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It has been some time – as usual – and I am as always terrible sorry for it.
The war is on break for now, people are back to normal, or at least as close you can come to normal here.
The studies are going on as usual as well, stressing me and leaving me with a lot of pressure, as well as a son soon to be born, BE”H. But I am grateful, very grateful.
I have been thinking about the comparative study, and how we teach about religions. One thing that has struck me is that we often teach about the religions for themselves, that is, instead of comparing some interrelated fields, we study them unrelated to each other. Take for example philosophy in religion (or religious philosophy). When we study Jewish philosophy, most often it is only rarely related to Islamic or Christian philosophy, but in order to get a good understanding of Jewish philosophy we need to relate it to other players in the field. Maimonides, for example, is influenced by a number of Islamic philosophers (as well as Greek), and has himself influenced both Christian and Muslim philosophers.
Another example is the role of central figures and how to understand them. Often we are told that Muhammad is to Islam what Moses is to Judaism, but is that really so? I have more and more thought about this issue, that we need to have the comparative element integrated into the general study and teaching of religions, in order both to understand the religions in and of themselves, as well as in their relation to other religions. I will try to give a small example on how this can be done in the following:
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all three religions based on one or more central figures. In all of them one person stands out of centrality compared to other central figures. In Judaism Moses is of great central importance, in Christianity Jesus has the same centrality, and in Islam it is Muhammad. What is interesting in this respect, is not so much how these characters are viewed and understand in the other respective religions – though that certainly also is of importance – but how they are central in comparison of other central figures in the respective religions, as well as how they are understood in comparison to how the central characters are understood in the other religions.
Moses, for example, is far from the only central character in Judaism, we can easily mention both Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Isaiah, David, and Salomon as examples on other very central characters. And that is just in the Bible itself, would we expand our focus to other Jewish materials, then we would find Hillel and Shamai, Yehudah haNasi, Maimonides, and so on. And furthermore, though I believe that Moses is the most central character in Judaism (except God Himself, of course), I am not sure of how strong his centrality is compared to the centrality of the other characters. For example, where Moses is very central and of crucial importance when it comes to the implementation of law in Judaism, he doesn’t hold the same level of importance when it comes to the establishment of Israel as a people. There Abraham might be of greater centrality. Or Moses compared to David in the establishment of the kingdom of Israel. And so on. Yet, I still believe that Moses overall is of greater central importance than other characters are.
We see the same with Christianity, where Jesus is far from the only central figure. Take characters like Paul, Peter, and John. Or the various church fathers. Or even Luther. In both these cases, though there would be no Judaism without Moses, and no Christianity without Jesus, their central importance is to some degree matched by other characters, though the two religions might have existed in some form or another without them.
It seems to me that Muhammad enjoys a much greater centrality and importance when it comes to Islam. Though references are abundant to other characters in the Qur’ân, Muhammad is still the receiver of the Qur’ân, and in the early times he was the leading figure when spreading Islam, at least till his death. In this context we don’t see Moses or Jesus spreading their respective religions, which can be part of the reason that Muhammad is more central in Islam than the two in their respective religions. Of course there are other important characters, the four righteous caliphs, the founders of the legal schools, the philosophers, and so on, but put notice on how Muhammad is in focus, both when it comes to the role as the receiver of the Qur’ân as well as when it comes to the Hadith-literature. In comparison, the Mishnah is not ascribed to Moses, and the letters in the New Testament is not ascribed to Jesus. Where Moses mostly is of crucial central importance to the written Torah in Judaism, and Jesus plays somewhat the same role in Christianity, neither of them are ascribed to the “oral tradition” (the Mishnah/Tosefta in Judaism, and the letters in Christianity), while this is the case for Muhammad in Islam.
This is one aspect. Another aspect is how we view them, how we describe them. This can teach us a lot about how the followers of the respective religions understand their religion and their role as followers of the religion in question. I am not going to too much into how followers are relating to them, just use the most used examples.
Moses is – by Jews – described as “teacher”, Moshe Rabenu. This is very crucial for the Jewish conception. He teaches us and we learn from him. He has a role not unlike the rabbis, as the chief rabbi, and this – I believe – has left its mark on Jews, who generally have been very occupied by the focus on study.
Jesus, on the other hand, is described as savior. This is something we often see in how Christians describe themselves, as being saved.
Again we see Islam somewhat differ here. Muslims see themselves as submitted to God, not so much describing Muhammad as God’s submitter, but rather in describing themselves as such. Where Jews today are named after a tribe, Yehudah – earlier named as a people, Israel – Christians are named as followers of Jesus, the Christ, and Muslims are named after their relation to God, as people submitted to God. But Muslims are neither taking their name after a role perceived in relation to Muhammad, nor after a role described him. Nevertheless, in one incident we do see Muslim self-perceiving based on Muhammad, namely as the final group of believers. Muhammad is the final prophet, therefore those who are following him are the right group of believers. In Judaism as such Moses wasn’t the last prophet to come, and it wasn’t unperceivable that other religions would form, though they wouldn’t have importance for Israel as such, and in Christianity we also see the spokesman, the holy spirit, would come after Jesus.
All this more or less describes an idea I’m working on, which could be interesting to follow in the future. I don’t know if anything will come of this or what it will end with, but if any of you out there have any suggestions, then please share with me, I would be very interested in hearing about what you have on mind.
I also know that there are many conceptions and thoughts, which could have been explained better, for example when I talk about strength of centrality and the like, but again, this is mostly sharing thoughts.
Looking forward to hear from you.
All the best and Hanukkah Sameah!
Warning: This post might be somewhat offending to some Muslims, since it deals in part with the Quran outside the Islamic traditional understanding of it and its message.
As I explained in my last post I did four assignments, and one of them was about how the Quran views and understands the Biblical scriptures. I am not going into detail or post the whole assignments here, that would be a little too much, but there were some aspects which I found rather interesting.
First off, I based the assignments on the findings of Gabriel Said Reynolds (which can be found in his “The Qur’ân and its Biblical Subtext”), who argues that the Quran, as far is it being studied by academics and on its own, should be studied in light of the Biblical texts, which – for him – gives more sense than reading it in light of tafsirs (Islamic commentaries), since that would mean that one would study the Quran through an afterthought, rather than relating to what might be the basis for the Quranic thought, which according to Reynolds are the Biblical texts, and I understand why he thinks so.
Though Reynolds’ book in itself is very interesting I won’t deal so much with its details here – though I might in another post – but more relate to his overall concept.
The second scholar I related to is Mondher Sfar and his “In Search of the Original Koran: The True Story of the Revealed Text” (translated by Emilia Lanier). This book is most likely to offend quite a lot of Muslim minds, since it basically attempts to challenge the Islamic traditional understanding of the Quran as revealed text and how it is revealed. Nevertheless I found it being somewhat in line with Reynolds’ book, and since I did want to challenge the normal understanding of how the Quran viewed the Biblical texts, I related to these two books.
