Parashat Vayera –
Sodom and Gomorrah
God said, “The sin of
Sodom and Gomorrah weighs very heavily. I will go down and see if I need to destroy it.”
Now, Abraham stood before God asking, “Will you ruin the righteous along with the wicked? Perhaps
there are fifty righteous people in the city. To kill the righteous along with the wicked would be a profanation to
You, God. Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?”
And God said, “I shall
not destroy the whole city if there are fifty, or forty, or thirty, or twenty or even ten righteous
God sent two angels to Sodom to destroy the city and told Lot to get his family and leave Sodom. God told Lot and
his wife not to look back after they escaped but Lot’s wife did and was turned into a pillar of
Now, God remembered Sarah, and she conceived and bore Abraham a son, Isaac.
But Sarah saw Ishmael,
the son of Hagar, the Egyptian woman, making mockery. Sarah said to her husband, “Cast out this handmaid and her
son, for the son shall not share the inheritance with our son, Isaac.”
God said to Abraham,
“Hearken to Sarah’s wishes, for in Isaac shall be your seed. And also for the son of the handmaid, I will make a
nation, for he is your seed.”
And it came to pass that
God tested Abraham. God said, “Take your only son whom you love, Isaac, and get yourself to the land of Moriah and
offer him on one of the mountains.”
So Abraham did as he was
told. He built the altar and bound Isaac, his son, and placed him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched
forth his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. And an angel of God called to him from heaven and said, “Do
not stretch your hand toward the lad, nor do the slightest thing to him, for now I know that you are God-fearing
and did not withhold from Me.”
There was a ram caught in the hedge. Abraham took the ram and offered
it up in place of his son.
Commentary on the fourth parsha (portion of the Torah)
The Torah consists of the five books of Moses, the first part of the Old
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews
Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism
and how we got where we are. He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
SAS: I see we’re back with the theme of punishment again, Methuselah, in the story of
Sodom and Gomorrah.
MS: Our earliest ancestors didn’t always learn their lessons. In that way, they were
the architects of their own misfortune.
SAS: In Hebrew, Sodom means “burnt” and Gomorrah “a ruined heap”, so I assume these were not the real names
of the destroyed cities. They’re obviously descriptions of what the cities looked like when they’d been
destroyed. So did Sodom and Gomorrah really exist? Those names certainly make me wonder whether this story
isn’t just a fabrication to reinforce the point that serious sins are rapidly punished.
MS: The material I’m working with says
these were real cities. Nobody is quite sure where the cities were located, but in our traditional story it
is clear that God destroyed these cities by fire.
SAS: In other words, the cities perished in a natural disaster or as the result of a
man-made calamity. Whenever this happens to a city, you and the elders assume the people have been punished for
their sins, and you write your stories to reflect this message.
MS: That’s not fair. I’m
growing tired of your cynicism, Sigmund.
SAS: Let me tell you
something positive. Your story is admirable because of the strong sense of justice evident in it. Abraham acts like a legal advocate here, persuading God to spare everyone if
there are a few righteous people in the city. I’m not particularly interested in the religious part of this, but
the legal issues. The underlying point has actually become a basic truth in our culture - we should not kill
innocent people in the course of punishing guilty ones. There is no justification for killing one innocent
MS: Yes, that’s all true, but
you should also notice something else. Abraham is able to enter into a meaningful dialogue with God. He talks to
God and gets a reasonable response. This is the beginning of the idea of a personal relationship with
SAS: In your mind, perhaps! No, my friend, what impresses me is that here we have the
first-ever legal argument based on the concept of human rights. The innocent, it is clearly argued, don’t
deserve to suffer. The moral necessity of punishing the wicked does not take precedence over the right of
protection owed to innocent people. Your story is ahead of its time and impressive on this
MS: You might also have noticed
that God tells Abraham that while Ishmael has a lesser standing than Isaac, he will not be disinherited. Here is
further evidence of a sense of justice in my story. But this
outpouring of praise from you is unusual, Sigmund. I sense another criticism
SAS: You’re right. The punishment to Lot’s wife is a very strange part of the story.
Firstly, there are no such things as pillars of salt! Secondly, that kind of punishment is rather harsh for a
nostalgic last look at home!
MS: Once again, you’re
being too literal, Sigmund. This is the point: if you have been spared a punishment on certain conditions, take
note of the conditions and observe them unless you want the whole arrangement to fall through.
