Thursday, November 30, 2006

God is good to all - is this a joke?

ט טוֹב-יְהוָה לַכֹּל; וְרַחֲמָיו, עַל-כָּל-מַעֲשָׂיו.
9 The LORD is good to all; and His tender mercies are over all His works.

Is David Hamelech joking? Are there not enough calamities out there? Will a victim of the holocaust, Tsunamis, earthquakes, pandemics not to mention personal illnesses, losses and other such catastrophes agree with this statement? How can David say that God is good to ALL? His tender mercies over ALL his works?

The answer to the above is at the crux of Theodicy and Providence. It is a complicated and lengthy discussion that will require more than one post. I will try to break down the issue into its components and address each one separately.

The question that one needs to ask first is whether any component of the universe is more important than another. If let us say everything exists so that humanity may come into being and thrive then anything that works towards that goal is good and anything that tries to thwart it is evil. If however every component of the universe is equally important, we can envision a conflict where an action that promotes one component threatens another and we can still consider it as good.

We have to distinguish between the most advanced organism, which is humankind, and seeing man as the goal of creation. Although it so happens that man has unique attributes that does not make him more important. In fact, as I have mentioned in an earlier post, he may be just a necessary component of the whole universe working in tandem with its other parts to maintain it and at its service.

If we see existence as a natural occurrence clearly there is no room for seeing even a possibility of a goal. Everything just exists and man is part of it. If we attribute existence to God, His will is the cause for everything. We cannot decipher what His wish is other than for everything to just exist. There is no reason to believe that the existence of man is the goal He wishes for more than the existence of any other component of the universe. Whichever of the two positions we chose, clearly good is anything that perpetuates existence and evil is whatever destroys it. That is of course from the perspective of existence and not from the individual component.

What we are left with is that events that are detrimental to humankind are good as long as they promote the perpetuation of the whole. Man’s tribulations are insignificant when seen in that context. With this in mind we now can try to understand and categorize what we consider as calamities and see if God’s role in them is good or evil.

The first category is composed of natural disasters. Starting from the personal and individual, illnesses caused by genetic defects are part of nature. It is a biological imperative for the survival of a species that genetic mutations occur. It is inherent in the system that some are not successful. Of course it does not mitigate the suffering of the individual that is smitten, nor his close ones, but it is unavoidable and is good in a macro sense. Rambam being a keen observer of diseases, although unaware of genetics puts it in remarkably modern words:

The first kind of evil is that which is caused to man by the circumstance that he is subject to genesis and destruction, or that he possesses a body. It is on account of the body that some persons happen to have great deformities or paralysis of some of the organs. This evil may be part of the natural constitution of these persons, or may have developed subsequently in consequence of changes in the elements, e.g., through bad air, or thunderstorms or landslips. We have already shown that, in accordance with the divine wisdom, genesis can only take place through destruction, and without the destruction of the individual members of the species the species themselves would not exist permanently. Thus the true kindness, and beneficence, and goodness of God is clear. He, who thinks that he can have flesh and bones without being subject to any external influence, or any of the accidents of matter, unconsciously wishes to reconcile two opposites, viz., to be at the same time subject and not subject to change. If man were never subject to change there could be no generation”. (MN 3:12)

(I am quoting just the pertinent segment. If one reads the whole piece it is clear that Rambam was basing this on Galen’s understanding of medicine not modern genetics.)

Of course the same argument applies to other natural events such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, storms and so on. In a macro sense they are all necessary as part of a system that perpetuates the existence of the earth. I do not think I have to elaborate further.
Coming back to our opening question natural disasters can be seen as good. They may be destructive to their immediate surroundings and those caught up in them. They are however necessary and an integral part of the survival of the whole and therefore inherently good.

That leaves us with wars, holocausts and individual illnesses. I will address it in a future post.

(MN 3: 10 thru 14 is an interesting read on this issue).

Monday, November 27, 2006

Cancer drug, side effects and the antidote.

Bari at Mishmar has an interesting post
quoting the Seridei Eish about maintaining the balance between critical analysis and the consequent Hidushim that come from it and respect for the great Acharonim and Chachamim in general. (I could not find the reference in the Seridei Eish but the statement is true). This balance unfortunately is hard to find nowadays.

It reminded me of a conversation I was a participant in with Rav Simcha Wasserman Z”L and Yibodel Lechaym my Father La’arichut Yamim about a year or so before R. Simcha’s petirah. I do not remember how the conversation ended up on the subject of the strong separation in Klal Yisrael between the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements and R. Simcha commented that it is a great pity. He said that this is comparable to a cancer patient who is treated with strong chemotherapy to arrest the disease. The medicine causes side effects which need to be addressed as soon as the cancer is arrested or in remission. The Chatam Sofer in Hungary and others in other countries when confronted with the reform and Haskallah movements and their attraction on the religious community, reacted by creating a separation between the groups. In Hungary especially new Kehilot were formed that kept the Reformers outside the more orthodox communities. (An excellent book on the episode and its aftermath is “Hakera shelo Nita’acha” by Professor Jacob Katz in Hebrew). The medicine worked and as we can see these movements no longer have any appeal to the genuinely religious Jew. It is time to start prescribing the antidote. Unfortunately we have forgotten to do that.

As with many of Reb Simcha’s comments they are deep and have an impact on a broader area than their original application. It helps me understand many phenomena we see in our communities. For example the sitting and learning culture expected from every newly married whether he is up to it or not and the lack of secular education in Yeshivot both here and in Eretz Yisrael. The great builders of torah, Rav Aharon Kotler in the US and the Chazon Ish in EY, instituted them both after the holocaust. That was an Eit La’asot because there was a dire need to create Chachamim and leaders fast. It was not an ideal situation but there was no choice. The medicine worked and the Torah is again learned and growing within Klal Yisrael. The time has come where these practices have to be retuned and addressed. If we want to have leaders of the caliber of earlier times, we cannot have these restrictions imposed on them. The breadth of thinking and knowledge needed to lead us in our times cannot be developed under these circumstances. Nor can we continue having thousands of young men depending on handouts indefinitely. Worse they are wasting time and unproductive to society and themselves. But there is no one of stature with the vision or courage to do address the problem.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

God and First Cause: Is there a difference?

I have been confronted with critical comments about my position on proving the existence of God. R. Phil Goode has even gone so far (to my great satisfaction and gratitude for such a thorough reading of my blog) as to find a contradiction between a comment I made in February and later posts. You can find the exchange here .

First I have to make a disclaimer. So far on this blog I have focused on understanding Rambam’s views. I know that sometimes I come across too forcefully; I therefore want to make it clear that these opinions are my own interpretation of Rambam’s views. I do not purport to know whether I am correct in my understanding. Several commenters have taken me to task several times on my opinions and they were not always wrong. I also reserve the right to change my mind as I go along and relearn something. It is my hope to learn as much as possible from the discussions. I try, not always successfully, to keep my ego at bay my goal being to get as close to the truth as possible. I always try to keep Rambam’s

הוא שהנביא אומר "וה' אלוהים אמת" ירמיהו י,י--הוא לבדו האמת, ואין לאחר אמת כאמיתו

in front of my eyes. So far the experience of writing and learning has been exhilarating and I thank all readers for helping to make it so.

