Originally published in The Jewish Chronicle.
Many of the Psalms are headed “A song of degrees.” What does this mean?
The New English Bible treats this and similar headings to the Psalms as later interpolations of which the meaning is uncertain and so does not give them at all. Such a procedure seems unwarrantable to me. After all they are in the Hebrew, however they came to be there. The Hebrew here is shir (a song of) hamaalot. Maalot can mean “degrees” or “steps” or “ascents.” Of the suggestions made, the best-known are: “A song (sung) on the steps (leading to the altar)” or “A song (sung by the pilgrims) of ascent” (to the Temple).
It has also been suggested that in these Psalms an idea mentioned in one verse is taken up again in a later verse, hence the meaning would be: “A song of ascent” (of ideas).
In next week’s portion of the law, “Terumah” (Exodus 25), in which the Children of Israel are told to bring offerings for the Ark of the Covenant, the offerings include “ram-skins dyed red.” What is the significance of dyeing the ram-skins red?
First, it is not certain that the word meaddamim means “dyed red.” An alternative translation (used in the New English Bible and given as a possibility in the American Jewish translation) is “tanned,” i.e., “tanned ram skins.”
But the weight of scholarly opinion today is that it does, indeed, mean “dyed red,” since we know that the Bedouins, for example, do spread red coverings over their tents and probably did this in ancient times.
I can do no better than quote Professor Cassuto (“A Commentary on the Book of Exodus,” translated by I. Abrahams, Jerusalem, 1961, p. 353): “Over the tent there was to be another cover: And you shall make for the tent a covering of rams’ skins dyed red. To this day the Bedouins sometimes spread skins over their tents. Among Gentile peoples, too, it was customary to use red, which is visible from a distance, to distinguish the sacred tents.”
In Exodus, Chapter 33, verse 11, it is said: “And the Lord spoke unto Moses face to face, as a man speakes to his friend.” And yet, in the same chapter, verse 20, it is said: “Thou canst not see My face; for no man can see Me and live.” How can one reconcile these two statements?
The first verse you quote does not say that Moses saw God face to face, but that God conversed with him face to face. The verse continues: “as a man speaks to his friend.” A man can speak face to face with his friend without the friend looking at him.
The meaning of it all would seem to be something like this: No human being can ever have a direct vision of God while he is alive in this world. Not even Moses could have this kind of vision. Nevertheless, God conversed with Moses in a far more direct manner than with all other prophets.
A non-Jewish school-teacher was recently dismissed from his post because he interpreted the book of Genesis as a literal account, conflicting with evolutionary theories. What is the Orthodox Jewish attitude to the Creation?
There is no single, official Orthodox view on the question, but a number of Orthodox rabbis have grappled with the problem. It is reported that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, for example, rejects all evolutionary theories and holds that the world is only 5,738 years old. As for the fossils and so forth, he argues that God placed them in the earth, as is were, in order to give the world the appearance of growth.
On the other hand, the famous commentator to the Mishnah, Israel Lipshitz (Commentary “Tiferet Yisrael” in the lengthy excursus at the end of the Nezikin), accepts the evidence for the great age of the earth and even of man upon it, but holds that prehistoric man, and the animals who were his companions, belong to the many generations which, say some of the Talmudic rabbis, existed before this world was created, God creating worlds and then destroying them.
On this view the Torah account is to be taken literally, but it refers only to the world as we now know it. Again, Rabbi A. I. Kook, in his work, “Orot Hakodesh,” holds that the Torah account is not to be taken literally since it is generally acknowledged that the early chapters of Genesis belong to the “mysteries of creation,” i.e., to esoteric wisdom.
In fact, Rabbi Kook welcomed evolutionary theories as not only compatible with Judaism, but fully in line with Cabalistic thought, according to which, reminiscent of the current theories of Teilhard de Chardin, the whole of creation moves gradually towards ever-greater heights. Rabbi Kook even believed that man is constantly advancing in the moral and ethical sphere, too, so that as time rolls on the message of the Torah, with its lofty demands, becomes easier of acceptance than in the past.
