Sunday 27 January 2019



One of the first questions any student of Midrash[1] is confronted with is: Do I have to believe the expanded Midrashic interpretations which are clearly embellishments over and above the literal meaning of the source text?

In this article, we will look at how various authorities throughout the ages have dealt with this question, which is a very pressing - if not a make or break - issue for many.

The first five examples are taken from R. Moshe Shamah in his Recalling the Covenant.[2]

RAV SHERIRA GAON (906-1006):

This is how Rav Sherira Gaon, who was the head of the Pumbedita Academy, answers the question of taking Midrashim literally:

“Those points brought out from scriptural verses called Midrash and Aggadah are assumptions. Some are accurate...but many are not...”[3]

Rav Sheria Gaon makes the point that an ‘intelligent’ person will know how to select fact from hyperbole and exaggeration:

“We abide by the principle, ‘According to his intelligence is a man commended’ (Proverbs 12:8).

Then he goes on to deal with Aggadot which he calls the work of the ‘student’s students’ (i.e. a ‘second generation’ expansion of an expansion):

“As to the aggadot of the student’s students...most of them...are not as they [were originally][4] expounded.

Accordingly we do not rely on aggadot.

The correct ones of them are those supported by intelligence and by Scripture.

There is no end to [the exaggeration of][5] aggadot.”

RAV HAI GAON (939-1038):

Rav Sherira’s son, Rav Hai Gaon echoed his illustrious father and wrote:

“...we do not rely on Aggadah.”[6]

But then he extends his words to apply not just to Midrash and Aggadah – but also to certain sections of the Talmud:

 “...regarding what is ensconced in the Talmud, if we find a way to remove its errors and strengthen it, we should do so...”


Rav Shmuel ben Hofni Gaon picks up on this theme of Talmudic Aggadah and writes in his Introduction to the Talmud[7]:

“Aggadah constitutes all the explanations in the Talmud on any subject that does not refer to a mitzvah.

You do not learn from them except what seems acceptable to the mind...and the rest we do not rely upon.”

Rav Shmuel is apparently saying that the prime purpose of Talmud is to expound on religious commandments and practices. Anything other than a technical discussion of mitzvot, must first pass through the filter of the intelligent mind before it is to be considered.


Ibn Ezra writes in his Torah commentary about the words ‘zachor’ and ‘shamor’ which occur alternately in the two biblical versions of the Ten Commandments.

In Exodus, it reads ‘Remember (zachor) the Sabbath...’ - and in Deuteronomy, it reads ‘Observe (shamor) the Sabbath...’[8]

The Talmud says:

“Zachor and shamor were simultaneously said by G-d – [and this was a miracle] because it is not possible for the mouth to say and for the ear to hear [words spoken at the same time]”:

Ibn Ezra comments on this notion and begins by making it clear that he is not being disrespectful to the Sages:  

“...for our minds are meager in comparison to their minds...”

Yet he immediately dispels the commonly accepted notion that both expressions were said simultaneously by G-d!

“...but people of our generation think that their words were intended to be taken literally which is not the case.”[9]

Ibn Ezra suggests his more rational interpretation that:

“...[in Exodus,] when Hashem uttered zachor  (to remember the Sabbath day) everybody understood it to mean in order to observe it, so (in Deuteronomy) Moshe wrote shamor.”

RAMBAM (1035-1204):

Rambam writes regarding those who interpret Midrashim literally:

“They destroy the Torah’s glory and darken its brilliance, they make G-d’s Torah the opposite of what was intended.

He stated in the perfect Torah regarding the nations ‘who will hear all these statutes and say, “What a wise and insightful people this great nation is”’ (Deut. 4:6).

But when the nations hear how this group relates the words of the sages in a literal manner they will say, ‘What a foolish and ignorant people this insignificant nation is.’“

The Rambam’s piece de resistance is his description of the ‘expounders’ who go on to give elaborate explanations about some of these Midrashim which they themselves do not comprehend:

“Most of these expounders explain to the public what they, themselves, really do not understand.

Would that they be quiet or say, ‘We do not understand what the rabbis mean in this statement or how to interpret it.’

