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Va-Yishlah 5769

Parshat Vayishlach
(The Book of Obadiah)
December 13, 2008
16 Kislev 5769

The book of Obadiah is, in its entirety, a prophecy against the nation of Edom. This nation had a history of causing the state of Judea enormous geo-political problems especially during the period of the destruction of the First Temple and afterwards, until they were eventually absorbed into the Jewish people in the times of the Hasmoneans. Edom later became the symbol for the Jews of the outside world, first the Romans and then the Christians. So, after the biblical period, Obadiah became a source for clues about how Jews were to relate to this world.

Obadiah\’s prophecy promised that God would cause the demise of the Edomites. He would destroy their means to care for themselves and defend themselves: \”In that day, declares the Lord, I will make the wise vanish from Edom, understanding from Esau\’s mount. Your warriors will lose heart, O Teman, and not a man from Esau\’s mount shall survive the slaughter.\” (8-9) The first of these verses provided scriptural proof for the insular Jewish community that the outside world was not devoid of wisdom: \”Should a person tell you there is wisdom among the nations, believe it; as it is written, \’In that day, declares the Lord, I will make the wise vanish from Edom, understanding from Esau\’s mount\’\”. (Lamentations Rabbah 2:13) This awareness was reinforced by other rabbinic teachings: \”Our rabbis taught: One who sees someone wise from among the nations of the world should say the blessing –Blessed be the One who granted wisdom to flesh and blood.\’ (Berachot 58a)

This appreciation did not come without some reticence since interaction with and acknowledgement of wisdom outside of the tradition had the potential to lead some astray from the tradition. For this reason, some sages were bitterly criticized when they introduced non-Jewish wisdom into their Torah studies. The Rema, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (16th century Poland), who composed the Ashkenazi glosses on the Shulhan Aruch, records in a teshuva (Number 7) just such a challenge to one of his own teachings when he included in it a quote from Aristotle. He pointed out to his critic, as we noted above, that the sages were aware of non-Jewish wisdom and that the debate over its use was of long standing. Maimonides was among those who backed its use when its conclusions represented the truth and even used it extensively in his own teachings. The Rema concluded that this gave him sufficient reason to use these teachings as he saw fit.

The Rema\’s teshuva captures the crux of a very significant Jewish struggle. Most Jews do not debate today the existence of wisdom outside of the tradition. They do, however, wrestle over how to synthesize a worldview which combines elements of the Jewish tradition with those of the outside world. This is a precarious struggle since it shapes our identities, who we are, what we are, what we aspire to be and how we confront the world around us. The Rema\’s opponent was afraid of any contact with the outside world, fearing that any contact was detrimental. The Rema, aware of the danger, takes the side of interaction. The perpetuation and the advancement of truth require it and anyone serious about his or her faith cannot avoid it.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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