A response to a question about a Missionary in Israel, preaching to Jews about the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah.

A friend who is a local Pastor sometimes asks me questions about Hebrew or biblical texts. I am honored to discuss these issues with him; and even more honored when I hear, from time to time, that my responses have informed his sermons or teaching.

He wrote me today about a video “blowing up on Facebook.”

[slightly edited—SW] “I’ve been getting a ton of questions about and am hoping you can help. The video is in Hebrew and it’s basically a Hebrew speaking man using Isaiah 53 in an attempt to convert Jewish Israelis to Christianity. The claim is that Isaiah 53 is “forbidden” in Judaism or even removed from Tanakh.

“… I don’t recall ever hearing the chapter is forbidden or removed. Is there any validity to that claim?

“This link should take you to the video in question. https://www.facebook.com/MedabrimEnglish/

Here is my reply [also lightly edited].

Indeed, the passage is not part of the “annual lectionary”—passages read in synagogues. What the missionary is talking about is inclusion in the Haftarot. He is correct: Isaiah 52:13 through the end of Isaiah 53 (often called the “Suffering Servant” passage) is not included in the list of Haftarot. Although the missionary presents this as a “hidden” passage or something the Rabbis don’t want Jews to see, this is far from the truth: It has not been removed from the Bible, or prohibited from reading. Every Hebrew Bible, every Book of Isaiah, has this passage.

As is well known, all of Torah, (Genesis through Deuteronomy) is read from the Torah Scroll in most synagogues in an annual reading cycle. In addition, a selection from the Prophetic books of about a chapter or two in length is read each Sabbath and Festival. (The Prophetic books are defined as Joshua through Malachi, organized according to the Jewish tradition). The readings from the Prophets selected for the annual reading cycle are a small percentage of the total material in these books..

If you are interested, here is a fairly comprehensive List of selections read in synagogues today. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haftarah#List_of_Haftarot.

There is a list in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah that I also checked. This is at the end of his Prayerbook, at the end of Sefer Ha-Ahava. This passage is not included there either. (Most of the haftarot are the same as today’s practice, but he has a distinct list for the seven weeks following Tish’a Be’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple; he also gives the seven readings used today, discussed below).

There *are* Talmudic discussions about passages from the Prophets that are or are not read in public. This is not one of them.  Moreover, some of the passages that the Talmud suggests should not be read in public are in fact read in the Synagogue.

There are lectionaries associated with the practice of reading Torah in three years, in which there were three times the number of prophetic selections. Searching for this is beyond the scope of my answer today. Michael Fishbane is the scholar whose name comes to mind first regarding the actual history of the Jewish lectionary.

I won’t take the time to look at the other references cited by the missionary. In any case the response to his claim is clear: the passage is not read in the synagogue in the annual cycle of readings, but otherwise is not omitted from any Hebrew Bibles or included in any lists of prohibited readings.

It’s easy to see how a missionary could argue that the “Suffering Servant” passage should have been in the annual reading cycle. Haftarot called “the seven of consolation” are recited on the seven Sabbaths between Tish’a Be’Av and Rosh HaShanah–all from Isaiah 40 and following chapters. The passages before and after the “Suffering Servant” passage (i.e. passages ending Isa. 52:12 and beginning 54:1) are the readings for Shofetim, and the following week, Ki Tetze. Perhaps this all is especially meaningful if people suppose that the Messiah was born on the day the Temple was destroyed, which is remembered on Tish’a BeAv. But there are other passages from Isaiah 40 onward that are also not part of the haftara cycle.

Presumably the reference to Sanhedrin 98 mentioned by the missionary is to p. 98b and a possible name of the Messiah, see for example, http://www.come-and-hear.com/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_98.html.  The Isaiah passage is referenced at note 31. In this passage “the Rabbis say” the name of the Messiah can be learned from Isaiah 53:4.

There are Targums and Midrashim that understand the Isaiah text as referring to the Messiah this way as well. However, it should be noted that there are numerous suggestions about the name of the Messiah in Sanhedrin 98b, just about all of which are fanciful (and hopeful) readings of Biblical texts. Note also that the Talmudic text postdates the emergence of Christianity and it is certainly possible that discourse about this passage reflects interaction with Christians about its meaning.

But most Jewish tradition does not look at the Suffering Servant as primarily a messianic figure; it is probably more common to see the figure as a poetic reference to Israel herself, suffering in Exile, yet loyal to God, and this is consistent with much of the context of this portion of the Book of Isaiah. Moreover, it is easy to see why a passage that refers to the suffering of Israel is not included in the readings that are part of the seven haftarot of consolation–perhaps the best argument that the Rabbis did not understand it to refer to messianic redemption but to Israel’s suffering.

