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Abraham and Terach

B'reisheet 38:13

"And Haran died in the presence of his father Terah" (Gen. 11:28). Rabbi Hiyya the grandson of Rabbi Adda of Yaffo [said]: Terah was a worshipper of idols. One time he had to travel to a place, and he left Abraham in charge of his store. When a man would come in to buy [idols], Abraham would ask: How old are you? They would reply: fifty or sixty. Abraham would then respond: Woe to him who is sixty years old and worships something made today - the customer would be embarrassed, and would leave. A woman entered carrying a dish full of flour. She said to him: this is for you, offer it before them. Abraham took a club in his hands and broke all of the idols, and placed the club in the hands of the biggest idol.


When his father returned, he asked: who did all of this? Abraham replied: I can't hide it from you - a woman came carrying a dish of flour and told me to offer it before them. I did, and one of them said 'I will eat it first,' and another said 'I will eat it first.' The biggest one rose, took a club, and smashed the rest of them. Terah said: what, do you think you can trick me? They don't have cognition! Abraham said: Do your ears hear what your mouth is saying?


Terah took Abraham and passed him off to [King] Nimrod. They said [to the king]: let us worship the fire. Abraham said to them: [rather] let us worship water, for it extinguishes fire. Nimrod agreed: let us worship water. Abraham continued: if so, let us worship the clouds, which provide water. Nimrod agreed: let us worship the clouds. Abraham continued: if so, let us worship the winds that scatter the clouds. Nimrod agreed: let us worship the winds. Abraham continued: if so, let us worship humans who are filled with wind [air]. Nimrod replied: You're just speaking words - I only worship fire. I will throw you into it, and the God you worship can save you from it. Haran was hidden and was of two minds, saying [to himself]: if Abraham is victorious, I will say I am with Abraham, and if Nimrod is victorious, I will say I am with Nimrod. When Abraham was through into the fiery furnace and saved, they asked him [Haran]: who are you with? He replied: I am with Abraham. They took him and threw him into the fire, and his insides burned up and he died before his father Terah, as it says: "And Haran died in the [lit.] on the face of his father Terah" (Gen. 11:28).

The Text: Genesis Rabbah 38:13

  1. Why do the rabbis provide this midrash about Abraham?

  2. What is Abraham’s complaint/debate?


Contemporary Issues

  1. When have you taken issue with a belief that your parents hold?

  2. How did you engage with your parents about that issue?

Abraham and God

B'reisheet 18:22-32

The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before HASHEM. Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”


And HASHEM answered, “If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham spoke up, saying, “Here I venture to speak to HASHEM, I who am but dust and ashes: What if the fifty innocent should lack five? Will You destroy the whole city for want of the five?” And God answered, “I will not destroy if I find forty-five there.”


But he spoke to God again, and said, “What if forty should be found there?” And God answered, “I will not do it, for the sake of the forty.” And he said, “Let not HASHEM be angry if I go on: What if thirty should be found there?” And God answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.” And he said, “I venture again to speak to HASHEM: What if twenty should be found there?” And God answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the twenty.” And he said, “Let not HASHEM be angry if I speak but this last time: What if ten should be found there?” And God answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the ten.”

The Text: Genesis 18:22–32

  1. Does “the Judge of all the earth deal justly” in the Genesis account?

  2. Does Abraham have the right to question God?

  3. Does Abraham win this debate, or does God?


Contemporary Issues

  1. When is collective punishment morally acceptable?

  2. Was the collective punishment of the Japanese by the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki justified?

  3. Are civilians who aid terrorists innocent and deserving of noncombatant immunity?

Moses and Korach

Bamidbar 16:1-16

Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—descendants of Reuben—to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and HASHEM is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above HASHEM’s congregation?” When Moses heard this, he fell on his face.

Then he spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, “Come morning, HASHEM will make known who is God's and who is holy, and will grant him access to Godself; God will grant access to the one God has chosen. Do this: You, Korah and all your band, take fire pans, and tomorrow put fire in them and lay incense on them before HASHEM. Then the man whom HASHEM chooses, he shall be the holy one. You have gone too far, sons of Levi!”