There is, therefore, a variety of ways in which Orthodoxy has tackled the problem. A non-Orthodox approach, which seems compelling to me, is to see the early chapters of Genesis as a great liturgical hymn on the theme of creation, expressed in the language of the day and assuming the thought patterns of that distant time. It is the idea of God as Creator that matters, not the particular framework in which this tremendous theme finds its expression. If the Torah had recorded a “scientific” account of how the world has come into being there would have been nothing left for the professor of geology to accomplish in the nineteenth century. Moreover, such an account would have been unintelligible before the nineteenth century and, we might hazard a guess, would become outdated in the twenty-third century.
Sacred poetry is still poetry and we should not try to distort its meaning and its beauty by treating it as prose. It should perhaps also be added that, according to Orthodox Jewish teaching, the Torah is not the bare text of the Bible, but the Bible interpreted by the tradition, so that literalism is not only not advocated, but would be heretical.
When the Israelites entered the Promised Land, it was captured by war. When we were scattered all over the world, we stopped killing to exist; we had to find other ways of existing. With the establishment of the State of Israel, we had to go to war again and kill to exist. Why must we kill others in order to exist now when we managed to survive 2,000 years without the State of Israel and without killing?
However we understand the war when Israel entered the Promised Land, it is not upheld in the Jewish tradition as any encouragement for further wars of conquest.
The State of Israel has been obliged to wage wars of defence. Judaism does not advocate that we allow ourselves to be killed rather than take up arms in defence of our lives. Even the most hawkish of Israelis desires nothing but peace, which is, after all, among the highest of Jewish values.
Since Adam and Eve were the only human pair, who were the wives of their sons?
The Midrash replies that, together with each son, a twin daughter was born and the sons married their sisters. Incest on that occasion was permitted because it was the only way in which the world could become populated. The Critical view, however, is that the “source” which tells of Cain, for example, marrying and having children is different from that which tells of a single human couple, Adam and Eve.
I have recently re-read the story of the Battle of Jericho (Joshua 6), where it is stated that Joshua and his men utterly destroyed young and old with the edge of the sword. Does Jewish law still allow that the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent men, women and children can, in certain circumstances, be justified?
Even if the Joshua story is understood literally and as a factual account (many scholars would see it as a story told centuries later rather than an eye-witness account), it means that Joshua did not do what he did of his own accord, but at the direct command of God.
The only circumstances in which such acts could ever be tolerated are those in which God would again directly command such extermination.
Since the command was given against the Canaanites alone, such a command will never be repeated, so that Jewish law will never allow—and has never allowed—the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent men, women and children.
If it is asked why it was ever permitted, the answer depends on how we read the Bible. The modernist, who detects a strong human element in the Bible, will point out what historical investigation shows that these texts were compiled long after the events they record.
They were, in this view, in the nature of human reflection on the early history of the people, saying, in so many words, that our conquest of Canaan was successful because God had so ordered it, and He did so because the Canaanites were utterly corrupt.
The implication is that if we were ever to behave as they did, we, too, would suffer extermination. The whole account is thus a kind of stern moral lesson for the Israelites.
The traditionalist, on the other hand, will really believe that God commanded Joshua to exterminate the Canaanites, but on his belief, it was God who ordered the extermination.
We cannot fathom the mystery of God’s order of His world any more than we can grasp why, for instance, He allows the death of innocent children by “natural” means.
It is important to grasp, with regard to this and other extremely savage passages in the Bible, that they have always been seen in the Jewish tradition as actions never to be emulated.
Jewish law has seen the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” as the imperative to be followed in all generations, while the acts of Joshua, however they are understood, have always been relegated to ancient history.
You should also consult Dr Hertz’s note, “Banning the Canaanites,” in the Hertz Chumash, page 832.