A short, concise discussion of this passage with both traditional an academic perspectives is in the Jewish Study Bible. The classic Hebrew commentaries printed in most Rabbinic Bibles do not emphasize the messianic reading of this passage. To be sure, any commentary written or printed after the emergence of Christianity (including rabbinic bibles or the Jewish Study Bible of course) might easily be claimed by this missionary to have reflected a consciously anti-Christian agenda. But in fact, the argument should be the reverse: any reading of this text as solely Messianic in intention, rather than capable of diverse interpretations, clearly reflects a conscious Christian polemic.

In short, the missionary of this video is using a rather typical missionary trope, in which the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52-53 is seen as a prefiguring of Jesus; and as you are well aware, the idea of finding Hebrew Bible passages that can be interpreted as prefiguring Jesus may or may not go back to Jesus’ actual ministry, but it certainly goes back to the time New Testament gospels were written down a few decades later.

You have probably come to rely on me for responses that are way longer and more comprehensive than called for yet have value and interest. I hope I did not disappoint.

Seth Ward

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Can we at least agree about Abraham?


Can we at least agree about Abraham?



APRIL 10 2011[1]


If we have Abraham, why do we need Moses, Jesus or Muhammad (and vice versa)? This question, suggested to me by Maimonides’ “Laws of Idolaters” chapter 1 and parallels, and by the discussion of Father Abraham in New Testament, weighs heavily on my attempts to teach students how to contrast approaches to the founding figures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is especially so in my teaching career at the University of Wyoming, a predominantly undergraduate teaching environment. It is, moreover, one in which some of the students are religious, and many are not religious or not believers. Somewhat like the famous canard a generation ago about secular Israeli insistence on a traditional brand of Judaism despite their personal indifference to religion, in Wyoming, the religion in which they do not believe is a strong brand of evangelical Christianity, but one only inculcated in Sunday schools up to about the age of 10.[2] I suspect this background is more common that I once thought, and recognition of this approach ought to shape how we present “Abrahamic” comparisons.

Abraham would seem to unite the three religions—hence titles such as the title for this panel. But in reality, even though Abraham plays a key role in each of these traditions, the Abrahamic covenant was never enough for any of them. Discussions of shared narratives need to celebrate what is common. While it is true that finding comparisons between traditions is a fertile source for deepening our comprehension and understanding of each, and of their interactions,  we cannot do so without emphasizing how different approaches to the fundamental religious issues shape the way the shared narratives are retold.  This is especially so when teaching this material, as our students—and often we ourselves – often tend to focus on the shared material and de-emphasize the differences in context and significance attached to the material. My students easily understand how siblings can tell narratives with essentially the same details, yet the stories are remarkably different—yet they lose the ability to make these distinctions when confronted with, for example, parallel accounts of Abraham, Moses or Jesus. We need not merely to point out the commonalities, but to emphasize, over and over, the need to respect the basic diversity in these approaches.

My thanks to Laurie Baron for encouraging me to present a paper within this panel, and to Khaleel Muhammad, whose wisdom in comparing Muslim and Jewish material has been evident to me since he was a graduate student in Montreal. I should also note that some of my comments are adapted from a lecture offered on Hussein Day in New York City some years ago.

I should also note that my comments reflect my findings in teaching and to a certain extent in interfaith work. It might be of interest to study dialogues and interactions where the term Abrahamic is used with those in which it is not, to determine whether the use of the term makes any difference—but this is beyond my scope here.

This presentation reflects some of my thoughts about the tendency to talk about the Judaism, Christianity and Islam as “Abrahamic” faiths. I do not know when the term was first used in the context of interfaith dialogue, but it was popularized in the late 1970s by Ismail Raji al-Faruqi (d. 1986), especially as a result of the “Trialogue of the Abrahamic Faiths” he organized at the AAR Meeting in New York City in 1979. The focus on Abraham in “Abrahamic” makes sense, as each tradition shares a claim on him. But we need to remember that Abraham is not merely the ultimate paradigm of the Founder and Source of each tradition, but the claims are substantially different, and moreover, Abraham is clearly not enough for any of these traditions. After all, if we have Abraham, as I like to ask our students, why would we need Moses or Jesus or Muhammad?

Indeed, the story of Abraham is a good place to start; not only is he shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, we could easily add the “Ṣābi’ans”[3] and Druzes, Bahais, Mandeans, even Rastafarians. For Jews, Christians and Muslims, the account of his willingness to sacrifice his beloved son, promised by God, is a central theme. I think it may be significant that the “binding of Isaac” is called ‘Aqeda עקדה “binding” in Hebrew, the same root and nearly the same word as ‘aqīda عقيدة “belief”—indeed the kind of belief and faith which can be held by all men. The story of the ‘Aqedah is recounted by the Jews in the synagogues every year on Rosh Ha-Shanah, the “Jewish New Year,” the beginning of the Jewish month of Tishrei, in the fall, usually considered to be parallel to the Arab month of Muḥarram.[4] This is no doubt because Isaac was said to have been born in Tishrei, and the Aqeda to have occurred in Tishrei, but also because of the role that the memory of Abraham’s loyalty plays in the liturgy of the day. It also found a place in the daily recitations of Biblical passages found in the traditional prayer book as a prelude to the formal prayer, and thus was recited every day for generations by pious Jews.[5] Perhaps most important in our context, Rosh Ha-Shanah begins a ten-day period leading up to the tenth of Tishrei—the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Usually associated with the ‘Āshūrā’, Yom Kippur is, like the Shī‘ī observance of ‘Āshūrā’, closely tied to learning lessons from acts of faith and sanctification of the divine name: readiness to die or have your dearest ones die for the faith.