Moses said further to Korah, “Hear me, sons of Levi. Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you access to God, to perform the duties of HASHEM’s Tabernacle and to minister to the community and serve them? Now that God has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too? Truly, it is against HASHEM that you and all your company have banded together. For who is Aaron that you should rail against him?”

Moses sent for Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab; but they said, “We will not come! Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us? Even if you had brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, and given us possession of fields and vineyards, should you gouge out those men’s eyes?We will not come!”


Moses was much aggrieved and he said to HASHEM, “Pay no regard to their oblation. I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them.” And Moses said to Korah, “Tomorrow, you and all your company appear before HASHEM, you and they and Aaron.


The Text: Numbers 16:1–16

  1. Should Moses have been willing to listen to Korah?

  2. Does Korah have a case, that all are holy?

  3. Were Korah and his followers legitimate dissenters?

  4. Why would the Torah include a story of daladinissention like this?


Contemporary Issues

  1. Is Jerusalem a holy city, and subject to political negotiation?

  2. Is the Sabbath holy, and requiring cessation from work?

  3. Is the Bible holy, and God’s word?


Bamidbar 27:1-11

The daughters of Zelophehad, of Manassite family—son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph—came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against HASHEM, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!”

Moses brought their case before HASHEM. And HASHEM said to Moses, “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them. “Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: ‘If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter. If he has no daughter, you shall assign his property to his brothers. If he has no brothers, you shall assign his property to his father’s brothers. If his father had no brothers, you shall assign his property to his nearest relative in his own clan, and he shall inherit it.’ This shall be the law of procedure for the Israelites, in accordance with HASHEM’s command to Moses.”

Bamidbar 36:1-12

The family heads in the clan of the descendants of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh, one of the Josephite clans, came forward and appealed to Moses and the chieftains, family heads of the Israelites. They said, “HASHEM commanded my lord to assign the land to the Israelites as shares by lot, and my lord was further commanded by HASHEM to assign the share of our kinsman Zelophehad to his daughters. Now, if they marry persons from another Israelite tribe, their share will be cut off from our ancestral portion and be added to the portion of the tribe into which they marry; thus our allotted portion will be diminished. And even when the Israelites observe the jubilee, their share will be added to that of the tribe into which they marry, and their share will be cut off from the ancestral portion of our tribe.”

So Moses, at HASHEM’s bidding, instructed the Israelites, saying: “The plea of the Josephite tribe is just. This is what HASHEM has commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad: They may marry anyone they wish, provided they marry into a clan of their father’s tribe. No inheritance of the Israelites may pass over from one tribe to another, but the Israelites must remain bound each to the ancestral portion of his tribe. Every daughter among the Israelite tribes who inherits a share must marry someone from a clan of her father’s tribe, in order that every Israelite may keep his ancestral share. Thus no inheritance shall pass over from one tribe to another, but the Israelite tribes shall remain bound each to its portion.”

The daughters of Zelophehad did as HASHEM had commanded Moses: Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah, Zelophehad’s daughters, were married to sons of their uncles, marrying into clans of descendants of Manasseh son of Joseph; and so their share remained in the tribe of their father’s clan.


The Text: Numbers 27:1–11, 36:1–12

  1. Is the compromise of women inheriting but marrying within the tribe a good one?

  2. Are women second-class citizens under biblical law?

  3. Can the halakhah regarding the traditional role of women be categorized as separate but equal?


Contemporary Issues

  1. Is the inclusion and equality of women in Judaism complete today?

  2. Should gays be extended all religious rights in Judaism, including marriage?

  3. Are illegal immigrants the equivalent of the biblical “stranger” and justified in receiving a path to full citizenship?

David and Nathan

2 Samuel 11–12

At the turn of the year, the season when kings go out [to battle], David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him, and they devastated Ammon and besieged Rabbah; David remained in Jerusalem. Late one afternoon, David rose from his couch and strolled on the roof of the royal palace; and from the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and the king sent someone to make inquiries about the woman. He reported, “She is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam [and] wife of Uriah the Hittite.”