But they...expound at the head of the assembly the [Midrashic][10] derashot...literally, word by word.”[11]

Then in Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed, he continues:

“...Now, I wonder whether those ignorant persons [who take the Midrashic interpretations literally] believe that the author of this saying gave it as the true interpretation of the text quoted, and as the meaning of this precept...I cannot think that any person whose intellect is sound can accept this.

The author employed the text as a beautiful poetical phrase, in teaching an excellent moral lesson...poetically connected with the...text.”[12]


After sharing these sources with us, R. Moshe Shamah concludes:

As long as the reader or listener realizes that a proposed interpretation of a text is not necessarily its true meaning...and that the highly improbable, often fantastic and sometimes impossible realities portrayed are not literal, no harm is done and a benefit is derived from the lesson.”[13]

Here are some additional references I was able to find as well:

RASHBA (1235-1310):

R. Shlomo ben Aderet, also known as Rashba, wrote a special commentary on certain Midrashim called Perushai HaAggadoth. In it, he too shows that Midrashim were not meant to be taken literally.

VILNA GAON (1720-1797):  
The Vilna Gaon also dealt with various Midrashim in a non-literal manner in a small book entitled 'A Commentary on Many Aggadoth'.

RAMCHAL (1707-1746):

R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, known as Ramchal, discusses the metaphoric nature of Midrashim in his Ma’amar al haAggadot, or Essay on the Aggadot. He writes:

"...they [the sages who compiled the Midrashim] would commit them to writing so that they [the ideas contained therein] would not be lost to succeeding generations, but [they would do so] in an obscure form or in various riddles."

He also says:

"... only persons of clear mind, who have been well trained in correct logical analysis, will succeed in [understanding] them. Dense individuals and those untrained in correct logic, if they should come across them, would interpret these true and precious concepts as to make them erroneous and harmful."

This is an interesting understanding because while the concept the Midrash is trying to convey may be true, the means of conveying the message is not necessarily true.

MEIRI (1249-1310):

Menachem Meiri, also described as a ‘Maimonidean’, writes in a more direct manner:

אין עקרי האמונות תלויות בראיות של פשוטי מקראות ואגדות וכבר ידעת שאין משיבין באגדה

“...the fundaments of Judaism are not determined by simplistic interpretations of Scripture, or by aggadot, as you know that we do not respond to aggadot.”[14]

MAHARSHA (1555-1631):

R. Shmuel Eidels, known as the Maharsha - in the introduction to his Chidushei Aggadoth – writes that statements of our Sages that contain wild stories which do not make sense are to be explained as parables and metaphors alluding to something else.


R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch clearly writes that Aggadic statements “are not part of Oral Tradition from Sinai”. 

He says we should rely on the views of Rav Sherira Gaon, Rav Hai Gaon, etc.... who taught that we do not accept Midrashic literature unless it appears reasonable. Furthermore, he suggests that those who maintain their insistence on perpetuating the literal meaning of Aggadot may, in fact, be opening the doors to heresy!


A scholarly rabbi, who is an acquaintance of mine, was once giving an explanation on a Tosefot which says that elephants can jump. When one of the students questioned the accuracy of that statement, the rabbi got upset and said; “If Tosefos says elephants can jump – then elephants can jump!

However, according to

“If you were to look at an elephant’s skeleton, you’ll see that they’re standing on their tippy toes...All the bones are pointed straight down...That skeletal design supports the weight, but does not allow for an upwards spring from the feet, which is what would be required for jumping.”


R. Pinchas Rosenthal, who is the dean of Torah Academy of Long Island writes about the way we teach children Midrashim:

“The thrust of my concern lies in my observation, as a rebbe and principal for many years, that most current chinuch [religious education][16], rather than inspiring our students with the beauty and wisdom of Torah, too often teaches them that Torah learning requires that they suspend disbelief, setting aside their intellectual faculties rather than further engaging and sharpening them.

As a result, many of our students harbor secret suspicions (which they are too often afraid to voice because their rebbeim will not welcome questions of this type) that Torah cannot stand up to rigorous intellectual scrutiny and/or feel that Torah is completely irrelevant to their lives as 21st century Jews.”

