Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Stylus, Writing and Tablets - Miracles or nature?

In the seminal fifth Mishna of the fifth Perek in Avos where the Mishna lists the ten things created Friday afternoon at the last moments of Creation, the Mishna lists Hakesav, Hamichtav veHaluchos – the Stylus, the Writing and the Tablets. Rambam understands that all miracles are natural events that occur rarely. The low frequency of an event leads us to perceive it as miraculous. The ten events listed are to our perception unnatural or miraculous yet the Mishna refers to them as Devorim – things - not Nissim like the other Mishnayos in that chapter. Rambam explains that other events such as Kryias Yam Suf are natural events that were set in nature at the time water was created however these ten were at the end of the Creation process. I understand that to mean that they are once in history occurrences or the only such artifact ever created. The only one that does not fit is the Keshet, traditionally translated as the Rainbow, which occur frequently. (I am convinced that the “Keshet” has another meaning but I do not know at this time what it is).

The tablets are called “Ma’aseh Elokim”, the writing is called “Michtav Elokim” (shemos 32:16) and the stylus is called “Etzba Elokim” (shemos 31:18). Rambam notes that nature is called similarly “Mo rabu Ma’asecho Hashem” (Tehillim 104:24), while the heavens are referred to as “Ma’aseh Etzbeosecho” (Tehillim 8:4) and therefore concludes that whatever and however the Tablets were, they were a once in history natural occurrence. The Rambam points out that the Rabbis of the Mishna, unlike the current popular culture, tried to minimize and explain as natural any event that could be seen as miraculous. They explained that God when He created the world, as part of His perfection, having Divine knowledge of all past present and future put into nature all the things that humankind will ever need for its development and made them available at the appropriate time in the future. The Tablets were one of those things.

From a modern perspective I think that the Rabbis were addressing the issue of the obvious difficulty we have understanding what exactly happened there and what the Tablets were. The Rabbis address this head on by saying that this being a once in history occurrence and artifact, there is no way that we will ever know concretely what happened. They however tell us not to fall into the trap of thinking that God runs this world in a miraculous way. Even this difficult to understand event was natural and planned, how much more everything else that is less unique. Miracles would be adjustments in nature which if attributed to God, negates His very existence. The definition of God is perfection, adjustments connote imperfection.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Negative Knowledge - an essential doctrine.

I came across this citation by Dr. Isaac Franck which is the most succinct exposition of the doctrine I have come across.

Without knowing the nature or essence of G-d, we know that G-d exists because we know from our experience that things, contingent things exist. If anything exists, and obviously finite, contingent things, such as you and I, do exist, then it cannot be the case that everything that exists is contingent. To be contingent means that the existence of the contingent thing is contingent upon, depends upon, some other thing or being. But not everything can be dependent on something else, i.e., not everything can have been caused by, or brought into being by, something else. At least one entity must be in existence by itself, independent of anything else, must have come into being (if it did not exist eternally) by itself, must be its own cause, i.e. must exist necessarily not contingently, and its non - existence is inconceivable[1]. This necessarily existent being is what we call G-d... G-d is the absolute existent, to whom existence is so essential as to be His very essence. Accordingly His very existence is different from the existence of contingent things. The very term “existence” “can only be applied equivocally to His existence and to the existence of things other than He”[2]. We know that G-d exists, that His absolute essential existence is radically different from our existence, and our knowledge that He exists is utterly independent of any affirmative attributes we may be tempted to ascribe to Him.[3]

Awesome and appropriate for this week's parsha. Good Shabbos.

[1] See Moreh II, 1 for a lengthy discussion of this argument.

[2] Moreh I, 35 page 80.

[3] Isaac Franck, Maimonides and Aquinas on Man’s Knowledge of G-d. in Maimonides; A Collection of Critical Essays Joseph A. Bujis, Ed. Univ. of Notre Dame Press 1998.

More on Revelation - The Jewish Nobles.

In my earlier post I touched on my understanding of Rambam’s explanation of the process that the Jews used to experience revelation at Sinai. Rambam, as far as I know, was the first Jewish proponent of the concept of Negative Knowledge. It is the basis of his Ikar that HKBH “eino guf” – is not a physical entity. The word transcendent is easy to say, but to grasp absolute non – physicality is very hard for us humans. When I hear people talking about spirituality as it relates to God, I cringe. And when it is said with such certainty by rabbonim and darshonim it is even more surprising. Don’t they realize that just by saying that they are already anthropomorphizing God? If He is portrayed as anything that we can grasp, identify or even imagine, we have given Him more physicality than is permitted. A person can be spiritual, although I am not sure how exactly spirituality is defined, but God never! So how do we relate to Him? Rambam explains that first one has to understand well a physical concept such as e.g. energy, and then be convinced that God is NOT anything like that. Basically one is convinced that He exists, because there has to be a First Cause, but the word exist itself is only an expression that we use for lack of another one. I plan to revisit this concept and expand on it. For now I think we have enough to understand the next verse (Shemos 24:11) –

V’el atzilei bnei yisroel lo sholach yodo vayechzu es hoelokim vayochlu vayshtu. – And against the nobles of the children of Yisroel He did not send forth His hand, and they beheld God and they ate and drank.

