Lord, for that is what you are asking” (Exod. 10:11).

Simply put, Pharaoh insists upon collateral. By holding the men’s families hostage, Pharaoh guarantees that the rest of the  nation would soon return to their workstations after finishing their “vacation.” Moreover, in ancient Egypt, only the menfolk carried out the rituals of worship. The idea of an egalitarian form of worship was totally foreign to Pharaoh.

Religion for Pharaoh is for adults only and reflects an attitude we still hear today in synagogues. No, Judaism is not just for adults, it is for children as well. Indeed, as a wise old rabbi once told me, “A synagogue without children resembles an old-age home; if it has only young people, it resembles an orphanage.” Sometimes we prefer peace and quiet rather than the disquiet of children making noise. Perhaps liberal synagogues can learn a thing or two from their more Orthodox brethren. By involving the children in our services, we help preserve Jewish memory and the chain of tradition continues.

Moses’ firmness served to confirm Pharaoh’s suspicions;  in actuality, Pharaoh cleverly ascertains the motive behind Moses’ real request.  Moses’  “pilgrimage  is really a flight; Pharaoh’s response says it all, “Hey Moses, I wasn’t born yesterday . . .” Continue reading “Negotiating a Settlement with Pharaoh”

The Pathology of “Choseness” and its Discontents (1/29/2010)

The Jewish theologian Mordechai Kaplan was one of the first Jewish thinkers to downplay the idea of a “Chosen People” because of its shadow side (to borrow a metaphor from Jung). “Closeness” is often used as an excuse to subordinate those who are not “chosen,” reducing outsiders as it were to a second-class status of human being. While I may not necessarily agree with Kaplan’s definition of “choseness,” I do believe he makes a valuable point.

Just look at the amount of blood that has been shed over the last 2100 years in the name of God and His “chosen” servants. The record speaks for itself.

As they say in French, “Houston, we got a problem here …”

This is precisely the problem that Western societies are combating—the idea that some people are superior by virtue of their religion. Islam is not the only faith that struggles with this kind of primitive mentality; Judaism suffers continues to struggle–perhaps to a lesser degree–but the mindset of “choseness,” is exactly as Kaplan wisely warned.

It is one thing to say that every people has its defining characteristics and passion. To use a few examples: the French are known for its innovative philosophers and passion for romance; the Italians are appreciated for their love of culture, cuisine, and ancient architecture; the Chinese are famous for its ancient history; the Hindus are famous for their gifts of meditation and spirituality; certainly the Jewish people are driven by a belief in tikkun olam, “improving the world.” This is all fine and good. However, the belief in a “Jewish soul,” carries certain overtones that perilously border the idolatrous—because it often inspires the kind of  zealotry against its enemies that has historically harmed our people.

The French philosopher and Holocaust philosopher Emanuel Levinas explains that morality has an asymmetrical quality; just because someone acts inhumanely toward you, doesn’t give you the right to act inhumanely toward the Other. Obviously, many folks may find such an ethical demand unrealistic or even unfair. However, believing in a moral code demands that we be true to our higher selves and not let the lower impulses urging us to retaliate in the manner of a tit-for-tat. Justice has to be carried out through just means. God always speaks through the human face, and the human face demands without words that we treat our neighbors justly.

When Jews  carry out violent acts against non-Jews, or against Jews who think differently, such issues pose a serious moral problem. If we say nothing, then we are condoning unethical behavior. Jews burning down mosques is not the answer. If we act like our enemies, we are no different from them. Advocates for a tallionic justice (“an eye for an eye”)  represents a retrogression to the worst kind of parochialism of the past. I believe that Judaism did not evolve over the millennia in so that we might once again believe in such a pernicious doctrine. Can we do better than that? As President Obama is fond of saying, “Yes we can!”

Unlike the ancient traditions of Egypt and other peoples of antiquity, the Bible democratized the idea that all people are cast in the image of God—and not just the kings, or the Pharaohs, as the ancients once believed. Just as this was a radical idea in times of antiquity, the concept that every person is made in God’s image still threatens the religious fanatics of all faiths who believe that only they bear the image of the Most High God.

