ACCEPTING THE YOKE OF HEAVEN: Commentary on the Weekly Torah Portion
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New edition in paperback.
Author: Yeshayahu Leibowitz
Translator: Shmuel Himelstein
The Tower of Bavel
It appears to me that the root of the error, or sin, of the generation of the separation was not the building of a city and tower, but the aim to use these artificial means to ensure a situation of “one language and one speech”-of centralization, which, in modern parlance, would be known as totalitarianism. One language and one speech is, according to many naive people in our days, a description of an ideal situation: all of humanity a single bloc, without differentiation, and, as a result, without conflicts. But one who truly understands will know that there is nothing which is more threatening than this artificial conformism: a city and tower as the symbol of the concentration of all of mankind about a single topic-where there will not be differences of opinion and there will not be a struggle over different viewpoints and over different values. One cannot imagine greater tyranny than that, one cannot imagine a greater mental and moral sterility than that-that there should be no exceptions and that there should be no deviations from what is accepted and agreed upon, and this being maintained by the artificial means of a city and a tower. In His mercy and compassion for mankind, God prevented this from occurring, and He made a humanity where a totalitarianism of complete unity cannot be.
Accepting the Yoke of Heaven is a compelling collection of thoughts on the weekly Torah portion by the acclaimed Jewish philosopher, Yeshayahu Leibowitz. As he leads us from Creation to the death of Moses, Professor Leibowitz takes us on a dramatic journey of philosophical discovery. Revealing his rational views on the nature of God and his relationship with Man, Leibowitz challenges our conceptions of the purpose of prayer and the presence of holiness in the world. He demands compliance with Jewish law for its own sake, irrespective of expectations of reward or punishment. Written with unflinching honesty and conviction, Accepting the Yoke of Heaven is a work of startling erudition.
Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, an acclaimed scientist and Judaica scholar, is renowned for his widely respected-and debated-approach to Jewish tradition and philosophy. He served as Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopedia Hebraica and was head professor of the science department at the Hebrew University. Born in Riga in 1904, and educated in Germany and Switzerland, he immigrated to Israel in 1935 and passed away in Jerusalem in 1994.
softcover, 203 pages
(Hardcover ISBN 965-7108-33-0, 2002, revised edition)
Praise for Accepting the Yoke of Heaven:
Until his death in 1994, Yeshayahu Leibowitz served on the faculty of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he taught chemistry, physiology, and history and philosophy of science. He also was an editor of several volumes of the Encyclopedia Hebraica, as well as the author of many books and articles. Given his penchant for controversy, it is not surprising that this unique commentary on the weekly Torah portion would be challenging and thought-provoking. Leibowitz questions many of our conventional views of God, prayer and the existence of Kiddusha (holiness) in our lives. Whatever your religious orientation, you will find this volume intellectually stimulating and insightful.
Dr. Alex Grobman
A compelling collection of thoughts on the weekly Torah portion. Leibowitz pursues a journey of philosophical discovery revealing rational views on the nature of God.
The erudite Professor Leibowitz passed away in 1994, but he has left us with fresh thoughts on the weekly Torah portion. He was a Professor of Science at Hebrew University, having immigrated to Palestine in 1935 at the age of 31. His weekly commentaries on the parsha reveal his radical ideas on the nature of God and God's relationship to humans, he confronts the nature of prayer, and our concept of holiness in the world. He promotes the idea of compliance with the law for its own sake, and not for reward or punishment.
For example, take his commentary on Noach: the Tower of Babel is to forego the flood, but look at the world after the flood. Was it a world as evil as the pre-flood world? Was the dispersion of people after Babel a punishment? Maybe it wasn't a punishment? Maybe it was a reward, allowing for a difference in thought and practice and a decentralization. Maybe Babel was a story of conformity, centralization and totalitarianism. Dispersion ended this. This is a very fresh thought, no?