David sent messengers to fetch her; she came to him and he lay with her—she had just purified herself after her period—and she went back home. The woman conceived, and she sent word to David, “I am pregnant.” Thereupon David sent a message to Joab, “Send Uriah the Hittite to me”; and Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked him how Joab and the troops were faring and how the war was going. Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house and bathe your feet.” When Uriah left the royal palace, a present from the king followed him. But Uriah slept at the entrance of the royal palace, along with the other officers of his lord, and did not go down to his house. When David was told that Uriah had not gone down to his house, he said to Uriah, “You just came from a journey; why didn’t you go down to your house?” Uriah answered David, “The Ark and Israel and Judah are located at Succoth, and my master Joab and Your Majesty’s men are camped in the open; how can I go home and eat and drink and sleep with my wife? As you live, by your very life, I will not do this!” David said to Uriah, “Stay here today also, and tomorrow I will send you off.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. The next day, David summoned him, and he ate and drank with him until he got him drunk; but in the evening, [Uriah] went out to sleep in the same place, with his lord’s officers; he did not go down to his home.

In the morning, David wrote a letter to Joab, which he sent with Uriah. He wrote in the letter as follows: “Place Uriah in the front line where the fighting is fiercest; then fall back so that he may be killed.” So when Joab was besieging the city, he stationed Uriah at the point where he knew that there were able warriors. The men of the city sallied out and attacked Joab, and some of David’s officers among the troops fell; Uriah the Hittite was among those who died.Joab sent a full report of the battle to David. He instructed the messenger as follows: “When you finish reporting to the king all about the battle, the king may get angry and say to you, ‘Why did you come so close to the city to attack it? Didn’t you know that they would shoot from the wall? Who struck down Abimelech son of Jerubbesheth? Was it not a woman who dropped an upper millstone on him from the wall at Thebez, from which he died? Why did you come so close to the wall?’ Then say: ‘Your servant Uriah the Hittite was among those killed.’”

The messenger set out; he came and told David all that Joab had sent him to say. The messenger said to David, “First the men prevailed against us and sallied out against us into the open; then we drove them back up to the entrance to the gate. But the archers shot at your men from the wall and some of Your Majesty’s men fell; your servant Uriah the Hittite also fell.” Whereupon David said to the messenger, “Give Joab this message: ‘Do not be distressed about the matter. The sword always takes its toll. Press your attack on the city and destroy it!’ Encourage him!”

When Uriah’s wife heard that her husband Uriah was dead, she lamented over her husband. After the period of mourning was over, David sent and had her brought into his palace; she became his wife and she bore him a son. But the LORD was displeased with what David had done, and HASHEM sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said, “There were two men in the same city, one rich and one poor.

The rich man had very large flocks and herds, but the poor man had only one little ewe lamb that he had bought. He tended it and it grew up together with him and his children: it used to share his morsel of bread, drink from his cup, and nestle in his bosom; it was like a daughter to him.

One day, a traveler came to the rich man, but he was loath to take anything from his own flocks or herds to prepare a meal for the guest who had come to him; so he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” David flew into a rage against the man, and said to Nathan, “As HASHEM lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He shall pay for the lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and showed no pity.” And Nathan said to David, “That man is you! Thus said the LORD, the God of Israel: ‘It was I who anointed you king over Israel and it was I who rescued you from the hand of Saul. I gave you your master’s house and possession of your master’s wives; and I gave you the House of Israel and Judah; and if that were not enough, I would give you twice as much more. Why then have you flouted the command of HASHEM and done what displeases God? You have put Uriah the Hittite to the sword; you took his wife and made her your wife and had him killed by the sword of the Ammonites. Therefore the sword shall never depart from your House—because you spurned Me by taking the wife of Uriah the Hittite and making her your wife.’ Thus said HASHEM: ‘I will make a calamity rise against you from within your own house; I will take your wives and give them to another man before your very eyes and he shall sleep with your wives under this very sun. You acted in secret, but I will make this happen in the sight of all Israel and in broad daylight.’”

David said to Nathan, “I stand guilty before HASHEM!” And Nathan replied to David, “HASHEM has remitted your sin; you shall not die. However, since you have spurned the enemies of HASHEM by this deed, even the child about to be born to you shall die.” Nathan went home, and HASHEM afflicted the child that Uriah’s wife had borne to David, and it became critically ill.

