A First Century Rabbinical Controversy: Preserving Human Life and Its Ethical Implications

 Another one of the most interesting questions found in the Talmud dealing with the matter of human survival in a hostile environment where the possibilities of survival remain limited. [1]

Two are walking on the road. In the hand of one of them is a canteen of water. If they both drink-both will die. If only one drinks—he will reach his destination alive. Ben Petura contends that it is better that both drink and they both die, rather than one see the death of his fellow. This was the accepted teaching until Rabbi Akiba came and interpreted the verse from “That thy brother may live with thee,” (Leviticus 25:36), i.e., “your life precedes the life of your fellow.” [2]

There is an interesting parallel to the Ben Petura and Rabbi Akiba debate that may be found in the Stoic writings of Cicero, who cites the Stoic Hecataeus, regarding two equally wise men who survived a shipwreck and were holding to the same wooden spar that was capable of supporting one of them. The question posed was this: Should one relinquish his hold and to save the other, and if so, which one? The Stoic thinkers reasoned that the decision had to be made based on the individual’s utility to society. The person whose objective value is less to the republic, has the duty to sacrifice himself for the more “valuable” citizen. Continue reading “A First Century Rabbinical Controversy: Preserving Human Life and Its Ethical Implications”

Rabbi Akiba and Ben Azzai’s Great Debate

The Sages of the first two centuries wondered: What is the most important principle of the Torah? Rabbi Akiba argued that it is the precept of “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).  Akiba’s brilliant student, Ben Azzai, differed: “You must not say: ‘Since I have been put to shame, let my neighbor also be put to shame, for if you do so, know that you are shaming someone who is made in the likeness of God.’” Continue reading “Rabbi Akiba and Ben Azzai’s Great Debate”

The Bible’s Most Famous Ghost Story: The Witch of Endor

The Bible’s Most Famous Ghost Story

In honor of the Halloween holiday, I thought we would examine one of the great tales of the supernatural found in the Bible. I originally wrote this piece as I was preparing for my Confirmation class. The kids really enjoyed it. One of the most remarkable and famous ghost stories of all time is the episode found in 1 Samuel 28 about Saul’s encounter with the Witch of Endor.  Over a thousand years ago, Jewish thinkers debated this famous biblical story. Not everyone agreed as to what really took place.

Here is a partial citation from the scriptural  narrative as it is recorded in 1 Samuel 28:10-21:

10 But Saul swore to her by the LORD, “As the LORD lives, you shall incur no blame for this.”11 Then the woman asked him, “Whom do you want me to conjure up?” and he answered, Samuel.” 12  When the woman saw Samuel, she shrieked at the top of her voice and said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!”13 But the king said to her, “Have no fear. What do you see?” The woman answered Saul, “I see a ghostly being rising from the earth.”

14 “What does he look like?” asked Saul. And she replied, “It is an old man who is rising, clothed in a mantle.” Saul knew that it was Samuel, and so he bowed face to the ground in homage. 15 Samuel then said to Saul, “Why do you disturb me by conjuring me up?” Saul replied: “I am in great straits, for the Philistines are waging war against me and God has abandoned me. Since he no longer answers me through prophets or in dreams, I have called you to tell me what I should do.”

16 To this Samuel said: “But why do you ask me, if the LORD has abandoned you and is with your neighbor? 17 The LORD has done to you what he foretold through me: he has torn the kingdom from your grasp and has given it to your neighbor David. 18 “Because you disobeyed the LORD’S directive and would not carry out his fierce anger against Amalek, the LORD has done this to you today. 19 Moreover, the LORD will deliver Israel, and you as well, into the clutches of the Philistines. By tomorrow you and your sons will be with me, and the LORD will have delivered the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines.” 20 Immediately Saul fell full length on the ground, for he was badly shaken by Samuel’s message. Moreover, he had no bodily strength left, since he had eaten nothing all that day and night.

21 Then the woman came to Saul, and seeing that he was quite terror-stricken, said to him: “Remember, your maidservant obeyed you: I took my life in my hands and fulfilled the request you made of me . . .

Many of the early interpreters offered creative insights that are no less stimulating even a thousand years later! One of the great rationalist theologians of the Gaonim, Samuel ben Hophni, Gaon of Sura (d.1013), father-in-law of Hai Gaon, was once asked whether the story about the biblical story should be taken literally or not. Simply put: Did the witch really raise the spirit of Samuel from the dead?  How could she prophesy that Saul and his son would soon die in battle?! Continue reading “The Bible’s Most Famous Ghost Story: The Witch of Endor”

Why does the first verse of Genesis have seven words?

בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ — In   the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth —

Why does the first verse of Genesis have seven words?

According to the Baale Turim, the first verse of Genesis contains seven words that allude to the importance of the Sabbath—the crown of Creation.  From its inception, the Sabbath was set apart from all the other days of Creation to eventually be observed by all humanind (cf. Isa. 56:2-7) through witnessing Israel’s devotion to the Sabbath (Exod. 31:16-17). Patterns of seven, representing full circle or completion of a cycle, figure prominently in other scriptural passages, e.g.,  the seven years of the Sabbatical year cycle (Lev. 25:1-7), and the seven Sabbatical Years of a Jubilee cycle (Lev. 28:5-13). The common thread, in each of these numerological parallels, emphasizes God as Originator and Preserver of the created order.

Why does the Torah begin with the letter “beth”?

I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled.

AUGUSTINE, Confessions, Book XI

When it came to the beginning of creation, Augustine was not the only person who struggled with the meaning of time. Rabbinic wisdom teaches that there are some aspects to creation that are hidden; we cannot presume to know the mind of God. “Why does the Torah begin with the letter בּ (beth = “b”)? Just as the letter בּ (beth) is closed at the sides but is open in front, so you are not permitted to investigate what is above and what is below, what is before and what is behind.”[1] The Judean sage Jesus ben Sirach (is 200–180 B.C.E.) offers this practical advice to those who speculate about the “hidden matters” alluded to in the

Creation story:

Neither seek what is too difficult for you,

nor investigate what is beyond your power.

Reflect upon what you have been commanded,

for what is hidden is not your concern.

Do not meddle in matters that are beyond you,

for more than you can understand has been shown you.[2]

Sirach 3:21-23 Continue reading “Why does the Torah begin with the letter “beth”?”

Goldstone’s Legacy

Richard Goldstone believes he was standing up for Israel and Jewish ethics. Let us assume that this well-respected judge had the best of intentions. Yet, his conclusion that Israel violated the human rights of the Palestinians strains the imagination beyond the breaking point. Is any kind of war justified according to Goldstone—especially when the enemy cynically deploys human shields while it shoots thousands of missiles over an eight year stretch of time? Not according to Goldstone.

Unfortunately Goldstone never bothered to consider the firsthand evidence from videotapes, or news reports from terrified Palestinians who condemned their own leaders for endangering their lives while exploiting them as human shields.

Asymmetrical warfare poses serious problems that may ultimately destroy the West, unless it develops a practical game plan. The Geneva War Convention never had to deal with such problems. Colonel Richard Kemp told the media but couldn’t tell the Goldstone Commission, because they refused to listen to him, “ I think Israel has very little choice other than to carry on with its military operations until it reaches the conclusion it needs which is to stop Hamas from firing rockets at its people in its territory.” Yet, despite it all Israel went to great pains to minimize civilian carnage.

Israel is fighting the war of the future; one wonders what Goldstone would have said about the United States carpet bombing of Iraq and Afghanistan, or the British and Allie bombing of Dresden during World War II.  If the Allies would have fought like Goldstone recommends, Hitler would have conquered the civilized world. Unfortunately, Goldstone’s acquiescence to the forces of Islamic radicalism and Western appeasement threatens to only create more mayhem in the years to come and less stability or peace for all the countries of the Middle East and beyond. In the meantime, the world community says nothing as Hamas builds towns made up of human shields along its borders for the next round of war.  The real tragedy is that the West has learned absolutely nothing from the appeasement philosophy of the early 20th century. Once again, philosopher George Santayana’s sobering warning, “He who forgets the past is condemned to repeat it” is especially relevant here.

The hypocrisy of the Goldstone is a frightening  and grim indictment of all Western societies. Someday, a historian will write a book, “How the West was Lost . . . ”

History will remember Richard Goldstone as a traitor to his people.

A poet’s endorsement of the new Genesis commentary


The journey to wholeness may not be lacking in terrors, but it exerts an equally compelling fascination. Metaphors for our desire to be reunited with the mystery from which we come abound throughout world culture; often it begins with a traumatic separation from the source. The Quiche Maya tell us that the gods glazed the eyes of our ancestors so they could no longer see into the Heart of Heaven and watch the gods making love, but left them with a vaguely apprehended memory of that spectacle. The Gnostics spoke of it as a longing. Genesis presents us with its own unique etiology of this longing, a traumatic separation, which Augustine labeled as “Original Sin” for which we must atone. Rabbi Michael Samuel, in his new book, Birth and Rebirth Through Genesis: A Timeless Theological Conversation, has another reading, one which, true to his title, opens the conversation; he prefers to view expulsion from the Edenic womb as an “Awakening.”