Or take Vayeshev, the story of Jacob and Joseph and Egypt, and the sentence "Joseph was BROUGHT DOWN to Egypt.” Is it actually a story of free will and determinism, a story of antinomies and paralogisms? Leibowitz focuses on midrash and writings that define the word "dealing and deeds" as "making a false accusation." He delves into the idea of God bringing deeds into the world and upon man, and later places the blame on man for these deeds, and the idea that the strife between the brothers and the sale of Joseph was pre-ordained, since it was known that the Hebrews would be slaves in Egypt for 400 years. In his four page discussion of Korach, he ties this parsha to parasha of tzitzit, and the end of the Shema which is recited daily. Korach, Leibowitz writes, rebelled against Moses saying "for all the community, all of them are holy." But, Leibowitz continues, the tzitzit idea of holiness (which appears in the paragraph above the Korach story) differs from that of Korach. The tzitzit concept of holiness is one to be strived for, it is a goal; while Korach believes it is something that is granted. Korach has absolved himself of responsibility, he boasts that he is a member of a holy nation, even though he is contemptible. Are the people holy or do they become holy through their actions and performance of certain tasks? Guess what, the ideas from Korach did not end when he was swallowed up by the Earth. They continue today. If you enjoy these ideas, buy the book.
This present volume - the translation of the transcripts of his weekly broadcasts on IDF radio 1985-86 - contains many opinions which are still controversially relevant today. Perhaps most striking is his acceptance of the Islamic occupation of the Temple Mount as being true worship. Quoting a Midrash written during Muslim rule before the Christian conquest in the Crusades, he says: "The Temple which stands there today, the Temple of another religion, is not a place of idolatry. This Temple is one of a religion which acknowledges the unity of God, which worships God even if it did not receive the Torah and does not worship God through the observance of the mitzvot."
Had he still been alive today, he would definitely have been in the peace camp. He does not flinch from criticising biblical figures, especially King David, who was, he considers, flawed by bloodshed and corruption. He describes violent means as achieving legitimate goals as curses for future generations: "This is what can be said about the achievements of the Jewish people when they are achieved through flawed and improper means, and worst of all - through bloodshed."
Yet Leibowitz's unflinching criticism, both of the biblical heroes of the past and the Israeli government of his day, stem not from angry rebellion but from a man who sets almost impossibly high standards of conduct.
Nothing is sancrosanct. Salvation is not assured. It has to be deserved. God must be worshiped for His sake, and not for ours. Even gaining enjoyment from religious observance is suspect. This book is not just a collection of commentaries, but an important historical, philosophical document.
This book is a collection of short essays on the weekly Torah reading based on the 15 minute radio broadcasts that the author was asked to deliver in 1985/6 on Galei zahal, the IDF radio station in Israel. Each short essay offers comment on one of the many topics contained in each sidra, on one of its aspects, on one of its verses, sometimes on a single word within it, or on a comment found in the midrashic literature or in the traditional commentaries.
Leibowitz is first and foremost a philosopher, and it is certainly with this in mind that we can appreciate the approach that he takes towards the parsha each week. From each sidra (all the double parshiot are presented as one essay) he takes a theological and philosophical approach to an idea contained in the sedra, bringing his unique approach to it. Leibowitz has a holistic (and sometimes controversial) approach to Jewish thought and texts and he allows this to permeate the way he learns each sedra.
He approaches each sidra as a living breathing text that is as relevant to the contemporary generation as any other, applying the ideas he discusses to real life experiences and issues that he has considered. Each essay is short and concise, making them a manageable read. Those that enjoy his approach will certainly enjoy these essays and find them a pleasurable read each week to stimulate and at least trigger further discussion on the themes of the weekly parsha.
Lookstein Jewish Education Digest
In 1985, The IDF radio station Galei Zahal gave the late scientist and philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz the chance to give a series of short talks on the Torah portion of the week. Accepting the Yoke of Heaven is a compilation of those transcripts, with some additions and clarifications to accommodate the change from speech to text.
[The] theme underlying these...homilies is Leibowitz's conviction that the Jews' obligation to observe the commandments is an end in itself. As he points out in his talk on Vayikra: "...a person does not assume the yoke of Torah and mitzvot because God's voice reacheses him, but God's voice reaches a person who accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah and mitzvot. Faith is not given to man from the outside.
