Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

David Levi (1742-1801) was a noted Hebraist and English author who issued an important series of works in English on theology, grammar and ritual, and is regarded as the most authoritative spokesman for Judaism in the English-speaking world of his time. Although all the material he discussed was already available to the Jews in Hebrew, the English Jewish community at the time was largely unfamiliar with the Hebrew language, and Levi’s translations opened an entire Jewish world previously unavailable to them. He also produced expositions and translations of Jewish law and practice, with his texts also serving as important resources for Christians, whom he was motivated to educate about the truths about the Jewish faith after centuries of misrepresentations fed to them by their religious leaders.

Portrait of David Levi.

Born into an Orthodox Ashkenazi home, Levi’s parents raised him for the rabbinate but, as poor immigrants, they could not afford to educate him. Instead, Levi was apprenticed to a shoemaker and later established his own millinery business, all the while continuing his independent studies of Hebrew language, Talmud, biblical and Talmudic commentators, and Jewish literature. His first published work was A Succinct Account of the Rites and Ceremonies of the Jews (1783), an ambitious project in which he presents the basis for accepting the Torah and the Oral Law (taught by Moses to the Elders and transmitted from teacher to student throughout history), describes the development of the Mishna and the Gemara and the universal acceptance of the Talmud by Jews across the world, teaches basic elemental Judaism to Jews, and corrects the manifest Christian misconceptions and delusions regarding the Jewish faith.


Levi also published new translations of the Pentateuch for synagogue use (1787); translations of both the Sephardi (1789-1793) and Ashkenazi (1794-1796) liturgies – performing the literary, editorial, and printing tasks all by himself; and Lingua Sacra (1785-1787), which included a broad presentation of Hebrew grammar, a Hebrew-English dictionary, and a compendium of Hebrew lore. Though he developed palsy and lost the use of his right hand later in life, he continued his writing and his prodigious pro-Judaism polemics. Perhaps most notably, he was the first Jewish polemicist to write in English defending Jews and Judaism against the leading deists of the day, including particularly Voltaire, Spinoza, Hume, and perhaps most significantly and as discussed in detail below, Joseph Priestley and Thomas Paine.


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A prominent Enlightenment polymath and radical millenarian, Priestley (1733-1804) was an English chemist, natural philosopher, theologian, grammarian, educator and liberal political theorist who published over 150 works and conducted important experiments in various scientific areas. His enviable scientific reputation rested upon his invention of carbonated water; his writings on electricity (his text became the standard history of electricity for over a century); his seminal work on English grammar; and, perhaps most significantly, his isolation and discovery of eight new gases, including oxygen.

Priestley’s science was central to his theology, as he regularly tried to blend the rationalism of the Enlightenment with Christian theism, and his strong belief in the free and open exchange of ideas and his advocacy for toleration and support of equal rights for religious dissenters – except, as we shall see, for Jews – led him to help found Unitarianism in England, with his metaphysical works constituting primary sources for utilitarianism by philosophers such as John Stuart Mill. The particular focus of this article, however, is on his regular publication of political and religious pamphlets and his active and arrogant engagement in theological disputation and dialogue, including particularly his challenges to, and criticisms of, Judaism.

In 1786, Priestley wrote his infamous A Letter to the Jews, a missionary tract which he also planned to have translated into Hebrew to spread throughout the world to provide a remedy to mitigate “divine displeasure” against the Jews due to their rejection of the Christian deity/messiah. He argued that if the Jews would only accept Jesus as their lord and savior, the Jewish people could mitigate thousands of years of religious heresy and be restored to the Promised Land.

Levi’s Dissertation on the Prophesies of the Old Testament.

As a response to Priestley, Levi wrote the three-volume Dissertation on the Prophesies of the Old Testament, in which he refuted the Christian interpretation of biblical prophecy, with particular emphasis on the divine punishment of the Jews and their ultimate redemption. He remarked that in openly challenging Priestley, he felt like a David taking on a Goliath, but that it was necessary to do so because the leading Torah scholars of the time refused to engage, either because they lacked the English language skills necessary for such a disputation and dialogue or, more likely, because their “Galut mentality” was such that they feared the adverse repercussions to Jews as the result of daring to openly challenge Christian theology.

Levi’s sharp response may be divided into essentially three parts:

(1) Priestley, as a Unitarian, did not himself believe in the divinity of Jesus and, as such, before he wastes his time trying to convert Jews to Christianity, he should work toward achieving some synthesis in the broad range of, and sometimes contradictory, Christian theology.

