Bible Commentator

Messengers of God: A Theological And Psychological Perspective

Moshe Reiss


The Creation of Adam

Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam

The role of the man of faith whose religious experience is fraught with inner conflicts and incongruities, who oscillates between ecstasy in God’s companionship and despair when he feels abandoned by God, and who is torn asunder by the heightened contrast between self-appreciation and abnegation. (Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 1992)

‘If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end up with doubts, but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.’ (Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, 1605)



The purpose of this book is to analyze the major personalities in the Hebrew Bible and how the variety of their personal characteristics may have affected their messages. 

Humanity by definition implies diversity. The God proclaimed in the Bible is Himself diverse (to us, of course). The God of the Book of Job who made Job’s life dependent on a contest between Him and Satan seems quite different from the God who thunders out of the whirlwind at the end of the book speaking of His power and transcendence. God tells us that his favorite man in the whole world is the non-Jew Job. His wise and mocking counselors of Orthodoxy turn out to be foolish pedants and God justifies the almost heretical Job.  Just as Job questions God’s cruelty, God asked His prophet Jonah why he has not pity on the 120,000 persons of Nineveh. Jonah stands for the nationalist conventional wisdom and Job stands against the conventional wisdom. In another of the Wisdom Books, the Book of Esther, the King of Persia, the greatest ruler in his day, is depicted as a drunken fool and his Prime Minister, an evil schemer. The three wisest protagonists are all women: Queen Vashti who refuses her foolish and drunk husband’s demand that she appear to show her beauty (perhaps naked as a Midrash explains), Haman’s wife Zerash recognizes that her husband cannot defeat the Jews and Esther who saves the Jewish people by marrying a forbidden man to become Queen of Persia. The ostensible hero Mordecai is questioned in the Talmud about his endangering God’s people by refusing to bow to Haman. Two foreign and forbidden women, Tamar and Ruth, use their sexual wiles and become the ancestress of King David. Ezra and Nehemiah coming from Babylon reject foreign women and demand that the Judean Jews divorce them. The diversity in the Bible can also be seen by the Song of Songs proclaiming women’s beauty and sexuality and Proverbs 31 on the sanctity and wisdom of women, while Ezekiel seemed horrified by women’s menstrual blood and her sexuality (Chapter 16 and 23). Jeremiah emphasized the ethical misbehavior of the Israelites (chapter 7 and 26) while Ezekiel emphasized ritual misbehavior. Jeremiah accepts diaspora Jewry (29:1-7) while Ezra and Nehemiah reject it. We have three Jewish princes in foreign lands: Joseph, Esther/Mordecai and Daniel. The Biblical strategies of using Jewish power as exemplified by these three are quite different. Joseph assimilates and marries an Egyptian woman. God never talks to Joseph. Mordecai’s surrogate Esther marries a Persian King, does not appear to concerned about ritual laws such as kashrut (dietary laws) or the land of Israel. God never appears in this Book. Daniel cares a great deal about kashrut and forbidden women. He is God centered.  As models of behavior the parenting skills of Jacob/Israel, the founder of the tribes, Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel, the senior matriarchs and David the King leave much to be desired. Clearly the Bible proclaims diversity.

Yet orthodoxy proclaims unity as opposed to diversity, authoritarianism rather than freedom. This despite God telling us that the orthodoxy of Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar are wrong (Job 42:7-9) perhaps Job’s questioning is right. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, a Nineteenth century Hasidic master said; ‘Love without Law would waste it, would have no substance, no reality, no guarantee of performance. But Law without Love would result in a harsh, officious legalism, gloom, restriction and eventual rebellions’.  Orthodoxy seems to prefer ‘law without love’. Why does orthodoxy need to be monolithic when the Bible and Jewish tradition are pluralistic? Why can God and His ancient deputies (at least those who canonized His texts) proclaim diversity yet His current deputies need to believe in unity?


If the Bible (and its various commentaries) could be so tolerant does it not behoove us to rethink the more fundamentalist views prevalent today? The Bible refers once to the Lord as the ‘God of the spirits of all flesh’ (Num. 27:16). Rashi interprets that phrase ‘as a ringing endorsement of pluralism’. Rav Abraham Kook stated on the same verse that we were created to have ‘mind sets created to be different . . . even antithetical notions may be joined together and synthesized until a harmonious result emerges from the combination of different ideas’. 2 The argument for tolerance and diversity is what the Talmud called an argument for the ‘sake of heaven’. Are we required to accept dogma or discover the truth? ‘If God held Truth in his left hand and the search for Truth in his right, man would choose the right.’  3

The Hebrew Bible is an inherent part of the Christian Bible and in different versions part of the Koran, its sister religions. Yet those who believe in the one true God need Him to be only theirs. Should not tolerance be an inherent part of our religious beliefs? When Malachai says ‘from the rising of the sun to the setting My name is great among the nations’ (Mal. 1:11) what can this mean other than ‘that the one God of the world [is] known among the Jews as their God’. 4  When Isaiah tells us that Cyrus is God’s anointed (Is. 45:1) how are we to understand that? Does he know the God of Israel or  does he still believe in his Persian theology? According to the Talmud God created only one human being, in order that no one may say to his neighbor ‘My ancestors were greater than yours’. 5 Is not the ‘other’ the ‘stranger’ part of the divine image? All the early disciples of Jesus (who where Jews) assumed he was the fulfillment of expectations from the Hebrew Scriptures. The Talmud tells us that ‘all the righteous Gentiles of the nations have a place in the world to come’ 6 Thus salvation and election are not exclusive to the Jews, but to all righteous men and women. Religious exclusivity, which is almost a definition of fundamentalism, has become an evil, with everyone carrying God’s avenging sword. As the Muslim teacher Mahmoud Ayoub said can not ‘the Truth, which in Islam is another name for God, . . . manifest itself to every seeker in the garb and language of his or her own religio-cultural tradition and still remain the one universal truth’ 7

