A year with the sages: Making the ancient relevant

Reuven Hammer’s last book explores meanings of the Bible on contemporary issues

(photo credit: YOUTUBE)
A Year with the Sages: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion is the last book that Rabbi Reuven Hammer wrote before he died, and it is in some senses his best.
Hammer had a long and distinguished career as a rabbi and educator, during which he traveled to and taught in South Africa, North and South America, Hong Kong and 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. What did the Torah mean in its original context? You must compare and contrast what the Bible says with what was said by the literature of the cultures around the ancient Land of Israel, and what the cultures that came before them said. Only if you do this can you understand who the biblical writers were speaking out against and what they were speaking out for.
Then you must teach the Torah at the level of Midrash. You must seek to discover what the sages of later generations read into the biblical text and what they distilled out of it. For only if you do this can you understand how the Torah developed down through the centuries.
And then you must answer: What does the Bible mean to us here and now? If you don’t deal with this question, you turn the Bible into a curious ancient document instead of a book that offers wisdom to us on the questions we face today.
In this book, Hammer dealt with the weekly Torah portions and with those that are read on the holidays, and asked these three questions of every unit.
Space permits only one brief example.
The portion known as Shoftim contains the commandment to set up a system of judges upon entering the Land of Israel. It stresses that these judges must hate bribery and that they must practice justice whenever two plaintiffs come before them. Hammer notices that the word “justice” is central in this passage. Without justice, the community cannot survive. It is justice and not ritual observance that will determine whether or not the people will be able to live on the land.
He then goes on to study this passage through the eyes of the sages and finds two 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 when you are judging between two Jews, but that you do not have to show justice to Romans. Rabbi Akiva disagrees vehemently and says that to do this not only perverts justice, it also desecrates the name of God.
This disagreement has to be understood in the context of the world in which these two sages lived. At that time the land was under Roman rule and there was no Jewish sovereignty. Most Jews resented the Romans and considered them conquerors, not neighbors.
There is a tradition that says that Rabbi Ishmael himself was captured and tortured by the Romans, so his hostility to them is understandable. However, Rabbi Akiva saw the issue very differently. Even though he was no friend of Rome, and even though he participated in the revolt against Rome, he believed that all human beings are equal and that all human beings are entitled to equal treatment under the law. More than that, he believed that cheating a non-Jew was a double sin, being not only a perversion of justice but a desecration of God’s name as well.
Hammer then proceeds to the third stage and shows that this disagreement is still a very real issue in modern Jewish life. He reports that there are some extremists in Israel who teach their students that the lives of non-Jews are less worthy than Jews. He admits that he has seen some of these fanatics damage and desecrate the houses of worship of non-Jews. He has even seen one rabbinic court that ruled that the Torah forbids renting rooms to non-Jews in Jewish neighborhoods.
He felt deeply that such teachings were a perversion of what the Torah teaches. He therefore readily accepted a request from the Masorti Movement to write a responsum on the status of gentiles in Jewish law. In that document he surveyed the history of the question in Jewish law, setting down the different views within their historical context, and coming down clearly on the side of Rabbi Akiva.
Some readers will be drawn to the section of the book on pshat, 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 way the sages read the Bible. Others will be drawn to the section about how the Torah speaks to the issues we face today. 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 people as nothing more than an ancient book, the first section is needed. In a time in which Jewish tradition is almost unknown among so many Jews, the second section is important. And in a time when there are so few people who apply the Bible to the world in which we live, the third section is of great value.
We miss Reuven Hammer’s ability to teach at all three of these levels. And we hope that this last book of his will enable future generations to learn to appreciate the Bible at all three levels of understanding.  The writer is the author of Finding God in Unexpected Places and The Day I Met Father Isaac at the Supermarket.
By Rabbi Reuven Hammer
Jewish Publication Society
356 pages; $28.95