By Yael Splansky
“The Eternal further said to me, ‘I see that this is am k’shei oref, a stiff-necked people’ ” (Deuteronomy 9:13).
We’ve been called worse. But what does it mean to be “stiff-necked”?
Usually when someone has a stiff neck, it is through no fault of one’s own and that person is the one who suffers. Taken literally, “stiff-necked” could describe the Jewish People after an injury was inflicted upon them. Some days (or centuries) the resulting physical pain is excruciating and other times it is manageable, but either way the suffering must be endured until something eases.
However, most of the commentators throughout the ages understand “stiff-necked” to refer not to the body of the Jewish People, but to its character. Most teach that it was not a condition imposed upon us from the outside, but a circumstance of our own choosing. Where the commentators differ, however, is in their opinions as to whether being stiff-necked is an ugly trait to be reviled or a sign of strength to be admired.
On the one hand, Rashi and Sforno note that one who is stiff-necked cannot turn his face to the left or right. He is inflexible and therefore unwilling to consider different points of view. “They turn the stiff back of their necks toward those who would rebuke them and refuse to listen” (Rashi on Exodus 34:9). “Hence there is no hope that they will repent, but follow the stubbornness of their hearts as before” (Sforno on Exodus 32:9). After the building of the Golden Calf, God refers to the People Israel as am k’shei oref.Despite the warnings and rebukes from Moses and the prophets who follow, this stiff-necked people is not faithful to its God. The people are susceptible to idolatry and too stubborn to change their ways.
Commenting on am k’shei oref, Nachmanides agrees that being stiff-necked is a negative trait, but suggests that, nevertheless, it can earn positive results. He explains: “God is in their midst because they are a stiff-necked people” (Ramban on Exodus 34:9). Throughout the years of wandering in the wilderness, the People Israel was like a rebellious, wayward child, always getting into trouble. If we had not been so wild in the open spaces of the desert God may have simply sent an angel to accompany us on the way, but like a loving and concerned Parent, God drew even nearer, kept an even closer watch on us. Because we are a stiff-necked people, we require even more of God’s attention and care. And God does not give up on us. Dr. Karen Minden, founder of the Pine River Institute, recently came to my synagogue to help parents better understand the risky behaviors of their teenagers. She taught that rebelliousness is linked to immaturity, but when redirected it can lead to great inner strength.
In his nineteenth century commentary, Eitz Yosef, Rabbi Chanoch Zundel of Bialystok concludes that God’s tireless devotion to Israel during its teenage years of rebellion in the wilderness eventually paid off. The negative character trait became positive as soon as Israel matured enough to receive the responsibilities of Torah. “Once the Israelites committed themselves to the Torah, they would stubbornly resist any attempts to turn them away from it.” Once the covenant was struck, stiff necks kept us from turning away from God; stiff necks keep us from bowing down to false gods. At Sinai, fierce resistance turned into fierce loyalty. Aging parents rejoice when they live to see their most rebellious child become their most attentive child. Jewish educators laugh when they live to see the most rebellious religious school student grow up to become a rabbi. A stubborn streak can become a rare and honorable mark of loyalty. “A stubborn people may be slow to acquire a faith, but once it has done so, it never relinquishes it.” (Gersonides [Ralbag] on Exodus 34:9) Is there danger or protection in being stiff-necked? Is it a sign of arrogant irreverence or admirable faith and loyalty? Rabbi Yitzchak Nissenbaum lived and died in the Warsaw Ghetto. He saw that the attribute of stubbornness could be both shameful and admirable, but that ultimately its virtue far surpasses its detriment. Rabbi Nissenbaum imagines Moses defending Israel before God, saying: “True, they once built the Golden Calf, but now they are prepared to surrender their very souls for God and Torah. There will come a time when they will suffer torture, they will have to withstand severe trials, but because of their obstinacy, they will not relent” (Aaron Yaakov Greenberg, Itturei Torah, Sefer Sh’mot [Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1995], pp. 269–270).
It can be argued that stubbornness leads to nothing but a pain in the neck; and that to be a Jew means to constantly look to the right and the left, to consider every angle of possibility, to be flexible and adaptable to new realities. On the other hand, it can be argued that obstinacy has been the secret of our survival throughout the millennia; and that to be a Jew means to “stick your neck out” for what you believe is right. It’s hard to know when to heed the serious warnings of Rashi and Sforno and when to take up the noble challenge of Rabbi Chanoch Zundel and Gersonides. But these choices are ours to make. With our God-given ability to discern one circumstance from another, with our God-given Torah to guide us, and with our God-given task to do what is good and just, let us “lift up our heads” (after Psalm 24:9) and choose wisely day by day.
For Rabbi Nissenbaum’s teaching about Jewish survival as a sacred act of stiff-necked faith, see Emil L. Fackenheim, To Mend the World (New York: Schocken Books, 1982), p. 223.
Rabbi Yael Splansky is an associate rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Canada. She is the editor of Siddur Pirchei Kodesh, the chair of the Reform Rabbis of Greater Toronto, and a fourth-generation Reform rabbi.