Of course the question most often asked in this context is not how Abraham fits into spiritual thinking of Jews, Christians or Muslims, but “Which son of Abraham was to be offered as a sacrifice? For Jews and Christians, the answer is simple: the Bible text says Isaac. For Muslims, however, the Qur’an does not specify which one; early Muslim historians and commentators, such as al-Ṭabarī, are convinced that Isaac is the better answer, although today most Muslims believe that it could only have been Ismā‘īl.[6] This is an important difference, and we must accept not merely that today’s participants in the Abrahamic dialogue may not be able to agree about the identity of the al-dhabīḥ “the one who was to have been slaughtered”—but ask why and how the Muslim community, well aware that its early scholars debated whether it was Isaac or Ismail for at least three centuries, came to agree almost uniformly on the opposite answer from that of Genesis.  I will not seek to resolve this difference here:  but urge us to respect difference.

I should add that, when I speak to Muslims, I often suggest that it may be instructive to examine two central questions about the response of Abraham’s son to his ordeal. What did he think about it, and what did he do as a result?

As for the first question—Was the son as prepared to be a martyr as was the father to offer him?—This is explicit in the Qur’an: Abraham tells the sacrificial son that he is to be sacrificed and the son tells Abraham “do as you are bidden” (37:102). As for the Biblical text, agreement goes unmentioned yet the Rabbis understand Isaac’s agreement as implicit. In Genesis 22:8-9, Isaac asks his father where the lamb for the sacrifice is; Abraham tells him that God will provide the lamb (Gen. 22:7-8), and it is understood by tradition that Isaac knew from this that he was to be the sacrifice. Then the Bible says “they went together” (Gen. 22:8, cf. 22:6)—the second time these words occur in the normally sparse Biblical discourse. This is understood by the commentators to indicate that Isaac knew and was at peace with God’s decree. The Aqedah is thus not only about Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice, but about Isaac’s acceptance, his readiness to die for what Jews call the sanctification of God’s name.[7] The loyalty of Abraham, and his readiness to do the divine will, and that of his son to be sacrificed, is indeed a shared motif in the three faiths.

But here too the second set of questions may be more important: What does one do after the Aqedah? Jewish tradition has several answers, as the Aqedah narrative is part of a longer, scriptural narrative of the Patriarchs. Reading scripture, sometimes with the help of Midrash, Jewish tradition asserts that Abraham’s son studied,[8] married,[9] prayed—indeed, introduced the Afternoon Prayer,[10] stayed in the Land promised to his father, and worked in the world, having children, digging wells, raising livestock, and even growing crops—an unusual profession among the Jewish Patriarchs; raising livestock was far more common. Moreover, Jewish tradition at least allows the question: Did Abraham really pass the test? Generally, the answer is yes, but it is sometimes observed that God never speaks to Abraham again after the conversation in which Abraham unquestioningly accepts the task of offering his son. This type of history was known to Christians through the New Testament, and to Muslims through Islamic historians—but how relevant is it? Far more important than the Arab historians, the Qur’an does not continue the narrative of Abraham and his son. Although the Qur’an refers to the asb­­āṭ the Tribes—the sons of Jacob and thus the tribes of Israel—it rarely portrays the stories familiar from Genesis as explaining how Israelites can trace their ancestry to patriarchs with Mesopotamian background who found themselves enslaved in Egypt. The Qur’an recounts the promise of the Asb­­āṭ always to be loyal to God—but the promise of Land, such an important part of the Patriarchal story in Genesis—is encountered in the Qur’an primarily in the account of Moses and the Israelites. Here, the promise of land to the Israelites is described as having been written—but not associated with Abraham. Instead, Abraham and Ismail are associated with the Ka’ba, and the rituals of Hajj and Id al-Adha are given an Abrahamic basis.

Other Stories of Abraham

Jewish tradition tells other stories of Abraham. One of the most popular—found not in the Bible but in the Midrash, is how he destroyed the idols of his father. The story is familiar from the Qur’an as well.[11] these stories play a role, interestingly, even in the Kitāb al-Filāḥa al-Nabaṭiyya, supposedly a translation of a pre-Islamic pagan work[12] and reflect a motif found in ancient Egyptian literature as well. But it is important to note that they work quite differently: in the Midrash, the story testifies to Abraham’s strong faith, and his ability to use rational argument. It may even be an argument against relying on miracles as Abraham’s brother follows Abraham’s lead into the fiery furnace – presumably without Abraham’s faith – and dies there. In the Qur’anic version, God guides Abraham every step of the way.