SAS: Oh, I see, so this is a message to all of us to get out while we can, taking what
we can and not looking back. Yes, we Jews have needed that advice on more than a few
MS: You see! This is a good story!
SAS: Well, in its way. My friend, we haven’t come to my most serious objection yet.
How on earth could Abraham be expected to sacrifice his son? No principle is worth more than a human life –
not a God, a secular state, or a hallowed belief.
MS: Now wait! It was obviously just a test! The important thing is that Abraham’s
faith was so strong that he was prepared to follow God’s instructions.
SAS: To prove what? That obedience to God, or faith, or some institution should
override individual feelings and responsibilities?
MS: That’s an important part of the message. Shouldn’t it be?
SAS: No! I don’t think we should ever teach the sort of blind obedience that forces a
man to do something completely against his nature and his own morality. If Abraham was smart enough to argue
about the injustice of God destroying Sodom when righteous people were there, then he should have had the
brains and the courage to say to God, “Your command runs counter to everything you’ve promised me, and is
cruel and barbaric. Sorry – I’m not doing it!” In my mind, that simple statement of defiance would have made
him much nobler than the man who raises his knife in blind obedience.
MS: Abraham did exactly as he was instructed because he knew nothing evil could
possibly come of it. Whatever happened, God would make it right! That’s true faith!
SAS: There is no god. The voices in Abraham’s head were internal and reflected his own
obsessions and terrors. Fortunately, he came to his senses and stopped.
MS: You make him sound deranged. You deny him the special dignity that a religious
hero deserved for his unswerving faith.
SAS: In this particular story, Abraham was heroic only in one respect – he suddenly
realised that faith and reason should never run counter to each other. Embrace faith at the expense of
reason, and you have moral chaos.
MS: Well, I don’t disagree with that. Perhaps it’s the way I have told the story and
made God seem like a cruel tester of faith, and Abraham like a blind fanatic. But in the end, there was a
good outcome. The main point of the story is actually to emphasise that human sacrifice is not required in
Judaism. Other religions sacrificed humans to appease the gods, but we rejected the
SAS: Yes, now we are in complete agreement. It is undoubtedly true that Judaism’s
rejection of the blood sacrifice put other religions to shame.
MS: And that’s why my story is so good. God was teaching Abraham that he wasn’t like
SAS: Let’s rather leave God out of it and simply say this – Judaism was ethically
advanced, and led the world away from the shocking conviction that forces beyond this earth could be appeased
through the offering of humans on the sacrificial altar.
What we know about Jewish
History is based in fact, and on historical records.
If you’d like to know
more about the real history of our extended Jewish family, read on.
Jesus (circa 29 BCE – 4
It is impossible to write a history of Jesus.
Outside of the New Testament, there is precious little historical commentary about him. It seems likely that
he existed, but – as Albert Schweitzer famously said – the historical Jesus remains a “stranger and an
The Christian gospels don’t help. They date from
roughly 70 CE to 95 CE and were not written by eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life. They belong to the category of
theology, not history. They are documents written with the aim of promoting Jesus as the messiah. This he
wasn’t – and it’s unlikely he even saw himself in this way.
Jesus was a Jew and his teachings were directed to Jews. His main theme was about the coming of
“The Kingdom of Heaven”. This was a radical state of existence in which wrongs would be righted, hypocrisies
revealed and pretensions exploded. The concept was presented in a Jewish context and the biblical Jesus told
his disciples, “Go not into the way of the Gentiles.” Whatever his mission, it was a singularly Jewish one.
Jesus had a following, his Christian biographers reported, and he entered Jerusalem
for the Passover to some popular acclaim. This caused alarm amongst the Jewish priestly establishment,
dedicated to preserving the fragile peace with Rome, and it caused alarm, and consternation, amongst the
The gospel writers, those of Jesus’ followers who were beginning to write accounts of
his life, omitted to mention this alarm for reasons of expediency. The Romans were either at war with the
Jews, or had just sacked Jerusalem, when the first gospel was being composed. The writer, Mark, sitting in
Rome, was worried about how the Romans would view Christianity, given its Jewish roots. He decided on a ploy
that the other “biographers” of Jesus were to follow.
Anxious to make it clear that the early Christians had no argument with Rome, and had
no connection with Rome’s Jewish enemy, he radically downplayed the Roman role in Christ’s crucifixion and
presented the Jewish establishment of Jesus’ time in the worst possible light. Matthew, another gospel
writer, went further, presenting the Jews – as a people – taking responsibility for the death of Christ at
his trial. The Roman governor, ludicrously, was presented as unwilling to put Christ to death but was somehow
pressured into doing it by the Jewish crowd.
