When my daughter and I were browsing Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago, I spotted an interesting book by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible (William Morrow, 1997). To me, it’s very important to learn and appreciate the Jewish perspective upon their own scriptures. So many of us Christians have stereotypes and ignorance of Jewish beliefs; instead of respecting them as God's people, we don't take the time to see what Jews really believe, and to understand their interpretations of the Bible. So Telushkin's book is one which I’ll turn to again! Just a few notes from sections of this rabbi’s book which stood out to me as I leafed through.
Psalm 44 and Lamentations
Telushkin discusses Psalm 44, which more than others “speaks as powerfully to many post-Holocaust Jews...a pain- and rage-filled complaint against God for His seeming noninvolvement in this world.” (p 338). The psalm “is an anguished cry of a fervent believer, a person who feels abandoned by the One Who claims to love him, and who is confidence that if God only wished to act, he could easily stop the evil and return humankind to a state of well-being” (p. 340).
Verses 10-11 and 18, 20 speak painfully of God’s rejection in spite of people’s faith in God, and verse 23 is a painful image of sheep lead to be slaughtered. Like the Holocaust victims, “the Psalmists does not feel that the victims have done anything for which they need to feel ashamed or need apologize; rather, it is God who should be ashamed.” (p. 339).
Similarly, the book of Lamentations. There, although the author acknowledges the people’s sin and disgrace, there is bitterness at God nevertheless, as in verses 2:5-6, as well as the depiction of suffering children and horrifying hunger (2:11-12, 20, 4:4, 4:10), and despair about God’s abandonment (5:20-22).
Joseph and Mordecai
Telushkin makes a connection I’d never thought of: Mordecai and Joseph. Like Joseph, Mordecai is a “Hebrew who achieves high power under a non-Israelite king and who remains totally loyal to his people” (p. 378).
Abraham, Isaac, and Sarah
He raises the question of what happened between Abraham and Isaac after the Akedah story. The text is rather anticlimactic at that point, with the two men returning from the mountain. But he cites another rabbi who had noticed an interesting detail: when Abraham returned from the mountain, he stayed in Beersheba, but a few verses later, when Sarah dies, she was at Kiryat Arba, to which Abraham then traveled to mourn her. “Although the text never explicitly says so, the implication is that Abraham and Sarah were living apart when she died. If so, did Sarah move away from him when she heard what Abraham had almost done? Ultimately, Abraham was not asked to sacrifice his son, but did God’s test cause him to sacrifice his wife?” (p. 41).
Telushkin takes up the history of the Korahites. In Num. 16:3, Korah challenged Moses’ authority. The Israelites don’t rise up to support Moses but simply wait. Once Korah and his followers are destroyed (16:33), the whole community then protests against Moses and Aaron. Though God promises to annihilate the people, God nevertheless accepts Moses’ and Aaron’s intercession for them. But God does send a plague to punish nearly 15,000 of the remaining Korah supporters (pp. 134-6).
Interestingly, though, Korah’s own sons did not perish (Num. 26:11), and not only are Korah’s descendants are recorded as authors of Psalms 42, 44-49, 84, 85, 87, and 88, but Samuel himself was a descendant of Korah (1 Chr 6:18-22). This, writes Telushkin, is “a stunning detail, much like learning that a descendant of Benedict Arnold became a president of the United States” (p. 136).
Jotham and Abimelech
In the horrible Judges story, all but one of Gideon’s numerous sons are assassinated by another son, Abimelech. The only son to escape the assassins was Jotham, who successfully hid himself. Abimelech is anointed king by the leaders of Shechem (thus becoming the first king among the Israelites, although the Bible only recognizes the much later Saul as Israel’s first king).
Jotham then speaks to the city and gives the Bible’s very first parable (Judges 9:8-15), an anti-monarchical statement on par (notes Telushkin) with the later speech by Samuel (1 Samuel 8:10-17). “Thousands of years later, Jotham’s parable was cited by such students of the Bible as Oliver Cromwell and john Milton, who opposed the notion of ‘the divine right of kings.’” (p. 135)
Jotham flees and is not mentioned in the Bible again. Abimelech meets an ignominious end after concluding his reign in an orgy of violence.
