Friday, August 11, 2017

Rabbi’s Speech at a Mosque Exploring Stance towards Others and the "West"

(Edited version of my talk as part of an interfaith panel, talking about contemporary challenges in Judaism, at Imam Hasan Centre, Annangrove, Sydney, Australia, 1 July 2017)

I begin with acknowledgement of country in a way that reflects my Jewish heritage. We customarily allude to the Sidra, the Torah reading of the week. In it, we read an Emorite war poem, celebrating the victory in battle over the city of Heshbon by the Emorite King, Sihon.
"עַל כֵּן יֹאמְרוּ הַמֹּשְׁלִים בֹּאוּ חֶשְׁבּוֹן תִּבָּנֶה וְתִכּוֹנֵן עִיר סִיחוֹן:
Therefore, those who speak in parables, say, "Come to Heshbon, it will be built and established, the city of Sihon”. (1)

The poet, the evil Balaam (2), contrasted a propaganda version of the condition of this city before and after its conquest by the Emorites. “When it was under the sovereignty of Moab [the poet claims], it was desolate and empty, but now that it was taken by Sihon, he will make it great and honoured, all people will flock to Heshbon to rejoice and dwell in it, because without a doubt it will be built and established because it is the city of Sihon”. (3)

As an Australian, I read this poem as a claim that Heshbon was almost a “Terra Nullius” (4) before the conquest by the Emorites. I link the poem with what I have learned about the experience of Aboriginal people from an Aboriginal man. He explained his history to me. When this land was taken by the English, the new power downplayed the existing civilisation, disregarding their traditions and lore relating to caring for land and each other.

Tonight, I pay my respects to the original people of this land, the Darug Elders, past, present and emerging, in a way that I can relate from my own traditions.

One challenge for people of faith is to truly honour the greatness of others and resist any temptation to see one’s own tradition as holding all wisdom. Indeed, our sages taught “if someone tells you that there is wisdom among the nations, you should believe him” (5).

As a Jew, I appreciate wisdom, altruism and sincerity in people of different religions and no religion at all. This includes the greatness of Western democracies as systems of government that deliver - albeit imperfectly -  just outcomes to many people. I honour traditions of constraints on the powers of people in government and equality before the law among others. As a person of a minority faith in the West, I am particularly grateful for the freedom Western traditions of government give me to live according to my own beliefs and traditions. This freedom cannot be taken for granted. For much of Jewish history, it was denied us, as recently as in the lifetime of my own grandfather, during the last century, in the Soviet Union.

On the other hand, the relationship between the “West” and some people of faith living in the West, is not free of conflict. It is true that human flaws have always been part of the lives of all humans, regardless of culture. Still, living in a cultural context that includes voices - in entertainment and advertising - that promote hedonism, impulsivity and instant self-gratification, makes it harder for people of faith to fulfil some of the spiritual and personal growth related aims of our faiths. A utilitarian worldview will be at odds with one centred on divine worship and obligations.

