Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Unknowable - Ultimate wisdom is the acknowledgement of the limits of knowledge.

One of the cornerstones of Jewish theology, in fact of any theology that deals with metaphysics, is the limit of human knowledge. It is not a defensive position but one that a person has to assimilate into the mind logically and rationally. Emotionally we tend to resist it because it goes against our sense of entitlement; to really understand our reality. However there are areas that we cannot go to rationally. Let me explain.

When we observe our universe, we know that eventually science will be able to decipher every mystery. In the last century science’s pace has accelerated and will continue to accelerate at an exponential rate. That is just how things are and is a great testament to man’s ingenuity and drive to understand and take control of his environment. That is fine and well when we deal with the universe as we know it. When we start looking at its origins, how it came to be, whether it came to be in time, whether it was here forever, who and what was the impetus for its existence, we must realize that science will never answer these questions.

I do not think that anyone can deny that there is a concept underlying the universe namely the Laws of Nature that coexist with it. (This is a question very similar to the one addressed in contemporary philosophy as part of the “The mind body connection” issue. For readings on this Keith Campbell – Body and Mind and a classic Karl K. Popper and John C. Eccles in The Self and its Brain – an argument for Interactionism). But when one poses the question, can and do these laws “exist” independently of their subject, one has already entered the metaphysical realm. It is more a philosophic question than a scientific one. We sense and know that there must be something that is behind all this but there is no way that we will ever understand or know that something other then by inference. Denying the existence of that “something” is counter intuitive and requires a great effort. It is a quixotic attempt to deny our instincts. Notice I have not yet used the word God, but it is where I am leading. That vague concept that I described is the first step when one tries to describe what God means. When Avraham Ovinu conceived of the existence of God, that was his first deduction. This is the meaning of Rambam in Moreh 3:29:

Abraham was brought up in Kutha; when he disagreed with the people and declared that there is an agent (an Aristotelian term which I explained as the “something” in our contemporary parlance) besides the sun, they raised certain objections, and mentioned in their arguments the evident and manifest action of the sun in the Universe." You are right," said Abraham;" [the sun acts in the same manner] as ' the axe in the hand of a carpenter”. The carpenter being the conceiver of the Laws of Nature. It is just a vague notion of an entity that we sense. For a clear exposition of this idea see my post

Accepting this idea of the existence of God we now deal with whether the world is created in time or not. We cannot ever prove that because we are asking a question that is outside the boundaries of our experience – the Rabbis refer to that as “Mah Lefonim” – what is before. Rambam in 2:17 uses a metaphor to explain this:

Let us assume, in our above instance, that a man born without defect had after his birth been nursed by his mother only a few months; the mother then died, and the father alone brought him up in a lonely island, till he grew up, became wise, and acquired knowledge. Suppose this man has never seen a woman or any female being: he asks some person how man has come into existence, and how he has developed, and receives the following answer:" Man begins his existence in the womb of an individual of his own class, namely, in the womb of a female, which has a certain form. While in the womb he is very small; yet he has life, moves, receives nourishment, and gradually grows, until he arrives at a certain stage of development. He then leaves the womb and continues to grow till he is in the condition in which you see him." The orphan will naturally ask:" Did this person, when he lived, moved, and grew in the womb, eat and drink, and breathe with his mouth and his nostrils? Did he excrete any substance?" The answer will be," No." Undoubtedly he will then attempt to refute the statements of that person, and to prove their impossibility, by referring to the properties of a fully developed person, in the following manner:" When any one of us is deprived of breath for a short time he dies, and cannot move any longer: how then can we imagine that any one of us has been enclosed in a bag in the midst of a body for several months and remained alive, able to move? If any one of us would swallow a living bird, the bird would die immediately when it reached the stomach, much more so when it came to the lower part of the belly; if we should not take food or drink with our mouth, in a few days we should undoubtedly be dead: how then can man remain alive for months without taking food? If any person would take food and would not be able to excrete it, great pains and death would follow in a short time, and yet I am to believe that man has lived for months without that function! Suppose by accident a hole was formed in the belly of a person, it would prove fatal, and yet we are to believe that the navel of the fetus has been open! Why should the fetus not open the eyes, spread forth the bands and stretch out the legs, if, as you think, the limbs are all whole and perfect." This mode of reasoning would lead to the conclusion that man cannot come into existence and develop in the manner described.”

Without empirical evidence, and there is none for the pre- physical, we cannot answer the question scientifically. Accepting that is the first step to real knowledge. Once accepted that idea allows us to then understand that we will never understand the essence of God, we will never be able to rationally prove whether He created the universe in time or not, we will never be able to understand how His will works (more about this in future posts), how His omniscience works, His omnipotence and so on.

That insight is required before engaging in metaphysical speculation. It is accepting in a scientific way that we cannot answer everything and understand it empirically. It is what Rambam calls Negative Theology. It is a rational process of inferences and study of our reality which when done properly and with strict discipline some answers can be intuited. Rambam explains in Hil Yesodei Hatorah 1:10 what Moshe was able to apprehend:

Moshe comprehended - that God is different in intellect from other things in existence, just as a particular person is different in dress and intellect from all other people. Scripture hinted at this matter by saying, "...and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen”.

Interestingly none other then Rashi, who is not known for deep philosophical insights – an incorrect assumption in my opinion – verbalizes this in Yevamos 49:2. The Gemara quotes a Braitha that all prophets saw through an unclear speculum – Latin for mirror or eyeglasses while Moshe saw through a clear speculum. Rashi comments as follows “s.v. Be’aspeklaria she’eina me’ira ukesvurim liro’ot velo ro’u umoshe nistakel be’aspeklaria Hame’ira veyodah shelo ro’ohu befonov”. All prophets thought they saw but did not while Moshe who looked through a clear speculum knew that he did not see His face. In other words Moshe’s clarity was his understanding the limits of knowledge as opposed to other prophets whose imagination had to be restrained. (This reference in this context I learned from Professor Leibowitz in his book on Hashgacha).

This is not lack of knowledge because of ignorance – it is plain and simple unknowable. The realization of those human limits allows us to focus on the traces of that entity we sense exists and we call God. We know that it is all we can expect to learn about Him and that we will never get close to His essence. It is also why the introduction of mysticism (Kabbalah) into metaphysical speculation is dangerous. In my mind it shows a lack of understanding of the limits of human knowledge and an attemot to transcend that. It is impossible and therefore one risks falling prey to the imagination which, if unfettered leads to idolatry.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Reflection on Gedolim - Who is closer to God? a Scientist or an Halachik specialist ?

The bans on several books by Gedolim in the last few years have generated a heated debate on the whole issue of science versus tradition. Blogs such as Godol Hador and Hirhurim as well as magazines including Jewish Observer (which I have cancelled my subscription to because it so irritated me that I found myself being down on fellow Jews every time I read it) have weighed in.

The ban on the Making of a Godol book and lately the ban by certain segments of the Chassidish community of the Gaon book, which are both historical studies, can be explained as political. I do not condone the suppression of anyone that is trying to investigate the truth, but I can accept that some may see this as a threat to their way of thinking. After all whether there was historically a reason for Gra’s attack on Hassidim or not is irrelevant for today. Chassidism has made it into the mainstream. The same goes for the Making of a Godol book; it is irrelevant other than giving us a perspective on great people of yore but will have little impact on current thinking. The Slifkin book ban however is problematic. I will admit that I have never read nor seen the book. I am not into Zoology and the specific issues never caught my attention. The subject the book deals with is however very familiar to me. Understanding the world we live in from the Torah point of view is in my mind the most important thing that we can do and is the ultimate goal of all Torah and Mitzvos. How else can we ever hope to observe the Mitzvah of Ve’holachto Bidrochov, emulate God if not by understanding His actions?

So the question is does a great Halachik expert necessarily have the knowledge, expertise and authority to tell us whether the understanding we are developing is correct or not? The whole idea of there being a Godol or Gedolim that can impose a Halachik ruling for the whole Jewish world is in itself a question that at least from my reading of Rambam and many other Rishonim not acceptable. But even if we assume that there is such an authority for Halachik issues, does the same expert automatically have the right to rule that anyone believing the world is older than 5766 years is a Kofer?

First let us see Rambam in Moreh 1:34:

We can only obtain a knowledge of Him through His works; His works give evidence of His existence, and show what must be assumed concerning Him, that is to say, what must be attributed to Him either affirmatively or negatively. It is therefore indispensable to consider all beings as they really are, so that we infer from every species such true and well-established propositions as may assist us in the solution of metaphysical problems. Again, many propositions based on the nature of numbers and the properties of geometrical figures, are useful in examining things which we should deny in reference to God, and this denial will lead us to further inferences. You will certainly not doubt the necessity of studying astronomy and physics, if you are desirous of comprehending the relation between the world and Providence as it is in reality and not according to imagination. (in other words to understand Hashgacha one needs to know astronomy and physics!). … Consequently he, who wishes to attain to human perfection, must therefore first study Logic, next the various branches of Mathematics in their proper order, then Physics, and lastly Metaphysics.”