The Dangers of Metaphysical Scarcity

Psychologist Abraham Maslow was fond of saying, “All pathologies dichotomize; all dichotomies pathologize.” I would add that whenever an ideology dichotomizes or pathologizes, in the end it also lobotomizes!

Whenever we create artificial grouping between people based on an imaginary construct of a “Jewish soul,” or for that matter, a “Christian,” or a “Muslim soul,” we are creating an ontological distinction that threatens our common humanity. Such a bifurcation of the human spirit threatens to create a world where the outsiders are routinely pitted against the insiders. Haven’t we seen this time and time again? People who subscribe to the belief in metaphysical scarcity tend to see blessings as being in short supply. Regardless of the extremist sect, there are always winners and losers–as supposedly preordained by God .

But what is it that inspires a madman like  Baruch Goldstein, or a Hamas terrorist  to go on a shooting rampage? What inspires a person like Yitzchak Shapira or a Manis Friedman to think that killing Palestinians may be considered acceptable behavior–regardless whether it involves the shedding of innocent blood?

Fundamentalists all share a mutual love: they derive their theology from their holy writings.

Modern commentaries sometimes speak about certain disturbing passages in the Tanakh, or the Koran, and even the New Testament as “texts of terror.” Examples of this might be the stories of Scripture that suggest the efficacy of murdering innocents in the Name of God, e.g., the most famous being–the binding of Isaac, or the alleged wars  of genocide that God commanded the Israelites to carry out against the Canaanites or Amalekite peoples. These biblical “texts of terror,” are always disturbing, because they offend our contemporary ethical sensibilities–as they probably should. The Koran is certainly not immune to this type of critical reading either, in its formulation of the jihad–the “holy war,” (what an oxymoron!) where heads or limbs of enemies are routinely chopped off, or cauterized, or when people are enslaved–all in the Name of Allah. [1]


Then again, read what Rabbi Shapira writes in his book, “The King’s Torah” that even babies and children can be killed if they pose a threat to the nation.  Shapira based the majority of his teachings on passages quoted from the book of Deuteronomy,  to which he adds his opinions and beliefs. In one passage he notes,  “It is permissible to kill the Righteous among Nations even if they are not responsible for the threatening situation . . . ” He further explains,  ” Any gentile who fails to observe the seven Noahide laws, potentially forfeits his life. Any Jew who executes such an individual is not guilty of homicide . . . If we kill a Gentile who has sinned or has violated one of the seven commandments–because we care about the commandments – there is nothing wrong with the murder.”

Mark Twain once quipped, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” Yeah, many of us can relate to that truism …  We have a duty to openly discuss the problematical passages  with our faith communities; we need to challenge rabbinic authorities who tacitly endorse vigilantism. We can ill-afford to let rabbinic extremism go unchecked.

Understanding the “texts of terror” and confronting those who preach them to the masses in the name of Halacha, is the best way of preventing future episodes of violence from happening.



[1] Andrew G. Boston and Ibn Warraq, The Legacy of Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims (New York: Prometheus Books, 2008).

Combating the Virus of Religious Intolerance (1/30/2010)

As I begin my day, I wonder …. Maybe Mark Twain was right when he said, “Man was made at the end of the week’s work, when God was tired!”

At times it seems as though the world is reverting to a more atavistic state of its evolutionary history. Yet, unlike the denizens of nature, human evolution is unique in that humankind is capable of remapping its evolutionary trajectory. Every faith community has a sacred task at hand–to combat the enemy from within. Religious intolerance continues to find new adherents willing to commit unspeakable atrocities in the name of Yahweh, Allah, and Christ. Whether it is an Christian extremist  bombing an abortion clinic in the South, or suicide bombers killing scores of people in Iraq and in other troubled parts of the world, the mentality of hate still remains the same.  Sadly, the Jewish community is not immune to this virus of religious intolerance that continues to infect our people.

Religious zealotry is not a new problem in Jewish history; in fact, its antecedents contributed toward the final demise of Judea, when it fought its war against the Roman legions over 2000 years ago. When religious leaders fuse religion and politics together, the combination becomes lethal–not unlike the biblical prohibition against cooking meat and milk together.  George Santyana’s dictum, “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it,” certainly applies whenever we fail to learn from the lessons of history.

