The Portrait of Moshe Rabbenu
An Essay by Shmryer Z. Lefman published in TRADITION: A Journal of Orthodox Thought
R. Israel Lipschutz (l782—l860), rabbi of Danzig, composed a commentary on the Mishnah, Tiferet Yisrael. It was published in a series of volumes between 1830 and 1850, and remains unsurpassed as the consummate distillation of some I000 years of rabbinic commentary on the Mishnah. After his death, an expanded version of the Tiferet Yisrael, published in Vilna, became the definitive edition of page layout and commentary used in all traditional schools and synagogues. The volumes were well received upon publication and gained in popularity with the passage of time.
Perhaps the most controversial passage in Lipschutz’s magnum opus relates to a legend he includes when commenting on, “the best of physicians are destined to Gehenna“ [Kiddushin 4:14] Lipschutz analysed why the rabbis of the Mishnah looked askance upon what appears to be a reputable profession. He suggested that the best of physicians, precisely because they were the best, would be inclined to not consult with their colleagues. Such arrogance could lead to malpractice; hence the Mishnaic admonition to the best of physicians: do not be proud, Gehenna awaits you for permitting your pride to interfere with your gift of being able to help people. The entire translated piece appears at the end of this article.
Lipschutz continued his discussion by citing a remarkable legend without identifying its source. When Moses became famous for leading the Israelites out of Egypt, an Arabian king sent an artist to the Israelite camp with orders to capture and bring to the king, a portrait of Moses. Upon receipt of the portrait, the king convened his physiognomists and charged them with the preparation of a character analysis of Moses, so that the king would know wherein lay the strength of Moses. The report was not a pleasant one. Moses was described as capricious, greedy, arrogant, indeed as being evil to the core. The king rebuked his physiognomists for their patently absurd analysis, at which point the physiognomists and the artist began hurling accusations at each other, each blaming the other for not having performed accurately their appointed task.
The king decided to resolve the matter by a state visit to the lsraelite camp in the Wilderness of Sinai. Upon sighting Moses, the king knew at once that the artist's depiction was perfect. The king concluded that his physiognomists were incompetent. However, during a chat with Moses, Moses explained that by inclination he was all that the physiognomists had described, even worse. Only sustained self-discipline and sheer determination enabled him to overcome his natural inclination, and to attain the stature and glory that were now his. Like Moses, concluded Lipschutz, the best of physicians must be prepared to overcome pride and thereby attain glory.
However, one man’s fish is another man’s poison. What Lipschutz viewed as a compliment to Moses was seen by others as an insult. Moreover, the insult was compounded by the fact no early Jewish source seemed to support Lipschutz’ account of the internalized transformation of Moses from sinner to saint.
The broadsides against Lipschutz were not long in coming. The first of these was a pamphlet by R. Y Hayyim Isaac Aaron Rapoport (d. l904), formerly maggid of Wilkomir but then a resident of Jerusalem entitled Quntres Zekhus HaRabbim and published in Jerusalem in 1894. Rapoport adduced biblical, rabbinic, and kabbalistic passages that in his view proved that Moses was righteous from birth, i.e., that it was unnecessary for him to struggle with, and to overcome, his evil inclination. In a second pamphlet issued a year later, Rapoport claimed that the leading rabbinic scholars of his day agreed that this legend originated from a non-Jewish source. Rapoport urged all Jews who owned Lipschutz’s commentary to blot out the offensive passage since it was “spurious and smacked of heresy”.
R. Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Teomim (d. l905), then rabbi of the Lithuanian town of Mir, and R. Moses Joshua Leib Diskin (d. l898), then rabbi in Jerusalem, also opposed this legend. Rabinowitz-Teomim wrote, "I have often rebuked those who cite this passage. I have stated publicly that, with all due respect, the author of Ttferet Yisrael used poor judgment when he borrowed from the pagan literature such insulting remarks about the righteous Moses."
Sometimes before 190l, R. Abraham Isaac Kook (d. 1935), then rabbi of Boisk in Lithuania, addressed a letter to a rabbinic colleague in which he cited approvingly Rapoport’s critique of Lipschutz.
In 1928, R. Judah Leib Graubart (d. 1937), then Chief Rabbi of St. Louis, denied the historicity of Lipschutz’s account, adding that, “it was copied from a German children’s storybook!" More recently, in 1944, R. Menahem M. Kasher cited the passage from Lipschutz and added: "there is no source for this passage; it is imaginary." Kasher is silent about rabbinic discussion prior to 1944. [M. M. Kasher, Torah Shelemoh. New York, I944, vol. 9, p. 57.]
