Eclipses in Jewish Tradition

This past week, some of my congregants asked me: What does Jewish tradition have to say about solar eclipses?

Like many ancient peoples, the Jews did not develop a scientific understanding of eclipses until much later in its history. Before we examine what exactly Jewish tradition says about this topic, I would like to preface my remarks with some general observations drawn from human history. The human evolution regarding how eclipses occur forms the cultural backdrop that will help us better understand and appreciate the views that emerged in Jewish folklore and history.

Mythical Perspectives on Eclipses

When our prehistoric ancestors first began observing the sun, moon, stars and planets, they realized that all life on this world depends upon the orderly movement of these celestial bodies. Should one of these bodies get displaced, the ancients feared that the world might come to a sudden end. Without the aid of science to explain how and why eclipses occur, the ancients resorted to myth to explain the nature of these anomalies of nature. Some of these myths portray the Sun fighting with its lover, the Moon. Other myths depict the sun and moon making love under a cloak of darkness. One myth that has enduring value is that the belief that the concord and well-being of the Earth depends upon the Sun and the Moon. Although we live in a scientific world, still, nothing conveys the visceral power of this realization such as the power of myth. It is in the realm of myth all these celestial bodies become larger than life.

According to ancient Egyptian myth, the evil deity Set disguised himself as a black pig and leaped into the eye of his brother Horus, the sun deity and blinded his eye. But eventually, Horus regains his vision through the work of  Thout, the moon goddess, who regulates such disturbances as eclipses and is also the healer of eyes. In one of the ancient depictions, the emblem of the winged Sun resembles modern day pictures of the sun’s elongated corona. It is important to remember that myth and science have one thing in common: each approach attempts to understand the order and mysteries of the universe. Sometimes mythic expositions can be very imaginative and profound.

In Tahiti it was believed that eclipses occurred when the sun and moon were mating. Indian tribes such as the Tlingit Indians of the Pacific coast in northern Canada, and other North American Indian tribes had similar beliefs. A Germanic myth sees the love relationship going sour as the principle reason why eclipses occur, as one scholar explained:

  • The male Moon married the female Sun. But the cold Moon could not satisfy the passion of his fiery bride. He wanted to go to sleep instead. The Sun and Moon made a bet: whoever awoke first would rule the day. The Moon promptly fell asleep, but the Sun, still irritated, awoke at 2 a.m. and lit up the world. The day was hers; the Moon received the night. The Sun swore she would never spend the night with the Moon again, but she was soon sorry. And the Moon was irresistibly drawn to his bride. When the two come together, there is a solar eclipse, but only briefly. The Sun and Moon begin to reproach one another and fall to quarreling. Soon they go their separate ways, the Sun blood-red with anger.[1]

Eclipses in the Tanakh?

Although eclipses are not specifically mentioned in the Tanakh, but there are some passages that speak about celestial anomalies that include the darkening of the skies—either by clouds or eclipses, or some inexplicable phenomenon.[2] For example, the prophet Isaiah says, “I clothe the heavens in mourning, and make sackcloth their vesture” and this verse could be alluding to a solar or lunar eclipse.[3] The medieval exegete Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) thought that the verse, “I go about in sunless gloom, I rise in the assembly and cry for help” (Job 30:28) might also refer to solar eclipse since the verb  קָדַר (ḏǎr) means to grow dark, or the darkening of the sun and moon.[4]

Perhaps the most important passage that bears wisdom on our discussion is from Jeremiah 10:2.

Thus says the LORD:

Learn not the customs of the nations,

and have no fear of the signs of the heavens,

though the nations fear them.

Throughout the ancient Mesopotamian world, people worshiped the celestial gods (sun god, moon god and Venus particularly; in Babylonia, Shamash, Sin and Ishtar respectively) were primary in most ancient religions. Their followers looked for astrological signs and omens how to live their lives. Human beings were believed to be at the mercy of these cosmic deities, and that is why Jeremiah warns the Israelites to abandon these foolish beliefs. Jeremiah’s warning is no less relevant today. In the next section, we will give some examples of how some rabbinic teachers rejected Jeremiah’s wise teaching.

Early Rabbinic Discussions

Similar to other ancient traditions in the world, Talmudic texts assert that an eclipse of the sun is an evil omen for the peoples of the world. However, a lunar eclipse is a particular fatality for Israel, the reason being is since Jews reckon their calendar by the phases of the moon.[5] Rabbi Meir in the Talmud offers an analogy, “A parable: This can be compared to a human monarch who prepared a feast for his subjects, and placed a lantern before them. When he grew angry with them, he told his servant, “Take away their lantern away, and let them sit in darkness!”[6]

And the Talmud goes on to elaborate about the root causes of eclipses.

  • If, during an eclipse, the visage of the sun is red like blood, it is an omen that sword, i.e., war, is coming to the world. If the sun is black like sackcloth  made of dark goat hair, it is an omen that arrows of hunger are coming to the world, because hunger darkens people’s faces. When it is similar both to this, to blood, and to that, to sackcloth, it is a sign that both sword and arrows of hunger are coming to the world. If it was eclipsed upon its entry, soon after rising, it is an omen that calamity is tarrying to come. If the sun is eclipsed upon its departure at the end of the day, it is an omen that calamity is hastening to come. And some say the matters are reversed: An eclipse in the early morning is an omen that calamity is hastening, while an eclipse in the late afternoon is an omen that calamity is tarrying.[7]

I can sense what some of you are probably thinking—modern Jews don’t think or believe this way! Let us borrow a page from Maimonides’ play book. We are not obligated to justify every remark found in the Talmud if it violates common sense, science, and reason. This is not meant as a blasphemous criticism of the rabbis, it is merely a statement of fact. All of us today living benefit from the evolution of our society. We are no longer living as Carl Sagan once described, “a demon-haunted world.” Socrates once said, “We are all midgets standing upon the shoulders of giants” and as a result, we are able to see further than our forbearers did.

The Talmudic discussion about eclipses continue:

  • The Sages taught that on account of four matters the sun is eclipsed: On account of a president of the court who dies and is not eulogized appropriately, and the eclipse is a type of eulogy by Heaven; on account of a betrothed young woman who screamed in the city that she was being raped and there was no one to rescue her; on account of homosexuality; and on account of two brothers whose blood was spilled as one. And on account of four matters the heavenly lights are eclipsed: On account of forgers of a fraudulent document [pelaster] that is intended to discredit others; on account of testifiers of false testimony; on account of raisers of small domesticated animals in the Land of Israel in a settled area; and on account of choppers of good, fruit-producing trees.

To Rashi’s credit, he admitted, לא שמעתי טעם בדבר —“I do not have an explanation for this …,” and I would venture to say Maimonides and the other rationalist medieval thinkers of his age probably felt the same. But the same cannot be said about the Kabbalists, for their mystical writings often gives credence to superstition. This was one of the principle reasons Maimonides warred with the Kabbalists regarding their use of magic and other superstitious practices. Hassidic homes still feature amulets designed to chase away the evil eye.

While most ancient rabbis were unfamiliar with Greek science and astronomy, there were some notable exceptions. The Talmud records, “Rabban Gamaliel had a tube through which he could see at a distance of two thousand cubits across the land and a corresponding distance across the sea” Steinsaltz explains that Rabban Gamaliel utilized a device known as the astrolabe, which was first invented by the Greek astronomer Apollonius of Perga between 220 and 150 B.C.E. This device made it possible to make astronomical measurements regarding the altitudes and movements of the stars; it was especially used in navigation for calculating latitude before the sextant was developed. We must not think all rabbis were primitive, but they were, after all, men of their age.

