Seek the Shepherd When He Is Near: A Book Review for Elul

Rabbi Michael L. Samuel’s new book, A Shepherd’s Song: Psalm 23 and the Shepherd Metaphor in Jewish Thought, has a unique application to the weeks approaching Rosh Hashanah. The Rabbis of the Talmud are fond of quoting, “Seek the Lord while He may be found, call on Him while He is near” (Isa. 55:6). This verse, despite its inspirational theme, raises one of the most profound theological issues. By saying God is “near,” the verse implies that God exists in space. More broadly, this raises the questions of corporality and anthropomorphism, since the most dominant themes of the penitential season are plagued by theological paradox. Rabbi Samuel’s book examines anthropomorphism in general, with a keen eye on the image of God as the Shepherd, which appears in the opening verse of Psalm 23.

In several weeks, Jews throughout the world will assemble in synagogues and entreat God in the most persuasive terms to forgive their sins. The entire prayer-book, like the Bible itself, is filled with passages that suggest God is possessed of a body and emotions. In fact, Samuel notes, “Semantically speaking, even the idea of ‘praying to God’ implies spatial concepts…” (p. 158). Similarly, the book of Psalms entreats God, “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, who leads Joseph like a flock” (Ps. 80:1). The shepherd metaphor in this verse is a basis of the piyyutim, “Our God and God of our fathers, forgive us…we are Your flock and You are our Shepherd….” Yet many worshippers may find language ineffectual due to centuries of anti-anthropomorphic argumentation.

Rabbi Samuel’s work is a meticulous outpouring that we should reconsider our understanding of God. He makes an impassioned plea that if we want to have a meaningful and mature religious identity, it is essential to embrace how traditional sources characterize God. He argues, “Laypeople and rabbis alike have difficulty accepting the reality of God as a personal Presence in their lives” (28). In a personal conversation with the author, Rabbi Samuel explained to me, “If you don’t have a personal connection with God, your prayer might as well be a letter that starts with the words, ‘To Whom It May Concern.’”

Many Jews today are inculcated to say that anthropomorphic locutions are all metaphors, and should not be interpreted literally. After all, the ancient pagans believed that the gods all possessed bodies and emotions, while we sophisticates have evolved beyond such childish beliefs. Their gods are many, our God is one. Their gods are corporeal, our God is beyond time and space. Their gods are capricious and petty, our God is merciful and just. But do we feel any emotional connection when rattling off these catechisms?

Samuel warns that when dry understandings replace a personal connection with God, the result is spiritual isolation: “Ever since the time of Aristotle, Western philosophy frequently portrays God as an Outside Prime Mover, standing apart from the processes of the universe, with no personal interest in the world’s welfare” (p. 91). He argues that anti-anthropomorphism risks creating a spiritual malaise, and if taken in its most extreme form, will likely lead to religious indifference or atheism.

Samuel contrasts the biblical phrasing, “I am the Lord your God,” with the Greeks, who “never had a personal name for the One God” (p. 114). This is not to suggest that Samuel is a philosophical Luddite; he possesses a facile ability to quote a range of Jewish, Greek, Christian, and modern authorities, from Homer to Wittgenstein; yet Samuel extracts from the ancients and moderns the importance of finding renewed meaning in descriptions of God that have been downplayed as “metaphor.”

While it is an important development that today’s Jews have learned to move beyond the idea of a corporeal God, Samuel argues that sometimes we are unable to take the next step, and ascribe real meaning to metaphorical language. Anthropomorphic language pervades the Bible, Midrashim, Talmud, and all subsequent literature; when we dismiss this huge corpus of literature as inconsequential, we risk slipping into the bleak existential abyss. Samuel argues that preserving metaphor is necessary for a spiritually healthy society, since metaphor “does not seek to explain the empirical facts about the natural world. Instead, it aims to disclose how the sacred meaning is present within the natural observable universe” (p. 106).

The worshipper must proceed to find meaning within the anthropomorphic language. Signs, symbols, and metaphors have emotional and cognitive significance, and Samuel argues that the shepherd is a “root metaphor” (pp. 67), which demonstrates the connection of the collective past to the life of the individual in the present. The parameters of this metaphor are nuanced and rich, and Samuel is not afraid to draw on diverse sources who offer their interpretations of this fundamental image.

