Minutes of Meeting

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Date: May 14, 2000

Location: Home of Jerry and Lorraine Kotler

Meeting Topic: New Interpretations of Selected Biblical Texts

Facilitator: Jerry Kotler

Hosts: Jerry and Lorraine Kotler

PRESENT: Felix Garfunkel, Chair and Agnes Hannahs, Vice-chair; Arthur Auster, Judy Auster, Judith Baker, Bert Buby, Shirley Flacks, Hillel Fox, Erika Garfunkel, Eugene Hannahs, Jerry Kotler, Lorraine Kotler, Ginger Levant, Moira Levant, Christine Malloy, Ruth Precker, Bill Rain, Ken Rosenzweig, Harold Rubenstein, Sophie Rubenstein, Bob Silverman, Robin Smith, Bill Youngkin.

Robin called the meeting to order at 8:00 PM. Jerry decided instead of the prayer to ask the attendees a riddle. With what treasure does God bless us? One cannot buy it. One cannot get a second one. Only when one loses it does one understand what he has lost. What is it? It is ones mother. (The day of the meeting is Mother's Day.)

Robin announced that tonight is the last night Moira will be attending the Dialogue meeting. She has been accepted at Carnegie-Mellon School of Music in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Everyone wished Moira the best in her new endeavor. On another matter, the Dialogue members passed a motion to send a check as a wedding gift to Mona Malik, the leader of the tour at the Islamic Center. She will be married on May 27.

Robin announced that Father Kelley is currently attending the Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany. She stated that the producers of the passion play actually went to Israel to obtain input for removing the anti-Semitic elements of the play. An example is that the blood oath has been removed from the play.

There was a discussion of the proposed Bylaws that were included in the April minutes. The only issue was the length of the terms of office for officers. It was decided that the terms of office would be two years, but if an officer did not feel he or she could serve a two year term, he or she could resign after a year and a replacement would be found. The Bylaws as amended were passed unanimously (the approved Bylaws are included in these minutes and will be posted on the Dialogue website).

Two new attendees introduced themselves: Chris Malloy and Eugene Hannahs.

On behalf of the Nominating Committee, Bert Buby made a motion to elect the entire slate of Dialogue officers which were listed in the April minutes. The motion was passed unanimously (the newly elected officers are listed at the top of page 1 of these minutes.

Ken discussed two upcoming Dialogue events. On December 10, Christians and Jews from Dayton who toured Israel together during the spring will share their experiences with the Dialogue. On October 29, Rev. James Heft from the University of Dayton will discuss the recent Papal apologies for past actions against Jews and others.

Ken then stated that he recently came across information that was a surprising revelation about someone who was extremely important in his Jewish religious upbringing in Houston, Texas. An article about southern rabbis and the civil rights movement referred prominently to the rabbi of Ken's family's congregation in Houston.1 Rabbi William Malev of Congregation Beth Yeshurun (the largest synagogue in Houston) was cited as having not only failed to support desegregation and the civil rights movement from his pulpit but also as having, in some cases, actively opposed the movement. It is well known that northern Jews were extremely involved in and supportive of the civil rights movement. As a result of their own history of persecution, Jews have often been sympathetic to the plight of other persecuted groups--in this case African Americans. However, it is less well known that southern Jews, because of their precarious position in southern White society, were much more ambivalent about the civil rights movement. The revelations about Rabbi Malev were a total surprise to Ken as he had always thought of Rabbi Malev as of liberal political persuasion and had never detected any hint of racism in his sermons or teaching. Rabbi Malev was a pillar of the Houston Jewish community and a charismatic leader. Learning that he was flawed was a great disappointment. For Ken, the revelation provided a valuable opportunity to reexamine one of the most important influences on his life and values in a new light; it also reinforced to him how, when confronting important issues, people must wrestle with the conflict between values and expediency.

Jerry Kotler's Presentation

Jerry began his presentation at about 8:30 PM.