Abraham is the paradigm of loyal belief in God, the ancestor of a holy people, willing to follow Divine precepts no matter how severely tested. Should not his mission be enough? If there is room for Moses or Jesus or Muhammad, this means there is a problem of Abrahamic insufficiency.

For Maimonides, it is simple: Abraham represents the possibility of knowing God through rational thought. But a system based only on rational thought is not going to be successful for all in the long term. It did, however, prepare the people so that Moses could codify practices based on Divine revelation that would make it possible for the people to maintain belief in God. Maimonides’ argument is particularly striking: Abraham only makes sense if he comes to Divine belief totally without a living tradition of monotheism: it has to be freely developed by Man rather than imposed by God.

The Qur’an is pretty much the opposite: God explicitly leads Abraham through the steps necessary to challenge polytheistic veneration of natural features and forces. Moses is mentioned in the Qur’an many more times than Abraham; and although the Muslims introduced the idea of Abrahamic ancestry of the Arabs, a kinship basis for national identity is ultimately rejected in favor of a religious one. Yet it is Abraham who is mentioned, for example, in daily Muslim prayer, and not Moses; and the Pilgrimage recreates the experiences of Abraham as well as Muhammad. (And it might be suggested that the Pilgrimage—connected with Abraham’s precedent—became far more important in ritual recollection (the annual Hajj) than the Hijra, which might be considered a Mosaic model, an Exodus from Mecca, and, to the extent that early followers of Muhammad were known as muhajirin—those who had left Mecca.

Abraham’s faith was not enough, though. Ibn al-Kalbi explains that at first and people fell away from true belief until the Qur’an came.

My father [Muhammad al-Kalbī] and others told me—and I confirmed all of their traditions—that when Ishmael b. Abraham had inhabited Mecca and had had many children… Mecca became too small for them, and wars and enmity broke out amongst them. Some of them drove out others and they spread out among the land…. What brought them to worship idols and stones was that no one would depart from Mecca without carrying stones from the Ḥaram (sacred area), as a means of honoring the Ḥaram and love for Mecca. And when they alit (at their homes) they set it down and circumambulated around it as they had circumambulated the Ka‘ba, showing loyalty to it and love and devotion to the Ḥaram. They afterwards were still giving honor to the Ka‘ba and to Mecca, making pilgrimage and ‘umra (an abbreviated pilgrimage, lacking the visit to the Mountain of Mercy outside Mecca), according to the heritage of Abraham and Ishmael.

Then this brought them to worship what they had adored, and they forgot what the (stones) had been, and they replaced the religion of Abraham and Ishmael for something else. And so they worshipped idols, and had become like those nations who had come before, drawing forth the worship of the people of Noah, according to the heritage of what remained of them.” (Kitāb al-Aṣnām p. 6).

Maimonides’ explanation is more or less the same, at least in the stage of Adam to Abraham, in which the people began to praise the planets and stars as divine handiwork, then forgot monotheism and began to worship them as gods. But from Abraham onward, they found that the rationalist understanding was not enough—yet it was a necessary stage in preparing Abraham’s descendants to receive the Torah. Yet it was not enough: Moses was sent and crowned with the Torah, teaching divine laws and proper modality of worship.

The Qur’an offers other narratives about falling away: Jews and Christians received authentic Prophecy, but either changed it or cancelled it, or, rejected it, thus losing their identity: “tilka ummatun qad hallat” “This is a nation that has passed away.”  In any case, for Islam, the early revelations were confirmed by that given to Muhammad. The Qur’an hardly has the kind of rationalist discourse Maimonides offers: nevertheless, each verse is a sign (aya) attesting to its truth, and Muhammad is the seal of prophets. So, unlike Abraham, whose descendants did not keep up his revelation and faith, Muhammad’s revelation is clear, and protected from being changed or cancelled.

By the way, I believe it unlikely that Maimonides was unaware of the paradigms of both Ibn al-Kalbi and the Qur’an, and that his narrative in his “Laws of Idolators” can only be understood as a response to them.[13]

The Christian situation is more complex, in that as Christianity developed, the idea was that Abraham and all the prophets were but preparation for the coming of Christ. In the synoptic Gospels, Abraham symbolizes not the promise of land or total faith but the genealogical heritage of the Jewish people, and in several passages, as a kind of guardian in Heaven. Yet we find in Luke 16, Abraham is envisioned in heaven, telling someone enduring hardship there that Moses and the Prophets are a sufficient guide—here Abraham is portrayed as pointing to what Jews would call Torah, mitzvot u-masoret Torah, commandments and tradition.”[14]  Yet the passage also says that the doctrine of resurrection of the dead would not be able to teach them what Moses and the Prophets could not, and it implies that the Torah and Prophets were not enough.  Abraham foreshadows Jesus—but also, at least in some passages in the Gospels, Abraham also symbolizes the fact that Abrahamic genealogy and fidelity to Mosaic law are insufficient.   This is a reading of the New Testament itself; for Christian thought itself, Abraham’s readiness to offer sacrifice, even Isaac’s readiness to accept his fate, pales in comparison to Jesus’ self-sacrifice. Abraham and Isaac show unflinching loyalty to God (and get a reiteration of the promise of progeny, patrimony and blessing)—but it is only the latter that saves the world.

