A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 2.5.21

I’m always so surprised to learn new tidbits of Jewish history: the centrality of Jews in the history of chocolate and coffee; the theory that Jews are behind the development of the violin (and hence the symphony orchestra); Elvis being a devoted shabbes goi and Judeophile; Wyatt Earp being (common law) married to a Jewish woman, Sadie Marcus for 46 years; Solomon Bibo, the Jewish Indian chief; the list goes on and on and on…. So why should it have surprised me to read in the Forward this week that there is a long history of Jewish pirates? 

The article lays out some good reasons, or at least explanations, for why Jews would have gravitated toward piracy: Jews were relegated to the margins of society, leaving piracy as a possible last-resort “profession;” some, in the years following the Spanish Inquisition, may also have been seeking revenge for their treatment by the Spanish – attacking Spanish navy ships and privateers would have been one way to deal with the traumas inflicted on them. Jewish pirates, adopting such an “alternative” lifestyle, may also have found some freedom from the discrimination that they would have experienced in mainstream society.

What’s particularly fascinating is that some of these pirates, at least, maintained a strong Jewish religious identity. According to the Forward article, Sinan Reis, the “Great Jew” (who sailed with Barbarossa, the dreaded Redbeard) had a son who was kidnapped and forcibly baptized. As a Jew, Reis was appalled at the baptism, indicating a strong sense of Jewish identity. In revenge, Barbarossa (an Ottoman Muslim) and his crew pillaged the island where the boy was being held, ultimately securing the boy’s release. Another pirate, Samuel Pallache (the “Pirate Rabbi”), took a Jewish cook with him on all his voyages so that his meat could be hechshered (ritually slaughtered) and he could observe the laws of kashrut (and maybe Shabbat too?) as he terrorized the high seas. 

Can you think of a better illustration of the disconnect between religious observance/identity and behavior? Can you imagine a scene in which, say, Pallache makes a Spanish naval officer walk the plank and then sits down to a nice thick kosher steak?

But the reality is, this has ever been so. It is what the prophets railed against – the emptiness of ritual observance with no moral underpinning. It is an expression of the constant tension between “religious message” and human nature. Over the last two weeks, in our Torah readings, we have already seen glimpses of a people whose very nature is rebellious and contrarian – this is a people who, after receiving Torah, will turn around and make a golden calf; they will rebel against Moses; they will doubt God’s abilities; they will break some laws and question others; in short, they will behave in a very human fashion.

The Book of Exodus eases us in to the concept of mitzvot/commandments, gradually introducing us to the idea of religious and moral obligation. In parashat Bo (which we read a couple of weeks ago), in the interregnum between the announcement of the final plague and its execution, the Children of Israel are given the first commandment, to sanctify the new moon and keep a calendar, and are given some laws pertaining to Passover. In parashat Beshallach (last week), the Israelites receive the first laws of Shabbat. This week, in parashat Yitro, we experience a massive escalation in the delivery of, and the imposing of meaning on, mitzvot. God “speaks” the Ten Commandments, the Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Utterances, in such a dramatic and fearsome fashion as to make the people cry out to Moses, “You speak to us… and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die!” (20:16)

Laws, of course, are aspirational. They represent ideals – this is the way our society is supposed to function – this is the rule book! Whether or not people play by the rules is another matter. The Ten Utterances (only ten, remember, out of 613) stand as a monument to this aspiration. Even today, the occasional member of Congress will still suggest that these ten “commandments” be posted outside of a courthouse, or in a schoolroom, or at a post office. Whether or not they could actually name all ten is beside the point – because as I said, they represent an idea: that the law is an ideal that is to be strived toward. It doesn’t take an omniscient God to know that people will break the laws sometimes. But the law is there to guide us to better things.

We can take a certain kind of pride in knowing that there was a kosher dining option available on the seven seas. And we can simultaneously be appalled at (what we would have to assume was) the barbarity of the flanken-eating Pirate Rabbi (lamehadrin!). Parashat Yitro reminds us that all the mitzvot are important, whether religious (keeping kosher, keeping Shabbat), civil (not murdering, not stealing, not keel-hauling), or moral (not committing adultery, not coveting, and presumably, not pirating in general). We come closer to God not by picking and choosing which kinds of mitzvot we wish to observe, but by getting a bird’s-eye view of the whole package, just as God delivered it.

Shabbat shalom u’mevrach, ye maties – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat,

Rabbi Sam Levine



One quick announcement: Purim is just around the corner and we are looking for volunteers to deliver Purim bags. Ideally, we’d have teams of two people – a driver and a runner. If you are able to help out with this great mitzvah, please contact Audrey at roomj@emjc.org. Thanks!