One day, when I was in my early 20s and teaching Torah to religious newbies in Jerusalem, I felt the bedrock of belief shudder beneath me.
There’s a reason the sages wrote that the air of Jerusalem makes one wise. I could feel the vibe everywhere. I loved how a cosmetician might share a Torah thought while giving me a facial, or how a plumber would pick apart some verse in the Torah while he unclogged my sink. Entire communities were high on Torah and performing chesed, acts of kindness. I couldn’t walk more than 10 feet without bumping into a scholar or a tzaddik, a righteous person. Naturally I wanted to marry a talmudist and create a home imbued with holiness, and so I went on innumerable blind dates with that purpose in mind. Nothing worked out on that score, though.
Then one day I stumbled upon a book about the Babylonian king Hammurabi and was mortified to discover that the Torah laws I sometimes struggled with — an eye for an eye, for instance, or, say, the one about harsher rules for Canaanite slaves than for Hebrew slaves — also appeared in the Hammurabi Code of ancient Iraq. I was stunned, even frightened. What was that about? Had the Torah influenced Hammurabi, or, God forbid, was it the other way around? The Torah was supposed to be from the mouth of God, word for word, pristine, unaffected by the ideas of men. The mere suggestion of Hammurabi’s influence made the Torah lesser in my eyes, suspect even.
It wasn’t as if I’d been living in an intellectual bubble. I’d always enjoyed asking subversive questions, even if they riled my teachers at the yeshiva high school I attended. I thrived on intellectual challenge, and if sometimes the answers didn’t quite satisfy, I could brush off my doubts like feathers. Eventually the right answer would come.
But when Hammurabi hit me — this was something new and, for me, devastating. It felt like an illness, a cancer. No matter what I did or where I went, I couldn’t forget it.
Suddenly, other irritating and troubling questions began gnawing at me, even pelting me. Was the Torah divine, or something cobbled together by a group of wise people? I was too ashamed to share my questions with my mentors because, after all, I was supposed to be a role model to the ba’al teshuva, the newly Orthodox Jews I taught.
Finally I broke down and spoke with a yeshiva dean who was well versed in biblical criticism. He said the Torah wasn’t given in a petri dish; it had to reflect the economic, legal and social realities of the times, and yet it was the Torah that took those sad realities — slavery, for instance, or the degraded way that women were treated — and, through progressive laws, rectified those entrenched systems.
He showed me a passage in the Zohar, a foundational text of Jewish mystical thought — “If I were writing the Torah, I could’ve done a better job” — that, for some reason, comforted me. He spoke for an hour, maybe more, about the complicated nature of divinity. Finally he folded his arms and gave me a frank stare. “You’re unhappy,” he declared. “If you’re asking these sorts of questions, your sadness is as plain as the nose on your face.”
I was furious! “I want to know the answers,” I shot back. He said, “Okay,” and loaded me down with scholarly tomes. I’ll show him, I thought, as I went home to my apartment.
My roommates were out on dates. Me, I was still recovering from a horrendous break-up. Haim was brilliant, spiritual and good-looking, but over time he found ingenious ways to say how shamelessly self-centered I was and how my neediness went miles and miles deep. By the time the “relationship” ended, my identity was in shreds. I tried to dismiss him as a pathetic jerk, but his ideas had already taken root. Was I really one aching raw need? Oy, who would ever want to marry me?! Not long after this I was struck by the Hammurabi episode.
So yeah, the dean was right. I was sad no, deeply depressed, now that I thought about it. But did that mean my theological questions weren’t real? They were coming from my marrow!
I kept those books for months, until one day I returned them all, each one hardly paged through. Too dry, too academic and antiseptic. They seemed to have nothing to do with my passionate quest, or with life itself.
Meanwhile, I continued to go to my teachers for Shabbat, participating in all the Torah discussions (but never revealing the blasphemous thoughts festering inside me), feeling like some puppet in a show.
Out of this state of anomie, of utter bleakness, I sought out a kabbalist. Maybe, I figured, the answer lay not with an academic, an intellectual, but with someone in touch with the secrets of the universe. Brain and soul.
I saw a few. Not all kabbalists are created equal, I discovered. Then I found the Amshinover rebbe, who came with excellent recommendations. There was one caveat: He lived according to a different concept of time. His morning prayers bled into the afternoon, I think, and the Sabbath ended on Tuesday, I’m pretty sure. I was told the wait could be very long.
I came at 11 p.m., and the place was hopping. At first his Hasidic bouncers didn’t want to let me in. “Did you come here for a blessing?” the shorter one asked bluntly. I said no. I feared I’d said the wrong thing, but he responded: “Good. You can come in.”