We just had a description of how the leaders of Klal Yisroel, by example, taught the people how to meditate and thereby experience revelation; suddenly we are told that these same leaders, or a portion of them, were barely saved from annihilation! Most commentaries consequently, with some difficulty, read this Possuk as a positive statement – see Ramban, Rashbam, Sforno and others. Rashi does not nor does Rambam who relying on Midrash Tanhuma (Beha’aloscho 27) read it as a negative comment. Eating and drinking is a metaphor for physicality, it is one of the most common physical things we humans do. The Nobles beheld God and related to Him just like one relates to food and drink in other words they imagined Him in a somewhat physical sense. When they speculated about the relationship between what was created – the whiteness of the sapphire – they visualized or apprehended a positive attribute of God as Creator and that deserved a reprimand. It is this misunderstanding of metaphysical truths that lead to the tragedies of Nodov and Avihu and Tave’eroh (Bamidbar 11:1-3). Immediately at the beginning of the Moreh, in the fifth chapter, Rambam contrasts Moshe’s reaction to his first encounter with divinity at the Burning Bush, where he refrained from jumping to conclusions,(Vayaster Moshe ponov), and therefore was able to eventually apprehend God at the highest level a human can – Utemunas Hashem Yabit – he sees God’s image,with the Nobles of the Bnei Yisroel who jumped to unfounded conclusions. They were therefore never able to understand God’s true transcendence.
When we want to perform the Mitzvah of Yedias Hashem, the first Mitzvah in Sefer Hamitzvos, our starting point is the physical world that was created by HKBH which we use as a contrast to understand what God is not. But we can never confuse God with the laws of physics, biology et al. which are the fabric of the universe. Quoting the words of Rambam describing an erroneous understanding of God - "For that thing which he is in his imagination and which he mentions in his speech(learning and prayer) does not correspond to any being at all and has merely been invented by his imagination".

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Revelation at Sinai - White Sapphire.

This week's Parsha continues with the decription of Ma'amad Har Sinai after listing the first set of laws dealing mostly with societal issues. To allow for proper metaphysical speculation one needs a peaceful and well-ordered society. Only then, after having written down these laws, Moshe returns to the mountain. When describing that event we find two cryptic verses (24:9-10) that say a lot in few words and help us understand more about prophecy and what occurred at Sinai. So important are these psukim that it is one of the rare ones where Rambam comments on almost every word. Verse 9 reads”Vaya'al Moshe veaharon nodov veavihu veshivi'im miziknei Yisroel” which refers back to the first verse in this chapter (24:1). Rambam Moreh 2:32 explains that Vaya'al does not mean going up physically but is a metaphor for elevating oneself by metaphysical speculation about God. Thus Moshe, Aharon et al. each had a different understanding of God, each according to his level. This is based on a Chazal in Mechilta Shemos 19:24. So here we have the top elite of Klal Yisroel meditating and they all arrive at an apprehension of God – mind you each to his level . Now let us translate the words with Rambam exegesis:
Vayru’u es Elokei Yisroel – and they saw the God of Israel – in Moreh 1:4 “ every mention of seeing when referring to God has this figurative meaning – he brings proof texts including our words – all this refers to intellectual apprehension and in no way to the eyes seeing, as the eyes can only apprehend a body…”. (Pines translation with minor modifications).
Vetachas Raglov – and under his feet – the word Regel in the context of this verse has the distinction of a whole chapter 1:28 in Moreh dedicated to it. After discussing Onkelos translation and explaining that he focuses only on making sure that we don’t anthropomorphize leaving the explanation to us, Rambam explains that it means :He being the cause and because of Him.
So far we have, putting it into our own words: They apprehended in their meditation the God of Israel as the Cause of -
Kemaaseh Livnas Hasapir - As it were a work of the whiteness of sapphire stone – In Aristotelian thought everything consists of matter and form. Matter changes consistency depending on the form that attaches itself to it. Translating this into contemporary terms this would be the basic elements that compose matter. They were contemplating the transition from transcendence to physicality, that moment in time where HKBH created the world out of nothing. That first element is so ethereal that it is like a transparent colorless sapphire – the whiteness of the sapphire. This concept makes it easier for us humans to visualize that transition.
Uke’etzem hashomayim lotohar – and like the essence of the heavens in purity - Rambam lets us figure this out for ourselves and in context it is a clarification so that we understand that the perception was of something totally invisible that is only perceptible by deduction.

Here we get a glimpse of what was happening at Sinai. It was a day where the Jewish people were all together, shown by example by their leaders, how to meditate and speculate about the universe , its Creation and consequently its Creator, keeping in mind his transcendence as opposed to the physicality of His creations. This meditation took them to a level of understanding that made them believe in Moshe’s prophecy, and Moshe, having advanced so much further then they on the same path, reached a level of prophecy that was termed Peh el Peh and Ponim el Ponim. That level of apprehension allowed Moshe to give us the Torah.

In our next post we will address the next verse and its ramifications.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Miracles – Part of the Fabric of the Universe

GH has started posting about the historicity of Exodus and has put out some quite intriguing questions. It will be interesting where this takes him. His investigation of Breishis took him to the surprising theological conclusion that gave us the Post of the Year. I would like to take a different route and try to explore the concepts that the story is presenting from a theological point of view.

Rambam in Pirush Hamishna in Avos 5:5 where the Mishna lists the 10 things that were created on Friday afternoon, explains that the Mishna is telling us that all rare events that are perceived by us as miraculous are in reality normal natural phenomena that are part of the fabric of the Universe. If we think about it this is quite obvious. I remember as a kid I used to read this French comic, Tintin, and in one episode, he is among the Inca somewhere in South America, and he is saved because there was a solar eclipse at a fortuitous moment. The uneducated Inca (Herge the author was a bigot at the time he wrote this episode and did Tshuva later), took a natural event and understood it as a message from their god. I am sure that at the early stages of humanity the accepted wisdom for all these phenomena was that they were miraculous. In medieval times comets were seen as miraculous events, and being that stars influenced the world, were predictors of catastrophic events. Astrology was considered a science that although forbidden by the Torah, many Rishonim believed in including Ramban, Ibn Ezra and even Ralbag the great rationalist felt forced to accept it. (Isn’t it amazing that these great Rishonim did not use the current Yeshivish argument that Torah knew science better, and felt compelled to deal with what was considered truth in their days in a responsible way).

