Rabbi Shimon Felix Provides Insight Into Parshat Balak

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Rabbi Shimon Felix, the executive director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel has given us permission to publish his excellent commentary on this week’s Torah portion (parsha) called Balak. The parsha, in the eyes of Rabbi Felix, carries strong messages about the need to become a more welcoming and inclusive Jewish community:

This week’s parsha, Balak, deals with the tensions between the nation of Israel and their new neighbors, Moab and Midian. As the Israelites leave the Sinai Desert, head towards the Land of Israel and begin to interact with the nations of the region, the locals are nervous about the approaching Jews, and one of their kings, Balak, hires a prophet, Bil’am, to curse them. This plan backfires, as God puts blessings, rather than curses, into Bil’am’s mouth. At the end of the parsha, however, the Moabites hit upon a more successful scheme to get at the Israelites. The Torah tells us that the Israelites went “a-whoring with the daughters of Moab”, who invited the Israelites to make offerings to their Gods, an invitation which the Israelites readily accepted. The story ends tragically, with God’s anger, an ensuing plague, death by stoning, hanging and the sword for many of the miscreants involved in the incidents of inter-sex (it doesn’t say they were planning to get married), and general bad feelings all around.

The Rabbis say that this was not a simple case of physical or romantic attraction between the men and women of the two nations. Rather, this was a clever plan, hatched by the would-be curser of the Jews, Bil’am, to ensnare the Israelites in idol worship, using the wiles of the Moabite women as bait. This story dovetails nicely with Halachic material elsewhere in the Torah, where we are warned to not intermarry, lest that lead to idol worship and the abandonment of God and the Torah.

I would like to share with you something that Nachmanides (1194-1270), also known as the Ramban (an acronym for Rabbi Moshe B en Nachman), says about this incident. Here it is:

… this action was not done with lustful desire, which is found in men and women naturally, from the time they are young, but rather as an evil scheme to cause their [the Israelites’] downfall, which is why it is deserving of such great revenge.

The Ramban makes a distinction between the natural attraction between men and women - whether they be of different tribes or not - and what happened in our story, where there was a pre-meditated and immoral attempt by the Moabites to use their women to seduce the Israelite men into a relationship with their god. The Ramban is not condoning the former expression of “lustful desire”, but he understands it as the “natural” condition of humanity, and therefore not deserving of the kind of “revenge” which is appropriate for what the Moabites and their Jewish partners/victims did.

This distinction is extraordinarily important for us, today. The classic response to intermarriage - that the person involved in one is rejecting his or her faith, certainly made sense vis-à-vis the Moabites and other pagan nations of the ancient near east, and was also relevant, until recently, in Christian Europe and the Muslim world, where marrying a non-Jew meant adopting his or her religion, and becoming a member of his or her community. Today, however, Jews living in modern societies do not feel that a relationship with a non-Jew is necessarily an act of rebellion against the Jewish community, nor a rejection of it. It is, rather, an expression of what the Ramban calls a natural inclination for men and women to meet, be attracted to one another, and fall in love. In an open society, in which Jews and non-Jews interact freely, as equals, it would be positively unnatural for this dynamic to not occur.

If this is the case, the Jewish community would do well to adopt the distinction made by Nachmanides (in some circles this has already stared to happen). There may well still be Moabite-like situations, in which the choice of a non-Jewish partner is a de facto acceptance of his or her religious beliefs, and a one-way ticket out of the Jewish community and into the arms of a different faith-based (or faithless) society. The majority of such relationships, however, should be viewed as the Ramban views them: as a private, natural act between one man and one woman. Such a relationship is forbidden by traditional Jewish law, but does not warrant the “revenge” of the Jewish people, as it is not, intrinsically, an act of defiance or denial. Precisely how the Jewish community should behave towards this type of couple may not be immediately obvious, and requires thought, but it certainly should not be in the wrathful, thunderbolts-from-heaven mode that once made sense.


  1. It seems Rabbi Felix has taken the RaMBaN out of context, and broadened a narrow commentary, in order to make a point about intermarriage which the RaMBaN himself would never agree with.

    The RaMBaN (Milchamos, Sanhedrin 74) writes that in the case of a Jewish man taking a non-Jewish wife the children will not be Jewish, this prohibition is considered more serious; it is considered as if the man had become a “mechuttan” (in-laws) with the avodah zarah. This is the end of the line! The tradition of Jewishness transmitted from Mt. Sinai from generation to generation will not be able to continue. But when a Jewish woman marries a non-Jewish man, the children will be Jewish, though the woman has STILL committed a serious aveira.

    According to the RaMBaN, BOTH are forms of intermarriage are prohibited, even in the absence of actual avoda zara, AND even in the case where the resulting offspring will be halachically Jewish!!!

    The RaMBaN’s commentary to parsha Balak is merely meant to indicate the degree of culpability of Moav for having their goal be the dilution and destruction of Bene Israel. The Jews themselves, however, are culpable for having fallen victim to this regardless of their reasons (lust, love, etc.)

    Ultimately, I agree, though, that a wrathful response is coutnterproductive in any case. Only love draws Jews back to Judaism.

