The Stiff-Necked People: The Perfect Nation to Receive the Torah

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Throughout our history[1] the Jews have received many appellations.  Among the more famous – and positive – are “The Chosen People”, “People of the Book”, “Eternal People”, and “Light unto the Nations.”  Exodus chapter 32 finds our ancestors receiving yet another tag – one that evokes mixed feelings, yet in whose depth may lie the secret of our eternity.

The source of the appellation is Hashem himself, who says the following to Moses in the terrible aftermath of the Golden Calf: “I have seen [observed] this people, and behold they are a stiff-necked people.  Now leave Me alone and My wrath will blaze against them and destroy them.  I will then make you into a great nation.” [2]  Rashi explains that the Jews are “so called because they turn their stiff necks towards those who reprimand them and refuse to listen.”

One chapter later, Hashem informs Moses that He will be now be sending a proxy, an angel, to watch over Israelites instead of leading them directly.  In explaining why, Hashem invokes this notion twice again:

I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites… [You will then] enter a land flowing with milk and honey… for I will not go up among you, for you are a stiff-necked people and I may destroy you along the way.[3]

Say to the Israelites: You are a stiff-necked people.  Were I to go up among you… I would destroy you.”[4]

Given this context, one can reasonably assume that “stiff-necked people” is a pejorative label, connoting a noxious combination of impudence and stubbornness.

The Problem

Here’s the problem: In defending the people Israel, Moses uses the very same notion as the essential rationale for our salvation: “Moses hastened, bowed to the ground… and said, ‘If I have found favor in Your eyes my Master, let my Master go among us, because (ki) it is a stiff-necked people.  Pardon our iniquity and our sins, and take us as Your own possession.’” [5]  In this case, Moses employs the term “stiff-necked” as a reason to receive God’s mercy.  How could Moses be using this term to win Hashem’s favor?

Four Classic Solutions: Ibn Janach, Ibn Ezra, Zohar Hadash, and Midrash

Ibn Ezra presents two possible solutions to the problem.  First, he cites the opinion of Rabbi Mereinos (Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach) who explains that the word ki in our context (“ki it is a stiff-necked people”) should be rendered as even though it is a stiff-necked people, for the word ki can also mean “even though.”[6]  Thus Moses is asking Hashem to find the Israelites deserving of mercy despite their stubbornness.

Opting for the standard usage of the word ki as a causative, Ibn Ezra offers a different approach.  He explains that what Moses means is “because (I admit) that we have sinned, that we are a stiff-necked nation, therefore you should forgive.”  Hashem, we don’t attempt to redefine truth in light of our behavior, nor do we make a theology of our weaknesses – a tendency from which frail man often suffers.

In a third interpretation Moses turns to God and says:  “Hashem, Your people do not want an agent.  We want the Divine Manager!”  Why?  The words of the Zohar Hadash explain: “For it is a stiff-necked people and You shall forgive” as meaning “The Jews are obstinate and wearying and when they sin, the angel can only do judgment and not forgiveness, but You are merciful and gracious.”[7]  An angel is constricted; he has no access to divine mercy and understanding.  Therefore when we sin the angel must punish us.  But You, Hashem, can fathom us in great depth and can find in our being stubborn the very building blocks of forgiveness.

A fourth approach is suggested by the Midrash:

R. Yakim said: Three are the undaunted: among beasts, it is the dog; among birds, it is the cock; and among the nations, it is Israel.  R. Isaac ben Redifa said in the name of R. Ammi: You think that this is said disparagingly, but it is really in their praise.  R. Abin said: To this very day Israelites in the Diaspora are called the stiff-necked people.[8]

The Stiff-Necked People: The Perfect Nation to Receive the Torah

Taking up the theme of the Midrash, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes: “The natural innate obstinacy of the race … made Israel the most suitable for the revelation of the Divinity of His Torah.” [9]

“Stiff-necked” is thus not necessarily pejorative. Stiff-neckedness is a character trait, and character traits are good or bad depending on how they are expressed.  The Kotzker Rebbe once taught that every emotion and thought has value in the appropriate measure at the appropriate time.  A Hasid once asked: “Rebbe, of what value is heresy or doubt?” The Kotzker thought for a moment and responded: “When a beggar knocks on your door, don’t believe that God will provide. Take out your wallet and give him money.”