The personalities we will investigate are all human beings who had encounters with the immanent God and attempted to reach the transcendent God. But first and foremost they were human beings. Their stories are their conscious attempt to translate their encounters to us. There is indeterminacy in translating the encounter.  As Freud said about dream interpretation ‘the same piece of [dream] content may conceal a different meaning when it occurs in various people or in various contexts’. Dreams ‘cannot be analyzed in isolation’. 8 Jung stated that every dream is an attempt to read an unknown text. 9 The purpose of this divinely inspired text is to help us make meaning in our lives.

The book includes the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) and Matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel), Isaac’s brother Ishmael and his mother Hagar, Jacob’s brother Esau, the two primary sons of Jacob - Judah and Joseph - Moses, Samuel, Saul and David, the prophets, Elijah, Hosea, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Jonah and from the wisdom books Job, Ruth and Esther. The personalities chosen were based on sufficient information being available about the person. Thus while Isaiah and his message are very important we have insufficient information about the writer or writers to comment on the messenger and the impact of the messenger on his message. Biblical theology does not come out of a vacuum but is an integral part of the history and the personalities of those who ostensibly wrote it. As presented in the Bible these personalities are not mythological or hagiographic but diverse human beings from whom we are expected to learn. Each of them is a separate human being, a package of psychological personalities, affected by nature, nurture, God and history. And not only is God a mystery, but so are the human characters in the Bible. Robert Alter stated the Bible shows a ‘perception of two parallel dialectical tensions. One is a tension between the divine plan and the disorderly character of actual historical events. . . . the other the tension between God’s will, His Providential guidance and human freedom, the refractory nature of man. 10 The Bible is God centered and Human centered. The human factor cannot be considered trivial or free will and human responsibility does not exist. As a result our personalities make real choices. Very often the results were not as they envisioned.  This book uses both a theological and psychological approach to the personalities of the Bible.


Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Z”L), one of the great Jewish theologians of the twentieth century analysis the two accounts of creation in Genesis; in chapter 1 and in chapter 2. 11 In the first account God created Adam and Eve in His image, no physical body is mentioned; in the second account Adam is fashioned from dust and God breathed life into his body and later created Eve. In the first, God’s mandate to Adam is to subdue and conquer the earth and in the second to cultivate  it, and  serve  it. Adam One is charged to dominate nature. This raises practical questions: How does one dominate? By using power and technology.  Is one permitted to exploit nature? Adam One is to be `aggressive, bold and victory - minded . . . [and in this way] to imitate His Maker’. 12 He understands the hostility of nature and is intent on survival. His mission is to subdue. He is a hunter rather than a thinker. Rabbi Soloveitchik calls him `the Majestic Man’, he is worldly-minded, 13 externally motivated, creative and dynamic. Does technology come at the cost of the man of spirit?

Adam Two - the younger Adam - into whom God breathed is created to serve.  He does not ask the functional question of how but rather `why is it, what is it and who is it? 14 His mission is to serve and be receptive. He is likely to be a reconciler and will try to establish an intimate relation with people and with God. 15 `Adam [Two] sees his separateness from nature and his existential uniqueness not in dignity or majesty but in  . . .  the redemptive’. 16 The age of redemption is always a future goal, it can never be accomplished in the present. His present is a `link between the `before’ in which he was not involved and the `after’ from which he will be excluded’. 17 `Redemptiveness does not have to be acted vis-a-vis the outside world’. 18 He is the `Man of Faith’. It is his Thought that controls him - unlike Adam One he is internally motivated.

The Majestic Man is interested in material man and the Man of Faith in spiritual man. The Majestic man is not concerned with God. He wishes to create his own world. He came to the world on the sixth day after the cosmos had been created. His creation evolved from the cosmos. The Man of Faith is obsessed with Him and wishes to understand the ‘given’ world. 19 He is centered in the world, but needs to understand his historical place within it. 20 The Majestic Man is a social being - he was born together with Eve. The Man of Faith needed to sacrifice (a rib) to get his Eve, his companion and even as he needs her to act successfully ‘they are not charged with the task of existing in unison’ and in fact cannot. 21 The Majestic Man’s  desires are the more natural. He created civilization. ‘Civilization is the sum total of a community . . . fashioned by Adam [One as] a work community, committed to the successful production, distribution and consumption of goods, material and cultural’. 22 Majestic Man needs to control his environment while the Man of Faith needs to control himself. To the former dignity is  crucial and ‘is acquired by man when he triumphs over nature . . . Dignity is discovered at the summit of success’. For the latter redemption is a key word, and achieving it happens in the depth of crisis and failure. 23

Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik maintains that both models of human behavior are sanctioned by God. 24 Humankind is meant to be inclusive of both aspects of God. The key words are the subduer and the servant. Both words have positive and negative connotations. One who subdues  may be overly aggressive to the detriment of others. In that case `To love your neighbor as thyself’ would be difficult. One the other hand, one’s survival is always required and that may require aggressiveness. A subduer is primarily concerned with power that more often manifest itself in materialism. And materialism tends to see the other as an object, not as another God oriented human being. Slavery of others is at one extreme and a lack of human, religious and civic  rights at a lesser end. These tend to be the thought pattern of the Majestic Man. 

