The Talmud: Selections, by H. Polano, , at sacred-texts.com
Rabbi Ishmael, the High Priest.
Rabbi Ishmael was one of the most prominent and excellent among the fathers of the Talmudical literature. His doctrines are pure, his ideas sublime, and his explanations clear and concise. He died a martyr to Roman persecution, and this end has set the seal of truth and conviction on all the actions and sayings of his life.
There is an historical immortality, as well as a spiritual immortality; Rabbi Ishmael has attained the former, and he was a firm believer in the latter. They who imagine the doctrine of immortality to be an outgrowth of man's vanity, claiming for himself an imaginary preference above other creatures; they who believe it an ancient fiction, without which no courts of law would be able to check the natural proneness of man towards evil doing, could never rise to the courage and sublimity of martyrdom. To Ishmael, common observation as well as innate principles proved the truth of his belief.
First, no atom of matter, in the whole vastness of the universe, is lost; how, then, can man's soul, which comprises the whole world in one idea, be lost?
Secondly, in all nature death is but a transformation; with the soul it is the portal to a new and higher realm.
Thirdly, our thoughts and feelings, emanating from the soul, are not of an earthly nature.
Rabbi Ishmael also advocated with energy the doctrine of man's free agency.
"When a man enters upon the path of truth and justice," said he, "God helps him forward, but when he chooses the
way of sin, God says, 'I gave thee reason and free will, go thy way,' even as the trader will wait upon the customer who purchases a good and pleasant article, while to one who desires pitch or sulphur he says, 'Go, wait upon thyself.'"
Many ask, "Why does God permit so much corruption and evil?" Rabbi Ishmael answers, "Not God, but ye, yourselves, are the creators and supporters of moral evils. When a field is covered by weeds, shall a farmer complain to God? No; let him blame himself for his carelessness and neglect. Noble, indeed, is the feeling of the man who reflects that his virtue is his own work, and truely woful is the profligate who cannot but know that his guilt is his alone. 'To the pure help cometh from on high,' was the sentence which cheered our pious forefathers, and which should encourage us."
His definition of sin, too, is far beyond and above the confused ideas of many theologians.
"Sin is an obstruction in the heart; an inability to feel and comprehend all that is noble, true, and great, and to take part in the good." If man is to be freed from sin, his mind and heart must be opened to the influence of enlightenment. The power of the passions must be subdued, and all prejudice, selfishness, and self complacency be removed.
For those who entertain the erroneous opinion that Judaism proclaims God as unforgiving and rancorous, nothing further should be necessary than to enumerate the Rabbi's classification of the effects of the Day of Atonement.
"He who violates an affirmative commandment, and repents, is forgiven immediately.
"He who does that thing which is forbidden, and repents, is forgiven on the Day of Atonement.
"He who commits a sin punishable by extirpation, or the death penalty, may be forgiven through suffering, but nothing save death may atone for the one who profanes the name of God."
What is a profanation of the name of God? According to Rab, he who borrows and does not repay commits that sin. Rabbi Abaya says, "A man who acts so that God's name is not honoured in his mouth."
And Rabbi Jochanan says, "The man who has abased his character."
Why should a violation of the affirmative commandments be so easily expiated, as is generally believed, since they are so important? The Rabbi says that sin committed against man is more grievous in the eyes of God than that committed against Himself.