Why does the Tetragrammaton (the unutterable name of God) consist of just the four letters, yod, hei, vav, hei? Or of the four numbers 10, 5, 6, 5? Why not of any other four, or more or less letters? Why is this sequence of letters accorded such extraordinary veneration in our faith?
The simple answer is that it is not the letters themselves that possess such power, but the word they compose, the Tetragrammaton, which is, of course, the special name of God in the Bible.
There is a vast literature on the meaning and implications of this special name—indeed, on how God can be “named” at all. The traditional Jewish explanation of the special name is to connect the word with hayah, “to be,” and therefore with hayah, hoveh veyiheyeh, “was, is and will be,” that is to say, God is the Source of all being and He embraces time and is beyond time and space.
In the Bible, the word elohim, “God,” is generally used when the reference is in relation to the world and mankind as a whole, whereas the Tetragrammaton is used in contexts where God’s relationship with Israel is considered. And, of course, out of reverence for this special name, we always pronounce it as adonai.
It is only at a much later date that special significance became attached to the letters of this name and to the numbers they represent (to which you refer). Thus, for the Cabalists the name represents the ten sefirot, the powers or potencies in the Godhead, through which all the divine creative powers are exercised.
In this scheme, the yod represents the second highest of the sefirot, hochmah, “wisdom”; the first hei the third of the sefirot; the vav (the numerical value of which is six) the next six sefirot; and, finally the last hei the sefira malchut, “sovereignty,” the schechina, the indwelling Presence of God.
Interestingly enough, in this scheme, the highest of the sefirot is not contained at all in any letter, but can be represented only by the point of the yod.
It requires little imagination to see in all this the profound idea that the higher we advance towards the Deity, the less we are able to understand; yod is the smallest of the letters and yet represents the highest.
29 May 1970:
According to rabbinic tradition, the Patriarchs knew and observed the Torah. How, then, could Jacob marry two sisters, or Abraham marry the daughter of his father? (See Genesis 20, 12).
First, it should be noted that not all the rabbis held that the Patriarchs observed the Torah before it was given. Many rabbis held that the Patriarchs only kept the “seven laws of the sons of Noah” (see Ginzberg: Legends of the Jews, Vol. V, p. 259). According to the view that the Patriarchs did keep the Torah, certain exceptions were none the less made “for the sake of heaven.” There was much discussion on this in the Middle Ages; for instance, does Genesis 18, 7-8, mean that Abraham gave his visitors first milk and then meat, and not both together? (See Ginzberg, p. 235) Modern scholars have detected in the statements about the Patriarchs keeping the Torah an anti-Christian polemic, the Christian claim being that one could be a good man without the Law as evidenced by the Patriarchs. Incidentally, according to one rabbinic interpretation of Genesis 20, 12, Sarah was not Abraham’s half-sister, but his brother’s daughter (see Rashi to this verse).
5 June 1970:
How can the God of justice “visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 20, 5)?
The Talmudic rabbis were bothered by this question and pointed to Deuteronomy 24, 16 : “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin” (see also Ezekiel, chapter 18). In one Talmudic passage (Berachot 7a) the contradiction is solved by suggesting that the verse in Exodus refers only to children who persist in perpetuating the wicked deeds of their parents. In another passage (Makkot 24a) the striking observation is made that, in fact, the prophet Ezekiel cancelled this decree of Moses!
The modern Jew, seeking to make sense of the Exodus verse, will refer not so much to “punishment” as to the inexorable natural effects of wrong-doers on posterity. It is a fact of experience that men through their viciousness or folly store up disaster for generations still unborn. The use of nuclear weapons, to take an obvious example, would bring terrible suffering not alone upon the original perpetrators but on children yet to be born; the toleration of shoddy building techniques will create a slum problem for the future; the oppression of minorities might result in a rebellion that will greatly harm the offspring of the smug majority; if the fight against disease is undertaken half-heartedly the young of the future will be born sickly, and so on.