Besides that I related to a etymological inquiry into certain terms, which normally are considered to be related to the Biblical texts, such as Tawrat (Torah, the Five Books of Moses), Zabur (the Psalms of David), and the Injil (the Gospel, relating more to the revelation Jesus got according to the Quran, rather than the four gospels and the New Testament as a whole). I also delved into the usage of suhuf, meaning scrolls or parchment, as well as kitab, meaning book. The two last terms seemed to be rather general, so I did not spend so much time on them. Here I related heavily on Jastrow’s dictionary, as well as the six translations of Pickthall, Yusuf Ali, Sahih International, Muhsin Khan, and Dr. Ghali (all as found at Quran.com – I can highly recommend the website).
What is interesting is not so much that the Quran views itself as being from the same source (God), or that carries the same significance – that it is sent in order to guide in the right direction, as a law from God. What is interesting is that it hints several places that the details of this divine law is not the same as it is presented in the Tawrat, Injil and in the Quran itself. It does hint at the Tawrat being specifically for the Jews, the Injil specifically for the Christians, and the Quran specifically for the Arabs/Muslims. We see it particularly in the fifth Surah (chapter), where Muhammad deals with the question of law and judgment.
What I was especially surprised about was the zabur, which traditionally has been interpreted and understood as being the Psalms of David. This is understandable, considering that David is connected with a revelation called “zabur,” but the term is also used in other contexts. In the following I will quote what I wrote in the assignment:
“Zabûr (زَبُور )
Zabur, which root (ز ب ر ) appears 11 times in the Quran, in the forms zubar (زُبَر – 18:96), zubur (زُبُر – 3:184, 16:44, 23:53, 26:196, 35:25, 54:43, 54:52), and zabur (زَبُور – 4:163, 17:55, 21:105), is normally understood as the Psalms given to David, though it is not clear whether it is the collections of psalms as they appear in the Bible (תהילים ).
In Lane’s dictionary he relates to Ibn Barî saying that the ”zibur” (الزبر ) means ”the Book of the Law revealed to Moses and the Gospel and the Kur-an [together]” (Lane, ”Arabic-English Lexicon”, on زبر, pp. 1211). I do not see the sense in relating this root to any other than the one hinted at by Ibn Barî, though he does not mention David in this relation, which is related to the zabûr in the Quran.
21:105 vs. 54:52 – 21:105 speaks of it being told that the righteous will inherit the land, while 54:52 speaks about recording deeds of the criminals. It could be understood from this, that the Zabur is something holding records of people deeds (?). But is it all people, and if so, all in the same “zabur”, or is it only the criminals as it might appear from 54:52 (in this case relate to Pickthall’s translation of zubur to “books of dark prophecies”).
When we relate to the use of the term, we see that it is used with different though related meanings. From a number of verses do we learn that zabur is something sent to more messengers (Quran 3:184, 16:44, 26:196, 35:25 – all expressed in the plural). There does seem to be a contrast between zabur, used in singular, and other messages sent to prophets, where the messages in general is sent to a number of messengers, but the zabur, with the definite article, is related to David only (Quran 4:163, 17:55). These are two of the only times zabur in singular definite form is mentioned in the Quran, the third being in relation to a statement about the righteous and their destiny as being the inheritants of “the land” (Quran 21:105), a statement which reflects Isaiah 60:21 – a possible connection – which could tell of an understanding which covers more than only the Psalms of the Bible. This could hint at the real understanding subscribed to the term, zabûr, to cover those part of the Bible (the TaNaCh part), which includes the Prophetical books as well as the Scriptures (the “NaCh” part, if not all, then at least in the overall meaning). This would also seem to confirm Reynolds’ approach, confirming the link and connection to the Biblical texts. If we relate to the Jewish traditional organization of the Bible, the prophets are gathered under one, “Nevi’im”, and it would seem that this could be the relation between the zabûr and the Biblical texts, except though in the case of the linking of the zabûr to David. Why zabûr is connected, if at all, to the Psalms though these are not normally considered prophetical by the Jewish tradition, can be related to how the Christian tradition views them, indeed as being prophetical, and considering how often the Psalms are connected to being prophecies about Jesus, in some way or another, it is no wonder if the Quran would view the Psalms as being part of the Divine revelations.
Based on this I believe that it would be correct to only understand zabûr as the Book of Psalms in the two cases when it is prescribed to David, if we should understand it in this relation at all, while in any other case, when the Quran talks about az-zubur and az-zabûr (in 21:105) as covering the Bible, except the Torah. It would also seem weird that the Quran did not have any concept of the rest of the books in the Bible, if we only understand zabûr either in context of the Book of Psalms or as covering all Scriptures in general, an understanding I believe we rather should find in the usage of kitâb.”
And with that I will stop here. Please comment and ask if there should be any questions.
All the best
First off, sorry. Forgive me for my laziness these days (or should I rather write weeks), but studies, searching for work, being (attempting to be) a good husband, and so on just takes all my time and “creative” energy.
That aside, I need to write – at least once in a while – and today is yet another one of those time.
I will ask you, my dear readers, here in the beginning of the post, to imagine a Muslim woman bringing in a non-Muslim boyfriend/lover/very dear friend into the house of her parents or, let’s say, the local mosque. Now, we can probably all imagine how provocative that would be, at least if it was known that he was a non-Muslim, but let’s imagine that one of the Muslim worshipers present (or close family members of the house) would be so provoked that he would get up, take a knife (or maybe even a spear, any kind of weapon really) and in one cut kill both the Muslim girl and her boyfriend. How would we react? Well, obviously many of us probably would condemn the action and call it religious fanaticism. Yet, this was what one of the Israelites, called Pinhas, did in the Torah portion of last week (in Parashat Balaq), and – to make matters worse – he was praised for it, being the cause of the removal of the wrath of God, something he is being praised for also in this week’s Torah portion.
I’m not going to defend or explain it, only mention that the Torah itself mention that this was what saved the Israelites from God’s anger, after acting, well, rather wrong.
So why am I mentioning this? Well, I want to do a little commercial. Not for religious fanaticism, but rather for a web-page helping boys becoming Bar Mitzvah to prepare for their Bar Mitzvah. You see the connection? No, that comes here:
See, the coming Saturday, Shabbat, is my Hebrew birthday, kaf-gimmel b’Tammuz, and in Judaism your Bar Mitzvah falls on your 13 year birthday. Now, I am clearly being a little older than that, but when you become Bar Mitzvah you become responsible, and that is often shown publicly by reading either all the Torah portion or at least a part of it in front of the community. That can be rather terrifying, and some might wish that some religious nutnik would pierce either themselves or someone else with a spear, just not to have to do it. But alas, we are long past the days when religious zeal would be praised (at least in some parts of the world), and I would much prefer to listen to a nervous boy reciting the Torah with his puberty voice, than to see someone being pierced in the middle of the congregation, but maybe that’s just me.
