Paul Nicholson[1]

          “In the phrase adopted by the American Declaration of Independence, governmental authority rests on “the consent of the governed”.  And  there are . . . constraints within which any form of  governance must work.  One is the overarching principle that there is a priority of right over might”. [2]  And another is the prevention of  too much power being concentrated in too few hands. As Lord Acton once stated “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. [3]

We have a government framed and defined by a written constitution which overarches everything.  Never is the desire of one man, or woman, or group, allowed to be imbued with such power as to impose upon the rights of others or to lead the state to ruin.[4]

Some scholars believe the principles embodied in the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were modeled from the Hebrew Bible, the Torah or Pentateuch of the Old Testament. In regard to the Torah and the limitations that should be placed on governments Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes the observation that any command of a ruler which conflicts with Torah law is ultra vires (beyond legal authority) and need not, should not be obeyed.  For our government the constitution is our equivalent of the Torah and commands contrary to it should be considered null and void ab initio (from the beginning) and should not stand. 

So, what to do if the President of the United States dies, resigns or becomes “unable” or “unfit” to carry out the duties of office?  How does the Constitution deal with the succession to the Presidency?  It addresses this situation in two different ways:

First, Article II, Section 4 provides for the removal of the President[5]  upon the conviction of having committed Treason, Bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

Second, the Twenty Fifth Amendment sets up a formal and detailed procedure to be followed in cases of removal, death or resignation and in the case of inability to perform the duties of office which is as follows:

A. In the Case of Removal from Office, Death or Resignation

If the President is removed from office through the impeachment process, then the Vice President becomes the President.[6]

 B.  In the Case of Temporary Disability to Perform the Duties of the Office

In the case in which the President finds that he or she is unable to perform the duties of office but does not actually resign the President shall send a written notice to that effect addressed to the President pro tempore of the Senate (not the Vice President) and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.  The Vice President then assumes the role of acting President until the actual President transmits written notice to the contrary to the same officials. [7]

When the President finds that he or she is able to resume his or her duties he or she shall deliver a written declaration of that fact to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.  The President shall then resume his duties and the Vice President shall stand down. 

C.  A Declaration of Inability to Continue to Perform from Others

If the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments (the Cabinet) or of “such other body as Congress may by law provide” delivers their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge his or her duties then he Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

Thereafter, if the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives a written declaration that no inability exists, the President shall resume the powers and duties of the office unless

The Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.

          D. Determination by Congress

          Once that happens Congress is directed to decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session.  Congress is further directed to resolve the issue within twenty one days of reconvening or within twenty one days if still in session.

          The determination is to be made by a two-thirds vote of both Houses as to whether the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of office. If the determination is that the President is unable to discharge the duties of office then the Vice President shall continue to discharge those powers and duties as Acting President.  If the determination is that the President is able to discharge the duties and powers of office then the President resumes them and the Vice President stands down.  

          E.  Background of the Twenty Fifth Amendment

The Twenty Fifth Amendment was proposed in July of 1965 and was ratified in February 1967.  The events surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy prompted lawmakers to clarify the law with regard to presidential succession.  Prior to the adoption of the amendment there was some doubt as to the legal status of a vice president who stepped in to fill the shoes of the president when the president died or became disabled.  Was the Vice President simply the acting President, or did he actually become the President.

In his book about the making of the Constitution Yale law professor Akhill Reed Amar[8] reviews the history of the incidents where the ambiguity of the Constitution begged for a clearer provision as to presidential succession.  He points out that as statesmen pondered possible statutory and constitutional responses they discovered that American history was littered with relevant lessons. The question first arose in 1841 when President William Henry Harrison died after only one month in office. While the language of Article II seems to say that the Vice President becomes the acting President then Vice President John Tyler had other ideas.  He asserted that he was in legal effect the President not simply the Vice President acting as the President.

President’s Millard Fillmore and Andrew Johnson both followed the Tyler precedent but in their cases the ambiguity shifted to a different aspect of the problem.  “If a vice president in fact became president when he took over for his dead running mate, would the same be true if he acted to fill a power vacuum in a disability situation.”[9]

And there was the case of President James A. Garfield who was the victim of an assassination attempt and who having suffered a serious bullet wound lay in bed months before he finally died.  If his vice president Chester A. Arthur put himself forward as president and then Garfield recovered would he be out of a job? Article II was silent and did not say who determined if the president was actually disabled.

These questions came to a head due to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  Professor Amar raises the question of “what if instead of dying within minutes of being shot in the head, JFK had in fact survived, drifting in an out of consciousness, with uncertain prospects for a full mental recovery? What if the bullet had seriously impaired his cognitive functions but in a way he himself did not understand and refused to acknowledge?” It was unclear at that time and under those circumstances whether the Vice President could lawfully assume the powers and duties of the presidency.  It was also unclear how and by whom the question of disability was to be decided.  In the modern world of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles the nation could not afford to be leaderless even for a few minutes.  And could we afford to have a shaky finger on the button?

These concerns resulted in the adoption and passage of the Twenty Fifth Amendment.

But recent events have raised yet another question to be resolved either by amending the law again or interpreting it.  If Congress were to invoke the Twenty Fifth Amendment to remove the President it would need the agreement of the current Vice President.  And, on what grounds would he be removed?  In past instances the issue has involved physical disability as in Garfield’s case.  Could Congress expand the definition of disability to include mental instability or dangerous conduct and if so how would such an allegation be proven?  In raising his question about a “shaky finger” on the button professor Amar has hinted that mental instability may very well be sufficient grounds to trigger the vote in Congress. 

Congress has the power to impeach for Treason, Bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.  It also has the power to remove the president if the Vice President and either a majority of the cabinet or some other body constituted by Congress finds that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office[10].  It is unclear as to exactly what is meant by “unable to discharge” as in past cases the factual situation involved physical disability. 

It will be interesting to see what, if any, action Congress takes.  After the events of January 6, 2021 many Congressmen feel compelled to act so as to prevent further acts of violence.[11]  And, will the events of January 6th bring the two parties in Congress together in a way which would allow them to take quick and decisive action.

[1] B.A. Hendrix College, J.D. University of Arkansas.

[2] Sacks, Covenant and Conversation, Leviticus: The Book of Holiness (Jerusalem: Maggid, 2015). 

[3] Supra. , Page 93.  The phrase comes from a letter written by Lord Acton in 1887. See Martin H. Masner and Rosaline Fergusson., The Facts on File Dictionary of Proverbs (New York:  facts on File 2002, 225).

[4] An example of a one leader corrupted with power is the story of Rehoboam the son of King Solomon  as related in the Book of Kings. Rehoboam chose to ignore the will of the people and suffered the division of Israel into two kingdoms because of it.   

[5] “. . . and the Vice President and all civil officers of the United States.” 

[6] Amendment XXV, Section 1.

[7] Supra, Section 3

[8] Akhill Reed Amar, America’s Constitution – A Biography (New York: Random House, 2005) p. 448-449.

[9] Supra at 448.

[10] At this writing the author understands that the Vice President will not agree to notify Congress that the President is “unable” to perform the duties of office.  This leaves Congress with the impeachment procedure as its only alternative to removal.

[11] It is interesting to note that the Fourteenth Amendment, Section 3 states that no person shall be eligible for election to Congress or “hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who having previously taken an oath . . ., as an officer of the United States, to support the Constitution of the United States (who) shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.”  Some Congressmen are arguing that the actions of the current President may fall under this provision and bar him from holding federal or state office in the future.

The Face of God and One who Wrestles with God

Religion The Holy Bible. Leviticus. Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incenseand they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. (Photo by: SeM/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Face of God or ‘God Rules” or “The One who wrestled with God,

And Was Allowed to Live”

By Paul Nicholson

Text:  Genesis 32:22-31

          Jacob keeps vigil during the night in anticipation of a meeting the next day with his brother Esau.  He is obviously tense and anxious as he had not seen Esau for some twenty two years and they had not parted on the best of terms as Jacob had taken both Esau’s blessing and his inheritance.  Jacob had received word that Esau was approaching with a large body of men and this sent fear through Jacob’s heart. So he prepared by splitting his camp into two thereby doubling the chances that at least one of them might survive an all-out attack.  But then as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it “one of the most haunting scenes in the Torah (the Penetuch) takes place.  I relay it using the translation used by the Rabbi:

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.  And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he (meaning the man) touched the hollow of his thigh… Gen 32:24-25.

          If one continues reading three more significant acts emerge.  First Jacob requires that the man bless him as a condition of his release, second he seeks to know the man’s name and third the “man” bestows a new name on Jacob who will henceforth be called Israel.

          The man does not respond to Jacob’s question about his name but does bless him and rename him saying “…for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed”.   Jacob realizes that this is no ordinary man and is convinced he has seen God face to face and lived to tell the tale.

          Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that “everything about this passage is mysterious” The struggle takes place in that liminal time between dark and daybreak, and the passage does not identify the man with whom Jacob struggled.  The text calls him a man, the prophet Hosea claimed he was an angel, the majority of the sages thought he was Jacob’s guardian angel and Jacob himself thought he was God.

          Jacob gets his blessing but is denied the knowledge of the name.  The reference to the name is interesting since in ancient times it was believed that selfhood was expressed in one’s name.  The man or divine being refuses to say his name lest Jacob gain power over him. But there is another connection here which relates to God.  As Moses received the law on Mount Sinai he also sought to know the identity of the being with whom he was dealing and had a bit more success when God responded “I am”  or ‘I am that I am”.

And, by digging deeper we discover there is something yet more profound.   “What’s in a name” asks the Bard “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.  But seeing a rose face to face is usually not a fatal event whereas seeing God in the same way can kill you.  Or at least that was the common belief.  No, the revelation is that it would be impossible for the holy omniscience of God and the unholy limitedness of humanity to co-exist in the same time and space.

That sounds like a bit of a cross between folklore and magic.  The story of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, being consumed by fire because of their offering incense when not authorized drove home the message that one must handle “holy things” with great circumspection or suffer dire consequences.  Accidentally breaching the barrier between the material and the divine is dangerous unless done with care. 

These concepts begin to make even more sense when one analyzes them with an understanding that God, the omniscient, was required to engage in “divine self-effacement” in order to permit his “creation to exist in time and in space.” Otherwise there would be no room within which humankind could exist.  The good Rabbi asks the question in his book on Leviticus “How do you bring two beings close when one of them is vaster than the universe and the other is mortal of flesh and blood? How do you relate to a God who is infinite and unknowable?

The answer to that question lies in the story of a misstep by the Israelites in the dessert after their liberation from Egypt.  Having gone up to the mountain (Sinai) to talk to God and receive the tablets of the law Moses was gone for quite some time leaving his people to their own devices. After receiving the law he is informed by God that he should hurry back to camp and tend his flock as “Your people whom you brought up out of land of Egypt have acted perversely”.  They had made a golden calf and worshipped it to assuage the feeling of abandonment created by Moses absence. 

Having gained freedom and left the only land they had ever known the Israelites were greatly dependent on Moses as the connection between them and the divine.  His absence created a sense of sheer terror and a gap that had to be filled.  It also created mistrust for a God who was so distant, overpowering and unpredictable.  To bring the people to God and keep them there required something more than the reliance on the leadership of a prophet even one like Moses. 

The answer came from God himself.  In response to Moses plea for forgiveness on behalf of the people God answered Moses saying “Let them make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst.”  This ushered in a new kind of relationship.  One which was to be mediated not by a prophet but rather by a new kind of religious leader: the priest.   Priests and the priesthood represented a community “immune to the vicissitudes of time”. The priesthood was predictable, and dynastic not charismatic.  Through the regular offerings of sacrifices, korban, the people were offered an opportunity to come closer to God.  While translated as victim or sacrifice Korban is  better translated as “coming close by bringing close.”  The opportunity for sacrifice and giving brings the people closer to the invisible God which they worship.  The priesthood routinized charisma by creating daily rituals and daily encounters with the divine. It is the role of the priest to maintain the presence of the holy and the divine and serve as a mediator between people and deity. 

          Thus Jacob’s encounter is a prequel to the later encounter with the divine as the people of Israel exited the land of Egypt.  Their sense of abandonment prompted the development of the Levitical priesthood which routinized daily opportunities for “coming close by bringing close”.   Israel was called to be a “holy nation” and fulfilled that calling through the daily liturgy of sacrifices. And then, after the disappearance of the priests and the prophets it has continued to fulfill that calling with the daily liturgy of prayers. 

Breathe: On George Floyd and the Trinity

God in the Midst of the City

We have now been a Cathedral family together, you and I, for a long time.  I believe you know that I don’t prefer to preach sermons that can be construed, or misconstrued, as political.  I abhor when I, or churches, are referred to with secular terms like “liberal” or “conservative.”  I, and the other preachers I know, seek only to preach, and with feet of clay to live, the Gospel that defies such designations.  Sometimes the world compels us to proclaim the Gospel when it isn’t comfortable to do so.  I trust that you will hear the words I preach today as from someone who loves our Cathedral community and means it whenever we quote Psalm 46:5 and say that we seek to proclaim God in the midst of the city.  This is also Trinity Sunday, and as such I’m beholden on this day to say something about the nature…

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COVENANT AND CONVERSATION- Genesis The Book of Beginnings II

In the Synagogue Praying

Genesis:  The Book of Beginnings

 (Bereshit – In the Beginning)


          Some time ago a learned friend suggested to me that we study the bible that Jesus would have studied. The idea was to become familiar with what a young Jewish lad would have studied and learned as he grew up in the land of Israel during the period that Jesus would have lived.  Acquiring that knowledge we felt would enhance and deepen our own faith.  We began with a study of Exodus guided by a text written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.  We learned about the escape from bondage and the making of the nation of Israel from the perspective of a Jewish Rabbi and were amazed to find such striking similarities with our own Christian understandings. 

          We have now completed the study of Exodus and have begun the study of Genesis.  It may seem illogical to start with the second book but Exodus deals with the relationship of God to Israel and raises questions about the relationship of a nation or group of people to God and Genesis deals with the relationship of the individual to God thereby making the perfect “prequel” if you will.

          The following paper is meant to introduce the reader to the parashat hashavua which is roughly the Jewish equivalent of the Christian Revised Common Lectionary. It sets out the readings for the week from the Torah to be read in the synagogue and follows a yearly cycle. 

          For me this study represents a journey of discovery and fascination. I have always had Jewish friends and acquaintances but their Jewish practices have always remained shrouded in a cloak of mystery.  This study has removed much of that cloak and revealed things which are most relevant to my own faith.  In the past my concept was similar to most Christians who think that the Torah, the Old Testament, is passé and superseded by the New.  Like Marcion[1] many Christians feel it has no relevance to their faith or their daily lives. I now beg to differ in the most strenuous way.  It is my belief that without a sound grounding in the Torah and an understanding of Judaism the Gospels cannot be read or understood in their fullness. 

Living With the Times: The Parasha

Genesis is Judaism’s foundational work, a philosophy of the human condition under the sovereignty of God.  It is less about God, than about human beings and their relationship with God.  The theology is always implicit rather than explicit.  What Genesis is, in fact, is philosophy written in a deliberately non-philosophical way. It deals with all the central questions of philosophy: what exists, what can we know, are we free, and how we should behave. But it does so in a way quite unlike the philosophical classics; philosophy is truth as system, Genesis is truth as story.  We learn about what exists by way of a story about creation. We learn about knowledge through a tangled tale of the first man, the first woman, a serpent and a tree.  We begin to understand human freedom and its abuse through the story of Cain.  We learn how to behave through the lives of Abraham and Sarah and their children.  The protagonists of Genesis are astonishingly human; a world away from the heroes and heroines of myth.  They are not mighty warriors or miracle workers, nor rulers commanding armies and winning legendary victories. They are ordinary people made extraordinary by their willingness to follow God. [2]

          As Christians why should we study the Old Testament especially as revealed through the exegesis and analysis of Jewish Rabbis?  These stories may seem to lack relevance in today’s world but when studied carefully they reveal truths about our relationship to God and how we are intended to live our lives. The sixth Rebbe[3], a famous Rabbi, once remarked to his students that “we must live with the times” to which his students responded in confusion: Do not the enemies of faith argue that the past is dead and long live the future? The Rebbe then explained that what he actually meant was that we must live with the weekly portion of Torah, in Hebrew the parashat hashavua, as it applies to our daily life in the present.  We must take the eternal of the ages and use it to interpret the ephemeral of the present.  Thus, the reading and study of the ancient scriptures brings into focus eternal truths relevant and applicable in today’s world.  And, as pointed out by Rabbi Sacks Genesis in particular reveals to us aspects of God’s relationship with ordinary people made extraordinary by their willingness to follow him.