R. Rosenthal addresses particularly the well-known Midrash which tells of Pharaoh’s daughter, Batya ‘extending’ her hand ‘many cubits’ to reach the basket in which baby Moshe was floating down the Nile. He continues:

“As part of the interview into high school, I often challenge incoming students with questions that contrast the P’shat [literal or simple meaning][17] of a Chumash story with its Midrashic counterpart. The reaction is always the same - the student looks at me like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck.

The other day, the student was an eager young lady named Leah. I asked her the following question: If you were able to go back in time to the moment when Paroh’s daughter saw baby Moshe in his basket, what would you see? Would you see Paroh’s daughter requesting her maidservant to fetch the basket as the posuk tells us or would you see her arm grow 25 feet long like Mister Fantastic and rope in the basket as the Midrash says?

I felt at that moment as if I had asked Leah to choose between her two parents at a divorce proceeding.  She knew that the Torah was an authority and correct and the Midrash was an authority and correct. Her mind was telling her both versions could not be simultaneously true! Therefore, she was frozen and unable to respond.

Leah was educated in a yeshiva day school. The vast majority of children from the current yeshiva system believe all Midrashim are part of the literal account of the events that occurred in the Tanach. 

Let me fast forward to an Anthropology Class at Queens College. The professor is discussing ancient Egypt. He mentions there is a legend among the Jews about the daughter of Pharaoh concerning her arm stretching out to retrieve baby Moses. Leah raises her hand. She says that it was a miracle and the daughter of Paroh had her arm stretched out to save Moshe.

Suddenly, all 53 members of her class turn to her and stare. Her face turns crimson. The Professor asks her, ‘Do you believe that actually happened?’ Leah feels the temperature rising. She knows that her beliefs are under attack, and that she has been publicly put on the spot. She desperately wants to explain the Torah position in a cogent way and yet she finds that despite 15 years of Yeshiva education, she is unable to do so...

I explained to Leah that the... Midrash is there to point to the story behind the story. In my opinion, the seemingly miraculous extension of Paroh’s daughter’s arm is directing us to another idea - the great difficulty that she must have faced saving the life of a Jewish baby...

 Her actions required her to go against her upbringing and the dictates of her father.  This would of necessity create tremendous conflict for any young woman, but particularly for one in her position of prominence in Egyptian society...

The rabbis are teaching us that her emotional shift towards feeling protective of this baby is as much of a miracle as if G-d had extended her arm 25 feet. 

Leah felt as if a load had been removed from her shoulders. At age 14, she was taught for the first time, the relationship between the Torah and the Midrashim.

It is my belief that all teachers should only teach a Midrash if they help the students discover its deeper message.[18]

Here is how one sixteen-year-old young man from our community, who grew up in the Torah educational system, shared his candid views:

“Being six or seven years old, learning Judaism in a Jewish day school, is great. You get to learn about all the amazing stories the Jews went through, like when they could pick fruit from the Red Sea when it parted, etc....

But the issue as a young Jewish learner comes when you grow up a little and expand your mind to the world around you and see with your own eyes the unrealistic writings of the Midrashim – but yet being told to believe in them wholeheartedly.

Our teachers are telling us at a young impressionable age that these stories are legitimate and literal.

This makes us young Jewish learners question the realness of the Torah and Judaism as a religion as a whole.” [MF]


To be clear:

It is my subjective view that Midrashim are often morally and theologically profound (sometimes even subversive - see here).

Additionally, they serve as a useful tool in helping young children stay focussed and interested in their Torah studies. I believe it was Albert Einstein who said that if you want your children to grow up smart, then read them many fairy tales. And if you want them to be even smarter, then read them even more fairy tales. This is because they allow the developing mind to sour into the realms of great imagination.

But there comes a point when facts and truth must begin to take over if the person is to learn how to deal with reality. It's difficult to sit in a dentist's chair and trust him if you know he still believes in the tooth fairy.