In thinking about Christianity’s difference from Judaism, it is too easy to focus on the questions put forth for example at the disputation of the Ramban, Rabbi Moses b. Nahman c. 1270,—and still asked today—about the person and timing of the Messiah. But we should be aware that there are other questions to be asked, and determining who is the Messiah and whether he has already come or not is not the only one. And is not particularly relevant to my questions about the role of Abraham and why Abraham is not sufficient.  Perhaps more important is to ask what the significance might be of the framing of the Messianic mission. A few years ago, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik framed the difference between Jewish and Christian attitudes not about the Messiah’s identity and timing, but about the possibility of performing God’s will: For Judaism, the Messiah will come when Jews do good—understood by traditional Jews as observing mitzvot: redemption results from the performance of God’s will. For Christianity, ultimately, redemption is a necessary prerequisite for the performance of God’s will. Abraham may have observed all the Torah (according to Jewish tradition) and taught about God, but the Torah—the source of mitzvot—was revealed through Moses. Abraham showed he was ready to sacrifice his son, but the redemptive sacrifice for Christians was that of Jesus. (There is also a very different approach here to the audience: the Torah is depicted as being revealed to the entire Israelite people at Sinai, whereas Abraham taught his family and those he may have met; Jesus’ redemptive sacrifice was witnessed by those who were at Golgotha and the resurrection by disciples and friends, not the entire people, but it is seen as being addressed to the entire world). Very different models—but in all of them, Abraham paved the way, modeled or foreshadowed the paths for salvation or redemption—but the process was completed by Moses or Jesus.

Abraham is a figure that unites monotheists, and it is easy to understand why these are called “Abrahamic traditions.” But Abraham is also a very problematic figure—one who is clearly superceded by Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. He is thus a superb icon for interfaith comparisons: seen by all as the start of the tradition, and by none as sufficient. Moreover, Abraham symbolizes very different things in each of these traditions—he is indeed honored in all, but we have seen many different ideas about why and how this is so. The different traditions honor the “one” Abraham, but are they really talking about “the same” Abraham. I pose the question this way—using a simplistic “one” vs. “same” dichotomy that I would normally find objectionably simplistic—to create a parallel regarding discourse about God. Muslims, Christians and Jews assert they are monotheists, that is, they assert they recognize the One God. Many in our society however, ask whether others recognize the “same” God, without considering that their assertion that there is One God renders the question meaningless. The question perhaps is better put as whether the others believe the same things about God. So too with Abraham. Although Abraham is usually considered to be the same Abraham—Jews, Christians and Muslims recognize the same Abraham, so to speak, they do not necessarily share the same values and conclusions when discussing him. Perhaps Abraham might not merely be a model for ways to redemption, but also provide an important model for discussing labels for theological differences about the very sameness and oneness of God.

Our students tend to harmonize disparate pieces of data, and collect information from different sources without realizing that apparent commonalities may reflect shared themes, but ultimately cannot be completely reconciled. Too often, they focus on black and white differences or similarities which represent a shared experience and shared narrative traditions. Like competing narratives of, say, a fight or breaking a window, told by competing siblings, the details necessarily similar, but the stories clearly have different “spin” and reflect different agendas. When judging sibling disagreements, it may be possible to create a most likely scenario. But in our case, it is likely that the stories have been told and retold so often that ultimately, whatever they may or may not tell us about the historical subject of the story is unclear and elusive, but the similarities and dissimilarities tell us volumes about those who chose to tell those stories and the values they want to transmit.

Our most important task, when teaching this material, is to model three sometimes-contradictory tasks.

  • To apply the best tools of analysis we can.
  • To point out the commonality of the traditions.
  • And, to help our students, disciples and, might I add the consumers of our research, to understand and truly respect the differences—not merely to point out how the stories in a tradition that is not our own differ from our tradition, but to do so in a spirit that nevertheless conveys both respect for what is different, and that it is different.

Seth Ward


[1] This essay was delivered at an invited conference session of the WJSA (Western Jewish Studies Association) in 2011. It was slightly edited, re-titled, and updated in 2016.

[2] This characterization is based on anecdotal reports such as “Well, my family went to church when I was young but we stopped going when I was in elementary school” or “I went to Sunday school only until I was about ten when I started soccer practice.”