David entreated God for the boy; David fasted, and he went in and spent the night lying on the ground. The senior servants of his household tried to induce him to get up from the ground; but he refused, nor would he partake of food with them. On the seventh day the child died. David’s servants were afraid to tell David that the child was dead; for they said, “We spoke to him when the child was alive and he wouldn’t listen to us; how can we tell him that the child is dead? He might do something terrible.” When David saw his servants talking in whispers, David understood that the child was dead; David asked his servants, “Is the child dead?” “Yes,” they replied. Thereupon David rose from the ground; he bathed and anointed himself, and he changed his clothes. He went into the House of HASHEM and prostrated himself. Then he went home and asked for food, which they set before him, and he ate. His courtiers asked him, “Why have you acted in this manner? While the child was alive, you fasted and wept; but now that the child is dead, you rise and take food!” He replied, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept because I thought: ‘Who knows? HASHEM may have pity on me, and the child may live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will never come back to me.”


David consoled his wife Bathsheba; he went to her and lay with her. She bore a son and she named him Solomon. HASHEM favored him, and God sent a message through the prophet Nathan; and he was named Jedidiah at the instance of HASHEM.


The Text: 2 Samuel 11–12

  1. Should David have been allowed to remain king?

  2. Does the punishment fit the crime?

  3. Does David repent?


Contemporary Issues

  1. What examples of prophetic figures speaking “truth to power” exist today?

  2. Does this story have parallels to the impeachments of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton?

  3. Should immoral orders from superiors be refused?

Ben Zakkai

Gittin 56a-b

There were certain zealots among the people of Jerusalem. The Sages said to them: Let us go out and make peace with the Romans. But the zealots did not allow them to do this. The zealots said to the Sages: Let us go out and engage in battle against the Romans. But the Sages said to them: You will not be successful. It would be better for you to wait until the siege is broken. In order to force the residents of the city to engage in battle, the zealots arose and burned down these storehouses [ambarei] of wheat and barley, and there was a general famine. 

The Gemara relates: Abba Sikkara was the leader of the zealots [biryonei] of Jerusalem and the son of the sister of Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai. Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai sent a message to him: Come to me in secret. He came,and Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai said to him: Until when will you do this and kill everyone through starvation? Abba Sikkara said to him: What can I do, for if I say something to them they will kill me. Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai said to him: Show me a method so that I will be able to leave the city, and it is possible that through this there will be some small salvation. 

Abba Sikkara said to him: This is what you should do: Pretend to be sick, and have everyone come and ask about your welfare, so that word will spread about your ailing condition. Afterward bring something putrid and place it near you, so that people will say that you have died and are decomposing. And then, have your students enter to bring you to burial, and let no one else come in so that the zealots not notice that you are still light. As the zealots know that a living person is lighter than a dead person. 

Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai did this. Rabbi Eliezer entered from one side and Rabbi Yehoshua from the other side to take him out. When they arrived at the entrance of the city on the inside, the guards, who were of the faction of the zealots,wanted to pierce him with their swords in order to ascertain that he was actually dead, as was the common practice. Abba Sikkara said to them: The Romans will say that they pierce even their teacher. The guards then wanted at least to push him to see whether he was still alive, in which case he would cry out on account of the pushing. Abba Sikkara said to them: They will say that they push even their teacher. The guards then opened the gate and he was taken out. 

When Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai reached there, i.e., the Roman camp, he said: Greetings to you, the king; greetings to you, the king. Vespasian said to him: You are liable for two death penalties, one because I am not a king and yet you call me king, and furthermore, if I am a king, why didn’t you come to me until now? Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai said to him: As for what you said about yourself: I am not a king, in truth, you are a king, if not now, then in the future. As if you are not a king, Jerusalem will not be handed over into your hand, as it is written: “And the Lebanon shall fall by a mighty one” (Isaiah 10:34). And “mighty one” means only a king, as it is written: “And their mighty one shall be of themselves, and their ruler shall proceed from the midst of them” (Jeremiah 30:21), indicating that “mighty one” parallels “ruler.” And “Lebanon” means only the Temple, as it is stated: “That good mountain and the Lebanon”(Deuteronomy 3:25). And as for what you said with your second comment: If I am a king why didn’t you come to me until now, there are zealots among us who did not allow us to do this. 