          The Hebrew Scriptures studied through the lens of Judaic interpretations and practice has much to tell us about Christianity also. Some scholars[4] maintain that the Christian Gospels are deeply Jewish, and were written to function as “liturgical” documents which were designed to be read in the synagogue along with the Hebrew Scriptures. They maintain that they reflect the Jewish scriptures, Jewish history, and Jewish patterns of worship.  And, that they were written from a Jewish perspective inside a Jewish worldview and based on sacred writings with which only a Jew would be conversant.  To read the gospels properly they maintain one must have knowledge of Jewish culture, Jewish symbols, Jewish icons and the tradition of Jewish storytelling.[5] It requires an understanding of what Jews call “midrash”. [6]

          Therefore, a logical way to proceed with a study of the Hebrew Scriptures is to follow the course of readings prescribed by the parashat hashavua.  In Judaism Genesis is divided into twelve parasha each prescribing a select number of verses to read each week.  Along with those verses one should add a commentary, or Midrash which interprets the parasha in terms of the problems facing us in our lives today.  One such commentary is called Covenant and Conversation by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.  Rabbi Sacks has prepared a one volume commentary for each of the five books of Moses which Jews refer to as Torah which in Hebrew means instruction, teaching, or law. Christians refer to the same material as the Pentateuch.[7] 

Genesis is divided into twelve parasha.  These are as follows:

Name Meaning Genesis
Bereshit In the beginning 1:1-6:8
Noah or Noach Noah (rest) 6:9-11:32
Lekh-Lekha Go forth yourself 12:1-17:27
Vayera And He Appeared 18:1-22:24
Hayei Sara Life of Sarah 23:1-25:18
Toledot Generations 25:19-28:9
Vayetzeh And he went out 28:10-32:3
Vayishlah And he sent 32:4-36:43
Vayeshev And he settled 37:1-40.23
Miketz At the end of 41:1-44:17
Vayigash And he drew near 44:18-47:27
Vayehi And he lived 47:28-50:26

      In the words of one scholar[8] these parashat form the music of the Jewish year. And, the way in which the parasha fit into the Jewish calendar is as follows:

Autumn is Genesis (Bereshit), with its tales of beginnings, the birth of the world, of humanity and of the Jewish people.

Winter is Exodus (Shemot) the story of exile and redemption, slavery and freedom and the beginning of the long journey through the wilderness in search of the Promised Land. 

Spring is Leviticus (Vaykra) with its laws of sacrifice . . . shot through with ethical grandeur and at its fulcrum the two great moral imperatives of all – to love our neighbour as ourselves and the far harder yet ultimately more important command to love the stranger, the other, the one not like ourselves.

Numbers (Bemidbar) ushers in Shavuot, the festival of revelation, and does so with the story of the Israelites in the wilderness, a fraught tale of backslidings and rebellions, perhaps the most realistic narrative ever told of the birth of a nation. 

Summer is Deuteronomy (Devarim) . . . the book of Moses’s addresses in the last month of his life, his vision – never surpassed – of Jewish history and destiny as the people of the covenant, charged with living the faithfulness to God.

As one Rabbi points out Torah is a book not only to be read but to be lived. It is like a fugue weaving the eternal and ephemeral, the timeless and the timely.  And, that is what the Rebbe meant, that it is the weekly encounter between the now and the then, the moment and eternity, which frames Jewish consciousness and gives that unique sense of living out a narrative, a biblical story to which we ourselves are writing the latest chapter.      

    The text of Torah is our covenant with God, our written constitution as a nation under His sovereignty. Its interpretation has been the subject of ongoing conversation for as long as Jews have studied the divine word, a conversation that began at Sinai thirty-three centuries ago and has not ceased since.  Every age has added its commentaries and so must ours.  Participating in that conversation is a major part of what it is to be a Jew.  For we are the people who never stopped learning the Book of Life, our most precious gift from the God of life. [9]

          As we study the Hebrew Scriptures we find what seem to be amazing parallels to Christian teaching.   I would argue that we really shouldn’t be surprised as this is where it comes from in large measure that is the covenantal experience of the Jews with God over the course of the past thirty-three centuries. 

[1] Marcion of Sinope  c. 85 – c. 160  was an important figure in early Christianity. Marcion preached that the god who sent Jesus into the world was a different, higher deity than the creator god of Judaism.  In contrast to other leaders of the nascent Christian Church, however, Marcion declared that Christianity was in complete discontinuity with Judaism and entirely opposed to the Tanakh.

[2] Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and ConversationGenesis:  The Book of Beginnings (Maggid Books Jerusalem 2009).

[3] The Rebbe: Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn was an Orthodox rabbi and the sixth Rebbe of the Chabad Lubavitch chasidic movement. He is also known as the Frierdiker Rebbe, the Rebbe RaYYaTz, or the Rebbe Rayatz. Wikipedia

[4] The Right Reverend John S. Spong, Bishop of Newark, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy (Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2016

[5] Spong, supra.

[6] Midrash:  Midrash is biblical exegesis by ancient Judaic authorities, using a mode of interpretation prominent in the Talmud. Midrash and rabbinic readings “discern value in texts, words, and letters, as potential revelatory spaces,” writes the Hebrew scholar Wilda C. Gafney. Wikipedia. 

[7] Some authorities state that in  Judaism the word Torah can refer to both the written and oral traditions but that the Pentateuch refers only to the written texts of the books. Wikipedia, Torah. 

[8] Sacks, page 3.

[9]  Sacks, page 3.

Covenant & Conversation – Genesis: The Book of Beginnings

The Sacrifice of Abraham, 1635 (oil on canvas) by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-69) Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia/The Bridgeman Art Library / Nationality Dutch/copyright status: out of copyright.

Many things have been said, preached and written about the book of Genesis. One of the best descriptions appears on the inside cover of the dust jacket of a book titled Genesis: The Book of Beginnings by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:

It is ” (A) … foundational work, a philosophy of the human condition under the sovereignty of God. It is less about God than about human beings and their relationship with God. The theology is almost always implicit rather than explicit. What Genesis is in fact, is philosophy written in a deliberately non-philosophical way. It deals with all the central questions of philosophy: what exists, what can we know, are we free, and how we should behave. But it does so in a way quite unlike the philosophical classics; philosophy is truth as system, Genesis is truth as story. We learn about what exists by way of a story about creation. We learn about knowledge through a tangled tale of the first man, the first woman, a serpent and a tree. We begin to understand human freedom and its abuse through the story of Cain. We learn how to behave through the lives of Abraham and Sarah and their children. Th protagonists of Genesis are astonishingly human; a world away from the heroes and heroines of myth. They are not mighty warriors or miracle workers, nor rulers commanding armies and wining legendary victories. They are ordinary people made extraordinary by their willingness to follow God.

In this book Rabbi Sacks seeks to make the point as stated above that Genesis is ” …a philosophy of the human condition under the sovereignty of God.” He does this in twelve chapters whose names and topics follow the prescribed sections of the weekly Torah readings used in the Jewish liturgy referred to as the Parashat ha-Shavua , or popularly just parasha.

Rabbi Steven Weil describes the book as “An intellectual and philosophical journey through the underpinnings of our faith and the origins of our people”.

The Covenant & Conversation group will be reading and discussing Rabbi Sacks book beginning on October 17. We will meet each Thursday morning and our discussions will begin at nine o’clock a.m. in the library of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina following, for those so inclined, the saying of the Morning Office in Seibels Chapel at eight thirty a.m.

We hope that our reading and discussions will also be “An intellectual and philosophical journey through the underpinnings of our faith. If you live in the Columbia area please feel free to join us as all are welcome.

Independence Day 2019

Some scholars maintain that “The modern world was formed through four revolutions:  the British (1640), the American (1776), the French (1789) and the Russian (1917).  Two -the British and the American-led to a slow but genuine transformation towards democracy, universal franchise, and respect for human dignity.  The French and Russian revolutions, however, led to regimes that were even worse than those they replaced:  the “Terror” in France, and Stalinist communism in Russia.” [1]

As we celebrate our “Independence Day” this July 4 we should remember its broader implications and what it means to be truly independent in substance as well as form.  Too often we simply celebrate our “independence” as being in sum a military victory after which a collection of colonies was dramatically transformed overnight into a unified country with a society which respects all men and women and provides justice and freedom for all.  We fail to realize that the notion of a “free nation” or a nation “under God” with a unique mission is much older than the battles fought at Lexington or Concord in 1776.  It harks back thousands of years to a people who having been enslaved hundreds of years by what at that time was the world’s most powerful nation broke free and had to face the worst enemy of all.  That enemy was not the Egyptian army rather it was the challenges of becoming a free and independent nation with a special relationship with the Deity which has brought about their freedom.  They had to face the challenge of becoming independent and free with all the implications of that state of being.  In the final analysis they overcame their fear, with the help of their belief in God, and rose to the challenge of fulfilling a unique role among the nations of the world in being God’s “chosen people”.  The lessons learned by those people and the deity which they encountered while learning them remain as relevant for us today as they were for them thousands of years ago.

          The uniqueness of the British and American Revolutions, say some, is that they were “led by the Puritans… (and) …inspired by the Hebrew Bible. [2] [3] And, given that they were blessed or imbued with a special purpose they were to lead to a slow but genuine transformation towards democracy, universal franchise, and respect for human dignity.[4] France and Russia, on the other hand, after their revolutions moved toward a particular philosophy rather than scriptural principles.  France moved toward the philosophy of Rousseau and Russian toward that of Marx.

          The Hebrew Scriptures, argues Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, recognizes the role of time in human affairs.  Change, he says, is slow and evolutionary.  Philosophy, on the other hand, lacks that understanding of time and tends to promote revolution.  He further points out that while political change can be rapid changing human nature takes time and is very slow indeed.

