Friday, August 18, 2006

Why have so many died for so little?

An interesting strategic analysis of the conduct, rather misconduct, of this war.

It highlights the failure of the leadership. They had all the support they could have hoped for from the people and they did not have the spirit or corage to do the right thing.
טז אִי-לָךְ אֶרֶץ, שֶׁמַּלְכֵּךְ נָעַר; וְשָׂרַיִךְ, בַּבֹּקֶר יֹאכֵלוּ.
16 Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a boy, and thy princes feast in the morning!
יז אַשְׁרֵיךְ אֶרֶץ, שֶׁמַּלְכֵּךְ בֶּן-חוֹרִים; וְשָׂרַיִךְ בָּעֵת יֹאכֵלוּ, בִּגְבוּרָה וְלֹא בַשְּׁתִי.
17 Happy art thou, O land, when thy king is a free man, and thy princes eat in due season, in strength, and not in drunkenness!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Prophecy - Human nature or miracle?

To Judaism prophecy is fundamental and without it many of our beliefs would not survive. It is therefore a very important aspect of our religion and needs to be well understood. The Rishonim spent a lot of energy trying to define it and explain it. There are basically two schools of thought, each with its own variations. I would name them as the school of the Kuzari and the school of Rambam. Rambam in Moreh 2:32 presents the Kuzari School as follows:

The first opinion – that of the multitude of those among the pagans who considered prophecy as true and also believed by some of the common people professing our law - is that God selects any person He pleases, inspires him with the spirit of Prophecy, and entrusts him with a mission. It makes no difference whether that person be wise or stupid, old or young; provided he be, to some extent, morally good. For these people have not yet gone so far as to maintain that God might also inspire a wicked person with His spirit. They admit that this is impossible, unless God has previously caused him to improve his ways”.

This approach sees prophecy as a miraculous event rather than a human accomplishment. The way Rambam presents it, especially the tone of the introduction “also believed by some of the common people professing our law” shows that not only does he not accept it but thinks it to be wrong and irrational. In fact Rambam does not place prophecy among things that we accept based on tradition but rather as something that we have to prove to ourselves. In Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah he introduces prophecy as follows:

מיסודי הדת, לידע שהאל מנבא את בני האדם

Note the use of the word , לידע to know rather than a term that would imply belief. It is the same term he uses when discussing the existence of God:

יסוד היסודות ועמוד החכמות, לידע שיש שם מצוי ראשון

Both of these fundamental beliefs are rationally demonstrable and note that both are described as “foundations”. The difference is that belief in God is deemed, יסוד היסודות “foundation of all foundations”, in other words it affects all human thought while prophecy is a foundation of religion, it affects only the religious person.

The way I understand this is that prophecy affects how we perceive God as religious people. It is the analysis of the results of God’s action and it affects how we perceive Him and consequently our own actions. To Rambam prophecy is a key element in our belief in God the Creator, God as having Will, Providence and Reward and Punishment. In other words all the dogmas of Judaism are impacted by prophecy. In his listing of the Ikarim (dogmas) it is listed as the sixth one right after those dealing with God and Avodah Zara.

The purpose of religion is to develop a system that helps us interpret our existence, its provenance and its purpose. It has to be based on reality otherwise it is pure myth. Rambam understood that as the difference between idolatry and Judaism. Just like the existence of God has to be understood objectively, so too prophecy. That is the reason Rambam sees prophecy as human nature. It is the ability of the human being, using all of his faculties and developing them, to grasp abstract concepts. Prophecy is something that is the result of a person reaching the ultimate levels of development and perfection. A religion developed in this way has meaning. It would be irrational to base a religious belief which ultimately is subjective, on another subjective belief. Rambam therefore sees prophecy as a natural phenomenon:

The philosophers hold that prophecy is a certain faculty of man in a state of perfection, which can only be obtained by study. Although the faculty is common to the whole race, yet it is not fully developed in each individual, either on account of the individual's defective constitution, or on account of some other external cause. This is the case with every faculty common to a class. It is only brought to a state of perfection in some individuals, and not in all; but it is impossible that it should not be perfect in some individual of the class: and if the perfection is of such a nature that it can only be produced by an agent, such an agent must exist. Accordingly, it is impossible that an ignorant person should be a prophet: or that a person being no prophet in the evening, should, unexpectedly on the following morning, find himself a prophet, as if prophecy were a thing that could be found unintentionally. But if a person, perfect in his intellectual and moral faculties, and also perfect, as far as possible, in his imaginative faculty, prepares himself in the manner which will be described, he must become a prophet; for prophecy is a natural faculty of man.

But here is a twist. The divine will can preclude a person who has developed his abilities, from prophesying. Rambam accepts the philosopher’s concept to a point.

The third view is that which is taught in Scripture, and which forms one of the principles of our religion. It coincides with the opinion of the philosophers in all points except one. For we believe that, even if one has the capacity for prophecy, and has duly prepared himself, it may yet happen that he does not actually prophesy. It is in that case the will of God [that withholds from him the use of the faculty] According to my opinion, this fact is as exceptional as any other miracle, and acts in the same way. For the laws of Nature demand that every one should be a prophet, who has a proper physical constitution, and has been duly prepared as, regards education and training.”

The positive aspects of prophecy are seen as natural and objective. Prophecy has to be seen as objective and not a religious belief. The fact that someone who has the ability to prophesize does not can be a subjective and religious belief. It is an interpretation of a phenomenon just like miracles and God’s will.

There is much more to come on this subject of prophecy.

I will be away on vacation next week through Labor Day. As I plan to dedicate my time to my grandchildren, I will probably not be posting unless I get very inspired.

Monday, August 14, 2006

The imaginative faculty – Best supporting actor.