Most surprisingly - although many religious people do take some Midrashim quite literally - I battled to find primary sources which actually prescribe that position and which encourage us to take Midrashim literally!

The closest I could find was the mystic, Nachmanides (or Ramban) who writes:

‏. מי שיאמין בו טוב. ומי שלא יאמין בו לא יזיק

“Whoever believes in them [Midrashim], good – but he who does not believe in them will not be harmed.”

[And even here, there is a dispute as to whether Ramban only made this statement as part of a debate or polemic where lives could have been at risk - or whether he really meant it.[19]]

Either way (and I would love to be corrected on this) I was astonished that I could not find any sources requiring one to believe unconditionally in Midrashim.

This is noteworthy because, clearly, so many people do take many Midrashim very literally.

Perhaps it may have something to do with Rashi’s commentary on the Torah which every child is taught at a tender age. 

Although Rashi claimed his purpose was only to instruct on the pshat or literal meaning of the Torah text, much of his commentary is not his original interpretation but, in actual fact, selected quotations from the various Midrashim. Possibly around eighty percent of his commentary in Midrash based.

Presented this way, anyone reading Rashi could quickly be led to believe that his vast Midrashic content is indeed part of the Torah narrative!

So Batya’s hand did stretch out to reach Moshe and Yosef’s bones did float to the surface of the Nile prior to the Exodus and so on.[20]

This being the case, although there is no real literature stipulating or enjoining us to follow Midrashim literally, it’s importance has already been successfully and subliminally suggested in Rashi’s commentary which is the de facto popular ‘handbook’ to understanding the ‘basic text’  of the Torah.

Might this have become a contributing factor as to why so many have come to regard Midrashic amplifications as literal and historical pshat?

Perhaps this was why Rambam encouraged his son, Avraham ben haRambam, to study Chumash with Ibn Ezra and not with Rashi?


[1] Biblical and Talmudic interpretation which goes beyond the text and is often an exaggeration and expansion of the literal or plain meaning of the text.
[2] Parashat Beshalach p. 336.
[3] Sefer haEshkol, Hilchot Sefer Torah, p. 60a. Translations by R. Moshe Shammah.
[4] Parenthesis mine.
[5] Parenthesis mine.
[6] Ibid. Sefer haEshkol.
[7] Vilna edition, end of Berachot (erroneously attributed to Shmuel haNagid).
[8] Shavuot 20b.
[9] Ibn Ezra continues his deductive thinking:

He applies his logic and challenges the assertion that there was a need to create an extra supernatural component to the account of the Ten Commandments: If ‘zachor and shamor’ were said simultaneously then why is it not written ‘zachor veshamor’ in both versions of the Ten Commandments?

And if it the Talmudic statement was referring to a miracle, it can’t be because:

“...[In] every miracle Hashem performed through Moses there is some remote resemblance in reality that the intelligent will understand, but this claim that Hashem spoke zachor and shamor at one instant is so amazing that it would be more fitting to be written in the Torah [itself and not just in the Talmud][9] than all the other wonders and miracles that were written.”

And if one retorts that G-d’s speech is not like human speech, then:

“ could Israel have understood Hashem’s words? For if a person hears zachor and shamor at the same instant he would not understand either....if we say it was a miracle that zachor and shamor were uttered at the same time, how did the ear hear them?
If we say that also was a miracle...why did the sages not mention that miracle, a greater one than speaking two words at the same time?”

[10] Parenthesis mine.
[11] Introduction to Perek Chelek.
[12] Guide, Friedlander 1956, 353-4.
[13] Shammai Parashat Beshalach, p.340.
[14] Meiri on Shabbat 55a.
[15] See: “And the daughter of Paroh’s arm stretched out many cubits” and the dangers of Midrashim’, by Rabbi Pinchas Rosenthal.                                                                                                         
[16] Parenthesis mine.
[17] Parenthesis mine.
[18] Emphasis , R. Rosenthal.
[19] R. Yaakov Kamanetzky (Emet leYa’akov, Bereishit 44:18) maintained it was for the debate - while the Chattam Sofer (Orach Chaim 1:16), and Abarbanel maintained this was indeed his position.
[20] I thank Mendy Rosin for his input in helping me develop this idea.
[21] It is possible that this document is a forgery, although Shem Ton Ibn Shaprut as well as Ibn Kaspi quoted from it. It is printed in Iggerot veShe'elot uTeshuvot (a collection of letters from Rambam).