This past week, the Israeli Shin Bet arrested Rabbi Yitzchak Shapira,  whose rabbinical students were allegedly involved in torching a Palestinian mosque in the village of Yasuf last month. Let me point out from the outset that most people living in the West Bank are not hooligans looking for a fight, but this particular rabbi is very disturbing because he has recently published a book where he advocates murdering Palestinian men, women, and children–regardless whether they are decent folk or not. According to Shapira, the Palestinians are the “Canaanites” of our time.

It is no coincidence that Rabbi Shapira happens to be a Chabad Rabbi and while Chabad has understandably distanced itself from Rabbi Shapira, it seems that Chabad theology has definitely colored this rabbi’s worldview. If Rabbi Shapira were a lone voice, I would be inclined to give the Lubavitcher movement the benefit of the doubt. However, anyone who researches this matter will see that Rabbi Shapira’s ideology bears a striking resemblance to other prominent Chabad rabbis of note, particularly, Rabbi Abraham Hecht and Rabbi Manis Friedman. Both men are considered to be important representatives of the Lubavitcher movement.

For those readers who may not remember, shortly after Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and Foreign Minister Peres signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, Hecht told the International Rabbinical Coalition for Israel that “Anyone who intentionally hands over [the] bodies [or] property … of the Jewish people to an alien people is guilty of the sin for which the penalty is death … If a man kills him, he has done a good deed.”[1]

Unfortunately, Hecht was by no means the only person advocating such an opinion. Within a year, on the evening of Yom Kippor of 1994, a group of right-wing Israelis led by Avigdor Eskin, gathered outside the home of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Wrapped in prayer shawls, these men chanted an Aramaic curse known as “Pulsa da-Nura” (“Lashes of Fire”), beseeching God: “I deliver to you, the angels of wrath and ire, Yitzhak, the son of Rosa Rabin, that you may smother him and the specter of him, and cast him into bed, and dry up his wealth, and plague his thoughts, and scatter his mind that he may be steadily diminished until he reaches his death. Put to death the cursed Yitzhak. May [he] be damned, damned, damned!”

According to Jewish tradition, words can hurt–even kill–more than sticks and stones. Hateful words lead to hateful acts of violence. This may explain why an assassin killed Yitzchak Rabin. Actually, when someone turns against the “outsider,” it is only a matter of time before that person(s) turns against a fellow insider as well. This can be seen in Levi and Simeon’s attack against the townspeople of Shechem–the most grizzly story of Genesis (Gen. 34 ff.). Shortly afterward, we see how the sons of Leah took their rage out on Joseph, the favored son of Jacob (Gen. 37 ff.). Internecine warfare among Semitic families has long been one of the most enduring legacies  of the ancient world. The message is so obvious, how can we ignore the warning of our tradition?

Last May, Moment Magazine decided to write an interesting article on, “How Should Jews Treat Their Arab Neighbors?” A variety of  modern rabbinic perspectives–ranging from the humanistic to the Sephardic and Modern Orthodox–all stressed the importance of peaceful co-existence, tolerance, and its importance for both Arabs and Israelis alike.

One response stood out like a sore thumb–Rabbi Manis Friedman. As one of the main translators of his mentor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, many of us were stunned when the popular Chabad writer (“Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore?” is really an excellent book) offered a perspective that was surprisingly reminiscent of the view expressed by Shapira.

I don’t believe in western morality, i.e. don’t kill civilians or children, don’t destroy holy sites, don’t fight during holiday seasons, don’t bomb cemeteries, don’t shoot until they shoot first because it is immoral.The only way to fight a moral war is the Jewish way: Destroy their holy sites. Kill men, women and children (and cattle). [Emphasis mine.]

The first Israeli prime minister who declares that he will follow the Old Testament will finally bring peace to the Middle East. First, the Arabs will stop using children as shields. Second, they will stop taking hostages knowing that we will not be intimidated. Third, with their holy sites destroyed, they will stop believing that G-d is on their side. Result: no civilian casualties, no children in the line of fire, no false sense of righteousness, in fact, no war.