Back on track. As you might have guessed – if not, then let me point it out – since my Hebrew birthday is in this week, this week’s Parashah – the Hebrew word for ‘portion’, relating to the Torah portion being read that week – is “my” Parashah. Parashat Pinhas. Yes, my Parashah begins with the appraise of a religious zealot, a group I have some problems with today, but which I nevertheless find some pride in having as my portion (if only I ever get the chance to PIERCE the Jew bringing a tjikse into the congregation! Maybe if I was in the States).
Anyway, keep on the track. When reciting the Torah a tune is normally used. Sometimes, for example when I am reciting the Torah, the tune sounds rather odd and not very melodious, but recited by a person with a good voice, and particularly a person trained in reciting, the recital can be very beautiful. There are various tunes, depending on the tradition, such as the Ashkenazi (the typical North-European/Western tradition), the Sfaradi (the more oriental), the Moroccan (gives itself), the Yerushalmi (also oriental and close to the Sfaradi), the Yemenite (guess who uses that one), and so on.
My favorite is the Moroccan, being the – in my ears – most melodious and various of them, and that is also the one I “trained” my recital in, though it certainly is hard to hear when I recite. This tune – from my own experiences – was most beautiful expressed in a synagogue in Tel Aviv, which I attended some years ago, lead by R. Zerbib, sh’litah, a very warm and intelligent rabbi, doing a great job bringing Torah to the “simple Jews” in what is considered the secular capital of Israel (party’s going on non-stop). I am normally not that much of a emotional person, but hearing this reciter (I never got his name) did bring tears in my eyes. It was simply beautiful. Anyway, should you ever get to Tel Aviv and want to attend at an open and welcoming synagogue, then I can recommend this one, Habayim Yesharesh, found on 10 Nathan HaHacham St., a side-street to Ben Yehudah. The community is mostly French and Moroccan Jews, but English is spoken, so don’t hesitate to give them a visit.
That was the first commercial I wanted to make. The second is for a Bar Mitzvah page, called – surprisingly – Bar Mitzvah, which offers help, advice and training for boys becoming Bar Mitzvah, as well as a lot of other things for the rest of us. Part of what can be found is a trainer in recital with the Ashkenazi, the Moroccan, and the Sfardi tune, found in the lower menu (you will see it when you enter the page) under “blessings and readings”. Check it out, also if you’re not practicing for Bar Mitzvah, it’s definitely a look worth.
In the last part we dealt with the first mishnah of Tractate B’rachot, being presented for opinions on until when we can recite the Shma’, the context of the Shma’, and so on. In this part we will focus on the first discussion relating to the mishnah, called “sugya,” where the Gemarrah will discuss the issue of the order of the recitals of the Shma’:
|The text of the Gemarrah is build up by several parts, dealing with different issues. Each of these parts are called “sugya.”|
|When the Gemarrah talks about the Tanna, then it is referring to the Mishnaic Sage behind the Mishnaic text.|
|As It Is Written||Dichtiv||
|Whenever the Gemarrah states this term, then it deals with Biblical texts.|
|If You Want||`I Ba’yet||
|This expression introduces a strengthening analogy.|
|If This Is So||`I Hachi||
|This expression introduces a challenge to the preceding argument.|
תנא היכא קאי דקתני מאימתי ותו מאי שנא דתני בערבית ברישא? לתני דשחרית ברישא!
תנא אקרא קאי דכתיב בשכבך ובקומך – והכי קתני זמן קריאת שמע דשכיבה אימת? משעה שהכהנים נכנסין לאכול בתרומתן
ואי בעית אימא יליף מברייתו של עולם דכתיב ויהי ערב ויהי בקר יום אחד
אי הכי סיפא דקתני בשחר מברך שתים לפניה ואחת לאחרית ובערב מברך שתים לפניה ושתים לאחרית לתני דערבית ברישא
תנא פתח בערבית והדר תני בשחרית עד דקאי בשחרית פריש מילי דשחרית והדר פריש מילי דערבית:
To what is the Tanna referring since he teaches ”from when,” and more, why is it that he teaches about the evening first? He should teach about the morning first.
The Tanna refers to the verse ”when you lay down and when you rise” – And this is what he is teaching, when is the time of the recital of the Shma’ when laying down? From the time that the Kohanim enters in order to eat their Terumah.
And if you want, [then] say that he learned from the creation of the world, as it is written “and it was evening and it was morning, one day.”
If this is so, [why is it] in the end [of the Mishnah] taught ”In the morning do you bless twice before [the Shma’] and once after [the Shma’], and in the evening do you bless twice before [the Shma’] and twice after”? Teach in the evening first.
The Tanna opened in the evening and then teaches in the morning, [and] while referring to the morning he explains the subjects of the morning and then returns and explains the subjects of the evening.
- What does the Tanna (of the Mishnah) refer to when he asks “from when”?
- Why does he teach about the evening Shma’ before the morning Shma’?
1: The Gemarrah wonders why the Tanna asks the question “from when” in regards to the evening Shma’. As we learned in the last post this is a rather sudden way of introducing the Mishnah. No explanations on what is going on or what we are about to deal with, just a question throwing us directly into the discussion. This isn’t the worry for the Gemarrah though – it is more interested in the source for the Mishnah’s question. “On what do you base this question? Why do you find the need to ask ‘from when’?” The answer is based on the Biblical verse of Devarim (Deuteronomy), which is part of the recital of the Shma’, and which gives us hints at when we should recite it. If we are to recite a Biblical text, shouldn’t it give us answers about itself as well? The Gemarrah answers for the Mishnah as well: when you lay down [to rest] and when you rise. And since the laying down comes first, then it is clear that this is the Shma’ which the Mishnah relates to, the evening Shma’, and evening, that is, when the evening Shma’ of “when you lay down” can be recited from “when the Kohanim enters to eat their Terumah.”
This first answer answers both the two questions asked, namely what is the basis (Devarim 6:7) for the question, and why is the evening Shma’ dealt with before the morning Shma’, namely because of the order of the wordings of “when you lay down” and “when you rise.”
The Gemarrah offers yet an answer, if the first isn’t satisfying, namely that we can establish the order of why the evening Shma’ is dealt with before the morning Shma’ on the order of Creation, namely that evening came before morning, as it is seen in Bereshit (Genesis) 1:5 – “and it was evening and it was morning, one day.”
A third question:
- Why is a later mishnah dealing with the subjects of the morning Shma’ before the evening Shma’, if the order of the Biblical verses argues for the opposite?
The argumentation of the order is challenged by the Gemarrah, referring to a later Mishnah (B’rachot 1:4), which in its order deals with the subjects of the morning Shma’ before it deals with the subjects of the evening Shma. If this is the case, the Gemarrah states, then the Tanna should deal with the morning Shma’ first here also, not the evening Shma’.