Understanding that Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai was prepared to ask him not to destroy the Temple, Vespasian said to him: If there is a barrel of honey and a snake [derakon] is wrapped around it, wouldn’t they break the barrel in order to kill the snake? In similar fashion, I am forced to destroy the city of Jerusalem in order to kill the zealots barricaded within it. Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai was silent and did not answer. In light of this, Rav Yosef later read the following verse about him, and some say that it was Rabbi Akiva who applied the verse to Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai: “I am HASHEM…Who turns wise men backward and makes their knowledge foolish” (Isaiah 44:25). As Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai should have said the following to Vespasian in response: In such a case,we take tongs, remove the snake, and kill it, and in this way we leave the barrel intact. So too, you should kill the rebels and leave the city as it is. 

In the meantime, as they were talking, a messenger [feristaka] arrived from Rome,and said to him: Rise, for the emperor has died, and the noblemen of Rome plan to appoint you as their leader and make you the next emperor. At that time Vespasian was wearing only one shoe, and when he tried to put on the other one, it would not go on his foot. He then tried to remove the other shoe that he was already wearing, but it would not come off. He said: What is this? 

Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai said to him: Be not distressed or troubled, for good tidings have reached you, as it is written: “Good tidings make the bone fat” (Proverbs 15:30), and your feet have grown fatter out of joy and satisfaction. Vespasian said to him: But what is the remedy? What must I do in order to put on my shoe? Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai said to him: Have someone with whom you are displeased come and pass before you, as it is written: “A broken spirit dries the bones” (Proverbs 17:22). He did this, and his shoe went on his foot. Vespasian said to him: Since you are so wise, why didn’t you come to see me until now? Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai said to him: But didn’t I already tell you? Vespasian said to him: I also told you what I had to say. 

Vespasian then said to Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai: I will be going to Rome to accept my new position, and I will send someone else in my place to continue besieging the city and waging war against it. But before I leave, ask something of me that I can give you. Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai said to him: Give me Yavne and its Sages and do not destroy it, and spare the dynasty of Rabban Gamliel and do not kill them as if they were rebels, and lastly give me doctors to heal Rabbi Tzadok. Rav Yosef read the following verse about him, and some say that it was Rabbi Akiva who applied the verse to Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai: “I am HASHEM…Who turns wise men backward and makes their knowledge foolish” (Isaiah 44:25), as he should have said to him to leave the Jews alone this time. 

And why didn’t Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai make this request? He maintained that Vespasian might not do that much for him, and there would not be even a small amount of salvation. Therefore, he made only a modest request, in the hope that he would receive at least that much.


The Text: Gittin 56a-b

  1. Was accommodation—or resistance—to Rome in the national interest?

  2. Does anything justify Abba Sikra’s actions against his fellow citizens?

  3. Is there a middle ground between pacifism and armed resistance?


Contemporary Issues

  1. Should Masada be a symbol of heroism today?

  2. Should the United States support armed resistance against dictators?

  3. Should Israel negotiate with sworn terrorist organizations?

Hillel and Shammai

Shabbat 21b

Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree as to the nature of that adjustment. Beit Shammai say: On the first day one kindles eight lights and, from there on, gradually decreases the number of lights until, on the last day of Hanukkah, he kindles one light. And Beit Hillel say: On the first day one kindles one light, and from there on, gradually increases the number of lights until, on the last day, he kindles eight lights. 

Ulla said: There were two amora’im in the West, Eretz Yisrael, who disagreed with regard to this dispute, Rabbi Yosei bar Avin and Rabbi Yosei bar Zevida. One said that the reason for Beit Shammai’s opinion is that the number of lights corresponds to the incoming days, i.e., the future. On the first day, eight days remain in Hanukkah, one kindles eight lights, and on the second day seven days remain, one kindles seven, etc. The reason for Beit Hillel’s opinion is that the number of lights corresponds to the outgoing days. Each day, the number of lights corresponds to the number of the days of Hanukkah that were already observed. And one said that the reason for Beit Shammai’s opinion is that the number of lights corresponds to the bulls of the festival of Sukkot: Thirteen were sacrificed on the first day and each succeeding day one fewer was sacrificed (Numbers 29:12–31). The reason for Beit Hillel’s opinion is that the number of lights is based on the principle: One elevates to a higher level in matters of sanctity and one does not downgrade.