          The great Rabbi Moses Maimonides expressed a similar notion in his famous treatise The Guide for the Perplexed [5] written in medieval times.  His fundamental assertion is that there is no such thing as sudden, drastic, revolutionary change in the world we inhabit. Trees take time to grow.  The seasons shade imperceptibly into one another, Day fades into night. Processes take time, and there are no shortcuts.

          If one reviews American history the truth of this assertion becomes abundantly clear. At the time of the revolution slavery was a common practice and it was to be another one hundred years and a war before it was legally abolished throughout the United States.   The vestiges of the practice remained in the form of segregation nigh unto today taking the form of violence against young Americans of African descent by those charged to serve and protect all citizens namely the civilian police.  Women were not allowed to vote, nor own property at the founding of the nation and did not become enfranchised until the nineteen hundreds.[6]

          Today we witness a harsh and inhumane immigration policy based on the view that immigrants of color need to be foreclosed from entering our country even when they seek refuge from oppression. As a result we see the brutalization of adults and  innocent children being separated from their parents at a tender age and denied the basic necessities of hygiene. 

Our history reveals a country far from fulfilling the vision as expressed in the Declaration of Independence that:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….”

          Change therefore takes time. As Sacks puts it “God himself does not force the pace. That is why he led the Israelites on a circuitous route, knowing that they could not face the full challenge of liberty immediately.  There are no shortcuts on the long walk to freedom.  

          One of the most challenging aspects of the road to real freedom and independence is “letting go of hate”.  It is easy to kill your enemies, to burn their cities and destroy their civilizations but learning to love them is hard.  As Rabbi Sacks puts it  “A people driven by hate are not-cannot be-free”.  As the ancient Israelites were leaving Egypt the Egyptians urged them on because they were so afraid, after suffering through numerous plagues, of what God would do to them (the Egyptians) next.  In the process the Israelites were instructed to ask for articles of silver and gold from the Egyptians.  Why silver and gold? It was a command which only begins to make sense in the examination of later biblical passages. Ironically it was this silver and gold which was used by the Israelites to make the famous golden calf leading Moses to charge God that had he not instructed them to ask for the silver and gold they would have not committed such a sin.  But God’s purpose was working itself out as he ingrained in the Israelites the notion of love of others especially enemies.  

          Why silver and gold? [7] There are two passages which illuminate the answer.  The first has to do with the liberation of slaves:   

If a fellow Hebrew, . . . , sells himself to you and serves you six years in the seventh year you must let him go free. And when you release him, do not send him away empty-handed.  Supply him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and you winepress.  Give to him as the Lord your God has blessed you.  Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. [8]  (emphasis supplied)

          And the second has to do with “letting go” of hate and resentment:

Do not hate an Edomite, for he is your brother.  Do not hate an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land. [9]

This command is to have one of the most profound insights into the nature of a free society.  These scriptural admonitions were meant to suggest that the Exodus is to be remembered annually, even daily.  What was suffered is not to be inflicted.  We remember the wrongs of the past for the future not to repeat them or bear grudges but to change them and leave ill will in the past.  The giving of gifts to those who were wronged by us is a way of parting with goodwill.  To be free, you have to let go of hate.

As they were about to gain their freedom the Israelites were told they had to become a nation of educators. “To defend a country you need an army. But to defend a free society you need schools.” Freedom needs three institutions:  parenthood, education and memory.  Our children should be reminded of the toll taken by oppression be it physical oppression as in the form of slavery, or economic slavery taking the form of commercial exploitation.  They should be reminded of these things so that they will know to oppose them whenever they rear their ugly heads.

The Israelites remembering the bitter bondage of slavery became the people whose passion was education and “whose citadels were schools, and whose heroes were teachers.” [10]  By the time that the Second Temple had been destroyed they had established the world’s first system of universal compulsory education paid for by public funds. By contrast England did not institute universal compulsory education until 1870.  In the United States it took from 1852 (Massachusetts) until 1918 (Mississippi). [11]

Freedom cannot be created by legislation, nor can it be sustained by political structures alone.  As we have seen our political structures can easily be corrupted and manipulated by special interest groups who exert their will to the detriment of democratic government.  Judge Learned Hand summed up this principle in a speech delivered in Central Park on May 21, 1944:

Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, co court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. and what is this liberty which must lie in the hearts of men and women?  It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes.  That is the denial of liberty, and leads straight to is overthrow.  A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few; as we have learned to our sorrow.  

          There are two aspects to be considered here with regard to the prevention of tyranny and the maintenance of freedom.  First, the populace must be educated and impassioned to protect the principles underlying freedom.  Second, the principles of freedom and liberty must be engraved in the hearts of the people so that they will always know when tyranny is approaching through corruption of the system.  

          Once again the Israelites were pioneers in this regard.  The sages re interpreted a Hebrew word “harut” meaning engraved to “herut” meaning freedom in order to say that there is none so free as one who occupies himself with the study of Torah.[12]  One could extend this further and say that Torah was to become “engraved” on the heart in addition to being engraved on the tablets.

          In the words of Rabbi Sacks:

What they meant was that if the law is engraved of the hearts of the people, it does not need to be enforced by the police.  True freedom-cherut-is the ability to control oneself without having to be controlled by others.  Without accepting voluntarily a code of moral and ethical restraints, liberty becomes license and society itself a battleground of warring instincts and desires.

          In the preface to his book America’s Constitution, A Biography [13] Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar describes our constitution as a “New World Acropolis open to all.”   He describes the document as running less than eight thousand words … in strikingly clean prose (as law goes) and with notable brevity.” The document’s style, he says, “invites us to explore its substance, to visit and regularly revisit America’s legal city on a hill.”  But sadly most citizens have declined the invitation.  Professor Amar points out that ‘Many could probably recite at length some favorite poem, song, speech, or scripture, yet few could quote by heart even a single paragraph of the supreme law of our land, one of the most important texts in world history.”[14]  

          The Hebrew sages knew, as we should, that engraving the principles of freedom on our hearts should be our first order of business lest freedom  be stripped from us.  Let us pray this Independence Day that this will not happen. There are none so blind as those who will not see, nor those who cannot or will not pray for themselves. So let us fulfill the words of the Book of Common Prayer: “…Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace…”[15]

[1] J.L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (London: Seeker and Warburg, 1952)

[2] Sacks, Exodus The Book of Redemption (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2010),citing : On the English Revolution: Walzer, Revolution of Saints (New York: Atheneum , 1968); Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth Century Revolution(London: Allen Lane, 1993); On the American Revolution : Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (Harvard University Press, 1963) and more generally Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1985).  

[3] In the author’s mind it is debatable as how much of our revolution and nation building is attributable to those of the Puritan persuasion or how many of them were intimately familiar with the Hebrew Bible, the law and the prophets.  While it has been suggested to me that the founding fathers were not particularly religious men with the possible exception of John Adams, a New England Congregationalist, there is evidence to suggest otherwise.  Chernow in his biography of Alexander Hamilton recounts the last hours of Hamilton’s life after being fatally wounded in a duel by describing Hamilton’s request for the lasts rites of the Episcopal Church.  The Episcopal Bishop of New York, Benjamin Moore denied Hamilton’s request and refused to administer Holy Communion because he did not wish to sanction dueling and he knew that Hamilton had not been a regular churchgoer.  So Hamilton turned to a close friend the Reverend John Mason of the Scotch Presbyterian Church and implored him to administer Holy Communion to him.  Mason, with great discomfort, felt obliged to refuse on the basis of Presbyterian doctrine that Holy Communion was never to be administered privately under any circumstances. After an assurance of pardon for his sins Hamilton rolled his eyes and exclaimed that “I have a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ.”  In the face of Hamilton’s sincere confession, expression of hope in the resurrection along with extreme public pressure Bishop Moore reversed his decision and administered the Holy Communion to Hamilton.  See Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Group, 2004 ) pp 705-709.

[4] Sacks, supra. page 100.

[5] Two good English Translations are: Friedlander, The Guide for the Perplexed (London: Kegan Paul, 2006) and Pines, The Gide for the Perplexed, 2 vols. (University of Chicago Press, 1963)

[6] It is interesting to note that the ancient Israelites granted the right to own property to women early on as evidenced by the story of the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 27:1-11. Verse 8 sums it up:  And you shall say to the people of Israel, If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall cause his inheritance to pass to his daughter.”

[7] This explanation is drawn directly and paraphrased from Sacks, Exodus: The Book of Redemption, pages 92-94.

[8] Deuteronomy 15:12-15.

[9] Deuteronomy 23:7

[10] Sacks, p 79.

[11] Id.

[12] Id. p.81

[13] Amar, America’s Constitution, A Biography (New York:  Random House, 2005) p. xi

[14] Id.