Concluding Thoughts

Personally speaking, I think the mythic accounts depicting the eclipse as a dangerous phenomenon of nature were more correct than moderns might be willing to admit. That being said, the Talmud and other mythic accounts overlook the most obvious reason why the ancients feared solar eclipses: blindness! As we read in the news the other day, hundreds of thousands of people across the world might go blind or have their vision permanently impaired as a result of gazing at the solar eclipse. There can be no doubt this was certainly no less true in primal times and this simple fact is probably why the ancients viewed the solar eclipses with trepidation and fear.

Among Halakhic scholars, there is no reference for anyone having to say a blessing be recited over the eclipse, especially when considering the potential danger it poses to our vision. This, in my opinion, seems sensible and logical. However, as one modern Halakhic scholar observed, “R. Lau noted that his own religious response to witnessing the eclipse had been to say Psalm 19, “The Heavens tell of God’s glory,” and Psalm 104, “My soul will bless God.”

[1] Mark Littmann, Fred Espenak, and Ken Willcox, Totality: Eclipses of the Sun (New York: Oxford UP, 2008), pp. 43-44.

[2] Isa 5:30; 13:10; 24:23; Ezek. 32:7–8; Joel 2:15; 2:30-32; 3:15; Amos 8:9; Zeph. 1:15

[3] Ibn Ezra thought it might be referring to angels.

[4] Cf. Job 6:16; 30:28; Jer. 4:28; Joel 2:10; 4:15; Mic 3:6.

[5] Mekhilta Bo, 1.; BT Sukkah 29a.

[6] BT Sukkah 29a.

[7] BT Sukkah with Steinsaltz’s Commentary Sukkah 29a.

[8] See Jeremy Brown’s fine article, The Great American Eclipse of 2017: Halachic and Philosophical Aspects, in http://www.hakirah.org/vol23brown.pdf.  See also Rabbi Tendler in Moreshet Moshe v. 2 p. 51 quotes Rav Moshe Feinstein as explaining that “there’s no bracha for seeing a solar or lunar eclipse and in fact it is a negative sign” And the Responsa Aseh Lecha Rav 150 agrees that a beracha should not be recited because no such beracha is mentioned in the Gemara.

The Jewish Calendar: History and Inner Workings — Book Review

 

The Jewish Calendar: History and Inner Workings by Dr. Fred Reiss — Reviewer Rabbi Dr. Michael Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California — The study of the Jewish calendar is not one of the easiest topics to research.  It is an area that most rabbis have at best a general knowledge of the history. Dr. Fred Reiss chronicles how the Jewish calendar evolved over the centuries and for that alone, his new book, The Jewish Calendar: History and Inner Workings is a good read.

Although the existence of a calendar is implied in the early books of Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus, it is only in the book of Numbers the first formal imperative to celebrate the New Moon is found (Num. 10:10), despite the fact that Leviticus 23 mentions all the festivals and holy days! Historically and biblically Rosh Hodesh certainly figures prominently in the original Passover holiday. Reiss points out that “based on the Book of Exodus, the Israelites, as a nation, officially adopted a lunar calendar about the middle of the 15th century BCE, but rejected the foreign names for the days of the week and months of the year” (pp. 29-30).

Unlike the Muslims who employ a purely lunar calendar, the Hebrew calendar, as Reiss explains is a lunisolar calendar, “whose months start with the New Moon and seasons of the year regulated by the sun.” Reiss is correct, for the Passover holiday must always occur in the month of aviv (often rendered as “spring”) but means “barley harvest.” As Reiss noted further that in the event the barley harvest was not ready, the ancients intercalated a month. Interestingly, as Philo noted (I am quoting my research on this matter), the Passover always had to occur at the vernal equinox. Reiss also makes reference to this point as well, but the origin traces back to Philo of Alexandria. Rosh Hodesh (“the head of the month”) has historically been determined by the sighting of the new moon’s crescent. In a lunar calendar, it occurs on a cycle of slightly more than 29 days. In ancient times, the Sanhedrin used to determine whether a month had 29 or 30 days and all this was predicated upon the visual observation of witnesses.

In the first chapter of the book, Reiss chronicles the development of the Hebrew calendar and its various permutations over the centuries. When the witnesses appeared, the Rosh Hodesh was celebrated and that day it was counted was marked as the first of the month. If no witnesses appeared, then the next day was designated as the Rosh Hodesh.

It is often hard for moderns to grasp what the world was like without the Internet. How did peoples communicate with one another about the Rosh Hodesh? Well, fires were lit on the Mount of Olives and this signaled to other communities to light their bonfires, and within minutes, the entire country knew when it was the New Moon. The High Priest used to make the final ruling whether or not to declare a new month.

Reiss documents how the Babylonian Jews used the Assyrian/Babylonian calendar month names, which are pretty much the same names Jews use today. When the Greeks conquered the Ancient Near East, Greek astronomy and mathematics enabled “clandestine” rabbinic councils to ascertain the arrival of the New Moon.
When one considers the number of Nobel Prize winners that happen to be Jewish, it is sometimes difficult for me to imagine why our ancestors struggled so hard in developing a Jewish calendar that was based in mathematics that would supplant the older witnessing system used by the previous generations of Jews.  Why didn’t our ancestors figure this out centuries before?

Historically, after the Jewish revolts against Rome, most Jews were dispersed from Judea, the old system certifying and signaling new moons and months in what the Romans had renamed Palestine, was in dissolution. This problem certainly worried the early generations of rabbis who realized that a new calendar for fixing our months became essential based on mathematical calculations.

A small council of rabbis guarded the secret instructions for constructing the calendar, until the mid-fourth century CE when, due to repressive acts and ultimate dissolution of the Jewish Court by Roman emperors, Hillel II, President of the Jewish Court in Babylonia, revealed those rules, so that Jews are able to construct their religious calendar.

As Reiss noted the Jewish calendar, once established by Hillel the Second in the middle of the fourth century, has never been adjusted. Even though the monthly moon cycle varies by as much as +/- 0.7 days per lunar cycle, and this can complicate the actual times when a holiday is supposed to begin. Interestingly, there has never been an instance where a new moon was ever sighted before the Hebrew calendar date. NASA claims to have improved on the amazingly precise lunar cycle of 29.53059 days used in the Jewish calendar. It has been said that even the great 18th century Vilna Gaon believed there were mistakes in the Jewish calendar.

Toward the end of the book, Reiss discusses some of the problems inherent in the Jewish calendar and the Orthodox rabbinic responses have varied over time. He discusses a number of different suggestions to the problems, but this is one topic that does not seem to have any immediate resolution as the author noted.

Personally, I have read a number of articles in Israeli journals and papers written by Orthodox scholars who think with the help of computer technology, we can now correct a number of these internal flaws embedded in the Jewish calendar we now use.

Although we have two days of Yom Tov in the Diaspora, there is still value in keeping the tradition because it reminds us that the majority of the Jews living today do not live in the Land of Israel. Yet, even in the medieval period, three days dedicated to Yom Tov and Shabbat often made it very hard for a struggling Jewish family to make a living.

Whether such changes will occur, this remains to be seen.

Reiss raises many interesting question readers might find interesting in knowing about the ancient Jewish calendar’s history: What is the definition of lunation time? Why have the rabbis condensed seven days into four days? Why is the High Holy Day of Rosh Hashanah often postponed? The civil calendar is either 365 or 366-days long, why does the Jewish calendar have six different year lengths? The Julian calendar repeats every twenty-eight years, the Gregorian calendar every four hundred years, why does it take 689,472 years for the Jewish calendar to repeat? All calendars have errors, what are the Jewish calendar’s errors and what do they affect?

