“Interfacing with the Non-Jewish World”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bo, we read of the last three plagues–locusts, darkness and the death of the firstborn. The parasha also includes the commandment to sanctify the new moon, the laws of Passover and the sanctification of the firstborn.

The eighth plague strikes! The land of Egypt turns dark from the swarms of locusts, covering the entire land and devouring whatever was left from the previous plague of hail. Pharaoh rushes to summon Moses and Aaron, and declares his sinfulness. Assuming Pharaoh’s sincerity, Moses and Aaron pray, and the locusts vanish from Egypt. But, G-d hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and Pharaoh, once again, refuses to send the Children of Israel to freedom, to worship their G-d.

In response to Pharaoh’s continued obstinance, Moses waves his hands toward heaven, bringing the plague of darkness, and the entire land of Egypt turns dark for three days. But, the Jews have light in their dwellings.

Desperate again, Pharaoh calls Moses, finally offering to allow the people, together with their children, to serve G-d, on the condition that they leave behind their flocks and cattle.

After nine plagues, and Pharaoh’s continued stubbornness, Moses has little patience for Pharaoh. In response to Pharaoh’s insistence that the people leave their valuable flocks behind, Moses declares, Exodus 10:25, “Even you [Pharaoh] will place in our hands feast-offerings and elevation-offerings, and we will offer them to the L-rd, our G-d.” Moses continues, Exodus 10:26, “V’gahm mik’nay’noo yay’laych ee’mah’noo, loh tee’shah’ayr par’sah, kee mee’meh’noo nee’kahch la’ah’vohd et Hashem Eh’loh’kay’noo,” Moses explains that until they arrive in the wilderness, they will not know with what they are to serve G-d. Moses, therefore, declares that the Israelites’ livestock, as well, must go with them, not one hoof will be left behind, for from it the people shall take to serve the L-rd, our G-d. Rashi explains that not only will the people’s livestock go with them, but you [Pharaoh] too, will give the people of your own animals to sacrifice.

All this seems rather straightforward. Moses declares that Pharaoh, for whatever reason, will be moved to donate animals that can be used by the Israelites to sacrifice in the wilderness. But as usual, nothing is straightforward. The donations of the heathen Pharaoh create a big-time controversy among the commentators.

Are the People of Israel permitted to use non-Jewish donations in their worship of G-d, especially if those contributions come from heathens? What, after all, are the limits of the Jewish interface with the non-Jewish world, and the use of non-Jewish ideas and property?

The Ramban explains that Moses has no intention whatsoever of allowing Pharaoh the privilege of achieving atonement for his evil deeds through these offerings. The fact that Pharaoh would send offerings, is only meant to underscore that Pharaoh’s surrender would be so complete, that he would even wish to participate in Israel’s offerings. The Ibn Ezra disagrees with the Ramban, insisting that Moses demanded that Pharoah donate flocks that would be used for actual offerings. Proof of this is Pharaoh’s eventual plea (Exodus 12:32), “Oo’vay’rach’tem gahm oh’tee,” that he [Pharaoh] be blessed as well.

The Talmud, in Tractate Avodah Zarah 24a, debates the propriety of Moses’ request of flocks for sacrifices from Pharaoh, especially since the general practice is not to accept any sacrifices from heathens (except free-will burnt offerings). The Talmud responds by stating that this incident took place before the giving of the Torah, when non-Jewish sacrifices were deemed acceptable. Furthermore, according to those who say that a wicked person cannot offer a sacrifice, here, Pharaoh had not personally offered the sacrifice, but was simply providing flocks for others to offer.

While this debate between Nachmanidies and the Ibn Ezra refers specifically to bringing offerings in the Temple, the scope of the debate is much larger. Is the nation of Israel, either individually or collectively, permitted or required, at times, to utilize non-Jewish sources in order to further Israel’s national interests? May the Jewish people welcome the wisdom of other nations and their discoveries for the furtherance of humankind, especially from those nations whose values and lifestyles are antithetical to Jewish values and Jewish practices.

Rabbi Yaakov Philber, in his volume on the Torah, Chemdat Yamim, clearly analyzes the issues. He cites the opinion of the The Maharal of Prague who relies on the statement in Brachot 58a, that one who sees a wise man of the nations must bless that person and pronounce: “Blessed be He who gave of His wisdom to flesh and blood.” The Midrash Eicha 2:13 states, that if one declares that there is “wisdom” among the gentiles–believe him. If one declares that there is “Torah” among the gentiles–do not believe him.

Maimonides explains this statement by declaring that it is possible for wise non-Jews to possess the ability to know what is under the heavens (the natural world), but not what is above the heavens (the spiritual world).

The Maharal boldly pronounces (Netiv HaTorah chapter 14), that this statement underscores that Jews need to learn the wisdom of the nations. Anything that teaches about the essence of the world, must be learned, for it is all part of the Divine handicraft.

The Maharal further explains, that those who declare that it is forbidden to learn the wisdom of the Greeks, refer primarily to Greek literature, mythology, stories and statements. However, their natural and scientific wisdom is important to learn.

When raising the issue of whether Jews are permitted to benefit from those parts of the non-Jewish culture, Rabbi Philber cites a famous incident recorded in Tractate Shabbat 33b.

Rabbi Judah sat in discussion with the other rabbis, and offered the following observation:

“How fine are the works of this people [the Romans]! They have made streets, they have built bridges, they have erected baths.” Rabbi Jose was silent. Rabbi Simeon b. Yohai answered and said, “All that they [the Romans] made, they made for themselves. They built the marketplaces to set harlots in them, baths to rejuvenate themselves, bridges to levy tolls for them.”

The Talmud later states that when the government heard the statements of Simeon b. Yohai, he and his son were forced to flee and remain in hiding in a cave for many years.

Rabbi Philber explains that Rabbi Judah specifically emphasized the marketplace, the bridges and the baths, to underscore that Roman civilization depended on the development of three main movers: economics, communications and health. The marketplaces represent economics, the bridges represent communication and the baths emphasize the importance of cleanliness and health. These were the three great contributions that the Romans made to civilization.

Rabbi Judah thus declared that even though these three elements were not initially developed from a holy source, they are still fitting for use by the Jewish people, in order to help elevate Jewish society. Rabbi Jose was silent because he was of the opinion that any action or undertaking that emanate from a negative source, though they themselves be good, leave us in a quandary. While we certainly cannot deny the benefits and efficacy of the Roman developments and their important contributions to human society, we also may not praise them, because any praise might lend legitimacy to the other beliefs and actions of the Roman culture that are immoral. Therefore, Rabbi Jose remained silent, neither praising nor criticizing. Rabbi Simeon b. Yohai however, was uncompromisingly negative in his perception of Roman values. He maintained that there can never be any benefits to human civilization from something that emanates from an evil source. Even though it may look good on the surface, ultimately, it will lead to corruption and evil.

Rabbi Philber concludes his analysis by stating definitively that even if we must benefit from the developments of the non-Jewish world in the areas of technology, civilization and universal wisdom to maintain our nation’s progress, we need to be cautious, and cleanse these ideas, so that we not be drawn into the corrupting alien practices and values from which they emanate.

This debate is not easily resolved. In fact, the issue is still hotly debated in Jewish life today. How much exposure to, and interface with, the non-Jewish world may Jews allow themselves? Some say that there should be no interface and only minimal exposure to the outside world. Others argue that interface with modern life is healthy, and can even help improve one’s quality of faith and belief. All agree that there needs to be a system to assure that the alien elements do not draw the faithful down, but rather help them grow, both spiritually and technologically.

Let the debate continue!

May you be blessed.