Oz Torah. Ask the Rabbi BIBLE CRITICS


Question. What is your approach to Bible critics?


Answer.   Biblical scholarship is often in the hands of non-believers who tend to see the Bible as a piece of ancient literature divorced from any thought of Revelation. They suggest that one can study it through literary and linguistic technicalities that make belief almost irrelevant.

The German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig argued that the grammar and history of the text are not the real issue. He said that the Torah is Divine though recorded by fallible human beings.

Orthodox Jews appreciate Rosenzweig’s point of view but cannot entirely support it. They cannot brush aside the question of the history of the Bible. They are not prepared to reject the traditional view that the text came from God, and there are limitations to human wisdom.

When we see difficulties in the text we have to do three things – keep searching, keep believing and keep honouring the Biblical message.


Question. Do cigarettes have to be kosher?

Answer.   No form of smoking is really kosher. There is so much evidence that smoking is bad for your health that no-one should be smoking at all, either cigarettes of anything else. Maimonides says bluntly that anything which carries a known risk to life or health must not be indulged in (Hilchot Rotze’ach 11:5).

Historically, cigarettes began in Spain in the 18th century. Before this, people had known about smoking tobacco, and it is said that beggars in the streets picked up remnants of used cigars, wrapped the tobacco in paper and made money from selling the resultant cigarettes.

Rabbis had long debated the use of tobacco, especially on Pesach when there was a problem with the additives mixed with the tobacco. The Magen Avraham (Hilchot Pesach 467) reported that beer was mixed with the tobacco and the result was chametz on Pesach.

Others retorted that the tobacco is not actually eaten, so the most that can be said is that tobacco should not be taken on Pesach as a stringency.

Since tobacco is no longer soaked in beer, there may not be such a strict prohibition of smoking on Pesach these days. However, there could still be a problem of other additives.


Question. Why was the Yiddish writer Isaac Leib Peretz against Purim?

Answer.   I don’t think he was against Purim as such. His problem was whether Purim was a proper festival like Pesach or Yom Kippur.

He said,

“There is a proverb, ‘Purim is no Yom-Tov and fever is no sickness’. There’s little to envy in a man shaking in the grip of fever; there’s less to envy in a people that makes of Purim an occasion for rejoicing… It is a festival for beggars, fiddlers and masqueraders, and for a people made up of these!”

Two young siblings in Stamford Hill, North London, dress up as colourful clowns. credit: Daily Mail.

Peretz’s words are not really a fair assessment of the attraction of Purim, but they illustrate the fragility and tragedy of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

What a disgrace it is that others reduced us to “beggars, fiddlers and masqueraders”. It’s not a disgrace that we could still laugh at ourselves and indeed make jokes at our oppressors’ expense. The oppressors perpetrated untold harm (and have never had the grace or courage to apologise for their sins), but the fact is that we have always outlived them, as we will outlive the antisemites and Israel-bashers of our own day.

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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