Dr. Ora Wiskind-Elper

Dr. Ora Wiskind-Elper, a scholar of Jewish thought, literary theory, and intellectual history, delivered a lecture at Yeshiva University relating to her newest book, Hasidic Commentary on the Torah. Wiskind- Elper began by explaining that her approach to the study of Hasidut is focused on the content of Hasidic teaching rather than any political impact it may have had. Likewise, rather than apply a programmatic approach to explain the goal of all Hasidic hermeneutics, she prefers to let the texts speak for themselves and present the messages that the Hasidic masters were hoping to convey to their students.

In this lecture, Wiskind-Elper focused on the redemptive mission of Hasidic teaching. This mission is first expressed in the famous Iggeret haKodesh of the Ba’al Shem Tov (Besht, Yisrael ben Eliezer, c. 1698 – 1760, Poland). There the Besht recounts his meeting with the Messiah who informed him that redemption would come only when “your springs disperse abroad (Proverbs 5:16),” that is, when Hasidic teaching would be widespread. This infused the Besht and his students with a zeal to spread Hasidut, and in so doing, bring the redemption closer.

Wiskind- Elper pointed to an expression of this redemptive mission in a work of Kalonymus Kalman Epstein, the first Rebbe in Cracow. In his essays on the Torah, Maor VaShemesh (c. 1753) , Epstein offers striking redemptive readings of some verses.  For example, though Deut. 28:63, “… G-d will rejoice over you to cause you to perish, and to destroy you” is manifestly negative in tone, Epstein finds a way to explain the verse as a precursor to the ultimate redemption. “In all their (Israel’s) pain, He (G-d) is pained…and then the distress is removed.”

Epstein’s grandson, the famous Piaseczno Rebbe, Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (1889-1943, Poland) took up the mantle after him. He is most known for his pedagogical works, such as Hovat haTalmidim, intended for younger students, but he also authored Mevo haShe’arim, a sophisticated presentation of Hasidut. In all his writings, R’ Shapira hoped to reestablish Hasidic identity which had been badly shaken by the turmoil of WWI. The Mevo haShe’arim emphasizes the honor of every Jew and the possibility to infuse the physical and the mundane with spirituality, concepts which were especially important to express in the stultifying atmosphere of the Warsaw ghetto. Shapira’s adherence to the redemptive mission of Hasidic teaching is perhaps most evident in the will he left with his manuscripts. “Please print on all my pamphlets that I ask and entreat every Jew to learn my books…” He hoped that his works would bring hasidic teaching to every Jew and thereby bring redemption closer.