Shabbat 31a

The Sages taught: There was an incident involving one gentile who came before Shammai. The gentile said to Shammai: How many Torahs do you have? He said to him: Two, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The gentile said to him: With regard to the Written Torah, I believe you, but with regard to the Oral Torah, I do not believe you. Convert me on condition that you will teach me only the Written Torah. Shammai scolded him and cast him out with reprimand. The same gentile came before Hillel, who converted him and began teaching him Torah. On the first day, he showed him the letters of the alphabet and said to him: Alef, bet, gimmel, dalet. The next day he reversed the order of the letters and told him that an alef is a tav and so on. The convert said to him: But yesterday you did not tell me that. Hillel said to him: You see that it is impossible to learn what is written without relying on an oral tradition. Didn’t you rely on me?Therefore, you should also rely on me with regard to the matter of the Oral Torah, and accept the interpretations that it contains. 

There was another incident involving one gentile who came before Shammai and said to Shammai: Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot. Shammai pushed him away with the builder’s cubit in his hand. This was a common measuring stick and Shammai was a builder by trade. The same gentile came before Hillel. He converted him and said to him: That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.

There was another incident involving one gentile who was passing behind the study hall and heard the voice of a teacher who was teaching Torah to his students and saying the verse: “And these are the garments which they shall make: A breastplate, and an efod, and a robe, and a tunic of checkered work, a mitre, and a girdle” (Exodus 28:4). The gentile said: These garments, for whom are they designated? The students said to him: For the High Priest. The gentile said to himself: I will go and convert so that they will install me as High Priest. He came before Shammai and said to him: Convert me on condition that you install me as High Priest. Shammai pushed him with the builder’s cubit in his hand. He came before Hillel; he converted him.

Hillel said to him, to the convert: Is it not the way of the world that only one who knows the protocols of royalty is appointed king? Go and learn the royal protocols by engaging in Torah study. He went and read the Bible. When he reached the verse which says: “And the common man that draws near shall be put to death” (Numbers 1:51), the convert said to Hillel: With regard to whom is the verse speaking? Hillel said to him: Even with regard to David, king of Israel. The convert reasoned an a fortiori inference himself: If the Jewish people are called God’s children, and due to the love that God loved them he called them: “Israel is My son, My firstborn”(Exodus 4:22), and nevertheless it is written about them: And the common man that draws near shall be put to death; a mere convert who came without merit, with nothing more than his staff and traveling bag, all the more so that this applies to him, as well. 

The convert came before Shammai and told him that he retracts his demand to appoint him High Priest, saying:Am I at all worthy to be High Priest? Is it not written in the Torah: And the common man that draws near shall be put to death? He came before Hillel and said to him: Hillel the patient, may blessings rest upon your head as you brought me under the wings of the Divine Presence. The Gemara relates: Eventually, the three converts gathered together in one place, and they said: Shammai’s impatience sought to drive us from the world; Hillel’s patience brought us beneath the wings of the Divine Presence.


Ketubot 16b

The Sages taught: How does one dance before the bride, i.e., what does one recite while dancing at her wedding? Beit Shammai say: One recites praise of the bride as she is, emphasizing her good qualities. And Beit Hillel say: One recites: A fair and attractive bride. Beit Shammai said to Beit Hillel: In a case where the bride was lame or blind, does one say with regard to her: A fair and attractive bride? But the Torah states: “Keep you from a false matter” (Exodus 23:7). Beit Hillel said to Beit Shammai: According to your statement, with regard to one who acquired an inferior acquisition from the market, should another praise it and enhance its value in his eyes or condemn it and diminish its value in his eyes? You must say that he should praise it and enhance its value in his eyes and refrain from causing him anguish. From here the Sages said: A person’s disposition should always be empathetic with mankind, and treat everyone courteously. 