I return to the verse about the conquest of Heshbon, looking at it not as a historical poem, but as an aid to remember a traditional moral message (6). Using traditional wordplay the Talmud interpreted it thus:  
Therefore the “rulers”, i.e. those who rule their [own evil] inclination [impulses], will say, let us come to the calculation of the world, the cost of [fulfilling] a commandment, against its reward. The [short term] benefit of a sin against its loss. ...If you do this you will be built in this world [life] and established in the world to come [the afterlife]. If, however, a person makes himself like a young donkey, that follows pleasant talk… a fire will go forth from Heshbon…(7)” .
In this interpretation, my tradition is urging me to be duty-oriented. It warns me not to be drawn like “a young donkey”, after every beep alert on my mobile phone telling me there is a pleasant comment on whatsapp or twitter. Instead, I must focus on my obligations.    
In respecting people of other cultures, we don’t lose the right to honestly critique competing cultural approaches that might entice us away from our own traditions. We have a right to be different from each other, which means we can make truth claims or virtue claims about beliefs, practices and ways of being. In doing so let us avoid Balaam’s error of thinking only one group has a monopoly on greatness. By inviting me, the Christian speaker and the parliamentarian here tonight, you are once again demonstrating the long-standing commitment of the Imam Hasan Centre to this principle.
1.       Numbers 21:27-28
2.       Midrash Tanchuma Chukkath 24, Num. Rabbah 19:30, cited in Rashi   
3.       Abarbanel, page 186, 27, in Horev 2008, Edition, Jerusalem,
4.       The term is technically about ownership of land and means “a land belonging to no one”, but can be understood more broadly, to be a way of erasing the significance of the civilisation that came before. Ogleby, C. L. frames it as follows: “As the ships of the First Fleet anchored in Sydney Cove on the 7th February 1788, and the British flag was raised on the shore above the convicts and their masters to the echoes of a rifle salute and toasts of port, the foundations for a new Colony were being laid on British soil. Terra Australis had been claimed in both sovereignty and ownership by the British Crown as terra nullius - literally a 'land belonging to nobody'. Although somewhere between one half and one million people inhabited the island (Mulvaney 1989, but estimates vary), their culture, customs and custodianship of the land was denied. Over the last 200 years the concept of terra nullius has been used to justify the dispossession of the original inhabitants of this country. It has also been responsible for framing attitudes towards the Aboriginal people and still forms the basis of all land law in Australia”.
5.       Eicha Rabba, 2:16
6.       This approach follows the Rashba as cited in Torah Temima, Numbers 21:18, notes 16 -21
7.       Talmud, Bava Basra 78b, appreciating the word-play really depends on understanding the Hebrew original.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Angry Moses: You spared all the females?! Mattot

Image by Bas Leenders,  used under Creative Commons License
Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

The words scream accusingly off the page. Moses, himself, raged against the officers of his army returning from a war of vengeance against the nation of Midian. Moses asked rhetorically, “Have you allowed all the females to live?” (1)

I wrote about this two years ago, but the words don’t fail to disturb me anew. How can I reconcile my belief in the inherent worth of all humans, while also affirming the holiness of this sacred text? I don’t have an answer but I still feel compelled to explore and probe this text. First, by providing the context for how this text is read today in contrast with its historical context. Secondly, by reviewing how traditional scholars have responded to the text in their commentary and, finally, by offering a comment of my own.

Judaism does not permit this kind of behaviour today. This was an instruction, for a particular time over 3000 years ago, by the prophet Moses. Jews no longer have prophets and, therefore, no- one has the authority that Moses had (2). Most modern Jews are not aware of this particular passage. As for those who are aware of it, it is understood in more abstract and metaphoric terms. One example of this is the teaching that Midian, who attacked the Jews with no provocation, is symbolic of baseless hatred which we must eradicate from ourselves (3).

The context of the passage above was a battle ordered by God and presented in the text as revenge against the people of Midian. They (and the Moabites) sought to deliberately destroy the Israelites’ spiritual lives, by sending their daughters to seduce Israelite men and then pressure them to worship the false god Peor, thus incurring upon themselves Divine wrath(4). Theirs was a hostile act that attacked our way of life, at its core (5).

While it may still not justify the deeds in this story, we need to recognise the difference in the conditions of war today, among those who adhere to the Geneva Conventions, in contrast with the conditions of all-out war in ancient times. Today, nations can resort to sanctions to deter others from trampling on their rights, or engage in a limited military operation to protect their interests. In order to survive in ancient times, it is argued that you needed to be as cruel as other nations were (6).

Disturbingly, from a modern critical perspective, our earliest commentators did not appear at all concerned about Moses’ desire to see the women dead. On the contrary, we find that Moses had asserted that the battle against Midian was God’s revenge, not that of the Israelites because he argued that “if we had been idol worshippers the Midianites would not hate us or pursue us” (7). Because of this perspective, Moses had a great desire to witness the revenge against Midian before he died (8). The Midianites led the Israelites to sin and ‘leading a person to sin is considered more serious than killing him!’ (9).