The Blogs at The Times of Israel Leonard Grunstein December 21, 2018

Mr. Leonard Grunstein

Mr. Leonard Grunstein

We are witness to an era of upheaval. Time-honored norms of appropriate behavior are being challenged.
There are negative aspects to this disruption, such as the re-emergence of overt anti-Semitism on the left and right, after being dormant for so many years. Other aspects are more positive, such as the #MeToo movement’s rejection of the silence that for too long implicitly tolerated and, in effect, protected repugnant conduct. The fact that members in the movement have recently broadened their focus to call out the anti-Semitism of some in the leadership of the Women’s March is also a very positive development.
However, it is hard to shake the feeling that even as victims of abuse are uncovered, new ones are being created. It appears to be one of the unfortunate, but predictable, results of this kind of revolution. Should that be an acceptable consequence? Must innocent lives be sacrificed on the altar of what is perceived to be a just cause?
Shouldn’t we be more interested in healing victims than celebrating them? It’s one thing to seek justice in a time-honored confidential process. It’s another thing to create the additional burden of notoriety, as a part of promoting a cause. Don’t misunderstand, if the victim desires and realizes a measure of comfort by publicizing the harm endured, then so be it. However, it is not at all clear this is the case for everyone. Indeed, the Bible appears to have dealt with two such divergent cases. The treatment afforded the two separate victims was very different. One
involved Dinah and in her case the Bible[i] published some, but not all, of the details. The other involved Osnat and the Bible is virtually silent about her situation. Each was comforted and healed in a manner that was most appropriate to her unique needs and circumstances. It is a study in caring about the person, not the cause.
The Talmud[ii], Midrash[iii] and Targum[iv] record Osnat was an innocent child born to her mother Dinah, a victim of sexual assault. The Bible publicizes the wrong done to Dinah. However, it is exceedingly circumspect when it comes to Osnat and does not explicitly describe the circumstances of her origin.
The Bible[v] does record that Dinah’s brothers Simon and Levi summarily dealt with the wrongdoer. Publically redressing this wrong may have been a part of Dinah’s healing process. After that though, the Bible appears to go radio silent concerning Dinah, until we encounter her again, when she is named[vi] as one of the seventy members of the House of Jacob[vii], who go down to Egypt to join Joseph. The Midrash[viii] fills in some of the gaps. It reports Simon took charge of the care of Dinah. The Talmud[ix] reports the view that she ultimately married Job. Whatever the case, she needed and received the warm and non-judgmental embrace of her family. It appears, as noted above, she healed and rejoined the family as a fully functioning member.
However, Osnat was another matter, entirely. Unlike Dinah, Osnat did not need any publicity. Our Patriarch Jacob, her grandfather, recognized the toxic atmosphere Osnat was experiencing at home with the family[x]. He personally intervened to help her heal. Jacob also realized Osnat needed some time apart from the family. Shaking off the unfair image she was tagged with, because of the unfortunate circumstances of her conception, was not an easy achievement. She needed time and space, unfettered by this burden, to realize her wonderful potential. She needed confidentiality and even a measure of anonymity in order to make a fresh start[xi].
At the same time, Jacob knew healing required maintaining some continuing connection to the family. This was not a rejection of Osnat; it was a temporary leave, to enable Osnat to grow up in a new environment where she could blossom. To symbolize the unbreakable and enduring bond of unconditional love and acceptance, Jacob fashioned and gave Osnat a medallion to wear. It was engraved with the name of G-d[xii] and recorded her lineage as the progeny of Israel[xiii]. Osnat wore it wherever she went and it proved to be most useful on that fateful day when she encountered Joseph[xiv] in Egypt.
Joseph was a single Hebrew in Egypt[xv] and he was so alone, until he met Osnat. Imagine how Joseph felt when he discovered Osnat, the daughter of his former master Potiphar, was adopted and she, like Joseph, was a member of the children of Israel. Joseph acutely felt his rejection by his brothers. Meeting Osnat, his kith and kin, was pure drama.
Osnat too was alone in Egypt and had also been rejected by Joseph’s brothers. It was a fateful encounter[xvi]. Imagine how Osnat felt when she met Joseph. The medallion Jacob had given her was proof they shared the same family legacy and destiny.
Both Joseph and Osnat had overcome extreme challenges in their early life to become extraordinary individuals. Their common experiences of prejudice and rejection by family did not pervert their joie de vivre or color their opinion of one another. Instead, they recognized the shared values they each treasured, married and established a home and relationship of trust together.