There is a non-physical element to a person’s activities. We call it personality, soul or Nefesh, Neshamah and Ruach in Hebrew. Rambam in the beginning of his introduction to Avot, the Eight Chapters, discusses the “soul” or “Nefesh”. As opposed to other philosophers, including the Mekubalim who have identified up to five different “souls”, Rambam insists that there is only one “soul” with a variety of functions.

He explains that as a living organism, man is part of the animal kingdom. All other living things have “souls” too with comparable though intrinsically different functions. They however do not have the ability for abstract thought which includes self-awareness, ethics and scientific knowledge which is unique to man. It is an important part of Rambam’s understanding of what makes a human being into what he is and how it relates to his religious self. Rambam divides the functions of the “soul” into five categories:

1. One part of the “soul” controls the digestive system and other automatic bodily functions.
2. Another provides man with the sensory faculties which includes sight, smell and touch.
3. Another part of the “soul” is behind the emotional faculties such as fear, courage, appetite, anger and so on.
4. The imaginative faculty is another part of the “soul”. Rambam has an interesting way of describing that faculty. Imagination is the result of a memory of an experience after it happened. A person combines various experiences in his mind, making the impossible possible. Rambam uses a famous example – a metal ship flying through air.

5. Finally the rational faculty is another part of the “soul”. All the other functions are found in other living things besides man though different and particular to each species. This function though is unique to man and therefore defines what differentiates man from other living things. The rational has the ability to apprehend both concrete things as well as abstract concepts. It can acquire knowledge and also distinguish between right and wrong. (There is much to say about Rambam’s differentiation between knowledge and right and wrong but I want to stay on subject).

Using the concept of form and matter, Rambam explains that the rational faculty is comparable to the form of an object. It is what defines man. All the other faculties are there as a crucible for the rational faculty. A man that has not developed his rational side has wasted his potential as a human being.

The imaginative faculty plays an important role in the development of man’s rational faculty. It helps him visualize concepts. When one arrives at a conclusion about a non-physical concept, it is necessary to visualize it in a familiar form for the human mind to grasp it. The mind is conditioned so, that it has a hard time accepting the unknowable without somehow picturing it. To do that the mind turns to its memories and creates something that fits the parameters developed by the intellect.

The imaginative faculty on its own is the source of idolatry. Ancient man used it to construct the myths that supposedly answered his existential questions. It is only when harnessed by the rational faculty that it becomes a tool for proper understanding of the relationship of man to his Creator.

That is how Moreh 2:36 is to be understood. “Prophecy is, in truth and reality, an overflow overflowing from God, through the medium of the Active Intellect, first to man's rational faculty, and then to his imaginative faculty; it is the highest degree and greatest perfection man can attain: it consists in the most Perfect development of the imaginative faculty.” When the rational faculty grasps an idea or concept and uses the imaginative to comprehend it, that fusion of the functions of man’s brain, utilizes man’s potential to its fullest thus perfection. The Active Intellect can be described in our modern parlance as the sum total of all the laws of nature that govern our universe including the information about the sequences of cause and effect that brought it into existence. Prophecy is therefore the understanding by a man of the information about the universe and its provenance. It gives him a glimpse into its workings and allows him to act in harmony with it.

That explains the need for a prophet to predict a natural event to prove the legitimacy of his prophecy. It shows that his understanding is correct and reliable, that the imaginative faculty did not lead him astray. It is similar to a scientist proving a theory as correct by performing an experiment.

This post is just scratching the surface of the concept of prophecy. Much more needs to be said about the two faculties that play a role in it. I will be talking about that more as time allows.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

More about First Cause and Belief

On my post responding to GH where I discussed the proof for the existence of a First Cause, I responded to a comment that argued that all I proved was that a First Cause exists but it could be *anything*:

No it could not be anything. It would have to be *something* that contained in it all the information necessary for the universe to exist for it to be the cause for its existence. That *something* by definition is hierarchically higher than everything else.

To which another commenter made the following comment:

Is this not all belief? You cannot prove that "something" exists that contains all the information for the universe to exist and therefore hierarchically higher.

When I say that the First Cause is hierarchically higher to everything it is simply because it is the only entity that has no cause. The First Cause by definition exists independently of its effect and has no cause. It is therefore hierarchically the highest possible position in a chain of cause and effect.

The idea that all information is contained within the First Cause is much more complicated and I will propose a way to think about it. For Rambam and other medieval philosophers it was much easier to demonstrate. They understood that the motion of the spheres is because the spheres have a mind that conceives of the First Cause. They therefore emulate what they visualize as the perfect entity, the First Cause. For the First Cause to be perfect it by definition has to contain all knowledge, be omniscient and omnipotent. This idea of the spheres having a mind and thought sounds like a fantasy to us but they could not conceive of the laws of motion, inertia and gravity and this was their cosmology. The challenge is for us to translate that into contemporary science.

The way I see it is that the law of motion itself, the concept which is the cause of the movement of the planets, has to have a First Cause that conceived it. The First Cause therefore contains that law within itself as it contains all the other laws of nature, which it causes, within itself. It is the non-physical repository of the Laws of nature and therefore the cause of all existence. Being that it is a non-physical entity, it is not temporal but eternal. Time has no meaning outside the physical.

There is a revealing sentence in Rambam in Moreh 1:72 that made me think of that approach.

It is true, we might have compared the relation between God and the universe, to the relation between the acquired intellect and man; this intellect is not a faculty in the body, but is truly separate from the organic body and overflows toward it.”

The idea “acquired intellect” is when man has developed the intellect he is born with to its maximum potential by acquiring all possible knowledge. Rambam is comparing the relationship of God to physical existence like man’s mind to his body. Both God and the mind influence a physical entity but are outside it. He is referring to the well-known and much discussed mind-body problem, and uses the observation as an example of how a non-physical entity influences another physical one. Although Rambam is not talking about the issue we are discussing here, which is what impels us to say that God or the First Cause is more than a mere entity, the comparison to the intellect made me think in this direction. I do not think that it is a definitive answer to the question but rather a direction of thinking that I believe gives me a sense of the ultimate solution.