The Man of Faith is against domination and recognizes human needs and is against hunger, poverty, illiteracy and violence. ‘Treat one another fairly, . . . do not exploit the stranger, the orphan and the widow . . . do not shed innocent blood’ that is God’s prescription for the Man of Faith (Jer. 7:6). To be a servant of God is a complement, as in the case of Moses, `The Servant of God’. But being a servant like Joseph of the tyrant  Pharaoh is not a complement. Nor is it complimentary to a servant like Joseph, who enslaved the Egyptian people (Gen 47:15-26).

Rabbi Soloveitchik (known as the Rav) sees the two personalities, in the best of men, as complementary, but some individuals take one role more seriously than another. In a eulogy he gave to Rebbe Meshulam Zusha Twersky, the Talner Rebbe he further clarified the role when related to rabbinic leadership. ‘The majestic Rav is essentially concerned with his students cerebral capacities, uses the logical word as his medium and addresses his message to the intellectual elite; the holy Rebbe is essentially concerned with his students emotional capacities, uses religious experience as his medium.’  25 The majestic Rav is elitist while the holy Rebbe emanates unconditional love.

In the first version of creation what God created was good, indeed ‘very good’ (Gen. 1:31). The second version was created according to one Midrash after twenty six failures 26. This creation was fraught with much anxiety and insecurity, an attempt to create order out of chaos. The Man of Faith will find his life more fraught with insecurity than the Majestic Man. A Midrash tells us about his birth. The embryo asks ‘why do you want to make be go into the open world’ The angel responds ‘ Know that just as you were formed against your will, now you will be brought out against your will, and against your will give account of yourself to the creator. But with the anxiety of birth the child forgets as the angel flicks him on the lip downward into the canal’. And so we spend our life retrieving what we once knew.

Rabbi Soloveitchik is referring to two ‘types, two representatives of humanity’ 27 two sides of human beings. This book, concentrates on the prevailing personality within each person.  That does not mean that they do not also have some parts of the other personality, but one predominates.  One is concerned about the Spiritual world and one with the Material world. Or as Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk said ‘One who lives a [spiritual world] is likened to he who has a God - likened, but in fact he does not. The likened one who lives a [material world] to one who has no God - likened, but in fact does have.’ 28 Perhaps another understanding was the Hasidic Rabbi Bunam’s statement: ‘A man should carry two stones in his pocket. On one should be described, ‘I am but dust and ashes’. On the other ‘For my sake was the world created’.


Drs. Mayer Friedman and Ray Rosenman 29 have defined Personality types that can be related to Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Majestic Men (Personality Type A) and Men of Faith (Personality Type B) from a medical and psychological perspective. Personality Type A are aggressive achievers (or over-achievers), ambitious and constantly attempt to accomplish more and more in less and less time. As soon as one goal is attained, they immediately set another, higher than the last. They are very time conscious, impatient, speak explosively and are highly competitive - typical of a successful businessperson. They tend to react hostilely and to overreact to all challenges. Personality Type B is less competitive, less time-conscious, more interested in spiritual values, patient and relaxed. They tend to be serene rather than tense. Type A personality need security from the unknown and finds it through control. Their tactics of control towards the world are maximilist and subduing. It is how they exercise control. Type B personality deal better with the unknown, perhaps are less anxious about the future. Anxiety creates a need for control. Their tactic towards the world are minimalist and serving.

Karl Jung divided each human personality into two opposing halves - the light and the dark, the conscious and the unconscious, the inner and outer world. He called the conscious the persona or the ego and the unconscious the Shadow. The persona is the face presented to the world. The shadow is the negative or undeveloped side of the personality, that which the person attempts to deny. The more we deny the Shadow the more he will act on our demonic self. The Shadow is ‘a moral problem that challenges the whole personality’. 30  Each man has a minority of female genes and each woman has a minority of male genes. Some men’s experience with woman is of a more masculine or aggressive oriented mother and thus the femininity is stronger than in others. Jung called Animus the masculine trait in the female and Anima the feminine trait in the male. Children with very powerful mothers have more anima than the average male. Jacob and Joseph may be examples of this, having powerful mothers in Rebekah and Rachel. Both Esau and Laban can be seen as Jacob’s shadow. Thus would help explain Laban’s deceiving Jacob into marrying Leah. When Jacob reconciles with Laban he is beginning the integration of his whole self. Then he fights with the man/angel - the other half of his own personality. He wins but is wounded. By adding his own name to his new name - Israel - he is again recognizing the integration of his whole self. He completes this process by reconciling with Esau. Esau and Jacob can be seen as the twins representing the two sides of the human personality.  31 Another way of saying that is that ‘the object that belongs to the hero and shapes the hero is the enemy; that is to say, the equal, the much-praised equal, the rival, a rival whom he judges worthy of himself . . . another hero . . . of fame and legend’. 32 Is Jacob feasible as a hero without Esau? The hero is defined by his shadow.