Sunday 20 January 2019


Bar Kochba's orders to his subordinates during the last year of the Rebellion.  [Found by archaeologists in the Cave of Letters in the Judean desert.]


It is strange that one of the most fundamental concepts of Judaism remains essentially undefined:
What is the nature of Judaism’s relationship to this physical world?
That’s obvious, one might say – but this is one of those areas of Jewish theology where it really depends upon who you ask, and therefore it is often skewed towards one or other extreme position.
In this article, we shall explore some very different points of view on the matter.
Firstly, we will look at two supposedly ‘mainstream’ positions, namely that of the Mussarist[1] R. Eliezer Papo (1785-1828, also known as Pele Yoetz) and the Kabbalist R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746, also known as Ramchal). According to both these views, this physical world is to be shunned in favour of the next world.
A short biography on each of these rabbis will be provided to show a particular personality profile to help us understand their views.
Then we will hint at another position where the physical realm is to be used and enjoyed and not simply regarded as a means to an end.
And finally and most importantly: we shall try to understand the context behind their source texts to see how reality on the ground, particularly during the early Talmudic period, informed perceptions of Heaven and Earth which were later assumed to be the final word on the matter.
R. Eliezer Papo was born in Sarajevo, and later became the rabbi of Silistra in Bulgaria which was then a part of the Ottoman Empire.
He is best known for his work, Pele Yoetz, meaning Wonderful Advice. The book is more than just a work on Mussar (ethics) but a practical guide to all sorts of human issues including relationships between a parent and a child, a husband and wife, and an employer and employee.
He emphasises that Jews need to spend their time observing the commandments without worrying about, or placing too much emphasis on the physical existence in this world.
It was the World to Come, which was the ultimate purpose - to the extent that worldly matters were to be shunned.
He teaches acceptance of everything as being for the ultimate good, as everything is G-d’s will. Suffering and travail are to be embraced.
It is wrong to be overly concerned with worldly pursuits such as earning a living. Income is directed by G-d. If G-d wants one to be wealthy, one will be so without having to work hard. And if G-d wants one to be poor, one will be so - no matter how hard he or she works.
R. Papo encourages one to have faith in the Sages and to submit to their authority. In fact, he teaches that one must practice intellectual subservience to anyone greater than himself.
According to the OU Biography on Rabbi Eliezer Papo:
Rabbi Papo advocated a tradition-bound, static Judaism. He called for a life of piety and acceptance of G-d. He demanded total allegiance to rabbinic tradition, stressed the need to live according to traditional patterns and preferred the traditionalism of Moslem lands to the modernity of Europe. His ultimate focus was not on life in this world, but on the world to come.”
About half a century earlier, Italian born R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, was writing in a similar manner that based on certain rabbinic teachings, this world was a mere prelude to the World to Come.
When the Ramchal was about twenty years old he claimed to have been called upon by an angelic being, known as a maggid. He began to record these spiritual encounters many of which were of a messianic nature.
[For more on the notion of a maggid, see A Mystical side to R. Yosef Karo.]
It is said that he identified one on his students to be the Messiah and that he claimed that he himself was an incarnation of the biblical Moshe.
This, naturally, raised the suspicions of the Italian and German rabbinate which feared another false messiah.  – It was only a century after the great false messiah debacle surrounding Shabbatai Tzvi.
The Ramchal only escaped threats of excommunication by agreeing to no longer teach mysticism or write about his encounters with his maggid. He also signed a document testifying that those teachings were false.
He then moved to Amsterdam where he found a more liberal community and was able to pursue his study of mysticism unhindered.
Ramchal wrote in his magnum opus Mesilat Yesharim:
Man was not created for his place to be in this world, but rather for his place in the World to Come, which is his ultimate purpose.
Thus one finds many statements from our Sages, all along similar lines, comparing this world to a preparation (for the next world)...
For example, the Sages said (Avot 4:16): ‘This world is like a corridor leading to the next world'...