As to the question of belief and its role in philosophical and theological discussions, I think it is necessary to address it head on. The way I try to think and the way I believe a man of religion should, is to be realistic and know that one cannot develop a philosophy a-priori. Most of us who would try to go that route would eventually get tired and end up with nothing. As religious Jews we start with the things we are taught, or better supposed to have been taught, that God exists, He is one, incorporeal, omnipotent and omniscient. We now spend a lifetime trying to understand the meaning of these terms, prove them as true and by doing that develop an understanding of God, His relationship to us and the world and our relationship to God. Our goal is to turn belief into conviction in our minds. That is the mitzvah of Yediat Hashem. Plain simple belief is only a stepping-stone and a tool to help us stay focused in our search for understanding.

My objection against statements that God is a belief and no more is that it negates all that the Torah is meant to teach us and have us accomplish which is getting to know God. One of the most touching prayers we say every day is in the “Uvah Letzion Go’el” where we say “Hu yiftach libeinu betorato veyassim belibeinu ahavato vey’r’ato la’asot retzono ule’ovdo belevav shalem lema’an lo niga larik velo neled labehala” the last few words so that we should not toil in vain and be born for naught, are a reflection of every man’s internal question, am I going to find the truth at the end of the road? It is only through a constant and focused search that there is hope that we will find the truth. That is the purpose of Torah and Mitzvot, to keep us focused and searching at all times.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Olmert needs to go - and fast!

I am philosophically not a right winger. It is a theological issue with me as I do not believe that expanding Eretz Israel territory is worth the human sacrifice. Once we have established our toehold in our land we should be patient and expand when the opportunity comes. It is not worth pushing the envelope. I know that my position is controversial in the religious society but I am entitled to my opinion. I do not claim to be right and can see other viewpoints too.

However when it comes to defending our land, protecting its citizens, I am a hawk. It is clear that Israel did not assess the threat from Hezbollah correctly and in retrospect the unilateral pullout without adequate guarantees for an arms free border area was a mistake. The incident that started this crisis was a good pretext to change the equation, and in retrospect the decision to use it as an opportunity to hit Hezbollah was correct. However it should have been done properly, with good planning and full force. Half measures without total commitments are doomed to failure. Olmert all along kept on vacillating and has shown himself to be a feckless leader. He should be replaced at once.

The buffoon, Peretz, as defense minister is another character who hopefully will disappear off the scene. It is clear that the idea that Israel has become a stable and safe country is a mirage and we still need strong military leaders to ensure our safety.

The outcome we are facing is pathetic. Relying on the UN and the French! to maintain an arms free area is pure tragicomedy and a guaranteed recipe for a future war. The sacrifices and heroism of the 100 plus dead and the scores of wounded has been in vain.

The current leaders are going to go down to ignominy and let us hope that we will get better ones in the future.

I don't usually post about these matters as I don't consider myself an expert nor do I feel that living in Chutz La'aretz entitles me to pontificate. However this has been too painful and I had to get off my chest.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Major Roi Klein -A hero for our times.

I received this email in Hebrew and translated it below. No more needs to be said,

המעט שאנו יכולים לעשות עבור מי שהקריב את חייו באופן הירואי כל כך, הוא לספר את סיפורו. לא ברור למה התקשורת הדחיקה-עד-העלימה את הסיפור הזה. אולי זוהי התנהגות לא פופולרית, אולי אינה עולה בקנה אחד עם תדמית החייל הסובל, הרגיש והחששן אותה מישהו מנסה לטפח. אולי מאחר וגיבור הסיפור, הוא, לא עלינא, מתנחל, אולי-
...אין שום הסבר ראוי להעלמת סיפור גבורה מדהים כזה - מדוע לא מספרים אותו בכל מקום בצעקה רמה, בהתפעלות רבתי, בגאווה מבצבצת, בתודה בהערצה, בדמעות. אז נספר אותו אנו, מאי מייל לאי מייל.
רב סרן רועי קליין ז"ל , סמג"ד 51 של גולני, מהישוב עלי ( כן, כן התנחלות) , היה בעל הדרגה הבכירה בין לוחמיו בבינת ג'בל. בשעת הקרב, הבחין ברימון שהושלך לעבר אנשיו. מאחר ולא ניתן כבר היה להתגונן ולמנוע את פגיעתו הרעה של הרימון, הוא זינק עליו כך שגופו יחסום את מרבית ההדף ואנשיו ינצלו. קורבנו נשא את הפרי המיוחל. חייליו שניצלו סיפרו כי זעק " שמע ישראל" שעה שקפץ על הרימון.
רועי קליין, גיבור מיתי בעידן של הערצת האנטי-גיבור, נקבר ביום הולדתו ה-31.
מספרים עליו שהיה נגן סקסופון מצטיין ואיש רוח מבריק, שסיים לימודי הנדסה בהצטיינות. שטייל עם חברים באפריקה, שהיה לו צחוק מתגלגל, שכל מכריו מתארים אותו כאדם עדין ושלוו, שמשאלתה של אלמנתו היא כי ילדיה יהיו דומים לאביהם.

יהי זיכרו ברוך.

About Major Roi Klein of Blessed Memory,

The least we can do for someone who sacrificed his life in such a heroic fashion is to tell his story. It is not clear why the media has not picked up on this story, in fact has pushed it under the horizon. Maybe they just don’t condone this kind of behavior, maybe it does not match the picture of the suffering and sensitive soldier that is being promoted. Maybe because the soldier in question was a settler, maybe…

There is no explanation why this amazing story of heroism should be covered up –why it is not told aloud everywhere, with great amazement, with overwhelming pride, with thanks, respect and tears. We will therefore tell this story, email to email.

