November 17, 2001
Malachi, who prophesied after the return of the Jews from the Babylonian exile, faced an age where religious sincerity was lax. One particular verse of his scathing condemnation has proved particularly painful: “For from where the sun rises to where it sets, My name is honored among the nations, and everywhere incense and pure oblation are offered to My name; for my name is honored among the nations.” (Malachi 1:11 – NJPS translation). In this verse, Malachi contrasts the religious awareness of the other nations of the world with the disinterest of his own people.
The Talmud (Menachot 110a) presents a dispute over the meaning of this verse. Rav, the 3rd century founder of the academy at Sura in Babylonia, attempted to explain this verse according to its plain (pshat) meaning. He concluded that the nations of the world, referred to in this verse, recognized God as the God who ruled over their own deities (“the God of gods”). Rabbi Jonathan, a 3rd century Babylonian sage who lived in the land of Israel, could not accept the plain meaning of this verse and interpreted it instead in the following manner: “This [verse] refers to the scholars who devote themselves to the study of Torah in whatever place they are: [God says] ‘I account it unto them as though they burnt and presented offerings to my name’.”
Rashi, the 11th century French commentator, presents the interpretation of Rav as the plain meaning of this verse alongside the opinion of Rabbi Jonathan [in the name of “our sages”] as the midrashic interpretation. Maimonides, the 12th century Spanish Talmudist and philosopher, accepts the opinion of Rav but gives it a philosophical twist. H e claims that the nations of the world recognize God because their deliberations have led them to consider God the prime mover. (Guide to the Perplexed Part 1 chapter 36)
The conflict between the plain meaning and the midrashic interpretation of this verse reflects a conflict as old as the Jewish tradition, namely whether people outside of the Jewish tradition had the ability to recognize God. The book of Malachi, as well as other prophetic books like the book of Jonah seem well aware of this possibility. Rav also seems to accept this idea. Rabbi Jonathan, however, seems reluctant to accept this verse at face value, preferring instead a forced interpretation which compares the unacceptable behavior of the generation of Jews that Malachi criticizes with sages of different generations and locations. Rabbi Jonathan probably felt uncomfortable with Malachi’s comparison because it was embarrassing to compare his community unfavorably with other peoples.
Malachi thought that belief in God was not exclusively the possession of our tradition. Rather there may be times when Jews can learn from the religious sincerity of others.