[15] The Book of Common Prayer, Collect for Independence Day at page 242 (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 1986)

Old Testament Thought – Exodus: the Book of Redemption – Mishpatim (Laws) – Text and Interpretation: The Case of Abortion

Moses Receives the Tablets of the Law – Jao Zeferino Da Costa (1868)

Exodus 21:22-25

Mishpatim מִּשְׁפָּטִים

          The Torah portion titled Mishpatim (Hebrew for “laws”) fleshes out the “details of the predominantly civil law that was to govern the Israelites such as laws relating to slaves and their release, personal injures and property laws, laws of social responsibility, justice and compassion, and laws relating to Shabbat and the festivals.  It ends with the ratification of the covenant, and Moses ascending the mountain for forty days.” [1]

Text and Interpretation:  The Case of Abortion

          The issue de jour of late is the question of whether various state laws which have recently been passed are in accord with the Constitution of the United States.  The general consensus of opinion seems to be that these recently passed laws are a strategy to bring before the United States Supreme Court a challenge to its precedent in the case of Roe v. Wade which established the right of a woman to obtain an abortion except in very limited circumstances.  Those proposing these state laws seek to “criminalize” abortion in any form and level a criminal penalty on those who perform them on the basis of a theology which concludes that an unborn fetus is a legal person and an abortion of that person is equivalent to homicide. 

          In a recent article in The Conversation Professor Rachel Mikva an associate professor of Jewish Studies at the Chicago Theological Seminary stated that, “there is more than one, religious view on abortion” and she then proceeds to examine the Jewish texts on the subject.  Her conclusion is “that the majority of foundational Jewish texts assert that a fetus does not attain the status of personhood until birth.” “And although this passage (Exodus  21:22-25) reinforces the idea that a fetus is not yet a human life, some orthodox authorities allow abortion only when the mother’s life is at risk.”

          Coincidentally in Sacks there is an essay titled “Text and Interpretation: The Case of Abortion”.  The Rabbi’s theme of the essay is summed up in the opening paragraph:

Behind Jewish belief in Torah shebe’al Peh, the “Oral Law” lies a fundamental truth.  The meaning of a text is not given by the text itself.  Between a text and its meaning lies the act of interpretation – and this depends on who is interpreting, in what context, and with what beliefs.

          He goes on to say that without an authoritative tradition of interpretation there would be chaos.  This is what Professor Mikva refers to as the halakha or “Jewish law” which she describes as the result of “a careful reading of biblical and rabbinic teachings.” 

          The Babylonian Talmud demonstrates how this works.  A convert to Judaism went to the great sage Hillel and asked to be converted but only to the Written but not to the Oral Law. The great sage made no protest.  On the first day of instruction Hillel taught him the first four letters of the Hebrew alphabet: aleph, bet, gimmel, daled. On the next day he taught him the same letters in reverse order: daled, gimmel, bet, and aleph.  The convert protested and said that yesterday he had been taught the reverse.  You see said the sage you have to rely on me even to learn the alphabet.  Rely on me when it comes to the Oral Law.”[2]

          As current events clearly show the subject of abortion remains deeply contentious.  The passage cited by Professor Mikva and also by Rabbi Sacks, Exodus 21:22-23, does not deal with abortion per se but the consequences of injuries to a pregnant woman as a result of a fight between two men.  If the woman is accidentally injured and caused to miscarry then the offender must pay damages to the husband or as a court shall determine, but if the woman is killed then there must be a life for a life.[3]

          Rabbi Sacks points out that the Hebrew word ason is commonly translated as “fatal injury” but can also mean “mischief, evil, harm, calamity or disaster.  Jacob uses the word when his sons tell him that Joseph then the viceroy of Egypt has commanded them to bring Benjamin, their youngest brother, back to Egypt with them in order to prove they are not spies. Jacob initially refuses permission lest Benjamin should meet with disaster (ason) and it “send my white head down to the grave in sorrow (Genesis 44:29).[4]

          According to Rabi Sacks one thing is clear from studying the Jewish sages and that is that causing a woman to miscarry and thereby killing the unborn foetus is not a capital offense with regard to halakha. Until birth the foetus (also spelled fetus) does not have the legal status of a person according the sages in the land of Israel. [5]

          And now the plot thickens as the interpretation of the word “ason” by an Alexandrian Jew named Philo was to “play a significant part in the religious development of the history of the West not because it had an impact on Jews but rather on Christians. 

          In commenting on the text in Exodus 21:22-23 Philo used the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Bible which was in Greek.  In explaining the principles of Jewish law to a non-Hebrew reading public, Philo turns to this passage from Exodus and renders it as follows:

But if anyone has a contest with a woman who is pregnant, and strikes her a blow on her belly, and she miscarry, if the child which was conceived within her is still unfashioned and unformed, he shall be punished by a fine, both for the assault which he has committed and also he has prevented nature, who was fashioning and preparing that most excellent of all creatures, a human being, from bringing him into existence.  But if the child which was conceived has assumed a distinct shape in all its parts, having received all its proper connective and distinctive qualities, he shall die; for such creature as that is a man, whom he has slain while still in the workshop of nature, who had not thought it as yet a proper time to produce him to the light, but had kept him like a statue in a sculptor’s workshop, requiring nothing more than to be released and sent out into the world.[6]

          Note that the emphasis has shifted from the concern about the extent of the injury to the third party, the woman, to an emphasis on the stage of formation of the foetus and its potential death.  Its death, per Philo, constitutes homicide or foeticide. Philo was using the Septuagint version of the scriptures which translates “ason” not as “calamity,  but rather as “form”.

          The first Christians wrote their texts in Greek rather than Hebrew and they were intensely dependent on the Hebrew Bible.  As the Gnostic Marcion discovered the Church denounced any attempt to remove Christianity completely from the Hebrew Bible as heresy. And, because of the heavy influence of the Greek the early Christian teaching on abortion followed Philo rather than the sages of Israel.  Augustine stated that the key distinction was between embryo informatus and embryo formatus – an unformed and formed foetus. [7] If a foetus was formed [8] then causing its death was murder.  This was the rule taught by Tertullian[9] in the second century which remained so until Pope Sixtus V decreed that abortion at any stage was murder.[10]  His decree was vacated by Gregory XIV in 1866[11] but then reinstated by Pius IX in 1869.[12]

          As both Professor Mikva and Rabbi Sacks conclude while in Jewish law a foetus may not be regarded as a “person” it is a potential person and must be protected.  But the difference between Judaism and Roman Catholic and Fundamentalist Christian theology is that in Judaism abortion is not murder whereas in Catholicism and Fundamentalism it is.

          Rabbi Sacks noted that the difference in theological positions has arisen because of the interpretation of a single word, ason. [13] He notes further that “without tradition, and all the sages meant by “the Oral Law” we would simply not know what a verse means.  Between a text and its meaning stands the act of interpretation.  Without rules to guide us – rules handed down across the generations – we would be in the same position as Hillel’s student, unable even to begin. [14]


[1] Jonathan Sacks, Exodus:  The Book of Redemption, Maggid Books (Jerusalem 2010). This blog entry follows the form and  ideas of Rabbi Sacks essay with some additions and commentary.  It is not meant as an authoritative commentary or the product of original research.  All due credit must go to Rabbi Sacks, and to Professor Rachel Mikva whose comments are used under a license through creative commons. . 

[2] Sacks, page 168.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, page 169, note 3 states that “ The word appears three times in the Jacob-Joseph-Benjamin story (Genesis 42:4, 42:38, 44:29) and twice in the present context (Exodus 21:22,23). These are the only occurrences in the Hebrew Bible.

[5] Ibid, page 169.

[6] Philo, The Special Laws, III: XIX, ed. Leopold Cohn, vol 5:180-182, and as cited in Sacks at page 170.

[7] Augustine, Questiones in Exodum 80. See note 9 of Sacks, page 171.

[8] Forty or Eighty days?  There was disagreement as to the period.

[9]  Sacks, note 10 page 171:  Tertullian, Treatise on the Soul XXXVII: “On the Formation and State of the Embryo.” On the history of Christian attitudes to abortion, see E. Westermarck, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas (London: Macmillan, 1906). Some scholars disagree and argue that Tertullian taught that all abortion at whatever stage was murder.

[10]  Effraenatam, of 28 October 1588. 

[11] See  Nicholas Terpstra, Lost Girls: Sex and Death in Renaissance Florence (Johns Hopkins University Press 2010 ISBN 978-0-8018-9499-2), p. 91

[12] Apostolicae Sedis moderationi

[13] Some sources indicate that there was much more to this than the Septuagint translation of ason . While Catholic bishops claim that the condemnation of all abortion started from the beginning of the Church that position has been refuted by a number of scholars according to some sources.  However, the same sources indicate that the earliest Church legislation condemned abortion in all forms, There is a divergence of opinion on this issue. See Wikipedia contributors, “Catholic Church and abortion,” Wikipedia, The Free encyclopedia,

(accessed May 24, 2019).

[14] Sacks, page 172.

OLD TESTAMENT THOUGHT: The Book of Exodus שְׁמוֹת – Whose Footsteps Do We follow When We Pray?

Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. Psalm 141: 2     (Opening Sentence for the Evening Prayer Office in the Book of Common Prayer)                                         

Whose Footsteps Do We Follow When We Pray?