    Comment by marc — July 2, 2007 @ 10:14 am

  2. fyi…I adapted parts of my response above from a posting by Rabbi Hershel Schachter.

    Comment by marc — July 2, 2007 @ 10:15 am

  3. I prefer to look at this piece as an example (in a microcosm) of how beliefs can and must evolve with the influx of new ideas. Perhaps the RaMBaN would never have agreed with the forms of intermarriage described, but the question that should be asked is…so what? Nahmanides lived in the 13 century; remember, this is a period of time in which bloodletting and amulets were standard elements of any medical procedure. If you were sick, would you consult a 13th century manuscript to see which of the planets ruled the part of your body that was having problems? Why, then, is 13th century philosophy still relevant? The fact of the matter is, in the 21st century, the state of the Jewish community is far, far different than it was when the RaMBaN was writing. His commentary might be able to lend us some insight, but we must remember that his writing is still centuries old.

    Comment by Eric — July 2, 2007 @ 10:13 pm

  4. I guess if your position is that the writing of a 13th century rabbi is irrelevent, then you also can’t use it to justify a particular reaction (or on-reaction) to intermarriage, as the article does. Either the Ramban’s philosophy is relevent or it is not. No picking and choosing to justify want you .

    Perhaps more importantly, though, the Ramban is not a philosopher (as was the RaMBaM). He is telling us the law, and its underpinnings. So I’m am not sure your point about his philosophy fits here.

    Finally, even if the Ramban’s points WERE philosophical in nature, since philosophy is the investigation of the nature, causes, or principles of reality, knowledge, or values, based on logical reasoning rather than empirical methods, philosophical arguments do not change with the times as do new scientific ones due to new discoveries or research. For a philosophical argument to be irrelevent, it has to be proven wrong using logic, not just be ignored or be “out of style” like yesterday’s bellbottoms. I believe most Humanities curriculums at the undergraduate and graduate level today still have a heavy concentration in early Greek and Enlightenment philosophy, and in Far Eastern cultures, ancient philosophers, such as Confuscious, are still revered for their wisdom and insight.

    Comment by marc — July 3, 2007 @ 9:21 am

  5. I think you’re misrepresenting my position. I’m not saying that thoughts (philosophical or otherwise) are irrelevant simply because they come from a previous generation, century, or millenium. Without question, the works of the ancient philosophers have stood-and continue to stand-the test of time.

    However, what I object to is using his interpretations of the law in any context today. He may have believed intermarriage to be wrong, but we need to re-examine that belief in light of what we now know to determine whether or not we should continue to ascribe legitimacy to it. Remember, Leviticus 20:27 calls for wizards and psychics to be stoned to death. Today, however, we reject those instructions and allow David Blaine and Ms. Cleo to roam freely. Using centuries-old material as the basis for present-day dogma leads you down all sorts of unpleasant paths.

    Also, while most humanities curricula do indeed include ancient philosophers in their courses, they do so not to provide their students with knowledge of specific rules and regulations, but rather “big ideas.” Those big ideas are, of course, still relevant today; what I am objecting to is simply using ancient thought as the basis for modern tenets. In addition, empiricism and philosophy are hardly oppositional forces. Aristotle imbued a great deal of his works with ideas culled from empirical observations, as did numerous Far Eastern philosophers.

    The specific laws referenced by the Ramban are what I am saying are irrelevant; the underlying themes, however one chooses to read them, are not. Rabbi Felix chooses to read the Ramban’s words as containing a message for inclusivity, and though you may not agree.

    Comment by Eric — July 4, 2007 @ 5:00 pm

  6. I apologize if I misconstrued your words. I did not mean to.

    I am not sure the Ramban is “interpreting” anything though, so his conclusions would not be open to reinterpretation. The Ramban is merely telling us what happened based upon our Mesorah (tradition). He is telling a fact about how the Moabites acted. He also tells us elsewhere what Jewish law says about intermarriage. Again, no interpretation on his part, merely conveying to us the law.

    Rabbi Felix takes great liberties when he interprets the writing of the Ramban to indicate somehow that such relationships are somehow acceptable (he uses the word “natural” - in western terminology this means “okay”; however many of the greatest Jewish authors of our history use “natural” to indicate urges which the body feels that may, to our peril, overcome out intellect…quite the opposite of how we react to the word). Obviously, the Ramban himself would not have supported such a reading of his writing. We know that because of what he writes elsewhere.

    One may ignore Jewish law if he or she wishes, but that is very different from saying it is not the law, or that it is irrelevent. Regarding wizards and sorcerers, I can only say that IF there were a Jewish state that adhered to halacha, and IF wit had a functioning and uncorrupt Sanhedrin, the death penalty (rarely invoked) would still exist (big “ifs” I admit).

    If God wrote the Torah, it’s laws are eternal. If not, then I would agree with you that we can pour new wine into old wineskins and read the Talmud or great rabbis or the Torah itself anyway we wish b/c it would all be made-up hogwash anyhow…intermarriage, homosexuality, Jesus, Christmas, Buddah…anything goes if we want it to badly enough! If there is an in between position that can stand up to logical scrutiny, I have yet to hear it. I wish you the best in your Jewish journey.

    Shabbat Shalom,


    Comment by marc — July 6, 2007 @ 3:29 pm

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