I have endorsed in the past the argument for the existence of a First Cause referred to as “from contingency”. The argument goes as follows: We see that everything is contingent on something else. Nothing exists on its own but is always caused by something else. If we follow the chain of cause and effect up the line there must be one entity that is not contingent on anything else which is the cause of everything. That entity we refer to as the First Cause. It is the first of several arguments Rambam uses to prove the existence of God (MN 2:1). This argument is not a Rambam original. Aristotle and other Greeks discuss it and arrive at the same conclusion that there must be a First Cause.

Although Rambam states that Aristotle believed in the existence of God, that is not exactly correct. He believed in a First Cause but that is not synonymous with the God of religion. It is a vague concept of an uncreated or self-created entity that causes everything. It is not tied into time thus eternal. Although a little simplistic I view that as the concept behind existence. It is an entity that we know must exist but we cannot really grasp or define – it is just there.

What can we prove about that entity? We can prove it is unlike anything else, that it is not time dependent, it does not change thus never in a state of potential and is not physical. This concept of First Cause is just an attempt at explaining how things exist. It does not give that entity freedom of will or any connection with its effects. It is just an inanimate entity that has a very distant connection with us. Religion makes that connection. It tells us what to do with that information. It tells us that although that entity that we now call God is unknowable, we have to seek ways of understanding Him through observing the results of His actions. It tells us to accept that God is not just an abstract concept, an inanimate entity, but a so to say (kevayachol) conscious entity that caused everything in a manner we, humans, would consider willingly.

In his Sefer Hamitzvot Rambam’s first Mitzvat Asseh reads as follows:

המצוה הראשונה היא הצווי אשר צוונו להאמין האלוהות והוא שנאמין שיש שם עלה וסבה הוא פועל לכל הנמצאות והוא אמרו ית' אנכי י"י אלהיך. ובסוף גמר מכות (כג ב, כד א) אמרו תרי"ג מצות נאמרו לו למשה בסיני מאי קראה תורה צוה לנו משה כלומר מנין תור"ה והקשו על זה ואמרו תורה בגימטריא הכי הואי שית מאה וחדסרי הואי והיתה התשובה אנכי ולא יהיה מפי הגבורה שמעום. הנה כבר התבאר לך כי אנכי י"י מכלל שש מאות ושלש עשרה מצות והוא צווי באמונה כמו שבארנו:

The first Mitzvah is Yediat Hashem[1] is to know intellectually that there is a First Cause. Note how he ties it with the Chazal that Anochi and Lo Y’heyeh are “MiPi Hagevurah” which we know he understands as Gevurat Hasechel or intellect, not revelation. In other words it is empirically provable. This is a distant and impersonal God and other than being an obligation to know and demonstrate this to oneself, this God is quite distant. It is only when we try to understand His attributes, what He is or is not, that we personalize Him. Some of these attributes can be proven empirically, such as His unity or as I prefer to say uniqueness and Rambam’s understanding of prophecy and how humans connect with it. (BTW the test of whether it is empirically provable is when Rambam, in Mishne Torah, uses the term Leidah as opposed to Leha’amin.) Others are things we accept because they make sense even though there is no way that we humans can definitely prove them. We can only show that it is an acceptable position to take that most plausibly fits with our way of thinking and other empirically proven positions. That God wills is one of those positions.

In short we can prove empirically the existence of a First Cause. To personalize that First Cause and turn Him into our God we have to employ different types of proofs, plausibility tests and acceptance of the yoke of heaven. It is only then that this belief in a distant God takes on practical connotations affecting our way of thinking and day-to-day life. It does not mean relying on beliefs as XGH always comments and posts. It means using every ounce of our rational capacity to make sense of our existence using the tools and information at our disposal.

[1] The Sefer Hamitzvot was written in Arabic. This translation reads Leha’amin which in English is to believe. Rav Kafih translates Leidah- to know. See note 1 in Rav Chaim Heller’s edition published by Mossad Harav Kook.

Thanksgiving Min Hatorah Minayin?

י וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ--וּבֵרַכְתָּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, עַל-הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לָךְ.
10 And thou shalt eat and be satisfied, and bless the LORD thy God for the good land which He hath given thee.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Why are we here?

Is there a purpose to existence? How do we answer the question why we are here? When we look at the biological systems that perpetuate life on earth we perceive a mechanism where waste is eliminated, the fittest survive and everything seems to be geared towards self-preservation and perpetuation. Laws of physics and chemistry also seem to operate with a precision that is elegant and awe-inspiring. The existence of humankind can very easily be seen in the same light as just another element in the self-perpetuation of the universe. Humans have freedom of will, mental and physical abilities to change their environment. Their role in the perpetuation of the universe can easily be understood. However the larger question still remains unanswered what is the purpose of the whole enterprise? Is there indeed such a thing as purpose?

Let us first assume that the universe is eternal in some form or other, for even if we accept the Big Bang theory, there still had to be something physical out there, a particularity from which everything started. That being the case there really is nothing that forces us to find a purpose for existence other than existence itself and its perpetuation. Everything just has been there in some form or other forever.

However if we assume that the universe was created in time ex - nihilo, there must then be a Creator and therefore, at first blush it would appear that there must be a purpose. An intelligent entity that willed existence must have done so for a reason and a purpose. As we observe our surroundings, focusing on the biological system we are part of, we notice that there seems to be a hierarchy where lesser animals are a source of food for more advanced ones. Man is ultimately the most powerful and everything seems to be serving his needs. To the question of why man the answer may be so that he serve God and get to know Him. But again the question is why? What purpose is there in doing that? Does God need our worship? Does it add anything to Him? The answer is of course not. We are therefore left with the answer that we are here because God wished it so. He willed the universe into existence because that is what will is, it wills. MN 3:13 –

Even if the Universe existed for man's sake and man existed for the purpose of serving God, as has been mentioned, the question remains, what is the end of serving God? He does not become more perfect if all His creatures serve Him and comprehend Him as far as possible; nor would He lose anything if nothing existed beside Him. It might perhaps be replied that the service of God is not intended for God's perfection; it is intended for our own perfection,--it is good for us, it makes us perfect. But then the question might be repeated, What is the object of our being perfect? We must in continuing the inquiry as to the purpose of the creation at last arrive at the answer, It was the Will of God, or His Wisdom decreed it; and this is the correct answer. The wise men in Israel have, therefore, introduced in our prayers (for Ne‘ilah of the Day of Atonement) the following passage:--"Thou hast distinguished man from the beginning, and chosen him to stand before Thee; who can say unto Thee, What dost Thou? And if he be righteous, what does he give Thee?" They have thus clearly stated that it was not a final cause that determined the existence of all things, but only His will.”

Will as it relates to God is a word we use to describe the idea of a cause for a resulting action. Those who believe in physical eternity see a mechanistic system where the First Cause, assuming they accept one, is just another natural component of that system. The same mechanism that produces gravity for example induces the First Cause to cause everything to exist. There is no wisdom just existence. On the other hand those who believe in creation in time have a choice. They can also see a mechanistic universe without wisdom or thought. They can see the Creator as another component of a natural system. They however can also accept that there is thought and therefore Will in that Creator.

