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

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

    July 11th, 2019

    Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
    Mosaica Press, 2018

    Review by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally published on the J-wire website on 11 July, 2019, and in The Jerusalem Report on 31 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.

    A spiritual vaccine – Chukkat

    July 7th, 2019

    The Brazen Serpent, from the 1890 Holman Bible

    B’midbar 21 describes how the people complained against God so He sent fiery serpents to punish them.

    After the people pleaded with God not to kill them, He told Moses to construct a brazen serpent on a pole and whoever looked at it survived.

    Says Rashi, it wasn’t that looking at the serpent of brass that made all the difference, but whenever the people turned their eyes and their hearts to Heaven they survived.

    Says Ramban, it was a “miracle within a miracle”. What cured them was the same thing that had made them suffer in the first instance – a serpent – and it was all to show that life and death are in the power of God alone.

    The people underwent what seems like a spiritual vaccine.

    These days vaccination is understood as a crucial part of medicine. A sufferer might survive without it, but medical science – acting on the Torah principle of Ani HaShem rof’echa, “I the Lord am your healer” (Exc. 15:26) – recommends that this “miracle within a miracle” be gratefully utilised.

    What is God? – Ask the Rabbi

    July 7th, 2019

    Q. What is God?

    A. I can only give a personal view.

    There are two reasons.

    One: we all have our own take on God. I cannot be certain that my father’s God is the same as mine. I can’t be a believer with my father’s heart, only with my own.

    Two: no-one knows enough about God to speak of Him with authority. Hebrew theologians say, “If I knew Him, I would be Him”. A God whom we could define exactly would be too little, like a toy that a child puts in its pocket and takes out to play with.

    When I was a child I thought my rabbi standing in his pulpit was God. Years later I found that Tennyson had a phrase for this: he said that the average Englishman’s idea of God was of an immeasurable clergyman.

    In time I became a clergyman myself, and though I had a degree of self-confidence I knew I was far from Divine – and my congregation could see that I had enough frailties to be rather lower than God.

    I talked about God but was never able to arrive at a dictionary definition. When I toyed with calling Him the Great Idea, I had to acknowledge that He was more than an abstract theory. When I thought of describing Him as the Great Force, I had to recognise that he was more than an anonymous energy.

    If I called Him the Great Presence, but this said nothing about His capacity to create or to reveal His will. I struggled with saying that He was the Cosmic Grandfather, but while this gave Him benignity and personality, it made Him too cosy, too antiquated.

    I eventually gave up the attempt at definitions, largely because none gave me a God I could relate to or who could relate to me. Then I recalled that when Moses asked God who He was, the response was, “I am what I am”.

    The Bible constantly uses the word and – “And the Lord spoke”, “And these are the laws”, “And Jacob dwelt”. Believing in God is not just a background feeling of certainty but a relationship, a set of ands: God and the world, God and human duty, God and our potential.

    It tells me that because of God, my life is different – and makes a difference.

    I am not always certain which way to turn, but my belief helps me through the options. I am not always strong enough to do the right thing, but my belief enables me to rise above my own frailty and the moral weakness of others.

    I do not always like what I find in the world, but if I see evil, my belief gives me no rest until I cry out.

    I am sometimes disappointed with God, but my belief teaches me to be honest, and I have to protest even at God. I demand an explanation, but deep down I know that it’s sometimes better not to have one.

    I have enough faith in God to know that He is bigger and wiser than me.

    Anti-Shechita Prosecutions in the Anglo-American World, 1855-1913 (book review)

    July 6th, 2019

    ANTI-SHECHITA PROSECUTIONS IN THE ANGLO-AMERICAN WORLD, 1855-1913: “A major attack on Jewish freedoms…”
    David Fraser
    Academic Studies Press, 2018

    Review by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally published in the Journal of the Australian Jewish Historical Society in 2019, Vol. XXIV, Part 2.

