Originally published in The Jewish Chronicle.
“All Israel have a portion in the world to come.” What does this mean?
The saying is found in the Mishna (Sanhedrin 10, 1). It is not, however, as exclusive as it appears to be on the face, and presumably it is that which bothers you. For one thing the Mishna goes on immediately to declare that some classes of sinners, even though they are Jews, have no portion in the world to come. Again, sources contemporaneous with the Mishna declare that the good of all peoples have a portion in the world to come. (The meaning of “a portion in the world to come” is, of course, a share in spiritual bliss in the hereafter.)
Many of us today feel that speculations about who does and who does not have a portion in the world to come are futile, and that these matters should be left to God.
What part do angels play in Jewish religious thinking? Is there a strict hierarchy of them? What is their significance for our age?
First, it should be noted that many Jewish thinkers have interpreted the whole idea of angels in purely spiritual terms, e.g., as pure intelligences and the like. In this sense Maimonides, for example, believes in the existence of angels and sees them as the instruments God uses particularly in the revelation of His will. The cherubim on the ark-cover (Exodus 25, 18-20) are, for Maimonides (Guide 3, 45), a reminder of the existence of angels. There are two cherubim, not one, in order to deny any sort of divinity to angels. Only God is “One.”
Rabbinic literature contains numerous references to angels, though it has been argued from the absence of even a single reference to angels in the whole of the Mishna that the editor of the Mishna (Rabbi Judah the Prince) attached no significance to belief in angels. As for the question of a hierarchy of angels, Maimonides (Yad, Yesode Ha-Torah 2, 7) lists ten ranks of angels, the highest being the “holy beasts” (chayot), the lowest, the angels known as “men,” because of all the angels these are closest to the ranks of men. The Cabalists have a different system of angelic ranking.
What is the significance or angels for our age? Frankly not much. It is not so much that we cannot believe in the existence of angels (how could such a belief be disproved?) as that the whole notion seems irrelevant. The majority of Jewish thinkers today tend to see in the references to angels a piece of poetry, a reminder of: “O world invisible, we view thee.”
31 July 1970:
Is there a list of books prohibited to Jewish readers on the lines of the Catholic index?
No such list has ever been drawn up by Jewish teachers, among other reasons because there has never existed in Judaism any machinery for this way of trying to regulate Jewish opinion. Distaste at the banning of books is a modern phenomenon, however, and it is perfectly true that individual Jewish teachers in the past did express their strong disapproval of certain types of books which they considered to be heretical or immoral. The custom also persists down to the present for rabbinic authors to obtain approbations from eminent authorities for any books they publish.
In the 16th century R. Moses Isserles warned against reading heretical books (Yoreh Deah 246, 4) and the author of the Shulchan Aruch (Orah Hayim 307, 16) forbade reading of the erotic poems of Immanuel of Rome. The latter author also was of the opinion that Azariah de Rossi’s Meor Enayim should be destroyed because it dares to suggest that the history found in the talmudic literature is sometimes shaky. The statement in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10,1) that one who “reads the external books” has no share in the world to come, probably referred to a public reading in the synagogue of the books of the Apocrypha, which were rejected as not belonging to sacred Scripture. Be that as it may, in the Middle Ages the statement was understood frequently as a ban on the reading of heretical books even in private.
The opponents of Maimonides wished to place a ban on the sage’s philosophical writings. Opponents of Gersonides’ “Wars of the Lord” declared that the book must not be studied because of its unconventional theological views (e.g. that God only knows the future in general, not in particulars) and stated that it ought to have been called “Wars Against the Lord.” In some circles the works of Moses Mendelssohn and his school and the writings of the Russian Maskilim were banned. One could go on citing examples. Nowadays we are more tolerant, or are we?
28 August 1970:
Can you please enumerate for me the Ten Commandments? Is the opening sentence, “I am the Lord thy God . . .” (Exodus 20, 2) one of the Commandments?
The Jewish classification of the Ten Commandments (Catholics and Protestants each have different classifications) is: (1) I am the Lord thy God; (2) Thou shalt have no other god; (3) Thou shalt not take name of the Lord in vain ; (4) Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy; (5) Honour thy father and thy mother; (6) Thou shalt not murder; (7) Thou shalt not commit adultery; (8) Thou shalt not steal; 9) Thou shalt not bear false witness; (10) Thou shalt not covet. The conventional way of depicting the Ten Commandments in Jewish art is to have the first five on one tablet, the second five on the other.
It is not generally known that the Jewish name is the “Ten Words”, not “Ten Commandments” but it is clear none the less that the rabbis did look upon them all, including the first, as commands (see Makkot 24a). This raises the difficult, presumably, in your mind of how “I am the Lord” can be a command. If the meaning is tht God commands us to believe in Him it would result in logical absurdity. For if one already believes in God then no command is necessary, and if one does not no command can be effective, since there is no one to issue it. For this reason many Jewish thinkers understand “I am the Lord thy God” not as a command to believe in God but to accept His sovereignty. A favourite theme of Jewish preachers is the unity of the religious and ethical demands of Judaism as represented in the two tablets of stone. The first five “words” are largely religious in content (“between man and God”), while the second five are ethical (“between man and his fellow”). The good Jew is to have an adequate relationship with his God and with his neighbours for which the Ten Commandments are the basis.