By far, the most strident denunciation of Lipschutz came from R. Judah Leib Maimon (d. 1962), religious Zionist, founder of Mosad Harav Kook, and one time Minister of Religions in the State of Israel. In 1955, he suggested in no uncertain terms that the offensive passage be expunged from all future editions. Maimon was not without influence, and when a year later the prestigious publishing house, El HaMeKoroth, published a new 13 volume Mishnah, which included the commentary of Tiferet Yisrael, the passage was expunged.
lt appears likely that Lipschutz did not borrow his account directly from a non-Jewish source. lt was a well known legend in hasidic circles, and appeared in print as early as 1809 in R, Moses of Pshevorsk’s Or Pnei Moshe Al HaToralt. R. Moses, a third generation hasidic master, died in 1806. He cites the story approvingly; indicating that he heard it said that the story appears in a book of exempla. In other words, for R. Moses of Pshevorsk, it was still an oral teaching, which allegedly was available in print. Some four editions of the Or Pnei Moshe appeared in print before 1843, the year Lipschutz first published his commentary on Mishnah Kiddushin. Thus, Lipschutz meant what he said when he introduced his account with the words: “This accords with a delightful account that I once saw in writing.” Nonetheless, it would appear that Lipschutz’s critics were right after all.
For no Jewish source prior to R. Moses of Pshevorsk knows the story with Moses as its hero. Even more telling is the fact that earlier Jewish sources know the story, or variations of it, but with the hero identified as an anonymous wise man, or specifically as Aristotle. Typical of these earlier accounts is the version in R. Elijah HaKohen of Smyrna’s (d. 1729) Midrash Eliyahu which reads as follows: Aristotle was learned in reading palm prints. Once, a scholar who claimed similar expertise, visited Aristotle’s city. In order to test the claim of the visiting scholar, Aristotle pressed his own palm on melted wax, gave the print to his disciples, and told them to ask the visiting scholar for a reading. The scholar examined the print and said: It is the print of a murderer and scoundrel adept in every wickedness, who is nonetheless a great scholar. The disciples, mocking the so-called scholar, reported the reading to Aristotle..
Aristotle informed his disciples that the scholar was learned indeed and everything he said was true. Aristotle explained: my wisdom has enabled me to overcome, even to nullify, my ill-fated destiny.
The late Professor Saul Lieberman was among the first to note that the story originated in classical Greco-Roman literature. Clearly, Lieberman was suggesting that the earliest version of the account was published in 45 BCE in Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations. There, the hero is Socrates, not Aristotle. The setting is an attempt on Cicero’s part to persuade others that men are able to overcome their evil inclinations. The passage reads, “Moreover men who are described as naturally irascible or compassionate or envious or anything of the kind, have an unhealthy constitution of soul, yet all the same are curable, as is said to have been Socrates’ case. Socrates himself rescued his critic by saying that he was naturally inclined to the vices named, but had cast them out of him by the help of reason.”
In the medieval period, the wisest of all men was thought to be Aristotle, hence the transfer of hero from Socrates to Aristotle. When the story entered Jewish literature, perhaps as early as the l3th century, the hero was either Aristotle or an anonymous sage. But by the 17th century Aristotle’s star had eclipsed, and it is not entirely surprising that in the 18th and l9th century Jewish sources the anonymous sage was identified as Moses.
R. Chayyim Ibn Attar (d. 1743), kabbalist and exegete, writes “[Moses’] excellence in all the virtues was due entirely to his fear of God. Nothing in the natural makeup of his character aided him in attaining this excellence .... One might think that he was naturally humble. The Torah therefore testifies that his successful efforts were due entirely to his fear of God.” [Sedra Chukkas, beginning]
R. Moses Hayyim Ephraim of Sudylkow (d. circa I800), grandson of R. Israel Baal Shem Tov (d. circa 1760), writes in the name of his grandfather, “our teacher Moses was born with a natural inclination toward wickedness. Every vice was his. But he overcame his vices, transforming them into virtue."[Degel Mahaneh Efraryim, Sedra Ki Sisssa, end]
This earthy view of Moses appears to have no parallel in classical talmudic or midrashic literature, nor do the kabbalistic sources seem to support such a view regarding Moses. Nevertheless, by power of R. Hayyim Ibn Attar and R. Moses Hayyim Ephraim of Sudylkow, both especially popular in hasidic circles, as well as its ascription to the Besht, this legend has gained credibility and legitimacy.