Osnat and Joseph bore two sons, Ephraim and Menashe[xvii], together. Unusually, the Bible doesn’t only mention this once it mentions both Osnat and Joseph, as the parents of the two boys, twice. This was the kind of noteworthy mention reserved for those of the status of the Matriarchs. In a certain sense though, Osnat shared this exalted status, inasmuch, as her sons were treated as if they were fully sons of Jacob, not just grandchildren. Thus, after Jacob comes to Egypt, he meets and famously blesses Ephraim and Menashe, considering them as if they were his own sons, as noted below.
Interestingly, Osnat is prominently featured in the Bible[xviii] in relation to her position as a member of the Royal court, as the spouse of Joseph and the mother of Ephraim and Menashe. Yet, her membership in the family of Jacob is only hinted at in the Bible.
It is suggested there are a number of possible allusions to her, including in relation to the reference to Dinah being among the daughters of Leah[xix]. The Biblical text only explicitly makes reference to Dinah; no other daughter is named. However, the verse does not use the singular form ‘daughter’, but rather the plural form, ‘daughters’. In this regard, it is important to note that a grandchild is considered the equivalent of a child[xx].
The Talmud[xxi] also notes that the Biblical text used the extra word “es” in reference to Dinah being the daughter. It infers that, therefore, there was an unmentioned other daughter in addition to Dinah. The Talmud describes this person as matching or a twin to Dinah. Perhaps, though, the person was Dinah’s daughter, Osnat, who, in effect matched her. As a granddaughter of Leah, she was also deemed her daughter, like Dinah.
The unmentioned seventieth member of the children of Israel might have been Osnat. This seems to be the simplest answer to the quandary posed by the Talmud[xxii], Midrash[xxiii] and so many commentators[xxiv] on the Bible. Interestingly, the Talmud, Midrash and most commentators suggest a number of other possibilities as to the identity of the unnamed seventieth person. These include, Yocheved, who was a great granddaughter of Leah (through her son Levi). She was reportedly conceived before the Jacob and his family left Israel and born as they entered Egypt.
However, it is suggested the more natural answer appears to be Osnat. Indeed, as the Bible[xxv] notes the family entering Egypt with Jacob was composed of sixty-six named individuals. In the very next verse[xxvi] it goes on to say, that Joseph and his two sons made seventy. However, absent considering Osnat, this only yields a total of sixty-nine people. Given, that the Bible goes out of its way to report elsewhere that the parents of the two sons were Joseph and Osnat, it is suggested that implicit in the count was Osnat, the mother of the two boys.
Interestingly, Targum Yonatan makes reference to Osnat in his translation and commentary on the Biblical verse[xxvii] where Joseph introduces his sons Ephraim and Menashe to be blessed by his father Jacob. Although Osnat is not explicitly mentioned in this verse, the Targum adds that Joseph also told his father about how he married Osnat, the mother of the boys and her lineage, as the daughter of Dina, Jacob’s daughter. Jacob’s response was to ask Joseph to bring the boys near and he would bless them.
It is suggested as the granddaughter and hence daughter of Jacob she was entitled to be a part of the count of the seventy family members. The fact that Jacob explicitly considered her sons as his own[xxviii] also supports this conclusion.
I must say I was more than a little concerned about my suggestion that Osnat was the unnamed seventieth person. I continued to search through the many traditional Biblical commentators to find someone who also reached this conclusion. I am most pleased to report that Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg[xxix] in his HaKtav VeHaKabbalah[xxx] commentary on the Bible takes this position.
Osnat achieved so much. She enjoyed much success, had an exalted position and role in Egypt and received warm acceptance by Jacob and the family[xxxi]. She may have preferred an air of mystery and perhaps anonymity about her origin. Why open old wounds? Why expose herself and her family to the possibility of inappropriate and unkind gossip? She moved beyond all these issues. She was no longer a victim; she was healed. A mere allusion instead of an explicit reference to her relationship to the family was sufficient.
As G-d orchestrated and Jacob appreciated so many years ago, the object is to heal people; not use them to promote a cause. Osnat and Joseph each faced extreme challenges and refused to become victims.
They provide us all with the hope that people can heal. We should devote ourselves to helping those in need in the manner best adapted to accomplishing this result. One size does not fit all. Each individual is unique and it is critical to recognize this when trying to help someone. Thus, Jacob provided each of his children with custom tailored blessings[xxxii] to suit their individual needs. May G-d protect each of us from any harm and may we merit G-d’s blessings.