When you read this book, you will find the answers quite illuminating and informative.
*
Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista, is author of numerous books including the Rediscovering Philo of Alexandria Commentary on the Pentateuch.

 

 

More Thoughts on the Origin of Minyan

Image result for pictures of a minyan

Askarabbi: What is the origin of the Minyan?

The custom of the minyan is only rabbinic in origin. When examining the minyan’s origins, it is vital we remember that this custom is not something that is etched in stone. However, as a custom, it does have a rich and variegated history that cannot be reduced to a single point of view–nor should it be.

The origin of the minyan is discussed in the Talmud. Some expositions are much more oblique than others  [1], while other suppositions are by far, more lucid. The Midrash Tanchuma (Parshat Miketz 6) explains that since the time of Abraham’s famous defense of the Sodomites, namely that a “congregation” consisted no less than ten people, for ten constitutes an “edah” a “community.” On the other hand, that both Talmudic traditions stress only men make up a “congregation,” even though the Abrahamic story clearly indicates that women also made up part of the minyan Abraham was seeking to extricate!! [2]

On the other hand, there are other rabbinical passages dating back to the Gaonic era (8th-10th centuries) that in Palestine, a minyan consisted may have consisted of seven or six people.[3]

The liturgical historian Abraham Milgram notes that after WWII, a number of Jewish communities actually went back to counting six or seven people as a “minyan,” until the time their ranks would grow in number. This specifically happened in the city of Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia. Incidentally, the framers of the Halacha were well aware of this possibility and its antecedents in Jewish tradition.  In functional terms they ruled, if a prayer leader began saying the Kaddish, or for that matter any other portion of the service that would ordinarily require ten people[3], one may conclude any of these services so long as at least six men remain in the sanctuary.[4]

Some sources suggest that even nine people could constitute a minyan so long as the Ark is open; this does not mean that the “Ark is a person,” but rather God’s Presence can also make up as the “tenth man” so to speak.  There is some Aggadic basis for this custom. When Joseph disappeared, the verse later says that “his father wept for him,” which could mean either Jacob (the plain meaning of the text) or possibly, Isaac. One Midrashic account raises an obvious question: “If Isaac knew that Joseph was alive, why doesn’t he reveal this fact to Jacob?” The Midrash answers, “The Holy One, blessed be He, has not revealed it to him; am I then to reveal it to him?” This statement gave rise to the odd rabbinic theory that God was part of the brothers’ conspiracy never to reveal the whereabouts of Joseph!!

Elsewhere, the Halacha mentions a number of other secondary Halachic references indicate that even a child may be used to make up the 10th person of a minyan—so long as he knows how to pray or holds a chumash in his hand (O.H. 55:4, see Mishnah Berurah on note 24), or according to another Ba’al HaMaor (cited in by the Rav 55:5), even four minors may be added to the minyan. One medieval source, Rabbanu Simcha adds that even a woman may count as the tenth person; it is remarkable that R. Sheneir Zalman of Liadi rules in his Rav’s Shulchan Aruch (O.H. 55:5) that one may rely on this lenient opinion—despite the fact that one would never expect to see such a leniency ever practiced in a Lubavitcher minyan!! (When I once brought this to a local and well-known Chabad rabbi, he looked at me with great surprise. But the truth and the texts speak for themselves!)

This type of reasoning is called, “pilpul” (pepper), and such didactic approaches while they may be interesting, are obviously far from being the contextual meaning of the text.

When examining rabbinic traditions regarding the minyan, it is important to bear in mind that in rabbinic times, only men attended the congregations to pray. In reality it is not the interpretation of the verse that creates the custom, but quite the reverse: it is the already existing custom that creates the interpretation that justifies its etiology.  Nowadays, since women also form a part of our society’s leadership, there is ample reason to argue that a woman should be included as part of the minyan. As social realities change, so too does the interpretation. This is the way it has always been, there is no logical or compelling reason to think otherwise.


[1]One traditional source in T.B. Megillah 23b records that a minyan derives a semantic connection regarding the word “midst,” mentioned in the precept of sanctifying God’s Name (Lev. 22:32) and another passage that speaks about Moses and Aaron separating themselves from the “midst,” of the congregation (16:21). Concerning the latter, the term “midst” is used in conjunction with the phrase “congregation,” i.e.,  the ten spies who brought back a negative report of the Land of Israel. This interpretation is hopelessly contorted and forced.

[2] Tractate Soferim 10:8. According to the Zohar: זוהר – השמטות כרך א (בראשית) דף רנה עמוד א
, וכשאינה מוצא חוזרת ופותחת ואומרת רבש”ע אולי ימצאון שם עשרה כלומר אולי ימצא ביניהם מי שעוסק בעשרה מאמרות ובעשרת הדברות בכל יום וכן אולי ימצאון ביניהם עשרה שמקדימים לבית הכנסת דהא תנן כל הנמנה עם עשרה ראשונים לבית הכנסת נוטל שכר כנגד כלם שבאים אחריו מה כתיב לא אשחית בעבור העשרה כל זה יש לנשמת הצדיק ללמד סניגורייא וזכות על הרשעים להשקיט האף והחמה וכיון שלא מצאה שום זכות ללמד

Keter Yonathan

כתר יונתן בראשית פרשת וירא פרק יח
(לב) ויאמר אנא ברחמים מלפניך אל נא יתחזק רוגזו של רבון כל העולמים יי ואדבר אך הפעם הזאת אולי ימצאון שם עשרה ונהיה אני והם ונבקש רחמים על כל המקום ותמחל להם ויאמר לא אשחית בגלל זכות עשרה:

[3] Rabbanu Yona of Gerona (ca. 14th century, Spain)  notes that not all rituals which sanctify the Almighty’s name are classified as “de’varim shebikdusha” ( BT Berachot 21a, s.v., “v’nik’dash’ti”). Such examples would include: Kedusha, Cha’zor’at Hashatz, Ne’si’at Kapayim, K’riat Hatorah, or the recitation of the  Haftorah with its accompanying blessings. Simply put, the acceptance of the heavenly yoke in the recitation of the “Shema” is not a precept requiring a minyan per se.  Wherever there is a sanctification of God’s Name, that is where a minyan is thus required. These specific services cannot be performed in the absence of the minyan quorum. There are other important implications with respect to the precept of martyrdom that requires that one be willing to die in the presence of at least ten Jews–and Maimonides makes no distinction about the gender or even the age of these individuals. Since the laws of minyan derive from this particular biblical precept, it follows that there is ample room for a different and newer kind of deconstruction of the minyan concept that modern Orthodox rabbis have neglected to consider.

[4] O.H. 55:2, with the Mishnah Berurah’s notes.

[5] See Genesis Rabbah 84:22.

Book Review on Yoram Hazony’s God and Politics in Esther

God and Politics in Esther

— Yoram Hazony’s exposition of the Book of Esther is priceless. In my Judaism 101 class, everyone read a little bit from God and Politics in Esther and the discussions that ensued made the time move so quickly . . . All my students quickly ordered their copies; they are all having an exciting time discussing it with their friends.

The Book of Esther has always been one of the most enigmatic books of the Bible. The absence of God’s Name in this charming book gives it a unique distinction among all the other biblical books. As Hazony points out in his introduction:

When the rabbis spoke of the giving of Torah to the Jewish people, they argued that it had been accepted not once, but twice: Once at Sinai at the beginning of the Bible, and then again at the end, in the time of Esther. (p.2).