However, a later commentator read the phrase “have you allowed all the females to live?” not as a complaint that the Israelites did not kill all the women, but that they allowed all the women to live, including those who had been recognised as being the perpetrators, who seduced the Jewish men and then pressured them into worshiping idols (10).
Another argument was advanced that Phineas and the soldiers did not judge the women to be deserving of punishment because they would have been under the control of their husbands and forced into offering their bodies for the war effort (11). In addition, while two nations engaged in these bizarre battle tactics of using women to lead the Israelites to sin, revenge was taken on only one, Midian, while Moab was spared. This is explained by the fact that Moab felt genuinely threatened by the Israelites (12). These commentaries reflect that, at least, some value was placed on the lives of the Israelites’ “enemies” in our tradition.

My exploration of this text is far from comprehensive. As I did on my blog two years ago, (2), I leave this matter unresolved. I take some comfort from the fact that I am not the first to be concerned about these deeds. Scholars believe that questions were asked at the time and that Moses himself was disturbed and angered by aspects of the killing (13).  A senior editor of wrote that the “war of retribution on the Midianites...sends chills down my spine” (14). He asserts that “Jews are supposed to ask these questions, even if the answers are not satisfactory”. In asking these questions, we emphasise our abhorrence of genocide and racism, and our tendency to read these texts primarily as metaphoric messages about the importance of rejecting senseless hatred and the disruption of the cultural and spiritual lives of others.

1)       Numbers 31:14-15
3)       The Chasidic discourse known as “Heichaltzu” is a prime example of this.
4)       Numbers 25:18, 31:1-2, read in relation to Numbers 25:1-3
5)       Samson Raphael Hirsch on Numbers 31:3
6)       Rav Kook, Igros Hareia, vol 1, p. 100, cited in Sharki, R. Uri, Jewish Morality in War, Parshat Matot, מוסר יהודי במלחמה , לפרשת מטות - דברי הרב אורי שרקי,
7)       Bereshit Rabba on Matos, 2.
8)       Bereshit Rabba on Matos, 5, also in Midrash Tanchuma
9)       Etz Yosef on Bereshit Rabba on Matos, 5
10)   Seforno on Numbers 31:15
11)   Ohr Hachayim Numbers 31:16. However, in the end this argument was countered by the argument that the women had of their own volition and initiative manipulated the Jewish men to worship the idols, which went further than the acts that they were coerced into by the men.
12)   Ralbag, on Numbers 15, Balak, Toelles 1, Mosad Rav Kook edition, p. 135, and Chizkuni
13)   Chasam Sofer, Klei Yakar on Matos

Monday, July 10, 2017

Silenced Man of God – Joshua, the “severed head” - Shlach

It is appalling to see the silencing of “men or women of God” or other voices of conscience when they are advocating for justice or compassion.  I am not denying that there are scoundrels, who cloak themselves in righteousness or clerical robes and promote cruelty or foolishness. However, this blog  focuses on the thwarting of people like artists, journalists, cartoonists and clergy, in their roles as social critics. The people who are supposed to be the brakes on the darker impulses of the powerful and the many, are prevented from playing their vital role in speaking for virtue, the weak and the few. This is like players in a sport turning on the referee.

This calls for some clarification: I  would like to emphasise that I am not concerned about people offering alternative views. What concerns me is when they attack the legitimacy of credible people with whom they disagree.

According to one scholar, this is the meaning of a peculiar expression in the Talmud relating to Joshua, the prophet. Joshua was one of twelve spies, who returned to the desert from Canaan (1). He dissented from the views of ten of his fellow spies, who were opposed to God’s plan for the Israelites to go to the Promised Land.  The majority were not content to argue their case on its merits. Instead, according to the Talmud (2), when Joshua tried to speak, they shut him up with the following statement:  “Will this severed head speak?!”