Rambam repeats the theme that miracles are natural events in many of his writings, in Shemona Perakim, in Igeres Techyas Hamessim and in the Moreh several times. Here is a synopsis of his point of view:
1. A miracle is short lived. Moshe’s rod stayed a snake for a short time, his hand stayed leprous for a short time, the blood was temporary (Moreh 2:29) and even the sea parting was temporary ( Igeres Tchiyas Hamessim).
2. A miracle is something natural that occurs rarely and is therefore perceived as going against the laws of nature. In other words if a new phenomena is noticed one can be sure it is natural no matter how rare it is.
3. Not only the phenomena itself is natural but it is even predictable. The timing thereof has been set at Creation as a natural result of cause and effect.
4. Saying that God makes miracles is philosophically untenable. It takes away from God’s omnipotence as if to say that he needed to make adjustments to the perfect world he created. ( Moreh 2:28). Isn’t it interesting how a true religious perspective is more rational and less superstitious?! (Superstition: A belief, practice, or rite irrationally maintained by ignorance of the laws of nature or by faith in magic or chance. - Wikipedia)
5. Being natural, miracles are predictable. A great prophet such as Moshe, being by definition someone who has a thorough knowledge of the natural world, can predict one.
I think I covered all the pertinent points. Miracles are therefore a human interpretation of a rare event.

Now let us see how this relates to Exodus (Shemos).In Moreh 2:29 (page 345) Rambam referring to Midrash Rabah Breishis 5:5 אמר ר' יוֹנתן תנאין התנה הקב"ה עם הים שיקרע לפני ישראל ה"ה וישב הים לפנוֹת בוֹקר לאיתנוֹ - לתנאוֹ. אמר ר' ירמי'ה בן אלעזר לא עם הים בלבד התנה הקב"ה אלא עם כל מה שנברא בששת ימי בראשית “This notion consists in their holding the view that miracles too are something that is, in a certain respect, in nature.... He put it into these natures that all the miracles that occurred would be produced in them at the time when they occurred. According to this opinion the sign of a prophet consists in God’s making known to him the time when he must make his proclamation, and then a certain thing is affected according to what was put into its nature when first it received its particular impress.” Continuing his discussion in Pirush Hamishna Avos 5:5 where he already told us that nature has a built in ability for irregular events to occur, Rambam goes one step further and says that not only the possibility of the event was preset but the timing too. All one needs to do is know about it and then can predict it. At creation God, omniscience being one of His attributes, preset the timing of the sea returning to its original state ( what exactly the meaning of this is a separate discussion). Moshe being the great prophet he was knew about it and used it to good effect.Let us put ourselves into the shoes of the Jews as they were squeezed between the sea and the Egyptian army. As they were desperate and ready to give up and capitulate to Pharaoh, all of a sudden the sea parts. They are now conflicted. What will our going into the sea do for us? The Egyptian will just continue to pursue us and catch us a little later. Under Moshe's leadership they continue their march and just as they see the Egyptian army the sea starts closing up behind them. Of course, this was all-natural and was going to happen anyway, otherwise Moshe could not have predicted it, but to them it was proof that God does miracles just for them. That feeling was a momentary reaction in the elation that followed the event. Next day, they calmed down and as they looked back at the events of the past night, they realized this was only a natural event. That is why the next parsha after the Shira, is the story of Marah where they were so concerned about not having potable water nor miracles. (Rashba in his responsa vol. 4 Teshuva 234 explains Rambam's position this way approvingly saying that our ancestors learned not to believe anything until proven with certainty.)Miraculous events are therefore predictable in theory. If the Jews at the time, let's speculate, would have had the technology to know about an earthquake occurring in the Indian Ocean and that a tsunami could result if it happened with a certain intensity and at a certain locale, they would have done exactly what they did at that exact moment, with anxiety about the timing maybe, but it would have been a calculated risk, worth taking rather than falling back into slavery.The Torah however tells us that the "miracle" of Ma'amad Har Sinai satisfied the people that Moshe was special and therefore his Torah is definitive and immutable. They now understood how prophecy works and that all the events since Moshe started the process of Exodus happened because he was such a great prophet. ( see Shemos 3:12 and 15:9) I will discuss this further in a future post. Just a little clue – the Mishna in Avos that interprets miracles as natural events, three of the things listed realte to Matan Torah – Hakesav, Hamichtov, Vehaluchos.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Was there Fire or Darkness at Sinai?

Rambam in Moreh 2:30 points out two contradictory verses. In Devorim 4:36 the people heard God's words from inside the fire and in Devorim 5:20 they heard it from the darkness! Was it fire or darkness? The verses 4:11 -12 read as follows:

"And you came forward and stood at the bottom of the mountain, and the mountain was burning with fire to the heart of heavens - darkness, cloud and dense fog. And God spoke to you from the midst of the fire. The sound of words you did hear but no image did you see except the sound."

The word image is "Temunah" in Hebrew. Rambam in 1:3 explains that Temunah is an equivocal word sometimes meaning a physical image and the prooftext is this verse (to be exact, the same word in verse 15) but could also be used for a true notion grasped by the intellect and the prooftext is when Hashem says to Aron and Miriam about Moshe "Utemunas Hashem Yabit" and the Figure of God shall he look upon. Interestingly at the burning bush when Moshe hid his face because he was afraid to look at God, the Rabbis say that it is because Moshe did not let his first impressions take hold in his mind that he eventually was able to apprehend the true notion of God - Utemunas Hashem Yabit! Here again when the notion is God, Moshe sees fire . ( Of course the burning bush was a vision not real, being that a Mala'ach spoke to Moshe. Whenever Mala'ach is involved it is a prophetic vision - Moreh 2:42). Rambam tells us that the meaning of fire/darkness is something that is transparent. It is the equivalent of a molecule that when excited becomes fire and when left alone is darkness.(My understanding in Rambam 2:30 where Rambam uses an Aristoteleian idea of light, which I translated into contemporary parlance). The picture one gets is that the voice came out of a void. We already discussed in an earlier post that the Kol - voice, is an allegory for Divine intuition ( not exactly but close enough). In other words as the people were trying to assimilate the teachings about God that Moshe had taught them since his first introduction to them, further intensified over the last three days, they had a prophetic experience somewhat similar to Moshe, enough for each of them to understand what Moshe must be experiencing. The risk was enormous for they could easily succumb to anthropomorphism, being novices in metaphysical speculation. However as long as they were aware of Choshech, Onon Vearofel - the darkness, the clouds and the fog- that the transcendent God can only be apprehended as someone looking through a cloud or a fog, they were safe. The Onon, Choshech and Arofel (cloud,darkness and fog) are metaphors for how humans apprehend the Deity. When we try to develop an internal image of an abstract concept, we use our past experience as a basis. If I want to understand the radius of a circle I picture a circle in my mind. It is very difficult, in fact impossible, for us humans to apprehend a completely transcendental Being because there is nothing in our experience that we can hang our hat on. That difficulty is described metaphorically as a curtain (mossoch), as clouds, fog and darkness - (Moreh 3:9). Staying with the problem, accepting that we cannot cut through it, is crucial and necessary.