This, explains the Gemarrah, is no problem since the Tanna begins with the evening Shma’, which should be so based both on the context of the verse commanding the recital of the Shma’ twice a day, as well as the order of the Creation, but only in order to begin the whole discussion, and then continue to the morning Shma’, and while he is dealing with the morning Shma’ then he deals with its subjects as well, for then to return to the evening Shma’ after that.
There are a number of answers given to us here, not all of them being answers to questions asked, but that is also part of the discussion of the Gemarrah. What we learn here is the order of the recital of the Shma’, having it based on two Biblical verses (Bereshit 1:5 and Devarim 6:7), that evening was prior to morning in the Creation, that the Tanna only used the evening Shma’ as an introduction to the discussions on the subjects related to the recital of the Shma’.
As we see from this first discussion the Gemarrah doesn’t have a problem conducting a discussion with itself. It raises problems as they come, and deal with them based on quoting sources, the Bible and various Mishnaic material, in order to establish a conclusion, a conclusion the Gemarrah itself isn’t afraid of questioning.
There are three sources for the deducing of rules presented for us here. The first, and most important, is the Biblical Scripture, the Torah, the second is the Oral Tradition, here presented in the form of the Mishnah itself, and the third is the inferring by analogy (called Maqqish or Heqqesh). The last is done by the comparison of two cases, in order to establish a conclusion. Here presented in the comparison between the evening Shma’ being presented before the morning Shma’. The question is why this is so. By comparing to two Biblical sources, Devarim 6:7 and Bereshit 1:5, we can learn that just as the evening Shma’ is mentioned in the Bible, so should it be in the Mishnah, which again follow the order of Creation. By this do we see the red thread between the Written and the Oral Torah. In the mishnah itself, the one dealt with already, we see a fourth source, namely consensus, which was the case of the “the Sages say.”
This conclude the first Sugya of the first mishnah.
Chapter 1, page 1b:
Mishnah (I struggled with the layout, so forgive me for the result, I simply couldn’t get it better):
מאימתי קורין את שמע בערבין (?). משעה שהכהנים נכסים לאכול בתרומתן עד סוף האשמורה הראשונה דברי ר’ אליעזר. וחכמים אומרים עד חצות. רבן גמליאל אומר עד שיעלה עמוד השחר.
מעשה(:) ובאו בניו מבית המשתה),) אמרו לו (:) לא קרינו את שמע(,) אמר להם(:) אם לא עלה עמוד השחר חייבין אתם לקרות
ולא זו בלבד אמרו אלא כל מה שאמרו חכמים עד חצות מצותן עד שיעלה עמוד השחר(,) הקטר חלבים ואברים מצותן עד שיעלה עמוד השחר וכל הנאכלים ליום אחד מצותן עד שיעלה עמוד השחר
א”כ למה אמרו חכמים עד חצות(?) כדי להרחיק אדם מן העבירה:
“From when do we recite the Shma’ in the evenings? From the time that the Kohanim enter in order to eat their T’rumah until the end of the first shift, words of R. Eliezer. And the Sages say until midnight. Rabban Gamliel says until the dawn rises.
And it happened: And his sons came from the drinking house, they said to him “We did not recite the Shma’,” he said to them “If the dawn still has not risen, you are obliged to recite.”
And not this alone did they (the Sages) say [until midnight] but in all that the Sages commanded until midnight are we commanded [to perform] until the dawn rises. The incenses, the fats, and the limbs. And (we) are commanded until the dawn rises in all the eating on one day.
If that is so, why did the Sages say until midnight? In order to keep man from the sin.”
“From when,” does the Talmud start, following the Mishnaic order. We are from the first word presented with a question which leads us directly into a practice still followed today, but nevertheless also involving rituals not possible to follow today, and not even at the time of Yehuda HaNasi, when the Mishnah was written down. “From when do we recite the Shma’?” The question relates to the daily recitation of the Qriyat Shma’, what is considered to be the Jewish declaration of faith per excellence. Here the question is about the recitation of the evening Shma’, asking from when we can begin to recite it. The answer has implications also for the modern Jew, but the answer is already outdated when it was written. “From the time that the Kohanim enter to eat their T’rumah.” The T’rumah is the sacrifice designated for the Kohanim, the Levite family in charge of taking care of the sacrificial rituals at the Temple. But when Yehudah HaNasi wrote the Mishnah, the Temple had been in ruins for around 130 years, leaving the contemporary Jew confused as of when the Kohanim did just that. It doesn’t seem to bother the author though, since he continues to focus on until when we can recite the Shma’, even without stating the question. What is of more importance is the ending times of the Mitzvot, forming the discussion in the rest of the introductory Sugya. We will see later on that this does bother the Amoraim, the Talmudic Sages, spending some time and energy on the question of “why in the evening first?”
But let us start with what is at hand. The mishnah is presenting one asked and one unasked question, one answer to the asked question, and three answers to the unasked: From when? From the Kohanim enter. And until the end of the first shift, until midnight and until the dawn rises.
The first of the three answers are credited to Rabbi Eliezer, but it isn’t clear whether he also states the first question and answers it, or it is only the answer on “until when,” which is credited to him. Nevertheless, the answer on “from when” is accepted as being “from the Kohanim enters,” but in the matter of “until when,” we have the opinions of Rabbi Eliezer (until the end of the first shift), the Sages (until midnight), and Rabban Gamliel (until the dawn rises). As we normally follow the majority opinion, the opinion of “The Sages,” that is understood to be the case here as well. But then we are presented for a story. Rabban Gamliel’s sons come home from the “drinking house.” It is after midnight and they still haven’t recited the Shma’, so they ask their father what to do, and since the dawn still hasn’t started to rise, they are still obligated to recite.
This story leaves me with a slightly different understanding of what Rabban Gamliel had in his thoughts. Maybe he did indeed agree with the Sages, that we should recite before midnight, but if something kept us from it, then we are still obligated until the dawn begin to rise. Clearly the sons have an understanding of the demand to recite the Shma before midnight, otherwise they would not feel the need to ask their dad about whether it is expected of them or not, so I would think that it isn’t too far stretched to believe that it was the practice at their place to recite the Shma’ before midnight. Based on that I believe that we can see Rabban Gamliel being part of the majority here, but that he adds an addition, following both the rationality of the Sages (as we will see be explain), as well as following the limits of the Biblical Commandments.
The mishnah continues. “And not only that, but every time the Sages said until midnight, we are commanded until the dawn starts to rise.” What is going on here? Apparently the Sages tend to restrict the time limit of the Biblical Commandments, which happens not only in this case, but in any case when the Sages say “until midnight.” And then it follows up by telling that we are commanded until the dawn begins to rise in various incidences, but why is that? Wouldn’t it be enough just to say that when the Sages say until midnight, then we are from the Torah commanded until the dawn begins to rise? The thought here seems to be, that the Mishnah wants to teach us something. We will return to this later.