[i] Genesis, Chapter 34.
[ii] Minor Tractate Soferim, at the end of Chapter 21.
[iii] Pirke D’Rebbe Eliezer, Chapter 38 and Yalkut Shimoni, Remez 134.
[iv] Targum Yonatan on Genesis, Verses 41:45, 46:20 and 48:9.
[v] Supra note i.
[vi] Genesis 46:15.
[vii] Genesis 46:6-27.
[viii] See Genesis Rabbah 80. See also Legends of the Jews 2:1:74.
[ix] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra, at page 15b.
[x] Pirke D’Rebbe Eliezar 38.
[xi] See, for example, Chizkuni commentary on Genesis 41:45.
[xii] Pirke D’Rebbe Eliezar 38.
[xiii] See Rabbeinu Bachya commentary on Genesis 41:45. Israel is the name that G-d gave Jacob, as recorded in Genesis 35:10. As a result, we are referred to as the children of Israel.
[xiv] Pirke D’Rebbe Eliezar 38.
[xv] Genesis 41:12.
[xvi] Pirke D’Rebbe Eliezar 36 and Yalkut Shimoni 125.
[xvii] Genesis 41:50 and 46:20.
[xviii] Genesis 41:45, 41:50 and 46:20.
[xix] Genesis 48:15.
[xx] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot, page 62b.
[xxi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra, page 123a.
[xxii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Bava Batra, pages 120a and 123a-b, as well as, Sotah, page 12a.
[xxiii] Genesis Rabbah 94:9, Numbers Rabbah 3:8, Midrash Tanchuma 16:1 and Pesikta D’Rav Kahanna 11:12.
[xxiv] See, for example, Rashi, Rabbeinu Bachya, Chizkuni, Radak, Ralbag and Rashbam commentaries on Genesis 46:26 and 46:15, as well as, Ramban commentary on Genesis 46:15. .
[xxv] Genesis 46:26.
[xxvi] Genesis 46:27.
[xxvii] Genesis 48:9.
[xxviii] Genesis 48:5. [xxix] A 19th Century German Rabbi and scholar.
[xxx] In this commentary on Genesis 46:20, as well as, on Exodus 1:5.
[xxxi] See Genesis Rabbah 92:5 and Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat VaYigash 4:9, as well as, Rashi commentary on Genesis 43:34. Osnat was at the dinner with Joseph and his brothers, including Benjamin. See also Targum Yonatan on Genesis 48:9. See further Otzar Midrashshim, Midrash Yelamdenu 29, which reports it was Osnat who took care of Jacob in Egypt.
[xxxii] Genesis, Chapter 49.