The nexus of Sinai and Esther provides a remarkable contrast. The theophany (revelation) at Sinai is replete with what moderns describe as “special effects,” the background and sensory images overpowered the people. But the acceptance of the Torah in Esther’s time marks an absence of the Divine Presence. God is hidden, and Esther’s name intimates a very different kind of reality, Hazony argues, one where the voices of the prophets are no longer discernable:

Esther describes a world in which the Jews are distant from their land, their tradition, and their God . . .(p.2)

Like a master artist, Hazony describes Jewish vulnerability at this point in history, where the Jews are no longer master of their own destinies; they exist at the whim of a Persian King who with the power of a word, could decree life and death—as Queen Vashti quickly discovered. He notes:

In exile, the Jews must live in dispersion, their institutions weak, their concerns wandering far from Jewish things, and their politics alienated from every obvious source of cohesiveness, direction and strength. It is clear at the outset that under such conditions, there is no possibility of freely seeking and implementing any Jewish ideal … (p.2).

Esther reveals the fragility of the Jewish people who are a minority living in a powerful empire that can scarcely notice its Jewish subjects. The Jewish people themselves are not sure where and how they fit; their ambivalence can be seen even in how Mordechai and Esther regard their Jewish heritage by assimilating to their new home. Mordechai’s message to Esther, when she is taken to the harem, “ Just fit in!”

Most Orthodox friends I know might not agree with Hazony’s view that Mordechai and Esther were assimilated Jews (p. 1). However, a similar argument certainly could be made about Joseph, who takes on a completely new identity once he becomes the viceroy of Egypt (Gen. 41:41-45).

Reminiscent of Malbim’s commentary on the Book of Esther, Hazony points out that King Achashverosh never regarded his wife Vashti as a life partner and mate. He viewed her as yet another, “accoutrement in his demonstration of total power: The empire is to admire her object beauty and to be impressed that the king has—as the Talmudic scholar Rav depicts Achashverosh as saying—such a “vessel” for his “use” (p. 11).

Although there is an almost surreal quality to the Book of Esther, modern readers often fail to take its message seriously. The old Jewish joke about the common theme of most Jewish holidays, “They tried to kill us but failed; let’s eat!” But Hazony’s Esther reveals the serious issues pertaining to our people’s minority status in a superpower that would have been scarcely aware of our existence, had Haman not scapegoated us.

Haman is a descendant of the warlike Bedouin people of Amalek, and the hatred of the Jew for him comes quite naturally. In his treatment of Amalek, Hazony shows that this once ancient marauding people of the Sinai had one simple objective, namely, terrify the Israelites and strike fear into the hearts of their foes so they will not approach their land (Exod. 17:18)

Damaged enough in early rounds of applied terror, even the most physically powerful opponent may be made to feel that control is lost and that further engagements will bring worse—even that capitulation “and peace” are preferable to further confrontation. The most basic method of terror even today is just this: the use of applied cruelty against innocents, the more efficiently to forestall the need for military engagement. (p. 65).

Excellent points!

Hazony goes on to develop a relevant distinction between Amalek and Israel. Amalek has no “fear of God” which manifests itself in his contempt for life; in contrast, God beckons Israel to always show a “fear of God” through reverence. By treating the widow, the poor, the resident alien along with the more vulnerable members of society—with respect, justice and with dignity, we individually and collectively demonstrate a respect for God, Who is always triangulated in every human relationship we encounter. The absence of this reverence for God makes every conceivable evil deed possible (see pp. 67-68).

(Buber has already written much on this subject as well.)

At any event, Haman is out to get Mordechai because he fears that the King will wake up to Haman’s real goal and political objectives. Mordechai is constantly campaigning daily against Haman and manages to influence the King “to reevaluate the wisdom of relying upon Haman” (p. 186).

In the end, Esther and Mordechai succeed in raising serious doubts to the King about his loyal vizier’s hidden agenda.

Hazony makes his most dramatic point toward the end of the book:

Esther is written so as to ensure that the following teaching cannot be missed: God’s salvation is not a thing that exists in the world without reference to the actions of men and women. God’s salvation is emergent upon the salvation that Esther and Mordechai bring about through their own efforts in the policies of Susa. If one looks for it anywhere other than in political endeavors—for example, if one’s eye is fixed on fasting and the sackcloth—then one will still have witnessed a wonder and a miracle, for one will still see that the Jews have been spared, when the warrant for their destruction had already been sealed and delivered. But one will not have understood what this miracle was, or what is that God did for the Jews. (p. 206).

His observation is certainly true. Throughout the pages of the Bible, redemption and salvation never occurs in a vacuum. There must be human actors in every biblical story of redemption. For there to be an Exodus, there must be a Moses, an Aaron, a Miriam, a Shifra and Puah. And this pattern is visible in every story of how our people managed to survive. A thought from the Zohar captures much of Haznony’s theology succinctly and clearly, “Blessings from above descend only where there is some substance and not mere emptiness” (Zohar 1:88a). And from this perspective, Esther serves to remind us that we must do everything that is politically possible within our own means to survive and hope that God will do His part in ensuring our survival.

Had some of our European Hassidic leaders realized this important lesson about political activism during the Holocaust, many more people might have been rescued.
*
Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista and an author of several works on biblical topics.  He may be contacted via michael.samuel@sdjewishworld.com.  Comments intended for publication in the space below must be accompanied by the letter writer’s first and last name and his/her city and state of residence.

The Downfall of Abimelech and Hillary Clinton

Image result for Abimelech in Judges death images

 

The Book of Judges speaks of a time of great social chaos in the generations leading to the formation of the ancient Israelite monarchy. The author of Judges bluntly says, “In those days there was no king in Israel and every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25). Although we view each of the judges in a favorable light, there is one judge in particular, whose ruthless will to power stands apart from all the rest.

His name was Abimelech, the son Gideon and his Canaanite concubine (Judg. 8:31). His father Gideon was a remarkable leader, respected by everyone. The people even offered him the opportunity to become monarch, and like George Washington would later do after him, he refused.

But Abimelech was different—different indeed! After the death of his father, Abimelech (with his mothers’ help) killed his seventy brothers by hiring thugs to execute his closest of kin. Only Gideon’s youngest son, Jotham, survived, but the people of Shechem made Abimelech King of their community (Judg. 9:1-6). After a peaceful reign of three years, the author of Judges pointed out that God did not allow Abimelech’s numerous crimes to go unpunished. Autocratic dictators like Abimelech will always attract men like himself, who will do anything to quench their bloodlust for power.

Abimelech’s men split from him and pledged fealty to a man named Gaal, and asked him to take over as their leader, while Abimelech was absent. Fortunately for Abimelech, his commanded Zebu managed to repell the revolt against Abimelech’s authority.  Meanwhile, in another nearby battle where Abimelech and his men were attempting to conquer the city of Thezbez, something totally unexpected happened.

  • Abimelech came up to the castle and attacked it. As he approached the entrance to the castle to set fire to it, a woman threw a millstone down on his head and fractured his skull. He called hurriedly to his young armor-bearer and said, ‘Draw your sword and dispatch me, or men will say of me: A woman killed him.’ So the young man ran him through and he died  (Judg. 9:52–55).

The Book of Judges often loves to show how God ironically  shapes the events that unfold in its stories and historical narratives. In ancient times, the millstone was used to grind corn. This ordinary household kitchen appliance was not unlike today’s toaster.  Abimelech realizes the humiliation he has endured, “What could be worse than be killed in battle by a woman?” So he does his best to save face, and he orders one of his own men to kill him. Nevertheless, his downfall is preserved in Israel’s sacred memory.