11 December 1970:
How did the ancient Hebrews calculate time? Are we to take it, for example in Genesis, that one year corresponds to a present-day month? How otherwise can you account for the hundreds of years the Genesis characters lives?
Some of the medieval Jewish commentators to Genesis did try to solve the problem on the lines you mention that the “years” are really much shorter periods. But the trouble with this kind of explanation is that it distorts the texts. The word for “years” (shanim) is that used elsewhere in the Bible where it clearly means what we mean by a year, e.g. “The days of our years are threescore years and ten, or even by reason of strength fourscore years” (Psalms 90, 10).
A different medieval explanation is that before the Flood the climactic conditions were more conducive to health and longevity. A good modern understanding of the problem is provided by Professor U. Cassuto in his commentary to Genesis. Cassuto notes that the ancient peoples of the Near East had traditions about mythical heroes at the dawn of history who lived do much longer than ordinary mortals because they were semi-divine beings.
The Torah does not reject such legends but transforms them by dissociating from them any suggestion that these fabulous men of old were in any way divine. Consequently, in the Torah version, even Methuselah, who lived for 969 years (Genesis 5, 27), the longest of them all, did not reach a thousand years, a “day” of God: “A thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past” (Psalms 90, 4).
Man can be God-like but he can never be divine. Thus the ancient narrative strikes a blow indirectly for the pure monotheistic view and the refinement of man’s ideas about God. Some people no doubt find it shocking to be told that Genesis contains legend as well as fact. But why should it be considered offensive that the Torah used a piece of ancient folklore in such a way as to contribute to a deeper understanding of the truth?
15 January 1971:
Can you elucidate two passages from Isaiah—7, 14 and 9, 6—which, in some translations, have apparent Christological associations?
The Hebrew word alma in Is. 7, 14 simply means a “young woman,” not “a virgin” for which the word betula is used. The New English Bible, for instance, renders the word as “young woman.” In the Jewish tradition Isaiah 9, 6 refers either to King Hezekiah or to the Messiah.
A general observation is in order here. It is now held by the majority of Biblical scholars, Christian as well as Jewish, that whatever the Hebrew prophets were they were not a kind of ancient Old Moore’s Almanach foretelling the remote future in detail. Thus all attempts at searching the words of the prophets for detailed forecasts of events which actually occurred, or are said to have occurred, long after their day is seen to be an exercise in folly. This is why only the most fundamentalist of Christians would dream nowadays of quoting verses such as those to which you refer as prophetic anticipations of the Christian faith.
26 March 1971:
If Adam and Eve were the first two people on this earth and their sons were Cain and Abel, how did Cain, after killing his brother, go out and find himself a wife?
The critical answer to this perennial question is that the Cain and Abel story is from a different ultimate source than the Adam and Eve story. Naturally this kind of solution was not open to the rabbis who suggested that Cain and Abel had twin sisters, one of whom Cain married (See Ginzberg: Legends of the Jews, Vol. 1, p. 108 and notes).
22 March 1985:
Isaiah chapter 53 is never used as a scriptural reading in the synagogue. If the omission is deliberate, does this not appear to contradict the validity of the Scriptures, that all the words therein are of truth and are to be used?
Yes, it does seem to have been a deliberate omission on the part of those who drew up the public scriptural readings and we can see why they omitted this chapter, which deals with the “suffering servant.”
Jewish commentators explain the “suffering servant” passage in Isaiah as referring to the Messiah or Jewish people as a whole.
When Christians came to interpret the passage as referring to Jesus, it was evidently thought best not to give faintest impression that Jews, too, attached special significance to the passages.
I may be wrong, but from the tone of your letter (you do not sign your name) I imagine that you are a Christian reader and are implying that, by the omission, Jews are being selective as to which passages in Scripture they accept.
The truth is that, while Jews do accept the Scriptures as true (as you say), they see no harm in omitting passages which have been misinterpreted. Do not forget that, in any event, it is impossible to read all the prophets in a single year.