Major Roi Klein, 51, of the Golani Brigade, from the settlement Eli, (yes, a settlement) was the highest ranking officer among his combatants at Bent Jebail. He noticed a grenade thrown towards his men. As it was too late to protect them he threw his whole body on the grenade so that he would absorb most of the impact and save his men. His sacrifice worked. His men who survived, report that he yelled out Shema Yisrael at the moment he jumped on the grenade and asked his communications officer to notify headquarters about his death before he closed his eyes.

Roi Klein a true hero in a time when heroism is not valued was buried on his 31st birthday.

They say about him that he was an excellent saxophone player and a strikingly spiritual person, who finished engineering with excellence, who traveled with his friends in Africa, who had an infectious laugh; a person considered by all who knew him as a sensitive and calm person, whose widow’s hope is that their children take after their father.

Blessed be his memory.

Believing in God: not for the fainthearted - A response to Godol Hador.

Believing in God is indeed not for the fainthearted, as GH so eloquently put it. It is for the thoughtful and discerning individual or on the other hand for the Jew who believes in God because of tradition and faith. GH is advocating the latter position and he has on whom to rely on. R.Nachman of Breslav was one proponent of that school and he has followed many earlier Rabbis. It is however not the understanding of Rambam nor of the Mekubalim. They believe that the existence of God has to be proven to each person according to his capacity. It is their understanding of the Mitzvah of Yediat Hashem, with varying degrees of obligation, depending on each position.

The existence of God has to be proven without Him being the Creator or the universe ever having been created. As GH put it so succinctly, why would it be better to believe in an infinite (in time) God than in an infinite universe?

Rambam states this very clearly in Moreh 1:71:

My method, as far as I now can explain it in general terms, is as follows. The universe is either eternal or has had a beginning: if it had a beginning, there must necessarily exist a being which caused the beginning; this is clear to common sense; for a thing that has had a beginning, cannot be the cause of its own beginning, another must have caused it. The universe was, therefore, created by God. If on the other hand the universe were eternal, it could in various ways be proved that apart from the things which constitute the universe, there exists a being which is neither body nor a force in a body, and which is one, eternal, not preceded by any cause, and immutable. That being is God. You see that the proofs for the Existence, the Unity and the Incorporeality of God must vary according to the propositions admitted by us. Only in this way can we succeed in obtaining a perfect proof, whether we assume the eternity or the creation of the universe. For this reason you will find in my works on the Talmud, whenever I have to speak of the fundamental principles of our religion, or to prove the existence of God, that I employ arguments which imply the eternity of the universe. I do not believe in that eternity, but I wish to establish the principle of the existence of God by an indisputable proof, and should not like to see this most important principle founded on a basis which every one could shake or attempt to demolish, and which others might consider as not being established at all.”

Rambam sets out various arguments proving that there is an entity we call God that is the non-physical part, or for lack of better words, the conceptual part (the Form) of the universe. He exists parallel with the universe eternally or for as long as it exists. The most compelling argument to me is the one he lays out in 2:4. He argues that as we know the physical world, motion is what brings about change. We also know that motion is not spontaneous. Things do not start moving on their own without there being something that moves them. In the Aristotelian concept, the spheres have a mind that urges them to emulate God, who they perceive as perfection. Thus they initiate a circular movement that is perfect. Of course this sounds fantastic to our contemporary ears, but the basic premise that there has to be a cause for movement remains. It is also clear that that entity cannot be one that is subject to the laws of physics that we know, because GH’s argument would stand – why is this more comprehensible than infinite causes in the physical realm? God is therefore non-physical and not constrained by the laws of physics. We are not proving, as GH erroneously understands, that there is a First Cause in time that created everything. All we are saying is that there is a non-physical entity that exists parallel with the universe possibly eternally.

As to God being the Creator, that is a completely different story. Once we accept that there is an entity such as God, we now are left with the question of did He create the world in time? The key word here is “in time”. That already is a religious belief. One cannot prove that logically or empirically, it is only a choice of how one looks ontologically at existence. That was the point of my post . That is Rambam’s point in Moreh 2:25:

If we were to accept the Eternity of the Universe as taught by Aristotle, that everything in the Universe is the result of fixed laws, that Nature does not change, and that the customary course of events cannot be modified with regard to anything, we should necessarily be in opposition to the foundation of our religion, we should disbelieve all miracles and signs, and certainly reject all hopes and fears derived from Scripture, unless the miracles are also explained figuratively.”

I do not want to come across as critical, but anyone who really wants to understand how Judaism understands God at the philosophical and theological level, must take the time and effort, it requires a lot of it, to read the sources. It is not enough to read the scholarly works and the classical interpretations of R.Sa'adyah Gaon, Kuzari, Rambam and Ramban. They have to be studied in their own words, worked at constantly. It is incredible the depth and insight these giants had.

Believing in God: Not for the faint-hearted

Guest Post by (Ex?) Godol Hador.

(Management not responsible for its content).

Warning: This post might cause doubts in people unprepared to think about such matters. Please do not read this post if you are unsure, or if you do not have any doubts. I have no desire to induce doubts in people who are currently doubt-free.

There are two popular arguments for God’s existence.

One is the argument from design. The Universe seems so amazingly designed (with or without evolution – no difference) that it’s incomprehensible to the human mind that such a thing just ‘happened’. There must have been a Creator.

The second argument, (a favorite of my blog host), is the ‘first cause’ argument. It comes in a few different forms (first mover, first cause etc), but the basic gist of the argument is that it is incomprehensible that there be an infinite chain of causality (turtles all the way down). So we posit a First Cause, which needed no prior cause. This First Cause is God.