(2) There is no evidence at all – let alone compelling evidence – that Jesus was anything more than an itinerant preacher, and there is certainly no evidence that he was a prophet. Moreover, there can be no question that the messianic fulfillment promised by the New Testament (regarding which Levi notes sardonically “as if there could be two wills of the Creator”) has occurred.

(3) On the other hand, there is no specific time established for the arrival of the Jewish Messiah (and, I would add, there are several instances in the Torah where G-d took affirmative action to prevent such disclosure). Furthermore, the miraculous survival of the Jewish people through the horrific conditions of their 2,000 years since the destruction of the Second Beit HaMikdash evidences Providential guidance and supports the prophetic vision of the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people.

Several leading Protestant theologians struggled to answer Levi, including Priestley, who in a Second Letter to the Jews, argues that if the Jews are the “chosen people,” why has G-d continued their suffering and not sent their alleged Messiah: “The present dispersed and calamitous situation [of the Jews] is proof that you are at this very time living under the divine displeasure.” And, in part justifying the fear by the leading Rabbinical authorities that entering into disputation with Christians could harm the Jews, some Protestant leaders denounced Levi for daring to “enter into a contest that may cost them [the Jews] dear.”

As for being the “chosen people,” which has generated such hatred against the Jews by the Church, Levi explains that they were “chosen” only in terms of tasks and responsibilities, e.g., “to hand down the unity, and worship of the one only G-d, the creator of heaven and earth.” And, as to continued Jewish suffering, Levi explains in a Second Letter that the Bible itself, and all the prophetic writings, attribute the continuing exile of the Jews and their suffering to their failure to keep the Torah, which they also prophesize will be expiated at some unknown future date, leading to the promised Messianic Age. He further argues that the real proof of a prophet’s divine revelation is his record of successfully foretelling future events, and that there is ample proof of the prophecies of Moses realizing fulfillment – and, absent divine revelation, he could not have known, among other things, that the Jews would be dispersed into exile.

On the other hand, the Gospels – which “do not give a history of the life of Jesus, but only detached anecdotes of him” – were written after the fall of Jerusalem, and there is no evidence of Jesus’s prophecies ever coming to pass. Moreover, Levi argues that had it been Jesus’s intention to establish a new religion, he would undoubtedly have written it himself, or had someone else write it during his lifetime, but there is no publication extant authenticated with his name: “All the books called the New Testament were written after his death.”

However, it bears mentioning that as a fundamental matter of Jewish theology, Levi is incorrect about the nature and purpose of prophecy. As my rav, teacher and friend, Rav Amnon Haramati, a”h, explained, prophets can do no more than to repeat G-d’s words to the Jews (albeit in their own style) and, indeed, the entire purpose of “prophecy” is to warn the Jews that unless they repent and change their behavior, tragedy and punishment will follow. Thus, if the people heed the words of the prophet, the prophesized future will not occur. Moreover, as Rav Haramati explained, the word “navi” does not mean “prophet,” but rather, the root of the word is “niv” or locution.

Levi was motivated by this back-and-forth to commence work on his grandly titled Dissertation on the Prophesies of the Old Testament. In Two Parts. Part I contains all such Prophesies as are applicable to the Coming of the Messiah: The Restoration of the Jews, and the Resurrection of the Dead, whether so applied by Jews or Christians. Part II Contains All Such Prophesies as are applied to the Messiah by Christians only, but which are shown not to be Applicable to the Messiah.”

Levi characterizes Moses’ prediction of the continued existence of the Jews as “a standing miracle, even to this very day, the likes of which hath never seen or heard of in this world” and, with a 3,000-year-old prophecy being fulfilled in our day, “what stronger proof can we have or desire of the Divine Legation of Moses?” He observes that even when Reform Jews throw off the yoke of Orthodox law and practice, “some invisible power” prevents them from renouncing it entirely. [Some Jewish philosophers refer to this as “the pintele yid.”] He bolsters this argument through citations to several Christian writers who similarly opined that the continued existence of the Jews as a separate people despite their devastating history constitutes empirical evidence of the inherent truth of the Jewish Pentateuch.

Moreover, an important part of Christian theology has always been a farcical and convoluted attempt to prove the messiahship of Jesus through biblical passages in the Old Testament (the most (in)famous such example being the mistranslation of the Hebrew word “almah” in Isaiah 7:14 as “virgin” instead of “young girl”). In response, Levi systematically examines not only the entire book of Isaiah, but also the books of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amons, Obadiah and Micah, and proves that none of their prophecies could possibly have been referring to the Christian savior. The traditional Christian response to the indisputable fact that Jesus’ prophesies have not been fulfilled has been to introduce the idea of a “Second Coming,” which Levi characterizes as a “mere chimera” before proving that Christians cannot produce a single source in the Pentateuch and Prophets for such a proposition.