The Lex Talonis
Discussing the “eye for an eye” law, (Ex. 21:24), Telushkin takes up Matthew 5:38-40 and notes that not only have Christian societies never translated Jesus’ teaching here into legislation, but Christians don’t put the teaching into their own practice! After all, the teaching seems to “have people relinquish control of this world to the most wicked” (p. 445). He considers whether Jesus meant this teaching to be a very other-worldly consideration, where losing a physical eye would mean nothing in the afterlife.
Furthermore, the commandment was never taken literally by Jewish courts, so that a blinded person might blind the perpetrator in return. Rather, in Jewish courts, a financial compensation was levied. The commandment “was rooted in the biblical concept of justice, which demanded that punishment be commensurate with the deed, but not exceed it” (p. 446)
Love and the Stranger
Telushkin notes that Leviticus 19:18 and Deuteronomy 6:5 are frequently cited as the Torah passages concerning love, but he points out that fewer people remember Lev. 19:34, commanding love of the stranger (ger) within Israelite society. He calls this perhaps the most extraordinary Torah law: “In a world that was even more chauvinistic than our own, the Torah mandates that the Israelite people love peaceful non-Israelites living among them no less than they love themselves (his emphasis, p. 467). The word ger does not at all imply converts to Judaism, either. Telushkin cites the theologian Herman Cohen, "The stranger was to be protected, although he was not a member of one’s family, clan, religion, community or people, simply because he was a human being.” (p. 467).
The command to give to the poor (Lev. 25:35-37, Deut. 15:7-8) are so important that the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Bathra 9a) states that these commands are equal to all the other commandments together (p. 474).
Kind Treatment of Animals
“The extensive biblical teachings concerning the kind treatment of animals are generally skipped over by most Bible readers. Ask people which of the Ten Commandments concerns itself with animals, and you will generally draw a blank.” (p 500). But it is the fourth commandment, concerning the Sabbath, which demands a day of rest for animals, too.
Telushkin suggests that vegetarianism seems to have been the ideal for humans, based on Genesis 1:29 (and suggested by the famous Isaiah 11:6, 8). For some reason, God allows people to eat meat following the Flood (Gen. 9:3). Nevertheless, the kosher laws of Leviticus restrict the kinds of animals God’s people should eat, and other Torah laws demand kindness and humaneness toward animals (Lev. 22:28, Deut. 22:6-7, 10, 25:4) (pp. 499-501). “A key doctrine of biblical morality is the concept of imitatio dei (imitating God). Thus, if God is loving and caring for animals, human beings are obligated to be so as well” (p. 501).
A Safe Home
He notes the way Deut. 22:8 demands that a person should have a rail upon one’s roof to keep people safe who might be on the roof. The Talmud (Ketubot 41b) builds on the verse by disallowing an unsafe ladder and a mean dog at your house, while another passage (Shulkham Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat 427:7) demands a railing around or a cover for your well, so that people will be safe around it (p. 502).
Shatnez, the prohibition of both wool and linen in a garment, is “the quintessential example of a law for which there is no rational explanation.” The law is found in both Leviticus 19:19 (right after “love your neighbor as yourself”!) and Deut. 22:11. Telushkin points out that a Brooklyn company checks woolen garments for evidence of linen. He even had a salesman at Barney’s in Manhattan offer to check his suit choice for shatnez (p. 502).
Regarding the prohibition of charging interest (Deut. 23:20-21), Telushkin writes that Jewish communities sought to keep the command intact while helping other Jews, while also being faithful to the prohibition against harassing people for their payment (Deut. 24:10-13). He comments that Medieval Jewish moneylenders did not cause antisemitism. In fact, it was the Catholic society’s barring of Jews from other professions that forced Jews to be professional moneylenders, and that profession did in turn increase antisemitism. “Furthermore, there is no record of a Jewish moneylender ever demanding payment in flesh; this was an evil image bequeathed to the Western world by William Shakespeare” (p. 507).