Two seemingly unrelated events that occurred recently made me think about how related they actually were. One was the death of the great Bible scholar Moshe Greenberg in Israel last month; the other was the publication of a new biography of the prominent American Zionist leader Abba Hillel Silver. Greenberg was born in 1928 and made aliyah in 1970; Silver was born in 1893, and though he helped found the State of Israel, he never settled there. Greenberg probably knew of Silver’s activities, but it’s unlikely the two ever met.
Yet, coming from different perspectives, they had in common a profound belief in the distinctiveness of Jewish teachings and a wish to show that distinctiveness to the world, both Jewish and non-Jewish. At a time when few Jews can say what makes their tradition unique, when most can tell you more about kasha knishes than about kashrut, the thinking and writing of these two men have special relevance.
I first met Moshe Greenberg when, as a young man, he headed Camp Ramah in the Poconos, where I was a counselor. Our friendship — and my awe of his brilliance — lasted throughout his lifetime. In flawless Hebrew he taught us to understand the Bible in all its beauty and complexity. Later, as a noted scholar, he examined the many strands of writings that make up biblical texts and showed how, when seen as a whole, those texts differ from all other ancient documents.
One of his most fascinating essays compares criminal law in the Bible to that in other cultures. In the Bible, human life is invaluable, he wrote. Because humans are created in God’s image, human life cannot be measured in terms of money or other property. Murder is an absolute wrong, a sin against God. Therefore a murderer must be put to death. In other ancient codes, a wealthy family may pay a fine to the family of a murder victim, allowing the murderer to go free. The less wealthy might substitute a child or wife — a form of “property” — for the culprit. In those cultures, payment or property could make up for the loss of a life, and sometimes they were considered more valuable than life.
Paradoxically, Greenberg wrote, the Talmudic sages so valued human life that they found every possible way to avoid inflicting the death penalty. Yet they never substituted money for capital punishment; human life remained invaluable.
Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver emphasized the value Jews place on life in his book, “Where Judaism Differed.” One of the most powerful leaders of American Jewry and a fervent Zionist, Silver gave up politics after the establishment of Israel, and devoted himself to his Reform congregation, Temple Tifereth Israel in Cleveland. He wrote several books and dozens of sermons that packed his synagogue with thousands of congregants every week.
Following Reform tradition of the time, he conducted services on Sundays and preached from the pulpit like a Protestant minister, yet he courageously set down in his book how his religion differed from that of his gentile colleagues. Asceticism has a place in Judaism, he pointed out, but unlike Hindus or Buddhists or early Christians or some Islamic groups, Jews are taught to value all aspects of life. That includes marriage and sexuality. It includes laws against self-torture. It includes strict limitations on martyrdom. “One should not experience any sense of guilt in the legitimate enjoyments of life,” he wanted Jews and non-Jews to know. “They are of God.”
About God he wrote, “The God of Israel is alone in being alone…” He contrasted that view to the many gods of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but also to the “syncretistic” character of early Christianity, which incorporated ideas from the religions around it, making it easier to convert members of those religions. Although he praised much in Christianity, he didn’t hesitate to write that, with Jesus at its center, it lacked the “pristine monotheism” of Judaism.
Both Greenberg and Silver pointed out that from earliest days, even the lowliest Jew could pray without intermediaries; that priests are not a secret cult in the Bible, but their rituals are spelled out for everyone to see; that Judaism invented the Sabbath as a day of rest for all, including animals. Without denigrating other religions, each showed how Judaism differed.
In today’s global world, where differences between nations are downplayed, it would seem against the grain to argue that we need to call attention to what is different about our tradition. Yet it is from Judaism’s differentness that the other great religions of the world grew. And from Jewish differentness the State of Israel came into being. Our children need to know the special legacy that is theirs. Greenberg taught it and Silver preached it, each in his different way.
Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.”
Signup for our weekly email newsletter here.