Karl Jung among other writers has noted that growth requires letting go – moving into the chaos of not knowing, to gain new knowledge. Abraham went twice ‘to himself’, in Hebrew ‘lech lechai’, once when God asked him to ‘leave his family, his father’s house and his homeland’, to go into the unknown ‘place I will tell you’. The second time is when God requested of him to sacrifice his covenantal son, his ‘Promised son’, at a place ‘I shall show you’. Can one conceive that Abraham moved twice into the chaos of not knowing and grow into a new knowledge each time? In the first time he became a rich tribal leader known throughout his world. In the second he became known throughout half the world and is known as the ‘Man of Faith’ or the ‘Prince of Faith’.

The one who suffered more than Abraham was Isaac, the intended sacrifice. He was traumatized and became a dependant personality. However he gained a powerful wife, Rebekah, who protected him and made certain that the blessing went to the ‘right’ son.

She as of a result, is the only Matriarch to have two children, each of whom had, in turn,  twelve Princes as children, in terms of the Bible a true blessing. Isaac is of course is the grandfather of these children.


‘To stay the same, things must change’ (Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in ‘The Leopard’)

Midrash is a unique Jewish way of interpreting the Biblical text. Midrash means ‘to study, to search, to investigate, to go in quest of and to give account for what is written’. 33 This suggests that many interpretations are possible in the same text. While Midrash is rooted in the text it often moves far from the plain meaning of that text. The writer of the Midrash was interpreting for the sake of current problems, to help the people live in their current lives.

Robert Paul suggests that the Midrash is the ‘unconsciousness of the text’.34  It is ‘a creative process through which the Rabbis arrived at a new perception about the world. By saying that scripture is like the manna, the rabbis were suggesting that it nourishes, sustains and enlivens the people of God’. 35 Elliot Wolfson suggested that ‘the base text of revelation is thought to compromise within itself layers of interpretations, and the works of interpretation on the biblical canon are considered revelatory in nature. 36 Daniel Boyarin stated it as follows: ‘If God is the implied author of the Bible, then the gaps, repetitions, contradictions and heterogeneity of the biblical text must be read. 37 As the Rabbi Ben Bag Bag in the Talmud stated ‘Turn it, and turn it for all is in it’. 38  The Talmud tells us that ‘Two prophets do not prophecy in the same style’. The true prophet has a unique voice; he conveys what he has heard, according to his strength; as fully as he can bear it. To speak with the voice of another is to commit the subtle plagiarism that betrays the false prophet . . Such a knowledge is one in which its messenger is simultaneously the very message’.  39

The seventy faces of the Torah represent an open text as defined by Umberto Ecco. 40 Harold Bloom suggested that we ought to think of open persons rather than open texts. 41 Gerald Bruns describes a Jewish Midrash as ‘understand[ing] that if a text is to have any force in must remain open to more than the context of its composition’. 42 An open text actively involves the reader, while a closed text requires a predetermined response. In the story of Dinah even the participants never agree on what took place or what their reactions should be. Simeon and Levi rationalize their actions by claiming that can we allow our sister to be a ‘whore’? (Gen. 34:31) Jacob, her father accuses them of being overly violent and tells the brothers not to count their counsel. (Gen. 49:6) Shechem loves and wishes to marry Dinah whom he did not rape. 43 Dinah is never asked. As E.A.Speiser said ‘good writers are not given to spelling things out, the reader, too, has his part to play’ 44 And Eric Lowenthal points out ‘speculation should be recognized as a legitimate tool of textual hermeneutics . . . the Torah solicits speculation. It requires the engagement of imagination. 45 When the ancient author of the Book of Job writes the prologue we wanted us to have a different perspective than Job. When the author of the Book of Jonah tells us late in the book that Jonah refused to accept God’s mission because he knew that the people of Nineveh would likely repent and God would accept their repentance, our understanding of his perspective suddenly changes. The texts of the Bible are in an ancient language and bound by an ancient culture.  A text never ‘speaks for itself’; the reader reads the text. The whole idea of Midrash is to create an ‘open ended dialogue and the need to study Midrash in all of its multiple and contested cases . . . Midrash is not method but form of life . . . even the principle of majority rule was rejected [in terms of Midrash not Halakha] by many rabbis as alien to the whole idea of Midrash. . . there is always room for another interpretation, or for more dialogue . . .If the Torah is to have any force as a text, it must always be situated in a culture of argument’. 46 Perhaps that was what was meant by ‘of the making of books there is no end’ (Eccl.12:12). 47

If one reads Jonah as a closed text one is required to believe that he was safely swallowed by a giant fish - whole - lived for three days and then was regurgitated and  resurrected. It seems unlikely that even ancient readers accepted that, but rather believed it to be a metaphor. We cannot be the intended reader, even if we wished to be. Each reader brings his cultural, his gender, his linguistics, his religious orientation and his time bound world to his reading. There are no ideal readers. 