Many of you may be trying to figure out the meaning of the title of my presentation; viz. SELECTED MODERN BIBLICAL INTERPRETATIONS. Let me explain. I subscribe to BIBLICAL ARCHAEOLOGY REVIEW and BIBLICAL REVIEW. I also read Dennis Prager's journal, THE PRAGER PERSPECTIVE, as well as listen to many of his audiotapes. Occasionally an article appears in one of these sources that I find so fascinating that I like to share its contents with friends/associates who I know will enjoy it as well. I decided to pick 4 articles to share with you. The 4 are linked because they offer a new and intriguing interpretation of a biblical word, phrase or story. Let me begin by summarizing a short article by Jonathan Kirsch in the October 1998 issue of BIBLICAL REVIEW (BR) titled:


The Bible describes a rather puzzling story on the day that 5-year-old Isaac was weaned from his mother's breast. Isaac, you may recall, is the child of Sarah's and Abraham's advanced old age. This milestone event is celebrated by a feast that is marred by a mysterious event. The Biblical text claims that Sarah saw 15+ year old Ishmael doing something so disturbing to his half-brother Isaac that she demanded that Abraham cast out Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, into the wilderness. What could Ishmael have done to cause such anger and outrage within Sarah? Let's look at the text (Bereishis or Genesis 21:8-10) using conventional English translations: 8 "The child (Isaac) grew and was weaned. Abraham made a great feast on the day Isaac was weaned. 9 But Sarah saw the son that Hagar, the Egyptian, had borne to Abraham, mocking. 10 So she said to Abraham, 'Drive out that slavewoman with her son, for the son of that slavewoman shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac.'" The Hebrew word, metzachek, is usually translated in Genesis 21:9 as mocking or playing or laughing or sporting (Curiously, the name Yitzchak, or Isaac, actually derives from the word, tza'chak, to laugh. The Torah tells us that Sarah, at 90 years old, was secretly listening in on a conversation Abraham was having with a mysterious stranger. She laughed when the stranger predicted that Sarah would give birth to a son within the year). Is the reader expected to believe that, because of a teenager's typical adolescent behavior, Sarah demanded that the child and his mother be sent away into the desert where they were likely to die?

On the surface it appears that our venerated matriarch may have been be so jealous of her son's birthright that she would literally kill his half-brother to guarantee it. Jonathan Kirsch, the author of the article in BR, suggests that Sarah may have seen something far worse than a mocking or playful behavior between two siblings. Kirsch cleverly notes that the very next time the word, metzachek, appears in the Torah is 5 short chapters later (or about 15 pages later) in Genesis 26:8. It is when King Abimelech is looking out of his palace window and sees Isaac (now a grown man) sporting or jesting with his wife Rebecca (in this instance the Torah uses the exact same word, metzachek). Its important to note that up to this point in the Biblical narrative King Abimelech was under the impression, from Isaac's own mouth, that the beautiful Rebecca was Isaac's sister. However, as a result of what Abimelech saw from his window, the king summoned his guest, Isaac, and said, "But look! She is your wife! How could you say, 'she is my sister'?" Kirsch suggests that a brother and sister who are privately sporting or jesting with each other would never give the impression that they were husband and wife unless there was something with sexual connotations going on, like fondling. If that were the case, then a more appropriate translation of the word, metzachek, in Genesis 26:8 could be, "fondling." If we turn back 15 pages, in the book of Genesis, to the great feast commemorating the weaning of Isaac, it is now possible to obtain a clearer picture of what Sarah might have seen; viz., Ishmael may have been sexually fondling Isaac. Ishmael was taking a liberty with his little half-brother that his stepmother found too shocking to tolerate.

Kirschner points out that a biblical text older than the Masoretic version (10th century CE), known as the Septuagint, written in Greek about 250 BCE, adds several words to the Genesis 21:9 verse in question; viz.,

"Sarah noticed that Ishmael was playing (mocking)"…Masoretic

"Sarah noticed that Ishmael was playing (mocking) with her son Isaac."...Septuagint

"What are we to make of the missing words in the Hebrew Bible"? Kirschner asks. He suggests that the early sages may have found an incident of incestuous child molestation too hot to handle, particularly if it occurred in the family of the first Patriarch/Matriarch.

