The Unknown English Torah Commentator Marcus M. Kalisch (2023)

The Rabbi and scholar Rabbi Dr. Michael Leo Samuel has made a significant contribution to Jewish scholarship with his book “The Unknown English Torah Commentator Marcus M. Kalisch,” the first in a series of books introducing readers to the thinking and teachings of Marcus M. Kalisch. This first volume focuses on the first half of Genesis. A second book on Genesis will follow. Samuel’s book is easy to read. It is not only a clear presentation of Kalisch’s thinking. It is also full of comparisons of his ideas with those of other scholars, Jewish and non-Jewish, religious people and atheists, ancient and modern. Therefore Samuel’s book can be read and enjoyed by scholars and non-scholars, Jewish and non-Jewish, people of all religions.

Kalisch was born in 1828 and died in 1885. He was born in Pomerania and studied at Berlin University and Rabbinical College. He received a Ph.D. It is unknown if he was ordained as a rabbi. He served as the secretary to the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, M.M. Adler. He was recognized as being highly intelligent, with vast knowledge of Judaism and Jewish texts.

Kalisch wrote commentaries on the first three books of the Pentateuch, Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus, as well as works on the non-Israelite prophet Balaam, Jonah, a Hebrew grammar, and a book on human destiny. Many Christian scholars widely acclaimed his books as works of art. His Bible commentaries included the views of non-Jews. He gave rational explanations of what the Bible stated. He felt that the Hebrew Bible is a moral and ethical work and identified moral lessons that could be derived from the text. He compared biblical stories with those found in other ancient cultures. He took the position in his Bible commentaries that the Bible was composed of more than a single source and that the documents were written at different times and assembled by an editor long after the death of Moses.

Yet, and this is significant, Kalisch felt strongly that although the Torah went through a human redacting process, this does not make the narratives and the laws less sacred. The Bible, in his view, is filled with significant teachings that will encourage people to act appropriately and help them attain happiness and improve. Thus, even people who question, as did Kalisch, the origin of the Torah will benefit by reading why and how Kalisch shows the Bible is beneficial and sacred.

The following sample of Kalisch’s ideas, which Michael Leo Samuel discusses in detail, will serve as examples of his thinking and prompt readers to think about these ideas. Among much else, readers will come to realize that even if one is convinced that God did not reveal the Torah, one can, like Kalisch, still have enormous respect for the Torah and see momentous and meaningful insights and lessons in it:

  • The rabbis deduce that God created the world with ten commands, the final being the seventh day, the Sabbath, an important day.
  • The Sabbath reminds us that the spiritual is both the aim and the reward of material life.
  • We should not ask how vegetation could grow on the third day of creation when the sun was not created until the fourth day. By stating that vegetation grew before the sun was created, we should understand that all creation was a miracle from God, not a natural phenomenon.
  • The amazing parts of the human body and how they function and their abilities are our surest proof of an eternal and omnipotent divine creator.
  • Is the snake the emblem of the evil principle, the symbol of disobedience, a demon that possesses power independent of God for Judaism as it is in many cultures?
  • Folk notions aside, is superstition part of Judaism?
  • Although in Genesis 1:30, humans are given dominion over animals, fish, and birds, he is the master, not the tyrant. He may use them, not mistreat or annihilate them.
  • According to the Bible, as Pythagoras also taught, it is a hideous crime to murder animals for human food. Vegetable and fruit provisions are abundant. While humans eat the flesh of animals today, it is the aim of the Bible for humans to stop doing this. Kalisch states that permission to kill animals is an example of the deep-rooted depravity of the antediluvian generations. It is a concession the Bible makes to humans, an inheritance from the age of violence.
  • Monogamy was strictly observed among the early biblical people, except Lamech, who Genesis 4:23 indicates had two wives.
  • Why, if God did not want people to murder animals, did God prefer Abel’s sacrifice of an animal over Cain’s vegetation offering?
  • Similarly, shouldn’t we expect God to prefer the vegetable offering produced with sweat and toil to the firstlings of the flock, which is bred in a life of ease?
  • Why is the word “brother” stressed in the episode of Cain killing Abel? Is the Torah revealing that the most faithful companion in life will, in the future, frequently turn into the enemy? The Talmud, in another discussion, states that the second temple was destroyed and Israel exiled because of the Jewish civil war.
  • Men and women were created with equal rights. They share the government of the earth. They are both in the image of God.
  • Enoch died at the early biblical age of 365, the current number of days in a year. Is there meaning in this number? Is a sudden premature death a sign of divine anger?
  • The Torah uses the words God “took Enoch.” Should we understand that this is simply a metaphoric way of saying that Enoch died, or do we agree with Kalisch’s surprising view that this usage proves that there is a brighter existence after the transitory sojourn on earth?
  • When scripture indicates that the early individuals lived hundreds of years, is it referring to a tribe, not a person? Were there other tribes that the Torah does not mention, just as it generally does not mention women?
  • Non-Judaic ancient thinkers placed the golden age in the remote past; happiness is forever forfeited. In contrast, the Bible speaks of a life of joy that we can obtain by obedience to the precepts that it dictates.
  • Remarkably, all ancient cultures believed humans were created from the earth.
  • Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden “to till it and tend it,” thereby teaching humanity the dignity of work.
  • By having God state, “It is not good for man to be alone,” the Bible is teaching that humans are sociable beings.
  • Eve receives three punishments for violating God’s command not to eat a certain fruit: being ruled by her husband, having pain in childbirth, and “your desire will be for your husband.” Why would Eve, after suffering pain, eagerly want to have relations with Adam?
  • Why, after causing death upon herself, Adam, and their children, does Adam call her Eve, the Hebrew meaning life?
  • Why are not only humans but even animals punished with death because of the misdeed of two humans?
  • Kalisch felt that the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as Jacob’s sons, were flawed individuals.
  • The first century CE general and historian Josephus felt that the long life that scripture states the early humans lived should be understood literally. He wrote that God loved them and gave them longevity. Is he right?
  • Why does the onset of the patriarch stories tell us of the incestuous marriage of Abraham to his half-sister, forbidden in Exodus 2:1 and 6:20? Similarly, why did the parents of Moses, Amram and Jochebed, nephew and aunt, marry in violation of Leviticus 18:13? Additionally, rabbis recognize that there were no other humans than Adam and Eve’s family. They say that the males, such as Cain, married their sisters born with them. Why did God create a situation where people had to marry incestuously?
  • When the Torah states that “men began to invoke the name of the Lord” in the time of Seth, does it mean that they began to pray to God, with some people substituting prayer for sacrifices?
  • The three children of Noah – Shem, Ham, and Japheth – are named because they became the ancestors of many important nations; their names prepare us for the extraordinary incidents that follow.
  • Genesis 6:12 states that not only humans but even animals engaged in behavior that corrupted the earth. How did animals do so?
  • Genesis 6:19-20 ordered Noah to take one pair of every species into the ark, but 7:2-3 has God say to take seven pairs of clean animals and one pair of unclean animals. Kalisch feels that this discrepancy has never been successfully explained. Additionally, we do not know what “clean” and “unclean” mean.
  • The numbers associated with the flood are not significant. We must abstain from forcing meaning on them, religious, mystic, or astronomical.
  • The civil laws of Moses reform old pagan institutions and bring them to reasonable limits rather than create new ones because it was impossible to radically change the laws and expect the people to accept the change.
  • Kalisch felt that the number ten reflects completeness, totality, and perfection. Therefore the Ten Commandments are a complete code, and the ten plagues represent the idea that all the terrors of nature were exhausted against the terrible tyrant.

Readers will be impressed to find, as previously stated, that Rabbi Dr. Samuel has made a significant contribution to scholarship, how laypersons understand the Bible, and how his book can help readers improve. Most important is the realization that even if one thinks that God did not reveal the Torah and that it is a human document, it contains valuable and helpful information.

By Israel Drazin|2022-10-06T08:25:10-07:00October 6th, 2022|Book Reviews, Thoughts|

2 Comments

    • The Unknown English Torah Commentator Marcus M. Kalisch (2)

      Israel DrazinNovember 2, 2022 at 6:27 AM

      You may be right. Some scholars say the reference is to tribes. But we will never know for sure.

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