The Bible’s most Troubling Verse

The Hebrew Bible contains 23,145 verses and if I had permission to excise only one, I have no doubt which it would be: “Happy the one who seizes and smashes your infants against the rock” (Psalm 137:9).

Psalms 137 is a stirring lament over the destruction of Judah in 586 B.C.E. and the exile of a significant percentage of its population to Babylon. The rage and humiliation of the exiles, with their “harps hung on the willows near Babylon’s rivers,” is palpable as they commit to remember their beloved Jerusalem even as Judah’s captors taunt them: “Sing us some of Zion’s songs!” (Psalm 137:2-3, 5).

Coming as it does, so abruptly at the end of one of Scripture’s most poignant passages, verse 9 stuns the reader, and as Robert Alter writes in The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, “No moral justification can be offered for this notorious concluding line.”

Perhaps the greatest strength of the Hebrew Bible is its honesty. As I wrote in What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives, “The Hebrew Bible knows no perfect people. All of its characters have significant flaws.”

The same must be said of the biblical author.

We understand his (or her) anger at seeing his homeland conquered, his beloved Temple razed to the ground, and loved ones savagely tortured and killed. But to wish to brutally murder the infant children of the captors … that is too much. I find myself ardently wishing the editors had deleted the psalm’s final words.

Aside from the sheer horror they evoke, they distract readers from the power and beauty of connecting to the Jewish homeland, the way the poet, our people, and we ourselves do.

In the current debate about whether being anti-Israel is a form of anti-Semitism, we must remember that the land of Israel has been an inextricable part of our people’s covenant with God since God first charged Abram to go forth from the land of his birth “to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).

In other words Since God first called us to be a people, the land of Israel has been part of what it means for us to be Jews.

Of course, it is possible to support Israel and criticize the actions or policies of her government just as those of us who love this country freely take its leaders to task for things they say and do.

But saying Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish State while failing to question the right of more than 20 Arab and Islamic states to exist is crossing a line to anti-Semitism.

In Leviticus Rabbah 36:5, Resh Lakish told the parable of a king who had three sons, each one brought up by one of his maidservants. So, whenever the king inquired about the well-being of his sons, he would add: Inquire also about the well-being of her who brought them up.  So, too, whenever the Holy One mentions the patriarchs, God mentions the Land with them.

Psalm 137 is a magnificent statement of the centrality of Israel to our being. Can we ever forsake or forget Jerusalem? Never! But I would love to forget the psalm’s final verse!

(This essay originally appeared on the blog)



Joy in Jerusalem

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs
Leo Fuchs and Rabbi Stephen Fuchs. Jerusalem 10/21/2018

Jerusalem, October 2018

How blessed I am to be on this trip. It is far from my first, but in several ways, it has been my most gratifying.  

I have not gone to the Dead Sea, Masada, Tsevat, Tel Aviv and all the other places Pastor Dr. John Danner and I look forward to seeing with our group from Bat Yam Temple of the Islands and Sanibel Congregational UCC at the end of April and the beginning of May.

No, on this trip I remained exclusively in Jerusalem.  I have had the joy of witnessing the Bat Mitzvah of Zahra Levy, a young girl I have known for four years now from the work Vickie and I have done in Germany where she and her family live.  Zahra’s mother, Yancy Sol Velasquez Levy translated my first book, ״What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives,” into Spanish, and I am so grateful to her.

When, over a year ago, Yancy invited me to come to Zahra’s Bat Mitzvah ceremony at Robinson׳s Arch at the Western Wall, I knew I wanted to be here.  I have also had the joy of delivering Divrei Torah, in Hebrew and English respectively, at Kehilat Har El, Israel’s oldest Reform Congregation, and to first-year Rabbinical and Cantorial students at Hebrew Union College in this city.

By far, though the biggest pull that brings me to Israel this time is the presence of our older son, Leo.

At the age of 42, Leo decided to step away from his successful career as Principal of Learning Without Limits in Oakland, CA.  LWL is the academic elementary school Leo and a group of others founded to give inner city kids a better shot at life.  By all measures it has been a great success.  In his role as Principal, Leo stressed to his overwhelmingly Latino and Afro-American student body the importance of knowing their roots and on whose shoulders they stand.  Increasingly, in recent years, while encouraging his students to be in touch with their roots, he was feeling the pull of his own.  So, “b’kitzur” (“in brief”) as we say in Hebrew, that is why he decided to study to become a rabbi. The HUC program mandates that all first-year candidates to be Rabbis and cantors spend their first year of study in Israel, and that is why Leo is here.

My great joy is sharing a small slice of his experience. We get to hang out together after classes, to stroll the streets of Jerusalem and just talk.  How often does a father get to spend with an adult child the amount of quality one on one time we are sharing? I thank the Eternal One continually for these shared hours.  As objective as I can be, I was amazed at Leo׳s sensitivity, skill and poise in co-leading with an Israeli Rabbinical student, the first shared worship service between the American students in Leo׳s program and the Israeli rabbinical students.

I have also gotten to see and observe many of his future colleagues. This purpose-driven group is well-aware of the issues of assimilation and declining synagogue involvement that has Rabbis, Cantors, Educators and lay volunteers wringing our hands with concern.

I admit that the Jewish leaders of my generation have not found effective solutions to these realities. But the qualities of intellect, spiritual depth and compassion I observe in the current crop of HUC students gives me real hope for the Jewish future.



Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs
Leo Fuchs and Rabbi Stephen Fuchs. Jerusalem 10/21/2018

Let’s Talk About Jerusalem

Let’s talk about Jerusalem.

Many have claimed President Trump’s announced intention to recognize Jerusalem, as Israel’s capital is wrong. They claim Jerusalem should be an international city because it is sacred to Muslims and Christians as well as Jews.

It is strange. No one denies Mecca as Islam’s holiest city or that Rome is the center of the Catholic Church. But the fact Jerusalem holds analogous status in the hearts of Jews meets resistance.

One must ask, is it anti-Semitism, political naiveté or something else?

If it is anti-Semitism no explanation will do any good. It is a fact that certain people hate Jews and deny the legitimacy of Jerusalem as the Jewish touchstone on those grounds. I pity them their irrational hatred but will not waste words trying to talk them out of it.

For those unaware, though a review of facts might help. I hope so.

Since the time of King David three thousand years ago, Jews have either lived in or longed for Jerusalem.

In darkest hours of persecution and exile our Sages pined, “Better to live in a hovel on a dung heap in Jerusalem than a palace in the diaspora.”

Today, some call for Jerusalem to be an international city, perhaps under the authority of the United Nations. That is exactly the proposal the UN made on November 29 1947 in a proposal that called for the creation of both an Arab and a Jewish state.

Proponents of the Jewish State rejoiced and embraced the proposal. The Arab world denied the proposal claiming they would not tolerate the existence of any Jewish state. Azzam Pasha, Secretary General of the Arab League vowed that the ensuing war would be like the Mongolian massacres like the crusades and that the rivers would run with Jewish blood.

In that war an armistice divided Jerusalem leaving Jewish holy sites under Arab control. What did they do?

They made the area of the Western Wall a slum a, they desecrated the sacred Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, and they used the tombstones to make latrines for Jordanian soldiers. Most importantly, no Jews were permitted access to the Western Wall of the ancient temple courtyard. For 19 years Jordan prevented any Jew from praying at Judaism’s holiest site.

Then came 1967.

In early June of that year, Egypt and Syria announced an alliance to wipe Israel off the map. They mobilized their troops, ordered UN forces away from the buffer that stood between Egypt and Israel and blockaded the straits of Tiran to ships wishing to bring goods to the Israeli port of Eilat.

In response to these threats Israel launched a preemptive strike against Syria and Egypt. In the midst of the fighting Israel’s Prime Minister Levi Eshkol warned Jordan to stay out of the fray. But Jordan ignored the warning and invaded West Jerusalem. In the fiercest hand-to-hand fighting of the war, Israel repulsed Jordan’s invasion and drove her troops across the Jordan River.

Immediately after the war Israel offered peace to the Arab world. The Arab leaders met in a summit at Khartoum in the Sudan and produced at that meeting a declaration known as the “Three No’s.”

  • No peace with Israel
  • No recognition of Israel
  • No negotiation with Israel.


Since 1967, the Holy Sites of Christianity are under Christian control and the holy sites of Islam are under Islamic control. .

The recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capitol by the United States does not change this reality. It also does not change the future possibility—when and if peace comes to the regions—that East Jerusalem will be the capitol of a future Palestinian State.

Israel has proved to the world that it will make sacrifices for peace with Egypt and with Jordan. It will make sacrifices for peace with the Palestinians as well.

There is no doubt that the creation of Israel displaced many Arabs from their homes. Many left at the instruction of their leaders who told them to clear the way for the massacre of the Jews.

But Jews forced many to leave as well.

Jewish tradition demands we take no delight in the suffering of our enemy. One of my favorite Midrashim is one in which the Holy One silence the angels who are rejoicing as the Egyptians drown in the Sea of Reeds. The Bible itself pays sympathy to the tears of the fallen enemy Sisera in the book of Judges. Similarly we should feel the pain of Arab and Palestinian parents who lose their children in wars and skirmishes against Israel.

And I will say that Israel as the country with the power has the responsibility to make sure the doorway to peace through negotiation stays open.

I would love to see a freeze and a rollback of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. I would love to see eases on checkpoints and the ability of Palestinians to travel freely in Israel.

But I sit here safe in the USA, and Israel’s population must live with the security risks such decision would entail.

Today, many Israeli descend from refugees of Arab countries who parents and grandparents in 1948 left places like Iraq, Morocco, Algeria and Yemen with the clothes on their back. Their offspring are less likely to advocate Israel take the “risks for peace” that eloquent urbane liberals—both within and outside of Israel—advocate.

My blood chilled when I say a YouTube interview with an Arab mother just after her child successfully underwent a life-saving operation by Israeli doctors. Filmed in the hospital where her child had been saved, she said she would be proud to have that same child become a martyr in a subsequent suicide bombing.

Most Palestinians do not share the mother’s view, of course, but many do, and that is central do the problem today. The Palestinian authorities glorify their martyrs, erect monuments to them and hold them up as examples to emulate.


I would love to see peace come to the region. But before that can happen, the Palestinian people and the leaders of both the PLO and Hamas must be willing to recognize and live in peace with the Jewish State of Israel.

Unlikely? Yes, but I will cling to that sliver of hope that Jerusalem, the “Holy City” will finally live up to its name, “the City of Peace.” I cling to the hope that a Palestinian State with its capitol there can live side by side with Israel in mutual harmony and cooperation. To paraphrase Theodor Herzl famous statement: “If both sides will it, it does not have to be just a dream.”