The Midrash aims to motivate the reader to interpret the Bible in light of contemporary  issues. ‘Let the Torah never be for you an antiquated decree, but rather like a decree freshly issued, no more than two or three days old . . . Indeed, Ben Azzai said: not even as old as a decree issued two or three days ago, but as a decree issued this very day.’ 48 We today read the Bible after the Holocaust and after the establishment of the State of Israel, an independent state after almost 2,000 years. How can we possible be as a reader of the middle ages or even of the early twentieth century. The modern educated reader not only reads through his own tradition and history but a tradition modernized and secularized. As the Talmud said ‘we do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.’  How does a modern reader conceive of a Prophet? Is a prophet like Moses or Hosea? Some readers like Gabriel Josipovici will not ask ‘what is the text saying’ but ‘what is happening to me as I read?’ 49 This may be what Bruns meant when he said ‘to think of yourself as belonging to the text’. 50


Many have asked what is the theological justification of multiple answers. One answer is that of Maimonides. The Divinity was writing in the language of the people of the time. Thus when the time changes the interpretation – the language must change. Another is that developed by the great Jewish mystic Isaac Luria (1534-1572), known as the ‘H’Ari’. God, the infinite being created a world of void in time and space - a world of non-God.  This was necessary since without it the world was filled with God and only God. It is a world where subversive questions are meant to be asked, as subversive as denying the existence of God Himself. This void of God’s absence can only be filled by faith. Righteous men (the Tzaddik) must enter this non-God world, explore all the questions, grapple with them and deliver us from the maze. This questioning, even heretical questioning, are ‘Conflicts For The Sake of Heaven’. Within the Bible are the spaces for many questions and many answers.

Some of the prophets were writing Midrash. Jeremiah wrote a Midrash of Exodus in chapter 2 and Ezekiel in chapter 16 defined a revisionist history of Exodus. Micah’s created a Midrash of a lawsuit by God against Israel, while Job and Jeremiah wanted a lawsuit against God. The Books of Chronicles is a Midrash of the story of David. The Targum, an Aramaic translation of the text is a Midrash; it is not what we would call a translation, but a creative interpretation. One can even conceive of the Christian Bible as a Midrash on the Hebrew Bible.

A Midrash refers to seven barren women (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Hannah, Hazzelelponi - the unnamed mother of Samson - and Zion). 51  The purpose of the Midrash is that just as God remembered each of the six women so he will remember Zion. Or the Midrash that tells us that Abraham prayed for barren women tells first of the importance of prayer and secondly by praying for others your own needs will not be overlooked. 52

Judaism (as other belief systems) has a living tradition defined by the Talmud as having arguments for the sake of heaven. Debates for the sake of heaven mean that both views ‘these and these are the words of the living God.’ Their debates discuss both the  views of Hillel, that love prevailed and the views of Shammai that the law prevailed. 53 These can include what the Talmud refers to as ‘audacity towards heaven’, including Abraham’s (over the fate of Sodom), Job, Moses and Jeremiah’s disputing with God over justice.

The Bible contains religious truth, not necessarily historical truth. Tradition represents the religious truth of the previous generations. But many of the truths when written and spoken represented a radical change to the previous tradition. 54  When Jeremiah rejected the priestly truth his position was so radical he was almost killed. Jeremiah may have been saying that the priestly role as intermediary between God and man was not so important. God can take care of himself. The problems were between men and women, and not all men or women can take care of themselves. When the Zohar, the most ‘traditional’ of Jewish books of mysticism appears to have rejected the idea that Esau was evil 55 it was and still is a radical suggestion.  The Book of Job (and Ecclesiastes) represents the multiple truths of God and the rejection of what was then conventional wisdom and orthodoxy. Their positions are still rejected by many in the orthodox tradition. The diversity, openness and even polarity found in the Bible is itself a theological statement. The question then is should there be an orthodox tradition? Can any one human being hold within himself the meaning and character of God? Is not any one human formulation by definition idolatrous? The Talmud tells us that God said ‘bring an atonement for Me for making the moon smaller’. 56 What can it mean that God asks for an atonement, for forgiveness. According to Rabbi Riskin by stating that He was creating two ‘great lights’ (Gen. 1:16) and then making one smaller (the moon) God introduced envy into the world and for that He requested atonement. All of the five negative commandments (Commandments 6-10) are based on envy. But one also can choose not to accept envy; that is why we have free will. But God recognized that in this Midrash He had introduced evil into the world and that required even Him to atone. 57 This concept which is close to ‘original sin’ was also adopted by Lurianic Kabbalah.

The Patriarch Abraham and the almost Patriarchal Job represent the multiple truths of God. The God as He appears in the Bible is not Omnipotent. When Abraham became the ‘prince of faith’ apparently God did not realize that he would, in fact, sacrifice Isaac. 58 God failed with Adam and Eve and again when He re-created the world with Noah. God told us, indirectly that the purpose of the flood was to eradicate sin. ‘God saw the wickedness of man . . .and said I will destroy man . . .I repent that I have made him’ (Gen. 6:5-7). And yet immediately after the flood Noah became drunk and the Tower of Babel was constructed. Even after choosing the people of Israel God realized He failed again and wanted to destroy them and begin again with Moses. Moses rejected the offer (Ex. 32:9-10). By giving mankind free choice God thus becomes a ‘fallible and learning God’. 59  


The Torah while being a book of law is not written as a law book, but has a narrative of human lives, good people, bad people, saints and sinners, people who exhibit jealousy (Saul and Samuel) lust (Judah and David), nationalists (Jonah), ethicists (Jeremiah) and ritualists (Ezekiel), and some who commit vengeance (Amnon and Absalom). The narrative intertwined with laws allows the laws to be interpreted within a context.