Zero tolerance for stone throwing, for rockets, for kidnapping will mean that the state has achieved sovereignty. Living by Torah values will make us a light unto the nations who suffer defeat because of a disastrous morality of human invention.

Rabbi Manis Friedman
Bais Chana Institute of Jewish Studies
St. Paul, MN

Maybe Friedman sipped too much vodka at a frabrengen (a Lubavitcher drinking party)!

In fairness to the critics of the peace process, dealing with the likes of Arafat and his henchmen proved to be morally challenging, if not impossible. There is good reason to feel skeptical about Oslo. However, when Friedman penned his response, he criticized not just the peace process, but also the conventional conceptions of Western morality as articulated by Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Kant, Mill, Levinas, Buber, and many of the world’s greatest ethical teachers of history.  I would add that one can hardly criticize what one has not studied. Unfortunately, Chabad never studies philosophy–or even Jewish philosophy–outside of Chabad Hassidut. Herein is the tragedy of  its myopic vision.

The author of the bestselling “Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore?”  evidently has much to blush about. Rabbinic wisdom warns,  “Sages, watch what you say, lest you become liable to the punishment of exile, and go into exile to a place of foul water, and disciples who follow you drink [foul water] and die, and the name of Heaven be thereby profaned.” [2]

(more to follow)

[1] Larry Yudelson, (1995-06-23). “Rabbis against peace treaty mull assassination, revolts”. Jewish Telegraphic Agency (reprinted in the Jewish news weekly of Northern California). Retrieved 2007-03-26.

[2] Avoth 1:11.

Maimonides’ Exposition on the Road Less Traveled

Commenting on the verse, “Now, when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the Philistines’ land, though this was the nearest; for he thought, should the people see that they would have to fight, they might change their minds and return to Egypt” (Exod. 13:17).

This passage has always bothered me. The rational given by the biblical narrator  is irrelevant. Had God led the Israelites directly to the Promised Land, there would never have been a revelation at Mt. Sinai!

Despite the obvious problems with the text,  Maimonides’  exposition is still spiritually suggestive and most relevant for those of us who find ourselves traveling upon the road less traveled. Maimonides writes extensively about the nature of tribulations within the greater scheme of an individual’s personal evolution. According to Maimonides, man is a pilgrim on a special soulful journey. Human evolution is slow and painstaking. God often leads a person (or a people) along an indirect route. As it turns out in the drama of the Exodus, the seemingly indirect path is essential to transform them from slavery into freedom. Rather than forcing us to change abruptly, God works within the constraints of our nature and situation while gradually shepherding and prodding us along the spiritual path leading to Him. [1]

Israel’s earliest experiences in the Sinai wilderness foreshadow the difficulties to come in their forty year journey. An easy and comfortable exodus would not provide the fortitude necessary to persevere through the enormous adversity ahead. Israel’ first post-Exodus ordeal thus serves not only to temper their faith, but also to strengthen their collective character. For Israel to recognize that she is wholly dependent upon God’s tender mercies for survival is the important cornerstone upon which her future builds. It is no wonder that the miracle at the Red Sea becomes a paradigm for all future acts of Divine rescue.

The timing of the Red Sea miracle is exquisite. If the Israelites take any other route, the splitting of the Red Sea is impossible within natural law. As with all the previous plagues, Divine power prefers to operate within the bounds of nature. The chapter shows once again how God utilizes Pharaoh’s stubborn disposition and weakness of will to ultimately glorify Himself before the Israelites and the Egyptians. Pharaoh and the imperial Egyptian army are destroyed, thus bringing closure to the saga of the Exodus.

Modern biblical scholarship views the text as a tapestry of traditions interwoven together. This view suggests that originally, the escape from Egypt and the sea crossing were originally independent traditions that were brought together later to form the present text. Regardless how the text came to assume its present form, the present narrative shaped the collective psyche as to how Israel would perceive God manifests His Presence in the subsequent history of Israel. The narrative teaches two other important lessons (1) God protects His people in times of crisis (2) God ultimately holds wicked leaders and their  governments accountable and responsible for their crimes; there is a just order that exists within the world, and ultimately it is Providence that prevails.