The mishnah concludes by asking why the Sages stated until midnight, when the Torah commands until the dawn starts to rise. Should we not follow the Torah? The question is ‘yes,’ and that is what we can learn from the happening with Rabban Gamliel and his sons, that even if we pass the rabbinical commandment of reciting (or fulfilling any of the other commandments, which is until the dawn begins to rise, but which the Sages have said until midnight), then we are still obliged to fulfill them. The reason, the mishnah explains, is that the limit of midnight is established in order to keep man from sinning, that is, better that he does it early while he is still awake, than delaying himself and then risking falling asleep. The rabbinic commandment, which is called mitzwah d’Rabbanan (commandment from the Rabbis) is a “fence,” placed around the Torah, in order that we don’t do wrong by mistake (the Pirqei Avot talks about this fence in chapter 1:2). The commandment from the Torah, on the other hand, is called mitzwah d’Orayta (commandment from the Source).
This concludes the first mishnah in the Talmud Bavli, Seder Zera’im, Massechet B’rachot.
 My translation has been kept very strict to the text, unless where I had no choice but alter it in order to give meaning. I will give a more meaningful translation, as well as insert in the original text additions, which will render it easier to read for a modern reader. There will be made differences between the original text and my own additions.
 The Hebrew term is more correctly translated to “The Wise,” but I would believe that “The Sages” gives more sense. It isn’t a fixed group of people, but should be understood as the majority of the Sages, according to which opinions the Halachah (legal decision) normally is set, though there are examples on the opposite. But as a guiding rule, we should see the majority rule as being the Halachah.
 It is important to note that we are not necessarily talking about 12 o’clock, as the end/beginning of the 24 hour day, but about the Halachic midnight, being fixed according to the hours of sunlight, which moves the midnight according to the time of the year.
 This is the literal translation of “Beyt Mishteh,” but there are various thoughts stating that it should not be understood as a pub or the like. RaMBaM, Z”L, states that when the word is used, it is always understood as being a gathering where there has been focus on the wine (in his commentary to the Mishnah, same place). Likewise the Tosefot Yom Tov explains that whenever the term is used, it is in regards to a wedding.
Something I have been thinking about for a long time, and which I have promised to per video but simply never can make myself get around, is to do a study of the Talmud, if not all the Talmud (that is going to take some time, maybe also too much time), then at least some. And not only in order to study it or to talk about it, but also to study the reasoning of the Talmud, especially the different ways of discussions in the Mishnah and the Gemarrah.
But before we get there an introduction is in its place.
First off, there are two Talmuds: The Talmud Bavli and the Talmud Yerushalmi. Why there are two and which one I will be relating to will be explained a little later. The structure of the two Talmuds are very alike, they consist of a textual body with commentaries being written around them, elucidating the text. The textual body consist of two parts, the mishnaic text, which is the foundation, and the text of the Gemarrah, which takes the most space by far. The reason for this is that the mishnaic text is the actual body being commented on by the Gemarrah.
In Judaism (that is, Rabbinic Judaism, which from now on in this context simply will be called Judaism for convenience) there are two bodies of holy Scriptures, the Bible (called TaNaCh) and the Mishnah. The Bible is structured in three parts, the Torah, the Nevi’im (Prophetical Books), and the Ketuvim (the Scriptures), thereby forming the word T-N-K (pronounced TaNaCh). The Torah, which is the five Books of Moshe Rabenu, A”S, is the Holy Book in Judaism, being the foundation for every commandment and principle deduced by the Sages. It is known by other names as well, describing its nature in comparison with the other Jewish Scriptures, namely Torah she’bichtiv, the Written Torah, and Humash, the name being based on the number of books (the number five in Hebrew is hemesh). That the Torah, the Humash, is written is important in relation to that part of the Torah, which is believed to have been given Oral, namely the Oral Tradition or Torah she’be’al-Peh (the Torah which is in the mouth), which has been transferred orally from generation to generation, from Moshe Rabenu, A”S, until R. Yehuda HaNasi, Z”L, who saw the need to write down the Oral Tradition in the beginning of the third century CE.
The Mishnah is organized in six “Sedarim,” from the word ‘seder,’ which means ‘order.’ These Sedarim are organized in massechot, tractates, which each has a number of chapters, which each has a number of ‘mishnayot.’ The term “mishnah” with a small ‘m’ is the decisions brought down through the ages, though not all are going back to Sinai. In differing between the Mishnah in its total and the single mishnah, I will write it with capital m and without.
The six Sedarim are as follows:
Seder Zera’im, which deals with agriculture, though the first tractate, Massechet B’rachot, which we will be dealing with in the beginning, is concerned with prayers and blessings. It has eleven tractates in it.
Seder Mo’ed, which deals with the festivals, and which has twelve tractates.
Seder Nashim, which deals with issues concerning women, such as the various forms of marriage, divorce, female impurity and so on. It has seven tractates.
Seder Nezikin, which deals with civil law and the structure of the courts, as well as punishments, idol worship and witnesses. Here we also find the ethical tractate, Pirqei Avot. It has ten tractates, though the three first, Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia, and Bava Batra, originally was one tractate.
Seder Qodashim, which deals with issues related to holiness. It has eleven tractates.
Seder Tehorot, which deals with purities. It has twelve tractates.
There are other mishnaic materials besides the Mishnah. When R. Yehudah HaNasi, Z”L, had organized the Mishnah there was still mishnaic material left. This material was collected by his disciples in a work called Tosefta, which means ‘addition,’ a work which is being referred to by various rabbis in the discussions of the Gemarrah as proof-text, in their attempts to strengthen or attack a position. But in comparison to the mishniyot of the Mishnah they have lesser authority.
The Mishnah is written in what is called “mishnaic Hebrew,” a form of Hebrew being slightly simpler than the Biblical Hebrew, showing its traces of being a spoken more than a written language. It has some differences from Modern Hebrew, such as the suffixes in the plural, but any Hebrew speaker should be able to read and understand the mishnaic text without any noteworthy troubles.
Not long after the death of R. Yehudah HaNasi, Z”L, the compilation of the Mishnah, and the gathering of the Tosefta, the need to explain the mishniyot in the Mishnah appeared, both because the Jews found themselves under new situation as well as the Mishnah being presented in a very straightforward language, which leaves many details unexplained, something I believe will appear from the beginning of our study.
Therefore the rabbis of the religious centers, found in two geographical areas, namely in Eretz Yisrael, what constitutes the Galilee, Judea, and surroundings, and Babylon, began to comment on the Mishnah. Their comments, which were written in the spoken language of their time, Aramaic, show proof of their geographical background, such as local features being used in their examples and discussions. There are other differences as well, such as the type of Aramaic, the Babylonian Gemarrah being written in Eastern Aramaic, and the Palestinian Gemarrah in Western Aramaic. Also the elements differ, the Babylonian having a lot of Persian and Babylonian mythical elements incorporated.