That is why the Talmud tells us the Torah has seventy faces. 60 There is no one correct way of religiously or theologically interpreting the Torah. Rabbi Elisha also known as ‘acher’ the other, is the most important heretic in the Talmud. The Talmud tells us what was his heresy, what made him go wrong. ‘He saw a father ask his child to go up a tree make the mother bird go free and take the young’. The child did as his father asked came down and was bidden by a snake and died. The child had obeyed two commandments; honoring his father and taken the young bird only after chasing away the mother bird. The Torah had said that obeying such a commandment ‘you may fare well and have a long life’ (Deut. 22:7).

One Sabbath Rabbi Meir (the most prominent disciple of Rabbi Elisha and Rabbi Akiva) was expanding on the Torah while his former teacher Rabbi Elisha was riding his horse thus breaking the Sabbath. Rabbi Meir interrupted his expounding and went to talk and walk with his former Rabbi. Elisha asked about his expounding and they had a long conversation about the verses Meir had expounded. When they had reached the limit one may walk on the Sabbath Rabbi Elisha said ‘this is the limit for you to walk on the Sabbath. Rabbi Elisha agreed with Meir to go back and both went back. They went together into a schoolhouse and then another schoolhouse and then to a total of thirteen schoolhouse where Elisha expounded to the children. 61 This we see that despite Elisha being called the ‘acher’ he was respected by his eminent student Rabbi Meir and allowed to teach children presumably under Meir’s supervision.

Rabbi Babya ben Asher (a thirteenth century commentator) commented ‘The scroll of the Torah is [written] without vowels, in order to enable man to interpret it however he wishes . . . without vowels man may interpret it [extrapolating from it] several [different] things, many marvelous and sublime.’ 62

      Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi, sixteenth century commentator noted as follows: ‘Neither ought we be concerned about the logic of others - even if they preceded us - preventing our own individual investigation. . . Only on the basis of gathering many different opinions will the truth be tested . . .you must investigate and interpret, because for this purpose were you created’. 63 That is also the reason for the very many midrashim written in ancient, medieval and modern times; to elucidate on the Torah. The very well known medieval commentator Ibn Ezra stated that ‘anyone with a little bit of knowledge and certainly one who has knowledge of the Torah can create his own midrashim’. 64 (The Torah here is meant to include the entire Jewish Bible.) As a Midrash said ‘that if one heard (a teaching) from the mouth of an ordinary Israelite, he must regard it though he heard it from the mouth of a Sage’. 65

“One day Rabbi Eliezer brought forward all the arguments in the world to prove his claim, but the sages would not accept them. Finally his arguments exhausted, he said to the sages: ‘If the law agrees with me, let this carob tree prove it’. The carob tree moved 100 cubits. They said to him: ‘One does not bring proof from a carob’. Rabbi Eliezer made the river’s water flow backward and then the walls of the study hall inclined as if to fall; the sages remained unimpressed. Rabbi Joshua in fact rebuked the walls for daring to interfere in a scholarly debate. The walls did not raise themselves in honor of Rabbi Joshua, nor did they fall in honor of Rabbi Eliezer, they remained standing inclined. Rabbi Eliezer said to them ‘If the law agrees with me, let it be proven from Heaven’. Whereupon a Bat Kol - a heavenly voice came out from heaven and said ‘In all matters of law Rabbi Eliezer is right’. Rabbi Joshua stood up and said ‘It is not in heaven’. What did he mean by that? Said Rabbi Jeremiah ‘The Torah has already been given at Mt. Sinai, and we therefore pay no attention to a heavenly voice; since you already wrote in the Torah at Mt. Sinai: ‘Incline after the majority’ (Ex. 23:2). After this event Rabbi Nathan met Elijah and asked him ‘What did the Holy One Blessed Be He, do at that hour when Rabbi Joshua said what he said. He laughed and said ‘My children have defeated Me’. They took a vote and excommunicated Rabbi Eliezer”. The sages claimed complete interpretive power over the Halakha.

But the ‘aggada’ continues. Who was to inform Rabbi Eliezer of his excommunication, for if he was hurt ‘the entire world might be destroyed’. So Rabbi Akiva who loved Rabbi Eliezer was to carry the bad news. Rabbi Akiva went in mourning garb suggesting that he Rabbi Akiva had been excommunicated.

This argument is about exegesis or hermeneutics or who has the authority to interpret the text. It may well be that this argument was partially about a charismatic wonder working Rabbi in the first century ‘even though he authenticated his opinion by means of the signs . . . [he may] be a false prophet,’ (Maimonides) thus it is not in Heaven. But can the Rabbis excommunicate the powers of heaven. ‘The power of the interpretive community to substitute authoritative opinion (even attested [against] by heaven) for absolute truth reminds us that ideology informs our readings’ 66 This argument of Rabbi Eliezer and the other sages was about the ‘cleanliness of an oven’. Jesus ‘declared all things clean’ (Mark 1:41). Were the Rabbis concerned about a hostile takeover? 67 ‘Every encounter with tradition that takes place within historical consciousness involves the experience of the tension between the text and the present’. 68 The text became king after the age of prophecy. But even before the end of prophecy the problem of the written versus the oral tradition was problematical.