Both these arguments suffer from the same weakness. In the first argument we say since a creator-less designed Universe is just incomprehensible (or inconceivable), there must be a Creator. However a creator-less Creator is equally incomprehensible. The only way out of this is to say that we expect the Universe’s creation to be comprehensible, but we don’t expect God to be comprehensible.

This is a very weak argument, if it’s even an argument at all. The second argument suffers from the same problem, and actually disproves the first too. The second argument says we can’t conceive of an infinite chain, so we posit a first cause. But we equally can’t conceive of a first cause which needed no prior cause, and which exists for infinity. There is no gain there, and calling the first cause ‘God’ doesn’t help either. By the same logic, you could call the infinite chain of causality ‘God’ and be in the same position. So in fact, even if you determine that the Universe is so amazing it must have had a Creator, there’s no reason to posit one Creator any more than positing an infinite chain of Creators. I guess you could apply Occam’s razor, but it’s still very weak.

Many Scientists agree that it’s amazing that we even understand anything about the Universe at all. A recent book on Torah and Science even used this fact as an emunah bolster, to show how we must have been purposely created to understand the Universe we live in. But by the same logic, we can easily see that the origins of the Universe, something far beyond our comprehension, need not be comprehensible at all. And in fact it isn’t, even according to Jewish philosophy. The Rambam is very, very clear that God is utterly and completely incomprehensible.

In addition to all the above problems (which are significant), we have the additional problem that none of these arguments say anything at all about God Himself, except that He was capable of creating a Universe. But is God good or bad? Or mixed? Did He create the Universe with a purpose? Maybe there were many Gods? Maybe God is a hyper-intelligent scientist from another dimension, who created the Universe as a science experiment, and then forgot about it. On a more humorous note, Ben Avuyah once suggested that maybe our Universe was created as a marketing experiment to see if carbon based life-forms like the taste of chicken. They do (but not the Rebbetzin). Again, we apply human concepts to God and say ‘Well, He must have had a purpose, He must be good, He must be intelligent. We are simply creating God in the form of man, because that’s what comes naturally.

The (truly unfortunate) bottom line here is that according to all known current thinking, the God of Judaism is not at all provable by reason. Some might argue that it’s not provable, but it’s a ‘reasonable conclusion’, but by that logic, saying “I don’t know” is equally reasonable, if not more so.

The bottom line? We just don’t know. I truly, madly, deeply wish we did. But we don’t. At least not be reason alone.

At this point, many people will argue that when it comes to God, we have to go beyond reason. We have to get in tune with our inner spirituality, and that will point us to God. I think we can all agree that this does work for many people. Humanity, for whatever reasons, does have this incredible spiritual drive, not to mention capacity for altruism, love and beauty, which are not (yet) well explained by biology or evolution. Of course this doesn’t prove God, it just shows why humans believe in God. But, our inner intuitions are very difficult to ignore, so by and large we follow them.

Are inner intuitions reliable? Well, considering that billions of people believe in conflicting religious claims based largely on inner intuitions, it would seem that statistically at least, they are not. However much or morality and ethics is also based on intuition, and we follow that to a large extent, so it’s hard to argue against intuition. According the naturalists, our intuition has been shaped by millions of years of evolution, certainly not an easy thing to shake off.

Why do I bring this up? Certainly not to try and convince anyone that God doesn’t exist chas vesholom. I believe in God, for the very reasons I just disproved! But I have to admit they are not good reasons. Do I feel God from some sort of inner intuition? Yes! But I have to admit my feelings are unreliable. Do I believe in the Jewish conception of God? Yes! But I have to admit that this is due to indoctrination as much as anything else.

When reason fails, what should we do? It’s very tempting to say ‘let’s move beyond reason’. But of course once you move beyond reason, all dialogue is impossible. Or rather anything is possible. Anything at all. How can we judge what’s possible, what’s real and what’s just fantasy, when we have moved beyond reason? Of course we can’t. We are in a fantasy world, guided only by our imagination.

Many people, myself in the past included, have ridiculed Kabbalah as ‘inauthentic’, ‘Avodah Zarah’ and ‘fanstasy’. But really, much religious thought can be criticized using the same terms. And, even in Kabbalah, there is the concept that the true essence of God, called ‘Ein Sof’ (infinity) is completely incomprehensible, and that we can only understand the sefirot, emanations from God. Ironically, this is not so far from the Rambam, who believed the planets had ‘intelligence’ and ‘emanated’ the Divine Flow in a cascading series down to the Earth.

Given all of this, does it make any sense at all to think about God? Well, our religion seems to place a high priority on this. But this is a problem, since in reality we don’t know anything at all about this subject, and most likely can’t ever know.

Still, we try.

Further reading:

I would highly recommend the following books:

The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener by Martin Gardner
Searching for a Distant God: The Legacy of Maimonides by Kenneth Seeskin
Symbols of the Kabbalah: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives by Sanford L. Drob

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

A tragic day -

I am sitting here and writing my next post and the news flashes across my screen - 15 soldiers killed, 25 wounded, 6 of whom critically. There does not seem to be an end to the tragedy and pain in our land. Let us hope that our leaders will have the inspiration to do the right thing and make sure this never happens again.

טו סִלָּה כָל-אַבִּירַי אֲדֹנָי בְּקִרְבִּי, קָרָא עָלַי מוֹעֵד לִשְׁבֹּר בַּחוּרָי; גַּת דָּרַךְ אֲדֹנָי, לִבְתוּלַת בַּת-יְהוּדָה.
15 The Lord hath set at nought all my mighty men in the midst of me; He hath called a solemn assembly against me to crush my young men; the Lord hath trodden as in a winepress the virgin the daughter of Judah.'