Abimelech’s political ambitions remind me much of Hillary Clinton’s political will to power. Often described as a Teflon politician, fewer people in modern American history have been able to dodge as many pitfalls and scandals like Hillary Clinton. Her willingness to use any means to obtain political power is reminiscent of Abimelech. Mysteriously, many of her critics and potential adversaries miraculously died before they could bring her any political harm.

Like the robot from the first Terminator movie, Hillary Clinton is relentless. This past week alone, we learn how CNN fired Donna Brazile, the interim Democratic National Committee chairwoman for allegedly sharing questions with the Clinton campaign before a debate and a town hall during the Democratic primary, and has accepted her resignation. CNN said they felt “completely uncomfortable” with hacked emails showing that former contributor. Despite the countless scandals listed in the WikiLeaks, nothing seems to deter her.[1]

Readers should not forget how Debbie Wasserman-Schultz was fired as the head of the DNC  because she and her cronies sabotaged the Sanders campaign[2]. After the Wikileaks exposed her, she resigned immediately afterward. Within a day, Clinton hires Wasserman-Schultz was hired to work in her campaign. Rarely do we see in society such unethical behavior rewarded, unless your name happens to be Hillary Clinton. If Hillary is willing to resort to foul play and sabotage the congenial Bernie Sanders, what do you thing she would do to her enemy Donald Trump?

The real question I find myself asking: What won’t she do to achieve her objectives?

Oct. 18th, two top Democratic strategists left the presidential campaign after explosive undercover videos showed them conversing about voter fraud and their roles in planting paid agitators at campaign events for Republican candidate Donald Trump. Robert Creamer, founder of Democracy Advocates and the husband of Rep. Janice D. Schakowsky, Illinois Democrat, both stepped down from the campaign Tuesday,[3]  one day after Scott Foval was fired from his post as national field director of Americans United for Change. Note that Creamer met with President Obama during 47 of those 342 visits, according to White House records. Creamer’s last visit was in June 2016.[4] Just in case you did not know, Creamer is a convicted felon.

If a man is judged by the company he keeps, what does that say about our President and Hillary Clinton? This is obviously embarrassing to the President and Hillary for good reason. What we see is a culture of corruption that is systemic and needs to be condemned by all people who believe in the integrity of our democratic elections.

Relentless, Hillary is so close to winning it all, she will not let anything get in her way. “Not now, not ever”

Then out of the blue, the ignominious Anthony Weiner, perhaps out a desire to either protect himself from Hillary’s fabled wrath; or out of a desire to get even with his wife Huma for divorcing him, produces over 650,000 emails that nobody expected existed. Whatever may have been on these files forced FBI Director James Comey to reopen the case given the gravity of the case against Hillary and her loyal legionaries.

But wait, there is still more!

The hacking group,  “Anonymous” promises they have many more new revelations that will keep our nation entranced as we watch the latest episodes of the Clinton Soap Opera, Season 2.

Does this story have the same irony as the biblical Abimelech story of Judges? Who would imagine that man named Weiner, a disgraced politician and suspected pedophile, might bring down the invincible Hillary Clinton. The story has an element of paradox, does it not?

What both stories illustrate is one important theological point worth remembering. God often uses weak and fallible people to achieve His purpose in punishing wayward and unethical and ruthless individuals. If Hillary indeed loses the election, Antony Weiner may well go down in history as the man who changed the course of American history.

You could even say, it is Hillarious.

Does God have a sense of humor? In both Yiddish and German, there is an old Jewish proverb, Der Mensch trachtet und Gott lacht. (דאָס עפּעלע פֿאַלט ניט ווײַט פֿון ביימעלע)”– Men plan and God laughs, or as the comedian, Woody Allen expressed it, “If you want to make God laugh tell him about your plans.” I personally prefer, “What man proposes, God disposes.”[5] This aphorism may well be a fitting epitaph for the political career of Hillary R. Clinton.



[1]  http://www.politico.com/blogs/on-media/2016/10/cnn-severs-ties-with-donna-brazile-230534#ixzz4OmUta1nY

[2] http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2016/07/debbie_wasserman_schultz_fired_as_dnc_chair_on_eve_of_philly_convention.html#ixzz4OmZfj5KI

[3] http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/oct/18/undercover-video-shows-democrats-saying-they-hire-/

[4] http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2016/10/19/robert-creamer-okeefe-investigation-fame-visited-obamas-whitehouse-340-times/

[5] Thomas à Kempis,  The Imitation of Christ by the German cleric Thomas, Book I, chapter 19.

Living in an a Dystopian America

Image source: BuzzFeed

Whenever I hear Obama and his minions claim that “Islam is the religion of peace,” I cannot help but think the President is utilizing several concepts drawn from writer George Orwell’s famous book, Nineteen Eighty-Four. In this political parable, he writes about how the people of Oceania are trained from childhood to be vigilant in detecting and persecuting anything that the State considers as “evil.” Simply put, the State defines what is good and what is evil. Succumbing to the Party is considered the greatest good; obedience and complicity constitute the “love” of Big Brother.  The State aims to pursue a merging of consciousness, where the State’s will—as defined by Big Brother—becomes the will of the individual.

Slogans play an important part of  the collective indoctrination of the people. Orwell describes an usually fictional language he calls, “Newspeak,” which is a controlled language that is designed to constrict the freedom of thought. Newspeak aims to eliminate concepts that pose a threat to the regime such as freedom, self-expression, individuality, and peace. Contrarian perspectives are typically regarded as “thoughtcrimes”

Big Brother uses another interesting too to enslave the minds of the people called  “Doublespeak.” Simply defined, it is a language that deliberately disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words. Wherever one goes in this dystopian society, the citizen always encounters the three slogans of the Party that stand out in bold capital letters: 

  • WAR IS PEACE
  • FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
  • IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

Orwell intended to warn us about the dangers of people whose visions for a totalitarian utopias, whether political, economic, social, or theocratic. You can see this kind of “political correctness,” our now-passing rage of liberal conformity today. Often as Jews, we can see how the Left is castigating Israel and demonizing anyone who dares to challenge the status quo.

As we look in the present era, 2015, we can see how people who criticize Obama are routinely called “racist” and marginalized through shaming and other not-so-subtle techniques of intimidation. In Hollywood, actors who criticize the President’s agenda often do not receive acting jobs. There is an atmosphere of terror and the ghost of McCarthy  is reminding us that liberalism can be just as fascist as any political philosophy of the ultra-right.

This Orwellian phenomenon can be seen in our country’s universities, wretched parodies of what they are supposed to be, are veritable monuments of newspeak and doublethink.  Yet, as we witness the global rise of ISIS and observe how the Iranian mullahcracy continues to threaten both Israel AND the United States, as they stand at the threshold of developing nuclear arms—our President has the temerity to tell us:

  • ISLAM IS THE  RELIGION OF PEACE!
  • THERE IS NO GLOBAL JIHAD
  • BEWARE OF EXTREMISM

Consistently, Obama has never recognized a “global jihad” is shaping up before the entire Western word to see. Now that ISIS is taking over Libya (as Khadafi warned Hillary and Obama), ISIS is threatening Italy and announced, “: “You have seen us in Syria, now we’re right here, just south of Rome…”[1] Continue reading “Living in an a Dystopian America”

Elie Wiesel’s Words of Admonition: Let Netanyahu Speak to Congress

Holocaust Museum Founding Chairman Elie Wiesel speaks a ceremony commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Museum in Washington April 29, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

 This past week, I came across a very interesting video  by Ben Shapiro, who is one of the main editors of Breitbart News on the Internet. Shapiro is a Modern Orthodox Jew and his perspective on the issues of today offer  a refreshing alternative opinion—even if a reader does not  necessarily agree with his arguments.

