Author Archives: Dr. Reuven Kimelman

Dr. Reuven Kimelman

About Dr. Reuven Kimelman

Reuven Kimelman is a Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University.

Instructed To Curse, Inspired To Bless

The following article is reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

What would you think of a Gentile wizard spouting beautiful Hebrew poetry, but tongue-tied at his grandest moment; a prophet claiming to know the will of God, but not the will of his own ass; an ass who sees angels unbeknownst to his own master, the great seer; and a prophet hired to curse Israel proclaiming that nobody can curse that which God does not?

To top off this bundle of contradictions, the curse of the seer Balaam was deemed such a blessing that it became enshrined as the opening words of a prayer to be uttered upon entering a synagogue–"How goodly are your tents O Jacob, Ma Tovu Ohalekha Ya’akov."

Although this parashah as a whole is an enigma wrapped in a conundrum, the greatest paradox remains the incorporation of the intended curse of the wicked Balaam into the prayers of Israel. One authority took such umbrage at this inclusion that he refused to mouth the line altogether. Others countered that the hallmark of credibility is precisely the praise that is forthcoming from the lips of a foe as are the chidings of a friend. How else does one explain why the Torah has Moses rebuking Israel and Balaam praising her?

Balaam is also a good model for prayer. He came to curse Israel and in the end, upon observing Israel’s places of worship, blessed her. If through involvement in the worship of the community negative feelings can be transmuted into positive ones, is not there hope for us who being far from blaspheming should be that much closer to blessing?

Maybe one who cares enough to curse can be transformed into one who feels enough to praise. If it is true that one riled up enough to blast can become inspired to bless, then there may be no greater curse than not caring.

Exemptions from Military Service in Judaism

In addition to the exemptions from military service noted below, one more should be mentioned. In an optional war, one who is engaged in a commanded religious activity is not required to cease this activity to take up arms. This is one of the sources for exempting yeshiva students in Israel from serving in the army. The following is reprinted with permission from Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly 49 (1987).

The Sanhedrin [the supreme rabbinic court, active until the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, which must approve any optional war] is also to factor the issue of popular support into its endorsement of a war policy. This does not imply a government by referendum. 

Even those who maintain that sovereignty ultimately rests with the community hold that, during their tenure, representatives are authorized to express the collective will. Even democracy, the contemporary halakhist Eliezer Waldenberg notes, does not necessarily entail government by referendum. After all, representative government is not government by the people, but government by its agents.

exemptions from jewish warConcurrent with theories of majority rule, however, Jewish political theory has made provisions for minority rights. Do such provi­sions also apply in war? Presumably not. Apparently, once the proper procedure has been complied with, the individual has no recourse but to fight. If the duly constituted authorities have determined the necessity of war, who is the individual to review the government’s decision?

Moreover, if it is a defensive war, how could anyone be exempt from the obligation of self‑defense, the duty to rescue others, and the need to come to the defense of the state whose very existence shields all?

Biblical Exemptions for Discretionary Wars

Do these considerations for individual as well as collective defense apply to discretionary wars as they do to defensive wars? That is the question. The answer involves a discussion of a peculiarity of the Biblical rules of warfare: exemptions from military service. According to the Torah, before commencing hostilities, the officials must address the troops as follows:

Ashrei: Pslam 145

Professor Kimelman forcefully demonstrates how Psalm 145, known as Ashre for the first word of its first two verses, is a highly structured, carefully crafted composition. Paying close attention to the intersection of the use of language and the rhetorical structure, Kimelman shows how the psalmist proceeds from praise of God’s greatness to an appreciation of God’s goodness. God’s greatness inevitably leads from an acclamation of God’s sovereignty to an appreciation of God as caring ruler. God, as caring ruler, deserves the praise, not only of the psalmist, but of all humanity. This article is adapted from materials produced for the Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL) and is reprinted with permission of the author from the CLAL Rabbinic Community Online.

No Psalm is better known or recited more frequently than Psalm 145, known by its liturgical title Ashre. Since Gaonic times it has been recited thrice daily–twice in the morning service introducing sections of the service, and once as a prelude to the afternoon service. Despite its frequency, its meaning has eluded most readers, who fail to understand its rhetorical structure. By laying bare the relationship between form and content, theme and structure, we are able to see how its rhetorical structure advances its program for the extension of divine sovereignty.

jewish prayerThis liturgical piece is presented below in a manner that renders transparent its internal dynamic. The added Psalm verses, which are prefixed and suffixed to Psalm 145, are designated prologue and epilogue. Psalm 145 itself is designated the body.

Comprised of 21 verses, the Psalm consists of four stanzas, introduced by a prelude, intersected by an interlude, and concluded with a postlude, which may be diagrammed as follows:

Prelude: vv. 1-2
  I: vv. 3-6
 II: vv. 7-9
Interlude: v. 10
 III: vv. 11-13
 IV: vv. 14-20
Postlude: v. 21

The translation I have done reflects Ashre’s structure as well as its internal connections, while adhering closely to the Hebrew order and choice of terms. The Psalm’s theme of divine sovereignty is announced in the first line through the words, “my God the king.” Although there are other Psalms that proclaim “my king and my God,” only Psalm 145:1 uses the definite article for the apparent purpose of underscoring the exclusivity of divine rule.