[3] Nabatean Agriculture was widely known in medieval times in its Arabic translation, Al-Filāḥa al-Nabaṭiyya, recently edited and published in Arabic by Toufic Fahd, Damascus, 1993-1998, and various Arabic paraphrases, and considered to be associated with the Ṣabi’an religion. Assuming that at its core the Arabic versions in fact translated an earlier, Aramaic work, it provides evidence of a group of star-worshippers who told many stories about the Biblical Abraham in late antiquity and early Islamic times. The term Ṣabi’an is not without its problems. In the Arabic speaking Middle Ages, there were a number of opinions about who the “Sabi‘ans” were. Some considered this to be the name of the ancient polytheism at the basis of Egyptian, Greek and Mesopotamian idolatry. Others considered it to be a form of monotheism based on a scripture. The relationship between this group and the “Ḥanīf” religion—supposedly monotheism—has been subject to much debate.

[4] Muḥarram is often thought to have begun in the fall in an ancient Meccan calendar which kept pace with the sun, unlike the Islamic calendar, which does not. I explored some of the issues and suggested solutions in S. Ward: “Teach us to Number our days: The Elusive Epoch in Muslim, Jewish, and Christian Calendars.” Millennialism from the Hebrew Bible to the Present. (Studies in Jewish Civilization Vol. 12) L. Greenspoon and R.A. Simkins, ed. Creighton University Press, University of Nebraska Press, 2002. 63-90.

[5] See for example, P Birnbaum, Daily Prayer Book, New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1949, pp. 19-22.

[6] Al-Ṭabarī noted that both views had been supported by statements reported on the authority of Muhammad, but suggests that the Qur’ān itself proves that the better version of the account is the one which Isaac is offered by his father.  1:290ff.; the Qur’ānic proof: 1:300.  For discussions of these stories the views of other Islamic scholars, see see, e.g., the brief note note to 1:290, (Brinner, The History of Al-Ṭabarī II: Prophets and Patriarchs, Albany: SUNY Press , 1987, p. 82). See also R. Firestone, Journeys in Holy Lands, Albany: SUNY Press, 1990, 135-151, who notes that Ṭabarī’s choice has no following among contemporary Muslims. Khaleel Mohammed, Journal of culture and religion (Concordia University, Montreal), 13 (1999) 125-138.

[7] Genesis Rabbah 56:4, 8, and Rashi commentary on Gen. 22:8. Shalom Spiegel’s volume, The Last Trial: On the legends and lore of the command to Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, New York: Pantheion Books, 1967, is a study of many of the midrashic and poetic elaborations of this passage.

[8] Gen. Rabbah 56:11; Midrash Ha-Gadol on the verse, and numerous other places.

[9] Genesis 24:12-19.

[10] A reading of Gen. 24:63: Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 26b, Bereishit Rabba 60:14.

[11] Pesahim 118a; Qur’ān 6:74 and 21:51ff.

[12] See reference above, note 7.

[13] I also think he was aware of the Kuzari  by Judah HaLevi. HaLevi asserted that a tradition about God was transmitted from Adam to Abraham through individuals, in other words, Abraham knew about God via traditional teachings rather rational argument. I suspect but of course cannot prove that Maimonides’ use of Hebrew davar “thing” in the passage in “Laws of Idolators” can be seen as a response to HaLevi’s use of the Arabic al-amr al-ilahi “divine thing” (note that the classic Hebrew translation of HaLevi’s idea uses a different Hebrew word: Ha-Inyan ha-elohi; I am not aware of a translation as ha-davar ha-elohi.) My colleague Prof. Daniel Lasker has become well known for his discussions of the differences between HaLevi and Maimonides on these subjects, characterizing HaLevi’s approach to Judaism as inherited and transmitted as “Software” and Maimonides as ultimately based on personal rational exploration as “Hardware.”

[14] By Masoret, I am thinking here more broadly of the notion of Oral Tradition—the tradition handed down from Moses to Joshua to the Elders, etc. Avot 1:1.

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PDF of Sheleg Al Iri Post


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(שלג על עירי (פירות חמישה-עשר Sheleg al Iri by Naomi Shemer

(שלג על עירי (פירות חמישה-עשר

Sheleg al Iri (Perot Hamisha Asar)


Sheleg al Iri was written by Naomi Shemer for a 1976 musical mounted by Teatron Bimot based on The Travels of Benjamin III by Shalom Yankev Abramovich (1836-1917), best known by his pen name Mendele Mocher Seforim. Mendele is usually considered the grandfather of Yiddish literature (and Sholem Aleichem described him as such in the dedication of his novel Stempenyu).

Cast Album for Musical

The Travels of Benjamin III was published in 1878 and may be considered a satire on Jewish life modeled loosely on Don Quixote. (The first two Benjamins were Benjamin of Tudela and J.J. Benjamin, 1818-1864). Benjamin longs for the Land of Israel, very timely in 1878, as Mendele is writing at the very beginning of the Hibat Tzion movement, and Benjamin sets out.


Left to Right: Mendele MOcher Seforim (S Y Abramovich), Sholem ALeichem (Standing), Ben Ami, Ch. N. Bialik.