In his latest podcast, Shapiro raised a question that I think many people have asked—Jew and non-Jew:  “Why do American Jews vote with the anti-Israel Left?” His examples are striking:

  • In 2008, American Jews voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama. Even though Obama had spent large segments of his prior life hobnobbing with vicious anti-Semites like Jeremiah Wright and Rashid Khalidi, even though he had staffed his campaign with anti-Semites ranging from Zbigniew Brzezinski to Robert Malley, Jews turned out in droves for him. Sarah Silverman harangued young Jews into telling their grandparents that they were racist if they didn’t vote for him; Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama’s designated court Jew – a role he has never relinquished — informed Jews that they were racist if they feared Senator Obama’s positions on Israel.[1]

American Jews voted 78 percent for Obama in 2008.

  • After he was elected, Obama proceeded to undermine Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, force Netanyahu to humiliate himself before thugs like the Turkish government, publicly condemn Israel’s defense of itself during the Gaza war against Hamas while funding the Hamas unity government, repeatedly leak vital national security information that would have allowed Israel to strike Iran, and sign a deal with Iran that essentially foreclosed any possibility of Western attempts to stop Iran from going nuclear.[2]

Shapiro has neatly summed up some of the issues that the Jewish communities in the United States ought to be debating—but in many instances they are not because these are polarizing topics that many Jews would rather avoid discussing because of the tartness and potential rancor such debates might cause.

According to Shapiro, he blames the problem on assimilation. Simply put, he claims that the majority of American Jews has not been to Israel and are generally ambivalent about their religious identities as Jews.  He adds further:

  • Again, according to the Pew poll, 73 percent of Jews said it was about remembering the Holocaust. Just 19 percent said it was about observing Jewish law, and only 28 percent said it was about being part of a Jewish community. Jews, in other words, are not religious. They are secular leftists who don’t want to be labeled white people because they like being diverse and being able to enjoy the in-jokes in Woody Allen films.[3]

While Shapiro brings up a lot of interesting statistics that seem to prove his case, this writer feels that there is an alternative way of looking and perhaps solving the problem that he poses for all of us.

Most Baby-boomers grew up in the Civil Rights era and saw in Obama’s ascension to power the combination of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.. In short, they collectively fell in love with their projections of what they imagined Obama would be–not with the reality. This happens all the time in relationships where we fall in love with the idealized image of our partner, only to be dismayed when our partner falls far short of the mark. When this happens, we have only ourselves to blame. I believe that many liberal Jews see the flaws of this man and his countless misrepresentations of the truth (from Obamacare to Benghazi and beyond). They are also well aware of how the President has leaned heavily on Israel, diminishing Israel’s importance in the region. I suspect many liberal Jews are also well aware of the pro-Muslim Brotherhood friendship he has cultivated and how the President’s Middle East policies have ravaged several countries and created a dangerous power vacuum for ISIS and the Iranian caliphate to conquer their neighbors. Despite all this—liberal Jews still cannot admit that they were wrong. As is always the case, there is a heavy price we pay for our enlightenment–and in the future, I suspect many of these Jews will eventually admit that Obama is a false god to whom we have been “praying to a deity that cannot save” (Isa. 45:20). He is the antithesis of Harry Truman.

The the sociologist Robert Bellah once wrote that liberalism has become for many people (especially liberal Jews) a secular religion. Yet, do not think that a secular religion is incapable of being dogmatic, rigid, and punitive—just as dogmatic as any theistic faith that refuses to let reason be its guide, or discourages any kind of self-reflective thought.

In any kind of free society, the mutual exchange of contrarian ideas prevents society from becoming homogeneous and boring. Yet, in our politically charged society, anyone who dares to criticize Obama is routinely tarred, feathered and thrown in jail.[4]  Critics of Obama often have their jobs threatened or get hounded until they are verbally or socially beaten into submission. Whistleblowers in particular have been targeted by the Obama administration[5]

The inability of the political left to creatively engage people who have different opinions threatens to make this country into a soft fascism. If left unchecked, the days of McCarthyism will transmute our country into a Stalinesque society where people are terrified to dissent from the political status quo.

One more note:  In some ways the problem Shapiro poses also reflects the dark side of the Enlightenment–the inability to recognize the reality of radical evil. We used to think that civilized man was incapable of retrogessing to a more atavistic state. Nietzche warned us about this illusion… human beings are still as savage as ever. Jews could not accept this during WWII and they still can’t accept it…. Contrary to what President Obama has been saying, Iran has been the world’s most deadliest promoter of terrorism throughout the world. Their regime is evil–plain and simple. Based on their track-record, they cannot be trusted.

Recently, Elie Wiesel—one of our generation’s most important witnesses to the Holocaust announced that he planned to be there in Congress when Netanyahu will give his dramatic speech:

Wiesel said that he plans to attend Netanyahu’s address “on the catastrophic danger of a nuclear Iran.” Awarded the Nobel in 1986, Wiesel asks Obama and others in the ad: “Will you join me in hearing the case for keeping weapons from those who preach death to Israel and America?”[6]

I strongly recommend that President Obama and his party members take Wiesel’s message seriously and be present when the Israeli Prime Minister speaks.

[1] http://www.breitbart.com/video/2015/02/12/ben-shapiro-why-jews-vote-leftist/

[2] http://www.breitbart.com/video/2015/02/12/ben-shapiro-why-jews-vote-leftist/

[3] http://www.breitbart.com/video/2015/02/12/ben-shapiro-why-jews-vote-leftist/

[4] http://benswann.com/obama-has-sentenced-whistleblowers-to-10x-the-jail-time-of-all-prior-u-s-presidents-combined/ see also http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2014/jan/10/jake-tapper/cnns-tapper-obama-has-used-espionage-act-more-all-/ see also http://watchdog.org/173721/obama-administration-whistleblowers/ Yet, Obama bragged he would have the most transparent administration.

[5] Since Edward Snowden began disclosing the extent of the NSA’s secret surveillance practices, discussions about whistleblowing and privacy rights have been more important than ever before”

[6] http://www.jpost.com/Diaspora/Nobel-winner-Elie-Wiesel-lends-support-for-Netanyahus-Congress-speech-390911.

Bar Ilan University Review on — Torah from Alexandria: Genesis

Torah from Alexandria, Volume I: Genesis

Kodesh Press 2014

Edited by Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel 

Reviewed by Rabbi Ari D. Kahn, Echoes of Eden on the Pentateuch 

A very new, very old book has been published recently. Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel has set out to perform the herculean task of translating Philo of Alexandria’s commentary on the Book of Genesis into smooth, readable English, presented in the order of the verses and chapters of the Torah. This volume is the first in a projected series on all five books of the Pentateuch.

 At the outset, I should make it clear that my limited knowledge of Philo’s philosophical milieu limits my ability to write a comprehensive review of Torah from Alexandria. I leave it to scholars well-versed in the Hellenistic Roman and Egyptian philosophical traditions to examine Rabbi Samuel’s efforts to compare and contrast Philo’s commentary with the philosophical trends of his age. Instead, I approached the material hoping to discover the Torah insights of an ancient Jewish philosopher, and to consider these insights in their historical and masoretic context. 

I was not disappointed. In addition to translating Philo’s writings, Rabbi Samuel explains the texts when necessary, often with the aid of references and notes, thus allowing the modern reader to access and understand Philo’s interpretation of the Torah. Even more importantly, through Torah from Alexandria we are able to reveal the underlying exegetical approach with which Philo explained the Torah to readers of his own generation. The relevance of his approach to our own generation is striking. 