Read [Accepting the Yoke of Heaven]... whenever you have a few minutes you want to spend in the company of a fine mind "talking Torah."
My wife and I had the memorable experience of hearing one of Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz' last public lectures in Jerusalem before his death in 1994. At 90, this scientist, philosopher and religious scholar was
physically fragile and needed the moderator to repeat his words so that all
in the packed room could hear. Despite his infirmity, he was sharp-witted,
sharp-tongued and impatient with what he considered foolish questions.
Israel's most controversial social critic lived up to his reputation of
being a profound religious philosopher while being an outspoken antagonist
of the religious, Zionist and secular communities as well as the Israeli
But there was another side of this national iconoclast. In the mid 1980's, every Friday afternoon on Israeli radio, Prof. Leibowitz would comment on the weekly Torah portion-- for 12 minutes. In this ridiculously short time-slot, he simply talked (with no written preparation) on a word, phrase or idea that called his attention. His style was concise, wise and quietly
Accepting the Yoke of Heaven is an edited version of 49 radio talks, covering a yearly cycle of Torah readings.
Prof. Leibowitz' main themes in the Book of Genesis are the roles of our
forbears. He often connected their life experiences with contemporary
issues, such as the Holocaust with Abraham's ultimate test of faith,
Zionism with the discord between Sarah and Hagar, and the dynamics of guilt
related to Jacob's deception of Esau. In Exodus, the author presents his approach to Jewish law and halakhic authority in the portion of Mishpatim (Ex. 21). He is clear and articulate in his argument that the written law can never be understood without the serious study of oral law and, in fact, the oral law often "overturns" the literal words of the Torah. In Numbers, he discussed the mitzvah of tzitzit in relation to Socrates and Kant, while a few chapters later he discusses the parallelism between the gentile prophet Balaam and Jesus. And so it goes. Each short essay focuses on an intriguing phrase or theme, which he explicates with quiet logic and reason. Prof. Leibowitz
comfortably quotes the Bible, the Talmud, midrashic literature, legal
responsa, philosophy, science and history, but always displays his awesome
intellect in ways, which make profound ideas of Judaism accessible to all.
…Each short essay leaves the reader with an
intellectual smile of satisfaction. If you would like to experience a few minutes of "oneg Shabbat" (Sabbath enjoyment), while being stimulated to think deeply, I would heartily recommend reviewing the weekly Torah portion in this wonderful little volume of talks.
Dr. Steve Bailey
Australian Jewish News
...Yeshayahu Leibowitz [was] the Israeli iconoclast who took his society to task for its capitulation to so many religious and political temptations. A modern prophet of fury, Leibowitz, who died in 1992 at age 89, hounded his fellow Jews for their ill use of Judaism in the service of politics, insisting that service of God is the only true expression of the Jewish religion. This led him to clash with practically the entire religious establishment of Israel, in particular through his vociferous condemnation of the settlements and denial of the religious significance of the state. Till now, besides a book on Maimonides, English readers have only had access to his important collection, Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State....
Not only is this new book, Accepting the Yoke of Heaven,… a simpler, lucid exposition of Leibowitz's extraordinary religious devotion, but it also testifies to the overflow of that devotion into the service of individuals and the public at large. True, he argued vehemently that religion is about serving God irrespective of all human needs, including morality and politics. Yet this book shows that the pure service of God he promoted also demands the betterment of one's moral character.... The result is a set of three-page commentaries on each Torah reading that reflect the paradoxical beauty of his religious and moral integrity. The central motif is the purification of religious service, which should make this collection required reading for three types of readers (the Orthodox person sufficiently spirited to have his or her beliefs contested.... the atheist.... to the culturalist who reads the Bible as a work of historical, moral and anthropological interest....).
Though Leibowitz's reflections revolve around the singular notion of pure religious service, readers will enjoy original insights into questions of free will versus determination, totalitarianism, political leadership, and the relationship between the Written Torah and the Oral Torah....
The Jerusalem Report