Rambam requires that we acquire all knowledge about science from our surroundings, from what in our parlance is called the secular . If as part of to the natural curiosity of an intelligent person, one directs his attention to understanding what is behind this beautiful and efficient universe, that person has taken a first step in the search for God. Without that fund of information, the God that one thinks to have found is really a figment of the imagination.

In Moreh 3:51 Rambam uses a metaphor explaining the different levels and stages of humankind relative to their relationship with God:

A king is in his palace, and all his subjects are partly in the city, and partly outside. Of the former, some have their backs turned towards the king's palace, and their faces in another direction; and some are desirous and zealous to go to the palace, seeking" to inquire in his temple," and to minister before him, but have not yet seen even the face of the wall of the palace. Of those that desire to go to the palace, some reach it, and go round about in search of the entrance gate; others have passed through the gate, and walk about in the antechamber; and others have succeeded in entering into the inner part of the palace, and being in the same room with the king in the royal palace. But even the latter do not immediately on entering the palace see the king, or speak to him; for, after having entered the inner part of the palace, another effort is required before they can stand before the king-at a distance, or close by -- hear his words, or speak to him. I will now explain the simile which I have made. The people who are outside the city are all those that have no religion, neither one based on speculation nor one received by tradition…

Those who are within the city, but have their backs turned towards the king's palace, are those who have opinions and are engaged in speculation, but happen to hold false doctrines, which they either adopted in consequence of great mistakes made in their own speculations, or received from others who misled them. Because of these doctrines they recede more and more from the royal palace the more they seem to proceed....

Those who seek to reach the palace, and to enter it, but have never yet seen it, are the multitude of the adherents of the Law; I refer to the ignoramuses who observe the commandments..

Those who arrive at the palace, but go round about it, are those who devote themselves exclusively to the study of the practical law: they believe traditionally in true principles of faith, and learn the practical worship of God, but are not trained in philosophical treatment of the principles of the Law, and do not endeavor to establish the truth of their faith by proof..

Those who undertake to investigate the principles of religion have come into the antechamber: and there is no doubt that these can also be divided into different grades. But those who have succeeded in finding a proof for everything that can be proved, who have a true knowledge of God, so far as a true knowledge can be attained, and are near the truth, wherever an approach to the truth is possible, they have reached the goal, and are in the palace in which the king lives..

My son, so long as you are engaged in studying the Mathematical Sciences and Logic, you belong to those who go round about the palace in search of the gate. Thus our Sages figuratively use the phrase:" Ben-zoma is still outside." When you understand Physics, you have entered the hall; and when, after completing the study of Natural Philosophy, you master Metaphysics, you have entered the innermost court, and are with the king in the same palace. You have attained the degree of the wise men, who include men of different grades of perfection.”

In this famous metaphor Rambam places the Halachik experts who do not have a grounding in sciences nor interest in philosophical speculation outside the palace and walking around it. They are one level below the people who have studied Math and Logic, for the former are walking around the palace while the latter are searching for the gate. They are two levels behind those who understand Physics and three levels below the ones who speculate in Metaphysics. Clearly being an expert in Halachik issues does not automatically make one into an expert in theology. Rambam in his letters repeats this position many times including in interpersonal occurrences.The conclusion is obvious. A person that is involved in studying the sciences and trying to understand them from the perspective of our theology has more gravitas than the greatest Halachik expert.

(The segments of Rambam I quoted in this post contain many more lessons about the important things in Judaism. I will revert to it at some later opportunity.)

Gutte Voch.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Would that all God’s people were prophets -וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם ה', נְבִיאִים

Prophecy is a central issue in Judaism. Generally its importance is attributed to Revelation and its impact on the Torah's authenticity as divine. That is fine and well for Moshe Rabbeinu’s prophecy, but the prophecy of all prophets is also one of the basic tenets of Judaism. This excerpt of my article on Prophecy tries to explain how Rambam understands general prophecy. (Edited for this post)

Inspirational Prophecy.
There are two kinds of prophecies, a unique kind that only Moshe Rabbeinu experienced and another kind experienced by all other prophets. The latter one, referred to here as Inspirational Prophecy is a state in which the prophet finds himself in as a result of his metaphysical contemplation and speculation. All prophets experienced this type of prophecy including Moshe Rabbeinu at certain times. In explaining Moshe’s request to G-d - הוֹדיענוּ נא את דרכיך [1]- Rambam comments,

whereupon he [Moshe] received a favorable answer with regard to what he had asked for at first - namely, show me Thy ways. For he was told: I will make all my goodness pass before thee - אנכי אעביר כל טוּבי על פניך -... This dictum - all my goodness - כל טוּבי - alludes to the display to him of all existing things, of which it is said: - והנה טוֹב מאוֹד וירא אלהים את כל אשר עשה- and G-d saw everything that He had made [the universe and its natural laws] and behold it was very good. By their display I mean that he will apprehend their nature and the way they are mutually connected so that he will know how He governs them in general and in detail....”[2]

The process that allows for this type of prophecy consists of the prophet studying, contemplating and understanding the world he is surrounded by and how it works. As he engages in this speculation and as he attains an understanding of nature and its First Cause, the prophet now feels an overwhelming need to act on this insight and to emulate G-d’s actions. Rambam explains the verse -
כי אם בזאת יתהלל המתהלל השכל וידוֹע אוֹתי כי אני ה' עשה חסד משפט וּצדקה בארץ כי באלה חפצתי נאם ה' [3] - but only in this should one glory: in understanding and knowing Me. For I G-d act with kindness, justice, and equity in the world; for in these I delight declares G-d -”But he [ירמיהוּ] says that one should glory in the apprehension of Myself and in the knowledge of My attributes by which he means His actions, as we made clear with reference to the verse: הוֹדיענוּ נא את דרכיך - Show me now Thy ways. In this verse he [ירמיהוּ] makes it clear to us that those actions that ought to be known and imitated are loving kindness, judgment and righteousness.[4]

The actions that the prophet is compelled to engage in to imitate G-d which are a result of his contemplation cover a large spectrum. In Moreh II, 45 Rambam lists eleven levels of prophecy, beginning with two “steppingstones to prophecy” such as acts of extreme courage or inspiration, followed by nine others described as prophecy, ending at the highest level with the example of Avrohom Avinu at the Akedah. All these acts are the result of the prophet’s overwhelming need to emulate G-d’s actions. When Moshe asked to know the ways of G-d, his ultimate objective was:

“ואדעך למען אמצא חן בעיניך וּראה כי עמך הגוֹי הזה - That I may know Thee, to the end that I may find grace in Thy sight and consider that this nation is Thy people[5] - that is, a people for the government of which I need to perform actions that I must seek to make similar to Your actions in governing them”[6].

The prophet’s vision that results from his contemplation upon how the world is run by G-d, informs him on how to lead people so that his leadership meets the criteria of emulating G-d. For this type of prophecy the prophet employs a mixture of the rational and the imaginative faculties just like in his search for G-d through nature where he uses the same faculties.

“Know that the true reality and essence of prophecy consists in its being an overflow overflowing from G-d, through the intermediation of the Active Intellect, toward the rational faculty in the first place and thereafter toward the imaginative faculty.”[7]

The interplay of the rational and imaginative faculties allow for a certain kind of apprehension of G-d. That same interplay also lets the prophet interpret his vision and understand how to put it into practice.

This method for understanding G-d and the resulting prophecy are legitimate, necessary and central in Jewish thought. Rambam establishes the belief in this type of prophecy as dogma. It is the sixth of the thirteen central doctrines of Judaism he enumerates in his introduction to the tenth chapter of tractate Sanhedrin. However, because of the involvement of the imaginative faculty, this approach and the resulting prophecy cannot be used to transmit Laws and direct orders from G-d. When the imaginative faculty is used, the resulting vision is במשל וחידה - allegories and riddles, which require interpretation. The interpretation can be part of the vision or the prophet grasps it instinctively[8]. However the fact that interpretation is needed is reason enough for it not to be acceptable for the giving of the Torah. The Torah had to be given verbatim by G-d.
האוֹמר שאין התוֹרה מעם ה' אפילוּ פסוּק אחד אפילוּ תיבה אחת אם אמר משה אמרוֹ מפי עצמוֹ הרי זה כוֹפר בתוֹרה - “If one says that the Torah was not received from G-d, if one says that Moshe himself [rather then repeating verbatim what G-d said to him] said one word or even one letter, that person denies the legitimacy of the Torah.”[9]
A prophecy that requires interpretation does not live up to these criteria as it cannot be deemed verbatim by G-d. The need for interpretation personalizes the prophecy. The prophet’s personality and state at the time of prophecy is involved in the interpretation of the prophecy. That probably is the meaning of the Rabbis סיגנוֹן אחד עוֹלה לכמה נביאים ואין שני נביאים מתנבאים בסגנוֹן אחד - סנהדרין פ"ט. - in other words, the same prophecy is understood by each prophet according to his interpretation. This is therefore a far cry from verbatim repetition which is a requirement for Torah.