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

European Antisemitism

A must read by R.Yitzchak Alderstein on Cross Currents:

Fire and Darkness -

Last Shabbat we read the following:

יט וַיְהִי, כְּשָׁמְעֲכֶם אֶת-הַקּוֹל מִתּוֹךְ הַחֹשֶׁךְ, וְהָהָר, בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ; וַתִּקְרְבוּן אֵלַי, כָּל-רָאשֵׁי שִׁבְטֵיכֶם וְזִקְנֵיכֶם. 19 And it came to pass, when ye heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, while the mountain did burn with fire, that ye came near unto me, even all the heads of your tribes, and your elders;

The description of the Divine voice is that it came out of the darkness while just a few verses earlier we read:

יב וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֲלֵיכֶם, מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ: קוֹל דְּבָרִים אַתֶּם שֹׁמְעִים, וּתְמוּנָה אֵינְכֶם רֹאִים זוּלָתִי קוֹל.12 And the LORD spoke unto you out of the midst of the fire; ye heard the voice of words, but ye saw no form; only a voice.

The Divine voice came out of fire. What was it fire or darkness? Medieval scholars saw light and darkness as one. Darkness being the lack of light, they understood that the underlying element of light is darkness and light is some kind of activation of that underlying element. Rambam in Moreh 2:30 explains it as follows:

The four elements indicated, according to our explanation, in the term Eretz" earth," in the first verse, (he is referring to the first verse in the Torah- DG) are mentioned first after the heavens: for there are named Eretz (earth), Ruach (air), mayim (water), and Choshech (fire). By Choshech the element fire is meant, nothing else; " And thou heard his words out of the midst of the fire" (Deut. iv. 36): and," When ye heard the voice out of the midst of the Choshech" (darkness) (ibid. V. 2): again," All Choshech (darkness) shall be hid in his secret places: a fire not blown shall consume him" (job XX. 26). The element fire is called Choshech because it is not luminous; it is only transparent; for if it were luminous we should see at night the whole atmosphere in flames.”

In other words, there is the basic element darkness which when activated turns into light. If deactivated it becomes darkness. When we speculate about God we, humans, have to picture Him somehow. The things that come to mind are the least physical possible things we can imagine. One of those things is darkness which to our mind is described as lacking even light, the least physical of all elements, “it is only transparent”.

Yeshayahu 45:7 says:

ז יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁךְ, עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא רָע; אֲנִי יְהוָה, עֹשֶׂה כָל-אֵלֶּה. {פ} 7 I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am the LORD, that doeth all these things. {P}

Rambam in 3:10 notes:

In accordance with this view we explain the following passage of Isaiah:" I form the light and create (borei) darkness: I make peace, and create (borei) evil" for darkness and evil are non-existing things. Consider that the prophet does not say, I make ('osseh) darkness, I make ('osseh) evil, because darkness and evil are not things in positive existence to which the verb to make" would apply; the verb Bara" he created" is used, because in Hebrew this verb is applied to non-existing things e.g.," In the beginning God created" (Bara), etc.: here the creation took place from nothing. Only in this sense can non-existence be said to be produced by a certain action of an agent.”

The word Bara is used when describing creation from nothingness where nothingness is the substrate that contains existence just as darkness is the substrate of light. First one has to create a substrate so that something else can be superimposed. The substrate itself has no real individual physical existence, just a negative connotation, and a lack of something. When saying that at Sinai we heard the Divine sound coming from fire or darkness we are saying that it came from a non-physical source. As most people have a hard time grasping nothingness, they use metaphors in their minds to describe it. Some see it as fire others more sophisticated, see it as fire’s substrate - darkness. That explains the ending of the verse- וּתְמוּנָה אֵינְכֶם רֹאִים- but ye saw no form – the fire they “saw” was just a metaphor, not something they saw with their eyes. Fire after all has a form. The same idea is conveyed by the terms Anan – clouds, Arafel – fog, used in the Sinai experience.

Rabbeinu Bachya has a similar approach in this Parsha. He explains the verse in Melachim 1:19:

יא וַיֹּאמֶר, צֵא וְעָמַדְתָּ בָהָר לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, וְהִנֵּה יְהוָה עֹבֵר וְרוּחַ גְּדוֹלָה וְחָזָק מְפָרֵק הָרִים וּמְשַׁבֵּר סְלָעִים לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, לֹא בָרוּחַ יְהוָה; וְאַחַר הָרוּחַ רַעַשׁ, לֹא בָרַעַשׁ יְהוָה. 11 And He said: 'Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD.' And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake;
יב וְאַחַר הָרַעַשׁ אֵשׁ, לֹא בָאֵשׁ יְהוָה; וְאַחַר הָאֵשׁ, קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה. 12 and after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.

Elyahu was “standing on the mountain” a metaphor similar to Ma’amad Har Sinai, where he was searching for an understanding of God. The process he used was to first imagine God as a strong wind, and when he realized that that is too physical, he imagined that God is a sound wave. Realizing that too is too physical he saw Him as fire and finally realizing that even that is anthropomorphism he ended up with silence – He cannot be described or imagined. Rabbeinu Bachya discusses this in the context of the Passuk Devarim 4:39:

לט וְיָדַעְתָּ הַיּוֹם, וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ אֶל-לְבָבֶךָ, כִּי יְהוָה הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים, בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל וְעַל-הָאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת: אֵין, עוֹד. 39 know this day, and lay it to thy heart, that the LORD, He is God in heaven above and upon the earth beneath; there is none else.

He explains that the Torah lays out an obligation to try to get an understanding of God - “lay it to thy heart” - which follows this path of negating all things that one can imagine about God. Rambam’s idea of Negative Attributes had taken hold even among the Kabbalists of the medieval era. Rambam’s understanding of the Mitzvah of Yediat Hashem as being not just simple faith but a search for rationally understanding God, held sway. It is only in later generations that Emunah Peshuta as an a priori approach became mainstream Judaism.

