In Celebration of Rav Moshe Shamah
On numerous occasions, I have discussed the unfortunate moral and intellectual shortcomings of various rabbis. Today, I would like to praise a very special rabbi, on the occasion of his eightieth birthday: the outstanding Rav Moshe Shamah of Brooklyn.
Rav Shamah learned in Ner Israel and Lakewood, and was also a close disciple of the legendary Rav Solomon Sasson. He also has a Master's degree in education from Loyola, and for many years served as principal of Sephardic High School. He is the rabbi of Sephardic Institute in Brooklyn, which he founded in 1968.
Many decades ago, long before the internet, Rav Shamah had an experience which will strike a note of familiarity. Some zealots started complaining about his teaching that not everything in the Gemara is scientifically correct. It went all the way to Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, Rav Yaakov Yitshak Ruderman, Rav Elya Svei and others. However, the campaign was deflated when Rav Sassoon managed to procure a letter in Rav Shamah's support from Rav Ovadia Yosef which, while suffering from some errors and exhibiting a clear anti-rationalist stance, stated that the rationalist approach does have traditional basis and is not heretical.
A few years ago, Rav Shamah published a commentary on the Torah entitled Recalling The Covenant. In a market that is saturated with books on the parashah, this one stands head and shoulders above the rest. It's one of the most thoughtful and sophisticated books in this genre, and the orientation is very much rationalist. Here's a very brief extract from his commentary on this week's parashah, in which he demonstrates that a careful, level-headed analysis results in one of the plagues being something different than what is commonly taught:
The word 'arob, which means mixture but a mixture of what is unspecified, in all probability refers to swarms of assorted insects (following Rabbi Nehemiah in Exod. Rab. 11:3). The interpretation that the mixture refers to assorted "beasts of prey" (Rabbi Judah in Exod. Rab. 11:3) does not suit the context. The Exodus account states, "I will send against you, your servants, your people and your homes the mixture, and the homes of Egypt shall be full of the mixture" (Exod. 8:17). Had lions and tigers and so forth that were acting in accordance with their nature been sent against Pharaoh, the Egyptians and their homes, the fear that the beasts would have evoked and the death and devastation wrought would necessarily have been described differently than the text depicts.
He brings further evidence and explanation as to how the plague arov was insects rather than wild animals. This view is certainly less exciting than the conventional view, but it is far more reasonable, from both textual and conceptual perspectives.
I have met Rav Shamah on several occasions over the years and I have always been inspired by his wisdom, broad knowledge, modesty, and graciousness. In particular, his speech at an event launching The Torah and Nature Foundation has been a source of much inspiration and strength for me. May Hashem bless him with many more years of health and success!