• Home
  • Parashah Insights
  • Ask the Rabbi
  • Festivals & Fasts
  • Articles
  • Books
  • About
  •  

    Who was Pinchas?

    July 21st, 2019

    Pinchas had pi-nechas (nechoshet), “a mouth of brass”. He was a gallant warrior who was indignant when he saw people rebelling against God and the Torah.

    As a priest, a grandson of Aharon HaKohen, he should never have taken up a weapon and killed the sinners, but God recognised that he had acted out of zeal for the Divine name.

    There looks like a contrast between the grandfather and the grandson. Aharon was a man of peace whilst Pinchas seems to be a man of war.

    When God said that Pinchas had “turned away My wrath from the Children of Israel” (Num. 25:11), He added, “I award him a covenant of peace”, which means that in some way Pinchas had promoted the ideal of peace.

    But why did God call it a covenant? What form of peace did Pinchas promote?

    Peace between the Israelites? Perhaps, since the sinners had shattered the unity of the people.

    But in a higher sense, peace between God and Israel. No covenant could survive if one party went in one direction and the other party followed a different path.

    Pinchas restored the covenant.


    After the plague – Pinchas

    July 21st, 2019

    “After the plague” God said to Moses, “Count the Children of Israel”.

    There must be a connection between the plague and the census.

    We find an answer if we look at our own generation and then go back to the Torah passage.

    Whatever word we use for the Holocaust, “plague” is the least horrific. Before the plague the world Jewish population was probably about 18 million, not a very large number but without the anti-Jewishness of the centuries there would have been at least 100 million Jews.

    But the fact was 18 million, and a census at the end of the Holocaust would have revealed that we were down to about 12 million. It’s now creeping up again.

    The figure is not just relevant in external terms but internally.

    Who were the survivors? What was their morale – depressed or determined?

    The answer is “Both at the same time”.

    Baruch HaShem our determination has prevailed and internally we are strong and committed.

    That’s what Moses was checking for his age. Were they despondent or determined?

    If they decided to stride boldly ahead and build a future, all would be well.


    May Jacob criticise the tents of others?

    July 14th, 2019

    Parashat Balak quotes Bilam’s praise of Israel – “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob: your dwelling places, O Israel” (Num. 24:5).

    What nachat we derive when a non-Jew pays us a similar compliment. We are ecstatic to be told how much we have given to civilisation, that our ethics are the basis of western society and Jewish family life is an example to the rest of mankind.

    But what happens when the boot is on the other foot and we see things around us that cannot in all conscience be condoned?

    If others are polite to us, do we have to be polite to them?

    We do; politeness, good manners, courtesy and respect for others are axiomatic in Judaism.

    But when we need to criticise, we have no right to remain silent.

    We can criticise nicely, but we have to say what needs to be said. A rule of the Torah is hoche’ach tochi’ach et amitecha – “You must surely rebuke your fellow” (Lev. 19:17).

    Not only Judaism but every Bible-based religion has this ethical imperative.

    De Tocqueville said that religion was “the first of American political institutions”. True, there was an official American separation of church and state. But there was a consensus that instead of religion being supported by the state, the state was supported by religion: a feeling that American democracy was built on the social principles of religious faith. Like the currency notes, American society was constructed on the principle of “In God We Trust”.

    The American way was a good way because deep down it was a religious way. Slavery and rampant capitalism stood for doctrines that ought to have been anathema to believers, but both flourished because believers preferred to see only the social consensus that was trumpeted as based on the Bible.

    Other countries are not necessarily so committed to religious support for the state, but wherever one lives there is a crying need for religious faith to say two things – Lo zu ha-derech: “This is not the way” and Zeh d’var HaShem: “This is the word of the Lord”.

    It must be done politely, but when human dignity and moral decency are at stake, we have no right to remain silent.

    If our faith means anything to us, we ourselves must live by it – and we have to make its moral prescriptions known as widely as we can.

    In America, certainly; in Australia, and indeed everywhere. Not least in Israel, where religion constantly tends to make a noise about the wrong things.


    God Versus Gods: Judaism In The Age Of Idolatry (book review)

    July 11th, 2019

    GOD VERSUS GODS: JUDAISM IN THE AGE OF IDOLATRY
    Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
    Mosaica Press, 2018

    Review by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally published on the J-wire website on 11 July, 2019.

    The Bible is punctuated by the tussle between the Almighty and the false gods.

    The Ten Commandments make it perfectly clear that the people of Israel must not bow down to or serve the false gods, and warnings against making idols permeate the Tanach (e.g. Ex. 20:23, 34:17).

    Sometimes the Biblical texts laugh at the idols and sometimes they go on a full frontal attack; they constantly warn that idolatry is a false morality as well as a false theology. It is not just that the idol was a nonentity (Hebrew exegesis links elil, an idol, with al, “not”), but it emphasised sensuality and allowed and invited orgiastic immorality.