More than a decade ago, I found an unoccupied chair across from a dark haired man pouring over a book at a local breakfast haunt, Cool Beans, in Glens Falls, NY. The man noticed my book, Carl Jung’s “Answer to Job,” then asked me what I thought about it. I told him that I was intrigued by the idea that God might learn from man, that a creator might expand his consciousness through his creation. I made this point every semester to students in my Creative Writing classes at Adirondack Community College by quoting from the Tablet of Ptah, perhaps the earliest Egyptian account of creation, which Joseph Campbell dates at least to the second millennium BCE.

What the eyes see, the ears hear and the nose breathes

they speak to the heart. It is the heart that brings forth

every issue, and the tongue that repeats the thought

of the heart. Thus were fashioned all the gods…*

“Rabbi Michael Samuel,” he stuck out his hand. “You can call me Michael.”

Michael told me that he, too, was moved by Jung’s idea that both the unfolding of creation and the dialogue between man and God represented the birth and expansion of consciousness. What was thought by the heart, and spoken by the tongue into recognizable form, might also describe the fundamental process of psychological development Carl Jung called Individuation, which drew on latent intelligence of both the personal and the collective unconscious rooted in the history of the species through time. Michael pointed out that this was the process described in the first book of Genesis where Elohim speaks the universe into existence, an increasingly complex unfolding of matter from ineffable depths of mind.

From that point on, three mornings a week, we ate our bagels with generous dollops of cream cheese as we shared our explorations. We agreed that myths, including the creation in Genesis, were psychological road maps to the mystery at the center of our own longing to realize the potential for wholeness in each of us. I saw this in relation to my students, so embedded in a culture that assaulted them with an endless fusillade of corporate images and expectations, often at odds with each other, that they had forgotten even the memory of the mystery they contained. Michael was drawn to the challenge of renewing his own tradition by directly evoking in his congregation a longing that moved us to reach for something beyond our grasp. Unless he and his colleagues were able to do this, he observed, they would watch their following diminish, particularly among the young people who craved an experience that gave their lives meaning. Common to both of us was finding a way to open their hearts to the vitality of the world and the interconnectedness of creature and creator, or what the Maya called the gods making love.

Reading Michael’s book, Birth and Rebirth Through Genesis, A Timeless Theological Conversation, I am delighted to find that the heart-thoughts of our past conversations have made it to the Rabbi’s tongue. In these pages, he has uncovered the pulse in the book of Genesis; to feel it is to renew the longing which is the precondition for psychological growth; to hear it is to revive the memory of an origin and destination buried in each of us.

The book is a profound exploration of metaphors, symbols and structures in Genesis that embody the design of divine mind projected as source and destination, that through the unfolding of this ever increasing complexity we move toward the recovery of wholeness. Rabbi Samuel does this through an inter-disciplinary approach that calls upon the Biblical scholar’s command of history, tradition and philology, the humanist’s grasp of literary narrative, the application of anthropological/sociological resources of the social scientist, and the analytical psychologist’s understanding of developmental and archetypal patterns. His ability to synthesize the intelligence from these disciplines allows him to distinguish the Jungian archetype of The Shadow, that part of the dark material in the individual and collective psyches that must be integrated rather than projected, from the objective existence of Evil, “which has an ontology all of its own” derived from primordial chaos. He discusses The Fall not as the grand betrayal of God by man, but the true awakening of consciousness that can only proceed from the painful separation from the unconsciousness of Eden.

At Cool Beans we talked about the need to evoke the longing that connects us to the enduring forms. Without this, the roadmaps to psychological and spiritual development will dissolve into unguided urgencies and impulsive confusions. Genesis is a text that speaks directly to this if one can read it as Rabbi Samuel does: “God and human-kind co-created human evolution and spiritual growth.” This book gives us a way to read the road-map: “Genesis denotes an inner movement toward the highest possible degree of being…”

At the conclusion of this journey, Rabbi Samuel invokes the spirit of psychologist Viktor Frankel, a Holocaust survivor and the inventor of Logo Therapy. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankel advocates for personal choice based on the developmental goal suggested by the Logos Function in Genesis—the ongoing enlargement of consciousness through a dialogue with the conflicts of daily life. We must engage our Edenic legacy of love and loss. It is a fitting way to end a book that does just that. Most remarkable about this stunning array of insights is that it leaves space for personal discovery, and time to hear the beat of heart-thoughts behind the words. When I remember of our breakfasts at Cool Beans, and see what has become of them, I feel fortunate to have been a part of this genesis.

Paul Pines,

author of My Brother’s Madness.