For example, he quotes from Philo of Alexandria that “When a flock lacks a shepherd to govern it, it is inevitable the flock will meet a disastrous end because it is too helpless to repel whatever might be injurious to it” (p. 196), an idea which is remarkably similar to the liturgical sarnu mi-mitzvotekha u-mi- mishpatekha ha-tovim ve-lo shaveh lanu, “we have strayed from Your commandments and your good ordinances, and it has not been worthwhile for us.”

Samuel also supplies other attributes of shepherding, which transform the shepherd archetype from empty rhetoric to a meaningful symbol. For example, he explains that a shepherd “is dedicated to the careful management of the flock,” which indicates that God has an overall plan for humanity. A shepherd must have “constant attention and mindfulness,” which means God has perpetual concern for mankind. And shepherding “is a solitary profession” (p. 259), which alludes to God’s unity. These themes are conspicuously similar to the penitential ideas of malkhiyyot, zikhronot, and shofarot.

Samuel is also a practicing synagogue rabbi, and he once led an adult education program centered around Psalm 23. At the end of his book, he records the conversations that his congregants had while examining this Psalm. It is clear from the transcripts that the participants were of different religious backgrounds, held different professions, and had wildly different pasts. Yet due to the universality of the Psalm, each congregant had unique insights, found individual meaning, and supplied new interpretations that the traditional commentaries did not offer.

The same is true of Elul, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur. Each person who enters the synagogue will find unique meaning and inspiration from the different parts of the service. Rabbi Michael L. Samuel’s A Shepherd’s Song is a highly intellectual and inspirational work that invites the reader to re-examine his long-held theological beliefs. He argues that it is impossible to engage in meaningful prayer with the Aristotelian conception of God; therefore he challenges the reader to find new meaning—and an individual connection—with God, to build a personal and unique relationship between man and his Shepherd.

You can buy the book here:

Why do we get bored?

Orthodox World of Wigs

The Consequence of Truth

It made me realize,
the challenge of this world is not finding the truth,
that is pretty obvious,
the challenge is having the courage to live with integrity after you know it.

– Rabbl Keleman

How Not To Deal With Allegations of Impropriety

by Shaya Karlinsky

We have been witness to an increasing number of depressing revelations about Rabbis acting inappropriately towards women they have been counseling or educating. I have no intention of discussing any specific case. I would like to discuss a pattern that is all too common in these cases.

In response to accusations of improper behavior by Rabbis with female students or congregants, lots of well-meaning people come to the defense of the accused. These people will vouch for his tremendous integrity, meticulous observance of all appropriate boundaries in every interaction they ever experienced or witnessed, and the life-changing advice and counseling they or their friends received from the accused. Since, if and when breaches of ethical and Halachic behavior happen, they happen “behind closed doors,” the only way to verify the accusations is for victims to provide detailed testimony of what they claim happened. Frequently, the victims themselves are troubled individuals, or were having some specific emotional crisis which can make them vulnerable to advances from the predator, while compromising their credibility as plaintiffs or witnesses. People can become easily swayed and confused when weighing claims of somewhat unreliable plaintiffs/witnesses against the claims and testimony of obviously well adjusted success stories of said Rabbi’s activities.

I believe the approach is completely mistaken, and a section in the Kli Yakar will give us the correct approach to take in such situations.

At the end of Parshas Ki Teitzei (Devarim 25:13-16) the Torah prohibits holding in one’s possession dishonest weights and measures. The Kli Yakar is bothered by the seeming redundancies and inconsistencies exhibited by the text. The Torah begins by prohibiting holding “large” and “small” weights and measures. It then commands that one have “full and righteous” weights and measures. And the section concludes with the verdict that “It is an abomination before G-d, all who do these, all who act corruptly.”

The simple understanding of “small and large” weights is that the “small” weight is dishonest, used to shortchange customers, as opposed to a “large” one, which would be the honest weight. The problem this raises is that there should only be a prohibition against the “small” dishonest weight! Additionally, the command to have “full” and “righteous” seems redundant. “Full” implies that it is an honest weight, so what is added by the demand that it be “righteous?” Finally, “all who do these” refers to the dishonest use of weights and measures, an obviously criminal activity. So what has the Torah added with “all who act corruptly.”

