A YEAR WITH THE SAGES: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion – Reviewed by Jack Riemer
This is Rabbi Reuven Hammer’s last book, and it is in some senses his best.
Reuven Hammer had a long and distinguished career as a rabbi and as an educator during which he taught Torah to Jews from South Africa to South America, and from Hong Kong to Hawaii, as well as in America and in Israel. During these years he came to understand that if you want to be an effective teacher of Torah today you must teach it at three different levels.
First, you must teach the Torah at the level of pshat. You must deal with the question of what did it mean in its original context. You must compare and contrast what the Bible says with what the literature of the countries that lived around the land of Israel say, and with what the cultures that came before it say. Only if you do this can you understand who the biblical writers were speaking out against and what they were speaking out for.
Second, you must teach the Torah at the level of midrash. You must seek to understand what the sages of the Talmud and of the medieval period read into and read out of the biblical text. For only if you do this can you understand how the Torah developed down through the centuries.
And third, you must answer the question of what does the Bible mean to us who live here and now. If you don’t deal with this question, you treat the Bible as a curious ancient document and not as one that has wisdom and guidance to offer on the questions that we face today.
In this book Rabbi Hammer dealt with the Torah portion that is read on each week of the year and with those that are read on the holidays and asked these three questions of every unit.
Space permits only one brief example of his method.
The sedra of Shoftim contains the commandment to set up a system of judges when they enter the land of Israel. It stresses that these judges must hate bribery and that they must practice justice whenever two plaintiffs come before them. Rabbi Hammer notices that the word ‘justice’ is central in this passage. The Torah goes so far as to say that without justice, the community cannot survive. it is justice and not ritual observance that will determine whether or not they will be able to live on the land.
The lesson here is the difference between bad religion and good religion. Bad religion is religion in which we think that we control God by offering Him sacrifices or by carrying out rituals. Good religion is religion in which we understand that God does not work for us: we work for Him. And the way we work for Him is by the way we treat each other and not just by the way in which we offer up sacrifices or prayers. This is the lesson that Rabbi Hammer derives from studying this portion of the Bible at the level of pshat.
But then Rabbi Hammer goes on to see how the Sages understand this page. If there is one thing that we can say about the Sages, it is that they loved to argue. And so he finds two different Sages who respond to this passage in two very different ways. Rabbi Ishmael says that the obligation to treat people equally before the law only applies to your fellow Jews and that you do not have to show justice to Romans. Rabbi Akiva disagrees vehemently and says that to do this is not only to pervert justice; it is to desecrate the name of God.
This disagreement has to be understood in the context of the world in which these Sages lived. The land was under Roman rule and there was no Jewish sovereignty. Most Jews resented the Romans and considered them conquerors and not neighbors. There is a tradition that says that Rabbi Ishmael himself was once captured and tortured by the Romans. So his hostility to them is understandable. But Rabbi Akiba saw the issue differently. Even though he was no friend of Rome, he believed that all human beings are equal and that all human beings are entitled to equal treatment under the law. And more than that–he believed that cheating a non Jew was a double sin. It was not only a perversion of justice but a desecration of God’s name.
And then Rabbi Hammer goes on to the third stage and shows that this disagreement between the Sages is still a very real issue in modern Jewish life. There are some extremists in Israel who teach their students that the lives of non Jews are less worthy than the lives of Jews. He has seen some of these teachers whose students have been moved by these teachings to damage and to desecrate the houses of worship of non Jews, and who have shown intolerance towards the non Jews who live in the land of Israel. He has seen one rabbinic court that has ruled that the Torah forbids renting rooms to non Jews in Jewish neighborhoods. And he felt deeply that such teachings were a perversion of what the Torah teaches. And therefore, when he was asked by the Masorti movement to write a responsum on the status of gentiles in Jewish Law, he complied. He wrote a statement that surveyed the history of this question in Jewish Law, that set the different views that exist within their historical context, and that then came down clearly on the side of Rabbi Akiva. And he said that he was pleased that this statement had had had a positive effect on the life of Israel in general, and on the work of Jewish educators in particular.
Some readers will be drawn to the section on pshat in this book, and what it teaches about the world of the Bible. Some will be drawn to the section on midrash, and what it teaches about the debates and the disagreements between the Sages over this issue. And some will be drawn to the section in which he talks about how the Torah speaks to the issues that we face here and now. But whichever section you prefer, there is much wisdom in this book for every reader. In a time when the Bible is treated by many as just an ancient book, the first section is much needed. In a time in which the Jewish tradition is almost unknown among so many, the second section is important. And in a time when there is so little civility and so little respect among those who disagree with each other, the third section is of great value.
Rabbi Hammer was an important voice in the Jewish community of our time, and we miss his calmness and his reasonableness. We can only hope that this book will enable future generations to learn from his teaching.
Rabbi Jack Riemer is the author of Finding God in Unexpected Places and The Day I Met Father Isaac at the Supermarket.