In this song, Benjamin’s wife Zelda imagines him in far-off Palestine, while she is in cold Europe. In Eastern Europe, the 15th of Shevat (Hamisha-asar, Fifteen as it was sometimes called in Jewish languages such as Yiddish and Ladino, or Tu Bi-Shevat as it is most often known today) was noted by eating dried fruits such as figs, carobs, dates and oranges, especially if they were brought from Eretz Yisrael. Zelda dreams of her traveling husband bringing her these precious fruits of Tu Bi-Shevat. The scene is not from the book, but, early on, the book does describe Benjamin’s longing for the Land of Israel through celebrating its fruits. Shemer brilliantly weaves words together to produce a heartfelt song of longing far beyond the satiric tone of Mendele’s book.

This was one of thirteen songs written by Naomi Shemer for the production; three of them—this song, Siman she-od lo higanu, and Shirat ha-Asabim—have had a life far beyond this musical.

Mendele sets Zelda in an imaginary city he called Batlon, but according to Ofer Gavish (on whose page http://www.gavisho.com/?p=394 much of this note is based), Naomi Shemer’s family felt that her parent’s hometown of Vilna was central in her mind when she thought of the Diaspora, and the song written about Vilna that might first come to their mind is Sheleg al Iri. Yet Batlon—Zelda’s snow-covered city in the song—is something of the opposite of Vilna, more like Shalom Aleichem’s Kasrilevke or the Chelm of the famous stories about the wise men.

By the way, links to all the songs from the Benjamin III musical are at the bottom of Gavish’s website http://www.gavisho.com/?p=394.

Seth Ward


(פירות חמישה-עשר)

Sheleg al iri kol halaila nach.
El artzot hachom ahuvi halach.Sheleg al iri vehalaila kar.
Me’artzot hachom li yavi tamar. 

Dvash hate’eina, metek hecharuv.
Ve’orchat gmalim amusei kawl tuv.

Heinah shuv yashuv shemesh levavi
Umisham tapuach zahav yavi.

Sheleg al iri nach kmo talit.
Me’artzot hachom ma heveita li?

Sheleg al iri, sheleg al panai.
Uvetoch hapri kawl ga’agu’ai.

Snow over my city, resting all the night.
My love has gone to the warm lands.
Snow over my city, and the night is cold.
From the warm countries he will bring me a date.

The honey of the fig, the sweetness of carob.
And a caravan of camels laden with all good things.

Surely my heart’s sun will return here.
And from there, he will bring an orange.

Snow over my city, resting like a tallit.
From the warm lands, what have you brought me?
Snow on my city, snow on my face.
And within the fruit are all my longings.

שלג על עירי, כל הלילה נח.
אל ארצות החום אהובי הלך.

שלג על עירי, והלילה קר.
מארצות החום לי יביא תמר.

דבש התאנה, מתק החרוב.
ואורחת גמלים עמוסי כל טוב.

הינה שוב ישוב, שמש לבבי.
ומשם תפוח זהב יביא.

שלג על עירי, נח כמו טלית.
מארצות החום, מה הבאת לי.

שלג על עירי, שלג על פני.
ובתוך הפרי כל געגועי.

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Middle East and Israel in Film University of Wyoming Fall 2015 Class Awards (Torrys)

This year I am naming this award in memory of Robert Torry. Bob died in 2013. He and Paul Flesher taught a course on Film and Religion for many years and published a book on the subject. Bob was awarded UW’s Ellbogen Lifetime Teaching Award in 2011. –SW

The University of Wyoming offered a course entitled Middle East and Israel in Film for Fall 2015. As in past years, the final class included a discussion of awards in various categories. Students were sent a list of films screened and/or discussed in class; some additional categories were proposed by students. Nominations were made at our final class meeting, before screening Kazablan in its entirety (portions only were screened early in the course). Voting was done after the film screening. Nominees for each category are listed; winners are asterisked and underlined.




Trembling before G-d

Broken Wings

Borrowed Identity

A Separation



***Uncle in Bliss

Headmaster in Wadjda

Viviane Amsalem in Gett

Prison master in Blessed is the Match



Paul Newman in Exodus

***Wadjda in Wadjda

Professor in Bliss

Hannah Senesh in Blessed is the Match




***Where do we go Now?


A Separation



Zero Motivation



Borrowed Identity

Broken Wings

The Attack




Zero Motivation

***Where do we go Now?

West Bank Story




Broken Wings





***Where Maryam realized who abused her in Bliss

Taha Killed in Exodus

Maya Singing Solo in Studio in Broken Wings



***Fireworks scene at end of Wadjda

Hitchhiking scene at end of Broken Wings

Ending scene in Where do we go Now?



***Wajda and Abdulla in Wadjda

Fatima and David in West Bank Story

Eyad and Naomi in A Borrowed Identity





***Where do we go Now?

West Bank Story



***The baking song in Where do we go Now?

Kosher king Hummus Hut song in West Bank Story[2]

“Offensive Song” in Borrowed Identity

Maya’s Song in Broken Wings



*** Face-staring in Gett


Song scene with Muhammad Abdel Wahab in Ghazal al-Banat



Children of Heaven


Trembling before G-d



***Blessed is the Match

West Beirut



Waltz with Bashir



Nassim killed in Where do we go Now?