When we search for God we have to keep in mind that we will never really apprehend Him. We can only get a glimpse in our minds but whenever we think we know, we can be sure we are on the wrong path. That is why Anochi and Lo yhyeh Lecho are connected. It is only when one has a correct concept of Anochi , knows God from his deeds, he took us out of Mitzraym, not trying to comprehend His essence, that we can properly divest ourselves from idolatry.

That in my mind is one of the teachings the Torah is giving us by the way it retells Ma'amad Har Sinai. When we read these stories of Ma'amad Har Sinai the focus should be on the teaching not the historical facts. Rambam at the end of Moreh 1:5 where he discusses the meaning of seeing as it is told in the Torah e.g. Vayru'u es Elohei Ysroel (Shemos 24:10) that it does not mean a sensual perception but a mental apprehension, he ends "If however an individual of insufficient capacity should not wish to reach the rank to which we desire him to ascend (note the language! One has to wish not to reach!) and should he consider that all the words concerning this subject are indicative of sensual perception of created lights - be they angels or something else - why, there is no harm in him thinking this. Lets hope that we are not among those who wish to stay unenlightened. Good Shabbos.

Godol does it again -

Godol just posted an excellent piece here http://godolhador.blogspot.com/2006/02/take-it-to-limit-one-more-time.html . One can quibble about some of the details such as the speculation about how the Torah would be had Moshe lived at another time, but on the whole he has captured, in his inimitable own words, the broad strokes of what prophecy is. Yeyashar Kochacho.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Revelation part 2 - Inspiration and Prophecy - a miracle.

Mis- Nagid got very upset and frustrated when I described the experience at Har Sinai as "miraculous". I expected that reaction. Without going very deeply into the issue of miracles let me just quote Rambam in Pirush Hamishna on that famous mishna in Avos 5:5, that enumerates the things that were created Friday afternoon:

"He instituted into nature that through them there would be fashioned all that would be fashioned. whether the phenomena which would be fashioned would be frequent, namely, a natural phenomenon, or would be an infrequent change , namely a sign, they are all equal."

In other words when an event is rare it is perceived as miraculous when an event happens often it is perceived as nature, however in reality both are natural events. There is much more to this issue but I want to talk specifically about Revelation and share a few thoughts on Ma'amad Har Sinai.

There is a famous saying in TB Makkoth 24a "Anochi velo yhyeh lecha mipi hagvurah shomu'um" - They heard "I" and "you shall not have" from the mouth of the Force. Many Rishonim understood that verbatim that these two mitzvos all the people heard directly from God while the others from Moshe. Some say (Ramban) that the first two they heard clearly while the other 8 came garbled, others that these were the only two they heard. Rambam in Moreh 2:33 says:

"They mean that these words reached them just as they reached Moshe Rabbeinu and that it was not Moshe who communicated them to them. For these two principles, I mean the existence of the deity and His being one , are knowable by human speculation alone."

Rambam expands further, rather cryptically, that all the people according to their ability apprehended that Moshe was passing along to them things that were divinely inspired. It was an understanding that could not be verbalized but it left no doubt in their mind. (Hil Yesodei Hatorah 8:1 "veonu shomi'im Moshe, Moshe lech emor lohem kach vokach") These two principles however were learned with their rational thoughts. Rashba in a Teshuva vol 4 - 234 explains that what the Rabbis mean (according to Rambam) with the word Force is "Gevuras Hasechel" - "Rational Force". R. Avraham ben Harambam in his pirush on Yssro understands that Moshe, during the three days of separation before matan torah, taught the people philosophical ideas introducing them to concepts that would allow them to experience revelation.

Prophecy is a natural human ability to comprehend things without having to follow step by step logic - it is an inspirational leap. Great scientists have them and that is how new insights are developed. How does one know that this inspiration is correct not just a figment of one's imagination? First it has to be in a field that the person knows a lot about. In other words there has to be lots of preparation. Einstein knew all that was known about physics up to his time and when he made the inspirational leap that lead him to his great insight, he knew he was right, because it fit. The same applies to prophecy. Unless the person is informed in the subject he was inspired in, it is not inspiration but nonsense. Second it has to be proven afterwards to be true. An insight that cannot be proven has no meaning just like prophecy that does not happen is meaningless. " Vezeh lecho ho'os ki onochi shelachticho, behotziacho es ho'om mimitzraim Ta'avdun es hoelhim al hahar hazeh". Moshe shared with them a prophecy that God wants to take them out of Egypt and make them into His nation. When the inspiration came to pass and was realized, Moshe could be completely sure that it was a real Divine inspiration and not a figment of his imagination.

That is what R. Avraham explains that at Har Sinai for the people to have a meaningful experience and understand that Moshe was sharing Divine ideas and concepts, they needed a crash course in basic theology. That had started already when Moshe first introduced himself to them and told them "Ehyeh asher Ehyeh" and intensified further as the day of Matan Torah got closer. They had advanced so far that they could rationally understand that there is a God and that he is unique. The result was that they were knowledgable enough and could accept that Moshe was transmitting to them God's words. The Revelatory experience, the inspiration they had at Har Sinai was real and true.

Vya'anu kol ho'om yachdov vayomru kol asher diber hashem Na'aseh, to get all the Jews together at one time and for all of them to have the ability to accept that God can "talk" to man is a miraculous event, it happened only once and will not happen again.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Revelation Part 1 - Talking or Listening?