There is no possibility of ever proving any of the three positions; it is a matter of accepting one or the other. Judaism, led by its prophets, chose to accept the concept that God willed the universe into existence. Mishlei 3:19 puts out the idea very succinctly:

יט יְהוָה--בְּחָכְמָה יָסַד-אָרֶץ; כּוֹנֵן שָׁמַיִם, בִּתְבוּנָה.
19 The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens.

God willed us into existence and we know only one thing; our existence fulfills His will. It is our responsibility to perpetuate our and the whole universe’s existence. We do good when we are creative; we do evil when we are destructive. Torah and Mitzvot are tools that we have to help us fulfill our responsibility. This idea is quite dialectic, it contains an internal tension, as it on the one hand sees man as just another cog in a wheel. On the other hand it gives him the power to change his environment and affect the whole universe and generations in the future. Ultimately however there is only one purpose; fulfill God’s will. “Vatelamdem chukei Chaim La’asot retzoncha belevav shalem”.

Are we deluding ourselves? Maybe. There is no certainty that we are right otherwise there would be no Bechira – freedom of choice.

טו רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַחַיִּים וְאֶת-הַטּוֹב, וְאֶת-הַמָּוֶת, וְאֶת-הָרָע.
15 See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil,
יט הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ--הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ, הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה; וּבָחַרְתָּ, בַּחַיִּים--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה, אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ.
19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou may live, thou and thy seed;
(Devarim 30:15 and 19)

Life, creativity is good- death or destruction is evil; the choice is ours. We can see the choice of good as a self-serving goal which depends on whim or as an obligation that binds us with a higher authority. Some will call it belief. I prefer to see it as choice based on an intelligent analysis of alternatives. In his discussions regarding the creation of the universe Rambam discusses different types of proofs and how they are applied. Here is an excerpt of some of his statements:

I will not deceive myself, and consider dialectical methods as proofs; and the fact that a certain proposition has been proved by a dialectical argument will never induce me to accept that proposition, but, on the contrary, will weaken my faith in it, and cause me to doubt it. For when we understand the fallacy of a proof, our faith in the proposition itself is shaken… When I have established the admissibility of our theory, I will, by philosophical reasoning, show that our theory of the Creation is more acceptable than that of the Eternity of the Universe; and although our theory includes points open to criticism, I will show that there are much stronger reasons for the rejection of the theory of our opponents.” (MN 2:16)

Certain things are just not provable. All one can do is see if either one of the different theories is admissible. Having established that they are, one has to then look at the different things that will help to decide which to choose. If the system that we received from the prophets and that we live by cannot be proven inadmissible, we may chose it.

IN comparing the objections raised against one theory with those raised against the opposite theory, in order to decide in favor of the least objectionable, we must not consider the number of the objections, but the degree of improbability and of deviation from real facts [pointed out by the objections]; for one objection may sometimes have more weight than a thousand others… for a person might some day, by some objection which he raises, shake your belief in the theory of the Creation, and then easily mislead you: you would then adopt the theory [of the Eternity of the Universe) which is contrary to the fundamental principles of our religion, and leads to "speaking words that turn away from God." You must rather have suspicion against your own reason, and accept the theory taught by two prophets who have laid the foundation for the existing order in the religious and social relations of humankind. Only demonstrative proof should be able to make you abandon the theory of the Creation: but such a proof does not exist in Nature.” (MN 2:23).

This is the basis of our acceptance of God as the willing Creator of our existence. We will now have to define what we mean by Will and the ramification thereof in our understanding of providence and our day-to-day life.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Epicurus and randomness - No providence - God is denied.

In MN 3:17, as an introduction to his opinion on Providence, Rambam lists five approaches. I will post each one separately and discuss them as they relate to different currents in Judaism.

The first opinion is the easiest one to deal with as it is foreign to Judaism. It is the theory proposed by the Atomists[1] who did not accept the existence of a First Cause. Everything to them was a result of random recombination of atoms without any underlying plan or rationality.

“There is no Providence at all for anything in the Universe; all parts of the Universe, the heavens and what they contain, owe their origin to accident and chance; there exists no being that rules and governs them or provides for them. This is the theory of Epicurus, who assumes also that the Universe consists of atoms, that these have combined by chance, and have received their various forms by mere accident. There have been atheists among the Israelites who have expressed the same view; it is reported of them: "They have denied the Lord, and said he is not" (Yirmyahu 5:12). Aristotle has proved the absurdity of the theory that the whole Universe could have originated by chance; he has shown that, on the contrary, there is a being that rules and governs the Universe. We have already touched upon this subject in the present treatise.”

Rambam is so convinced of the irrefutability of his proof for the existence of a First Cause that he does not even bother refuting this theory. As you know from my previous posts I am of the same opinion. So far none of the counter arguments have been convincing to me.

An interesting aside and a question that I really do not have an answer to: In his Pirush Hamishna on Sanhedrin 10:2 Rambam comments on the word Epicurus mentioned in the Mishna. He says it is an Aramaic word meaning a lack of respect for authority. Rambam clearly knew Epicurus as he mentions him in the above quote. Did he think that the Rabbis of the Mishna did not know him? I would doubt that very much. I would also doubt that he did not know about him in his twenties, when he wrote his commentary on Mishna discovering him only later. Anyone have any thoughts about this?

[1] The ancient theory of Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius, according to which simple, minute, indivisible, and indestructible particles are the basic components of the entire universe. ( )

What have creation and darkness in common?

Rambam in MN 3:10 discusses how to define something that a certain quality has been removed from it. For example some medieval philosophers saw darkness as a substance. Rambam disagrees and sees it as we do - the absence of light. The ramifications from this way of thinking are how one should look at evil or bad when opposed to good. If good is existence then bad is the absence of existence. It is not a state in its own right but only the absence of good. Rambam then makes a statement that at first blush is quite confusing:

Just as we say of him who puts out the light at night that he has produced darkness, so we say of him who destroyed the sight of any being that he produced blindness, although darkness and blindness are negative properties, and require no agent. In accordance with this view we explain the following passage of Isaiah: "I form the light and create (Boreh) darkness: I make peace, and create (Boreh) evil" (Yeshayahu 45:7), for darkness and evil are nonbeings. 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 has a connection with nonbeing 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. In the same way we must explain the following passage: "Who hath made man's mouth? or who makes the dumb, or the deaf, or the seeing," etc.”

Rambam is suggesting that the word Bara or Boreh are used when something is created from nothingness and that is why Yeshayahu chose Yotzer for light and Boreh for darkness, Osseh for peace but again Boreh for evil. He then makes a general statement that the word Bara has a connection with nonbeing. What is he trying to say?

Rav Yaakov Koppel Schwartz in his Yekev Ephraim, (introduced to me by R. D.H to whom I am eternally grateful) an excellent commentary on Ramban on Chumash has a very lucid explanation for this Rambam. When the word Bara is used for creating Yesh Me’ayin, something from nothingness, the image one gets is that something just appeared. Before this instant there was nothing and now there is something. That is in contrast with Yotzer or Osseh where one takes something and shapes it into something else. One takes a piece of wood and makes a utensil or a piece of furniture from it. Darkness happens on its own when one puts out the light. Darkness is not made, it just happens just like creation from nothingness.