About the Author Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.


Leonard Grunstein The Times of Israel The Blogs November 23, 2018

Mr. Leonard Grunstein

Is It Good for the Jews and Why Does the NYT Purport to Be the Arbiter?

It’s been many years since I’ve heard the question, is it good for the Jews, uttered even in jest.
To see it headline a major newspaper like the New York Times and be applied in the context of a power couple, who happen to be Jewish, is unnerving and dare I say appalling. Why does it matter that Ivanka and Jared Kushner are Jewish? Why does it matter that they are labeled Orthodox Jews? Why would anyone think that they or any other person speak for the Jews? No one speaks for all of the Jews. Indeed, the very idea that pundits or talking heads on television or social media figures appear to speak for the Jews, because they happen to identify themselves as being Jewish, is ludicrous.
I speak only for myself. The fact that I’m Jewish is irrelevant. Using my religion to advance a cause is inappropriate. Similarly, disagreeing with someone’s point of view does not justify attacking the person because he or she happens to be Jewish. It’s just another form of anti-Semitism. The fact that the attacker may also be Jewish does not excuse this kind of misbehavior. Ruth Wisse, a retired professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard, was once asked what do you call a self-hating Jew. Her answer was immediate and unflinching. She responded an anti-Semite.
Unfortunately, history is littered with the remains of so many actual, selfproclaimed or so-called former Jews, who practiced anti-Semitism. There is no justification for this kind of disreputable behavior. Indeed, Jews who suggest they are the good Jews because they espouse a certain point of view and those others, who espouse a contrary opinion, are somehow bad Jews, are just reinforcing a classic anti-Semitic trope. Two Jews, like anyone else, should be able legitimately to argue about policy without being demonized.
Why is it so difficult to have a civil discourse about ideas without name-calling, invoking the canard of the interlocutor somehow being evil or having a lack of virtue or accusing him or her of being a bad Jew? The latest twist in this ongoing saga is also incomprehensible. It has been suggested by some, who should know better, that a person’s political affiliation should be determinative of whether the person receives an aliya or not. Has the world really gone this mad? Can’t people disagree, without suffering untoward consequences? It is so wrong to express a dissenting point of view?
I have often wondered about this when it comes to the Biblical figures Dathan and Abiram. The Bible records their sin was to plan and execute the Korach rebellion[i]. As a result, they met their just fate through divine intervention[ii]. However, there is more to the Dathan and Abiram saga than this finale. They were opposed to leaving Egypt and voiced their dissent, as noted below. However, they were not punished because they shared dissenting opinions.
The Midrash[iii] and Talmud[iv] provide greater detail about the sordid history of Dathan and Abiram. It begins with their fateful encounter with Moses, when he saves Dathan from being killed by an Egyptian overlord. The next day Moses finds Dathan violently quarreling with his brother-in-law Abiram[v] and cautions them not to do so. Their response was to accuse Moses of lording over them, questioning who appointed Moses to be their judge. Despite being saved by Moses, Dathan and Abiram proceeded to inform on him to Pharaoh about his killing an Egyptian. Ironically, this was the very Egyptian who tried to kill Dathan. In effect, Moses was forced to flee Egypt because he intervened to save Dathan.
The Midrash[vi] reports Dathan and Abiram also committed a number of other wrongful deeds. This included planning and actively participating in the Korach rebellion, as well as, violating the commandments against hording the manna on weekdays and going out on the Sabbath to gather in the manna. However, the Midrash[vii] records they nevertheless had some redeeming qualities. It seems that when the Egyptian taskmasters ordered them to strike a fellow Jew, they demurred and took the resulting lashing themselves. Interestingly, the Maharal of Prague[viii] even finds some positive aspect to the constant dissent by Dathan and Abiram against Moses. Their irrational and malicious opposition to Moses isolated them and made Moses’ righteous teachings of the Torah all the more compelling.
Dissent and debate are not necessarily negative. As the Mishna in Avot[ix] recognizes they can be useful and serve a positive purpose. Thus, as the Meiri[x] explains, when the purpose of the debate is a quest for understanding and truth then it is noble. Discussion is good because the truth is revealed through legitimate debate. In this regard, it is noteworthy that even in the trying circumstances of the Korach rebellion, Moses attempted to engage Dathan and Abiram in a discussion; but they refused even to meet with Moses[xi]. As the Malbim[xii] explains, they didn’t seek the truth, but only sought victory and personal advancement. It is inappropriate to seek to undermine someone because of personal ambition and plain contentiousness. However, expressing heartfelt, genuine beliefs in a debate, as a part of a collaborative process seeking the truth, is not only acceptable, it is to be cherished.
The Talmud[xiii] discusses how Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai debated for three years without resolution. A heavenly voice announced that both expressed the words of G-d, but the law was in accord with the views of Beit Hillel. The Talmud went on to ask if both were, in essence, correct, then why was the position of Beit Hillel privileged to be accepted as the law. The Talmud answered, this was because they were respectful and forbearing, showing restraint when they were confronting opposing points of view.