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Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was an English-born political activist, philosopher, theorist and revolutionary whose ideas reflected Enlightenment-era ideals of human rights and who is sometimes seen as one of Founding Fathers of the American Revolution. He is perhaps best known as the author of Common Sense (1776), a 47-page pamphlet read by virtually every American during colonial times that was the most influential pamphlet at the start of the revolution, and which catalyzed the call for independence. Although he is not listed as a drafter of the Declaration of Independence, there is evidence that he had extensive input into the drafting of the document.

Paine’s father was a Quaker and his mother an Anglican, and he was likely baptized into the Anglican church. He was a passionate advocate of reason in the place of revelation, leading him to reject miracles and to view the Bible as commonplace literature rather than as a divinely inspired text. In The Age of Reason, he advocated for deism (the belief in a creator who does not intervene in the universe) and promoted reason and freethought; while he retained a belief in G-d, he argued against religion in general and specifically Christian doctrine. He bitterly criticized the corruption of the Christian Church and its efforts to acquire political power and, in particular, he asserted that the Pentateuch and Old Testament prophets are “a work of lies, blasphemy, and wickedness, a bad book, the worst of books.”

Scandalized by Age of Reason, Levi wrote A Defense of the Old Testament, in a series of letters addressed to Thomas Paine, author of a book entitled, The Age of Reason, part the second being an investigation of true and fabulous theology (1797), in which he brilliantly refuted Paine’s attacks on the Bible and defended the authenticity of prophecy.

In his preliminary correspondence on the subject with Paine, Levi writes that he deems The Age of Reason to be “one of the most violent and systematic attacks on the word of G-d,” not because of any novelty in his arguments, but because of Paine’s abuse, illiberal satire and ridicule. While making clear that he does not ascribe Paine’s motives for attacking the word of G-d to malevolence, he is nonetheless “determined to endeavor to apply an antidote to the venom of [Paine’s] infidelity” because his anti-G-d polemics, which issue from the pen of a man so renowned and so respected, “may perhaps be of fatal consequence to the faith of many.” Levi expresses his sincere desire that Paine find grace in the arguments of a “poor, simple Levite” who, rather than trying to turn Paine into a proselyte, merely wants to demonstrate that his lack of complete knowledge of biblical theology underscores his acrimonious arguments.

Levi explains that he does not intend to take on each of Paine’s false assertions step by step; rather, he will organize his refutation in the form of a general proof of Moses being the author of the books of the Pentateuch and, second, to address Paine’s objections to the books of the prophets and other books in the Jewish biblical canon. [Ironically, the very idea that the Torah was “written by Moses” rather than “written by G-d and transmitted by Moses to the Jewish people in accordance with G-d’s command” is sacrilegious.]

In The Age of Reason, Paine argued that Moses could not have been the author of the Pentateuch – which he characterizes as “nothing but an anonymous book of stories, fables, and traditional or invented absurdities, or downright lies” – and that, in any case, the earliest the Pentateuch could have been written was hundreds of years after his death. As “proof,” he cites many examples of Moses writing about places that did not exist and events that had not occurred during Moses’ lifetime. As but one example, he discusses the verse in Genesis where Abraham is said to have pursued his enemy until “Dan” (Genesis 14:14), a site that would not exist until hundreds of years later; during Moses’ time, Dan was a gentile town called Lachish, which the tribe of Dan later renamed for itself when it conquered the town (see Shoftim 17:27). Paine also cites any number of temporal biblical inconsistencies – that only evidences his total ignorance of the doctrine of ein mukdsam u’meuchar ba-Torah (the sequence of events in the Torah is not meant to be chronological).

Levi responds that Moses recording future events that had not occurred is proof of G-d’s omniscience; as the Bible itself says, Moses recorded only that which G-d commanded him: “And Moses wrote their going out according to their journeys, according to the word of G-d” (Numbers 33:2, and many other similar sources), and he brilliantly marshals numerous sources, both Jewish and Christian, to show that there can be no reasonable doubt regarding Mosaic authorship.

One of the fascinating arguments that Levi makes for G-d’s omniscience (he cites many specific verses) is Moses’ transmission of His promise that, first, the Jews will be exiled from their land and scattered throughout the entire earth if they disobeyed G-d’s commandments – a prophecy that was made even before Moses led the Jews to the border of the Promised Land. Second, he returns to one of his favorite themes, G-d’s promise that the Jewish nation would never be destroyed, the obvious fulfillment of that promise, and the most improbable survival of the Jewish people through an incomparably bitter history of affliction through the centuries.