***Stepmother scene in Bliss

Maryam’s breakdown scene in Bliss

Husband has divorce document in hand but refuses to give it in Gett

Ending of Bethlehem



Fireworks Scene in Wajda

Shredded Paper scene in Zero Motivation

*** Russian girl with gun in Zero Motivation

Studio Solo Singing Broken Wings

Maryam and Jamal sitting on the rocks in Bliss

Grave Scene in Borrowed Identity



We ran out of time for these suggested categories:











Broken Wings


Gett: The trial of Viviane Amsalem

West Bank Story

Blessed is the Match (The Hannah Senesh Movie)

Where do we go Now?

Ghazal al-Banat



Zero Motivation

A Borrowed Identity

A Separation

West Beirut


Trembling before G-d



Many of us saw other films that were discussed in class:

The Square


Waltz With Bashir


Children of Heaven

The Attack




[1] Kazablan was screened after the nominations but before the voting. Student voters (unsurprisingly!) said they would have voted for Kazablan over the films they nominated.

[2] Students debated several songs in West Bank Story for this category; it was decided to put this song up for the category.

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University of Wyoming Middle East and Israel in Film Class Fall 2015 “Torrys” awards

Middle East and Israel in Film University of Wyoming Fall 2015 Class Awards.Finals.docx

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On Syed Kashua’s Dancing Arabs and Borrowed Identity


I teach a course on Middle East and Israel in Film. Often, I read the book on which a film is supposedly based (or the book based on the film). only after I show the film in class.

I screened A Borrowed Identity with a screenplay by Syed Kashua (Directed by Eran Riklis), and then read the book, Dancing Arabs afterwards.

I read the book in English, not Hebrew, so I cannot tell whether Kashua used Arabic dialogue where appropriate in the film (as he does in the screenplay).

The book is very different from the film; one could hardly say the film is based on the book at all, as the book lacks the main narrative focus of the film, the “borrowed identity” story with the Jonathan character. Instead, it is a series of short episodes from the life of an unnamed main character, based (loosely, I imagine) on Kashua himself. Certainly the character, never named in the book, is from Tira, went to a prestigious private school in Jerusalem, and lived in Beit Safafa with his wife, all things that are also true of the author. (By the way, the school is not named in the book either, although another school whose students taunt the narrator in the film, is. And the narrator’s high school years do not play that much of a role in the book; his Jewish girlfriend figures only briefly. Indeed, Jewish Israelis do not play major recurrent roles in the book’s essays–unlike the film or Kashua’s TV hit series, Arab Labor.

The short chapters remind me of newspaper columns (I am thinking of E. Kishon or Y. Gefen, Israeli humorists who wrote for newspapers), or themes for TV show episodes; they carry a connected narrative but most of them also are designed to be able to be read independently of each other. Some of the chapters of the book become scenes in the film. Some entire sections of the book are not represented in the film at all, such as the narrator’s early life, or his post-high school life, including marriage and baby.

Religion, or at least references to aspects of religious observance, plays more of a role in the book than in the film. The narrator’s family is not religious, but the film’s local closed-cable TV show with the quiz is in the book—and it is described as a Ramadan special, with the deadline on Id al-Fitr. The narrator has a Muslim friend from high school who is religious. There is some discussion about religion and religiosity as it relates to the secular Arab Israeli narrator.

But the most striking change from in tone from the book to the screen—tone, not storyline—is the way some of the political issues are expressed. In the film, Eyad speaks eloquently to critique both the representation of Arabs in Israeli literature and classroom discussions of this issue, and part of the story line is illustrated by his troubles getting a job with an Arab identity. In the book, there is more about identity cards, about Israeli Arab vs. non-Israeli Arab identity and status, about the Ministry of the Interior, and other such issues. On the other hand, the young narrator is not so politically aware; he does not express pride in the father’s career as a “terrorist” and notes his naivite about these issues. The book paints the young narrator as actually friendly with the Jewish visitor to his elementary school class from Seeds of Peace–and recounts that his elementary school paid a return visit to the Seeds of Peace partner school in the nearby Jewish city Kvar Sava—only for the narrator to find his Jewish friend and his class was sent by mistake to his school the same day.

Only a very few of the chapters in the book are in the movie, which has a much tighter narrative focus.

One more thing: I am still not personally convinced about who the “Dancing Arabs” are. Seeing the film with the class, (not the first time I saw it) I thought perhaps it was a reference to dancing on the rooftops while Saddam Hussein was bombing Israel in 1991. Reading the book—which after all, is known as Dancing Arabs,–I am less sure. Perhaps it is this rooftop scene, or a scene in a bar where Arabs are dancing, but it is most likely that readers should assume the Dancing of the title refers to an elaborate yet clumsy dance through a number of identities and highly diverse worlds of Israeli Arabs—family, village, Arab, Palestinian, Israeli, spouse, father and many more.



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