According to one commentary (3), the strange phrase was an attack on Joshua’s status and legitimacy or standing in the discussion.  Moses had added the letter Yud (Y), which is the first letter of God’s name, to Joshua’s name, changing it from Hoshea, to Yehoshua (4). This name change symbolised his special status as being one of two spies, deemed aligned to God (5). The other spies sought to dismiss Joshua’s special status with the suggestion that the “head of his name”, the additional Yud from the name of God, was disconnected or severed from the rest of his name and not legitimately part of his name at all. The technicalities in this case are quaint but the tactic is all too common today.

One response to the tactic is often for social critics to get creative in order to get people’s attention, using click bait or humour. Another strategy that is quite risky, is for the social critic to give the impression that s/he agrees with the mob, but then, when s/he gets their attention, to say what s/he really thinks. Caleb, Joshua’s fellow dissenting spy, tried that approach with limited impact (6).

Often this leads to frustration on the part of the social critic. “Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb…tore their clothes” to express their grief (7). They continued to speak their truth while no one was listening. The catastrophe they sought to prevent, came to pass, with the Israelites’ anticipated entry into the Promised Land delayed by a generation.  Failure, at least some of the time, comes with the territory.

Fortunately, in some cases, there are at least partial victories that protect some people or preserve some principle. Those of us who find ourselves in roles advocating for compassion and justice, need to be prepared for our opponents to try to sever our “heads”, to deny our legitimacy. We need to ensure that our egos do not cloud our judgement -  it is not about us - and that our emotions are managed well. Then, we need to get in there and do what we can.

For all of us, the message is that good “followership” is just as important as good leadership. If we are ever tempted to discredit people we know to be good, albeit imperfect, people, let us instead listen to their arguments on their merit, instead of trying to silence them, if they are saying what we don’t want to hear.


(1)    Numbers 13
(2)    Talmud Sota 35a
(3)    Maharsha, (Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Edeles, lived 1555-1631) on Sota 34b and 35a, building on what he deemed a forced explanation by the Aruch.
(4)    Numbers 13:16
(5)    Maharsha explains that, while God would have preferred just two spies to gather practical information, the people had insisted on a broader mission for the spies to determine if they should proceed with the conquest of Canaan at all. This expanded purpose required representatives from each of the twelve tribes.
(6)    Talmud Sota 35a 

(7)     Numbers 14:6

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Disgraced Cohen's Daughter's Punishment - Emor

As I am finalising my thoughts on this blog, my heart is full of inspiration from yesterday’s Inter-school Program, watching Christian, Jewish and Muslim students come together yesterday culminating in spontaneously making music together. In stark contrast to that, I consider enduring contradictions and divisions that challenge me and others. Experiences, narratives and texts can all alienate us from communities, both similar and different to ourselves.  In this post I explore one of these.

I have been thinking of one passage in the Torah that challenges me not to feel alienated from my own tradition. “The daughter of a Cohen/ priest who will profane herself through whoredom, her father she is desecrating, in fire, she should be burned (1). After thinking about it for a week, it seemed clear to me that there was nothing I could say that would reconcile this verse with contemporary mores. Over Shabbat (Friday night and Sunday) I was delighted to find a possible, at least partial, way through.

At the start of this discussion I make the following points: A) We need to look at how a religious text is applied today in the lived experience of the adherents of that faith rather than what the words are in the text. This is as true for non-Muslims looking at verses from the Koran as it is for those trying to make sense of Judaism.  B) It is useful to consider how traditions have been interpreted over time.

A Sydney Rabbi who told me that his sermon on the passage of the Cohen’s daughter, interpreted it along mystical lines. He said that it is by God’s design that this law does not apply today (as capital cases are no longer prosecuted since the destruction of the second temple two thousand years ago). Instead, he suggested that burning in fire represents passionate devotion to God to correct the sins of passion (2). Another contemporary approach to this matter took the form of a personal reflection on the responsibility of dads in  positions of religious leadership to be attentive to their children. The writer regrets that some of his religious study years earlier was at the expense of his family. Failure to properly guide children shames the father (3).   