Ramban in Breishit 1:1 says: “Ve’ein etsleinu belashon Hakodesh be’hotza’at Yesh Me’ayin ela lashon Bara” – Bara is the only word in Hebrew that refers to creation from nothingness. Harav Schwartz suggests that the above Rambam is his source.
The sefer Yekev Ephraim in general shows that Ramban wrote his commentary on Chumash with Rambam in the back of his mind and that Rambam had an enormous influence on his thought process. Anyone interested in understanding how our great Rishonim related to Jewish theology, how truth was their main concern, will really enjoy the sefer.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

What do Socialism, the Mann and the left have in common?

Setting limits on physical self-gratification is a central issue in Rambam’s thinking. The form of man, the attribute that differentiates him from other living things, is his mind. The mind however cannot exist without the body and the brain, both physical entities. The mind therefore has the ability and is empowered to control the physical and make sure that it self protects so that it can continue to live for as long as possible, allowing the brain to expand its knowledge and understanding of its own existence. For the body to survive it has built in systems where it has tendencies to seek out things that are necessary for its survival. Those are all the things people crave for starting with food for personal survival and ending with sex for the survival of the species. Those are all necessary cravings that inform the mind to help the body to satisfy these needs. However these cravings also need the mind to set limits on them otherwise they become the sine qua non of existence. They take over the mind and direct it to spend all its energies in satisfying these cravings even to the body’s own detriment. The mind now is completely distracted from its main purpose. To Rambam that is the underlying reason for morals and all the laws in the Torah that address morality.

The fact that the Jewish people were willing to spend forty years in the desert relying on a minimal amount of food, monochromatic taste though nourishing, all for the purpose of freedom of action and thought, allowing them to develop their intellect, demonstrates to the world and future generations, how far one has to go to attain intellectual perfection. The idea is that if one can learn to be satisfied with necessities only, those are usually available.

About twenty years ago I had the privilege to visit with Rav Simcha Wasserman Z”L in Yerushalaim on Pessach. Although I got to know him in my thirties, I learned an enormous amount from this gentle Gadol and his rebbetzin. He asked me (and my son Aryeh who was with me at the time) if we knew why socialists are called leftists? Why does the left side connote socialism? When a person wants to make something he uses primarily his right hand and his left hand is the supporting actor. The same applies in every area that requires action by human beings. The primary requirement for survival is the procurement of food for survival. However without appetite there would be no impetus to do so. The appetite is therefore the supporting element in this process. When one makes the supporting act into the main purpose one gives the left side primacy and becomes a leftist. Socialism makes its primary objective man satisfying his appetites and is therefore seen as the left. I do not know if I agree with his analysis of socialism but I believe it explains why the left has negative connotations in Judaism. In kabalistic writings Sitra Desmalah has a negative connotation. It even got a place in Shulchan Aruch that one should always turn to the right side first. It is a subliminal message to make us aware of what is important.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Miracles: In the eyes of the beholder.

It would seem at first blush that God performing miracles is something to be expected from an all-powerful Deity. After all limiting God to what is natural would seem to make Him almost human. However a little more in depth analysis will show this to be wrong. On the contrary the need to make miracles is an insult to God. Of course He can perform miracles if He so wishes as long as He does not have to. A perfectly infallible Entity should be able to bring about our existence, have it planned and so well set in place that He, the Creator, need never interfere or adjust. Even the minutest adjustment is a sign of imperfection. So what exactly are those miracles the Torah talks about so often?

Interestingly, etymologically, we are coming back to our earlier discussions of Nissayon, for Ness is one of the words that are commonly used to describe a miracle. The word Ness stands for flag, pole or demonstration. Again it would seem that miracle is an event whose purpose is to make a point. Rambam in the last of his Eight Chapters puts it as follows
(My paraphrase/translation)

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” (Kohelet 1:9.) 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.””

Kohelet 3:14 reads as follows:

יד יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי כָּל-אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה הָאֱלֹהִים הוּא יִהְיֶה לְעוֹלָם--עָלָיו אֵין לְהוֹסִיף, וּמִמֶּנּוּ אֵין לִגְרֹעַ; וְהָאֱלֹהִים עָשָׂה, שֶׁיִּרְאוּ מִלְּפָנָיו.
14 I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be forever; nothing can be added to it, nor any thing taken from it; and God hath so made it, that men should fear before Him.

Rambam comments in MN 2:28:

He declares in these words that the world has been created by God and remains for ever. He adds the reason for it by saying, "Nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it;" for this is the reason for the perpetuity, as if he meant to say that things are changed in order to supply that which is wanting, or in order to take away what is superfluous. The works of God being perfect, admitting no addition or deduction, must remain the same forever. It is impossible that anything should exist that could cause a change in them. In the conclusion of the verse, Solomon, as it were describes the purpose of exceptions from the laws of Nature, or an excuse for changes in them, when he says, "And God doeth it that men should fear before him." He refers to the production in time of miracles”.

In other words everything works according to its original plan or nature. There are events in nature that are more common than others. The sun rises and sets daily unchangingly. To us that is obviously natural. There are however other events, though natural but much rarer. These can be extremely rare, so rare, that they happened just once or twice throughout human history. These events are no less natural than the daily occurrences. However the rarity itself is a catalyst that makes the observer pause. It makes him take stock and realize that there is a First Cause that this event can be traced back to. Our mundane day-to-day existence is so constant that we forget to think about what is the cause for all this. The abnormal makes us aware that there is a question to be asked that begs for an answer.

So what is a miracle? If we look at miracles it is always the interaction between man and the event. It is when man is saved because the event occurred at a fortuitous moment for him. When the Jewish people were squeezed between the sea and the Egyptians and the sea split at just the right moment, that rare natural event is interpreted as a miracle. Moshe’s greatness was his ability to sense this rare occurrence and take advantage of it. His intuition, or what we would call his prophetic insight into the future was so strong and certain, that he refused to surrender to the Egyptians.

One cannot prove empirically that miracles occur. As a man of religion one can however interpret the event as being something put in place by God at time of creation and that included this person being at the right place at the right time. It is all in the eyes of the beholder.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Of false prophets and Sinai.

Rambam also understands the word Nissayon to mean demonstration when used with reference to a false prophet. The traditional idea that God would send a false prophet to test us is abhorrent to him. He is referring to the following text (Devarim 13:4):

ד לֹא תִשְׁמַע, אֶל-דִּבְרֵי הַנָּבִיא הַהוּא, אוֹ אֶל-חוֹלֵם הַחֲלוֹם, הַהוּא: כִּי מְנַסֶּה יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, אֶתְכֶם, לָדַעַת הֲיִשְׁכֶם אֹהֲבִים אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, בְּכָל-לְבַבְכֶם וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁכֶם.
4 Thou shall not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or unto that dreamer of dreams; for the LORD your God puts you to proof, to know whether ye do love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Note how sensitive the translator is here – Ki menasseh is translated puts to proof – which does not necessarily mean test but also demonstrate.( Robert Alter in his translation misses this).

