Author Archives: Barry W. Holtz

Barry W. Holtz

About Barry W. Holtz

Barry W. Holtz is the Theodore and Florence Baumritter Professor of Jewish Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary. He was, for twelve years, co-director of the Seminary's Melton Research Center.  His books include: Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Text,Finding Our Way: Jewish Texts and the Lives We Live Today,and Textual Knowledge.

The Activism of Abraham

Reprinted from Finding Our Way: Jewish Texts and the Lives We Live Today (Jewish Publication Society).

Our ancestors probably saw a good deal more poverty eye-to-eye than most of us do today, and though one might suppose that that exposure to misery would have, made them callous, it seems to have had a different effect. Helping alleviate poverty became a kind of sacred mission.

Abraham vs. Job

At times one finds in rabbinic writing about poverty a kind of passion and pathos, as if the details of the reality cannot be pushed from one’s mind:

When R. Joshua ben Levi went to Rome, he saw marble pillars there which had been carefully covered with wrappings to keep them from cracking during the heat and freezing in the cold. At the, same time, he saw a poor man who had no more than a reed mat under him and a reed mat over him to protect him from the elements.

(Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 9:1)

It’s a picture that makes one think of the urban poor today, sleeping over subway grates in the richest cities in the world.

Such scenes can also push one to see poverty as a kind of irresolvable dilemma. We feel overwhelmed and overmatched by it. But one of the most noticeable aspects of rabbinic writing about tzedakah is the interest in activism that characterizes it. Look, for example, at the following text that tries to contrast Job and Abraham:

When that great calamity came upon Job, he said to the Holy One, blessed be He: "Master of the universe, did I not feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty. . . ? And did I not clothe the naked?"

Nevertheless the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Job: ”Job, you have not yet reached even half the measure of Abraham. You sit and stay in your house and the wayfarers come in to you. To him who is accustomed to eat wheat bread, you give wheat bread to eat; to him who is accustomed to eat meat, you give meat to eat; to him who is accustomed to drink wine, you give wine to drink. But Abraham did not act in this way. Instead, he would go out and around everywhere, and when he found wayfarers, he brought them into his house. To him who was unaccustomed to eat wheat bread, he gave wheat bread to eat; to him who was unaccustomed to eat meat, he gave meat to eat; to him who was unaccustomed to drink wine, he gave wine to drink. And more than that, he arose and built large mansions on the highways and left food and drink there, and every passerby ate and drank and blessed Heaven. That is why delight of spirit was given to him.

(Avot d’Rabbi Natan, Chapter 7)

Job, for rabbinic literature, is a perplexing biblical character. One interpretive concern is the attempt to place Job in some kind of "historical" context, and the comparison to Abraham in the text above may result from the prevalent rabbinic conception that Job lived in the time of Abraham. Of course, even more significant is the discussion of Job’s tragic story–why was Job afflicted and what was the meaning of the biblical tale?

Our text above seems to suggest that Job’s sufferings are linked to failings of character. When he complains about his affliction to God, pointing out all the good deeds he had done in his life, God replies, in essence, "You think you’ve been good? Look at Abraham!" Thus, the text becomes a kind of double-sided coin. On the one hand, it explains Job’s "calamity" in the light of the inadequacy of his acts of tzedakah;and on the other hand it tries to elucidate true tzedakah by referring to the example of Abraham.

What characterized Abraham’s approach to tzedakah? Two qualities in particular are mentioned by the text. First, where Job sat and waited for the poor, Abraham "would go out and around everywhere," and Abraham "arose and built large mansions on the highways and left food and drink there." In other words, Abraham sought out the poor and made efforts on their behalf. Second, Abraham went beyond restoring the poor to their former state–the way that Job would feed meat to those "accustomed to eat meat," etc. Abraham would improve their lot over what it was before: "To him who was unaccustomed to eat wheat bread, he gave wheat bread to eat," and so forth.

It is a remarkable portrait of a man of tzedakah. But there is something troubling here, for the text cannot help but leave the reader with an uneasy feeling too. To blame Job’s sufferings on a lack of charity seems too harsh. It is not as if the text claims that Job ignored .the suffering of the poor; if that were the case, we might understand his afflictions as punishment. But instead he is shown to be one who reacted to them with compassion. His only failing was in not being Abraham! Job in this text becomes a kind of literary foil that enables the rabbinic interpreters a chance to point up the accomplishments of Abraham. Yet it is clear that Abraham, as presented here, belongs to another category entirely. He has gone beyond the law, lifnim mishurat ha-din, as it is called in the rabbinic texts, and no one can be held to the standards of saints. .Indeed, if we look at a later Jewish text for illumination here, we can see that Maimonides, in delineating the requirements for giving tzedakah, seems to require precisely the level of piety exemplified by Job, as portrayed in the midrash above! It was Job who, according to the midrash, helped people return to what they were "accustomed," exactly what Maimonides expects all of us to do:

You are commanded to give the poor person according to what he lacks. If he has no clothing, he should be clothed. If he has no house furnishings, they should be bought for him. If he has no wife, he should be helped to marry. If it is a woman, she should be given in marriage. Even if it had been his custom to ride a horse with a manservant running in front of him, and he has now become poor and has lost his possessions, one must buy him a horse to ride and a manservant to run before him, as it is said "Sufficient for whatever he needs" (Deuteronomy 15:8). You are obligated to fill his want; you are not, however, obligated to restore his wealth.

(Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Matanot Aniyim 7:3)

But despite the extraordinary–extralegal, one can say–nature of Abraham’s example, it seems nonetheless to be a model of behavior that has something powerful to say to us today. To begin with, that quality of activism, of going to seek out those who are in need, is something that seems particularly appropriate to a time in which our connection to the downtrodden of society tends to be so passive: We receive solicitations for tzedakah through computerized mailing lists, and the realities of middleclass American life rarely present the poor on our doorstep (and when they do, we find it a terrifying aberration). For us, taking on that same activist challenge–Abraham’s commitment to "to go out and around everywhere" would be a statement of concern that we might do well to emulate.

And it also seems right to consider the implications of Abraham’s standard of action: "To him who was unaccustomed to eat wheat bread, he gave wheat bread to eat; to him who was unaccustomed to eat meat, he gave meat to eat; to him who was unaccustomed to drink wine, he gave wine to drink." Job fed the poor at the level to which they were accustomed. But what do we do in the case of the poor who have fallen not from a comfortable state into poverty, but who have never gone without hunger, who have never had what they need? As Maimonides reminds us, we are not talking about making the poor wealthy; we are simply trying to do tzedakah in the literal sense of the word, that which is just–"You are obligated to fill his want." And that means a level of commitment–personal and national–which says that none of us should feel satisfied if there are any around us who are not satisfied.

Reading Torah & Studying Torah

This article is excerpted with permission from the highly recommended Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts (New York: Summit Books, 1984).

I have been speaking about “reading” the classic Jewish texts (and also, of course, about the way that in the Jewish tradition texts tend to be “readings” of other, earlier texts), but we must also consider ways in which our idea of reading might differ markedly from other such notions in the past. In fact, traditional Jews rarely speak about reading texts at all; rather, one talks about studying or learning these sacred books. Thus we must ask: is the difference between reading and learning something more than merely a matter of terminology?


Although I have argued above that reading may be a good deal more active an occupation than we usually think, it is nonetheless a solitary activity. We sit alone with a book as we read. Learning or study­ing can imply something very different. It is important to remember that most traditional Jewish “reading” occurs in a social context, in the class or the study session. In the world of the yeshiva (school for Rabbinic studies), Jewish learning is carried on in a loud, hectic hall called the bet midrash (study house) where students sit in pairs or threesomes, reading and discussing out loud, back and forth. The at­mosphere is nothing like the silent library we are accustomed to. Read­ing in the yeshiva is conducted in a room with a constant, incessant din; it is as much talk as it is reading. In fact, the two activities of reading and discussion are virtually indistinguishable.reading and studying torah

Reading thus becomes less an act of self-reflection than a way of communal identification and communication. One studies to become part of the Jewish people itself. As much as prayer, study is a ritual act of the community. The sociologist Samuel Heilman, in The People of the Book (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1983), talks about these learning environments as providing a “sentimental education” in which Jews gain access to the values of their tradition and live out those values by the very act of study. Through the study discussions, Jews actually replicate the world of the Talmud. It is as if distinctions of time and place are erased, and the participant is catapulted back to Rabbi Akiba’s academy 1800 years in the past. The learner joins in the discussions, voices his opinion, is defended or refuted by the legendary teachers and students of other ages and takes his place in the continuum of the tradition.

The Natural World and our Need for Wonder

The author has earlier contrasted “the theology of the physicist,” which focuses on the order in the universe, with “the theology of the naturalist,” which pays particular attention to the vast variety of the universe. Here, he explains what is missing from “the theology of the physicist"–“namely, what is the relationship between that Creator and that universe which was created?” The following midrash, a story interpreting the text, serves as the basis of the entire discussion. Reprinted from Finding Our Way, published by Jewish Publication Society.

The Lord said to Abram: Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1)

Rabbi Isaac said: This may be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a castle in flames. “Is it possible that the castle lacks a person to look after it?” he wondered. The master of the castle looked out and said, “I am the master of the castle.” Similarly, because Abraham our father said, “Is it conceivable that there is none to look after the world?” The Holy One, blessed be He, looked out and said to him, “I am the Master, the Sovereign of the Universe.” (Genesis Rabbah 39:1)

If we look once again at our midrash, we notice that the insight that Abraham gains is not that there is a builder (although of course there are numerous Jewish texts that do assert such a view) — for him that was an obvious point. Rather, Abraham’s question was “Is it conceivable that there is none to look after the world?” In other words, is there an ongoing role for God in history?

After the act of creation (“the first three minutes,” as we might say) does God, in Abraham’s view, remain involved in the life of the world? Especially, if we follow the metaphor of the midrash, when we look out on a world that often appears to be “in flames.” Indeed, if we press the parable of that midrash a little bit further, we can ask if there might not be a deeper set of questions underneath it: If the universe is in flames, whey doesn’t the Master do something about it? How does the fire “prove” that there is a Master? It might in fact prove the opposite — that the world has no one to put out the flames!