As an aside, anyone that knows a little about Rabbeinu Bahya,( Bahya ben Asher or Bahya ben Asher ben Halawa also known as the Rabbeinu Behaye, born about the middle of the thirteenth century at Saragossa, died 1340 was a 13th century rabbi and scholar of Judaism. He was a commentator on the Hebrew Bible and is noted for introducing Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) into study of the Torah- Wikipedia)
knows that he was a Talmid of the Rashba, Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Aderet, one of the leading Possekim of his time and also a great Mekubal from the Ramban School. That school of Kabbalah would be considered rationalistic in our time. Both Rambam and Ramban were rationalists differing in their understanding of the natural world. The difference was not at the basic level but rather in the details, how they understood and perceived their reality. Ramban understood mysticism and astrology as scientific facts while Rambam made a clear distinction between the physical and non-physical.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Is Torah scholarship and punctillious performance of Mitzvot enough to make one a leader of Klal Yisrael?

In comments on my post re Rav Elyashiv I was lambasted by many for not accepting his statements about the conduct of this war and the diplomacy around it without question. I was accused of Bizuy Talmidei Chachamim, of Pirud and a host of other transgressions. Let me first state that I meant no disrespect to Harav Elyashiv. He is both a Zaken and Yoshev Be’yeshivah and deserves all the respect we can give him. That does not however make him infallible and above criticism when he wades into areas he has no expertise in. All I know is that we are at war and public pronouncements about submission to the world’s will can only hurt and demoralize. It is especially so when coming from someone who advocates that Bnei Torah have no responsibility to be productive in society and partake in the defense of the land. If they do not want to join the army directly, which to my mind is in itself a disgrace, why not send bachurim bein hazmanim to help the army, bringing supplies, comfort and chizuk to the front lines? Why not help families whose breadwinners are at the front, by trying to fill in their jobs where possible? Why not help fill in positions in the country’s infrastructure while those who were responsible are at the frontline? As long as the Chareidi world refuses to act responsibly, I do not think they have a right to have a say in the conduct of the war or for that matter the nation. If someone should be accused of Pirud, it should be the people whose pronouncements are considered Torah min Hashamayim by the masses. It is not me on my little blog that is doing it. All I am doing is venting and sharing my frustrations with my readers.

Now let us deal with the issue of listening to a great Chacham in Halacha in areas that he has no expertise in.

Can someone who has no knowledge in a subject legislate in that subject? Rambam in Hilchot Sanhedrin 2:1 rules:

א אין מעמידין בסנהדרין, בין בגדולה בין בקטנה--אלא אנשים חכמים ונבונים, מופלאין בחכמת התורה, בעלי דעה מרובה, ויודעין קצת משאר חכמות, כגון רפואות, וחשבון תקופות ומזלות, ואיצטגנינות, ודרכי המעוננים והקוסמים והמכשפים והבלי עבודה זרה וכיוצא באלו, כדי שיהיו יודעין לדון אותם

What I gather from this Halacha is that if I needed to ask a sh’eilah that dealt with medicine, astronomy, hashkafah, I would first verify if that Posek had the necessary knowledge in that area before asking him. כדי שיהיו יודעין לדון אותם.

Does spending a lifetime learning Halacha without theological or philosophical enquiry, make one into a Hashkafic expert? In fact is that the ultimate goal for a person in his Avodat Hashem to strictly learn Torah limiting it to Halacha and Mussar?

The answer here is complex and quite involved. In the last few generations, I believe because of a situation of Eit La’asot la’shem, some Rashei Yeshiva have advocated that as being a goal. Unfortunately that approach has robbed us of real leaders who can interact with a thinking person, a layman who aspires to serve HKBH without staying within the confines of the Beit Hamidrash. Even those Chachamim who would have leadership aspirations, are stifled by the hysterical masses of close-minded zealots. The reason I say it is an Eit La’asot La’shem situation is because the Rishonim, Rambam, Ramban, Rashba and others of their stature saw Limud Hatorah, the part that deals with Halacha and its practice, as a stepping stone to proper speculation and searching for God, Yediat and Ahavat Hashem. These goals cannot be achieved without knowing about the sciences, about the world. As one gets closer to HKBH in that way, using the knowledge acquired from the Torah, the personal growth and service of God generated by following its teachings supplemented by a good understanding of the world and its inhabitants, one starts to know, love and emulate Him and thus becomes a real leader who has to be listened to. That learning Torah on its own is only a tool is made clear by Rambam in Moreh 3:54 –

Our Sages have likewise derived from this passage the above-mentioned lessons, and stated the same theory that has been explained in this chapter, that the simple term hokmah, as a rule, denotes the highest aim of man, the knowledge of God; that those properties which man acquires, makes his peculiar treasure, and considers as his perfection, in reality do not include any perfection: and that the religious acts prescribed in the Law, the various kinds of worship and the moral principles which benefit all people in their social intercourse with each other, do not constitute the ultimate aim of man, nor can they be compared to it, for they are but preparations leading to it. Hear the opinion of our Sages on this subject in their own words. The passage occurs in Breishit Rabah, and runs thus," In one place Scripture says, 'And all things that are desirable (hafazim) are not to be compared to her' (Prov. viii. 11); and in another place, 'And all things that thou desirest (hafazecha) are not to be compared unto her '" (ibid. iii. 15). By" things that are desirable" the performance of Divine precepts and good deeds is to be understood, whilst" things that thou desirest" refer to precious stones and pearls (in other words wealth DG). Both - things that are desirable, and things that you desire -- cannot be compared to wisdom, but" in this let him that glorieth glory, that he understandeth and knoweth me." Consider how concise this saying is, and how perfect its author; how nothing is here omitted of all that we have put forth after lengthy explanations and preliminary remarks.”