Every Jew's goal should be to attain this type of prophecy. It is what is expected from each one of us resulting from living a life driven by self improvement and Torah. Torah in this sense is the totality of the written text, the oral torah and just as important and a part thereof, all sciences. That knowledge coupled with a disciplined way of life as prescribed by the Mitzvos gives one the tools to engage in metaphysical speculation which is the ultimate search – the search for God.

[1] שמוֹת ל"ג, יּ"ג

[2] Moreh I, 54 page 124.

[3] ירמיהוּ ט' כ"ג

[4] Moreh III, 54 page 637. Note that צדקה וּמשפט - righteousness and judgment are the same actions G-d said that Avrohom would instruct his children to follow. see Breishis 18, 19 and Moreh II,39.

[5] שמוֹת ל"ג,י"ג

[6] Moreh I,54 page 125

[7] Moreh II, 36 page 369. See Jose Faur, Homo Mysticus pgs. 69 to 79 for an interesting discussion on the process.

[8] see Moreh II, 43.

[9] הל' תשוּבה פ"ג ה"ח

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Divine Ethics v.s. Human Ethics - Prophecy and Plagiarism

Sorry folks, this is going to be a longer post than usual but I hope worthwhile!

The beauty of Rambam is that he is such a great teacher that once one falls prey to his methods, one can become addicted. Ask most religious people what is the basis of Torah min Hashamayim - Revelation and they will tell you that it is based on Faith. They will tell you it is Mesora, that it was transmitted father to son all the way back to our ancestors who stood at Har Sinai and why would a father lie to his sons. On the blogosphere Godol Hador attacked several times similar statements. Ben Avuyah has a beautiful post, titled Daniel’s Dilemma making the point and showing so coherently the ambiguities of this argument. What a talented writer!

Rambam in Moreh 2:40 makes a statement on this issue that is so revolutionary that it just boggles my mind. It has been bothering me for years and this afternoon during a conversation with a friend I suddenly realized what Rambam was saying and the incredible depth in his words. Here is Rambam Friedlander translation (horrible but available on line) with some of my edits based on Pines: (Moreh 2:40)

If you will find that the sole object of certain laws, in accordance with the intention of their author, is to establish the good order of the state and its affairs, to abolish in it injustice and prejudice: and if in these laws attention is not directed to philosophic problems, contain no teaching for the perfecting of our logical faculties, and are not concerned about the existence of sound or unsound opinions. If their sole objective is to arrange, under all circumstances, the relations of men to each other, and to secure their well-being, in accordance with the view of the author of these laws. Then these laws are political, and their author belongs, as has been stated above, to the third class, to those who only distinguish themselves by the perfection of their imaginative faculties. If on the other hand you find laws which, in all their rules, aim, as the law just mentioned, at the improvement of the material interests of the people: but, besides, tend to improve the state of the faith of man, to create first correct notions of God, and of angels, and to lead then the people, by instruction and education, to an accurate knowledge of the Universe: this education comes from God; these laws are divine

In other words how do we know that Torah is revelatory? By its contents! Analyze its contents and if it meets a certain criteria, it is proof that it is divine! What kind of objective proof is this?

Now let us read a little further:

The question which now remains to be settled is this: Is the person who proclaimed these laws the same perfect man that received them by prophetic inspiration, or a plagiarist, who has stolen these ideas from a true prophet? In order to be able to answer this question, we must examine the merits of the person, obtain an accurate account of his actions, and consider his character. The best test is the rejection, abstention, and contempt of bodily pleasures: for this are the first condition of men and a fortiori of prophets…”

Rambam is really going off the charts! How do we know that the giver of the Law is not a fake? The content may be divine but how do we know it is first hand? Again not because we partook in the experience at Har Sinai and we heard God say to Moshe go tell them such and such, but because the man who is telling us this is an ascetic! What is he talking about? This piece has bothered me for the longest time. True Rambam states this in context of comparing Torah to other documents such as the New Testament and the Koran whose authors also claim them to be Divine. He does not use the argument as an absolute proof for the revelatory status of Torah, but still what kind of objective argument is this?

Rambam starts the Moreh discussing ethics and morality. After introducing the concept that man has the ability to understand abstract truths in Chapter 1, he then introduces in chapter 2, ethics and morality in context of Adam’s sin.

The fine and the bad (morals) belong to the things generally accepted as known (conventions) as opposed to those known by the intellect. For one does not say: It is fine that heaven is spherical and it is bad that the earth is flat. Similarly our language expresses the idea of true and false by the terms emet and sheker, of the morally right and the morally wrong, by tov and ra'. …After man's disobedience, however, when he began to give way to desires which had their source in his imagination and to the gratification of his bodily appetites, as it is said," that the tree was good for food and delightful to the eyes" (Gen. iii. 6), he was punished by the loss of part of that intellectual faculty which he had previously possessed. …; becoming endowed with the faculty of apprehending generally accepted things (conventions) he was wholly absorbed in judging what is proper (fine) and what improper (bad).”

Rambam defines morals as conventions. It is not an absolute truth but an agreement among peoples for reciprocal fair treatment. It is a self - protective system, not altruistic, necessary for society to function. It is not a result of intellectual depth and understanding but rather comes from the need for physical and bodily pleasure and comforts.

However the last piece of the Moreh reads thus:

It is clear that the perfection, in which man can truly glory, is attained by him when he has acquired-as far as this is possible for man-the knowledge of God, the knowledge of His Providence, and of the manner in which it influences His creatures in their production and continued existence. Having acquired this knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, and thus to imitate the ways of God. We have explained this many times in this treatise.”

Rambam understands that there is a second kind of morality and ethics. That one comes as a result of intellectual development. When one searches for God by meditating about His deeds, looking at the universe we live in and understanding how it is being run, the laws of nature, science, become God’s fingerprints. Doing this we get an idea of God’s ways and we appreciate the way He deals with His creatures. That is the meaning of the 13 Midos that Moshe was taught at the Nikras Hatzur, the famous cave, after the Egel... The purpose of searching for God is therefore no longer just an intellectual search but also a very practical one. Once His ways are understood we humans now are obligated to emulate them. That is the eighth Positive Commandment in Sefer Hamitzvos Veholachto Bidrochov, a Jew is expected to emulate his Creator and how else can one do that without knowing His ways? This type of ethics is no longer a convention but an act of altruism. It is the ultimate service of God emulating Him without any expectation of reciprocity by fellow man, just like we cannot reciprocate His kindness to us.

Only a person that is not interested in worldly matters can teach this type of morality. For only to such a person are ethics and morality not reciprocal but altruistic.

Rambam is telling us, true Christianity preaches love and kindness, true the Koran teaches to give alms, but they are teaching the mundane kind, the reciprocal type. Our Torah teaches us to do these things as Imitato Dei, emulating God, and that is Divine law not a human one, given by a true prophet not a plagiarist.

Of course our Mesora stands. We accept that our ancestors were at Har Sinai. However others also have traditions and myths with similar contentions. It is the content of the Torah compared to the content of the others that proves which contention is true and which is false, which is divine and which is human.

I believe that this is one of the most important insights in Judaism missed by many academics who have studied Rambam. It is also the nuance that Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz missed in his writings. We cannot grasp God’s essence, but we can understand His world and learn to partake in Creation and its maintenance together with Him. The Torah is the guide that we follow to accomplish that. This is how Rambam legislates this in Hilchos De’os 1:11

יא ומצווין אנו ללכת בדרכים אלו הבינוניים, והם הדרכים הטובים והישרים, שנאמר "והלכת, בדרכיו" (דברים כח,ט). [ו] כך לימדו בפירוש מצוה זו: מה הוא נקרא חנון, אף אתה היה חנון; מה הוא נקרא רחום, אף אתה היה רחום; מה הוא נקרא קדוש, אף אתה היה קדוש. ועל דרך זו קראו הנביאים לאל בכל אותן הכינויין, ארך אפיים ורב חסד צדיק וישר תמים גיבור וחזק וכיוצא בהן--להודיע שאלו דרכים טובים וישרים הם, וחייב אדם להנהיג עצמו בהן ולהידמות כפי כוחו.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

A wake up call -

The New York Times had this op-ed piece today:

This is a story of a gentleman from a Chassidishe background. Similar stories can be heard about people in the Yeshivish community. The issue is not the individual case because that has happened all the time and will continue to happen. It is that the arguments put forth are so compelling. How many amongst us are staying in the community because of societal and family pressures. Just read the few who dare show themselves anonymously in the Jewish Blogosphere. And then you get this monstrosity

When are our leaders going to wake up and realize what a chilul hashem they are causing with their obtuseness refusing to address the rightful concerns of the few that are capable of thinking and questioning within our community?

There is only one way for Judaism to survive in our times and that is to face up to the issues and deal with them openly. Our Torah is great and if followed in spirit, not only in ritualistic practice, has the ability to change not only us but the whole world. Let's drop the Emunos Tefeilos, "spirituality",fake "Kabbalah" and other current fads and return to the teachings of our earlier Chachomim and Rishonim. Addressing the issues rationally in light of the Torah teachings will weed out those who leave because they want to shirk the burden of Torah and those who are in the process of leaving because they are perplexed. It is for the latter that we lament.