The Kli Yakar begins his explanation by agreeing that the “large” one refers to an honest weight, and the command of “full and righteous” is the demand that one not only be honest – with a “full” honest weight, not shortchanging his customers – but to be righteous, going “beyond the letter of the law,” providing “a little extra.”

He then references a similar verse in Mishlei (20:10) which has similar textual difficulties that we encounter in our text. “A weight and a weight, a measure and a measure (implying having different sized weights) – an abomination before G-d are also both of them.” If they are both dishonest, why use the language “also?” They are simply both dishonest! Rather, the verse refers to two different weights or measures, one which is honest and one which is dishonest, We are being taught that the honest one is ALSO an abomination, for it is the facilitator that enables the person to get away with cheating customers with the dishonest one. If a storekeeper had a weight with which he was shortchanging a customer, this customer would come home, discover he had received less than what he had paid for, and he would bring the storekeeper to court. The storekeeper might defend himself with the claim that some of the produce must have fallen out of the bag after the customer left the store, or was lost after he got home. But if the court would receive a number of similar complaints it would become apparent that this storekeeper was shortchanging his customers.

What is the “solution?” The storekeeper also maintains an honest set of weights, and many customers are served honestly with them. When a customer who was cheated comes to court to complain, the storekeeper can now defend himself with the claim that the shortage happened after she left the store. And to verify that claim, he offers to bring all the satisfied customers who always received the full amount due them. If the court will send an investigator to check the weight, the storekeeper will show the honest weight, proving that the he does not cheat anyone.

In conclusion, says the Kli Yakar, the honest weight is just as much an abomination as the dishonest weight, for it is the honest weight that enables the criminal to get away with his dishonest dealings.

When a Rabbi or educator is accused of improper behavior of a sexual or abusive nature, character witnesses are irrelevant to verifying whether the accusations are true. All the many people who have been helped in the past in no way undermine the credibility of the accusers. What is important is the specific accusations, whether there is a pattern to those accusations, and whether the accused can properly refute those accusations. If the defendant is being falsely accused by vindictive or unstable women, either the cross examination of the accusers will verify that, or direct testimony to contradict the claims can be provided. If the accusations are credible, if a pattern of improper behavior is verified, if the accused is guilty, then all the people who were helped should have no impact of the conclusions one needs to draw. In fact, his help is revealed to be part of his abominations, empowering him to continue preying on vulnerable and innocent victims. Those he helped are his “honest” measure, enabling him destroy the lives of those he was cheating.

For decades, accusations such as these were not taken as seriously as they needed to be. Many people were damaged by ongoing abusive behavior that was not recognized. It is to the credit of those in the forefront of the fight against this abuse that the trend is being reversed. While no innocent person should be brought down by false accusations of vindictive or troubled women, no guilty person should escape because he kept “honest weights and measures” in his house.

Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky is the Dean and Rosh Yeshiva of Shapell’s/Darche Noam Institutions: Yeshivat Darche Noam/ Shapell’s and the Midreshet Rachel v’Chaya College of Jewish Studies for Women. A native of Los Angeles, California, Rabbi Karlinsky has been in Israel since 1968, where he studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh and the Mirrer Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

Gedolim Pray for the IDF

Rav Shteinman, Rav Chaim Kanievsky Daven for IDF Soldiers Fighting in Gaza

rav-kanievsky-rav-shteinmanIn light of the IDF’s ground incursion into Gaza, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman and Rav Chaim Kanievsky gathered today – as did Jews across Eretz Yisroel – at shuls and botei medrash at 1 p.m. to say Tehillim and daven for the soldiers currently in harm’s way, battling murderous, blood-thirsty terrorists.

Rav Shmuel Auerbach instructed bnei yeshiva to remain in their yeshivos for Shabbos, without exception.

The Vizhnitzer Rebbe davened at the kevorim of the admorim of Vizhnitz shortly after midnight for the success of the IDF operation.

The Sadigura Rebbe instructed his followers to gather and daven in light of the situation.