Here is Rambam’s understanding of this verse:

The sole object of all the trials mentioned in Scripture is to teach man what he ought to do or believe; so that the event which forms the actual trial is not the end desired: it is but an example for our instruction and guidance. Hence the words "to know (la-Da’at) whether ye love," etc., do not mean that God desires to know whether they loved God; for He already knows it; but la-Da’at, "to know," has here the same meaning as in the phrase "to know (la-Da’at) that I am the Lord that sanctifies you" (Exod. xxxi. 13), i.e., that all nations shall know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you. In a similar manner Scripture says:--If a man should rise, pretend to be a prophet, and show you his signs by which he desired to convince you that his words are true, know that God intends thereby to prove to the nations how firmly you believe in the truth of God's word, and how well you have comprehended the true Essence of God; that you cannot be misled by any tempter to corrupt your faith in God. Your religion will then afford guidance to all who seek the truth, and of all religions man will choose that which is so firmly established that it is not shaken by the performance of a miracle. For a miracle cannot prove that which is impossible; it is useful only as a confirmation of that which is possible, as we have explained in our Mishne-torah. (Yesodei ha-torah vii. f. viii. 3.)”

Rambam thus understands that a false prophet will come. It is human nature that some will try to use the idea of prophecy to take control. It is a potential side effect of our belief in prophecy. However if a miracle maker shows up and tells us to serve other gods, by denying him, we show the world how one should treat such situations. (Rambam here was addressing, in an indirect way, Christianity and Jesus).

Another interesting point made by Rambam is the word lada’at which usually is translated to know, as our translator did, really should be translated as “to make known”. He does it in other instances too, with the Mann as we will see and כִּי עַתָּה יָדַעְתִּי at the Akedah which he understands to mean “now I can use this to teach others what it means to fear God”.

A related case addressed by Rambam is Sinai and its impact on the immutability of the laws given there and in the torah. In Shemot 20:16 we read:

טז וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-הָעָם, אַל-תִּירָאוּ, כִּי לְבַעֲבוּר נַסּוֹת אֶתְכֶם, בָּא הָאֱלֹהִים; וּבַעֲבוּר, תִּהְיֶה יִרְאָתוֹ עַל-פְּנֵיכֶם--לְבִלְתִּי תֶחֱטָאוּ.
16 And Moses said unto the people: 'Fear not; for God is come to prove you, and that His fear may be before you, that ye sin not.'

Here again we are confronted with the word nassot (translated to prove you which is ambiguous apparently on purpose). Here is Rambam:

“The passage, "For God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces that ye sin not" expresses the same idea as is expressed in Deuteronomy (xiii. 4) In reference to a person who prophesies in the name of idols, namely in the words: "For the Lord your God puts you to proof to know whether you love the Lord." We have already explained the meaning of the latter passage. In the same sense Moses said to the Israelites when they stood round Mount Sinai: "Do not fear; the object of this great sight which you perceived is that you should see the truth with your own eyes. When the Lord your God, in order to show your faithfulness to Him, will put you to proof by a false prophet, who will tell you the reverse of what you have heard, you will remain firm and your steps will not slide. If I had come as a messenger as you desired, and had told you that which had been said unto me and which you had not heard, you would perhaps consider as true what another might tell you in opposition to that which you heard from me. But it is different now, as you have heard it in the midst of the great sight.”

The experience at Sinai where all had a perception of what prophecy is even though it scared them, was meant to give them certainty that Moshe’s prophecy is different and supersedes any future prophet who will try to contradict him. This applies, not only to Avodah Zara as before, but to any Mitzvah or law given by Moshe; it must not be changed. Here clearly one has to read Nassot as demonstrate to themselves and future generations that Torah is immutable. (Here I believe Rambam is addressing Christianity and Jesus as well as Islam and Mohammed.)

So far we have seen Rambam addressing three out of the four instances where he understands that the word Nissayon cannot mean testing but demonstration. We are left with one last one, the Mann, which I will address in an upcoming post.

This is very important to our understanding of providence. Accepting the traditional interpretation sees God as unjust. The idea that God tests someone to give him an opportunity to get rewards or to put into practice a potential (Ramban) is to Rambam a foreign influence into Judaism. In 3:17 he states:

According to this doctrine it is possible that a person be afflicted without having previously committed any sin, in order that his future reward may be increased; a view which is held by the Mu’tazilites, but is not supported by any Scriptural text. Be not misled by the accounts of trials, such as "God tried Abraham" (Gen. Xxii. 1); "He afflicted thee and made thee hungry," etc. (Deut. viii. 3); for you will hear more on this subject later on (chap. xxiv.).”

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Akedah - last words for now.

My post on the Akedah last week generated controversy and Jewish Skeptic, Tafkaa and Al took me to task. Both JS and Tafkaa focused in on their perception that I was claiming the Akedah was a dream. JS felt that it was an unfair distortion of traditional sources while Tafkaa felt it was blasphemy. (He did not say that as he is too courteous but I am sure that was the underlying sentiment). I really do not have an opinion about what Rambam holds on that. Narboni understands the whole thing as a prophetic experience, Abarbanel and as Tafkaa points out Ramban see it as part prophecy part reality. My point was that seeing it as a prophetic dream answers the difficulties that we would have about Avraham condoning a human sacrifice forbidden in the Torah so prominently. It being a demonstration and lesson rather than a test and it being brought about by Avraham’s introspection which resulted in a prophecy makes it even more palatable. I personally think it is irrelevant whether it happened in real life or in Avraham’s prophetic experience. What is important is the Torah reporting a private story. The purpose is clearly to teach us about dedication to God and the certainty of prophecy. Both lessons can be learned whether it was real or prophetic.

Al and Phil Goode questioned whether my idea of this episode being the result of Avraham’s introspection had a source. The story begins with “It was after these events”. The Rabbis question to which events the Passuk is referring. In Midrash Breishit Rabah (quoted by Rashi with modifications) the Rabbis say:

אחר הדברים האלה אחר הרהורי דברים שהיו שם. מי הרהר? אברהם הרהר ואמר: שמחתי ושמחתי את הכל, ולא הפרשתי להקב"ה, לא פר אחד ולא איל אחד! אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא: על מנת שנאמר לך, שתקריב לי את בנך ולא תעכב

After these events - after these cogitations. (Devarim can be translated as events but also words which result from thoughts hence cogitations). Who had cogitations? Avraham was thinking I am happy and I made everyone happy but I have not given to God a single ox or ram. God said to him your happiness was conditioned on us ordering you to offer up your son and you not holding back from doing it.

Clearly the Rabbis are describing Avraham’s introspection questioning his motives in wanting a child and his plans for him.

By the way this is not the only time the Rabbis interpret this expression as Avraham’s introspection. The introduction to the Brit Bein Habetarim episode starts with the same words and here too the Midrash comments:

אחר הדברים האלה, אחר הירהורי דברים שהיו שם. מי הרהר? אברהם הרהר. אמר לפני הקב"ה: רבון העולמים, כרת ברית עם נח, שאינך מכלה את בניו, עמדתי וסיגלתי מצות ומעשים טובים יותר ממנו, ודחתה בריתי לבריתו. תאמר שאחר עומד ומסגל מצות ומעשים טובים יותר ממני, ותדחה בריתו לבריתי?! אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא: מנח לא העמדתי מגינים של צדיקים, אבל ממך אני מעמיד מגינים של צדיקים

After these events – after these cogitations. Who cogitated? Avraham. Avraham said to God you made a covenant with Noach and as I was better than him you replaced his covenant with mine. What will stop you from doing the same to me? God said to him, Noach children did not protect the righteous, your children will.