I examined the view of Rashi on this verse and found his explanation troubling. Rashi, like Kirschner, looks at different meanings of the root, tza'chayk, in 3 other passages in the Tanach to explain the meaning in Genesis 21:9. I found it curious that Rashi avoided the closest occurrence of the word, 5 short chapters away, which would give the incestuous meaning to the verse. For those of you that are interested, Rashi's analysis of the word, metzachek, suggests that Ishmael would grow up to be evil. I also looked at the commentaries of 7 other ancient and modern Rabbis (Ramban, Hirsch, Ralbag, Kessef Mezukak, Ibn Ezra, Be'er Mayim Chaim and Shimon ben Elazar) regarding these verses. None of them make mention of incestuous activities.


A brief article appeared in the April 1998 edition of BIBLICAL REVIEW by the Journal's Editor, Hershel Shanks, that analyzed the only reference in the Torah that refers to God in the feminine. I suspect the reason that most of us (myself included) had never noticed this passage is because we normally read the Bible in English.

In the English language, the word, "you," can refer to masculine or feminine genders. This is not the case in Hebrew as well as in many other languages. In Hebrew, the word, "atah," means "you" in the masculine. The Hebrew word, "at," ("atah" without the last syllable), is "you" in the feminine.

This use of the feminine for God occurs in (Bamidbar) the Book of Numbers 11:15. It would help greatly to understand the verse (11:15) if we examine the 5 preceding verses (from The Living Torah, translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan):

The mixed multitude among the children of Israel began to have strong cravings, and they once again began to weep. "Who is going to give us some meat to eat?" they demanded. "We fondly remember the fish that we could eat in Egypt at no cost, along with cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now our spirits are dried up, with nothing but the manna before our eyes."

Moses heard the people weeping with their families near the entrances to their tents. God became very angry, and Moses also considered it wrong.

"Why are You treating me so badly?" Said Moses to God. "Don't you like me anymore? Why do you place such a burden upon me? Was I the woman who was pregnant with this nation in my belly? Did I give birth to them? But You told me that I must carry them in my bosom, as a nurse carries an infant until we come to the land that You swore to their ancestors.

"Where can I get enough meat to give to all these people? They are whining to me to give them some meat to eat. I cannot be responsible for this entire nation! It's too hard for me! 15 If YOU are going to do this to me, just do me a favor and kill me! Don't let me see myself get into such a terrible predicament!

It is the word, You, in this last sentence that is the only location in the 5 Books of Moses where God is addressed in the feminine gender. Hershel Shanks, the author, suggests 2 very technical reasons for this unique situation, but even he doesn't believe them. Shanks also argues that the 10th century scribes, the Masorites, had the option of adding the extra Hebrew letter and syllable to give the word the masculine gender, but they didn't. So they must have thought the word, You, was feminine.

So why does Moses address a feminine God this one time? The author admits that he is unable to answer the question. In fact, he ends the article with the following statement: "More work needs to be done." I remember pondering this problem for some time before asking my wife, Lorraine, what she thought it meant. As has been the case many times in our 39 years of marriage, she gave me a very plausible answer, within minutes. Her first remark was that the context in which the unexpected word, at, was used could be summed up by the word, compassion. Moses asked God to show compassion towards him. In fact, the text says that the situation became so unbearable for Moses that he even asked God to kill him. Lorraine then noted that the Hebrew word for compassion is rachamim, which derives from the word, rechem, or womb. Hence, when Moses pleaded to God for mercy/compassion he wisely addressed the feminine side of the Almighty. I was also able to find several examples in the Siddur (Jewish prayer book) where God is referred to in the feminine gender.

Rabbi Max Fox must have found the above observation intriguing because several days after I revealed it to him, he showed me another location in the bible where "at" is again used to refer to a man. In Deuteronomy 5:24, in a conversation between the leaders of the Children of Israel and Moses, they refer to him as, feminine "you." Interestingly, the context is identical to the dialogue cited above in Numbers 11:15. Here too the situation is one of pleading to save the people from death.

Another lesson that we can learn from this example is that important meanings can be lost in translation. Consequently, when someone refers to a Biblical verse and tries to make a point that doesn't quite make sense to you, make sure the corresponding Hebrew verse is carefully translated.

3. The 3rd Commandment

I have been fascinated with Dennis Prager ever since I heard him speak at Temple Israel several years ago. I subscribe to his Journal, The Prager Perspective, and have many audiotapes of speeches he has given around the world. Most (but not all) of his ideas resonate strongly with me, and his outstanding communication skills make him easy to understand.