Rav Shalom Cohen, Rosh Yeshivas Porat Yosef, called on the public to daven for the soldiers fighting in Gaza


The Terrible Beauty of the Evil Man

The Terrible Beauty of the Evil Man is a memoir of the life of Finis Leavell
Beauchamp, a child born into Southern Baptist evangelical royalty who in his early 20s made the fateful decision to convert to Orthodox Judaism.  The book traces his journey from his youth until the day he converted, chronicling the people and the events who led him to this life changing moment.  It was not a decision without a price, as it cost him his friends, family, home, and identity. Finis has to create his world anew and make sense of a world that has rejected him as well as reconcile his struggle with faith, commitment, and a sense of purpose.

The book is not a light-hearted read; it is raw and brutal in its honesty, introspection and judgment. It does not shy away from the true dark aspects of human existence, the loneliness, the angst, the depression, the abuse and unrequited love that the author had to experience on his journey. The author bares his soul in recounting incidents that no one should have to experience, and the reader can feel the pain seeping through the pages.

At the same time, as these moments of darkness are being recounted, the author finds a way to look at the brighter side of things—humor and whit are the tools of choice to find meaning and laughter in a world of absurdity and disappointment. The notion of faith, that good triumphs evil and that there is ultimately a greater purpose are themes that are brought to life in a real and tangible way. This is not a book of “fluff,” but a mature, balanced and subtle approach to faith in the modern world.

This book will move you and give you a fresh perspective on existence. Everyone will be able to relate to this book on some level, as the themes are universal, and for anyone who has gone on a similar journey of transformation and renewal, you will be able to see yourself in the life, mind and soul that is Finis. The book is wonderfully written, the author is truly a master of the English language. Prose, poetry, philosophy, and dream sequences are all seamlessly intertwined making for a truly cinematic reading experience. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and believe this  is likely to be one of the most consequential Jewish publications in recent years, due to the author’s ability to relate very real events in a highly literary and creative fashion, a unique talent I have not seen in other authors.

The Terrible Beauty of the Evil Man is available on

Hair, Got that Covered?

Higher Criticism Higher Anti-Semitism

An important address by Solomon Schechter the architect of the Conservative Jewish movement in America. (Source: ====

Below is the full text of Solomon Schechter’s address, “Higher Criticism—Higher Anti-Semitism”, delivered at the Judaean Banquet, given in honor of Dr. Kaufman Kohler, March 26, 1903. The text is from Seminary Address and Other Papers (Cincinnati: Ark Publishing, 1915), 35-39.

My acquaintance with Dr. Kohler dates from the year 1901, when he did me the honor of paying me a visit at Cambridge, England. There is no scarcity in that ancient seat of learning, “full of sages and scribes,” of learned conversation. But the day with Dr. Kohler was one of the most delightful I have ever experienced in that place. The day was spent in roaming over the contents of the Genizah and in conversation. Our thoughts were turned to Judaism and the subjects which occupied our minds were all of a theological or historical nature. We probably differed in a good many points, and please God we shall differ in many more—but this did not prevent our short acquaintance from ripening at once into what might approach friendship. I felt that I was in the presence of a scholar and a seeker after truth. His is an intellect devoted entirely to what he considers the truth, and his is a heart deeply affected by every spiritual sensation which is in the air. He also delights to engage in what he considers the “Battles oo the Lord,” and Judaism has need for men of valor.

To speak more clearly: Since the so-called emancipation, the Jews of the civilized world have been lulled into a fancied security which events have not justified. It is true that through the revelation in the Dreyfus case, anti-Semitism of the vulgar sort has become odious, and no lady or gentleman dares now to use the old weapons of the times of Drumont and Stoecker. But the arch-enemy has entered upon a new phase, which Boerne might have called “the philosophic ‘Hep-Hep.’ ” And this is the more dangerous phase because it is of a spiritual kind, and thus means the “excision of the soul,” leaving us no hope for immortality. I remember when I used to come home from the Cheder, bleeding and crying from the wounds inflicted upon me by the Christian boys, my father used to say, “My child, we are in Galuth (exile), and we must submit to God’s will.” And he made me understand that this is only a passing stage in history, as we Jews belong to eternity, when God will comfort His people. Thus the pain was only physical, but my real suffering began later in life, when I emigrated from Roumania to so-called civilized countries and found there what I might call the Higher anti-Semitism, which burns the soul though it leaves the body unhurt. The genesis of this Higher anti-Semitism is partly, though not entirely—for a man like Kuenen belongs to an entirely different class—contemporaneous with the genesis of the so-called Higher criticism of the Bible. Wellhausen’s Prolegomena and History are teeming with aperçes full of venom against Judaism, and you cannot wonder that he was rewarded by one of the highest orders which the Prussian Government had to bestow. Afterwards Harnack entered the arena with his “Wesen des Christenthums,” in which he showed not so much his hatred as his ignorance of Judaism. But this Higher anti-Semitism has now reached its climax when every discovery of recent years is called to bear witness against us and to accuse us of spiritual larceny.