Again obviously the Midrash is describing Avraham’s introspection and his decision to work towards creating a nation that will be righteous.

Regarding the understanding of the word Nissah as demonstration, adding to Balashon’s post the Midrash says:

ר' יוסי הגלילי אומר: גדלו כנס הזה של ספינה.

He elevated him [Avraham] like the flag of a ship.

This Midrash clearly understands Nissayon as a demonstration and not a test.

More to come on other cases where Nissayon is seen as a demonstration.

Shavua Tov.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Ness - Nissayon - Flag and Test?

Excellent post on the etymology of Ness and Nisayon at Balashon

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Avraham: Philosopher, Prophet - Introspective and a Nation Builder.

Commenter R. Phil Goode posed some interesting questions that I felt deserved detailed answers. As I do not believe in too long posts let me answer them in more than one. (The questions are in italics, edited and rearranged in a different order than the original)

Let me give you an example of how I lose track of what is being said: “According to Rambam’s understanding of prophecy, the conversation between Avraham and God are all internal experiences triggered by the prophet’s speculation about God and His actions.”Ok. I think when you are saying “conversation” you are referring to the entire Akedah event as described by the Rambam in the passages that follow. When you say they are “internal experiences” you mean that they are a vision or dream – again, as described below.

Am I misreading something here?

No and let me explain:

Prophecy is an internal process where the prophet, in contemplating God’s actions comes to certain conclusions. In the case of Avraham he concluded that the world had lost its way and it was necessary to propagate that there is only One God who created the universe.
ח וַיַּעְתֵּק מִשָּׁם הָהָרָה, מִקֶּדֶם לְבֵית-אֵל--וַיֵּט אָהֳלֹה; בֵּית-אֵל מִיָּם, וְהָעַי מִקֶּדֶם, וַיִּבֶן-שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ לַיהוָה, וַיִּקְרָא בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה.
8 And he removed from thence unto the mountain on the east of Beth-el, and pitched his tent, having Beth-el on the west, and Ai on the east; and he build there an altar unto the LORD, and called upon the name of the LORD.

See Ibn Ezra ad locum on the last three words “and called upon the name of the LORD” interpreting them as proselytizing.

Also, why was his “whole purpose to create a nation, etc.”?

That is the meaning of the story of Brit Bein Habetarim where he saw the beginnings of a nation in a prophetic vision. In the process of proselytizing, during a moment of introspection and contemplation, he concludes that the best long-term way to do this is to bring about a nation that worships God. The telling of this private experience is clearly intended to explain Avraham’s subsequent actions and their purpose.

Now I am expecting to see something about “the prophet’s speculation about God and His actions.” But what you suggest is that Avraham was questioning his own motivation –

If you understand prophecy as internal visions and dreams that the prophet puts into action, does it not make sense that Avraham, who developed this whole theology on his own, including that man can prophesize, should at some point stop and question whether he is not off on some ego trip? Is he just making all this up? True he experiences prophecies but are they real? Don’t you think that prophets were human beings albeit great ones? Isn’t introspection a sign of greatness? The Akedah experience addressed both his questions. It told him that he was willing to sacrifice his ambitions if God so demanded. It also confirmed that prophecy is such a powerful human ability that it conveys certainty. Based on a vision he was willing to sacrifice all.Also, why the incidental description of Avraham as the great philosopher? Where is this established? Is this just culling from Midrashim?

Let me quote Rambam Hilchot Avodah Zara 1:3 (a little lengthy, but I wanted the Hebrew in Rambam’s beautiful language for those who read Hebrew – courtesy of Mechon Mamre. English translation courtesy of Jonathan Baker.)

ח והחכמים שהיו בהן כגון הכומרין וכיוצא בהן, מדמין שאין שם אלוה אלא הכוכבים והגלגלים שנעשו הצורות האלו בגללן ולדמותן. אבל צור העולמים, לא היה שם מכירו ולא יודעו, אלא יחידים בעולם, כגון חנוך ומתושלח ונוח ושם ועבר. ועל דרך זו, היה העולם מתגלגל והולך, עד שנולד עמודו של עולם, שהוא אברהם אבינו עליו השלום.
ט [ג] כיון שנגמל איתן זה, התחיל לשוטט בדעתו והוא קטן, ולחשוב ביום ובלילה, והיה תמיה: היאך אפשר שיהיה הגלגל הזה נוהג תמיד, ולא יהיה לו מנהיג; ומי יסבב אותו, לפי שאי אפשר שיסבב את עצמו. ולא היה לו לא מלמד ולא מודיע דבר, אלא מושקע באור כשדים בין עובדי עבודה זרה הטיפשים.
י ואביו ואימו וכל העם עובדים עבודה זרה, והוא היה עובד עימהן. וליבו משוטט ומבין, עד שהשיג דרך האמת, והבין קו הצדק, מדעתו הנכונה; וידע שיש שם אלוה אחד, והוא מנהיג הגלגל, והוא ברא הכול, ואין בכל הנמצא אלוה חוץ ממנו.
יא וידע שכל העם טועים, ודבר שגרם להם לטעות, זה שעובדים את הכוכבים ואת הצורות, עד שאבד האמת מדעתם; ובן ארבעים שנה, הכיר אברהם את בוראו.
יב כיון שהכיר וידע, התחיל להשיב תשובות על בני אור כשדים ולערוך דין עימהם, ולומר שאין זו דרך האמת, שאתם הולכים בה. ושיבר הצלמים, והתחיל להודיע לעם, שאין ראוי לעבוד אלא לאלוה העולם, ולו ראוי להשתחוות ולהקריב ולנסך--כדי שיכירוהו כל הברואים הבאים; וראוי לאבד ולשבר כל הצורות, כדי שלא יטעו בהן כל העם, כמו אלו שהן מדמין, שאין שם אלוה אלא אלו.
יג כיון שגבר עליהם בראיותיו, ביקש המלך להורגו; נעשה לו נס, ויצא לחרן. והתחיל לעמוד ולקרות בקול גדול לכל העם, ולהודיעם שיש אלוה אחד לכל העולם, ולו ראוי לעבוד. והיה מהלך וקורא ומקבץ העם מעיר לעיר ומממלכה לממלכה, עד שהגיע לארץ כנען, והוא קורא, שנאמר "ויקרא שם--בשם ה', אל עולם" (בראשית כא,לג).
יד וכיון שהיו העם מתקבצין לו ושואלין לו על דבריו, היה מודיע לכל אחד ואחד לפי דעתו עד שיחזירהו לדרך האמת, עד שנתקבצו אליו אלפים ורבבות, והם אנשי בית אברהם. ושתל בליבם העיקר הגדול הזה, וחיבר בו ספרים. והודיעו ליצחק בנו, וישב יצחק מלמד ומחזיר; ויצחק הודיעו ליעקוב ומינהו ללמד, וישב מלמד ומחזיר כל הנלווים אליו.
טו ויעקוב אבינו לימד בניו כולם, והבדיל לוי ומינהו ראש, והושיבו בישיבה ללמד דרך ה', ולשמור מצוות אברהם; וציווה את בניו שלא יפסיקו מבני לוי ממונה אחר ממונה, כדי שלא ישתכח הלימוד.
טז והיה הדבר הולך ומתגבר בבני יעקוב ובנלווים עליהם, ונעשת בעולם אומה שהיא יודעת את ה'