1 January 1971:
What attitude does Judaism take to heaven and hell? How are they envisaged?
The rabbinic names for heaven and hell are, respectively, gan eden and gehinnom. The Hebrew word shamayim (heaven) is never used for the Hereafter. Rabbinic literature is full of references to gan eden and gehinnom and, as a result, they have become part of Jewish belief, though later Jewish thinkers have acknowledged that a good deal of the rabbinic material here belongs more to speculation than to dogma.
Thus Maimonides, in a vivid simile, remarks that it is impossible for man in this life to envisage the true nature of heavenly bliss, just as a man born blind cannot envisage the nature of colour. In the Middle Ages the thinkers were divided on whether heaven and hell were to be understood in a spiritual or a material sense. Maimonides, for instance, hardly refers to hell at all and seems to think of it not as a place of punishment but as the annihilation of the wicked soul.
Nachmanides is more literalistic, arguing from various rabbinic statements that hell is an actual place and one located, moreover, on earth! It is frequently stated in modern works of Jewish apologetics that Judaism does not know of eternal punishment in hell. This is not strictly correct. Some medieval Jewish thinkers, notably Saadia (Beliefs and Opinions 9, 7), believe in eternal punishment and are puzzled by the difficulty this presents to belief in God’s justice and mercy.
The Mishna (Eduyot 2, 10) states that the wicked are punished in hell for twelve months. This is why the kaddish is recited for only eleven months after a parent’s death so as not to imply that the parent was wicked.
Some of the mystics prefer to think of heaven and hell as spiritual states. One should speak not of going to heaven but of becoming heaven. All peoples tend to think of heaven in terms of the highest they know on earth. Thus the rabbis, for whom learning was a supreme value, frequently refer to heaven as the academy on high in which the righteous are taught the Torah by God Himself. On the more popular level, the delights of the Sabbath are described as a foretaste of heavenly bliss.
Many modern thinkers have been embarrassed by the whole doctrine of hell. Morris Joseph (Judaism as Creed and Life, pp. 144-5) writes: “For him (the modern Jew) punishment in the future life affects the soul only. He thinks of it as the remorse which tortures the guilty even in this existence. . . Very striking is the idea of a later teacher that the punishment in the future life consists in the torment of the soul torn by conflicting desires—by its sinful longings, which it can no longer gratify, and by its yearning after the higher joys which it is not yet pure enough to attain.
19 February 1971:
What Jewish numbers are particularly significant and why?
From one point of view or another all the numbers from 1 to 13 have some significance, as in the well-known Passover song echad mi yodea. However it is probably true to say (though I am not aware of any classical Jewish source which puts it quite in this way) that the most significant numbers are 1, 3, 7 and 10.
No. 1 represents, of course, the one God and the number 1 is part of every other number. Three represents the three-fold division of the Bible—the Torah, the Prophets and the Hagiographa; the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and the three divisions of the Jewish people, Cohanim, Levites and Israelites.
Seven as a significant sacred number is found in Biblical times all over the Near East. In the Jewish tradition, seven represents the seven days of the week, culminating in the Sabbath; the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot; the seven years culminating in the year of release and the seven sets of these followed by the Jubilee year; the seven persons called to the reading of the Torah; the seven days of festivals; the seven weeks of consolation after the ninth of Av; the seven branches of the menorah; and the “seven good men of the city,” elected to control the affairs of the Jewish community.
No. 10 is the most “natural” of numbers in that a man has ten fingers and ten toes. In the Jewish tradition ten is found in the Ten Commandents; the ten curtains used in the construction of the sanctuary; the number required for a minyan; the ten plagues; the ten days of penitence; the ten martyrs; and the ten sefirot, the ten potencies in the Godhead of which the Cabala speaks. These latter are, incidentally, divided into two groups, each made up of one of the other sacred numbers—three higher sefirot and seven lower.
9 July 1971:
Is there such a thing as the evil eye in the Jewish religion? If so, how do you counteract it?
It all depends on what you mean by the Jewish religion. If you mean should Jews believe in the evil eye, there have been many Jewish teachers who considered the belief to be sheer superstition to be rejected. If, however, you mean is the belief referred to in Jewish sources and were there Jewish teachers who accepted it, then the answer is yes.
The Mishna (Avot 2, 11) refers to the evil eye, ayin hara: “Rabbi Joshua said: the evil eye, the evil inclination and hatred of mankind put a man out of the world.” From the context it is clear that the reference is not at all to any magic power of the eye but simply to the idea that a man who is prey to ungovernable envy of the good fortune of others has no peace in his soul.
Nor is there a reference to the evil eye in the magical sense anywhere in the Mishna. On the other hand, there are numerous references to it in Talmudic literature, especially in the Babylonian Talmud. Later teachers also believed in it. One of the reasons given why two brothers or a father and son should not be called to the Torah one immediately after the other is because of the evil eye. This is one of the reasons given, too, why children whose parents are still alive should leave the synagogue during Yizkor.
If you are interested in this bizarre subject, the two works to be consulted are: Angelo S. Rappoport: “The Folklore of the Jews” and Joshua Trachtenberg: “Jewish Magic and Superstition.” In these works you will find ways that have been suggested for counteracting the evil eye. But my advice to you is to ignore the whole thing.