Mel Gibson presents just this version of events in his film, “The Passion of the Christ”. It’s a
version that flies in the face of common sense and reflects the gospel writers’ attempts to placate Roman
suspicions about the new religion that had been born. We’re no enemies of Rome, and nor was our
saviour, was the message. Yes, our
religion had a Jewish origin but – really – it’s a completely different thing and even the Roman governor,
Pontius Pilate, admired Christ and washed his hands of his crucifixion. The Jews effectively committed murder
by forcing the governor to crucify an innocent man. We Christians and Romans can get along just
This depiction itself didn’t create anti-Semitism,
which has been around for a long time, but nothing before or since has had such a terrible impact on Jewish
lives as the gospel doctrine that the Jews crucified Christ. The truth, as any historian worth his salt can
deduce, is that Jesus’ death was desired by the Romans and was quickly secured by a harsh governor who would
not have given Jesus a second thought. One more rebellious Galilean on a cross wouldn’t have disturbed the
Roman governor, Pilate, at all. The charge was sedition against
the Roman state. The sentence was speedily carried out.
Before the gospels (various accounts of Jesus’ life
by his disciples) even appeared, a Jew called Saul of Tarsus, afterwards known as Paul, had a mystical
experience in which he saw Jesus in a vision. He immediately converted to following Jesus. The idea that
Jesus had risen from the dead had gained currency among Jesus’ early followers, and Paul – a latecomer to the
movement – now had his own resurrection encounter to boast of. It helped him established some credibility
among the early followers of Jesus, although the Jerusalem-based Christians – led, it seems, by Jesus’ own
brother James – never trusted Paul and kept him on a tight rein.
The Jerusalem branch of Jesus’ followers, which
retained links to the Jewish synagogue, was largely wiped out in 70 CE, and it was Paul’s version of
Christianity that survived. Jesus’ historical roots as an unorthodox rabbi were obliterated. In Paul’s
theology, Jesus became a cosmic, otherworldly persona who had been instrumental in the creation of the world
and who had died in sacrificial fashion for the sins of the world.
Paul’s teaching that Jesus was the Son of God did
not go down well with either Greeks or Jews – that God had a human son who died and then was raised from the
dead was far-fetched to say the least. Jesus had indeed been reborn in this new theology, but not in his own
image. Jesus the Semite never declared that he was the Son of God. This was a theological claim owing much to
Saul of Tarsus.
Judaism, with only one God, was being forced to
compete with another religion with both God and the Son of God – not to mention a third Trinitarian person
called the Holy Spirit. The rapidly growing number of converts who believed the story rejected Judaism either
as an incomplete testament or as a heresy. Many saw Jews as infidels. The Jewish sect of Jesus of Nazareth
was rapidly morphing into Gentile Christianity.
The early Catholic Church formalised the gospel
canon by the last quarter of the 2nd century CE. It picked its texts for its own political ends
and ended up as the inheritor of the Roman Empire. By the end of the process Jesus the Jew, who was
definitely not an anti-Semite, had become the focus of a religion, Christianity, which was
anti-Semitic. It was the beginning of nearly two millennia of
Christian anti-Semitism which brought tragic results for the Jews. However, it should not be forgotten that anti-Semitism already existed two
hundred years previously in Alexandria, between Greeks and Jews.
A possible irony is that Jesus might have been a
Jewish nationalist with a hatred of Rome. While the “zealot theory” regarding Christ is not currently popular
among scholars, there is some evidence to suggest a possible militant tendency amongst Jesus’ followers – and
such a stance would make sense of the Roman crucifixion, a standard punishment for zealots.
Whatever Jesus was, he awakened the ire of both the
Jewish temple hierarchy and the Roman garrison. The two skirmishes in Jerusalem that preceded his arrest (at
the Temple and in Gethsemane) raise questions about Jesus’ peaceful intentions, as does his embarrassing
injunction in the gospel according to Luke that his disciples should purchase
One thing we know for sure – Jesus died on a Roman
cross on political charges. During his lifetime he was not an important person but caused enough of a stir to
be noticed and to be identified as a troublemaker. He was Jewish, he was human, and he had an agenda that
involved concrete actions in the real, historical world.