Performance of Mitzvot, learning halachot is not the ultimate goal for a person, just like acquiring wealth is not. Note the jarring comparison!

What is the goal of Yediat Hashem? Rambam concludes:

The prophet does not content himself with explaining that the knowledge of God is the highest kind of perfection: for if this only had been his intention, he would have said," But in this let him who glorieth glory, that he understandeth and knoweth me," and would have stopped there; or he would have said," that he understandeth and knoweth me that I am One," or," that I have not any likeness," or," that there is none like me," or a similar phrase. He says, however, that man can only glory in the knowledge of God and in the knowledge of His ways and attributes, which are His actions, as we have shown (1:45) in expounding the passage," Show me now thy ways" (Exod. xxxviii. 13). We are thus told in this passage that the Divine acts which ought to be known, and ought to serve as a guide for our actions, are, hesed," loving-kindness," mishpat," judgment," and zedakah," righteousness."… The prophet thus, in conclusion, says," For in these things I delight, says the Lord," i.e., My object [in saying this) is that you shall practice loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. In a similar manner we have shown (1:45) that the object of the enumeration of God's thirteen attributes is the lesson that we should acquire similar attributes and act accordingly. The object of the above passage is therefore to declare, 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

The last few sentences describe a leader, a true leader, who leads his people “in their production and continued existence”. If there is such a thing as Da’at Torah, here is the description of a person who has acquired it.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Press Bias towards Israel.

An excellent article about press bias towards Israel and their distortions and lies

Hat Tip : )

A wasted Tisha Be'av - Eini Yardah Mayim al Shever Bat Ami

I was not going to post on Tisha Be'av but what I am about to write pertains to the day. The purpose of these Ta'anyot is to make us introspect and see how our actions have brought about the state we are in. Have we fought enough and done all we could to defend ourselves? Did we let our egos intefere when we make these decisions that affect all Klal Yisrael? Our leaders are influenced by our thinking. Eretz Yisrael is a democracy and the people have a say in the decision making of the government. We in Chutz La'aretz influence our compatriots who live there. So the Teshuvah becomes a teshuvat Haklal which is the purpose of a Ta'anit Tzibur.

There is a very disturbing article in today's Ha'aretz
Where Rav Elyashiv opinates that we should heed the nations of the world and basically submit to the Hezbollah threat. Furthermore he is concerned about the Bachurim, who nebach worked so hard all year round and now are bein Hazmanim, that they should not go on tyulim. Our house is burning, he and his cohorts, instead of Chatan Mechupato going to fight, sit in the safety of the Yeshivah, supposedly fighting with their learning. Where is the Al Yerach Levavchem? We are at war and he says "run"! It is more than one can bear, the Chilul Hashem and the Chilul Hatorah this man is propagating!

Tisha Be'av has been a total waste with such leaders. Hashem Yerachem!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Rav, Tisha Be'av and Prophecy.

Rav Y.B.Soloveitchik in his fabulous classic Halakhic Man (translated by Lawrence Kaplan) states:

The most exalted creation of all is the personality of the prophet. Each man is obligated to give new life to his own being by modeling his personality upon the image of the prophet; he must carry through his own self-creation until he actualizes the idea of prophecy – until he is worthy and fit to receive the divine overflow. “

The idea of prophecy in Jewish thought has two schools. R.Yehuda Halevi in his Kuzari believes that it is a miraculous act and God gives prophecy to whom he chooses. Manoach, who the Rabbis say was an ignoramus, had prophecy. That school of thought has been adopted by many great thinkers and is still the most prevalent nowadays. To me it is quite depressing because it takes away self-empowerment from man. Man is passive and has no control over his future. It also diminishes God and is the source of all the questions about God’s justice. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why the Holocaust? Man after all has no choice. God has refused to give them the insight that would have allowed changing their future and preventing the bad outcome. Yirmyahu the prophet of the destruction of the First Temple says it so eloquently:

מַלְכָּהּ וְשָׂרֶיהָ בַגּוֹיִם, אֵין תּוֹרָה--גַּם-נְבִיאֶיהָ, לֹא-מָצְאוּ חָזוֹן מֵיְהוָה. her king and her princes are among the nations, instruction is no more; yea, her prophets find no vision from the LORD. {S}

The other school spearheaded by Rambam understands that prophecy is a human ability. Man can access the universal knowledge through scientific inquiry and gain insights about his future. It is up to man to develop himself to the point that he develops this ability. That makes him into a man of God no longer completely dependent on nature and circumstances. He is responsible for his actions. God is not to blame for his mishaps as they are of his own making and could have been prevented had he used his abilities to the fullest. Yirmyahu was saying that we had screwed up so badly, our ancestors had mismanaged in such a way, that even men worthy of prophecy could not develop the necessary insight. The state of the nation was in such shambles that the required state of mind that comes with self- perfection was not reachable by even the best of us.

The Rav continues:

The principle of prophecy, as an article of faith, like the fundamental of providence, has a twofold aspect: the belief in (1) prophecy as a reality – i.e. that God causes men to prophesy; (2) prophecy as a norm- i.e. that each person is obliged to aspire to this rank, that every man should make a supreme effort to scale the mountain of the Lord, until he reaches the pinnacle of the revelation of the Divine Presence… Prophecy is man’s ultimate goal, the end point of all his desires.” (Pages 128-129).

The fast of Tisha Be’av is meant to make us aware of the causes for the destruction of the Temple, the actions that brought about a state of affairs that prevents our great men, those who have tried to achieve more, from having the necessary insights to prevent the tragedies we face periodically. Introspection brings about awareness and hopefully will allow for actions that will help us bring peace to our war torn land and the return of the great insight known as prophecy.