In recent years, students of Tanach, especially among the religious Zionist community in Israel, have been engaged in a debate (some might characterize it as a battle) regarding authentic and legitimate interpretation of the sacred biblical text. The debate centers around two related points: First, to what extent is fidelity to classical rabbinic commentary requisite (or even desirable); and second, to what extent is it legitimate to interpret the text in a manner that implies that the heroes of the biblical narrative were less than perfect? This debate has come to be known as interpretation b’govah ha- einayim – looking biblical heroes in the eye, as opposed to gazing up at them as a mere mortal would view a titan. 

One maverick in the new school of Israeli interpretation, the late Rav Mordechai Breuer, was fond of saying that he reads the text just as the sages of old did — without the commentary of the sages. In other words, Rav Breuer’s insights were based upon an unfettered reading of the text itself, stripped of the layers of traditional rabbinic exegesis. Opponents of this approach decry the deconstruction of our spiritual forebears, denounce the abandonment of our traditional view of the forefathers and our accepted understanding of their behavior. According to the more traditional approach, looking biblical characters in the eye borders on heresy and undermines the very foundations of Jewish spirituality. According to this approach, deconstructing our spiritual heroes diminishes us all, and leaves us empty and bereft of role models. At the same time, discarding traditional rabbinic explanations of the biblical text casts a shadow on our masorah, subtly calling into question the centrality of teachings attributed all the way back to Moses and passed down to the sages of each subsequent generation.

 

With the help of Rabbi Samuel, we are now able to look back to the exegetical method used by Philo in Alexandria some two thousand years ago, and what we find may have important ramifications for our current debate.  In Torah from Alexandria, we find a biblical commentator whose work is remarkably in sync with rabbinic tradition — which is no small feat given that a good number of the interpretations he offers are found only in much later rabbinic writings. We must therefore assume that Philo, like the authors of those later rabbinic texts, recorded ideas and exegetical traditions that had previously been transmitted orally (or, alternatively, that these rabbinic interpretations originated in Alexandria). The masorah’s centrality and antiquity are clearly reinforced. 

Even more fascinating is the impact Philo’s approach should have on the govah ha’einayim debate. Philo proves to be a staunch supporter of the classical approach to biblical characters, immediately and unequivocally defending them and dispelling any possible negative interpretation of their behavior.  In situations where such “mainstream” commentaries as Nachmanides or Rabbi S.R. Hirsch find fault in the behavior of the matriarchs or patriarchs, Philo is quick to defend; in fact, there are many instances in which he inserts a virtuous spin on seemingly neutral situations .

 

For example:

 

  • ·         Abraham could have resolved the problem with Lot by force, but did not wish to humiliate him, and sought a peaceful resolution. (p. 156)
  • ·         When Abraham seems to complain to God that he has no children, Philo reads it as a virtue: “A servant must be direct and honest with his superior.” (p. 164)
  • ·         While Lot’s daughters’ behavior is “unlawful,” their intentions were “not without some merit.” (p. 199)
  • ·         Sarah suggested that Abraham have a child with Hagar; her motivations were “selfless and altruistic.” (p. 171)
  • ·         Sarah’s treatment of Hagar was “disciplinary, and not abusive, in nature.” (p. 174)
  • ·         Philo turns Abraham’s false claim that Sarah is his sister into a virtue, explaining that a person who speaks only the truth in all situations is “unphilosophical as well as an ignoramus.” (p. 154)
  • ·         Sarah’s demand that Hagar and Yishmael be banished was not motivated by spite or jealousy. It was a well-earned response to their having spread malicious rumors that Isaac was illegitimate child. (p. 206)
  • ·         Abraham acquiesces to his wife’s demand; this behavior always has “the best and happiest kind of outcome.” (p. 206)
  • ·         The expulsion of Yishmael is compared to the expulsion of Adam from the Garden of Eden: “Once the mind contracts folly, it becomes almost an incurable disease…their penchant for superficiality and mediocrity.” (p. 207)
  • ·         “The animus against Abraham stems from an envy and hatred of everything that is good.” (p. 209)
  • ·         The sacrifice of Isaac (whose name connotes joy) teaches us that “even joy must be subordinated to God.” (p. 210)
  • ·         Isaac was not misguided or mistaken in his love for Esau. Isaac’s love for Esau was compartmentalized or limited, conditional; he was attracted to Esau’s skill as a hunter, because Isaac himself sought to “hunt down his passions and keep them at bay.” (p. 233)
  • ·         Esau had always been a slave, and was destined to remain enslaved for all time – with or without the blessing Jacob took. By selling the birthright, Esau proved that he was a slave to his “belly’s pleasures.” (p. 233)
  • ·         When Jacob buys the birthright from Esau, it is an act of virtue intended to save his brother from rampant materialism that would bring about Esau’s downfall. (p. 234)
  • ·         Isaac wants to bless Esau because he sees that Esau is limited and lacking, while Jacob is perfect and does not need his blessing. (p. 240)
  • ·         Jacob should be admired for respecting both his parents and carrying out his mother’s instructions to the letter, rather than being vilified for taking Esau’s blessings through subterfuge. (p. 242)
  • ·         “Malicious people never tire of accusing Scripture of excusing Jacob’s deceit and fraud… subterfuge and maneuvering have their place in life…sometimes a general will make a threat of war, while he is actually working in the interest of peace.”  (p. 243) “A good man may do something that appears wrong, but [he] acts with noble intention.” (p. 245; also see p. 248)
  • ·         Simeon and Levy “acted as a vanguard of justice and fought to protect their family’s purity.” (p. 272)
  • ·         Joseph treats the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah as equals, hence drawing the ire of his other brothers. (p. 275)
  • ·         Jacob’s love for Joseph was not arbitrary favoritism. Rather, he loved Joseph because of his skills, his virtue, and his nobility. (p. 275)
  • ·         Regarding Tamar: “Virtue is subtle –sometimes she veils her face like Tamar.” (p. 284)
  • ·         Joseph was physically assaulted by Madame Potiphar, but never succumbed to her advances. (p. 287)
  • ·         Joseph does not seek revenge; he wants to see how the brothers will treat Benjamin, another son of Rachel. (p. 301) Joseph sees the entire episode as divine providence (p. 313).
  • ·         Even in prison, Joseph behaves virtuously toward all the other prisoners. (p. 288)
  • ·         Joseph does not gain personally from any of the wealth accrued in Egypt; rather, he is a dedicated civil servant. (p. 318f)
  • ·         Joseph completely forgave his brothers and never sought vengeance, not only out of respect for their father, but because of his love for his brothers. (p. 326)
  • ·         Jacob enters the palace and all those present are aware of his dignity. (p. 318) 

Philo proves to be a sensitive reader of the text – sensitive to the underlying philosophical issues as well as a staunch defender of Judaism. Perhaps because he lived among non-Jews, within the general society, he intuited that attacks on Abraham and Sarah are tantamount to attacks on the underpinnings of Judaism and, through a subtle process of anti-Semitism, on every Jew. Alternatively, he may simply have seen the patriarchs and matriarchs as spiritual giants – people whose thoughts and actions were far more elevated than those of common men, people who were far above the petty jealousies and foolish mistakes more cynical readers ascribe to them, people who actually were “larger than life.” Philo teaches us that in order to look at them at all, to see and understand them, to learn from them – we must look up.

 Rabbi Leo Samuel has done an outstanding service, both to Philo and to modern readers. In Torah from Alexandria, Philo’s ancient Torah commentary becomes readable and meaningful, exciting and contemporary. I look forward to future volumes.