    In this new book, Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein tells the story through the eyes of the Oral Torah sources. His book is fascinating and is far more than it appears. Despite its title, it does not limit itself to the nature and influence of ancient idolatry.

    It looks deeply into the meaning of God in Biblical history, asks why anyone in their right mind would choose to worship idols, wondering whether ancient man could believe both in God and in idolatry, asking whether idolatry still exists, and tapping into the major problem of how we should read the Bible and what we mean by Biblical truth.

    In a sense, the book is a Vorspeis. The plan is to produce a second volume which will concern itself less with the historical facts and more with philosophical and ideological subjects such as astrology, demonology and witchcraft. I for one look forward to seeing Volume II now that my appetite has been whetted by Volume I.

    I am particularly drawn to the author’s argument, again based on rabbinic source material, that the ancient idolater was not necessarily a denier of God but accepted the existence of a higher power though he distorted the identity of that power. Rabbi Klein might well have read too much into the notion, but it is possible that he is right that the idolaters were not so much challenging the existence of God as seeking to give Him material shape and/or to anger Him. It’s an unusual idea but it seems to be consonant with the rabbinic writings.

    A contrary view is presented by Isidore Epstein in his Faith of Judaism (page 285): “Whether it was the sun or any other natural power, the idol was served as a mysterious deity behind the natural forces”.

    Why does Biblical Judaism castigate the Jewish people for their interest in idolatry – in Rabbi Klein’s view, to rather an exaggerated extent? Not just because idolatry is false but because they did not oppose it strongly enough. Their failure to oppose idolatry sufficiently gave idolatry extra credence.

    This is not the first solid work on idolatry. Jews and non-Jews have both analysed the idols and idolaters. The Jews include Samuel Krauss, Saul Lieberman and Ephraim E Urbach; the non-Jewish authors range from Selden and Milton to the more recent DDD (Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 1999).

    What Rabbi Klein has done is to trace the history of idolatry amongst the Jews and offer an encyclopedia of ancient idols. His descriptive pantheon possibly needs correction here and there, but it is a most valuable contribution to Biblical scholarship.

    Modern idolatrous thinking is more difficult. Though there are survivals of idolatrous elements in some eastern and even monotheistic religions, Biblical idols more or less lost their appeal to Jews after the destruction of the First Temple. Rabbi Klein makes this point in Chapter 7 as well as in a prefatory sentence that lacks the author’s usual clarity when he says (page xvi), “The Sages abolished the idolatrous inclination at the onset of the Second Temple period.”

    That does not mean that the laws against idolatry lost their force; the rabbinic material in tractate Avodah Zarah are adamant that there was still a problem, but the substance of idolatry had been revamped and now echoed the calendrical and other practices of the Greek and Roman powers.

    Modern people hitch their wagons to many stars (in all senses of the word) that are blatant baloney. Their agnosticism cannot be assuaged by the relatively polite interpretations of the rabbis and traditionalists. No longer can anyone say that those who follow the stars are fundamentally believers in God. Their problem is not misbelief but unbelief.

    Rabbi Klein is one of the growing band of Jewish scholars who are not prepared to leave Biblical research and writing to the non-Jews or to aver that only Rashi and the rabbinic mefar’shim have the right to be considered exegetes. They ask themselves what attitude faithful Jews can and should have towards the Bible, and how and how far the Bible can be read as source material. Rabbi Klein quotes Professor James Kugel who sees a divide between Bible and Tanach.

    Jewish traditionalists cannot wriggle away but need to arm themselves with an appropriate hermeneutic. As against the academic scholar who has no compunction about shifting around the text like men on a chessboard and thinking they can do better, the traditionalist insists that the text is Torah and must be treated with respect and humility.

    Rabbi Klein adopts this second approach and is unapologetic about it. Echoing a famous American document, he says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that the Bible is of Divine origin, that the Masoretic text of the Bible is the most genuine, and that the Written Torah is inseparable from the Oral Torah” (page 13).


    How did Moses feel? – Chukkat

    July 7th, 2019

    It is in this part of the Torah that Moses receives the bad news that his career is to come to an end and someone else will lead the people into the Promised Land.

    The people must have been devastated: imagine life without their leader!

    The new leader would have God’s sanction, but that’s not the point. Moses was a fixture, always there, known and respected even when the people were in one of their rebellious moods.

    How did Moses himself feel?

    He had dreamt that he would go out on a high, having brought the people to the Land and closing off his career with the makkah b’patish, the final stroke of success.

    The fact that he was not a saint and had sinned explains God’s decision. We also see that Aaron could not have taken over because he too had sinned.

    But at this moment our feelings are with Moses. Indeed with every leader, and with every ageing human being.

    They all dream of seeing more of their hopes come true, but the important thing is to use their life sufficiently wisely that they feel assured that even without them the family, the community, the people, will bring credit to their name.