(This post was re-edited when i realized I left out the crux of the matter - sorry)

Moshe Rabbeinu's Insight - How to teach God's transcendence.

In my earlier post I discussed the problem with Avrohom's understanding of God for future generations. ( Another excerpt from my Hakirah article modified for this post)

I am that I am - a new concept in understanding G-d.

The Torah when telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt, introduces a new approach to how one must understand the attributes developed in the mind for describing G-d which we will call Negative Attributes. Rambam devotes most of the first part of the Moreh to develop this idea[1]. In Moreh I, 5 he deals with Moshe’s first encounter with G-d at the burning bush. He discusses it in the context of an admonition to people who engage in philosophical speculation, to be careful and not accept the first opinions that occurs to them during that process. “When doing this [engaging in the investigation of metaphysics] he should not make categoric affirmations in favor of the first opinion that occurs to him and should not, from the outset, strain and impel his thoughts towards the apprehension of the deity; he rather should feel awe and refrain and hold back until he gradually elevates himself. It is in this sense it is said, And Moshe hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon G-d”[2]. Rambam, in I,37 gives the word פניו - face- five possible meanings. In our verse Moshe hiding his face means that while seeing himself in front of G-d, he did not accept his current perception of Him. The burning bush was the first experience Moshe had of a prophetic vision. The experience can be described as follows: Moshe is deeply involved in metaphysical speculation and he apprehends an angel inside a fire burning on a bush that is not consumed. He then has a vision where he starts to receive a message from G-d through this angel. As he investigates the angel’s source of this message he starts to form in his mind a picture (sees) of that source. He realizes that he is jumping to conclusions based on an incomplete fund of information. He then stops himself from reaching any conclusion and is commended for it[3]. Moshe has proven that he has the ability and the temperament to deal with metaphysical issues. He will not jump to hasty conclusions and thus will eventually have a true understanding of G-d. “...and G-d let overflow upon him so much of His bounty and goodness that it became necessary to say of him: and the figure of the Lord shall he look upon - וּתמוּנת ה' יביט. The sages, may their memory be blessed, have stated that this is a reward for his having at first hidden his face so as not to look upon G-d.”[4] The term - תמוּנת ה' יביט - is explained in Moreh I,3 “ The term [תמוּנה] is also used to designate the true notion grasped by the intellect... The meaning and interpretation of this verse are: he grasps the truth of G-d.” Moshe will be able to grasp a true understanding of G-d. According to Rambam, Moshe introduces us to the idea that being cautious when one engages in metaphysical speculation is a necessary prerequisite so as not to believe what we “see” at first glance. Searching for G-d through nature leads one to describe G-d with attributes such as great, powerful, just and so on, which when interpreted positively, lead to anthropomorphism[5] and eventually cause one to forget the existence of the one G-d. The Torah introduces Moshe, the central figure responsible for the redemption of the Jewish people from Egyptian exile, as having the insight to realize that continuing with the current understanding of G-d and taking it to its logical conclusion will lead to assigning positive attributes to G-d. This approach was the cause for “וכמעט קט היה והעיקר ששתל אברהם נעקר וחזרוּ בני יעקב לטעוּת העמים וּתעייתם - and it almost came to pass that the tree planted by Avrohom was uprooted and the children of Jacob returned to the errors and misguided ways of the nations”[6].

Having understood the limitations of his current understanding of G-d and therefore refrained from speculating further about the source of the message and also having understood the rest of the prophecy, which was for him to tell the Jewish people that he is G-d’s messenger and has been ordered to take them out of Egypt, Moshe now addresses G-d. “Moshe said to G-d, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them the G-d of your fathers has sent me to you and they ask me what is his name? what shall I say to them?”[7] Rambam in Moreh 1:63 explains that Moshe’s question was what is the concept of G-d, that is consistent with my claim that you sent me to redeem them? “For at that time all the people except a few were not aware of the existence of the deity, and the utmost limits of their speculation did not transcend the sphere, ...for they did not separate themselves from things perceived by the senses and had not attained intellectual perfection [in other words, they only could conceive of positive attributes consistent with the experience of their senses]. Accordingly G-d made known to [Moshe] the knowledge that he was to convey to them and through which they would acquire a true notion of the existence of G-d, this knowledge being ; I am that I am”.

What does אהיה אשר אהיה - I am that I am mean? “This makes it clear that He is existent not through existence. This notion may be summarized and interpreted in the following way: the existent that is the existent, or the necessarily existent. This is what demonstration necessarily leads to: namely, to the view that there is a necessarily existent thing that has never been, or ever will be, nonexistent”. Every thing that we humans perceive is defined as “possible with regard to existence”, meaning that at some point in time, past or future, it may not have existed or will not exist. Therefore every thing that we perceive must have something outside itself that caused it to exist. An entity that was not caused to exist by something outside itself cannot be grasped by us as it is beyond our experience. That Existent, which we call G-d, is “existent not through existence”. We can only describe what that Existent is not, namely not caused by another and therefore exists not through existence, but we cannot say what that Existent’s essence is. “Even the word existent is not accurate with regard to G-d; one can only say that He is not nonexistent. Neither mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry nor any scientific discipline can help us in describing the essence of G-d. affirmative attributes we may be tempted to ascribe to Him”.[8]

This concept, Negative Attributes, is represented by G-d’s name Yod Heh Vov Heh, which is explained as אהיה אשר אהיה, I am that I am. “All the names of G-d, that are to be found in any of the books derive from actions...The only exception is one name: namely, Yod, Heh, Vov, Heh.”(Moreh 1:61) .

This is the most important innovation that Moshe Rabbeinu introduced into Judaism according to Rambam and is what enabled us to come to Har Sinai and receive the Torah. It would take many generations to sink in and take firm hold. It is still evolving and like any such idea takes twists and turns. Although much lipservice is given to this idea in our times, the introduction of "spirituality", contemporary "Kabbalah" and other such fads risk taking us away from our goal of really understanding and knowing God to the limit of our abilities as humans. It is incumbent on us as Jews to fight these deviant ideas.

[1] Rabbeinu Bahya in his חוֹבת הלבבוֹת שער היחוּד פרק י' presents the same idea.

[2] שמוֹת ג' ו'

[3] The beginning of the verse is: “ I am the G-d of your father, the G-d of Avrohom, the G-d of Yitzchak, and the G-d of Yakov”. As we saw earlier their concept of G-d is through nature and it is in that context that Moshe did not allow himself to arrive at conclusions.

[4] Moreh I,5 page 29

[5] An interpretation of what is not human or personal in terms of human or personal characteristics. Webster dictionary

[6] הל' ע"ז פ"א ה"ג

[7] שמוֹת ג' י"ג

[8] 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.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Sitting next to a Kofer Batorah in Shul

I have to share this experience because it really bugs me and had a major impact. I like to Daven Vasikin because the Minyan is quiet, fast and it is the only place I can get into davening properly. Of course some of my fellow mispallelim are a little OCD looking at the watch every few minutes, (there is an atomic clock next to the ba'al tefilah), but that does not bother me and is in fact a little comical and lightens up the atmosphere. However the last days of Yomtov a newcomer joined the minyan and sat himself right next to me. At first I was impressed as he looked like a choshuver guy, daveninmg quietly and seriously. But then he fishes out a piece of parchment from his talis bag and starts reading it with great concentration. I had heard about this nonsense promoted by Machshilei Harabim but never experienced it up close. When I had an opportunity I looked at it and it was Parshas Haketores written on a parchment with the Lamnetzeach Binginos in the form of a candelabra at the end. It threw me off for the rest of davening and next day. Here is Rambam in Hilchos Avodah Zara 11:12
[יב] הלוחש על המכה וקורא פסוק מן התורה, וכן הקורא על התינוק שלא ייבעת, המניח ספר תורה או תפילין על הקטן בשביל שיישן--לא דיי להן שהן בכלל חוברים ומנחשים: אלא שהן בכלל הכופרים בתורה, שהן עושין דברי תורה רפאות גוף, ואינן אלא רפאות נפשות, שנאמר "ויהיו חיים, לנפשך" (משלי ג,כב).

I just don't get it! People are worried about everything, Indian Sheitels, things in the form of a cross etc... and a clear cut halocho of the Rambam is ignored. Of course not all agree and say that to be a kofer one has to spit too when saying it, but that is to be called a kofer - assur it is according to everybody. On top of it it falls under the rubric of Avoda Zara.

Then I notice that during Birchas Kohanim that same gentleman moves to stand in front of the kohen and not to the side, so that the blessings don't CV miss him! It just was too much to bear! This is frumkeit!

What has happened to us? We are supposed to be the wise nation that leads the world out of the dark ages of idolatry.

The God of Abraham - A concept that needed fine tuning.