 

Torah from Alexandria is now available on Amazon.com!

Dear friends,

It’s hard to believe that the birth of a concept I had when I was about 18, has finally come to fruition! The rest of the series is moving at warp speed and Exodus will be coming out sometime in November or possibly December. It looks to be a longer work, perhaps the longest of the series.

Leviticus will be out around Purim and Numbers will be out in the early spring of 2015. By summer of 2015, Deuteronomy will be out as well.

For anyone who has ever studied the weekly parsha with Rashi, Ramban, or Ibn Ezra, you will discover a new but long forgotten Jewish exegete–Philo of Alexandria.

Philo has a unique way of making the simple meaning of the Torah come alive! Volume 1 of Torah from Alexandria has lots of notes and comparisons between Maimonides and Philo, not to mention many other unique insights long forgotten by Jewish tradition. Arguably, Philo could be considered one of the very first Torah commentators of the 1st century. If nothing else, he certainly composed the first philosophical exposition of the Torah.

Enjoy!

http://www.amazon.com/Torah-Alexandria-Biblical-Commentator-Volume/dp/0692291725/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1412303037&sr=8-3&keywords=Philo+of+Alexandria+2014

 

Nero and Obama: A Remarkable Parallel in History

  • If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle”—Sun  Tzu, The Art of War

The words of Sun Tzu convey new significance in light of President Obama’s disclosure. In his most recent speech, the President was asked an important and obvious question many Americans are asking themselves: How will we defeat ISIS? With blunt honesty and candor, the President said, “We don’t have a strategy yet.”

As I listened to his words, I found myself asking, “Did he really say that?” Then I wondered. “How is ISIS reacting this statement?”

Even the President’s media supporters are scratching their heads on the latest Presidential gaffe, whose optics makes our leader appear as though he is totally disengaged from an evil that makes Nazism pale in comparison. How can any moral and sensible human being say that the ISIS conflict is an Iraqi problem to solve? When we look at the decapitated heads of Shiite, Christian and Yazidi children,  how can we not take arms against a religious and political movement that joyfully slaughters in the name of psychotic Islam?

According to Maimonides, the first step in a person’s moral and spiritual rehabilitation involves coming to terms with one’s past sins and mistakes. Acknowledging  that one did anything wrong is perhaps the hardest but most significant step one can take.

For the President in particular, he has yet to admit the most obvious fact that is staring at his face: Jihadist Islam is at war with the United States and the Western civilization as a whole. It is also at war with other forms of Jihadist Islam, e.g., Shiite Islam as represented by the repressive Iranian regime. In short, Islam is at war within itself and it has been probably since the inception of its religion.

This is actually good news, for when a house is divided, it can be conquered much more easily. ISIS recognizes its Achilles heel and this is the principle reason why ISIS has targeted other Islamic movements and states (with the notable exception of Turkey, which is the only western country supporting ISIS—this is a subject for another article because of its seriousness).

Obama’s stark admission is all the more surprising since ISIS did not emerge ex nihilo over night. They have been a major thorn in our side since the beginning of the Iraqi war. This new political entity makes Al Qaeda pale in comparison. It has approximately two billion dollars of money it stole from the Iraqi people and it is offering salaries of $33,000 to any young dysfunctional thug who is willing  to join its ranks. Judging by the slick marketing, they are probably offering a nice retirement plan and other terrestrial incentives.

All right, in the interest of problem solving, what kind of strategy should our government be focusing on? Is it reasonable to expect that economic pressure will work, e.g., the threat of sanctions (as we have tried with Putin)? Will diplomatic pressure work? It appears that ISIS could care less about these possibilities. Military pressure with an objective of eradicating the infrastructure of this evil organization is the only viable solution. If left unchecked, hundreds of millions in human lives will die if we adopt a supine attitude.

In addition, Western media outlets such as YOUTUBE, Twitter, and Facebook need to all ban these retrograde people from using their technology from promoting Jihadism.

In addition we need real international leaders who will not take a neutral attitude about ISIS.

Thankfully, the English PM Cameron continues to model the kind of leadership we need in our country. Cameron said last week:

  • The threat we face today comes from the poisonous narrative of Islamist extremism. The terrorist threat was not created by the Iraq war ten years ago. It existed even before the horrific attacks on 9/11. This threat cannot be solved simply by dealing with the perceived grievances over Western foreign policy. We cannot appease this ideology. We have to confront it at home and abroad.

Applying his words to actions, the UK raised the terror threat level from “substantial” to “severe,” Cameron said they will introduce new laws to fights terrorists and seize passports from terror suspects. He also plans to offer more details on the UK’s plans in a few days.

Cameron’s remarks remind us that we need leadership that understands the problems posed by Jihadist Islam.

Even the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has a message about Iraq for Barack Obama: Get back to the White House and do something:

  • I know it is the holiday period in our Western countries,’ Fabius told a radio interviewer Tuesday in France,’ but when people are dying, you must come back from vacation.

Ditto.

In the Great Fire of Rome, historians—both ancient and modern—are unsure who caused this great conflagration. Some historians think that Emperor Nero instigated it and he fiddled, as Rome burned. Some blame the Christians because Nero persecuted them. In any event, some day historians may make a similar analogy about a morally confused President, who preferred to play golf and conduct Democratic fundraisers rather than defend his people when they needed him the most.

After 9/11, President Bush put together fifty countries to combat the Al Qaeda. Our President ought to be assembling a similar coalition, which may offer him an opportunity to demonstrate true statesmanship—if he is up to the moral task.

Jewish leaders in particular have also been too sheepish on this danger as it threatens not only Israel, but the United States.

  • Open borders with Mexico is viewed as a golden opportunity to create numerous attacks that could threaten the American homeland. If the President was really concerned about the border, he would close it up as soon as possible to minimize this threat from ever occurring.
  • ISIS can easily hire Mexican drug cartel terrorists to attack the country’s electrical grid. Were this to occur, there would be a paralysis that could result in tens of millions of people dying because of the collapse of our country’s infrastructure. An EMP bomb could easily lead to the death of 270 million Americans and take years to reconstruct.
  • President Obama should be building our military at this perilous time of history and use the country’s money to strengthen the electrical grid from terrorist attacks.[1]
  • Instead of cutting military aid to Israel, the President should be increasing greater aid to ensure Israel has the means to protect herself from ISIS and Iran.

The inclusion of Muslim Brotherhood leaders like Mohammed Elibary in Obama’s Department of Homeland Security is troubling. This is a man who considered the late Ayatollah Khomeini as a “great Islamic leader”[2] and even praised the emergence of a new Muslim caliphate taking place in Iraq on June 13 in his Twitter log, and in other places,[3] clearly shows that either Obama’s judgment is severely impaired, or that he is identifying with the Jihadist agenda in its effort to unite the Muslim world. Either scenario ought to make each of us cringe.

To conclude, as the philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Considering everything we  are witnessing in the world today, not only does it appear that we have learned nothing from the Holocaust, our country’s foolishness combined with the foolishness of the European community will lead to a destruction far greater than anything we have witnessed in the 20th century. However, this time it will be fueled by the religious zealotry of Jihadist Islam, the scourge of modern times.

Historically, Jihadist Islam threatened the world once before in the annals of human memory. The murderous Jihadist Timur Khan (1370–1405) wiped out close to twenty million non-Muslims as he carved out his empire in India, the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan, and parts of China, all of which constituted 5% of the world population.

Jihadist Islam has always been greatest mass-murdering force in the history of humankind. As a champion of freedom, the United States cannot take an apathetic stance regarding the expansion of ISIS and its legion of Jihadist supporters.