Moreover, they would study and teach both their own and the other point of view and, when presenting a discussion on the matter, they always expressed the opposing point of view first before their own.
Debate and discussion of issues is essential to good decision-making. How else to assure that all sides of an issue are analyzed? Absent the challenge of a dissenting perspective, all too often relevant issues can be overlooked. Consider, for example, the rule that if the Sanhedrin reaches a unanimous decision of guilt in a homicide case then the case is dismissed[xiv]. This is because there are no real open and shut cases and the Sanhedrin is obviously not doing a thorough job, unless someone finds some mitigating circumstances or issue and dissents.
Differing opinions are a part of the human experience. We all don’t see life the same way and that’s natural. It’s no different now than it was at the very beginning of the Jewish people in ancient Egypt. Indeed, the Midrashic view of the Egyptian experience bears a striking resemblance to modern times. Eighty percent or more[xv] of the Jewish people had fully assimilated into Egyptian society and never left Egypt during the miraculous redemption. It is eerily similar to the conclusions reached by the Pew study[xvi] about the present state of Judaism in America.
Some of the Jews in ancient Egypt were very successful. They enjoyed patronage by those in power, becoming a part of high society and the establishment[xvii]. Not everyone experienced the brutal existence of being a slave in Egypt[xviii]. This included Dathan and Abiram, who were a part of the governmental apparatus of Egypt. When the time came to leave, they elected not to do so and remained behind with Pharaoh[xix]. They also accompanied Pharaoh when he pursued and sought to recapture the Jews, who left Egypt in the Exodus. Yet, they somehow managed to avoid being engulfed by the Red Sea with the Egyptian army and rejoin their brethren.
It is suggested this may have occurred because Pharaoh intentionally put them at the front of his military column, when crossing the dry bed of the miraculously split Red Sea. After all, why not put the collaborating Jews in harm’s way, as a shield for the Egyptian army that followed? This is reminiscent of the images of the Germans entering the Warsaw Ghetto, who similarly placed the collaborating Jewish Ghetto police in the lead. Dathan and Abiram, as an advance team in the forefront of the Egyptian column, might have caught up with the rear guard of the Jewish people as they were exiting the Red Sea bed. It was only after all the Jewish people safely exited that the Red Sea came crashing down on the Egyptian army pursuing them. Notwithstanding the miracle they had just witnessed, the unrepentant Dathan and Abiram still sought to convince their brethren it was better to return to Egypt[xx]. However, their rhetoric was unconvincing.
Did Dathan and Abiram represent the Jews before Pharaoh? They likely did and Pharaoh may have even believed that they, not Moses, were telling him what the Jews really thought. However, in point of fact, they were only pursuing their own selfinterests. Why are some still fooled by this charade?
Rabbi Dr. Haskel Lookstein reports[xxi] on another such fateful encounter by a Jewish advisor to another leader, President Roosevelt, during World War II. It was in response to the Rabbis March in October of 1943, when more than 400 mostly Orthodox Jewish Rabbis marched on Washington. Their purpose was to urge the United States and its allies to take action to stop the destruction of the Jews in Europe by the Nazis and their cohorts. President Roosevelt refused to meet with them on the advice of a Jewish advisor, who reportedly told him it was not necessary to do so. He argued that ‘those Jews’ were not his kind of Jews. In essence, he was purporting to speak on behalf of the good Jews, like him, who counted. They wouldn’t have bothered the President in a time of war and distracted him with requests he try to save those other Jews in Europe.
Has anything changed since then? Dathan and Abiram may no longer walk the Earth; but the scourge they engendered is still extant. It masquerades in the guise of pious pronouncements by self-appointed experts and spokespersons, who may even believe, because they are Jewish, they actually know what Jews think. However, other than some personal perspective that is often the insidious result of projection, there is no such thing.
The Midrash[xxii] reports that there are 70 different faces to the Torah. The kaleidoscope of views about world affairs is even more varied and reflects each person’s individual life experience. Even the views of such an illustrious and wise a leader as Mordechai, of Megillat Esther fame, was only acceptable to a majority of his brethren[xxiii], not everyone.
Those in the news media or social media and anyone else for that matter, don’t speak for me or any other person, as a Jew or in any other capacity. They are not divinely inspired prophets. If only they would make it clear they are only expressing personal points of view and stop saying they are Jewish. That would be good for the Jews.
— [i] Numbers, Chapter 16. [ii] Numbers 16:23-33. [iii] Midrash Tanchuma, Shemot, Siman 10 and Midrash Tanchuma, Vayera, Siman 6. [iv] See, for example, Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Megillah, at page 11a, and Sanhedrin at page 109b. [v] Targum Yonatan ben Uziel, Shemot, 2:13. [vi] Midrash Tanchuma, Shemot, Siman 10. [vii] Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 5:20. [viii] In his work, Gevurot Hashem, Chapter 19. [ix] Avot 5:17. [x] In his commentary on Avot 5:17. [xi] See Numbers 16:25 and Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 110a, as well as, Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 18:12. [xii] In his commentary on Avot 5:17. [xiii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Eruvin, at page 13b. [xiv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 17a. See also Maimonides, Mishna Torah, Laws of Sanhedrin and the Penalties within their Jurisdiction 9:1.