I hope everyone enjoyed Pessach. I had a great time getting a chance to catch up with my reading without interruptions from the web. I hope to resume periodic postings sharing ideas and looking for feedback. Here is an excerpt of a paper I wrote for Hakirah a few years back. (edited for this post)

Avrohom Avinu’s concept of G-d.

Man’s search for G-d begins in his analyzing his surroundings "כיון שנגמל איתן זה ... והי' תמיה האיך אפשר שיהיה הגלגל הזה נוֹהג תמיד ולא יהיה לוֹ מנהיג וּמי יסבב אוֹתוֹ As Avrohom grew up... he wondered how it was possible for the sphere (Rambam is referring to the revolution of the planets and stars as observed in the sky) to continuously turn without it having a driver or someone to make it turn”.( הל' ע"ז פ"א ה"ג )

As one begins to understand how all things depend on each other, are interrelated, and each thing is brought into being by its precursor, “apprehends their nature and the way they are mutually connected”[1] one arrives at the conclusion that there must be a First Cause, “that there is a mover, which has moved the matter of that which is subject to generation and corruption so that it received its form”[2]. This kind of speculation results in the recognition of G-d’s attributes (names) אל and שדי. An attribute is a term man uses to describe G-d, a being he only knows exists because he sees results of His acts. When there is a strong storm for example, and as a result of his meditation man realizes that it is the result of the laws of nature G-d put into the world at time of creation, man describes G-d as powerful (גבוֹר). Rambam defines אל as follows: “As for the expressions, the G-d [Elohe] of the heaven and also G-d of the world [El olam] they are used with respect to His perfection, and theirs [heaven and the world]. He is Elohim - that is He who governs - and they are those governed by Him, not in the sense of domination but with respect to His rank, in relation to theirs.”[3] אל is a relative term which indicates a high position in a hierarchy. It is an understanding of G-d as the highest ranked existent in relation to other existents. The concept of rank is the placement of a being as a precursor of another. A parent is higher in rank than an offspring. G-d who is the cause of all being is the highest rank in this type of evaluation. (It is important not to see rank and percursor in a temporal setting - who came first in time or later - but rather as a cause and effect idea. Water is composed of oxygen and hydrogen with the addition of energy, thus they are higher in rank than water)

The other concept of G-d that results from this speculation is represented by the attribute Shaddai. All other existents are necessary due to their position in the hierarchy of things. If there is an offspring there must be a parent thus a parent is necessary by virtue of the offspring’s existence. The two are interdependent. There is no offspring without a parent and no parent without an offspring. On the other hand G-d, as the First Cause, is not an “offspring” nor is He necessarily a “parent” until He created of his own free volition the first being. G-d is therefore an independent existent. “Accordingly the meaning [of Shaddai] is he who is sufficient; the intention here being to signify that He does not need other than Himself with reference to the existence of that which He has brought into existence or with reference to prolonging the latters’ existence, but that His existence, suffices for that.”[4] These two concepts, El and Shaddai, see G-d as an existent, supreme and independent entity. Avrohom and his children developed this concept of G-d as expressed in the verse “וארא אל אברהם אל יצחק ואל יעקב באל שדי - and I appeared to Avrohom, Yitzchak and Yacov as El Shaddai[5]”.

Understanding G-d in this way, without further conceptual development, carries with it an inherent risk. “As for the other names [other than Yud Heh Vov Heh], all of them, because of their being derived, (as opposed to a proper name.) indicate attributes; that is, not an essence alone, but an essence possessing attributes. For this reason they produce in one’s fantasy the conception of multiplicity; I mean to say that they produce in one’s fantasy the thought that the attributes exist, and that there is an essence and a notion superadded to this essence.[6]” An attribute understood literally would mean that, for example, when one says G-d is angry, the statement means that G-d is in a state of potential anger at one point and in a state of anger at another, implying a relationship between G-d and time and, depending on the situation, place. “There is no relation between G-d and time and place; and this is quite clear. For time is an accident attached to motion.... Motion, on the other hand, is one of the things attached to bodies, whereas G-d, is not a body”[7]. Seeing G-d as having a body automatically implies multiplicity.
a body is divisible and therefore it is conceivable that one body will be made into two. Understanding G-d’s attributes literally, negates the concept of unity which is the basic idea developed by Avrohom. The very method used to develop an understanding of G-d carries within itself the seeds of misunderstanding and reversal. That is exactly what happened to the Jewish people in Egypt.
"עד שארכוּ הימים לישראל במצרים וחזרוּ ללמוֹד מעשיהם ולעבוֹד עבוֹדה זרה כמוֹתן .... וכמעט קט היה והעיקר ששתל אברהם נעקר וחזרוּ בני יעקב לטעוּת העמים וּתעייתם[8] . As time went by for the children of Israel in Egypt, they once more learned their ways [of the Egyptians] to serve idols like them ... and it almost came to pass that the tree [literally: root] planted by Avrohom was uprooted and the children of Jacob returned to the errors and misguided ways of the nations”. Although Avrohom taught his children the ways of finding G-d through observing nature, the process could not withstand the challenges of time and exile. The internal contradictions that came about from describing G-d based on His attributes alone, eventually erased the memory of the Unique Creator. Clearly the understanding of G-d as אל שדי was not sufficient.

What we can take away from this discussion is how dangerous a misconception of God can be. Avrohom developed an idea of a unique God but not having developed the proper tools in teaching this concept risked losing it all. It is only when Moshe took the Jews out that a better way was developed and resulted in the long term survival and development of Judaism. I will address this in my next post. Good Shabbos.

[1] Moreh I, 54.

[2] Moreh II,1 page 243..

[3] Moreh II, 30 pages. 358 - 359

[4] Moreh I, 63 page 155

[5] שמוֹת ו' ג'

[6] Moreh I, 61.

[7] Moreh I, 52 page 117

[8] הל' ע"ז פ"א ה"ג

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Chag Kasher VeSameach

I am wishing all a Chag Kasher VeSameach -

I will be refraining from posting during Chol Hamoed.

Karpas: What is it?

A friend, Michael Wise, co authored an article several years ago researching the source of Karpas. It is the first act of the Haggadah after Kidush and is performed by eating a vegetable dipped in something. Some have the Minhag to dip it in saltwater others in vinegar or something red. Here are some highlights: (Published in Gevaryahu, Gilad J. and Michael L. Wise. 1999. "Why Does the Seder Begin with Karpas?" Jewish Bible Quarterly. 27: 104-110. )

The word Karpas appears in the Hebrew Bible only once Khur karpas utechelet (Esther 1:6) and clearly means in its context “a fine linen”, a type of a textile material. The word is a loan-word taken from the Sanskrit or Persian kirpas[i] meaning fine linen. Later references to a term Karpas are found in the Mishnah, Tosefta, and Talmud, but here it is derived from the Greek word karpos meaning “fruit,” such as fruit of the land. In the Mishnah it is even extended to fruit of rivers. [See vehakarpas shebaneharot (Mishnah Shvi’it 9:1)]. Karpas has a similar sound to the Persian word karafs, “A plant of which a salad is made...parsley”[ii] and “celery”[iii]. Thus the meaning of the Talmudic use of the word Karpas is similar to that of Greek karpos and Persian or Sanskrit kirpas, all three Indo-European languages. Indeed the list of Indo-European roots in the American Heritage Dictionary[iv] explains kerp- (variant karp-) as a common root meaning “to gather, pluck, harvest”. Karpos[v] in Greek was used as a generic term to refer to fruit or produce of the earth. None of the etymological dictionaries which we have consulted suggests any etymological connection[vi] between the Greek karpos (fruit) and the Greek karpasos (flax/linen or cotton). The Septuagint (LXX) translated the Hebrew karpas of Esther 1:6 as karpasinos (adj. of karpasos). The LXX translated the Hebrew ketonet passim of II Samuel 13:18 as karpo¯tos[vii] “a tunic (reaching) the wrist”. As we shall show, Joseph’s garment, the ketonet passim, (Genesis 37:3) came to be represented on the Seder table by a vegetable such as parsley or celery due to the similar sound of the word denoting linen Karpas (Esther 1:6), and the words denoting vegetables such as celery or parsley karpas in the Mishnah and the Talmud, karpos in Greek, karafs in Persian. Bereshit Rabbah (84:8) explains the expression for Joseph’s garment ketonet passim as arm-length tunic (i.e., a tunic the sleeves of which extend to the wrist). This is derived from the meaning of a second Greek word karpos which is “wrist”[viii], and is consistent with the LXX translation for II Samuel 13:18 cited above. Thus ketonet passim is connected to words sounding like karpas in more than one way.

How is the Karpas ceremony conducted at the Seder?