Earlier traditions relating to this law make clear that we are dealing with adultery and a married woman (4). Furthermore, there are very strict laws applying to all cases of capital punishment. The perpetrator must have been warned by two witnesses immediately prior to the act which is then witnessed. This is a highly unlikely scenario. Traditions vary about how rare an event any capital punishment was when it was practiced at all, with one opinion that a Court that killed once every 70 years was a “murderous court”, and another view putting it as once every 7 years (5).

Despite the restrictions on actually putting a woman to death for this crime, the phrase itself raises concern for me. There are two aspects that bother me. One is the idea that a woman’s status is considered through the perspective of its impact on the honour of her male family members. The second is on the discrepancy between a misbehaving son and daughter (6).

Early traditional commentary is in line with a simple reading of the text: If he [her father] had been treated as holy (before), he will now be treated as mundane, (if he had been treated with) honor, now he will be treated with disgrace, as they will say cursed be the one who gave birth to this one, who raised this one” (7).

Fortunately this approach is not the only one. I take comfort from the approach of both of the early authoritative translations into Aramaic, neither of which mentions the father’s shame (8). One (9) subtly re frames it as “from the holiness of her father she becomes desecrated”. The meaning of the translation is that she is desecrating herself, and profaning “the holiness that she has as a heritage from her father”. As the daughter of a Cohen/priest she inherited social- spiritual capital that has now been lost (10). It is not about her father but about her.

The discrepancy between a daughter and a son can be considered from a historical and contextual perspective that suggests that the verse is a response to the practice of the “sacred prostitute”. It is argued that the daughters of idol worshipers’ priests would act as prostitutes at their places of worship (11). Evidence is found in a  phrase in the book of Hosea: “they sacrifice with the prostitutes” (12). If we accept this argument then it is reasonable that the warning is directed to females based on the historical-actual problem the passage is seeking to address. While this explanation is attractive to me, I have not yet found any earlier linking between this ancient practice and this verse in authoritative commentary.

I am conflicted about how to approach these types of texts. I can join my colleagues who try to make it ok. As demonstrated above, there are some plausible approaches to do that, at least partially. I can also simply put them out there for further reflection and study. When my own daughter was born we  chose a biblical name, Shifra, that was not identified as being the wife, daughter or mother of any important man because we want our daughter to know she matters for who she is and who she will become, including but certainly not limited to her roles as a mother, wife or daughter. I take comfort in this view being consistent with some of my traditions about this difficult verse. The discrepancy between the treatment of males and females, however is acknowledged as a matter of concern.

Notes and Sources

  1. Leviticus 21:9
  2. Conversation at Lag B’Omer event at Bondi with Rabbi Y. 14.05.2017 based on Chasidic sources
  3. Buchwald, Rabbi E, Lessons from a Cohen’s Wanton Daughter, He wrote….As one who completed the study of an entire cycle of the Talmud about twenty-five years ago, I know how enriching the experience can be… but looking back, it was inevitable that devoting so much time to the study of Torah came, at least in part, at the expense of the family, especially during the children’s critical nurturing years..
  4. Talmud Sanhedrin 50b
  5. Mishnah, Makkot 1:10
  6. Abarbanel, commentary on Emor question 5, p.225
  7. Talmud Sanhedrin 52a
  8. Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel, sees the reference to the father as a clarification of a matter of law, that she had gotten married through Erusin, but lived in her father’s house
  9. Unkelus/Onkelus, who lived around c. 35–120 CE, although the Talmud Megillah 3a suggests that this translation is was based on the teachings of the great Tanaaim Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, or even earlier but forgotten by the masses, and rerecorded by Unkelus,
  10. Meshech Chochma, Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, 1843-1926
  11. Daat Mikra on Leviticus 21:9, Mosad Harav Kook,
  12. Hosea 4:14

Friday, April 21, 2017

Blame the followers? On Leadership- Shemini

I lay awake at 4:30 am the other day. Not for very long, but still unusual for me to be awake worrying about work. I tend to do my worrying during the day.

