Radical rabbi

At the center of Reuven Hammer’s work is the question why he calls the Torah so revolutionary.

Radical rabbi (photo credit: Courtesy)
Radical rabbi
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Although officially retired, Rabbi Reuven Hammer is busier than ever as a guest lecturer in worldwide demand, and as an author of best-selling and prize-winning books.
The Jerusalem Report caught up with him at his Jerusalem home, between visits to New Zealand and Canada, to discuss his latest book, “The Torah Revolution: Fourteen Truths that Changed the World.”
The thesis of the book is that the Torah’s ideas sparked a sea change in the world that is still going on.
The book did not come out of the blue.
Hammer’s teachers of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and at the Hebrew University – among them Professors Yehezkel Kaufmann, Moshe Greenberg, Jacob Milgrom, Nahum Sarna, and Jeff Tigay – showed how Mesopotamian law, Egyptian law, and ancient mythologies were underpinned by different underlying legal and religious principles from those expressed in the Torah. Biblical thought was, in essence, unique in the ancient world. His challenge was to put all this background knowledge together in a form that the reader could understand and see the Torah in this way as well.
“I thought it was important to do that because most people who read the Torah don’t understand the background – what the Torah is fighting against. Only then can you really appreciate what is being said.”
Hammer gave his new book to a person who had a modern Israeli religious education, in a yeshiva-style school. “When he finished reading it, he said – ‘this is a total revelation – I was never taught any of this.’ His type of schooling never presented him with this sort of analysis.”
At the center of Hammer’s work is the question as to why he calls the Torah so revolutionary.
“I came to the conclusion that these revolutionary writings go back to Moses – one human mind was responsible for this, if not directly then indirectly. How else can we Bible scholars use the term Torat Moshe (the Torah of Moses)? The answer that Jacob Milgrom gave satisfied me. Whatever teachings Moses gave at the time were the basis for the ideas of the Torah.”
These 14 ideas, adds Hammer, were worked on and expanded in the different documentary sections which, according to modern scholarship, comprise the Torah, or the Five Books of Moses. The 19th century Christian theologian Julius Wellhausen was the first to develop this theory in detail. The existence of these sections was accepted by Jewish scholars such as Milgrom, but given a common origin. (Wellhausen understood these sections as independent texts, composed separately and at different times.) Hammer, following Milgrom, stresses that Moses was the true source of these 14 ideas.
“All we know about Moses is what is written in the Torah. We have his name, an Egyptian name at that! His mother brought him up, teaching him the stories of Abrahamand his Mesopotamian background. His own upbringing brought him in contact with the best Egyptian schools. So he had knowledge of all these Mesopotamian and Egyptian belief systems, and he rejected them. He must have come to a conclusion that told him that he believed in different things.
That probably surprised me. Beforehand, I hadn’t articulated the connection.”
Though he hasn’t kept track of how many books he has sold, Hammer receives enthusiastic responses when he lectures in North America (which is frequently), as well as in Israel. “What amazes people is the relevancy of this ancient Torah to our own day and the fact that parts of the Torah are yet to be fully realized.”
Hammer’s own background fits comfortably into this kind of radical thinking.
“I was brought up in a Conservative home.
My parents were traditional – we had a kosher home, Shabbat was kept in a tangible way, we were active members of a synagogue. We lived in Syracuse, New York… with a Jewish population of about 10,000, with no Jewish day school.
“I was never Orthodox, although I did study at Yeshiva University for a better background.
I went there, although what I found was very disappointing. It gave me a text-based ability to access knowledge – Mishna, Talmud, etc.
But it was very superficial. When I got to the Jewish Theological Seminary, I found a far more intellectual climate. You could discuss anything, without being told that this is the way it is and that’s it.”
“When I graduated – it was normal for everyone to go into the armed forces.
I was stationed in the wilds of the west – South Dakota – there were maybe 10 Jewish families there. Then I became a congregational rabbi in Illinois. I was awarded a doctorate in Hebrew Letters (theology) from the Seminary, and a second PhD from nearby Northwestern University in communicative disorders. This is a branch of special education to do with speech, and I turned it into my first book – “The Other Child in Jewish Education.” It was a handbook on how to teach kids with handicaps and I’m pleased to say that it is still being used.”
In 1973, Hammer immigrated to Israel with his family. “As a Conservative rabbi I didn’t know if I would find employment.
It was lucky that I had this second string of special education, which was not very developed in Israel. I worked at David Yellin Teachers Seminar and at the Hebrew University Educational Seminar. I was then invited to become the director of Neve Shechter (connected to the Conservative Movement) under Gershon Cohen. I taught and published books.”
What are the revolutionary ideas described in “The Torah Revolution”? The first is the radical idea of a universal, unique being – God – unattached to magic, who cares deeply about morality, to whom worship is becoming and who is beneficial for us. In the realm of humanity, the Torah posits that human life is sacred, that all human beings are equal, this includes men and women, and human beings possess free will.
On the level of society, the Torah points to the fact that human sovereignty is limited – there can be no absolute monarchs. That is in defiance of the One and Only God, the King. Neither is the priesthood imbued with magical powers. They are functionaries – on a very high order, but functionaries nevertheless. There have to be limitations to what man can be, especially if it is achieved at the expense of others. Thus, land and wealth have to be distributed equally, slavery is to be minimized (where there is a necessity for this, of course) and the needy (the widow, the orphan, the stranger) have to be cared for.
Finally there is a universal need for a day of rest – a Sabbath day.
Hammer reflects on the fact that not all these revolutions have taken place, while others have taken time to be realized. “It’s a bit like the American Revolution,” he explains. “They spoke about – ‘these selfevident truths’ – that all men are created equal. But they did not mention women and blacks. There were still slaves in America! It took some time before this was resolved.
Similarly, sacrifices were still the order of the day in the time of the Torah. But, as Maimonides says, the society could not accept any other way. Ideally, God didn’t want them, but the people were used to them.
So the Torah allows it, but it has to be done in a limited way.
“The Torah nevertheless was in advance of its time. Similarly with the laws of the seventh year, shmita. It’s an ideal, but not yet realized in full.”
The Torah Revolution: Fourteen Truths
that Changed the WorldRabbi Reuven HammerSkylight Publishing250 pages; $18.23