Moses with the Ten Commandments

Moses with the Ten Commandments

On Nov. 27, 2018, the Bernard Revel Graduate School and the Yeshiva University Museum hosted Prof. Jordan Penkower of Bar Ilan University for a presentation on “What did the Ten Commandments Look Like? Depictions in Text and in Art from the Bible to Rembrandt.”

Prof. Penkower explored the depictions of the Ten Commandments in two paintings by Rembrandt. In both paintings, Rembrandt painted five commandments on each tablet in accordance with the tradition of the Midrash. Penkower noted that in one painting Rembrandt centered the five commandments on the second tablet. He suggested that this reflects the way the commandments are divided in the Masoretic text, with closed portions between them. Penkower further suggested that Menasseh ben Israel, the well-known Portugese rabbi and author, prepared a prototype of the Ten Commandments for Rembrandt to copy in his paintings. To support this theory, Penkower marshalled two other instances of collaboration between Menasseh ben Israel and Rembrandt. In his painting of Daniel’s “writing on the wall,” Rembrandt follows Menasseh’s understanding that the words were written vertically. Menasseh ben Israel’s book Even Yikarah also features four engravings by Rembrandt.

Penkower then surveyed the depiction of the tablets in Christian art. The tablets are sometimes depicted as a scroll, as rectangular, or, quite often, as rectangular with rounded tops. While rectangular tablets seems to fit best with the Biblical depiction, perhaps the scroll represents the Midrash that the tablets could be rolled up. Penkower suggested that rounded shape is a reflection of the shape of the diptychs that were used for writing in ancient times. In Jewish art, the tablets are either depicted as  rectangular or with rounded tops. Penkower suggests that the latter mimics the Christian depiction. Sometimes the tablets are depicted as a  Torah scroll, loosely reminiscent of the verse “I will give to you tablets of stone and the Torah..” (Exodus 24:12).

Prof. Idel

Prof. Idel

On Nov. 19, 2018, Bernard Revel Graduate School was honored to host Prof. Moshe Idel to present a lecture on “The Great Transition: The Emergence of Jewish Culture in the Middle Ages.” Idel is Professor Emeritus at the Department of Jewish Thought, Hebrew University, Senior Researcher at the Shalom Hartman Institute, and Matanel Professor of Kabbalah at Safed Academic College.

Prof. Idel explored why European Jewry were able to create such a huge literature between 1000 and 1300. To begin to answer this question, Prof. Idel drew upon Moses Gaster who theorized that European culture, in general, and Jewish culture, in particular was founded upon an invasion of Eastern culture. Prof. Idel proposes that different kinds of Jewish material, including Talmud, piyyutim, philosophy, and magic arrived in Europe from the East. In their countries of origin, these materials were studied by distinct circles. For example, some wrote piyyutim. Others engaged in philosophical study. European Jewry, however, did not know that each of these genres were utterly distinct and instead sought to coherently combine the various genres with each other and with their traditional texts of study and prayer. This process of amalgamation led to the creative explosion of European culture.

One example of this process of amalgamation is Rashi’s commentaries to the Bible. Rashi quotes freely from the early kabbalistic work Sefer Yetzira to explain the book of Genesis. Another example is the inclusion of portions of magical texts and heichalot literature into the liturgy.

Select material also became canonized upon its arrival to Europe. Piyyut, for example, was adopted as an integral part of Ashkenazi ritual. This spurred the creation of a new European genre, commentaries on piyyut.

Prof. Idel further suggested that perhaps European Jewry felt a greater freedom of interpretation as they were operating in a relatively pure space, with fewer long-standing traditions in place.