Some time ago I saw in one of the numerous sheets of this country a reference to the Hammurabi Code, concluding with the words, “this means a blow to Orthodoxy.” I hold no brief for Orthodoxy in this country or elsewhere. But, may I ask: Is there any wing in Judaism which is prepared to confirm the reproach of Carlyle, who, in one of his anti-Semitic fits, exclaimed, “The Jews are always dealing in old clothes; spiritual or material.” We are here between ourselves, so we may frankly make the confession that we did not invent the art of printing; we did not discover America, in spite of Kayserling; we did not inaugurate the French Revolution, in spite of some one else; we were not the first to utilize the power of steam or electricity, in spite of any future Kayserling. Our great claim to the gratitude of mankind is that we gave to the world the word of God, the Bible. We have stormed heaven to snatch down this heavenly gift, as the Paitanic expression is; we threw ourselves into the breach and covered it with our bodies against every attack; we allowed ourselves to be slain by hundreds and thousands rather than become unfaithful to it; and we bore witness to its truth and watched over its purity in the face of a hostile world. The Bible is our sole raison d’être, and it is just this which the Higher anti-Semitism is seeking to destroy, denying all our claims for the past, and leaving us without hope for the future.

Can any section among us afford to concede to this professorial and imperial anti-Semitism and confess “for a truth we and our ancestors have sinned’” we have lived on false pretenses and were the worst shams in the world? Forget not that we live in an historical age in which everybody must show his credentials from the past. The Bible is our patent of nobility granted to us by the Almighty God, and if we disown the Bible, leaving it to the tender mercies of a Wellhausen, Stade and Duhm, and other beautiful souls working away at diminishing the “nimbus of the Chosen Peope,” the world will disown us. There is no room in it for spiritual parvenus. But this intellectual persecution can only be fought by intellectual weapons and unless we make an effort to recover our Bible and to think out our theology for ourselves, we are irrevocably lost from both worlds. A mere protest in the pulpit or a vigorous editorial in a paper, or an amateur essay in a monthly, or even a special monograph will not help us. We have to create a really living, great literature, and do the same for the subjects of theology and the Bible that Europe has done for Jewish history and philology. It is in view of this fact that I hail Dr. Kohler’s election to the Presidency of the Hebrew Union College as a happy event in the annals of American Jewry; for under his guidance I am sure Cincinnati will, in good time, contribute its share to this great “battle of duty.” Some amiable persons predict jealousy and strife between the two colleges, and are already preparing to enjoy the fight as disinterested spectators. I am certain that they will prove false prophets, for the old dictum that the students of the Torah increase peace in the world, holds good also in our day. But let me say to you that this yearning after peace, on my part, is not to be taken as a sign of my entertaining any doubt as to the soundness of my theological position, or fear of a strenuous life. I am, as a rule, not given to mental squinting, nor have I ever shunned a fight. But I honor and admire Dr. Kohler too much to take up the position of an antagonist. Besides, you have probably heard the story of that Methodist parson who rebuked one of his parishioners who occasionally indulged in wife-beating, with the words: “How can you spend your time in fighting your wife, when you both should be fighting the devil?” In fact, I feel that we are standing now before a crisis which would stigmatize the indulgence in such a fight as treason to the cause of Judaism; we must gather our forces and fight the enemy; and Dr. Kohler, by his wide learning, contagious enthusiasm and noble character, is the right man in the right place to marshal a part of these forces, which may, by the blessing of God, help us to victory.

Schechter’s “philosophic Hep-Hep” refers to the Hep-Hep Riots of 1819 beginning in Würzburg and spreading to other areas. It was the most widespread Western European pogrom in modern times until the Holocaust, and was instigated by those opposing emancipation (i.e., an equality of civil rights) for the Jews.