Prophecy is a dialogue, as such there is the chance of self correction by the speaker. ‘Speaker and hearer are present to one another within a particular historical situation’. 69 Note Moses’ prophetic conversations with God in Exodus chapter 32 in which Moses convinces God to repent his death notice to the people, by his refusal to be the new founder.  Only dialogue could have changed God’s mind. ‘The emancipation of the text from the oral situation entails a veritable upheaval in the relations between language and the world, as well as in the relation between language and the various subjectivities concerned (that of the author and that of the reader). 70  Only the text speaks . . . ‘it is the response of the audience which makes the text important’ 71 A written text is more universal than a private conversation between God and a prophet of Israel.  But a text requires interpreters. Those who interpret in Jewish history are scribes - ‘the successors of the prophets - the new bearers of the divine word - and like prophets depended on something like divine inspiration in order to receive God’s word’. 72 How different a reader is from a listener is still unclear?

The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah shift the focus of the Bible from prophetic leadership to the participating community, and to the authority of the written text from oral tradition. They ‘wrest power from charismatic figures and provide a more publicly accessible and publicly negotiable source of authority. 73 Ezra [the priest] is a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses which the Lord God of Israel had given. (Ezra. 7:6) Ezra is a scribe at the service of a book. 74 As noted in the book the Persian King Artaxerxes instructs Ezra ‘all such as know the laws of your God; and those who do not know them, you shall teach. Whoever will not obey the law of your God and the law of the King, let judgment be strictly executed upon him (Ezra 7:25-26). After the building of the House of God the public reading of the Torah takes place in front of the whole people, men, women and children; in fact three such public readings are noted (Neh. 8:1- 9:37).

This book will see some of the personalities as members of a family and how their actions affected their children. But despite the Book of Genesis being a book about the four generations of the Abrahamic family it was not written as a biography of that family. The Bible was written about the destiny of the Israelite family, how it became a nation and beyond the age of the Bible, impacted the world.

The questions posed by this book - Can the men and women in the Bible be seen as human beings per these personality traits? Can we living thousands of years later learn from these heroes and heroines?  Are we intended to be Zealots for God or Servants of  God? Is the question what we should do with the world or what can we make the world do?

The Rabbi

Marc Chagall, The Rabbi


1 A number of articles from this book have been published by The Jewish Bible Quarterly (published in Jerusalem) since January – March 2000.

2 Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Jerusalem Post, July 21, 2000, pg. B9.

3 From Lessing, quoted by Anya Topolski from the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium).

4 Ze’ev W. Falk, From East to West My Name is Lauded Among the Nations, in Hick, J., Askari, H., eds.  The Experience of Religious Diversity, (Gower, Hants, England, 1985) pg. 7.

5 Tosefta Sanhedrin 4:5.

6 Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:21.

7 Mahmoud Ayoub in The Word of God and the Voices of Humanity, in Hick, The Experience

pg. 9.

8 Faur, Jose, Golden Doves with Silver Dots,  (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1986) pg. 122.

9 Jung, K. Completed Papers, vol. 8. (Routledge, London, 1968) pg, 332.

10 Alter, Robert, The Art of Biblical Narrative, (Basic Books, N.Y.,1981) pg. 33.

11 Soloveitchik, Joseph, B. The Lonely Man of Faith (Double day, N.Y., 1992).

12 ibid. Pg.18.

13 ibid. Pg. 19.

14 ibid. Pg. 21.

15 ibid Pg 23.

16 ibid Pg. 25.

17 ibid Pg. 69.

18 An earlier version of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s thesis was published as the `The Lonely Man of Faith’ in Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought in 1966. This quote is from that article, Pg. 24.

19 Soloveitchik, Faith, pg. 20-22.

20 Buber, Martin, On The Bible, (Schocken Books, N.Y., 1968) pg. 26.

21 Soloveitchik, Faith, pg. 33.

22 ibid, pg. 32.

23 ibid, pg. 36.

24 ibid, pg 85. Even covenantal man is a man not a Jew, pg 82.

25 Quoted by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin in the Jerusalem Post, May 12, 2000, pg.B9.

26 Genesis Rabba,  9:4.

27 Soloveitchik, Faith, pg. 10.

28 David Landau, Ha’aretz, Sukkot Magazine, September 24, 1999, pg. 26.

29 Rosenman, R. and Friedman, M., Type A Behavior and Your Heart, (Knopf, N.Y., 1974)

30 Jung Karl, Collected Works, Vol. 9, Part II, pg. 8.

31 The best literary example of a man and his shadow is Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde’.

32 Alain, The Gods, Translated by R. Pevear (New Directions, N.Y., !974) pg. 113, quoted in Hendel, R.S., The Epic Of The Patriarch (Scholars Press, Atlanta, 1987) pg. 101.

33 Bruns, in Schwartz, Regina, ed. The Book and the Text, (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1990)  pg. 190.

34 Paul, Robert, Moses and Civilization, (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1996) pg. 93.

35 Callaway, Mary, Sing, O Barren One, (Scholars Press, Atlanta, Georgia, 1986) pg. 7.

36 Elliot Wolfson, Through a Speculum that Shines (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1994) pg. 328, quoted in Gottleib Zorenberg, Aviva, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, (Doubleday, N.Y., 2001) pg. 2.

37 Daniel Boyarin, Intertexuality and the Reading of Midrash, (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1990) pg. 40, quoted in Zorenberg, Exodus, pg. 6.

38 Pirke Avot, 5:26.

39 Zorenberg,  Exodus, pg. 277, quoted from Rashi on I Kings 22:7 and Levinas, Emmanuel, In Nine Talmudic Readings, (Indiana University Press, Bloomington 1990), pg 42.