National Redemption

Reprinted with permission from the CLAL Rabbinic Community Online

The language of the Amidah as a whole draws heavily on biblical language, and the section that concludes the center section of the weekday Amidah is no exception. Nevertheless, the representation of Israel’s eschatological future diverges from any earlier precedent or any other contemporary model. While the emphasis on God’s primary and virtually solitary role as redeemer accords with other developments in Jewish contemplation during the first centuries of the common era, the de-emphasis of the role of the Davidic Messiah places the Amidah in a class by itself. 

Blessings 10-15 constitute a scenario for national redemption. It commences with the great shofar’s blast of freedom, announcing the ingathering of the exiles (10), and continues with the restoration of divine rule through righteous leaders (11), the meting out of appropriate deserts to the righteous and the wicked (12 and 13), the rebuilding of Jerusalem (14), and the return of the Davidic line (15). Since the motifs are all biblical, the distinctive contribution made by this liturgy to the idea of national redemption lies in the particular linguistic formulation, in the sequence of events, and in the uncompromising emphasis on divine involvement, all of which converge to make the point that God alone is the redeemer as opposed to any human redeemer. 

Linguistically, these blessings weave threads of verses from Isaiah, Micah, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Malachi, and Psalms into a liturgical tapestry. There is hardly a word not pronounced by the prophets. Therefore, it has been suggested that by reformulating their prophecies into requests, “It is as if the Deity were reminded of his promise and asked to fulfill it.”

The eschatological sequence of the Amidah does not match any antecedent or contemporary scenario. It is not dictated by any single biblical text nor paralleled by any other post-biblical scenario or, for that matter, any other rabbinic liturgical formulation of eschatology. Unlike so many other extrabiblical eschatological scenarios, the Amidah is free of apocalyptic elements, whether utopian or catastrophic, symptomatic of which is the absence of any reference to the book of Daniel. Its sobriety verges on the Maimonidean. But even Maimonides had to reverse the order of the Amidah in order to come up with a messiah who can “restore the kingdom of David … rebuild the Temple, and gather the dispersed of Israel.

Holiness Is Life

Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

The parashah shares the name Vayikra with the book it begins, Leviticus. We concluded the Book of Exodus with a description of the construction of the Tabernacle and the priestly vestments. The Book of Numbers follows with the laws for the protection of the cultic appurtenances while in transport through the wilderness. Though Leviticus is a type of priestly manual, most of its laws are addressed to all Israel. This is most fitting for a people that was just declared to be a "kingdom of priests."

It is easy to get lost in details in Leviticus without realizing that one is actually being inducted into a theology of ritual. The theology of Leviticus uses the cult to promote the idea that God is beyond the reach of all the forces of the world except one–humanity. Only humans have the "demonic" power to expel God from the sanctuary by polluting it morally or ritually. Thus the priests are constantly engaged in either purging the sanctuary of its impurities or getting the people to atone for their wrongs.

Leviticus believes that divine accessibility is coordinated with human behavior. We have the power through the morality of our behavior to make God immanent or transcendent. Divine intimacy with humanity depends upon the quality of human action. If by polluting the sanctuary we can make it unfit, as it were, for divine living, just think what we could do by sanctifying it.

The great polarities of Leviticus are contained in two sets of antonyms: impurity and holiness, death and life. The implied equation is "Impurity is to holiness as death is to life" (impurity: holiness ~ death: life). If impurity is associated with death as holiness is with life, then the great source of purity is the fountainhead of life, just as death is the great generator of impurity. Israel, says Leviticus, can serve the living God by avoiding a life of impurity; indeed, through complying with the commandments of life, Israel triumphs over death and chooses life.

From Fratricide To Fraternal Solidarity

Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

Genesis is a study of sibling rivalry. It starts with fratricide and ends with fratricide avoided only through selling a brother into slavery. More often than not, the rivalry is resolved by excision of a brother, be it Abel, Ham, Lot, Ishmael, or Esau. The only exception to amputation as the means for family survival is this parashah.

What makes the conflict between Joseph and his brothers different from the other sibling rivalries in Genesis? Who would have contemplated the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers? They were as intent on doing away with him as he was intent on maintaining his status as favorite son. In actuality, this is a most appropriate conclusion to the book of the Torah in which almost every scene centers upon a family.

Domestic History

The family fare of Genesis is a prime example of what we now call “domestic history.” This theory of history holds that the keys to understanding civilizations and human behavior are not political or military doings, but the goings-on of the family. If you look closely, Genesis says, you find that great families are rife with conflict. And lamentably, resolution of such conflict frequently entails the loss of a family member.

The Joseph story is exceptional in that it moves from fratricidal intent through reconciliation to fraternal solidarity. This family may again spawn conflict, but sibling rivalry can be surmounted by pangs of remorse, possibly by feelings of repentance, and even by guarded reconciliation at least long enough to hold them together to force their divine mission.

Since the family of Jacob is the only one in Genesis to remain fully intact, it merits becoming the people Israel whose national history is related in Exodus. Their national history is not one without conflict, competition, or civil strife, but one that realizes that their covenant with destiny and common fate overrides any conflict of the moment.