In 1999 I purchased his tape, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, which contains wonderful classical and modern Jewish interpretations of each commandment. What excited me most about his presentation was his (original) analysis of the 3rd commandment. I wish to share that interpretation with you. The 3rd commandment, as found in Exodus 20:7, is universally translated as follows:

"You shall not take the Name of the Lord, your God, in vain, for the Lord will not absolve anyone who takes His Name in vain."

Prager claims that, for several reasons, he always had trouble understanding the meaning of this text. For starters, he feels that it doesn't appear to belong among the other Commandments because it doesn't seem to be as important as the others. Most people interpret this commandment to mean that it is sinful to use the phrases, "GOD DAMN IT" or "OH MY GOD," in everyday speech. Prager notes further that this is the only commandment containing an addendum emphasizing how displeased God will be if this commandment is violated. In order for Prager to make sense of this commandment, he revisits the Hebrew text and discovers that another and possibly more accurate translation of the word, tisah, is not take, but carry. So, says Prager, whoever goes around carrying the name of God in vain are those who this commandment addresses. But who goes around doing this? Prager suggests that the commandment refers to "religious people who act despicably." They are the ones that God will not forgive. Prager argues that if an atheist and a religious person both commit murder, then it is the religious person who has committed the greater crime because he has also defamed God. Prager believes that God demands that we create a good world through Ethical Monotheism, or God-based morality with ethics based upon that morality. If a person destroys the good name of God, then that person has reduced the probability of the world buying into a God based morality. To emphasize this point, Prager asks the following Question: "What hurts religion more? Atheists/Communists who attack religion, or religious people who act terribly? He goes on to answer the question by recalling 1) the damage that Jimmy Swagart did to Christianity and 2) Jews we read about from time-to-time who may appear to be religious, but behave miserably to others. If someone is a fraud and wears a cross, a collar, or a kippah (Jewish scull cap), then he/she disgraces their religion far more than they disgrace themselves. Religious people, says Prager, often carry the banner of the Almighty with them like a neon sign. The 3rd commandment states that such a person will not be forgiven if he/she defames God's holy name.

4. The Virgin Controversy

In the summer of 1973, I spent a week at a religious retreat in the Pocano Mountains of Pennsylvania. This wonderful retreat was designed for both Reform and Conservative Jewish families. Ecumenism for Jews, if you will. The leaders of this event were 2 outstanding Rabbis, each representing their respective movements. It was a great week for me. I got to meet committed Jews from other synagogues and there were lots of study sessions and creative prayer. Also included were classes in Jewish arts and crafts as well as an extraordinary Shabbat experience. But the thing that impressed me the most about this week-long event was an incredible story that the Reform Rabbi, Bernard Zlotowitz, told us. It is this story that I wish to pass on to you.

In the early 1940's, several affiliated church denominations decided to create a new English translation of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. Their last attempt at translating these 2 works was successfully completed in 1901 and became known as THE STANDARD VERSION. The new translation, which was published in 1952, was called (and is still referred to as) THE REVISED STANDARD VERSION (RSV). The Scholars who were responsible for this monumental task were all Christian except for a brilliant Jewish scholar and Rabbi, Harry Orlinsky. Bernard Zlotowitz, the Reform Rabbi at the Poconos retreat, had been a graduate student under Orlinsky at Columbia University. Zlotowitz told us that Orlinsky was invited to serve as a member of the Hebrew Bible translating team because many Christian biblical scholars recognized him as one of the leading experts in the field. It seemed silly not to have a man with his stature and reputation on the team.

Among other responsibilities, Orlinsky was charged specifically with translating the Book of Isaiah. After a reasonable period of time, the team headed by Orlinsky submitted a manuscript containing a new English translation of the Book of Isaiah in which the Hebrew word, alma, found in Isa. 7:14, appeared as "young woman." Why, you may be asking yourself, is the translation of this one word so important? To answer this question, one must go back nearly 1900 years to the time Matthew wrote his Gospel.