Philosophers have debated since the beginning of time the question of, “Who is greater: One who is virtuous by inclination or one who is virtuous by choice?” [RaMBaM Shemonah Perakim Ch 6, “it is a sign of spiritual decay if one has desires to act in a way that is contrary to normal civil values” RaMBaM also explains that this is entirely different from not having a "natural desire" to fulfil Gd's ritual commands.]
It would appear that the early hasidic masters held he who had to struggle against his "natural inclinations" was greater than he to whom it came naturally. Hence it occasions little or no surprise when a hasidic master, or even Moses, is depicted as a model of such inner discipline.
Here is the entire passage from the Tiferet Yisrael:
The best of physicians are destined to Gehena: It seems to me that this statement is hardly pejorative; rather, it was intended as praise of the competent physician. This accords with a delightful account that I once saw in writing. When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, the nations heard, they trembled, etc. (Exodus l5:l4). They were particularly curious about Moses, the man through whom all these marvellous deeds had transpired. So much so, that an Arabian king sent a gifted artist to the Israelite encampment with orders to paint a portrait of the Israelite leader, and to return with it to Arabia. The artist went, painted the portrait, and brought it to the king.
The king then sent for his physiognomists, and ordered them to prepare an analysis of Moses’ character, virtues, and strengths based upon his facial features as reflected in the portrait. The physiognomists complied with the king’s order and reported as follows: "If we are to render judgment solely on the basis of the facial features in the portrait, we must report, O King, that—despite his distinguished reputation—he is entirely wicked, arrogant, greedy, capricious, indeed suffused with every known vice. Upon hearing the analysis, the king was livid. "You are sporting with me," he cried out. “From every corner of the globe I have heard just the opposite regarding this great man." The physiognomists and the artist were seized with fright; they responded to the king pusillanimously, each accusing the other of incompetence. The artist claimed that the portrait was executed with precision; it was the physiognomists who had erred in their interpretation of the portrait. The physiognomists, in turn, blamed the artist, claiming that the portrait of Moses was obviously inaccurate.
The king, determined to resolve the matter, set out in his chariot on a state visit, accompanied by his troops, to the Israelite camp. Upon sighting Moses, the man of God, from the distance, he took out the portrait, gazed at it and at Moses, and knew at once that the artist’s depiction had been executed with precision. The king was astounded. He entered the tent of Moses, the man of Gd, bowed down before him, and related the entire story to him. He concluded his remarks as follows: "Before I gazed upon your face, O man of Gd, I suspected that the artist had been incompetent, for my physiognornists are without peer. Now that I have established that the portrait is accurate, I can only conclude that the physiognomists are at fault; they have deceived me. Their wisdom comes to naught. I have been supporting them even as they misled me with their nonsense."
Moses, the man of God, replied: "Not so. Indeed, the artist and the physiognomists are exceedingly competent and wise. Know that if I were naturally virtuous, I would be no more deserving of praise than is a block of wood. For it too has no human faults. l am not ashamed to admit, however, that I am naturally inclined to all the vices listed by the physiognomists, and then some. With great effort and determination, I overcame my inclinations until their very opposites became second nature to me. That is how I earned the glory that I now enjoy in heaven above and on earth below.”
We can now understand the mishnaic statement and how it praises the physician. Note that the Mishnah does not read: "The most competent [kosher] of physicians are destined to Gehenna," as it reads later regarding slaughterers. The term "best" [tov], here, does not necessarily connote "the most competent," but rather that physician who perceives himself to be the most competent of all. He is destined to Gehenna for, due to his arrogance, he will rely entirely on his own knowledge and will not be inclined to consult with colleagues when in doubt. Surely it is appropriate for one whose word and pen decide matters of life and death to consult with colleagues. Moreover, due to his arrogance, it never enters his mind that he may have been misled by his own imagination. He doesn’t even take the trouble to consult the medical manuals before prescribing medicines whose side-effects may cause serious damage to the patient.
Notice that the Tanna does not say that "the best of physicians” is wicked, or that he is definitely consigned to Gehenna, but rather that he is "destined to Gehenna," i.e., he has an inclination that may well lead him to Gehenna. Precisely because his inclination leads to Gehenna, all the greater is the physician’s reward and praise when he overcomes his inclination.