The Babylonian Gemarrah is the most extensive of the two, having a century more to be edited and worked upon, finished most likely around 550 CE, though there has been proved later editing, conducted by the anonymous group of rabbis called Savoraim.
The Palestinian Gemarrah was never finished, being disrupted around 425 CE caused by anti-Jewish pogroms by the Christian emperor Theodosius II, and therefore lack a lot of material as well as organization. It does hold material which the Babylonian Gemarrah doesn’t cover, especially in context of agriculture, since that issue was important for the Jews in Eretz Yisrael, while not for the Jews in Babylon, having the commandments only being connected to the Land of Israel. Therefore the Babylonian Gemarrah is considered the more authoritative of the two, except on issues where it doesn’t mention anything.
From this we find one Mishnah and two Gemarrot, one Babylonian Gemarrah, which together with the Mishnah is called the Babylonian Talmud or Talmud Bavli, and one Palestinian Gemarrah, which together with the Mishnah is called the Palestinian Talmud or Talmud Yerushalmi.
Mentioning the Mishnah in this context one thing has to be pointed out, namely that there are some smaller differences on the mishnaic text in the two Talmuds. I have dealt with this issue in some earlier posts, which you can read here, here and here. This might have been caused by the Mishnah being transferred orally in the Land of Israel even at the time of the disruption of the Palestinian Gemarrah, causing the changes in language as will always appear through time, while the mishnaic text most likely was considered holy in its written form from the beginning in Babylon.
Regarding the Sages. We will see that a lot of Sages will be mentioned by names, and I will try to explain when and where they lived. But sometimes the Gemarrah talks about ‘Tanna.’ This is the title for the Sages living in the Mishnaic times, that is, from the time before the compilation of the Mishnah. The Sages of the Gemarrah are called Amoraim.
With this said (or written) I feel that we are ready to begin the study of the Talmud.
You have read Amani’s post on the fifth pillar of Islam, Hajj, right? If not, then hurry, it’s been ready to read already a long time now (witnessing my laziness, not having written on the Jewish response before now).
I think the thought of the Hajj is a beautiful thought, and by limiting the commandment of Hajj to only being performed once, I would certainly encourage all Muslims to go, at least once. The thought of removing any signs of status, level of wealth, or what else can make difference between people, but being on the same level, that is certainly something I would encourage anyone, who could, to experience.
Mecca is central in the Hajj, and so is Jerusalem in the Jewish version, HaShalosh Regalim, literally the “three feet,” hinting at the walking up to Jerusalem, which was the commandment when the Temple still stood. Today, when we are left without the Temple, there are no commandments to do the three pilgrimages, which were performed by the Jews living within the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, in relation to the three festivals, Pessah, Shavu’ot, and Sukkot, each having their own special characteristics, the Pessah focusing on the leaving Egypt, the Shavu’ot of receiving the Torah, and the Sukkot having Jerusalem being full of small huts, where people spend the seven days of Sukkot.
The commandments to these three pilgrimages can be found in the Torah, in Shmot (Exodus) 23:14-17, where it is stated that:
Three times you shall slaughter sacrifices to Me during the year. You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread as I have commanded you, at the appointed time of the month of springtime, for then you left Egypt, and they shall not appear before Me empty handed. And the festival of the harvest, the first fruits of your labors, which you will sow in the field, and the festival of the ingathering at the departure of the year, when you gather in [the products of] your labors from the field. Three times during the year, all your males shall appear before the Master, the Lord.
Though it isn’t stated that this has to be done in Jerusalem, the fact that sacrifices are ordered, means that it can only be done in Jerusalem. And this was a commandment on all male Jews, as is apparent from the last verse, commanding all males to appear before God, Who had His “resting place” in Jerusalem.
It isn’t clear that Shavu’ot also is included here, since the verses only talk about Pessah (the festival of unleavened bread) and Sukkot (the festival of the harvest), but it is hinted at with the commandment of going to Jerusalem three times during the year.
The next place in the Torah is in Shmot (Exodus) 34:18-23, where is stated that:
The Festival of Unleavened Cakes you shall keep; seven days you shall eat unleavened cakes which I have commanded you, at the appointed meeting time of the month of spring, for in the month of spring you went out of Egypt. All that opens the womb is Mine, and all your livestock [that] bears a male, [by] the emergence of ox or lamb. And a firstborn donkey you shall redeem with a lamb; if you do not redeem it, you shall decapitate it; every firstborn of your sons you shall redeem, and they shall not appear before Me empty handed. Six days you may work, and on the seventh day you shall rest; in plowing and in harvest you shall rest. And you shall make for yourself a Festival of Weeks, the first of the wheat harvest, and the festival of the ingathering, at the turn of the year. Three times during the year shall all your male[s] appear directly before the Master, the Lord, the God of Israel.
The mentioning of the Shabbat (six days you may work, and on the seventh day you shall rest) does not mean that the Shabbat was one of the pilgrimages, rather it is a referral to the working on the field, which is not supposed to be done on Shabbat, even if it means that there will be less of harvest to offer to God later on.
Here we see the three times being mentioned again, as well as the appearance of all the males (in the last verse), but this time it talks about Pessah (the festival of the unleavened cakes – it confuses me a little why ‘matzot’ here is translated as ‘cakes,’ normally, as was the case in the previous example, it is translated as ‘unleavened bread’) and Shavu’ot (festival of weeks), while Sukkot is not mentioned here.
The last place in the Torah dealing with the pilgrimages is Devarim (Deuteronomy) 16:1-16, which offers more details on the commandments involved, but especially Devarim 16:16 is interesting in our focus, stating that:
Three times in the year, every one of your males shall appear before the Lord, your God, in the place He will choose: on the Festival of Matzoth and on the Festival of Weeks, and on the Festival of Sukkoth, and he shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed.
Here the commandment of the three pilgrimages are stated explicitly: Three times a year, each male shall appear, in Jerusalem (the place He will choose), during Pessah (festival of Matzoth), during Shavu’ot (festival of weeks), and during Sukkot, bringing sacrifices for each of them.
In later time after the destruction of the Second Temple, Jerusalem became less of a center of pilgrimage, both because of the Temple, but also because of most of the Jews being spread out in the world. The Jews didn’t give up the thought of pilgrimage though, some still going to Jerusalem, but most doing pilgrimages to lesser holy places or tombs of ‘Tzaddiqim,’ righteous Jews and Jewish sages.
This is also the case today, where many Jews in Israel do a “small” pilgrimage to Jerusalem on the three mentioned festivals, but also having many Jews visiting the tombs of the Sages, well-known rabbis, and cities of lesser holiness than Jerusalem, such as Sh’chem (Nablus), Hevron, and Uman.