          One afternoon during my tenure as the coordinator for the Daily Offices at our Cathedral I received a telephone call from the Dean’s secretary informing me that there were people waiting in the chapel for Evening Prayer and the assigned officiant had not arrived.  She asked if I would come and lead the service which I did.  In discussing this with a priest friend I realized that in our parish and probably in the whole of the Episcopal Church services are not considered quite right or even valid unless they are led by an officiant either clerical or lay.

The above phrase is the title chosen by Rabbi Sacks[2] for the next topic in his discussion of the readings from the Parasha of Tetzaveh. He begins the discussion by saying that the different roles of priests and prophets represent two different ways of being, two distinct modes of consciousness.   

          A key question in studying Jewish spirituality is “what is the nature of worship in Judaism?”  Does the duty to pray derive from a Biblical command, or from a rabbinic tradition which replaced the ritual sacrifices of the Tabernacle and the Temple with prayers? And, is there an obligation to pray levied upon each individual or is the obligation a communal responsibility which may be fulfilled by a leader?

          During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries two of Judaism’s greatest sages, Maimonides and Nahmanidies debated these questions.  To them it was an important issue which had far reaching implications in understanding the nature of Jewish spirituality. 

Maimonides in his Sefer Ha Mitzvot[3], regarded prayer as a one of the 613 biblical commands[4] of positive duties citing passages in Exodus 23:25 (“And you shall serve the Lord your God”) and Deuteronomy 11:13 (And to serve him with all your heart) interpreting “service of the heart” to mean prayer. According to rabbi Maimonides “…every person should daily, according to his ability, offer up supplication and prayer.”

Nahmonides argues to the contrary that prayer is to be regarded as rabbinic, not biblical. And when people prayed during the biblical era they did not do so because they had a duty to do so but rather because they “knew that God, in his kindness, listens to prayer and that prayer was a privilege not an obligation.”  As for the command to serve him with all your heart, it simply means we should “be wholehearted in our service to God”.  And, the primary service to God during the biblical era was the offering of sacrifices at the altar. The institution of prayer as a “religious obligation” was post-biblical. 

The “middle case” in the debate is stated by one R. Yose son of R. Hanina who attributes the beginning of the prayers: morning, afternoon, and evening, as having been instituted by the patriarchs and “instituted to replace the daily sacrifices.”  Morning Prayer was established by Abraham who got up early and went to the place “where he had stood”.  Afternoon prayer was instituted by Isaac who “went out to the field towards evening”.  And, Evening Prayer was instituted by Jacob as he had received a vision at night of a ladder descending from earth to have angels ascending and descending”. [5]

These prayers correspond to the daily sacrifices: the morning and afternoon prayers represent the morning and afternoon offerings. The evening prayer mirrors the completion of the sacrificial process (the burning of the limbs) which was done at night.[6]

Priests and Prophets -Again

          The debate about the nature of prayer is, according to Rabbi Sacks, reminiscent of the different ways in which priests and prophets approached God. 

          The prophets prayed sua sponte that is on their own accord or spontaneously and used words.  They approached God directly and their prayer arose out of the situation of the moment. Examples would include Abraham’s prayer for Sodom and Gomorrah; Jacob’s prayer before his encounter with Esau; Moses prayer asking God to forgive the Israelites after the golden calf; and Hannah’s prayer for a child. No two such prayers are alike.

          Contrast this with the practice of the priests.  With them what was primary was the sacrifice, not the words.  Even though the Levites sang some songs in the Temple worship for the most part priestly worship took place in silence. Actions were precisely regulated and any deviation such as the spontaneous offering of incense by Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, was fraught with danger.[7] A priest was to do “the same thing, in the same place, at the same time, following a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly cycle”.[8]

          The rabbi sages do not disagree that the priest and the prophets approached prayer differently, but they ask:  which approach are we to follow today?  To which tradition does prayer rightfully belong? And, in Judaism the answer is that both traditions are followed in practice.  The individual congregants pray once silently, and then again out loud thereby blending the two traditions.  This bifurcated process is followed in the morning and afternoon prayers but not in the evening prayers as there were no sacrifices in the evening only the burning of the remains.

Fixed Prayer and Spontaneous Prayer

Another priest friend once told me a story about a Christian unity conference he attended which was also attended by clergy of the Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic traditions.  It was his turn to offer the prayer for the group and the Baptist minster, who was a good friend of his, joked “o.k. go ahead and give us one of those “canned prayers” you folks like so much” to which the padre responded with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.  The idea of fixed prayers as in the Book of Common Prayer are viewed with suspicion by members of some other Christian traditions as they feel that the reading of a written or fixed prayer is somehow not a genuine prayer.

In Judaism a rabbi named Eliezer made the statement that “if a person makes his prayer fixed (Hebrew, keva) then it is not a genuine prayer.”[9]  Later interpreters of this statement say that he was not speaking of the words we say but the way we say them, and we should not “regard prayer as a burden or read it like one reads a letter.” Others interpret his statement as meaning that we should say a new prayer every day or introduce something new into the eighteen blessings. [10]

There is also a disagreement concerning the obligation of each individual as opposed to the community with regard to prayer.  One side of the argument from an anonymous source holds that as the leader of the prayer is obligated to recite the prayer so each individual is obligated.  However, Rabbi Gamliel holds that: “The leader of prayer exempts the individual members of the congregation.”

The common thread in all these disagreements is “a profound difference of opinion as to which tradition of prayer is primary:  priestly or prophetic. The priests offered sacrifices on behalf of the whole community whereas the “patriarchs and the prophets spoke as individuals, spontaneously as the circumstances required.”

Maimonides and Nahmanidies disagree concerning the nature of the obligation to pray.  And, not only do they disagree about the obligation but about the nature of prayer itself

For Maimonides prayer is a biblical obligation as the patriarchs and the prophets spoke directly to God each in their own way and spontaneously.[11]  For him the heart of prayer is the prophetic experience of the individual in conversation with God.

Nahmanides argues that the patriarchs did not set a binding precedent.[12]  They spoke to God as they were moved to do so and not because there was an obligation to pray. He argues that the primary form of worship during the biblical era was the sacrifices offered by the priests, first in the Tabernacle and then in the Temple.  Prayer replaced the sacrifices only after the destruction of the Temple and there was no longer a functioning priesthood.  It was therefore a rabbinic and not a biblical obligation. He further argues that prayer is the collective worship of the Jewish people “a continuation of the pattern set by the Temple service.

In the whole of Jewish history there have been two forms of avoda (service to God):  the priestly and the prophetic.[13] During the biblical era they existed side by side but after the Hebrew Bible reached closure and the Temple was destroyed prayer became the “single form” of communication between heaven and earth. The rabbis were then divided on the genealogy of prayer.  Is it like a sacrifice or the heartfelt pleas of the prophets? The conflict was resolved by combining the two forms as was mentioned earlier. Thus, the worshippers say the prayer silently and then out loud in response to a leader.  Thereby giving deference to both prayer methods handed down through the ages.

Returning to the story about the parishioners “waiting” for an officiant to arrive perhaps we can see in that traces of the priestly tradition of prayer and the argument of Rabbi Gamliel who insisted on a fixed text and promoted the idea that the leader of prayer is “like a priest” whose leadership exempts the individual members of the congregation from their duty to pray.[14] While the Book of Common Prayer seeks to balance the two historical approaches to prayer, as in Judaism, the notion that there must be an “officiant” leading the community in order for the prayer to be valid seemingly remains with us.


[1] This blog entry represents the second in a series which are meant to chronicle a study of the Old Testament books through a Judaic lens so as to more fully understand the interrelation of Judaic customs and practices on New Testament writings. The ideas expressed here originate with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book Exodus: The Book of Redemption. 

[2] All quoted material is from Sacks, Exodus: The Book of Redemption, pages 225-231.  All credits belong to Rabbi Sacks. 

[3] Book of Commandments ספר המצוות.

[4] Rabbinic tradition has it that 613 commandments were given to Moses on Mount Sinai, but it does not specify those included in the enumeration. Maimonidesmethodically and artfully crafts a list of 613 commandments in a work that serves as a prolegemenon to the Mishneh Torah, his monumental code of law. (Prolegemenon from the ancient Greek neuter noun: προλεγόμενον (prolegómenon, “that which is said beforehand,”)

[5] Sacks, page 227.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Making of a Strange Fire.  On the eighth day of the opening of the Tabernacle Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu took their thuribles and offered incense even though it had not been requested or commanded by God.  As a result, they were consumed by flame.  The meaning of the story has been debated for centuries.  But the moral is summed up in a sermon by Bishop Edward Salmon in a sermon to a Nashotah House graduating class:  “Be careful when handling holy things”.