40 Ecco, Umberto, The Role of the Reader (University of Indiana Press, Bloomington, 1979).

41 Harold Bloom disagrees stating that ‘that which you are, that only can you read’. Bloom, Harold, Kabbalah and Crtiticsm, (Seabury Press, N.Y., 1975)

42 Bruns, in Schwartz, pg. 192.

43 The Bible describes a rape – ‘do not do this shameful deed. . . But he [Amnon] would not listen to her voice, and being stronger than she [Tamar], violated her and lay with her.’ (2 Sam. 13: 12-14). Shechem loved and spoke kindly to Dinah – not a description of a rape.

44 Speiser, E.A., Genesis, (The Anchor Bible, N.Y., 1964)  pg. 341, quoted in Lowenthal, Eric. I., The Joseph Narrative in Genesis, (Ktav Publishing, N.Y., 1973), pg. 5-6.

45 Lowenthal, pg. 6.

46 Bruns, in Schwartz, pg. 198, 200.

47 Bruns, in Schwartz, pg. 201.

48 Quoted in Bruns, Schwartz, pg. 191

49 Josipovici, Gabriel, The Book of God, (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1988) pg. 93, quoted in Bergen, Elisha, pg. 26.

50 Bruns, in Schwartz, pg. 202.

51 Callaway, Sing, pg. 118-119.

52 Callaway, pg. 125.

53 Sacks, Jonathan,  Arguments For The Sake Of Heaven, (Jason Aronson, Northvale, N.J., 1991) pg. 201.

54 The connection between faith and knowledge (as science) has disappeared. Isaac Newton was prouder of his commentary of Job that his works on mathematics. As John Locke said ‘Mr. [Isaac] Newton is really a very remarkable man, not only for his wonderful skill in mathematics, but in divinity also, and also his great knowledge in the scriptures, wherein I know few his equal.’ (Goldish, Matt, Judaism in the Theology of Sir Isaac Newton, (Kluwer Academic Publications, Boston, 1997).For people in the age of Newton knowledge of God and science were intricately connected. Since the middle of the seventeenth century and the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ that is no longer the case. Scientists seek knowledge of nature and ‘Metaphysicians’ seek  the wisdom of conducting one’s life. What were called ‘Philosophers’ used to seek both.  The twentieth centuries seeking after utopias - new societies - is a rejection of the past and resulted in the worst of all centuries.

Pope John Paul II said that ‘Religion is not based on science, nor is science an extension of religion. . . While each can and should support the other as distinct dimensions of a common culture, neither ought to assume that it forms a necessary premise for the other . . .  Science can purify religion from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into the wider world . . . in which both can flourish.’   When scientists tell us that the finite universe is 95% empty and silent and they search for the first sound in the ‘big bang’ they are asking spiritual questions. Kwitny, Jonathan, Man of the Century: The life and times of Pope John Paul II, (Warner Books, N.Y., 1997)

55 ‘The messiah will not come until Esau’s tears are dried’ The Zohar , translated by M. Simon and P.R. Levertoff, (Soncino Press, London, 1976) Vol. 2,  pg. 66.

56 B.T. Hulin 60b.

57 Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Jerusalem Post, February 2, 2001, pg. B9.

58 See God’s statement in Genesis 21:16-18.

59 Greenspahn, F., E,. When Brother Dwell Together, (Oxford University Press, N.Y., 1994) pg. 157.

60 According to Buddhist Monk Matthieu Ricard Buddhism claims there are 84,000 faces or gates to wisdom. (Revel, Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard, The Monk and the Philosopher,(Schocken Books, N.Y., 1998) pg 34. The Talmud says ‘that Solomon uttered three thousand proverbs for every single word of the Torah and one thousand and five reasons for every single word of the Scribes’. Bruns pg. 192. According to a modern day Jewish commentator, Nehama Leibowitz the facets of the Torah are infinite. Quoted in Dershowitz, A., The Genesis Of Justice (Warner Books, N.Y., 2000) pg. 9, footnote 12.

61 Bialik, H.N., and Ravnitzky, Y.,H., eds. The Book of Legends, (Schocken, N.Y., 1992) pgs. 243-244.

62 Quoted in S. Parpola, The Assyrian Tree of Life: Tracing the Origins of Jewish Monotheism and Greek Philosophy, JNES 52, 1993, pg. 206.

63 Riskin, S., Confessions of a Biblical Commentator, pgs. 9-10, quoted in Dershowitz, Genesis, pg.18-19.

64 Ibn Ezra in Dershowitz pg. 9.

65 Bruns in Schwartz, pg. 202.

66 Rosenblatt, J.P. and Sitterson, J.C., Not In Heaven, eds., (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1991) pg. 9.

67 Rosenblatt, pg. 9.

68 Gadamer in Rosenblatt, pg. 11.

69 Exum, J.C., ed. Signs and Wonders, JSOT, Sheffield University Press, 1989)  Davis, pg 221.

70 Ricoeur, Paul, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1981) pg. 147, quoted in Davis, pg. 222.

71 Ricoeur Paul, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning, (Texas Christian University, Forth Worth, 1976) pg. 31, quoted in Davis, pg. 222.

72 James Kugal, Two Introductions to Midrash, Prooftexts 3, :pg. 136-137, quoted in Davis, pg. 232-232.

73 T.C. Eskenazi, in Exum,  Signs,  pg. 166.

74 Eskenazi, pg. 181.