Who ever said that there is no Revelation even nowadays and even on the blogosphere ? Witness Godol's post this Sunday and tell me that is not revelation! 564 comments as of now - and that is not a miracle? On a subject that deals only with our psyche, minds and conscience - not with physical needs? And the timing! Parshas Yissro ! What a preparation for Kabolas Hatora! and I am not kidding - this was me'ein nevuah!

On a more serious note. As children, at least in my case, my rebbes in cheder said vayedaber hashem el moshe," in gott hot gerett tzi moishe", and I had a vision of this old man with a white beard talking to this other old man (80 years + old approx). We learned Rashi and my rebbes never pointed out to me that Rashi had a totally different picture in his mind. Yes Rashi not Rambam or some other such "skeptic". He repeats it several times to make sure we don't miss the point. In fact it is not Rashi who started this idea it was Onkelos, and probably the Masora followed him when they set the vowels. In Shmos 33:9 on the verse Vediber Hashem el Moshe, Onkelos translates Umismalel - God was spoken to Moshe and Rashi cryptically quotes him without any further elaboration. (BTW some girsaos in Onkelos were tampered with and read Umemalel - rashi thus dissuades us as we will see). In Bamidbar 7:89 Vayshma es hakol midaber eilov - instead of medaber which would be normative - he heard the voice talking - the Masora reads Midaber - the voice was spoken - a difficult construct further confirmed by Onkelos - demismalel. Rashi again picks up on this and here a little less cryptically adds - it is God's glory for one to say that - in other words God is not physical and does not talk to people, even to Moshe - He talks to himself and Moshe hears on his own. Rashi already told us a little earlier that this "voice" is the same that Moshe experienced at Sinai. We are told here two things - first that the voice is a kind of "emanation" that is out there all the time ( remember God is not subject to time) - and second, Moshe or any prophet has to "listen" - in other words prepare himself and make a conscious effort to "hear" this "voice". ( see Sforno here who elaborates - cryptically as usual - and explains Rashi).

Exactly what prophecy is was debated by the Rishonim. The Kuzari et al. saw that as a miraculous event where God allowed certain people for certain reasons to "hear" the prophecy (proof is Monoach, Shimshon's father). Rambam and others held that prophecy is an ability that all men have if properly prepared. He based it on Aristoteleian understanding of how humans are inspired and grasp abstract ideas. They connect with the Active Intellect(in a future post I hope to adddress this difficult issue and try to translate it into contemporary language) which sounds strikingly like Rashi's understanding. Rambam however adds that we, Jews, accept that basic premise but also believe that even the most prepared person can be stopped by God from prophesyzing. (Proof Boruch ben Neryah, Yirmyahu's pupil). Here again Rambam turns our normal understanding on its head. Prophecy is normal for anyone that can attain it through self improvement, proper philosophic insight and meditation. The suppression, or not allowing the person that is ready to hear it, is what requires Divine intervention.

So clearly this business of Moshe and God speaking with each other, this idea of "Peh elPeh" and "Ponim el Ponim", the word "Kol" which permeates our Parsha is not what it seems at first blush. And the idea that it is not can be dated to at least Onkelos, a pupil of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, (generation of the Churban), pupils of R. Yochanan ben Zakai, the "smallest" pupil of Hillel Hazoken, who lived at the time of Herod who ruled a 100 years before the destruction of the temple. ( For you history buffs who question Jewish sophistication 2000 years ago).

I hope to post some more on the subject in coming days and weeks taking advantage of the parshios where each one of them, Yssro, mishpatim, ki tiso all give us little snippets of Revelatiuon. Maybe if we piece them together we will get a little better understanding.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

What does the Mon have to do with Matan Torah?

The story of the Mon in last week's parsha is well known and I pass over it every year without too much attention. This Shabbos I happened to look at the Pirush of R. Avrohom ben Moshe Maimoni (Rambam's son) and I had interesting insights which I would like to share and hopefully get back some comments.

First let me make a point that in Pirkei Avos 5:5 the Mon is one of the "miraculous"( see Pirush Hamishna) things that were created Friday late afternoon. All the things listed in that Mishna are somehow related to Moshe except for the Keshes (rainbow). Second the Torah connects Moshe's miracles with his prophecy where it states at the end of Devorim that Moshe was a unique prophet as were his miracles. (I read that R. Chaim already makes the connection). In other words miracles and prophecy are somehow interrelated.

Prophecy according to Rambam is a natural ability of man that results from his efforts in understanding ontologically the world he lives in. It is a result of correctly analysing and meditating about God's relationship to our physical existence. (For elaboration on the subject see my article in Hakirah here http://hakirah.org/Vol%201%20Guttman.pdf ). That being the case and based on the connection between prophecy and the incidence of a miraculous event it would seem that for one to occur, a similar meditative state would be required.

In the story of Mon after the complaining and being told that the Slav will come at night and the Mon in the morning, ( which parenthetically according to the Possuk is supposed to show God's glory and that He was instrumental in bringing them out of Egypt - how that happens is not clear -but will make sense as we will see) Moshe tells Aharon to tell the people to come close to Hashem "Kirvu lifnei Hashem". As they are told they turn towards the desert and God's glory shows itself in the cloud"Vehineh kvod hashem niro'oh beonon". I never picked up that there was a revelatory experience here until I saw R. Avrohom's comment. He says that Kirvu lifnei Hashem means bring close your thoughts exclusively to HKBH and empty your minds from any other thoughts and immediately, upon their doing so, God's glory showed itself to them. He then proceeds to explain that when Moshe transferred the Law to the people there were three different processes. One was when Moshe had the revelation alone, like when he was on the Mountain 40 days and nights, and upon his return he told the people what he had learned. In this instance the people were completely non participatory in the revelatory experience. With the other two processes, however the people participitated up to a point. At Har Sinai, the people participated in the relevation, each according to his level, experiencing a certain level of prophetic inspiration. Here at the Mon, they saw Moshe dialoguing with God without participating in the revelatory experience per se, but as spectators. We find in Parshas Ki Tisah (33:7-11) a similar description of revelation. What is even more striking is that just as at Har Sinai there was constant reference to the Anan, the cloud, so too here. The Anan is an experience that people have when they meditate correctly and realize that their's is a clouded apprehension because God is transcendent. The realization of that fact is part of the real prophetic experience as opposed to the transes and other such experiences that are reported in "spiritual" experiences.