[8] Sacks, page 228.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The Eighteen Blessings: The Amidah (Hebrew: תפילת העמידה, Tefilat HaAmidah, “The Standing Prayer”), also called the Shemoneh Esreh (שמנה עשרה), is the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy. Observant Jews recite the Amidah at each of three prayer services in a typical weekday: morning, afternoon, and evening. The typical weekday Amidah actually consists of nineteen blessings, though it originally had eighteen (hence the alternative name Shemoneh Esreh, meaning “Eighteen”). The prayer is recited standing with feet firmly together, and preferably while facing Jerusalem. 

[11] Sacks, p. 229.

[12] Ibid.  

[13] Sacks, p. 230.

[14] Sacks, p. 229.

OLD TESTAMENT THOUGHT: The Parasha of Tetzaveh תְּצַוֶּה Exodus 27:20- 30:10


          It is intended that this writing be one in a series which chronicles a study of the books of the Old Testament from a Judaic perspective. Presently my study is being guided by a text written by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks which examines various readings from the Book of Exodus through a series of essays.[1]  This paper is meant to be in the nature of a report designed to outline my progress in this course of reading.  It is not meant to be a report on original research but rather a summary of the findings of others much more qualified than I.  

Some years ago I read Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy by Bishop John Shelby Spong.[2]  In that book Bishop Spong’s premise is that the New Testament scriptures emerged from a Jewish community and that they must be read along with an intimate knowledge of Jewish culture, Jewish symbols, Jewish icons and the tradition of Jewish storytelling along with an understanding of what the Jews call “midrash”. [3] 

At the same time as reading Bishop Spong’s book I was guided by a clergy friend to a new translation of the Pentateuch[4] made by Professor Everett Fox titled The Five Books of Moses.  Professor Fox explains in his preface that one of the main reasons for his translation is to cause the reader to “encounter a text which challenges him or her to rethink what these ancient books are and what they mean …and become an active listener rather than a passive receiver.”  He goes on to say his translation is guided by “…the principle that the Hebrew Bible, like much of the literature of antiquity, was meant to be read aloud, and that consequently it must be translated with careful attention to rhythm and sound.”   That thought seems to reflect the notion that Bible reading is akin to playing music or reciting poetry. And, in my role as a leader of the Daily Offices at my Cathedral  I was able to literally see and hear the scripture as if it were music being played which conveyed a deep underlying meaning in addition to its literal reading.  The reading of the scripture aloud on a daily basis brought out what a musician would call the “inner voices”.  Another way to put it is that the sum of the parts was less than the whole.  There was something coming through that oral reading that was lost in the mere recitation of the literal text in one’s mind.

The same cleric friend who introduced me to Professor Fox also introduced me to Rabbi Lord Sacks.  We have been reading his book [5] and discussing it chapter by chapter each week.  In our discussions we find ourselves relating what we learn from Rabbi Sacks and Professor Fox to our understanding of New Testament thought.  The depth of the New Testament readings has increased immeasurably by our ventures into the Jewish world of the Torah.  Many of the stories relating to Yeshua bar Joseph (Jesus) which seemed  inconsequential in past readings have now taken on new meaning and depth because of the newly acquired knowledge about Jewish history and culture, particularly the culture of the Temple. 

The Structure of the Book and An Introduction to the Jewish Parasha

          In the liturgical Christian churches such as the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran and others we read the scriptures throughout the year according to a lectionary which is a list of readings deigned to be read during the Daily Office and at the Eucharistic celebration during the Mass.

 In Judaism the annual cycle of readings is known as the parasha, in Hebrew, פָּרָשָׁה Pārāšâ, meaning portion.  It formally means a section of a biblical book in the Masoretic[6] text of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible).  The Tanakh is traditionally divided into Torah, or teaching, the five books of Moses, Nev’im, the prophets, and Ketuvim, the writings.  In the Masoretic text parashah sections are designated by various types of spacing between them, as found in Torah scrolls, scrolls of the books of Nev’im or Ketuvim, masoretic codices from the Middle Ages and printed editions of the masoretic text.  The division of the text into parashot for the biblical books is independent of chapter and verse numbers, which are not part of the masoretic tradition. Parashot are not numbered, but some have special names.[7]

Rabbi Lord Sacks has taken these special names and used them like chapter designations. Thus he covers the Parashat utilizing their Hebrew names:  Shemot, Va’era, Bo, Beshallah, Yitro (Jethro), Mishpatim, Teruma, Tetzaveh, Ki Tissa Vayak-Hel and Pekudei.  Each parasha is divided into four essays which cover the main points of the scripture set out in the parasha.  

For purposes of this writing we will discuss the parasha Tetzaveh which in Hebrew means “You command”.  This phrase makes up the first words of the mandated scripture reading which is from Chapter 27 of the Book of Exodus starting at the 20th verse. Tetzaveh is usually read during the month of Adar in the Hebraic calendar which roughly corresponds to the month of March in the Gregorian calendar.

A helpful beginning would be a recitation of verses from the passage which begins as follows:

You shall further command the Israelites to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for the light, so that a lamp may be set up to burn regularly. . .

Introduction to the Jewish Parasha

          Rabbi Sacks summarizes the substance of this parasha as follows:

 In Tetzaveh, the role of the priests in the service of the Tabernacle takes center stage.  Moses moves to the background in these readings and his brother Aaron is highlighted as the key figure as he becomes the High Priest.  We will be studying the tasks of the priesthood, their robes of office and their consecration, as well as further details about the Tabernacle itself.

…the essays that follow look at what made priests different from other kinds of religious leader, especially the prophet.  The first looks at the priest as the as a symbol of constancy and continuity in Jewish life.  The second looks at the parts priest and prophet played in the development of Jewish prayer.  The third analyzes the relationship between Moses the prophet and Aaron the priest, and the last act in the five-part story about brothers that began in Genesis.  The fourth essay looks at the idea of robes of office and their place in Judaism and other cultures. [8]

Priests and Prophets

            Our study begins with a question.  Why is it that the greatest leader and prophet of the Hebrew people (Moses) is absent from mention in this set of readings?  Our text offers three explanations. 

First, it cites the Vilna Gaon[9] to say that because the time prescribed for reading this portion of scripture usually falls during the week which includes the seventh day of Adar[10], the day of Moses death, his absence from the text is a way of expressing this loss.  

Second, some argue that the commentary of Ba’al Ha Turim (Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, 1270-1340) relates it to the plea of Moses found in Exodus 32:32 in which he begs God to forgive the Israelites sin in their having made and worshipped the golden calf.  He basically says that if you do not forgive them then “blot me out of the book you have written”.  Therefore Moses absence from these passages is explained by the old adage that “The curse of a sage comes true, even if it was conditional and the condition has not been satisfied”. [11]

And third, some say that the Paneah Raza compiled by R. Isaac ben Judah Halevi takes the position that the reason has to do with the intense anger of God at Moses for continuing to refuse to take up God’s call to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt.  After Moses plea in which he asks God to “please send someone else, God tells him that his brother Aaron would accompany him. In his stubborn refusal to “step up” Moses thereby forfeited the role of becoming the first of Israel’s priests which then fell to Aaron, his brother, and therefore this is the reason he is missing from this Parashat.  

Religious Leadership in Judaism

          In Judaism two forms of religious leadership are recognized: the navi and the kohen, the prophet and the priest. The greatest of the prophets is considered to be Moses. The prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, etc. were known as persons of drama.  In the words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel:

 The prophet is an iconoclast, challenging the apparently holy, revered, and awesome. Beliefs cherished as certainties, institutions endowed with supreme sanctity, he exposes as scandalous pretensions. [12]

The priests were quieter, a political, serving in the Sanctuary rather than the public eye.  But their role was no less important than the prophets in sustaining Israel as a holy nation.

Each group developed its own approach to communicating with the divine and as a result each developed its own unique “culture” which served to further define it.

Rabbi Lord Sacks recounts the differences in the two orders[13].

“The role of the priest was dynastic. It passed from father to son.  The role of the prophet was not dynastic.  Moses’ own sons did not succeed him; Joshua his disciple did.

The task of the priest related to his office.  It was not inherently personal or charismatic.  The prophets by contrast, each imparted their own personality. “No two prophets had the same style.

The priests wore a special uniform; the prophets did not.[14]

There were rules of kavod (honor) due to a Kohen. There are no corresponding rules for honor due to a prophet.  A prophet is honored by being listened to, not by formal protocols of respect.

The priests were removed from the people. They served in the Temple.  They were not allowed to become defiled.  There were restrictions on whom they might marry.  The prophets, by contrast, were usually part of the people.  They might be shepherds like Moses or Amos, or farmers like Elisha.  Until the word or vision came, there was nothing special in their work or social class.

The priest offered up sacrifices in silence. The prophet served God through the spoken word.

They lived in two different modes of time.  The priest functioned in cyclical time- the day (or week or month) that is like yesterday or tomorrow. The prophet lived in covenantal (sometimes inaccurately called linear) time – the today that is radically unlike yesterday or tomorrow.[15] 

The service of the priest never changed; that of the prophet was constantly changing. Another way of putting this is to say the priest worked to sanctify nature, the prophet to respond to history. 