The Text: Shabbat 21b, 31a; Ketubot 16b

  1. Doesn’t it make more sense to light the Hanukkah candles Shammai’s way?

  2. Is Shammai’s attitude toward a prospective convert understandable?

  3. Should a bride be flattered even if involves a lie?


Contemporary Issues

  1. Should a greater effort be made to welcome interfaith couples into Jewish life?

  2. Should the Jewish community make a greater effort to gain converts?

  3. Should a qualified judge be denied a nomination based on judicial philosophy?

Vilna Gaon and Besht


In the 18th century, two separate but related movements arose in Eastern Europe Judaism: Chasidut and Mitnagdut. The founder of Chasidut was the Baal Shem Tov (Besh’t), who at age 36 began spreading his type of Judaism. He taught a number of basic tenets: Man plays a role in creation and the universe and can have a vast influence; Prayer with kavana is the key to Israel’s spiritual self-elevation; joy is the required background for Jewish life; and commandments must be performed with emotion. In addition, the tzaddik plays a key role, binding the Jewish people together and linking God and the masses. Although Kabala was frowned upon in the wake of Shabtai Zvi, Chasidut was strongly rooted in kabala and the Zohar. Through the Baal Shem Tov and his main disciple, The Magid of Mezeritch, this movement swept through Eastern Europe and gained tremendous popularity. Eventually many types of Chasidut arose in Europe, with occasional fighting between them. Leaders were chosen based on their abilities, and the many new leaders of Chasidut spread the teachings across Europe. Overall, Chasidut was a movement that attempted to bring Judaism to the people, allowing the simple man to play a large role.

At the same time as Chasidut was developing, another movement evolved in opposition: Mitnagdut (which means opposition in Hebrew.) It was led by Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, known as the Gr’A and more popularly, The Vilna Gaon. He was a genius by all accounts, and one of the finest scholars in hundreds of years. The Vilna Gaon never tried to be a leader, and didn’t really act as one. Instead he tried to keep to himself and continue with his learning. Still, in doing so he became the ultimate leader of Mitnagdut and fought diligently against the spread of Chasidut. As a tremendous scholar, he brought credibility to the role of the Chacham. Eventually this led to the Yeshiva Movement, under which many of the premier European yeshivot were established and educated generations of scholars. Among his tremendous accomplishments, the Vilna Gaon went through all of Shas and corrected errors that had accumulated over generations, checking them against old manuscripts he gathered. Besides knowing all of Torah, he also studied sciences, math, philosophy, medicine, and other “secular” subjects. He felt all these were intimately tied with Torah. He was also the foremost student of Kabala of his time. When Chassidic communities began settling in Sefat, he took his followers and attempted to make Aliya. Although he did not make it, a large community of his followers ended up in Yerushalayim, forming the nucleus of the Old Yeshuv.

Although Chasidut swept through much of Poland, Galicia and the Ukraine, in Lithuania (where Vilna is) and White Russia, there was fierce opposition. Rabbis in those communities started issuing cherems on Chasidut in 1772, and continued to do so for over forty years. The Mitnagdim complained that Chassidim separated themselves from the community, changed tefila from Ashkenaz to Nusach Sefard, shouted and danced during tefila, didn’t respect Chachamim, and used tobacco and alcohol to induce happiness. In addition, they didn’t stick to Zmanim for tefila and changed sharpening laws for shechita. Primarily, the Mitnagdim were concerned that Chassidim were too lax about Torah study. Although Chassidic leaders tried to meet with the Vilna Gaon to reach an understanding, he refused to grant them an audience. Both sides tried to gain influence, eventually resorting to the government for assistance. A number of leaders were imprisoned on both sides after accusations or treachery were made. However, eventually both sides accepted the permanence of each other and opposition subsided a bit. Today both movements are integral parts of world Judaism.

The Text: Various attributed quotes

  1. Is prayer—or study—the primary means of relating to God?

  2. Does excessive celebration lead people away from Torah?

  3. Is “every spoken word” a message from God?


Contemporary Issues

  1. Should Jewish prayer today be traditional or innovative?

  2. Should it include chanting, meditation, folk singing, dancing?

  3. What is the most appropriate metaphor for God: parent or ruler?



Spinoza (1632-77) was born in Amsterdam to Mikael and Hanna Deborah, Mikael’s second wife who died when Spinoza was a little boy of 6. The family were Marranos who had fled from Portugal in order to return to Judaism.

The details of Spinoza’s Jewish education are still unclear, but he seems to have been taught by Rabbi Saul Morteira, teacher of Talmud at the Etz Hayyim school, and later taught himself, becoming especially proficient in medieval Jewish philosophy and general philosophy and science.

