This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Moses’s About-Face*

Jewish tradition has often wavered inconsistently when it came to interpreting the ethical stature of its spiritual heroes. On the one hand, unlike some other faiths, we insist that our foremost leaders were humans and not divinities, with all the imperfections and shortcomings to which mortals are subject. On the other hand, there is an understandable desire to portray them as paragons of ideal virtue, figures who are worthy of our unqualified admiration and emulation.

True, numerous traditional sources exalt the merits of saints who are blessed with a natural inclination to always do what is right and are untainted by the temptation to sin. On the other hand, other texts insist that the reformed sinner is morally superior to a person who was born into righteousness; even as we lesser folk are embroiled in an unrelenting struggle against our evil urges—a struggle that will reap greater rewards for those who prevail over temptation.

Traditional depictions of Moses, our greatest prophet and national liberator, have generally presented him as a person who was irreproachably righteous from his precocious infancy until his tragic death. He attained to the highest possible levels of virtue, wisdom, courage, faith and humility. His prophetic calling may have brought him into conflicts with his fellow Hebrews, and even with his Creator—but not with his own sinful desires.

A decidedly different perspective was offered in the eighteenth century by Rabbi Israel Lipschutz of Danzig (now Gdańsk) in his influential Tif’eret Yisra’el commentary to the Mishnah. Rabbi Lipschutz was offering an interpretation to the Mishnah’s alarming declaration that “the best of physicians is destined for Gehenna.” In this connection, he quoted a delightful story that he had read:

An Arabian monarch, upon hearing about the fame and adulation that were being heaped upon Israel’s great liberator, dispatched a skilled artist to paint a portrait of Moses. The portrait was subsequently shown to a team of wise physiognomists—practitioners of the ancient “science” of analyzing personalities based on their facial characteristics. The experts all concurred that this was the face of an intrinsically depraved personality who was tainted with the moral vices of arrogance, avarice and stubbornness. The king was baffled at how this contradicted Moses’s glorious reputation; and yet the artist and the physiognomists all protested that they had performed their tasks competently.

This left the astonished king with no alternative but to pay a personal visit to Moses in the desert. After confirming that the portrait had indeed been a precise likeness, he told the Hebrew prophet of his puzzling dilemma. To the king’s surprise, Moses confirmed the findings of the physiognomists. He explained that he really was naturally predisposed to all the evils that had been diagnosed by those royal experts, and even more so! It was only by means of a supreme effort of will that Israel’s liberator had eventually succeeded in overpowering his wicked inclinations and transforming himself into the celebrated model of righteousness. In fact, he argued, there is nothing particularly praiseworthy in merely being gifted with inborn virtue and immunity to sin, without having to undergo arduous moral struggles.

In a similar spirit, Rabbi Lipschutz concluded, any medical practitioner who possesses the over-confidence to believe that that he is the “best of physicians” and is not beset by self-doubts that would impel him to consult with his colleagues—such a person is destined for professional disaster and moral Gehenna./p>

As charming and instructive as this legend might sound to us, it provoked intense unease among several pious rabbis in Rabbi Lipschutz’s times who were indignant at the suggestion that Israel’s greatest prophet could have been anything less than perfectly virtuous. Rabbi Ḥayyim Isaac Aaron Rapaport of Wilkomer published a special pamphlet devoted to defending the blameless moral stature of the Jewish heroes, taking special aim at the story about Moses in Lipschutz’s Tif’eret Yisra’el.

Apart from the erudite collecting of numerous rabbinic sayings attesting to Moses’s immaculate righteousness, a principal argument against the “wicked Moses” legend was that it was not authentically Jewish. In his letter of approbation to Rapaport’s pamphlet, Rabbi Elijah Teomim of Mir took Rabbi Lipschutz to task for copying the slanderous tale “from the books of a foreign nation, from the ancient heathens.”

The legend’s defenders retorted by pointing out that it was found in some respectable medieval Hebrew works, notably in the Shiṭṭah Meḳubbeṣet anthology of Talmud commentaries. Rapaport countered correctly how that version did not mention Moses at all, but spoke of an anonymous sage or philosopher who credited his wisdom with granting him the power to overcome his evil urges. In a similar vein, a legend that was cited in the name of the eighteenth-century Rabbi Elijah ha-Kohen of Smyrna told a similar tale about Aristotle who had revealed his underlying evil character by means of a palm-print pressed in wax.

In fact the earliest known version of the story is found in Cicero’s “Tusculan Disputations.” The great Latin orator, by way of illustrating his claim that iniquitous moral qualities can be cured through the application of reason and ethical discipline, adduced the case of a certain Zopyrus who was renowned for his ability to reveal people’s true characters from their appearances. When Zopyrus accused Socrates of grave moral shortcomings, as well as low intelligence, and even womanizing, the philosopher acknowledged that his natural tendency would indeed have enticed him to immorality had it not been for his devotion to philosophy.

However, it was not in any Greek or Latin sources that Rabbi Lipschutz found his story about wrestling with negative character traits. All indications are that he encountered the story of Moses and the Arabian king it in a collection of Hasidic Torah interpretations by Rabbi Moses of Pshevorsk that was printed 1809 and contained much material that had probably been circulating orally before then. The story about Moses and the Arabian king was adduced there in order to illustrate the paradoxical interrelationships between purity and impurity, good and evil, that are expressed in the biblical law of the red heifer.

In fact, the depiction of Moses as a hero who had to struggle continually against his sinful inclination is one that enjoyed considerable popularity among kabbalists and hasidic teachers. This is perhaps consistent with their astute awareness of the tangible, demonic evil that haunts every individual, and with Hasidism’s outreach to common and uneducated folk in the workaday world.

On the other hand, the insistence on upholding the ideal of a spotlessly virtuous Moses who was immune to sinful temptations tended to emanate from learned talmudists whose religious outlook was built on strict and unflinching adherence to the dictates of religious precepts.

I suspect that there was an additional motive behind some traditionalists’ antipathy to any criticism of traditional heroes or deviation from the received readings of the biblical role models. They had reason to be suspicious of the modern intellectual currents that were then beginning to call into question the time-honoured interpretations of the Bible and other cherished Jewish beliefs and values.

Whatever your sympathies—whether you are a scholar or a mystic, traditional or modern—it is always advisable to verify references to cited sources, and to check the credentials of the person who is citing them—unless, of course, that person has an honest-looking face.

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, April 7, 2017, p. 13.
  • For further reading:
    • Evans, Elizabeth Cornelia. Physiognomics in the Ancient World . Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1969.
    • Hakohen, Mordekhai. Ishim u-Teḳufot . Mivḥar Katavim 4. [Jerusalem?]: Yad RaMaH, Makhon le-ʻErke Yiśra’el ve-Erets Yiśraʾel ʻal shem ha-Rav Mordekhai HaKohen, 1977. [Hebrew]
    • Kasher, Menahem, ed. Torah Shelemah (Complete Torah) Talmudic-Midrashic Encyclopedia of the Pentateuch . Vol. 9. Jerusalem: Beit Torah Shelemah, 1944.
    • Leiman, Shnayer Zalman. “R. Israel Lipschuts: The Portrait of Moses.” Tradition 24, no. 24 (1989): 91–98.
    • ———. “R. Israel Lipschutz and the Portrait of Moses Controversy.” In Danzig, Between East and West: Aspects of Modern Jewish History , edited by Isadore Twersky, 51–63. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.
    • Rohrbacher, David. “Physiognomics in Imperial Latin Biography.” Classical Antiquity 29, no. 1 (2010): 92–116.