I walked into the rebbe’s very plain living room. People were coming and going, and here it was, nearly midnight. Not knowing how much time I’d receive, I decided to focus on my old bugaboo, “An eye for an eye” — a verse I felt had been misused throughout the centuries to justify lynchings and brutal slayings. A very dangerous verse, as far as I was concerned.
Eventually I nodded off to sleep on a couch. At one point his wife shyly placed a quilt on me. A bit later, she woke me up and whispered “You’re next,” and I bolted off the couch and grabbed a seat at their bare dining room table.
The Amshinover rebbe took a seat. He was younger than I’d expected, in his 40s with a still-dark beard, and thin like a stick of chewing gum. He leaned forward, his shoulders hunched in his black kapote. There was a tremble about him in his neck and shoulders. I heard it in his voice, too. Didn’t know what to make of that, so I plunged into my question:
The Talmud’s interpretation for “an eye for an eye” — if someone caused another loss of limb, he had to compensate the victim through monetary payment — had never satisfied me. What in the text led the rabbis to money when the verse didn’t mention money at all? It seemed a big leap. Say “shekels for an eye” if that’s what it meant! Really, I was questioning the relationship between the Written Law and the Oral Law — the commentary.
The rebbe shared a brilliant answer of the legendary Vilna Gaon, but it wasn’t what I wanted. I needed proof from the Torah itself that “an eye for an eye” was never meant to be taken literally.
The rebbe rocked gently in his seat and pulled out a verse from Bamidbar, Numbers 35, and another from Leviticus 24:18. “Whoever kills an animal must pay for it — a soul to replace a soul.” “This” — his finger landed on the word “pay” — “proves the Torah understood the eye for an eye verse to be a metaphor.” He spoke in Hebrew. I think he used the word mashal, or parable.
I read it, and the breath went out of me. Clearly, “A soul to replace a soul” meant not death, but financial re-enumeration.
The rebbe brought out more books to illustrate his point, from the Zohar and the Talmud and the Chumash itself, proving that the best commentary on the Torah is the Torah. We studied together. Best chevruta I ever had.
He didn’t look at me, though. Normally I would have felt put off, but when I glanced at him, I saw such goodness concentrated in his eyes that I didn’t feel bad. Strangely, I found it hard to look into his face. Too shiny with truth and goodness. It’s how I imagine Moses’ countenance when he came down from Mount Sinai — so blinding, he had to wear a veil over his face.
Meanwhile, the Hasidic bouncers kept sticking their heads into the dining room, muttering, “Nu, nu….” Apparently I’d been hogging the kabbalists’ time — we’d been studying for nearly half an hour — but the rebbe “latered” them, flicking his wrist. I was moved. Here it was, nearly 2 a.m., but the rebbe kept studying with me as if he had all the time in the world.
But I knew my time was running out. I blurted something about my awful dates, and his eyes clouded with zayde-like sorrow. Just before I left, I managed to nab a blessing, even though he apparently wasn’t your typical blessing-giver rebbe. Dang, I thought on the way home — I’d forgotten to ask about the Canaanite slaves and other things. Still, I felt a certain relief, as if I’d already received answers. After all, if rabbinic sages had grappled with some of my issues way before I had, maybe I could relax a little. Surely, the integrity of the Torah didn’t rest on my bony shoulders.
As the days passed, I felt my spiritual migraine lifting. What was it about the rebbe? So he had studied with me, tried to give answers. Well, so had the dean, and, come to think of it, the dean’s answers were better. But I could still feel the warmth of the rebbe’s blessing. There in his dining room, I’d sensed holiness buzzing like some bee in the air between us. His tremble spoke of someone who lived in the presence of God. He gave me not just words or ideas, but also a feeling of love, as we bent over ancient texts: A feeling that Torah and God mattered, and that I mattered even more, or at least enough for him to fob off those Hasidic bouncers.
Over the next few months, I still researched the Canaanite slave question, but minus my former angst. Gradually the Code of Hammurabi loosened its hold over me. I imagine a true intellectual would have pursued the answers to the very end, but I guess I wasn’t a true intellectual. The problem was, I felt happier in my life. I’d started seeing a therapist, and dating again, too. If I were a self-helpy sort, I’d say the love I experienced at the rebbe’s gave me the strength to — forgive me — do the next right thing.
We like to imagine that our beliefs inhabit hermetically sealed compartments, entirely separate from our emotional states, when in truth, these two worlds leak into each other all the time. Belief systems are entwined with the people we meet and experience. A rupture in a relationship can cause a tear in the fabric of belief. When Horrible Haim dumped me, I became vulnerable to the seductions of the Hammurabi.
Ruchama King Feuerman’s new novel, “In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist,” was just published by New York Review Books as a paperback original.
How Hammurabi Got Under the Skin of One Orthodox Talmudist