It is possible that the commandments to do pilgrimage are not in effect in our days, but Jews are certainly still doing pilgrimages.
This ended the series of the Five Pillars of Judaism. I hope you enjoyed it and learned from it. I did.
I would like, as an ending remark, to thank Amani for giving me the idea. I can’t recommend her blog enough, and I hope that you guys (and girls) will give her blog a visit. I also hope that this gave an idea about some of the commonalities Judaism and Islam share.
Let us take a look at Samaw’el’s polemical arguments in his Ifḥam al-Yahûd.
The work is organized in nineteen ‘chapters,’ but they can again be organized into overlaying themes of arguments, which is indeed what Perlmann has done in his translation of the Ifḥam. The themes as we find them are:
- A return to abrogation
- Jesus and Muḥammad
- The claim to being the chosen people
- The Bible
- Composition of the Bible
- Jews on Islam
- Objectionable aspects of Jewish law; levirate, segregation
- Rabbanites & Karaites
- Epilogue: Sins and follies of the Jews
What Samaw’el attempts to do is to prove that in the Jewish tradition there is found examples on abrogation, and by forcing the Jews to accept that he (feels he) proves that the Torah might have been abrogated.
With that established he argues for the status of Jesus and Muḥammad, then for why the Jews are not chosen, for then to focus on the Bible and its composition, Jewish reflection on Islam, a discussion on Halachah (Jewish religious law) and issues within the law, moving on to the particulars of the Rabbanites and the Karaites, for then finishing off with the sins and wrongdoings of the Jews as a whole.
I will be presenting one part on its own, not going through all of the arguments, since that probably will be rather overwhelming in just one post. When I am done with the presentation of his arguments I will attempt to present you for the various Jewish responses, and then finally try to give some responses myself, some of his arguments being rather time-bound and having lost their actuality today.
The first focus is on his arguments for abrogation.
Samaw’el first introduces us for his base of arguments, which – he claims – is meant to convince the Jews of the principle of naskh, abrogation, based on their own scriptures and methods.
His way of arguing is based on a proposal, which then can either be accepted or denied. Here it is the question on whether there was a divine law before the giving of the Torah or not.
If they, the Jews, deny this, then they will also deny – according to Samaw’el – that God gave Noah a commandment, namely the one against murder (Genesis 9:6). Besides this point, he also points out the commandment to Abraham to circumcise the male children at the eight day.
Should the Jew admit that, yes, God did give divine commandments before the giving of the Torah, then he will ask them, whether it didn’t add something to those earlier precepts. In case the Jews answer that it (the Torah) didn’t add anything then it is meaningless, since it does not contain anything besides the already given legislation, and thus it cannot be of divine origin. But, he states, that would be the same as to not believe.
In case the Jews says that, yes, it did add something new, then – Samaw’el asks – does this new addition not prohibit what has was allowed before? In case they deny this, then they are found in fault, since the Torah added the prohibition against working on Shabbat, something which before the giving of the Torah was permitted. And furthermore, all addition in law has as its purpose to either allow what was prohibited before or prohibit what before was allowed. These examples, he states, are clear examples on Naskh, abrogation.
One could argue, he maintains, that one does not first forbid something, in order for later to allow it, since that would be like allowing the same thing that one forbids, and that would go against the nature of God (described as “the wise one”). But since He is commanding two things at two different points of time, this will not be a problem, only if it happened at the same time.
Then the case might be forwarded that the Torah forbade what had been forbidden, but not the other way around. That is, it is true that there was a law before, and that law prohibited murder, but murder had not since been allowed (relating to his two examples), but earlier it had been allowed to work on Shabbat, but after the giving of the Torah that became prohibited.
The obvious problem for Samaw’el here, because he does accept that this is a legitimate claim, is that if one holds that that is the case, then the Quran can only prohibit what earlier was allowed, but not allow what earlier was prohibited. This is based on the rationale that one who abstains from what is permitted is not per ce a violator, but one who does what he has been forbidden certainly is a violator, and since the Quran allow working on Shabbat, then that would be an encouragement to violate a commandment.
Samaw’el attempts to answer this by pointing out that something does not necessarily need to be prohibited for good. Rather, he explains, since working on Shabbat had been permitted for Abraham and other before him, and then prohibited, then it certainly is possible that it again would be allowed.
The reasoning behind Samaw’el’s argument here is that either a law is imposed for all times, having God being displeased with it in total, or it is not imposed for all time, and God only displeased for a certain amount of time, and since working on Shabbat was not prohibited for all time, then it holds that it is possible that it can be changed later.
Of course Samaw’el concludes from this that if a divine messenger, Muḥammad, would bring miracles and prove to be a prophet, then it would be possible that he would change what before was deemed illegal. Especially when – according to Samaw’el – a man brings clear proof that he is a prophet, then one should heed his message, which would be of reason, contrary the precept found in Judaism, such as cleansing impurities with ashes of the heifer, which in turn also would make the Kohen burning the heifer unclean (Numbers 19).
Since God is above any imperfection and criticism, and his messenger necessarily may speak a true message, then it stands for God to be able to change what He earlier has commanded, and Muḥammad, who is send by God, should be heeded, if one will not deviate from the truth.
Having dealt with the first approach to proving that abrogation also is part of the Jewish tradition, Samaw’el now continues with the next, relating to the matter of the red heifer, the cow having to be burned in order to use its ashes for purification, a process which would leave the one performing the burning impure himself. The problem, according to Samaw’el, is that since that process is needed in order to purify a person who has been in contact with a corpse, it is still not needed in order to allow the person to pray or carry holy texts, according to the Rabbinic tradition.
If this is explained with the fact that the ritual of the heifer cannot be done today, from the lack of the Temple, then Samaw’el’s answer – again in form of a new question – is whether the inability to perform the act also dispense it. Here, again, two answers are possible, either that yes, it does dispense it, which, he maintains, proves abrogation by reason of present circumstances, and thus proves his point, that laws and rules can be abrogated. In case that they answer in the negative, they basically admit that they are in a continuous state of impurity, so far as they have been in contact with a corpse, a tomb or the like. This is a build up for his coming point, being triggered by the strictness surrounding the menstruation of the woman, leading to a period on approximately two weeks, having the consequences that a man cannot touch her in that period, not even her husband, who has to sleep separate from her. The answer to this might be that it is a commandment from the Torah, which means that it has to be interpreted in its most strict sense, but if that is the case, then the case of a man having been in contact with a corpse has to be even more strict, since it demands the sacrifice and burning of an animal in order to purify him. And furthermore, should a non-Jewish woman being menstruating she won’t be considered impure, her touch not being shunned on the same level of that of a menstruating Jewish woman, even though nothing is mentioned about this in the Torah. And this leads to yet another example on abrogation.