The whole experience at Har Sinai was miraculous. The fact that 600,000 people could have a revelatory experience is the greatest miracle and only happened once in history. The Mon can be perceived as a much more physical miracle. After all the people had food from heaven, however it had a revelatory element to it, just like all miracles. It was a natural event put into nature at Creation, but for it to happen here at the required time, and for the people to take advantage of it, they had to grow intelectually in their quest for apprehending God. Only then would the Mon be nourishing enough. To be satisfied with this new type of food, one had to become a person that food was a nourishment not a culinary experience. When the people lost that state of mind, the Mon was no longer enough and they complained as in Bamidbar 11:4 -35.

I have not solved the problem of understanding miracles but what I have learned is that just as in the search for God and prophecy, self improvement and proper perspectives on what is important is essential, so too for one to partake and experience a miracle, one needs to develop an appropriate state of mind. One man's miracle is another one's disaster.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Relevance of Rambam's philosophy nowadays - part 2

I read this Shabbos several excellent articles by Isaac Franck (A philosopher's Harvest - The philosophical papers of Isaac Franck - Georgetown U. Press ). One of them entitled Rambam's Philosophy Today made a point that I found very interesting as it clarifies a piece in the moreh. In 1:50 Rambam defines Emmunah "Not merely that which is uttered by the lips, but also that which is apprehended by the soul, the conviction that the object (of belief) is exactly as it is apprehended." Further on Rambam states how he views the relationship between Reason and Faith "If in addition to this we are convinced that the thing cannot be different in any way from what we believe it to be, and that no reasonable argument can be found for the rejection of this belief or for the admission of any deviation from it, then the belief is true".
In religion, as opposed to pure philosophy, one starts with Belief - after all we accept revelation and prophecy. However it is now man's duty to verify that the Belief does not conflict with Reason. If it does conflict it has to be revised or rejected. If on the other hand it agrees with Reason or is such that logic and science break down and cease to be relevant to the belief under consideration, "only then may we hold on to our belief with a clear conscience even though we cannot supply any logical proof of its truth."

Rambam in 2:25 argues that we cannot prove whether the world was created Yesh meayin - ab nihilo- Even if one were to accept Plato's position that matter is eternal, it would not conflict with Torah as the difficult Psukim could be exegetically explained. However as the Torah, in its simple reading, states that Creation was ab nihilo- and it is something that will never be provable scientifically - we are forced to accept the Torah position over Plato's. There are things that cannot be proven a priori and should be looked at from the point of view of revelation as long as it survives critical analysis.

When I discuss theological issues with people who are skeptics, they usually will sniff when I use (revelation) Belief in God / Faith (courtesy of B.Spinoza) as the starting point. They want to look at things a priori and find that if one accepts and starts from revelation it is apologetics. If the discussion was pure philosophy, physics or science they would be right. However when theology is discussed, revelation is part of it, and should be the starting point, critically analysed and accepted if it survives objective scrutiny.

Sit or Stand - a good custom or a mistake?

Rambam was asked about standing during reading of the Ten Commandments. He forbids it because it would show more deference for one Possuk over another. That would infer that one Possuk is more authentic than the other. ( It would also play into the hand of the Christians (Minnim) who believed that only the Asseres Hadibros were min hashamayim). The Rav in the first edition of Masorah explains that the custom that most people follow nowadays to stand during the reading of Aseres Hadibrot is because we read it with the Taam Haelyon, the special tropp used for this reading. That reading ignores the Psukim in the Torah and reads each commandment in its own possuk. Thus the last few Dibros are just two word verses - Lo Tirzach: Lo Tinaf: Normal reading falls under the rubric of Talmud Torah while the special reading is to emmulate the Har Sinai experience. At har Sinai the people stood and that is why people stand according to the current custom., He notes that his Grandfather R.Chaim read it with the normal tropp and sat during the reading.

I sat through the Shira and I sit through Chazak. Clearly it is not permitted to stand for those. (One could argue that AH are special but when one reads the Rambam's tshuvah it is clear that this applies to all Pssukim). I believe that this is an area that one must be more strict and a stickler because it has to do with real Ikrey Yahadus.

Friday, February 10, 2006

A Righteous Gentile

Courtesy of Hirhurim bringing it to my attention I downloaded the first issue of Masorah and the first piece is by RYBS titled Yesod Hayesodos. He refers to Rambam in Hil Melachim 8:11 that any person that undertakes to keep the seven Mitzvos Bnei Noach is counted among the righteous gentiles and has Olam Haba on condition he keeps the Mitzvos because they were ordered in the Torah and introduced by Moshe Rabeinu. If he keeps them because he arrived at them on his own he is not considered a Ger Toshav nor counted among the righteous gentiles - according to some Girsaot - nor among their wise - in other Girsaot - only among their wise. The Rav then turns to Hil Yesodei Hatorah 1:1 where Rambam starts Mishne Torah with Yesod Hayesodos Veamud Hachochmos Leyda shyesh sham matzui ... noting that for someone to be considered wise (amud hachochmos) he must believe that there is a God. RYBS deduces from this that the correct Girsa is "nor among the roghteous" for someone who does not believe in God is not wise. It would seem the Rav understood that if one does mitzvos without accepting that they are min hashamayim is tantamount to not believing God exists! Why would that be so?