After an extensive, detailed and emotional review of Jewish persecution and suffering through history, he compares those events to the scriptural Jewish prophesies pronounced eons ago, arguing that there can be no question that all these prophesies have come to pass, and writes in a manner that reads more like poetry than prose:

Indeed, there is not a nation upon earth, that hath suffered such a number of massacres and persecutions.; their history abounds with little else, and if G-d had not promised them his particular protection, the whole race would long ere this have been extirpated… This forlorn and persecuted nation can scarce find one place in the universe to rest their heads or to set their feet in. They have waded through floods of their own blood, and are as yet preserved. That infinite number of Jews, which we shall see hereafter murdered through a cruel and barbarous zeal, weakened, but did not destroy the nation. For notwithstanding the persecutions of the Christians and Idolators, they are still in being… though scattered among all people, yet subsist as a distinct people by themselves; where is there any thing comparable to this to be found in all of the histories, and in all the nations under the sun?

No human being, even Moses, could have known that, nor would a clever charlatan even dare to suggest such a prophecy. Moses simply could not have known these things absent Divine revelation, and Levi challenges Paine to come up with any alternative explanation And, of course, all this is 150 years before the improbable birth of the State of Israel, which even further proves the divine origins of prophecy. Indeed, the continued survival of the Jews and, in particular, the birth of Israel, constitutes one of the greatest continuing theological challenges to the Christian Church.

Levi next takes on Paine’s allegation that “among the detestable villains in any period of the world have disgraced the name of man, it is impossible to find greater than Moses.” Again citing biblical verses, Levi proves that, when chosen by G-d to redeem the Jews from Egypt, he was meek and humble, thinking himself undeserving of being chosen for such a mission; when he came before Pharoah, he always stressed that he was acting at G-d’s command and not on his own grand initiative; that he was thrilled for his brother when Aharon and his sons were given the priesthood rather than him; that notwithstanding how poorly he was treated by the Jews, he continued to love them and to supplicate G-d on their behalf; that when faced with death, his only unselfish concern was for his people and not for himself, asking G-d to appoint a fit leader to replace him (how many leaders would willingly, even lovingly, cede power in this way?); and that his entire character, as attested to by scripture, was that “the man Moses was the humblest person on the face of the earth” (Bamidbar 12:3).

In particular, Levi defies Paine to support his assertion, on which he places great weight, to prove Moses’ loathsomeness, that Moses ordered the Jews to debauch conquered Midianite women. He proves that scripture is clear that Moses, through the word of G-d, prohibited the victorious Jewish forces from having relations with any Midianite woman until certain strict and detailed formalities were followed and the Jew married her – and that he was obliged to set her free if he no longer loved her. He cites this as but one of “the tenderness with which the laws of Moses treated prisoners of war.”

On the other hand, there is no specific time established for the arrival of the Jewish Messiah; all previous calculations by both Jews and Christians for the ultimate redemption have proven incorrect; and only G-d knows when the Messiah will arrive. However, he does go on to comment that with so many nations at war; with the state of almost unparalleled violence in the world; and with ubiquitous plagues, pestilence and famine, we might be at the turning point in human history and that one “can not but consider all those occurrences as indications of the near approach of the redemption of the [Jewish] nation.” [One can only imagine how much more impassioned his argument would have been in the wake of two world wars and the Holocaust.]

Finally, Levi proves that some of Paine’s factual allegations are simply and demonstrably false. For example, in response to Paine’s claim that that Jews were ignorant about science, particularly astronomy, and that, for example, Jews therefore had no words for Arcturus, Orion, and Pleiades, which names he alleges they adopted in the original Greek. Levi shows that Jews used the name “Ash” for Arcturus, “Kesil” for Orion, and “Kimah” for Pleiades.

At the end of the day, Levi was not a reformer but a traditionalist who defended Orthodox Judaism. Nor was he a theologian in the ordinary sense, as he contributed little that was novel in Jewish scholarship and, indeed, he seemed unaware of broad areas of Jewish learning. However, he was pedantic about textual matters, became a renowned spokesman for the traditional Jewish interpretation of scripture, and played a crucial role in providing basic materials to support the religious needs of an English-speaking community largely unfamiliar with Hebrew. But perhaps his greatest legacy is his demonstration that Judaism could withstand attacks by Christians and Deists and resist missionary appeals by the likes of Priestley and challenges to faith by the likes of Paine.


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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].