Moreover, our Sages taught (Avot, 4:22): ‘Against your will you were created and against your will, you were born.
The soul does not love this world – rather, it despises it...[2]

There is no doubt that our two examples - from R. Papo and R. Luzzatto - are typical of much of rabbinic literature where we see that this world is not the focus. On the contrary, it is to be despised and only becomes meaningful when used as a preparation for the World to Come.
This is often perceived as a mainstream view - to more or less of a degree - from across the spectrum of the Torah world.
However, upon further study, one will find other rabbinic statements praising this world and the potential that it offers. We are told that: “G-d wanted His dwelling place to be in this nether world.”[3]
Our Sages also say that “One will have to give an accounting of every pleasure his eyes saw in this world and did not partake of.[4]
There are many stories which tell of great Sages not wanting to die because only in this world can one perform mitzvot.
Chassidic philosophy extols the virtues of a ‘soul within the body’, over a soul bereft of the body albeit in the spiritual realms.
There are also schools of thought that encourage Torah Jews to get involved in worldly matters and to study secular knowledge and actively participate in the mechanics of this world (obviously in conjunction with Torah study).
This was possibly best encapsulated by R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch (1808-1888), who spoke of Torah Im Derech Eretz, or Torah together with the ways of the World

Rav Kook similarly spoke of the need for Jews to become 'more physical'. 
One fascinating and insightful examination of this split-issue in the traditional sources regarding the spiritual status of this world can be found in the teachings of R. David Bar-Hayim (b. 1960).
He refers to the abovementioned section of Mesilat Yesharim where the soul is said to ‘despise’ of this world (based on Talmudic sources which refer to this world as being a mere ‘corridor’ to the next and that the soul is born to this world ‘against its will’).
R. Bar-Hayim[5] says:
I believe that it can lead people to view life in a very negative can even lead to depression...and a lack of any sense of fulfilment, joy and purpose in this world.”
Then he goes on to give a fascinating historical analysis as to why we find an emphasis on such negative world-views in certain Talmudic references:
Again Mesilat Yesharim is quoted, where (based on a Midrash from Yalkut Shimoni) Jacob and Esau were said to have made a pact – Jacob would inherit the World to Come while Esau would inherit this world. Jacob, of course, represents the Jews - while Esau represents Rome.
R. Bar-Hayim says:
In my view, such a Midrash cannot and must not be understood in an absolute sense – as if it is the be-all and end-all of what Judaism has to say about this world.
If one does take that attitude - and that is apparently the attitude the Ramchal takes - then one reaches the conclusion that [as] he himself writes that this world is ‘aino chelkeinu’ [not our portion]... we don’t really belong to this world and therefore it is difficult to find any great purpose, pleasure and meaning in this world.
- I view such a Midrash in a historical context;
Many such statements of the Chachamim [Sages] were made in the wake of the disastrous end result of the Bar Kochba Revolt.”
The Bar Kochba defeat (132-136 CE) signalled the end of any significant Jewish settlement in the Holy Land. The defeat itself was described as a genocide[6] and according to Roman sources, 580 000 Jews perished with a few thousand more sold into slavery and over a thousand Jewish settlements destroyed.
He suggests that in relative terms this devastation may even have been greater than the Holocaust.
The despair felt by the Jewish People would have been tangible. The Talmud records a common sentiment from those times:
“...we ought by rights to issue a decree not to marry and have children, so that the seed of Avraham our father would come to an end of itself.”[7]
As a result of this absolute devastation to Jews and to Judaism, the Sages felt the need to quell any stirrings of further revolt or uprising against the powerful Roman Empire.
R. Bar-Hayim says that the Sages in the post Bar Kochba era believed that:
“...we must [now] train and educate the Jews...that it is not our purpose and it is not the time to try and revolt against the Romans...
And the purpose of the Chachamim in that situation was to tell the Jews: Do not be envious of the Romans and what they have – their wealth and their luxury... do not try and emulate them.
We have to concentrate on the spiritual... and we must learn to distinguish ourselves from them as separate and higher and better than they are.
- It is from that historical perspective, I believe, that one has to view those statements [which shun the physical world].”[8]
To expand on this interpretation, one could add that it was not only the Bar Kochba revolt which sparked such a response from the Sages, because there was actually a series of three devastating Jewish-Roman wars.
Ken Spiro points out that although Jews generally have an image of scholars and not fighters, these were times when Jews were fierce warriors “like Japanese fighters during the Second World War.”
The first war or revolt took place between 66-73 CE which culminated in the Second Temple being destroyed, a mass suicide at Masada in 72 CE and the beginning of a great exile. This period was known as haMered haGadol or Great Rebellion.
The second was the Kitos[9] War or Mered haGaluyot (Rebellion of the Diaspora) which occurred between 115-117 CE. This was an extremely violent revolt on the part of the Jews until it was finally put down by the Romans.
It was fought in places like Libya and Cyprus and many would be surprised by the following historical accounts:
According to Orosius[10] the Jews originally annihilated Libya (particularly the province of Cyrenaica) to such an extent that Hadrian had to embark on a campaign to repopulate the area:
"The Jews ... waged war on the inhabitants throughout Libya in the most savage fashion, and to such an extent was the country wasted that, its cultivators having been slain, its land would have remained utterly depopulated, had not the Emperor Hadrian gathered settlers from other places and sent them thither, for the inhabitants had been wiped out."[11]
According to the account of Cassius Dio:
"'Meanwhile the Jews in the region of Cyrene [Libya] had put one Andreas at their head and were destroying both the Romans and the Greeks. They would cook their flesh, make belts for themselves of their entrails, anoint themselves with their blood, and wear their skins for clothing. Many they sawed in two, from the head downwards. Others they would give to wild beasts and force still others to fight as gladiators. In all, consequently, two hundred and twenty thousand perished. In Egypt, also, they performed many similar deeds, and in Cyprus under the leadership of Artemio. There, likewise, two hundred and forty thousand perished. For this reason no Jew may set foot in that land, but even if one of them is driven upon the island by force of the wind, he is put to death. Various persons took part in subduing these Jews, one being Lusius [Quietus or Kitos], who was sent by Trajan."[12]
Considering the savage violence and utter devastation, one begins to understand why the Sages may have been so intent on discouraging further revolution at that time.