Numerous variants of the Karpas ceremony are practiced today. A common practice is to dip a non-bitter vegetable such as parsley or celery (the Karpas) into salt-water, vinegar, wine, or kharoset. Then a blessing of bore pri ha’adama is recited, and the Karpas is eaten. There is a dispute in Halacha as to whether we eat the dipped vegetables with primary emphasis on the fact that it is a vegetable, or in order to facilitate the double dipping required during the course of the Seder. In either case, the tradition’s purpose is understood to stimulate the children to ask questions.[ix]

The Joseph connection

The Patriarch Jacob gave exclusively to his son Joseph a ketonet passim (e.g., a [colorful] striped garment[x]) which caused the envy of his other older sons. Jacob clearly favored and loved his son Joseph because he was ben zekunim (i.e., a child born when his father was old) (Genesis 37:3), and because he was born to Jacob’s truly beloved wife–Rachel. In reaction to their father’s favoritism, the brothers removed Joseph’s striped garment, threw him into a pit, and sold him to a passing Ishmaelite caravan. They then dipped the garment into blood, and brought it to their father Jacob to identify. They thought that their father would recognize the garment [which he did], and conclude that his beloved son had been devoured by a wild animal (Genesis 37:31–36).
Rashi (1040–1105, France) in his commentary on Genesis 37:3 says: ketonet “passim:” keli milat karpas, a term for clothing of fine wool similar to “karpas” in the book of Esther, and similar to the striped garment of Amnon and Tamar in II Samuel 13:18. Thus Rashi clearly identifies Joseph’s dipped striped garment with the word Karpas. The link between the bondage in Egypt and the episode symbolized by Joseph’s striped garment is explicitly stated in the Talmud (Shabbat 10b): “a person should never discriminate among his sons even to the extent of a thread [garment] weighing only two selayim milat similar to that which Jacob gave to Joseph but not to the other brothers. This gift made the brothers jealous and caused our forefathers to go down to Egypt.”
Rashi specifically used the term milat Karpas with respect to ketonet passim to highlight the connection to this Talmudic passage where the striped garment in Joseph’s story led to the Egyptian exile. Milat is the Talmudic explanation for the word Karpas found in the book of Esther (B. Megilah 12a). Milat is a fine wool whereas Karpas in the book of Esther is linen. The Targum to Esther 1:6 also explains Karpas with milat; thus Rashi follows the Talmud and Targum and explains the linen of ketonet passim with milat which is a fine wool.
The use of celery or parsley in the Seder as a symbolic reminder of Joseph’s tunic is an example of the principle that two things related to the same thing can represent each other. Ketonet passim in Genesis 37, is equated to karpas and the word karpas is related to celery or parsley, and thus celery or parsley can represent ketonet passim Rabbi Shlomo Kluger (1785–1869, Brody, today in Ukraine) in his commentary “Yeriot Shlomo” to the Haggadah[xi] quotes in the name of the Maharshal (1510–1573, Poland) “veyotzi ha’afikoman kemo shehu karuch bemapah ve’yeshalshel leakhorav ve’yelech ba’bayit dalet amot ve’yomar kach hayu avoteinu holchim...” (“he should take the afikoman as it is wrapped in a cloth, put it behind his back, walk into his house four cubits and say: our forefathers walked so ...”). He goes on to explain that the reason for this ceremony was to remember the way the Ishmaelites walked in a caravan at the time they took Joseph when he was sold by his brothers. He then suggested that that is how we came to Egypt.

The Karpas at the Seder

We do not know when the dipping and eating of the Karpas was introduced as the opening ceremony of the Seder night. It is logical for the Seder to start with reference to how the Jewish people went down to Egypt, and the sale of Joseph to the Egyptians was seen by many as the initiating step of this process. The dipping of the Karpas as the first symbolic ceremony in the Seder represents the dipping of the ketonet passim into blood prior to presenting it to Jacob in order to cover up the sale of Joseph by his brothers. The Biblical word Karpas meaning linen, referring to the striped garment, is symbolized at the Seder ceremony by kirpas from Greek and Persian words meaning vegetables (i.e., parsley or celery). . A support for the Karpas ceremony comes from Rav Amram Gaon (9th century, Babylonia) in whose writing Karpas, as a name of a specific vegetable, is being eaten at the Seder[xii]. His enumeration of karpesa (Aramaic for Karpas) among the vegetables eaten at the Seder night, represents the oldest recording of a tradition relating to Karpas at the Seder. Rav Amram Gaon was the primary source[xiii] for Sefer Hamanhig of Avraham ben Natan Ha’yarkhi, but he transformed the list of several vegetables to: “and he takes a vegetable such as karpas, or any other vegetable” thus focusing on the name

Dipping the Karpas

The common Ashkenazic practice is to dip the Karpas into salt water. However, if the origin of the Karpas is indeed in Joseph’s ketonet passim, one would expect to find it dipped into blood during the Seder. But blood is strictly prohibited as food in Judaism[xiv]; the consumption of it is a capital offense punished by karet; therefore, we should expect the Karpas to be dipped into a substitute for blood. In the Bible and subsequent literature, there are numerous references to blood representing wine and wine representing blood[xv]. The most preferred wine in ancient times was red wine[xvi] which indeed resembles blood.

In many countries, Jews used red wine during the Seder. However, after the widespread occurrences of the blood libel in Europe, whereby Jews were accused of killing Christian children and using their blood during the Seder, Jews deemed it prudent to substitute white wine during the Seder[xvii] for the formerly preferred red wine, thus preventing even the appearance of Christian blood on the table. Hence one was more likely to find white wine at the Seder table than red wine[xviii]. We are therefore more likely to find traces of the tradition of the Karpas being dipped into red liquids in non-Christian countries.[xix]
Mordechai[xx] (Mordecai ben Hillel HaCohen 1240?–1298, Germany) suggested that the Karpas should be dipped into vinegar[xxi] or into wine. Similarly, Maimonides held that the Karpas should be dipped into the Kharoset,[xxii] and required the Kharoset to be mixed with [red] vinegar[xxiii] which made the Kharoset red. Yemenite Jews dip the Karpas into Kharoset which is made of raisin-wine or wine-vineger[xxiv] The Jerusalem Talmud mentions an opinion that the use of the Kharoset (as a substance for dipping) during the Seder commemorates blood.[xxv] And today the Kharoset is customarily made with red wine[xxvi]. Even today, Persian Jews dip their Karpas into red-wine vinegar rather than into salt water or white vinegar[xxvii]. The first symbolic act during the Seder is the dipping of the Karpas into a blood-substitute, demonstrating a connection between the sale of Joseph into slavery and the enslavement of the Israelites

Rabbi Manoah of Narbonne (end of 13th- and first half of 14th-century, France) was the first, as far as we know, to point out explicitly the connection between the Karpas and Joseph’s striped garment [xxviii] “veanu nohagin bekarpas zecher leketonet hapasim sheasah Ya’acov avinu le’Yosef asher besibatah nitgalgel hadavar ve’yardu avoteinu le’mitzrayim” [and we have the custom of Karpas (on the Seder plate) as a reminder of the striped garment which Jacob our forefather made for Joseph, and which was the indirect cause for our fathers to go down to Egypt]. Some of the wording by R. Manoah is word-for-word from the Talmudic passage (Shabbat 10b) used by Rashi above. R. Khyd”a[xxix] (Khayyim Yoseph David Azulai, 1724–1806, Israel and Italy) and others quote R. Manoah as the source of this understanding of the meaning of Karpas. Joseph Hayyim ben Elijah Al-Hakam (c. 1835–1909, Baghdad), in his 1898 book Ben Ish Hai[xxx] connects the Karpas with Joseph’s garment.

Why was the origin of the Karpas ceremony kept secret or suppressed? A speculation.

What the brothers did to Joseph was a direct violation of everything we stand for in Judaism. Kidnapping is explicitly prohibited in the Torah which states: “he who stole a person from his brothers, the sons of Israel, and sold it—that thief should be killed” (Deut. 24:7). The crime committed by our forefathers was therefore problematic for our sages. Indeed there were many attempts to deal with it in Talmudic and Midrashic literature[xxxi]. From one perspective it would have been inappropriate to begin the Seder and remind us explicitly at our most joyous holiday, the holiday of freedom, that the story started with the kidnapping and the enslavement of Joseph by our forefathers. If the children were explicitly told this part of the story’s origin, they might ask four very different questions. Thus it was natural not to emphasize this part of the story. The story of the redemption from Egypt is more focused and appropriate for accomplishing one of the primary objectives of the Seder, the education of the children[xxxii]. The story of the sale of Joseph did, however, find its way into the liturgy of Yom Kippur[xxxiii], where there is a solemn atmosphere, and a more appropriate setting for self-reproach.