    Professor David Fraser of the University of Nottingham has painstakingly researched and written an important and fascinating work on religious freedom.

    He has traced a series of Anglo-American cases (including one from Australia) which portray the ongoing tug-of-war between animal rights champions and Jewish communities, with the point at issue being whether the Jewish method of animal slaughter for food is cruel and inhumane.

    It is not a new story, even in Australia, though hardly anyone has ever heard of the attempt in 1882 to brand a Sydney shochet, Rev. Phillip Philippstein, as a criminal. (Note that Philippstein’s surname is misspelled by Fraser throughout the book.)

    Philippstein was the Great Synagogue’s senior shochet for forty years. He carried out a range of ministerial functions as an assistant (and occasional deputy) for Rev. Alexander Barnard Davis.

    The Australian case which Fraser describes arose out of shechitah performed by Philippstein at Glebe Abattoir. The case was heard at the Water Police Court on 11 September 1882. The prosecution claimed that the Jewish method of slaughter practised by the shochet constituted “unnecessary and gross cruelty”, aggravated by the method of casting the animal before slaughter. The bench acquitted Philippstein, presumably impressed by the fact that the Jewish method had been in a sense legalised by longstanding custom in New South Wales.

    The Philippstein case is hardly known, if at all, by Australian Jewish historians, and Fraser should have asked why. When writing his Australian chapter, he should have consulted community historians, whose insights on Australian Jewish history would have been helpful and, indeed, would have ensured that he got all his facts right.

    For some reason he allows himself a digression about shechitah in Adelaide, and one wonders what has happened to the rest of Australia; unfortunately, the anti-shechitah campaigns have never been limited to New South Wales and South Australia. Fraser should also have provided a full context within which to examine the overall situation and status of Jews and Judaism against a backdrop of national history.

    In all the Anglo-American cases that Fraser depicts, a community shochet was accused of cruelty but not all were acquitted. In each case there were three stages: a claim that shechitah– especially because the animal was not pre-stunned – was cruel; a learned defence arguing that the Jewish method was humane; and a judicial decision. These cases tended to reflect a general feeling of antipathy to Jews, who saw the prosecution’s claims as “a major attack on Jewish freedoms” (a quotation which forms the sub-title of Fraser’s book).

    Fraser argues that it is not only conventional antisemitism which creates the problem but a “blood trope” whereby there is a sort of moral equivalence between the blood of animals and the blood of Jesus. If there is a “blood trope”, the historians of Christian antisemitism should spell it out. Non-Christian antisemites – if they are logical – should ignore it, but antisemitism, like other forms of prejudice, is not known for rationality. Fraser points out that critics tend to use pejorative terms like “Jewish ritual slaughter” where less emotive language would be an improvement.

    The book focusses on the question, “Are Jews breaking the civil law when they perform shechitah?” If the criterion is cruelty, surely the ubiquitous pro-shechitah views of scientific experts should carry immense weight. Fraser does not consider the opposite question, “Aren’t the practitioners of trefah (non-kosher) slaughter breaking the law?” Nobody seems to have thought of litigating this question, presumably because meat-eating is so widespread that hardly anyone spares a thought for the ethics of meat production.

    There is a parallel question: “How far can Jewish law allow the civil law to intervene in Jewish religious matters?” Are there limits to the Talmudic principle, dina d’malchuta dina (“The law of the land is the law”)? Fraser does not address this point, but in Jewish law the credibility of dina d’malchuta applies only to matters where a national government has a direct interest, such as paying one’s taxes, not to matters of religious belief or practice.

    There is a significant ideological issue in Australia as elsewhere, which is the question of how far and where do Jewish and civil law intersect? This question has significant ramifications that range from circumcision, head-covering and clothing, marriage and divorce, worship and education, to death and burial. The more that immigration produces ethnic variety, the more this question arises.

    Fraser has done a good job with this book despite the questions he leaves unanswered.