Respecting the Limits of Human Knowlege

Most Jews tend to identify Maimonides, Saadia Gaon, Judah HaLevi, Martin Buber as among  the great Jewish philosophers of all time, but there are a number of ancient Jewish thinkers whose ideas are rich with originality; in fact, their insights are no less valuable today than they were over two thousand years when they first introduced their wisdom to the world.

Among those scholars we are quoting, we will cite the Wisdom of Ben Sira, who is better known by his Greek name, Sirach. Sirach’s perspective on many philosophical themes continue to delight moderns, and I am glad to consider myself among his followers. Ben Sira lived about 2200 years ago and his book almost made it into the Bible, but fell a little short of the mark. I imagine that the conservatives of Late Antiquity probably felt a little threatened by Sira’s novel way of looking at Judaic wisdom. In modern terms, Ben Sira never worried about “political correctness.” His straight-forward style of writing puts him in a class all of his own.

The second thinker we shall examine is Philo of Alexandria, who arguably is considered the founder of medieval theology. He is the first Jewish thinker to fully integrate Judaic and Greek thought. He flourished in Alexandria, a city that rivaled even Athens when it came to wisdom. Founded by Jewish settlers who admired Alexander the Great. Alexandria soon produced the world’s first university. Philo would have disappeared from Jewish history had it not been for the Early Church Fathers who admired his exegetical style and originality. Had Maimonides been familiar with Philo’s writings, he would have quoted him profusely.

Here is one example how the ancient Jewish thinkers briefly dealt with the issue, “On the Limits of Human Knowledge.”

Ben Sira says, “What is too sublime for you, seek not, into things beyond your strength search not. What is committed to you, attend to; for what is hidden is not your concern. With what is too much for you meddle not, when shown things beyond human understanding. Their own opinion has misled many, and false reasoning unbalanced their judgment. Where the pupil of the eye is missing, there can be no light; and where there is no knowledge, there is no wisdom” (Sirach 3:19-24).

Philo says, “For it does not say that the wise man saw God but that God appeared to the wise man; for it was impossible for anyone to comprehend by his own unassisted power the true living God, unless he himself displayed and revealed himself to him” (On Abraham, 4).

In general, the Sages disliked the speculative thinking of Greek thought and culture. The Sages’ reticence to embrace philosophical wisdom were reinforced by the tragic experiences of the famous four teachers who had studied the ultimate mysteries: Akiba, Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma and Elisha ben Abuyah. A cryptic passage tells of their fate: “Ben Azzai gazed and died; Ben Zoma gazed and became demented; Acher (Elisha) cut the plants (turned apostate); R. Akiba departed in peace.” [1] As to what exactly happened to these men, we will leave aside for another discussion.

Interestingly enough, Rabbi Akiba is considered by some modern scholars to be among the early founders of Jewish mysticism. Mysticism often propels its followers to abandon the material world but in R. Akiba’s case, we can discover the mystical realm through our ordinary interactions; the world is full of mystical expression and meaning–all we have to do is to pay attention to the synchronicity of events that unfold in our lives daily.

The assertion that God is invisible made Him seem  unreal for people who were accustomed to identify reality with concreteness. The rabbis often felt that the human mind could barely grasp the existence of God’s Reality, but could never comprehend the nature of  God’s essential nature.  Thus it is related in a Talmudic anecdote that the Emperor Hadrian had said to Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah: “I desire to behold your God.” Rabbi Joshua explained to him that it was impossible. Still and all, the Emperor persisted. Finally, the rabbi relented and asked him to stand in a fixed gaze at the sun. The Emperor found the sun’s light too strong to behold. Triumphantly, the rabbi exclaimed: “If you admit that you are unable to look at the sun, which is only one of the ministering servants of the Holy Blessed One, how can you honestly expect to behold God, Whose existence is even more dazzling?” For some of the Sages, the reality of God by analogy to the soul whose specific abode we do not know and of which we have no direct concrete experience. That, however, does not make it unreal. [2]



[1] BT  Hagiga 14b, Zohar I, 26b.

[2] BT Hullin 59b; Midrash Tehillim, Psa. 103:1.