The Jews might argue in return, that this is not based on the Scriptural text alone, but on the system of laws which constitutes the Oral Tradition. This, Samaw’el explains, is leading to the question of the Jewish sages, whether they are reaching their conclusions on human reasoning or whether they are divine tradition. As is the case, it would be stated that this is surely tradition going all the way back to Moses, which then will lead to Samaw’el asking how the sages then can reach different conclusions, since that would leave with a tradition which each of the disagrees will claim goes back to Sinai. This is contradictory in the eyes of Samaw’el, being an example on the Jews baseness, crediting God with contradictory commandments.
Samaw’el is aware that there is a principle of following the majority, when it comes to halachic decisions in Judaism, though he considers this to be the giving up of one of the sages’ tradition, or at least as consider the possibility of an error in his tradition, which would lead to the conclusion that he (the sage in question) cannot be trusted anymore, or – as a last consort – that the sages have agreed that one decision abrogates the other. And since there are many examples on sages being the minority in some cases, they are the majority and followed in others, this would have to lead to the acceptance of abrogation yet again.
His third argument over abrogation is focused on the Jewish prayers. This is introduced with the question on prayers and fasts, whether the prayers that the Jews are praying at his time (Samaw’el) are the same as those of Moses.
He presents us for a number of examples from the ‘Amidah, the main prayer prayed thrice daily, asking if any of these examples were prayed by Moses and the Jews of his time. The examples mentioned by Samaw’el of course cannot be said by Moses, since they mention the ingathering from the exile from the four corners of the earth, and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Besides those two examples he also mentions the fast of Gedalyah, the fast of Tisha b’Av and others examples, which only can have been established long after Moses lived. If these examples still leave the Jews denying that there are talk about any abrogation, he will point to Deuteronomy 13:1 “Everything I command you that you shall be careful to do it. You shall neither add to it, nor subtract from it.”
His final argument on abrogation regards the first-born, who according to Exodus 13:2 is sanctified for God, but – Samaw’el points out – it was later changed so the Levites took the place of the first-borns of Israel, since they joined Moses when he came down from Mount Sinai and witnessed the worshiping of the gold-calf.
Based on all his arguments presented here, he conclude that the Jews cannot deny these arguments, leaving them only with admitting either that the Torah has been altered or that these are indeed proofs of abrogation.
 It is the same reasoning that can be found in medieval argument for God’s eternity. Nothing can be eternal if it has a beginning or an end.
Michael Kay, at “Thinking through my fingers” (visit his blog, he is seriously an amazing writer and brilliant thinker), wrote a post where he reflected on the Jews as a “Chosen people.” I found it highly inspiring and felt the need to let it out on him, so I wrote the following as a response (which I also posted there):
And thank you for a wonderful and inspiring post:o)
I have some reflections to share, I hope it is okay with you. Unfortunately I’m not at home, so I can’t give precise sources every time I will be using them, but I will get back to it, bli neder.
I really do love R. Sacks and his attempts to connect our modern way of thinking and Judaism. In that sense I believe that he follows the tradition of many other historical Jewish thinkers, though whether he is on the same level always can be discussed (I don’t believe that he is on the level of a thinker like haRaMBaM, Z”L, nor do I expect him or any other today to be).
I believe though that the answer is found in each of the three categories, though mostly in the two latter ones. But we do find examples on the Jewish nation being something exemplar to the other nations in some Jewish traditions, one place is the Babylonian Talmud, tractate ‘Avodah Zarah, where God more or less makes a fool out of the nations, leveling Israel above them. That is one of the few examples on this though, the more dominant approach being the Biblical approach in Deuteronomy 7:7-8, quoted by you, expressing that Israel “were the fewest of all peoples.” If number or greatness of a people would be the deciding factor, then Ishma’el would be more likely, as we see that God will bless him “and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation” (Genesis 17:20). In this respect is it also interesting to consider the midrash on the giving of the Torah, how God had to hold the mountain over the Israelites, threatening them by destruction, since the sole reason for their existence is Torah (something also repeated in the Quran).
The Jews are chosen, not to be superior, at least not in might, that one seemed to go more to Ishma’el and ‘Esaw, but to be a light to the nations, and as a student of the Torah. You mention that “there is the problem of the Jew who abandons their responsibility and assimilates into the surrounding culture,” and that is – I believe – also reflected in the Torah, in the story of Dathan and Aviram, refusing to “go up” to Moses, and instead were swallowed by the earth. I read in this the consequence of assimilating, refusing to “go up to Moses,” that is, staying “loyal to the Torah.”
Our role as a “light unto the nations,” is not fulfilled by being perfect observant, but by spreading (Jewish) values to the world, not by hiding in a ghetto, but by taking part in the world, while still staying true to the Torah. By relating to our brit with God do we show God’s intentions for all of us, that is, not necessarily by not eating milk and meat together, nor by not mixing materials in our clothes, wearing tzitzit (that us more for our own sake) and so on, that is mostly in order that the world may realize that we are Jews, and by that seeing our – hopefully – examples as related to God. And then there are some of our commandments which carry in them a deep ethical understanding, where the sole fulfilling of the commandment is giving a light, such as the already mentioned not eating meat and milk together. Think on Rashbam’s commentary to the verses dealing with not cooking the kid in its mother’s milk, and how he points out that it is deeply unethical to kill something and then enjoying it with its life source. The giving of tzedaqah, as contrasted to charity, is showing that caring for those in worse situations than ours is a plight, a duty, not something we are doing to feel good about ourselves. And so on. And the more we interfere with the world and get out there, the stronger this will stand. It is obvious that by hiding in the ghetto we, first and foremost, won’t experience much challenge (just doing what everybody else is doing), and, secondly, we are actually being “lights for the world,” not merely “lights.”
And it certainly speaks miles about God, that He would want to choose the Jews as His people. History have shown again and again that we have failed. Even today we find it hard to show our gratitude to finally having a country of our own (as well as others also, we shouldn’t forget that), but yet He stayed loyal through it all, even when we – in general – did not. Sure, He punishes, but more than that does He forgive, care, and love.
I think that we should have a double understanding of the choseness, not only talking about a chosen people, but also of chosen individuals. Abraham, more than anyone, allowed him to act in pure trust, going against the ways of his people. Abraham, though bringing a household with him, acted as an individual, for that he was rewarded, but he also became the example for each and every one of us.
Finally, I think that much of the bad reactions we get from Christians and Muslims, when they react to us being “chosen,” is projections. Both Christianity and Islam work with an understanding of choseness themselves, such as only having Christians being saved, as well as the Islamic Ummah being the perfect Ummah. They transfer understandings of these concept to how they believe Jews view the idea of being “chosen.” And maybe, probably, many Jews actually are viewing the notion of being Jewish and “chosen” the same way. But all in all that is something that is far from the Jewish thought (and not the thoughts of Jews).
Again, thanks for an inspiring post:o)
All the best