The great Jewish scholar of our century, Solomon Schechter, was schooled in Eastern and Central Europe; he taught and did research at the Universities of Cambridge and London and at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Out of the vast expanse of Talmud and Midrash he distilled the principles and dogmas which have been consistent in Jewish life everywhere through the centuries. In this essay, Prof. Schechter discusses whether the moral imperative to emulate God and His ways includes imitation of His jealous and vengeful behavior.

Holiness is the highest achievement of the Law and the deepest experience as well as realization of righteousness. It is a composite of various aspects not easily definable, and at times even seemingly contradictory. But diverging as the ideals of holiness may be in their application to practical life, they all originate in the concept of the kingdom, the central idea of Rabbinic theology, and in Israel’s consciousness of its close relation to his God, the King.

In its broad feature, holiness is but another word for Imitatio Dei, a duty intimately associated with Israel’s close contact with God. The most frequent name for God in the Rabbinic literature is “the Holy One,” occasionally also “Holiness,” and so Israel is called holy. But the holiness of Israel is dependent on their acting in such a way as to become God-like. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord am holy.”[1]

The sage, Abba Saul, equates holiness with Imitation of God, defining this imitation as follows:
“I and He, that is like unto Him (God). As He is merciful and gracious, so be you (man) merciful and gracious.”[2] The Scriptural phrases “walking in the ways of God”[3] and “being called by the name of God,”[4] are again explained to mean, “As God is called merciful and gracious, so be you merciful and gracious; as God is called righteous, so be you righteous; as God is called holy, so be you holy.”[5] Again, as the way of heaven is that He is ever merciful against the wicked and accepts their repentance, so be you merciful against one another. As God bestows gifts on those who know Him and those who know Him not and do not deserve His gifts, so bestow you gifts upon one another.[6]

It must be remarked that this God-likeness is confined to His manifestations of mercy and righteousness. The Rabbis rarely desired the Jew to take God as a model in His attributes of severity and rigid justice, though the Bible could have furnished them with many instances of this latter kind. Interesting in this connection is the way in which the commandment of the Imitation was codified by some of the later authorities.

“The Holy One, blessed be He, ordained that man should cleave to His ways, as it is written, ‘You shall fear the Lord your God, you shall serve Him, and to Him shall you cleave.’ (Deut. 10:19) But how can man cleave to the Shekhinah? Is it not written, ‘For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God’? (Deut. 4:24) Rather cleave to His ways: as God nurses the sick, so do you nurse the sick, and so forth.”[7]

The feature of jealousy is thus quite ignored, while the attributes of mercy and righteousness become man’s law. Indeed it is distinctly taught that man should not imitate God in the following four things, which He alone can use as instruments. They are:
• jealousy (Deut. 6:5)
• revenge (Psalms 94:1)
• exaltation (Exod. 15:21, Psalms 93:1)
• acting in devious ways.[8]

In chapter 19 of I Kings I, the prophet Elijah says, "I have been very jealous for the Lord God of Hosts" (v. 10) and even repeats God’s denunciation of Israel (v. 14). According to the rabbis, God is displeased by Elijah’s imitation of His own jealousy, and rebukes Elijah saying, "You are always jealous." Elijah is consequently removed from his prophetic office, and Elisha is appointed prophet in his stead.[9]

[1] Lev. 19:2 [back]
[2] Mechilta 37a; Shabbat 133b. Abba Saul’s interpretaion is based on the word ve-anve-hu from Exodus 15:3, which he divides into ani-vehu - “I (man) and You (God).” [back]
[3] Deut. 11:22 [back]
[4] Joel 3:5 [back]
[5] Sifre 85a [back]
[6] Mekhilta 59a [back]
[7] R. Eliezer of Metz, Sefer Yerei’im; and Maimonides [back]
[8] Midrash Hagaddol, Genesis [back]
[9] Yalkut to Kings 217; Cant. Rabbah 1:6 [back]

From Aspects of Rabbinic Theology: Major Concepts of the Talmud, by Solomon Schechter. Schocken Books, New York, 1961.



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