[i] F. Steingass, Persian-English Dictionary, Beirut, 1st edition 1892, reprint 1975, p. 1021; Monier Monier-Williams, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary, New Edition, edited by E. Leumann and C. Cappeller (1899, Oxford:Clarendon), pp. 275–276
[ii] Persian-English Dictionary, ibid., p. 1023
[iii] New Persian-English Dictionary, S. Haim, Teheran: Baruchim (Publisher), 1968, p. 627
[iv] 1981, William Morris, editor, p. 1522
[v] Greek-English Lexicon, Liddell & Scott, Oxford, 1925–1940, with 1968 supplement, p. 872
[vi] The same observation is made by Y. Kutscher (1909–1971), Milim Ve’toldoteihem, Jerusalem, 1961, p. 99. However, we believe that the similarity has a logical basis.
[vii] If the karpo¯tos were uncritically associated with karpas(os)—instead of karpos—and, secondarily, karpas(os) was taken to be a variant of karbis(a) “variegated-color,” it would be easy to account for the ketonet passim in Genesis 37:3 becoming “variegated-color tunic” in the LXX.
[viii] Greek-English Lexicon, id.
[ix] Pesakhim 114b. Haggadah shel Pesakh, Iyunei Haggadah, Haim Benish, Bnei Brak, 1989, pp. 50–57.
[x] The term has been translated variably as “sleeved robe”, “ornamented tunic”, “a sleeved tunic to the wrist”, “a coat of many colors”, “richly ornamented robe.” Although we do not know the exact meaning, it appears that it was a [royal] coat/robe with colorful stripes.
[xi] Siddur Beis Jacov (Rabbi Ya’acov Emden), Lemberg, 1914, p. 231
[xii] Siddur Rav Amram Gaon, D. Goldschmidt edition, Mosad Harav Kook, Jerusalem, 1971, p. 112
[xiii] Itzhak Raphael, introduction to Sefer Hamanhig, Mosad Harav Kook, Jerusalem, 1994, p. 30
[xiv] Lev. 3:17; 7:26; 17:14; 19:26; Deut. 12:16
[xv](Deut. 32:14) [the blood of the grape you’ll drink] clearly refers to wine. See also Gen. 49:11 and the Targum to Job 2:11. This tradition was also adopted later by Christianity where the wine of the communion represents the blood of Jesus.
[xvi] The red wine was better and stronger ééï çîø (Ps. 75:9), ééï ëé éúàãí (Prov. 23:31), and sorek (Isa. 5:2) the choicest vine, produced dark-colored grapes. See Jewish Encyclopedia (NY, 1925) XII, p. 532.
[xvii] Taz to Orah Khayim 472:11
[xviii]Orah Hayim 472:11
[xix] See a detailed discussion on the “blood libel” and bibliography in Encyclopaedia Judaica, Jerusalem, 1971, Vol. IV, pp. 1120.
[xx] In the Commentary to Pesakhim, in a section called “Seder shel Pesakh.” The Beit Yoseph quoted him in the Tur Orah Hayim, Hilchot Pesakh 473. The end of the sentence reads: åîöàúé ùéù òåùéï àåúå áîé îìç This sentence suggests that R. Karo was surprised to find a new custom of dipping the Karpas into salt-water. Conversely, this remark can suggest the rarity of the salt-water custom. Coming from a Sephardic background, he was familiar with the dipping the Karpas into red substances, while Rabbeinu Tam from Ashkenaz is reported to have dipped the Karpas into vinegar or into salt water and ruled against dipping it into Kharoset. Tosfot, s.v. Metabel, Pesakhim 114a.
[xxi] We are assuming that initially all vinegar used for the Seder service was red-wine vinegar, for it was more popular.
[xxii] Yad - Hilchot khametz umatzah 8:2
[xxiii] " Yad - Hilchot khametz umatzah 7:12
[xxiv] Joseph Kafih Halichot Teyman, Jerusalem, 1987, p. 21
[xxv] Pesakhim 10:3 “zecher ladam”
[xxvi] " Rema, Orah Khayim 473:5; Beit Yosef, Orah Khayim, Hilchot Pesakh 173.
[xxvii] We wish to thank Ephraim Dardashti for pointing out this Persian custom to us.
[xxviii] Mishneh Torah, Maimonides, Rabbeinu Manoah to ‘Hilchot khametz umatzah’ 8:2, Frankel Edition, Jerusalem, 1975, p. 343 The Rabbeinu Manoah commentary is also called Sefer Hamenuhah.
[xxix] Simkhat haregel to the word “karpas”, Eshkol Edition, Jerusalem, 1990, p. 25
[xxx] Parashat Tzav, first year, Jerusalem, 1994, p. 148.
[xxxi] For example: the following Midrash appears in the Jerusalem Talmud (Peah 1:16): Joseph told his father Jacob bad things about his brothers in the following three categories: 1. eating live flesh; 2. treating their brothers born of the concubines as slaves; 3. having illicit relationships with the daughters of the land. Joseph was therefore punished in each of these areas. 1. blood of one of the animals was used for his striped garment; 2. he himself became a slave; 3. the wife of Potiphar tempted him. In effect, this Midrash suggests that it was Joseph himself who was at fault, and that the sale was a divine decree for the brothers to act upon. See other legends in In Potiphar’s House by James L. Kugel, Harper Collins, 1990, pp. 79–84
[xxxii] " [why two dippings? so that the children will notice it] Pesakhim 114b.
[xxxiii] In the ele ezkerah section of Mussaph.

Monday, April 10, 2006

What are Miracles? - A few thoughts.

Rambam in his commentary to Mishna 5:5 in Avos states:

“As I mentioned in the eighth chapter, the sages do not believe that there is periodic change of the Divine will. Rather at the beginning of the fashioning of the phenomena, 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. Therefore they said that (at twilight) on the sixth day He instituted into the nature of the earth that Korach and his company would sink (into it), and concerning the well, that it would bring forth water, and concerning the donkey, that it would speak and similarly for the rest. Should you ask if all miraculous events are in reality natural phenomena, why were these ten particularized? Know that they were not particularized to teach us that they were the only miracles that were in reality natural phenomena. The Mishna is only teaching us that only these were created at dusk while the other miracles were instilled into nature at the time of their original creation. For example, on the second day, when the waters were separated, they had it in their nature so that the Sea of Suf should split for Moshe, the Yarden for Yehoshua and so for Eliyohu and Elisha, and on the fourth day, when the sun was created, it had in its nature that it should stop at a certain time when Yehoshua spoke to it and the same applies for all the other miracles. These ten received this natural ability at dusk”

Rambam starts by referring us to his Shemona Perakim which is the introduction to the tractate Avos, where he explains that we do not believe that God’s actively changes things all the time.

"As I understand the Mutakillimun they disagree on this point and say that the will is constantly needed in everything at all times. That is not our belief. For we believe that the will was present during the six days of Creation, and that all things always behave according to their nature as it says “Only that shall happen which has happened only that shall occur which has occurred; there is nothing new under the sun”. Therefore the Rabbis found it necessary to say that all the miracles that already happened, that will happen in the future as promised, and that are irregular, all were willed during the first six days of creation. Those things had in their original nature the novel behavior that occurred later, at a set time, and when that happened at a fortuitous time, people perceived them as if they were willed now. That is not so. Our Rabbis expanded on this in Midrash Kohelet and in other places. They also stated “the world acts according to its custom”.

Reading Rambam carefully one comes away with several ideas:
1. In complete contrast to what is generally accepted nowadays in the Frum community, Rambam tells us that HKBH does not bring about constant change because that would imply a lack in foresight. HKBH is perfect and His deeds are perfect, change would connote imperfection, a need for adjustments. When He created the world, all that could happen was foreseen by Him and nature contained in itself the ability to autonomously take care of itself, whatever should develop. At creation HKBH instilled in the nature of water that when certain conditions are met it will change directions and flow upward,
2. Furthermore the time of that occurrence was preset. It is up to man to know nature well enough to be able to predict when that will occur. (Of course this issue has much depth to it as it touches on God’s omniscience and the randomness of the universe – but that has been discussed many times on my blog).
3. A miracle is a natural event that is perceived by man as miraculous when it is rare.

If we extrapolate this idea to the plagues in Egypt, they were natural occurrences that Moshe Rabbeinu was able to take advantage of because of his being so well attuned to HKBH’s world. Lest I be accused of reading things into Rambam and thus Kefirah, let me point to Teshuvas Harashba, #234 of the 4th Chelek, where he discusses Ma’amad Har Sinai. Rashba argues that until the Har Sinai event, the people were not totally convinced about Moshe’s prophecy and its genuineness. I paraphrase: Our parents learned that they should not believe in anything until proven without any doubt. For, even after HKBH made the great miracles in Egypt, extricating them from there, there still was a doubt in their mind. For everything that happened in Egypt it could be possible that they were natural events. Even when they experienced the splitting of the sea, after at first believing in Moshe, they again returned to their skepticism. They said to themselves that “Ulay Moshe levad shehoyo chochom mikol ho’odom umikol mi shekodmo yoda la’asos kein” - It is possible that Moshe’s wisdom and knowledge allowed him to take advantage of natural situations. Rashba then at length goes into explaining why the Har Sinai event was different and proved Moshe’s legitimacy. Obviously Rashba was aware of Rambam’s understanding and not only accepted it, but also agreed with it.

I find these ideas exhilarating. Everything is in man’s hands. He can choose to try and understand the world he lives in, seek out its Creator, understand His way of running it and take control of his own destiny by partaking in HKBH’s world. Unlike the rest of creation man does not have to be a victim of circumstances but can take his destiny into his own hands. Moshe did that when he chose to go into the sea, trusting his insight that it would split, instead of submitting to the Egyptians.