Fear of failure is a natural part of leadership. However, I wonder to what extent a leader needs to feel responsible for outcomes that are ultimately dependent on the choices of many people, whether active supporters or disinterested “followers”? Perhaps leadership is overrated. Some leaders appear successful, when in fact they are merely taking people where they want to go anyway.  Should the primary potency and responsibility be recognised as being with the followers instead? Perhaps this idea is a form of shirking of my responsibilities as a leader disguised as modesty. On the other hand, I know that my mental and emotional strength as a leader is enhanced by the generous appreciative  engagement of my “followers”, either as participants in my work or at my Torah discussions.   

In the Torah reading this week we read how Aaron was encouraged to approach the altar when he was bashful and fearful about performing sacrifices on the altar (1). Aaron imagined the altar resembling an ox and this reminded him about his past failure when he built an altar for a false god, the golden calf (2). Aaron carried the burden of that failure for the rest of his life. Yet the main stimulus for him being involved with the golden calf was the loss of faith by the people, which all but forced his hand.

The wording of the phrase in which Aaron was invited to approach the altar relates to the question of the impact of followers on their leaders. “Moses said to Aaron, a) "Approach the altar and perform your sin offering…and atone for yourself and [atone] for the people, and b) perform the people's sacrifice, and atone for them (3). This appears quite repetitive, Aaron is told twice to atone for the people. However, the atonement for the people actually involves two different elements. Aaron’s offering of a calf as a personal sin offering for himself is also partially an atonement for the people (4). Aaron’s sin is not only his own. This idea is also found in the way the offering of the anointed priest’s offering is described as well. “If the anointed priest sins, to the guilt of the people, then he shall bring for his sin which he has committed, an unblemished young bull as a sin offering to the Lord” (5).

A sheikh I know reflected that we spend a lot of time giving leadership courses, perhaps we would be better off teaching people how to be followers. To all who have supported me in my work or teaching, thank you for helping me be as strong, mentally, emotionally and spiritually as I am. Thank you to the Australian supporter who sent me text messages about helping me from a hotel room in New York yesterday, at 7:00 am his time, while on holiday with his family. Thank you to the people who attend my Torah discussion group on a Saturday afternoon, who offer their thoughts, reflections and questions. Thank you dear reader for spending your precious time reading my thoughts. The success of leaders belongs to their followers as well as to the them. And when they fail, the buck stops with them... and perhaps a little bit with their followers too.


  1. Torat Cohanim, in Torah Shlaima, p. 154.
  2. Raavad cited in Torah Shlaima, p. 154.
  3. Leviticus 9:7.
  4. Abarbanel, Vayikra, p.108 (Chorev edition). Abarbanel’s interpretation of the atonement for the people that was included in Aaron’s offering is that Aaron’s sin “was a great stumbling block for the people”. However, his reference to the verse in Leviticus 4:3 can be plausibly interpreted in the way that I am suggesting in this post, even though this is not quite the way he explains it.
  5. Leviticus 4:3. The translation is mine, others such as the translation on renders it as “If the anointed kohen sins, bringing guilt to the people, then he shall bring for his sin which he has committed”

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Prominence of animal sacrifices in Torah - Tzav

At the end of the Passover Seder last week, a former student asked me why the Torah includes so much detail about animal sacrifices. I haven't found a satisfactory answer yet. This aspect of my tradition “doesn’t work for me”, yet it is talked about endlessly in the Torah. Animal sacrifice has not been practiced in Judaism for two millennia, and is barely a “thing” for modern Jews. However, the vast number of chapters dedicated to instructions about sacrifices in the Torah is evidence that this aspect of my tradition is highly significant (1). A shocking story I read on Saturday makes it clear that traditional Judaism has little tolerance for avoidance of this confronting practice.

Modern Jews are not the first to have reservations about animal sacrifice. At first glance it seems that the ancient Hebrew prophets already thundered against the practice. Hear the word of the Lord, O rulers of Sodom; give ear to the law of our God, O people of Gomorrah! Of what use are your many sacrifices to Me? says the Lord. I am sated with the burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle; the blood of bulls and sheep and he-goats I do not want(2).