In chapter 1, verses 18 through 21, Matthew describes a critical event prior to the birth of Jesus. Mary, who was betrothed to Joseph, was found to be with child prior to the two being together. Joseph was having second thoughts about going through with the marriage when an angel appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." At this point in the narrative Matthew links up with an incident, reported in the Book of Isaiah (7:14), which occurred nearly 600 years earlier. Matthew continues: "All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 'Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emman'u-el'." Isaiah wrote in Hebrew, and the word he used to characterize the woman, who Isaiah said would conceive and bear a son, was alma. Anyone familiar with how the Hebrew word, alma, is used in the Tanach knows that it means young woman and not virgin. When Orlinsky's translation of Isaiah 7:14 contradicted Matthew's version, (i.e., young woman vs. virgin), the Christian scholars, who made up the translation project, refused to accept it. They insisted that alma be translated as virgin, which would conform to Matthew's understanding of that passage (1:23). Professor (Dr., Rabbi) Orlinsky's scholarly arguments defending his translation of the word, alma, fell on deaf ears. Rabbi Zlotowitz, the teller of this most unusual story, then astonished us when he, himself, sided with the Christian scholars in the defense of their position. Rabbi Zlotowitz justified their position by informing us that when historians seek to describe an event in history they try to find the oldest document (in existence), which describes that event. The assumption is that the older is the document, the more valid are its contents. At the time Orlinsky did his translation of Isaiah in the mid 1940's, the oldest copy of Isaiah in existence was from the Septuagint, a 3rd century BCE translation of the Tanach (Hebrew Bible) into Greek. It was called the Septuagint because Jewish legend told that it was translated into Greek independently by 70 Rabbis and, except for very minor variations, all 70 documents were identical. When one reads Isaiah 7:14 from the Septuagint, the Hebrew word in question, alma, appears as the Greek word, parthenus. If you open any Greek-English dictionary and look up the meaning of parthenus, it will be virgin. Consequently, if the oldest manuscript of Isaiah translates the Hebrew word, alma, as virgin, then Matthew's translation and understanding of the phrase must be accepted.

Rabbi Zlotowitz continued his story by telling us that Harry Orlinsky was very frustrated by all this. As a Jew he knew Isaiah was not prophesying the coming of Jesus in (7:14), but as a scholar he had to accept the technically convincing argument handed down by his Christian colleagues on the committee who were translating the Bible. Before the committee voted to accept Orlinsky's amended translation of Isaiah, with the word, virgin, replacing young woman, he asked for a delay in the formal vote. He told the committee that he wanted to further investigate the passage in question. His request was granted. Professor Orlinsky immediately assigned one of his graduate students the job of locating Greek plays, books, essays, letters and other documents from the period when the Septuagint was written; viz., 300-200 BCE. The graduate student was then asked to find, in these written works, all references to the word, parthenus, and the context in which that word was used. At the end of one year, Professor Orlinsky was able to prove to his colleagues that when the Septuagint was written, the word, parthenus, meant young woman. It wasn't until several centuries later that the meaning of parthenus changed to virgin. (A modern example of a change in the meaning of a word over time is the word dame.) The committee took a vote and Orlinsky's view prevailed. In the first edition of the RSV the Hebrew word, alma, was translated as young woman. However, an asterisk directed the reader's eyes down to the bottom of the page to the phrase, "some say virgin." In later editions of the RSV, the asterisk was eliminated.

Whenever someone tells me that it is unrealistic to think that one individual can make a significant difference, I recall this story.


Erica said she read that alma sometimes means virgin and sometimes means young woman. Bert said this is true also of the word parthenus. However, the context of the chapter from Matthew demands the interpretation of Mary as virgin. Arthur asked whether there is another word for a woman who has been violated. Christine asked whether all branches of Christianity must buy into the virginity of Mary. Bert replied that in Methodist churches, people are free to choose their own interpretation. Bill asked whether there are parallels to the virgin birth in other religions. Bert noted that Matthew would have been familiar with the Septuagint.

The meeting adjourned at about 10:00 PM.

Respectfully submitted,

Ken Rosenzweig, Secretary

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1 Dollinger Marc, '"Hamans" and "Torquemadas": Southern and Northern Jewish Responses to the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1965,' The Quiet Voices, Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights, 1880s to 1990s, Mark K. Bauman and Berkley Kalin, Editors, (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997), pages 67-94.