Excellent Haggadah shel Pessach

If someone wants to enjoy the Seder by understanding it in the spirit of Rambam, there is an excellent sefer on the Haggadah by my friend Rabbi Benzion Buchman called Ein Maftirin - Rambam and Redemption - The Haggadah and the Seder in the Works of Rambam. It is available at all good Judaica bookstores and at

or for less

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Can Torah be an avoda zara? -

  • Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz used to say that Bnei Brak has discovered a new Avodah Zara – idol worship - called Torah. Rambam in Moreh 3:54, after describing what the word Chochma means in its different contexts in our sources, and discussing the verse in Yirmyahu 9:22-23
    כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה, אַל-יִתְהַלֵּל חָכָם בְּחָכְמָתוֹ, וְאַל-יִתְהַלֵּל הַגִּבּוֹר, בִּגְבוּרָתוֹ; אַל-יִתְהַלֵּל עָשִׁיר, בְּעָשְׁרוֹ. כִּי אִם-בְּזֹאת יִתְהַלֵּל הַמִּתְהַלֵּל, הַשְׂכֵּל וְיָדֹעַ אוֹתִי--כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה, עֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד
    מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה בָּאָרֶץ: כִּי-בְאֵלֶּה חָפַצְתִּי, נְאֻם-יְהוָה
    comments: (My comments in parentheses)

    Our Sages have likewise derived from this passage the above-mentioned lessons, and stated the same theory that has been explained in this chapter, viz., that the simple term hokmah, as a rule, denotes the highest aim of man, the knowledge of God; (in other words metaphysical speculation to get to know to the best of our ability everything we can about HKBH)

    that those properties which man acquires, makes his peculiar treasure, and considers as his perfection, in reality do not include any perfection: (Self improvement is not a goal in itself)

    And that the religious acts prescribed in the Law, the various kinds of worship (keeping Mitzvos is not a goal in itself)

    And the moral principles which benefit all people in their social intercourse with each other, (Bein odom lacheveiro Mitzvos which in reality are reciprocal social interaction that maintain order in society are not a goal in themselves either)

    Do not constitute the ultimate aim of man, nor can they be compared to it, for they are but preparations leading to it.

    We have to listen carefully to what Rambam is saying here. We keep Mitzvos so that we develop self discipline, we also keep Mitzvos so that we stay aware that there is a God so that we continuously seek Him out, we have social laws so that we live in peace with each other (Rambam just spent about 20 chapters discussing the Mitzvos and their reason) and finally we learn Halachos in the Torah so that we know how to keep the Mitzvos (that is why Torah comes first, not for some mystical reason). Yirmyahu dismisses all these supposedly good actions saying
    , אַל-יִתְהַלֵּל חָכָם בְּחָכְמָתוֹAll these should not satisfy a person but Rambam continues:

    “The perfection, in which man can truly glory, is attained by him when he has acquired-as far as this is possible for man-the knowledge of God, the knowledge of His Providence, and of the manner in which it influences His creatures in their production and continued existence. Having acquired this knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, and thus to imitate the ways of God”

    The purpose of Torah is to get us to the highest point in our personal ability to know God and how He runs the world so that we can emulate Him and act as he does. By improving ourselves, by developing discipline, both in our actions and our thoughts, we aspire to acquire true knowledge and fulfill our obligations as man. We cannot do it if we limit ourselves to ritualistic obsessions, to learning for the sake of learning alone and ignore the true goals of Torah. Let us serve God and not Torah. Let us use Torah and Mitzvos to reach our ultimate goal of Yedias Hashem.

    I believe that when this idea is taken in it changes a person’s way of thinking. Asking questions and looking for answers being honest with one self, is the highest level of worship because its goal is finding truth which is God. Many of the people I have interacted with on and off the public forums in the past few months, since I entered the blog world, are perplexed by the world they live in, the current Yeshivish way of thinking which has of course become mainstream. No wonder because that world has lost its way. The answer to their confusion is to reassess their status and feel that they are outside the pale. They will realize that they are the true religious ones and start by spending time learning the theological teachings of our Rishonim.

    (Of course the title of this post is meant to shock and call attention to itself. I am not suggesting that Jews who keep Mitzvos and learn Torah are Ovdei Avoda Zara. I just want to remind ourselves that it is not the ultimate goal in Judaism but a very important vehicle for attaining the ultimate goal, which unfortunately has been forgotten and sometimes distorted by many of us).

Friday, April 07, 2006

Intelligent Design: Ungodly idea.

(Hat Tip my son Alex)

read this article

A beautiful synopsis of a great thinkers's approach to science and torah.

Fasting Erev Pessach - Rational and aggadic explanations.

Rambam in Hilchos Chametz Umatzah 6:12 states:

וחכמים הראשונים היו מרעיבין עצמן ערב הפסח, כדי לאכול מצה בתאווה ויהיו מצוות חביבין

The early sages hungered Erev Pessach to develop an appetite for Matzah so that Mitzvos should be pleasant.

Based on a gemara Pessachim 107-108 that Rabah did so.It would seem that is the basis for the Erev Pessach fast which then evolved into first born fasting.That minhag is mentioned in Tur based on a Massechet Soferim (Geonic source)which specifies First Borns and Tur assumes Rabah did so because he was sensitive to too much food(Istaniss). Rambam ignored that source as is his custom to stick to gemara legislation. On the occasions he deviates he is specific.

(This again confirms my earlier post about legislation nowadays not being binding unless Gemara based)

Good Shabbos

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Boro Park and Beit Shemesh; Twin cities?

Interesting article, and great timing on the heels of the Boro Park unrest:

Either their derech is not Torah (Gra was right) or they are so deeply flawed people that Torah cannot help.

Does R.Elyashiv have authority to ban books and legislate for all Jewry?

The religious community has been faced in the past few years with a new fashion- Book bans. Various blogs have posted on the issue, the latest R. Harry Maryles with an eloquent letter by an anonymous perplexed Jew who has had his Emunah shaken. Fundamentally we need to ask whether any Rav can prohibit a book on the world Jewish community or is he restricted to his Kehillah. The other issues are whether hashkafah can be legislated, especially if it does not deal with the fundamentals of Judaism such as God's existence, providence, Creation, Torah Min Hashamayim etc... Every one of these fundamentals per se has a wide range of interpretation. What are the parameters that one is bound by? As we talk about it we can already appreciate the difficulty in legislating something that broad. I would suggest that any opinion that is within the confines of the two extreme opinions of Bona Fide Rishonim and does not touch on Avodah Zarah, which is quite clearly legislated and narrow, should be tolerated. Although I have not read R.Slifkin's books, I am familiar with the subject he deals with and the sources he used to develop his ideas. The excerpts of some of his writings that I saw are nothing new and pretty much old hat.

But coming back to the issue of banning, can Rav Elyashiv or any other Rav prohibit something for the whole Jewish world? Here is Rambam in his introduction to the Yad

וכל בית דין שעמד אחר
התלמוד בכל מדינה ומדינה וגזר או התקין או הנהיג לבני מדינתו, או לבני מדינות--לא פשטו מעשיו בכל ישראל: מפני רוחק מושבותיהם, ושיבוש הדרכים; והיות בית דין של אותה המדינה יחידים, ובית דין הגדול של שבעים בטל מכמה שנים קודם חיבור התלמוד.
לפיכך אין כופין אנשי מדינה זו לנהוג במנהג מדינה אחרת, ואין אומרין לבית דין זה לגזור גזירה שגזרה בית דין אחר במדינתו. וכן אם למד אחד מן הגאונים שדרך המשפט כך הוא, ונתבאר לבית דין אחר שעמד אחריו שאין זה דרך המשפט הכתוב בתלמוד--אין שומעין לראשון, אלא למי שהדעת נוטה לדבריו, בין ראשון, בין אחרון. ודברים הללו, בדינים וגזירות ותקנות ומנהגות שנתחדשו אחר חיבור התלמוד

Clearly without the Beis Din Hagodol, without the authority of the Gemara and even if we accept the authority of the Beis Yosef in Shulchan Aruch,( this is a separate issue that is not as clear as one might assume - vide Rema, Gra, Brisk etc...), there can be no universal Psak on anything that is not clearly legislated in the Gemara. Rambam legislates based on his understanding of the Gemara's decision and the arguments among the Rishonim revolves around their disagreements on each of their own understanding of the Gemara but to go beyond that and try to impose a universal law, I don't think is tenable. R.Elyashiv is entitled to issue all the bans but we are not obligated to follow if we have either a local Rav's support or even an honest conviction that he is wrong.

The tendency in the community has been to exaggerate the authority of the great halachist of our times. It is grounded in the need to inculcate Kevod Hatorah in the masses. The same can be accomplished by retaining the autonomy we have in our current status without a Sanhedrin. Exaggeration brings with it the risk of disappointing, and weakening the Emunah of the disappointed.