Continuing along similar lines, Bar-Hayim offers another example of this type of thinking on the part of the later Sages. The Torah tells of Moshe killing the Egyptian taskmaster who had smitten a fellow Hebrew slave, and then burying him in the sand before fleeing.
While the story in the Torah appears quite literal and clear, the Midrash of Shemot Rabbah, chooses a very different tack. It says that Moshe, instead of actually killing the Egyptian, enunciated the holy name of G-d and the Egyptian died.
Again, the rabbinic inference is that to survive, the Jew must remain physically passive while spiritually active.
The Sages, therefore:
“...wanted to deter the Jews from attacking Romans and they painted the picture of Moshe Rabbeinu killing the Egyptian by using some mystical device.”
Interestingly, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks[13] makes a similar point. He brilliantly compares statements of the Sages from around the first century to their conversations three hundred years later. He notices that - with regard to the laws of carrying on Shabbat - in the first century it was considered normal for Jews to wear swords and carry weapons.
Technically, R. Eliezer is of the opinion that a weapon is like a normal item of clothing and may, therefore, be carried on Shabbat. The majority of other rabbis disagree because Shabbat is compared to ‘messianic times’ when swords become plough shears and therefore they are not ‘in the spirit of Shabbat’. So - although common - they may not be carried on Shabbat.

However, three centuries later during the Gemara period, when a proof-text from Psalms is found to support R. Eliezer: “Gird your swords upon your sides...”[14] – suddenly that verse is interpreted as assuming a metaphorical meaning where ‘swords’ now become sharp ‘words of Torah’.
Thus, over the course of three centuries, the literal meaning of a weapon is now foreign to the Jew. A debate cannot even take place over carrying a sword on Shabbat because a sword is no longer a sword!