          The differential between priest and prophet becomes even more pronounced upon examination of the key words used to describe each group.[16]   For the koen the key words were kodesh and hol, tahor and tamei; sacred and secular, pure and impure. The key words in the vocabulary of the prophets are tzedek and mishpat, hesed and sahamim; righteousness and justice, kindness and compassion. The key verbs of the koen are lehorot and lehavdil, to instruct and to distinguish.  The key activity of the prophet is to proclaim “the word of the Lord.” The distinction between priestly and prophetic consciousness (torat kohanim and torat nevi’im) is fundamental to Judaism, and I would argue, to Christianity also. The distinction is reflected in the differences between law and narrative

The priest speaks the word of God for all time while the prophet speaks the word of God for his time. The great Hillel[17] stated the famous dictum “What is hateful to you do not do to others. The rest is commentary: go and learn.” [18]  This set up a debate among the sages as to the most important thing:  sacrifice, faith, or ethics.  One sage Ben Zoma argues that there is an all more embracing verse, namely “Hear O Israel (Deuteronomy 6:4) [19].  While Ben Nannas argues that there is a more embracing verse still, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18.) And, Ben Pazzi argues “there is a more embracing verse still:  “Prepare one lamb in the morning and the other towards evening” (Numbers 28:4).[20]  In response a Rabbi attending the debate stood up and declared “the law is in accordance with Ben Pazzi.”. 

Ben Pazzi says Rabbi Lord Sacks is making the fundamental assertion that without the daily service to God, there would be neither Jewish faith nor Jewish ethics.[21]  And, the same could be said for Christian faith and Christian ethics.  And, as we will see in future essays the sacrifices turn into prayer offices after the destruction of the Temple. Thus, the sages argue for the practice of morning and evening prayer, daily. 

          The Jewish sages have over the course of time debated the nature and proper practice of prayer and whether prayer is in effect a substitute for the sacrifices of the priests of ancient Israel or more like the heartfelt pleas of the prophets.  In other words must prayer be formal and communal, or individual and spontaneous?

          According to Rabbi Lord Sacks[22] in modern Judaic practice each prayer is said twice, except the evening prayer. The prayer is said silently as individuals and then out loud as a community.  This practice has become so ingrained that it is done without hesitation and almost without notice.   The explanation is simple.  The first recitation is prophetic and the second priestly.  The prayers are recited informally and personally, then formally and communally. [23]  The liturgical heritage of Judaism  and its influence on developing  Israel into a “holy” nation is thus re asserted each time the prayers are made.  This is much akin to the Eucharistic celebration during the Mass.


          In this part of parasha Tetzaveh Moses steps back and Aaron moves to the fore.  Aaron assumes the role of high priest, the priesthood and the role of the priests thereby take center stage. The role of the priest and the prophet are different yet complimentary in that both are necessary to sustain Israel in its unique role as a “holy nation”.  “For whereas Moses lit the fire in the souls of the Jewish people, Aaron tended the flame and turned it into “an eternal light.” ”[24]


[1] Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation Exodus: The Book of Redemption published by Maggid Books, Jerusalem in 2010.

[2] Spong, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy, New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2016.  The Jewish Encyclopedia defines Midrash as follows: the term “midrash” designates an exegesis which, going more deeply than the mere literal sense, attempts to penetrate into the spirit of the Scriptures, …

[3] Spong at page 3.

[4] The books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

[5] Sacks, ibid.

[6] The Masoretic Text (MT or 𝕸) is the authoritative Hebrew and Aramaic text of the 24 books of Tanakh for Rabbinic Judaism. It is not the original text (Urtext) of the Hebrew Bible: Urtext has never been found. It was primarily copied, edited and distributed by a group of Jews known as the Masoretes between the 7th and 10th centuries of the Common Era (CE).

[7] Taken from the Wikipedia article on Parashah.

[8] Sacks, Covenant and Conversation The Book of Exodus: The Book of Redemption (Jerusalem 2010) 219

[9] The Vila Gaon: lijah ben Solomon Zalman (Hebrew: ר’ אליהו בן שלמה זלמן‎ Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman known as the Vilna Gaon [He is commonly referred to in Hebrew as ha-Gaon he-Chasid mi-Vilna, “the pious genius from Vilnius”. See also Sacks, Covenant and Conversation Exodus: The Book of Redemption (2010 Jerusalem), 219 citing Dov Eliach, ed. Peninim MiShulhan HaGara al HaTorah (Jerusalem: 1997), 129.

[10] Adar (Hebrew: אֲדָר Adar; from Akkadian adaru) is the sixth month of the civil year and the twelfth month of the ecclesiastical year on the Hebrew calendar, roughly corresponding to the month of March in the Gregorian calendar.

[11] Commentary of Ba’al HaTurim to Exodus 27:20 cited by Sacks on page 220.

[12] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York, 1962) page 10.

[13]  Sacks at 221. 

[14][14] Sacks notes that this is why there were prophetesses but no priestesses: this corresponds to the difference between formal office and personal authority. Citing R. Elliyahu Bashi-Doron, Responsa Binyan Av 1:65.

[15] Covenantal Time.  Heschel, at page 26, explains this concept by saying that the prophet participates in the divine pathos.  “An analysis of prophetic utterances shows that the fundamental experience of the prophet is a fellowship with the feelings of God, a sympathy with divine pathos and a communion with the divine consciousness which comes about through the prophet’s reflection of, or participation in, the divine pathos.  The typical prophetic state of mind is one of being taken up into the heart of the divine pathos; sympathy is the prophet’s answer to inspiration, correlative to revelation.  See also the Appendix at Heschel p.489 titled : “A Note on the Meaning of Pathos”  which contains the statement that “Pathos … means that which happens to a person or thing; what one has experienced, good or bad; emotion, passion; state, condition. In general, the ancient classical idea of pathos included all conditions of feeling and will in which man is dependent on the outer world.”

[16] Sacks, at page 221.

[17] Hillel was a Jewish religious leader, one of the most important figures in Jewish history. He is associated with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud

[18] Shabbat 31a cited by Sacks page 222.

[19] Commonly known as the “Shema.”

[20][20] Thus the connection with verse 2 of Psalm 141 and its reference to the “evening sacrifice.”  Here the interpreters of the scripture are specifying daily morning and evening sacrifices which in time become daily and morning prayer after the destruction of the Temple. An opening sentence of the evening prayer office in the Book of Common Prayer says: “Let my prayer be set forth in thy sight as incense, and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice” B.C.P. page 61 .

[21] Sacks, page 222

[22] See Sacks, at 221. 

[23] Sacks at page 230.

[24] Sacks at page 224.

A Lenten Meditation through Art

Follow Me Satan (The Temptation of Jesus Christ) by Ilya Repin (19o1-1903)

At their heart Judaism and Christianity are “mystical” religions.  They have created a framework composed of iconography and metaphor to house the mysticism inside.  That mysticism requires our careful thought and study to accomplish the “revelation” of its truths .  That study works best when the student becomes actively involved as in prayer and iconographic study.  We all too often fall victim of the old maxim of not seeing the forest for the trees and become fixated on intricate details which only serve to block, not reveal,  the truths which lie within the outward structures. 

The painting shown above by Ilya Repin came to my attention through the good offices of the clergy and staff of Saint Augustine’s Church in Oakcliff, Texas when it appeared in a Facebook announcement concerning upcoming Sunday services. The scripture and sermon obviously geared to an upcoming exhortation concerning the temptation of Christ as it relates to our everyday lives    It is in my opinion a true icon pointing us to one of those mystical truths often overlooked. 

Repin was the most famous Russian artist of his day and began his studies in military school. His father was a soldier in the Russian Army and he was slated to follow in his footsteps.  Bur alas he began to study art and found a new path for his life.  His initial work involves the restoration of religious paintings. 

“Follow me, Satan”  presents temptation as a subtlety .  Satan is portrayed as a phasm-like figure in red with his fallen angels wings clearly visible reminding us of  his fall from grace.  He stands behind a contemplative and perplexed looking Jesus whose expression suggests that he is enduring some discomfort of mind as the proposed “temptations” are subtly and craftily presented.  The mist covering the ground beneath Satan and Jesus suggests that temptation presents itself stealthily and subtly in our lives without clearly defined boundaries which would normally give us warning that we are straying into the quicksand of destruction.

As I contemplate this icon I find it to be a sign whose form directly reflects the thing it signifies.  We all face temptations and usually is such subtle ways we fail to recognize them before they have a chance to work their destructive power.  A recommended prescription is prayer and the study of iconography as a way of finding those truths which are actually worthy of our embrace. 

In closing I offer you the word of the Ash Wednesday liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer:  “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church to the observance of a holy Lent, by self examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self denial; by reading and meditating on God’s holy word. …” 

The Lord be with you always. Amen.