"But as for the Creator, there was not a single person who recognized Him, except for various individuals, such as Hanoch, Methuselah, Noah, Shem and Ever. Things continued in this manner until Abraham the Patriarch, supporter of the world, was born.
3) Once Abraham was weaned, he, as a child, began contemplating and thinking day and night, and wondered how a sphere could follow a fixed path without being directed. If so, who directed it? Surely it would be impossible for it to rotate on its own! Abraham did not have a mentor, but was immersed amongst the stupid idolaters of Ur Casdim, where everyone, including his mother and father, served idols, as did he. In his heart, however, he continued to contemplate, until he realized the way of truth and understood the ways of righteousness from nature, and knew that there is a God who directs the spheres, created the world, and besides whom there is none other. He also knew that the whole world was erring, and knew that what caused the mistake was that they [had] worshipped the stars and figures for so long that the truth had vanished. Abraham was forty years old when he recognized his Creator. Once he achieved this, he began to reason with the inhabitants of Ur Casdim and to argue with them, saying that by serving idols they were not following the way of truth. He broke their images, and began to proclaim that it is not fitting to serve anyone other than God, and to Him it is fitting to bow down and to offer drink sacrifices and sacrifices to, so that all creation will recognize Him. Abraham also proclaimed that it was fitting to break and destroy all the figures, so that nobody will err on account of them, like those who imagined that there is no God except for their idols did. Since people were listening to him, the king, Nimrod, sought to kill him, but a miracle was performed for Abraham, and he went to Haran, where he got up and proclaimed to the whole world that there is just one God in the world, whom it is fitting to worship. He went and gathered people together from cities and kingdoms, until he reached the land of Canaan, where he continued his proclamations, as it is written, "...and called there on the name of the Lord, the everlasting God". Since agnostics were coming to him with questions about this matter, he would answer each person [in a way] so that he would return to the way of truth, until thousands and tens of thousands came to him. These were the people of the house of Abraham. He placed this important principle in their way of thinking, wrote books, and taught it to his son Isaac. Isaac also brought people back [to the way of truth], and taught it to Jacob, instructing him to teach as well, who then taught and brought back those who accompanied him. Jacob the Patriarch taught all his sons, but distinguished Levi, appointing him as head, making him stay in a seminary to teach the way of God and to fulfill the commandments of Abraham. He commanded his [other] sons not to cease supporting the children of Levi, in order that this teaching would not be forgotten. This matter became more and more publicized amongst the children of Jacob and those who accompanied them, and a nation who knew God was established in the world.
Rambam’s sources are Pessukim in Nach and Chazal. He tells a similar story in MN 3:29. I am sure a study comparing the two will yield great information and should be a worthwhile enterprise."

I detect underlying questions that R. Phil and others always struggle with namely historicity and Midrashim. The Torah is not a history book. It tells a story with a purpose other than conveying historical fact. In fact it does not convey history but interprets it. It is a book of ethical and theological teachings and as such uses and adapts history to its intended lessons. The Rabbis knew this and used the Midrashim to pull the lessons, they understood were meant to be taught, out from the text. That is as it should be if the Torah’s purpose is to be understood and accomplished. It is irrelevant what happened only how it is seen and understood.

This is longer than I intended. I will address the last questions in next post.

Monday, November 06, 2006


Menachem Mendel pointed me to the article Meals as Midrash: A survey of Meals in Jewish Studies Scholarship by Jonathan Brumberg - Kraus, Wheaton College, MA. Although it is a little early to discuss the Seder I want to share something I learned that finally put to rest a Mishna that I always felt is not well understood in our traditional sources. The Mishna in Pessachim 10:8 reads
י,ח אין מפטירין לאחר הפסח אפיקומון
We do not end the meal after the eating of the Korban Pessach, with “Afikoman”. The Gemara questions the meaning of the word Afikoman and the accepted answer in Halacha is that one does not eat anything after eating the Pessach so that the taste of the Korban remains. Nowadays, with no Korban, we do not eat anything after the last bite of Matzah.

Here is how the Britannica explains the word Symposium

In ancient Greece, an aristocratic banquet at which men met to discuss philosophical and political issues and recite poetry. It began as a warrior feast. Rooms were designed specifically for the proceedings. The participants, all male aristocrats, wore garlands and leaned on the left elbow on couches, and there was much drinking of wine, served by slave boys. Prayers opened and closed the meetings; sessions sometimes ended with a procession in the streets. In Plato's famous Symposium, an imaginary dialogue takes place between Socrates, Aristophanes, Alcibiades, and others on the subject of love. Aristotle, Xenophon, and Epicurus wrote symposium literature on other subjects.

Note the similarity to the Halachik requirements at the Seder – leaning on the left elbow, discussions as in Haggadah, wine drinking and servants as the Shamash in the Mishna. In Greek Afikoman = epikomion –“after dinner revelry”, which apparently was the normal procedure at the end of a symposium. In Bavli Pessachim 119:2 the Gemara (already alluded to earlier) gives several explanations for the word Afikoman including the consumption of fruits and nuts. In Yerushalmi one of the explanations is “minei zemer”, types of music. R. Saul Lieberman Z”L in his Tosefta Kefshuta notes that Afikoman is commonly understood as revelries where participants in a symposium, after the official party, migrated to a private home and continued partying there. Thus

י,ח אין מפטירין לאחר הפסח אפיקומון

means we do not partake in after dinner revelries as the Greeks did. The symposium was an aristocratic custom which the Rabbis adopted into Halacha as a demonstration of freedom emulating the ruling classes of the times. By making it into a ritual to be performed by all, it emphasizes the contrast of the Jewish people origins as slaves. However the Rabbis cautioned that we should not emulate the depravity that was quite common in these symposia. No after dinner revelries are permitted.

Apparently as the custom of Symposia disappeared or rather evolved into different forms, the prohibition of revelry was no longer relevant. Halacha retained though the idea by prohibiting any further food after the last eating of the Matzah which replaces the Korban nowadays.
What is also notable is that the halachot of drinking wine and eating the Korban in groups was an old Halacha that dated back to the times of Matan Torah. During the second temple the rabbis took a normal secular custom of their times and appended the old Halacha to it. It is also likely that originally there was a rabbinic rule of not eating anything after the Korban so that the taste linger in the mouth. This ruling fit very nicely with the admonition not to revel as the Greeks did.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Akedah:a perspective.

Rambam in MN 3:24 analyzes four cases composed of six instances where the word Nissayon is used. All are interpreted to mean demonstration rather than test. One of the four cases is the Akedah. Here is how I understand the story based on my reading of Rambam.

According to Rambam’s understanding of prophecy, the conversation between Avraham and God are all internal experiences triggered by the prophet’s speculation about God and His actions. If we try to visualize the story, Avraham, the great philosopher and man of action, whose whole purpose is to create a nation that will carry forward his insights about the Divine, concludes in a moment of contemplation, that his devotion to God is still faulty and inadequate. He asks himself what would happen if his plans were thwarted by a decree from God. Would he acquiesce and give all his ambitions up? Is his own ego invested in this whole nation building enterprise? Is he really truthful to himself and doing this for God’s sake or for his own satisfaction? He experiences a prophetic vision where he sees himself told to sacrifice his son. His devotion tested to the limit he sees himself able to acquiesce and go through with this impossible decree until he is finally dissuaded by an angel. Ultimately human sacrifice is an abomination and God does not require it even in a dream or vision.