This Rambam and the correct reading has been debated by many. It has important ramifications regarding ethics - does one have to keep ethical laws because they were given at Sinai or just ethical behaviour is enough. There are Gemoros going both ways and so Rishonim. This understanding of the Rov to me is very difficult and would like to hear if anyone has some ideas.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Labels - a rational suggestion

Over the last few months I notice all these labels given to the different levels or groups or whatever other differentiation the author of the blog or comment wishes to affix to any person or group. It is very inexact and sometimes irritating, demeaning and insulting. I would like to propose a categorization with a rational underlying explanation for each. if endorsed and used it will clarify who and what we are talking about and make our discussions so much more precise.
  1. RO- Religious and Observant - This is the elite and rare group of people across all the different denominations, Chassidish, Yeshivish, Yeki, Conservative, Hungarian, Polish, Lutvak etc... who observe the Mitzvos - at least as far as one can see or professes to be bound by halacha - and is searching to understand the purpose of man in this world as it relates to his Creator.
  2. ONR - Observant but not Religious - Most of what one calls Frum Jews the world over - they keep all the mitzvos to the utmost detail, follow blindly their leaders, afraid to think, ask or answer. They do it all because they want to make sure that God does not punish them. These people are basically superstitious simple good people and have always been the mainstay of Judaism. Without them we would not be here. They include the leaders and those crowned by the same temimim as "Gedolim". Most of the Yeshivaleit, kolel yungeleit and baale batim, talmidei chachomim and amei hoaretz are included in this group.
  3. RNO- Religious but not Observant - That includes a lot of the intellectuals, people who struggle with the existential and theological issues but do that without observing the Mitzvos whether intentionally or not . They include all branches of Judaism, Islam Christianity and probably many other religions. ( I am not well informed in comparative religion so I cannot say this with authority). Gershon Scholem, Spinoza, Kant, Aquinas to name a few would fit in this category.
  4. NRNO- Non religious and non observant - The majority of mankind who are either superstitious, uninterested or unsympathetic to any questions that go beyond their day to day existence. They span across all cultures and religions.

I am sure not all will agree and i am willing to entretain suggestions that make sense, but I believe this to be a sensible and realistic proposal. So how about all of us using it so that we know what we are talking about.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

What is the Torah's mission statement? -

A lot of weight seems to be put on the historical and scientific elements in the Torah as if it is to be seen as a history book or a syllabus on physics, zoology,biology etc... Questions are raised therefore about it being Divine when it would appear that it does not stand up to contemporary knowledge. World history and archeology seem to contradict and disprove many of the stories both in the Pentateuch (Chamisho Chumshei Torah) and Nach. Physics and Astrophysics makes one question the story of Breishis. Biology and Zoology makes one question the laws of kosher animals, birds and fish, the laws of Tzoraas and so on. When allegorical explanation of the psukim are proposed, some feel they have to suppress their critical sense and accept them if one wants to remain a religious person. Some will try to separate between religion and science, saying they operate in two different realms. These issues are old ones and had to be addressed by many over the generations. The earlier written record we have of these issues after the Gemoro (there are plenty discussions there) was R. Saadiah Gaon followed by R.Haay Gaon, R. Shmuel Ibn Gvirol , R.Avrohom Hanosi, R. Yehuda Halevi, Ibn Ezra,Rambam et al. Later Maharal was faced with these issues when confronted with the new theories proposed by Tycho Brahe and R.Azaria di Rossi during the same era. The Vilna Gaon's talmidim, R.Menashe of Ilye and others also had to deal with the issue of Torah and science. It is noteworthy that explanations that seem like apologetics at first blush were accepted and Judaism continued its course. One must realize that quite bright people, in fact exceptionally bright ones in any milieu, such as R.Chaim, R. Meir Simcha,the Rogatzover to name just a few of the most famous ones, did not balk at this and remained faithful Jews. I marveled at that for a long time and even entretained the possibility of a conspiracy by the elite to lead people along like fools to retain control a la Karl Marx. (see Rambam Hil Avoda Zara Chapter 1. how he describes the strategy of the idolatrous priests). Of course that is ridiculous and I knew I was missing a very important key to resolve this question.

As a businessman I know that for a business venture to be successful, one needs to develop a plan with a clear goal that one wants to reach. Once one gets engaged in implementing the day to day processes and deal with crises as they arise, the goals get set aside and forgotten in the heat of the moment and every so often one needs to remind oneself of the goals that were defined at the outset. That is why a mission statement is needed that will always remind all involved what they set out to accomplish.

Let us start with how Rambam in Moreh presents the Torah's mission. In 3:27 he states that the Torah has two goals the first and most important one is the welfare of the soul namely "soundness of beliefs and correct opinions" as translated by Pines. In other words a theology and an ontological understanding of the cause (First Cause) of the reality we live in. The second one, which is a tool to reach the ultimate goal, is the welfare of the body. The way Rambam puts it "the welfare of the states of the people in their relations with one another through the abolition of reciprocal wrongdoing and through the acquisition of a noble and excellent character".

The ultimate goal of understanding our reality ontologically is the most difficult thing man can accomplish. It is understanding beyond the physical reality he is active and lives in. It is difficult enough for the talented individual, it is an almost impossible task if it is the goal for a nation, even more if it is the goal for the whole of humanity. The Torah undertook to accomplish that difficult task. "Pru urevu Umilu'u es horetz vekivshuoh". That is not addressed to Jews but to mankind in general. It is expected to take control of the world it lives in and understand it. The word vekivshuoh , to conquer is to know - "Hagam likvosh es hamalko ". R. Soloveitchik so eloquently describes this aspect of man in his seminal "Lonely man of Faith". This and the second part of man "leovdo uleshomro" which is the welfare of the body, leads to the lahat haCherev Hamishapechet - The shine of swirling blade, that reflects the momentary glimpses of metaphysical truths. (See the introduction to the Moreh) - (I will deal with this aspect in detail at a future time).

Realistically this enormous task of learning and apprehending is a multi generation effort undertaken over millenia. It had to take root in a small group of people who then evolved and grew, dragging along the rest of the world by slowly infiltrating the thought process and formenting creative thinking across all of humanity. This has been remarkably successful as witnessed by the Judaeo- Christian and Judaeo Islamic world in the West. (see Rambam Hilchos Melachim 11:4 uncensored versions). With man's development of modern communication the rest of the world has been impacted by these movements originally started by Avrohom Avinu. There are very few places left in the world where these ideas have no impact either by being assimilated or by reactions to them. (Reactions even antagonistic ones do impact the reactionaries).