The scholarship of the last 50 years indicates that
Jesus understood everything he did in terms of his being Jewish. He believed he was providing a missing
dimension of Jewish faith.
Christianity was a later invention. Jesus would
probably not have approved of its teachings or its universal outreach.
Here follow a discussion on this historical segment
by the Father, Chaya and Ben.
BEN: Dad, I noticed in tonight’s parsha that Jews rejected the practice of human
sacrifice in primitive religion. Don’t Christians see Jesus’ death as a kind of sacrifice?
FATHER: What a perceptive question! Yes, Ben, they do! And that’s one of the many
reasons why Jews find Christianity problematic. Christians believe that Jesus’ death on the cross represents
a once-and-for-all payment for human sins. Jesus is thus seen as a sacrificial lamb slaughtered in place of
those who fail to meet God’s standard of absolute perfection.
CHAYA: That’s a very primitive viewpoint!
FATHER: Absolutely! William Empson, a famous commentator, has pointed out that
Christianity reintroduced the notion of a blood sacrifice for sin when other religions were at last removing
this element of religion! Empson saw the crucifixion in terms of a strange and illogical transaction by which
God bargains with himself to offer up his own son as a sacrifice for sin.
CHAYA: As if God were bound by some law which demanded a sacrifice of someone to right
cosmic ills! How is it that God stopped Abraham from offering his own son, but wasn’t able to stop himself
doing the same thing!
FATHER: Well, there was an ancient tradition that held that a price had to be paid for
every transgression. Mere forgiveness wasn’t possible. A blood debt was owed.
BEN: Owed to whom?
FATHER: To God!
BEN: But then God could simply cancel the debt through his boundless
FATHER: Apparently not!
Celebration of Great Lives
Every Friday night we celebrate
the achievements of our Jewish family in contributing to changing the world for the better and having an
extraordinary impact on those around them.
Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968)
A Battle for Ultimate Truth
Doctorate in hand, Vienna-born Lise
Meitner went to Berlin in 1907 to study with Max Planck. She began to work with a chemist, Otto Hahn, she doing the
physics and he the chemistry of radioactive substances. Meitner worked with Hahn and also Fritz Strassmann in a new
collaborative venture aimed at probing the possibilities of uranium. Forced by the Nazis to leave Germany on
November 13, 1938, Meitner met secretly with Hahn in Copenhagen. Hahn and Strassmann had discovered barium. Around
the same time Meitner and Frisch explained nuclear fission, publishing their work a few weeks after Hahn. The proof
of fission required Meitner’s and Frisch’s physical insights as much as it did the chemical findings of Hahn and
Strassmann. The Nobel committee never properly understood Meitner’s role and it gave the 1945 Nobel Prize to Otto
Hahn. In 1966, Hahn, Meitner and Strassmann were awarded the U.S. Fermi Prize.
Lise Meitner gave the first theoretical
explanation of the nuclear fission process.
Baruch Spinoza (1632 –
Baruch Spinoza was born in 1632 into the Sephardic community of Amsterdam and was
excommunicated at the age of 23 in 1655. He was a lens maker who
worked at the same time as the important Dutch scientists of the era. Spinoza argued that the Bible should be
examined in a scientific spirit and investigated like any other literary phenomenon. The approach had to be
historical. Spinoza showed that the bible provided an imperfect historical record and that its writings
reflected the preoccupations and limitations of their times. He
was treated as an atheist and his books banned everywhere.
With the advantage of hindsight, we have come to see him as “the first modern Jew” and
specifically as a precursor for an array of rival movements, ranging from Reform Judaism to secular
Yiddishism to Labor Zionism. His teachings were part of
17th century rationalist philosophy that heralded scientific enquiry. His work complements that of
other great Enlightenment figures such as Leibniz and Descartes.
Every Shabbat we read five
short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and humour, insightful reflections on this life of
Here are tonight’s
- A man’s drive for profit should be prompted by the desire to give
- If you can’t do what you want, do what you can.
- If cats wore gloves, they would catch no mice.
- When one link snaps, the whole chain collapses.
- Storms pass but their driftwood remains.
We will now sing a traditional song to conclude our Shabbat celebration. You have a
copy of the words, so please join in as we sing.
The song is sung
Farewell and an Invitation
Thank you for joining together
to share our Shabbat. May you go out into the new week with renewed strength, confidence and
We now cordially invite you to
join us for some coffee and cake.