He seems to have also acquired a knowledge of the Kabbalah, and the philo­sophical system he developed in his own original way owes something to the Safed Kabbalist Moses Cordovero. There are ech­oes in Spinoza’s thought ofCordovero’s sum­mary of the relationship of the universe to God: “God is the all but the all is not God,” although, according to the majority ofhis interpreters, Spinoza’s pantheism goes much beyond Cordovero in actually identifying the universe with God, as in his famous maxim: Deus sive natura (“God or nature”), that is, God is the name given to the universe as a whole, mono­theism becoming, for Spinoza, monism.

Spinoza Excommunicated

Spinoza’s approach and his general independ­ent attitude to religion awakened the suspicions of both the Calvinists and the Jewish commu­nity in Amsterdam. On 27 July 1656, Spinoza was placed under the ban (herem) by the Amsterdam community. The ban, written in Portuguese, is still preserved in the archives of the Amsterdam community. The pronounce­ment preceding the ban reads:

The chiefs of the council make known to you that having long known of evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Spinoza, they have endeavored by various means and promises to turn him from evil ways. Not being able to find any remedy, but on the contrary receiving every day more information about the abomin­able heresies practiced and taught by him, and about the monstrous acts committed by him, having this from many trustworthy witnesses who have deposed and borne witness on all this in the presence of said Spinoza, who has been convicted; all this having been examined in the presence of the Rabbis, the council decided, with the advice of the Rabbi, that the said Spinoza should be excommunicated and cut off from the Nation of Israel.


The Text: Writ of Excommunication and Spinoza writings

  1. What, exactly, are Spinoza’s “evil opinions and abominable heresies”?

  2. Are they worthy of excommunication?

  3. Was Spinoza an atheist?


Contemporary Issues

  1. Should Judaism today be based on reason or revelation?

  2. Should the humanistic congregation have been admitted to the Reform movement?

  3. Should Brother Daniel have been given citizenship under the Law of Return?

Geiger, Hirsch and Frankel


The debate truly unfolds over a ten year period (1836-1846) between three giants of modern Judaism who were contemporaries, and actually knew and liked each other (until their disagreements drove them apart). Rabbi Abraham Geiger began arguing that Judaism has always evolved and should continue to change with the times. He called for radical shifts to meet the demands of modernity, including the critical study of Torah, the elimination of outdated prayers and customs, and the equal treatment of men and women. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, while acknowledging the need to engage in secular learning in the new age, contended that Judaism’s truths and law was eternal and not subject to evolution. Rabbi Zecharias Frankel, an advocate of “moderate reform” famously stormed out of an 1845 conference in Frankfort over the elimination of Hebrew from some of the liturgy.

Rabbis Geiger, Hirsch, and Frankel became known, respectfully, as the “fathers” of Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative Judaism. The spectrum of modern denominational Judaism was born in that time and place. While the central locale of the debate would soon shift to America it was these three German Jewish leaders, through their sermons, books, and organizational activities who set the stage. Though hardly household names in the Jewish community today we owe a debt of gratitude to their great debate. I once taught a course about them called “The Three Tenors of Modern Judaism.” Their magnificent voices created the opera we sing today.


The Text: Rabbis’ sermons, books, and conference transcripts

  1. Can the laws of the Torah change with the times?

  2. Should Jewish prayer be all or part in Hebrew, or in the vernacular?

  3. Should the Torah be subject to modern historical analysis?


Contemporary Issues

  1. Is patrilineal descent (Judaism determined through the father) legitimate?

  2. Should kashrut be eliminated, or modified to be more ethically responsible?

  3. Is a civil divorce sufficient for a Jewish couple?

Herzl and Wise

Theodore Herzl

"The Promised Land...where at last we can live as free men on our own soil and die in peace in our own homeland."

Rabbi Isaac M. Wise

"We are perfectly satisfied with our political and social position. It makes no difference to us...what particular spot of the earth's surface we occupy."

The Text: Herzl diary and speeches; Wise address to the CCAR

  1. Are the Jewish people a faith community or an ethnic group?

  2. Is a Jewish homeland the only real answer to anti-Semitism?

  3. Why was Wise so vehement in his opposition to Zionism?


Contemporary Issues

  1. Can Jewish life flourish again in Germany and the former Soviet Union?

  2. Should all Jews be Zionist, in the sense of supporting Israel?

  3. Do Jews outside Israel have a right to criticize the government of Israel?

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