That being the Torah's mission, it is in that light that it has to be viewed. Looking at it from this perspective all the questions take on a different tone. What is it telling and trying to inculcate in us so that we can fulfill its mission? How does it want us to understand our reality theologically? We need to analyze and perceive its nuances by looking back on how it has brought us to where we are now and where is trying to take us going forward. As I said in an earlier post - the Torah is a guide- a system that when followed it directs mankind almost imperceptibly to develop in a direction that will eventually bring it an understanding of its true reality.

I am hoping to deal with the various issues, from this perspective, such as the stories in the Torah, Taamei Hamitzvos, Yedias Hashem, Nevuah, Torah min Hashamayim etc... not necessarily in any specific order but as my wandering mind, reading and events trigger thoughts, questions and sometimes answers. I hope that from constructive comments and discussions we can collectively come to a better understanding of the Torah and our personal goals and how the two are interrelated.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Kryas Yam Suf - Splitting of the sea. A question looking for an answer.

This Shabbos we will be reading the story of kryas yam suf. The story reads that the sea split at Moshe's behest just in time for Jews to pass and the Egyptians to drown.

Rambam in Pirush Hamishna Avos 5:5 says that on the second day of creation, when water was created, it acquired the ability to split when it will be needed. In other words, God being omniscient, knew that at some point in time in the future, this ability to split will be needed providing it as part of water's nature. In Moreh 2:29 he further clarifies that water had in its nature that under certain circumstances it would flow upwards (against gravity) rather than down. In Shemona Perakim chapter 8, he further comments that all miracles are really natural events that are seen as miraculous because they are so rare. The rarity of the occurrence gives the impression that it is something that is caused by some change in nature but it really is not. So far it is clear that Rambam understands the splitting of the sea as a natural event. However in Iggeres Techyas Hamessim at the end he discusses miracles that are not naturally possible "hanimnaim bateva" and similarly to his expostion on the same in Moreh 2:29 says that they have to be short lived adding that otherwise they would not be recognized as miraculous. So far so good but when he enumerates the examples, he mentions the staff turning into a snake, that it was seen as a miracle when it became a staff again and to our utter surprise brings the fact the sea returned to its earlier state as an additional prooftext! Hasn't he just told us that that was a natural event?

I could split hair and say that the sea returning and swamping the Egyptians just after the Jews passed, the timing was unnatural. Others would argue that in the next section of the letter he explains that he is not always explicit so as not to confuse the plain folks and expects smarter people to read him properly. If that is the case I would have to understand what forced him to include this example. I cannot put the issue to rest with such answers. So far I am stumped and would love to hear from readers what their ideas are.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Relevance of Rambam's philosophy nowadays

Relevance of Rambam's philosophy nowadays.

Much has been written about the relevance of Rambam's theology and philosophy to a contemporary Jew. One of the best is the article by Prof. Marvin Fox in his Interpreting Maimonides. The other is a letter Rav Kook wrote to the historian Zeev Yavetz printed in his monumental "Toldos Yisroel" vol. 12. The problem is that Rambam based his theology on the science of his days which was mainly Aristoteleian and Neo - Platonic - as interpreted by the medieval arab philosophers especially Al - Farabi. As that science has been discredited by empirical proof, one can argue that the whole structure and basis for Rambam's approach no longer has any validity. Mis-Nagid, B.Spinoza, at times GH and others have attacked my comments with that argument. In my mind it has to do with how we view what the Torah and Judaism are. The word Torah etymologically is similar to Hora'ah or guide. As a book of laws only it should have been called Chok, Mishpat or a similar word. By chosing the word Torah, it implies that in addition to being the law, it also is a guide that by being followed will get us to a place or a goal. It is a personal goal for each one of us but it also a national goal for Jews and even more a guide to help the whole of humanity reach a goal. Rambam in Hilchos Melochim 11:4 posits that Christianity and Islam are developments that bring the world closer to the goal of accepting the Unique God and to serve Him. The picture one gets from this comment is that the Torah is a system that has put a developmental process into place which may take many generations and thousands of years to effect its intended purpose. It is not a system which once accepted it automatically makes you perfect. There is no salvation, like some religions contend, but it is a process that one enters, does his best during his lifetime, passes the baton to the next generation and so on. As generations proceed, they develop a more and more sophisticated understanding of their surrounding, how it impacts on their apprehension of God through His actions, which is the universe we live in.

When one looks at the Torah from this perspective, the Torah is now in addition to a book of Laws, also a book that tells us how to look at our reality and interpret it ontologically. "If on the other hand you find a Law whose ordinances are due to attention being paid .... to the soundness of the circumsatnces pertaining to the body (in other words Bein odom lachaveiro) and also to the soundness of belief a Law that takes pains to inculcate correct opinions with regard to God...and that desires to make man wise, to give him understanding, and to awaken his attention, so that he should know the whole of that which exists in its true form...(Moreh 2:40). The torah in addition to setting societal and ethical laws also gives us laws that help us notice and question how the reality we live in came about, such as Shabbos. It furthermore tells us how to relate to, how and from where the universe came from, how humans, animals and plants evolved, how we should direct our thinking in answering these questions (Breishis).

It is therefore a system that has to go hand in hand with humanity's intellectual growth. As man gets a better understanding of his surroundings he turns to the guide (Torah) to try to understand ontologically what he has learned. As he does thatover time and generations, his understanding of God becomes more sophisticated. Aristoteleian philosophy was the science that man had developed up to Rambam's time. He showed us how we have to read and follow the Torah's guidance in assimilating it and understanding it ontologically. He did not hide behind the cop out used by our contemporary "Gedolim" that the Torah is divine and therefore knows more about science than us. He had his own questions about the science of his days. He was puzzled by the discrepancy between the Ptolmeic system of the heavens and Aristotles understanding of it. That did not lead him to reject everything. Rather he saw it as a way to better understand how theology fits in with science and are complementary to each other. We have to adopt Rambam's approach to our current understanding of science realizing that future scientific developments will require future generations to revisit the issue and adapt it to their time. Theology is a way of explaining science as it relates to God. It is the goal of the Torah and every believing Jew. God being transcendental, totally non physical, He should not be affected by any understanding of the physical world. That is the great lesson Ramabm taught us.