Indeed, our stiff-neckedness has served us well.  Does anyone really doubt that by all standards of natural history, we ought to have been a relic of the past, an academic fascination for aspiring PhDs?  Instead, thanks to our stiff-neckedness, writers from such as Rabbi Yaakov Emden to Mark Twain have pointed to the immortality of the Jew as one of the great enigmas and miracles of human civilization.

Dr. Yaffa Eliach relates a story that illustrates how our stubbornness translates into our immortality:  A Jewish labor battalion, slaving under brutal Nazi control, refused to eat on Yom Kippur despite threat of execution for failure to comply.  After the fast was completed, the Nazi commander approached the group and said:

“I know that you fasted today, but I am not going to invoke the death penalty you deserve according to the law.  Instead you are going to climb that mountain and slide down on your stomachs.  Those among you who would like to repent may say they were wrong to disobey army regulations and fast today.  Those who wish to do so may raise their hands.”

Not a single hand went up.  And so, the tired, soaked, starving, the emaciated Jews climbed the wet, slippery mountain.  When they reached the top, they were ordered to slide down on their stomachs.  When they reached the bottom, they were ordered to line up again.  They were asked if there were individuals who wished to repent and be spared the ordeal.  Mud-covered figures with feverish eyes looked at the clean shaven German officer in silent defiance.  And so ten times they repeated the humiliating performance, each time with more determination, each time with more strength, climbing and sliding from an unknown Polish mountain which on that soggy Yom Kippur night became a symbol of Jewish courage.

After the ordeal was over, “a young German officer of low rank walked over to the group and said ‘ I don’t know who will win this war, but one thing I am sure of – people like you, a nation like yours, will never be defeated, never.’” [10]

Our stubborn nature has enabled us to persist and survive the most extreme challenges imposed upon us, from the brutal atheist rule of the Soviet Union to the challenge of observing Shabbat in the United States in the first six decades of the twentieth century despite the great fear of losing one’s job.[11]  Our “stiff-necked” tradition has suited us well over the past thousands of years and will, with Hashem’s help, continue to pave the way for our successes in the future.

We may add that the stubborn nature of the Jewish people adds credibility to our belief that our ancestors received the Torah from God at Sinai.  The fact that a most contentious, argumentative, and highly intelligent people accepted the divine origin of the Torah testifies to the veracity of this claim!   We can now understand that Moses was arguing that Hashem should forgive us, because precisely the fact that we are the stiff-necked people proves the truth of Hashem and the Torah!


Mark Twain wondered about the secret of the Jews’ immortality.  Part of the answer is our natural inclination to be the stiff-necked people.  This stubborn nature has allowed us to persevere in our staunch commitment to Torah observance despite enormous challenges in each and every generation throughout the millennia.  Thoughtful individuals recognize that we are indeed the stiff-necked people and that this very trait constitutes yet another reason to acknowledge the divine origin of the Torah.

Excerpted from Rabbi Jachter’s book Reason to Believe: Rational Explanations of Orthodox Jewish Faith

[1] I thank Rav Asher Brander for allowing me to adapt and expand his article on this topic, “Supremely Stubborn,” published in his work Teachings: In-Depth Reflections on the Parshah (Jerusalem: Mosaica Press, 2011) 284-289.

[2] Ex. 32:9-10.

[3] Ex. 33:3.

[4] Ex. 33:5.

[5] Ex. 34:9.

[6] Ibn Ezra (Ex. 13:17) cites Rabbi Moshe Ibn Gikatilla, who interprets the word ki in this verse to mean “even though.”  In Josh. 17:18 and Ps. 41:5 the word ki can also be reasonably understood as meaning “even though.”

[7] Lekh Lekha 41b.

[8] Ex. Rabba 42:9.

[9] Ex. 34:9.

[10] Yaffa Eliach, Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 101-105.

[11] I stand in awe of my grandfather (and namesake), Chaim Adler zt”l, who stood firm and was fired week after week for refusing to work on Shabbat, in grand “stiff-necked people” tradition.  It took great courage and steadfast determination for my grandfather to do this in the 1920’s, when his wife and five small children depended on him for sustenance, and when government welfare was not extended even to those in the direst of circumstances.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.