When seen in this context the historicity of the story is irrelevant. The idea of human sacrifice is an abomination in the Torah. When the Rabbis tell us that the patriarchs kept the whole Torah, are they insinuating that we have to look at this story in a non-literal way? There are tantalizing clues in Rambam that he might have felt that way. Professor Avraham Nuriel presents some compelling evidence to that effect. Ramban, though not explicit in this case, seems to read Rambam the same way (see first Ramban in Vayerah). Ibn Ezra on Jonah 1:1 clearly holds that it was nothing more than a vision.

The Torah refers to this story as Nissayon – “Veha’elokim Nissah et Avraham” –because it is a teaching for future generations. In a tantalizing comment Rambam notes that this was a private affair between Avraham and Yitzchak which we know about because the Torah decided to tell us about it. Although Rambam uses this argument in another context it also supports his position that it is a lesson rather than a test. Rambam says that it teaches two important lessons in religious thought: The level of devotion to God a man can reach and the power of prophecy.

First, it shows us the extent and limit of the fear of God. Abraham is commanded to perform a certain act, which is greater than any surrender of property or any sacrifice of life, because it surpasses everything that can be done, and belongs to the class of actions which are believed to be contrary to human feelings. He had been without child, and had been longing for a child; he had great riches, and was expecting that a nation should spring from his seed. After all hope of a son had already been given up, a son was born unto him. How great must have been his delight in the child! How intensely must he have loved him! And yet because he feared God, and loved to do what God commanded, he thought little of that beloved child, and set aside all his hopes concerning him, and consented to kill him after a journey of three days. If the act by which he showed his readiness to kill his son had taken place immediately when he received the commandment, it might have been the result of confusion and not of consideration. But the fact that he performed it three days after he had received the commandment proves the presence of thought, proper consideration, and careful examination of what is due to the Divine command and what is in accordance with the love and fear of God. There is no necessity to look for the presence of any other idea or of anything that might have affected his emotions. For Abraham did not hasten to kill Isaac out of fear that God might slay him or make him poor, but solely because it is man's duty to love and to fear God, even without hope of reward or fear of punishment”

He then goes on to explain further:

The second purpose is to show how the prophets believed in the truth of that which came to them from God by way of inspiration. We shall not think that what the prophets heard or saw in allegorical figures may at times have included incorrect or doubtful elements, since the Divine communication was made to them, as we have shown, in a dream or a vision and through the imaginative faculty. Scripture thus tells us that whatever the Prophet perceives in a prophetic vision, he considers as true and correct and not open to any doubt; it is in his eyes like all other things perceived by the senses or by the intellect. This is proved by the consent of Abraham to slay" his only son whom he loved," as he was commanded, although the commandment was received in a dream or a vision. If the Prophets had any doubt or suspicion as regards the truth of what they saw in a prophetic dream or perceived in a prophetic vision, they would not have consented to do what is unnatural, and Abraham would not have found in his soul strength enough to perform that act, if he had any doubt [as regards the truth of the commandment].”

The fact that Avraham could imagine himself following such a decree perceived in a vision proves how powerful a prophetic experience is. The prophet is so certain about his vision that he can act on it.

I always struggled with the idea of the Akedah. It always seemed to be so against all the Torah teaches repetitively about human sacrifices. It also went against all ides we have about what is decent and right and what is perverted and wrong. Seeing it in this light, as an internal struggle, a dream of a vision it is a very powerful statement about what devotion to God is and ultimately a negation of fundamentalism. Even in a dream one may not visualize human sacrifice. God does not require such sacrifices. I can now understand why this story takes such a central place in Jewish thought, so central that it entered the daily liturgy for those of us who say the Korbanot and Rosh Hashana Mussaf in the Zichronot section.

Shavua Tov.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Is God Just? Nissayon - Test or Demonstration?

The idea of God testing someone to see if he is as pious and true as it appears outwardly, or to afford an opportunity for greater reward in the future or the world to come, is quite accepted in contemporary traditional circles. I would like to spend a few posts exploring this idea. I would like to not only analyze Rambam’s view but also try to address Ramban’s objections to it and his own view. The issue of Nissayon (test) is an important component of what are Providence and reward and punishment. It is also quite timely as the Parshyot we are currently reading deal with Avraham’s Nissyonot and tribulations.

My understanding of reward and punishment is that it is the natural consequence of a person’s actions. It is also quite clear to me that it is Rambam’s position as I have posted many times. (I know Tafkaa you disagree. Just bear with me. It took me a while to become convinced too.) It is my idea of a just God. That being the case, I would have to assume that a test means that God is going to interfere in the normal flow of events. He would have a person, whose actions would under all circumstances result in a good outcome, end up suffering just to prove that he is genuine. Prove to whom? To God? Doesn’t God know anyway? Is this justice from a just God? Sounds much like the capricious gods of Greek mythology. Rambam in MN 3:24 considers this idea as illogical. As to the idea that God sends afflictions to afford opportunity for greater reward Rambam argues:

People have generally the notion that trials consist in afflictions and mishaps sent by God to man, not as punishments for past sins, but as giving opportunity for great reward… The principle taught in Scripture is exactly the reverse; for it is said:" He is a God of faithfulness, and there is no iniquity in him" (Deut. xxxii. 4). The teaching of our Sages, although some of them approve this general belief (concerning trials], is on the whole against it. For they say," There is no death without sin, and no affliction without transgression." Every intelligent religious person should have this faith, and should not ascribe any wrong to God, who is far from it; he must not assume that a person is innocent and perfect and does not deserve what has befallen him…”

And as to the idea that it is a demonstration of fidelity:

We must not think that God desires to examine us and to try us in order to know what He did not know before. Far is this from Him; He is far above that which ignorant and foolish people imagine concerning Him, in the evil of their thoughts.”

Rambam understands Nissayon not as a test but rather a demonstration. It demonstrates and teaches how one should behave or think.

The sole object of all the trials mentioned in Scripture is to teach man what he ought to do or believe; so that the event which forms the actual trial is not the end desired: it is but an example for our instruction and guidance.”

When I checked the Concordance it lists two separate roots Ness and Nissah. Ness refers to a pole, a standard (as in flag) or a sign (as in miracle). Nissah is a test. Rambam apparently sees the two words as having a much closer relationship. I am not sure whether his position is that in all Nach and even in the Torah every time the word that is a derivative of Nissah means demonstration. I have also not analyzed each one to see if that meaning can be read in each context. The word Nissah or its derivatives in the context of demonstration appears six times in the Torah and Rambam addresses those specifically. It appears three times in the context of the Mann, once by Avraham and the Akedah, once with regard to a false prophet and once at Sinai. In all four episodes that Rambam understands the word to mean demonstration rather than test.

Chazal expanded the list. They say in Avot chapter 5 that Avraham had ten Nissyonot; he demonstrated ten times how one serves God. The greatest demonstration was the Akedah. I will address that in my next post.