However, the critique of sacrifices by the prophets is not what it might seem. The verse preceding the one about the unwanted goats blood, sets the context by referring to Sodom. Sodom primarily represents cruelty to strangers and the poor, and theft in Jewish tradition (3), rather than homosexuality. Later in the chapter the prophet calls on the Jews to “learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the robbed, perform justice for the orphan, plead the case of the widow”. He call their leaders “…companions of thieves” (4). So the critique is not of sacrifice itself, which if done properly should remind people about God and lead them away from sin and therefore be pleasing to God, but a complaint about sacrifices that have not fulfilled their purpose (5).  

The Talmud (6) tells a gruesome story about a priest who was less than thrilled with the honor of offering sacrifices. the Temple courtyard cried four cries...Leave here, Yissakhar of Kfar Barkai, who honors himself and desecrates the items consecrated to Heaven. He would wrap his hands in silk and perform the service.

What ultimately happened to Yissakhar of Kfar Barkai? ...the king and the queen were sitting. The king said that goat meat is better, and the queen said lamb meat is better. They said: Who can prove which one of us is correct? The High Priest can, as he offers sacrifices all day. Yissakhar of Kfar Barkai came, and when they asked him this question, he signaled with his hand (in a mocking/humorous way) (7) and said: If goat is better, let it be sacrificed as the daily offering.The king said: Since he has no reverence for the monarchy, sever his right hand. He gave a bribe and the official severed his left hand. The king heard and had the official sever his right hand as well.(8).

The story is clearly linked to the symbolic and potent spiritual meanings of the sacrifices. Yissachar, in his covering his hands exhibited the opposite of the spirit of humility required in seeking closeness to God which is at the heart of these rituals (9). In fact, the Torah’s word to describe animal sacrifices is קרבן, which means “to bring or come close”. The verse the burnt offering which burns on the altar all night until morning, and the fire of the altar shall burn it(10),  is interpreted symbolically as describing processes of the soul and the heart. “All the evil and dark thoughts (represented by) the night, and unsavoury lusts..need to be burnt...consumed by love of God...” (11).

A mystical interpretation draws attention to the Godly fire that descended from heaven, which consumed the sacrifices, while the animals themselves are also identified with fire. In this approach, inanimate things are related to the element of earth, the vegetable kingdom is linked to water, while animals are related to fire. The ritual of an animal being sacrificed is meant to evoke a reaction in the fiery animalistic aspect of people to assist them in a spiritual journey of subduing and ultimately transforming the animal aspects of the soul (12).

None of this mystical or symbolic talk is much comfort to a goat that is being slaughtered. However, for those of us who are not vegetarian, I don’t think it is a deep respect for the life of animals that causes us to recoil from animal sacrifice, as much as it is a squeamish distaste for the confronting image of a life being extinguished. Yet, it appears that the confronting and messy nature of the killing, processing and burning of animals fat, flesh and blood is, for reasons I don’t fully understand, a vital part of the Jewish tradition (even if not actually practiced any more). Judaism is not meant to be an opium of the masses or source of inner peace. It is meant to be a disruptive, disturbing confrontation between finite sensual humans and their demanding, engaged God who calls them to justice, worship and self transcendence.     


  1. Ramban in his refutation of Maimonides.
  2. Isaiah 1:10-11.
  3. Talmud Sanhedrin 109a.
  4. Isaiah 1:17,23.
  5. Radak on Isaiah 1:11. Rashi takes a similar approach.
  6. Rashi on Pesachim 57b.
  7. Maharsha on Pesachim 57b, points out the significance of his right hand being severed in that the main service in the temple was done with the right hand and he put silks on his hands during the service, it was decreed in heaven that he he could not save himself with his left hand.
  8. R. Bchaya, on Leviticus 6:3, p. 423 (Mosad Rav Kook edition).
  9. Leviticus 6:2.
  10. Abarbanel based on Kuzari, p. 80.
  11. R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, in Likutei Torah, Parshas Pinchas, p.150