The politically inspired physical passivity encouraged by the Sages has now become the norm for the Jew.
Rabbi Sacks writes:
“Something has happened to Jewish life between first-century Israel and fourth-century Babylon.”
He continues:
“By the time we reach forth century Babylon...A war is still being fought for the survival of Judaism, but it is no longer physical but cultural. What must be protected are the boundaries, not of a country but an identity.”
Notwithstanding the accounts of terrible devastation and destruction which help us comprehend why the later Sages would rather emphasise the spirituality of the World to Come, Rabbi Bar-Hayim makes the following important point:
“But that does not mean that it is the comprehensive view of the Torah on such matters!
Thus, having understood the historical context for the paradigm shift resulting in the emphasis on the spiritual word over material reality, it must be remembered that each extreme view is probably skewed. 

Somewhere between those two points must lie the essential, balanced and comprehensive Torah view on the true nature of our relationship with the physical world.
The role and function of this physical world have confounded and mystified theologians of all descriptions since time immemorial. Judaism, as we have seen, has not been spared from this agonising dilemma either.
No one text or teaching will resolve the issue to the thinking student who is aware of conflicting textual and hashkafic (philosophical) discrepancies on the matter.
Perhaps the closest we can get to the truth is to acknowledge that this relationship between the Jew and the world is shrouded in politics, paradox, ambiguity and agenda.
I would be very wary of anyone who claims to have the definitive answer as to the intrinsic nature of that complicated relationship.

[1] Mussar is a system of Jewish ethics. R. Papo was an expounder of the Sefardic Mussar system.
[2] Mesilat Yesharim, Chapter 1.
[3] Midrash Tanchuma, Bechukotai, Section 3.
[4] Yerushalmi, Kiddushin 4:12.
[5] Mesilat Yesharim: Should we Treat the World with Disdain?
[6] According to Taylor, J. E. The Essenes, the Scrolls, and the Dead Sea. Oxford University Press:
“Up until this date the Bar Kokhba documents indicate that towns, villages and ports where Jews lived were busy with industry and activity. Afterwards there is an eerie silence, and the archaeological record testifies to little Jewish presence until the Byzantine era, in En Gedi. This picture coheres with what we have already determined in Part I of this study, that the crucial date for what can only be described as genocide, and the devastation of Jews and Judaism within central Judea, was 135 CE and not, as usually assumed, 70 CE, despite the siege of Jerusalem and the Temple's destruction.”
[7] Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 60b.
[8]Regarding Ramchal’s quoting from Avot 4:22 that “’Against your will you were created and against your will you were born’, and then immediately adding: “The soul does not love this world – rather, it despises it” -  R. Bar-Hayim suggests that “Ramchal’s interpretation is very dubious.
In other words, Ramchal appears to imply that because the soul despises this world, it did not want to be born into it and it had to be forced to be born against its wish.
However, by reading the entire Mishna of Avot 4:22, it is clear that this is not the implication of the text. The text is referring to one who thinks that in death he can escape accountability for misdeeds committed in this world – and retorts that “against your will, your will you were created... against your will you die, and against your will you are destined to give an account before the King of kings.”
The text is only reminding us that there is no escaping accountability, it is not informing us that the soul despises this world.
Secondly, R. Bar-Hayim points out that, in fact, there is a Midrash which states that this world is better than the World of Souls from which the individual hailed.
The Midrash goes through a long description detailing how a soul is born into this world and joined to its body. The soul is said to be reluctant to be joined to the body as it is perfectly happy remaining where it is. G-d then intervenes and responds to the soul: “The world to which I am introducing you will be better for you than the world you were till now.”
The Angel then reminds the soul that anyway it is not its decision to make because “Against your will, you are born...” (Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei, Section 3.)

[9] A corruption of Lusius Quietus.
[10] A 4th-century Christian historian.
[11]Orosius, Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, 7.12.6.
[12] Dio’s Rome, Volume V., Book 68, paragraph 32.
[13] The Politics of Hope, Vintage 2000. P. 150
[14] Psalms 45:4.