Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Dangers of a Revelatory Experience - The Egel Hazahav - The Golden Calf-

I just relearned a beautiful Meshech Chochma by R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk on this week’s Parsha which shows us how to interpret what seems to be an innocuous saying of the Rabbis. In its superficial reading it sounds like a myth. Properly understood it teaches an incredibly deep philosophical idea.

I want to caution that R. Meir Simcha himself, when he addresses these deep philosophical ideas writes in a quite obfuscating way. It requires interpretation and what follows is my understanding of what he wrote. There is no guarantee that it is the only reading.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף קד עמוד א

ואמר רב חסדא: כתב שבלוחות נקרא מבפנים ונקרא מבחוץ, כגון נבוב - בובן, רהב – בהר סרו - ורס.

Rav Hisda said the writing of the Luchot could be read from the inside and from the outside e.g. נבוב - בובן, רהב – בהר סרו – ורס

The first thing that catches one’s attention is that the words that R. Hisda uses as examples do not appear in the Luchot. Rashi notes that and comments that the choice of words is unintentional and meant to convey only examples of how a reading from two sides would appear. But even more baffling is what is R. Hisda telling us? What significance does this curiosity have?

R. Meir Simcha explains that there are two approaches to finding and understanding God. The regular approach which was followed by Avraham is to contemplate the universe and in analyzing cause and effect arrive at the conclusion that there is a First Cause that causes everything without Himself being caused. The laws of morality and ethics can also be learned from nature, what is commonly referred to as natural law and morality. It is a searching process from the bottom up. We look at our existence and surroundings to find God and establish laws.

The other approach is the revelatory experience similar to the one the Jewish people experienced at Sinai. They experienced God through revelation and received laws from God. The difference between the two is that when it occurs through revelation it becomes clear that God has Will, having willed existence just like He willed this revelatory experience. Apprehending God as having Will and choice makes one imagine tools that He uses to create and maintain what He created. Those are the ideas behind creation, the laws of nature set in place by God, the separate intellects or what we refer to as angels. They all are separate entities put in place by God to make things happen.

On the other hand finding the First Cause from the bottom up does not necessarily prove that God has choice. He can be seen as Aristotle saw Him, a spiritual power behind physicality. The spiritual and physical are interdependent and both are there eternally without any choice. Spinoza developed a completely atheistic philosophy on that basis. It is through revelation that we conclude that God, the First Cause, created in time and chose to will everything. Revelation is an adjunct and not the sole basis for an understanding of existence and God. When one arrives at God through this combination of intellectual development and revelation, it is illogical to confuse the First Cause with the laws of nature which are its effects.

It is therefore the miraculous revelatory experience, without a rigorous understanding of First Cause as a logical necessity, which allows for a misunderstanding of where everything begins.

R. Hisda refers to these two approaches to God using the metaphor of reading from the inside and from the outside or from the bottom up and the top down. Some, like Moshe and those close to him, experienced revelation as an addition to their bottom up understanding. Others, the Jewish people, the masses having just been liberated from Egyptian slavery, having been immersed in an idolatrous society that knew many gods and who saw the forces of nature as gods were not ready to grasp a transcendental unique God. Having experienced God through revelation only, without the proper philosophical grounding, they could not distinguish between the separate intellects, the angels that they perceived as the forces that guide existence and their Creator. They confused the Creator with His creations and that was the cause of their mistake in demanding an idol to replace Moshe. God cannot be represented because He is outside nature; He is a singularity, the only Entity that is not caused. It is when one confuses God with nature, when He is no longer seen as transcendental, that there is a need to represent that idea with a symbol. The golden calf was a representation of this mistaken concept. It was thus the experience of apprehending the existence of angels, separate intellects in medieval philosophic parlance, through revelation and the accompanying misconceptions that was at the root of the Egel.

Where do we find in the Torah an allusion to the revelation of separate intellects? Where does it mention anything about the people “seeing” angels which led to their misconception? R. Hisda tells us that if we read carefully the verse in Shemot 27:8 describing the construction of the Altar, we will find a clear allusion to that experience.

ח נְבוּב לֻחֹת, תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתוֹ: כַּאֲשֶׁר הֶרְאָה אֹתְךָ בָּהָר, כֵּן יַעֲשׂוּ. {ס}
8 Hollow with planks shall thou make it; as he has shown you in the mount, so shall they make it. {S}

What is intriguing is that whereas in Shemot 26:30[1] and 25:40[2], in the discussion of the Mishkan and the menorah respectively, the reference is unspecific, here it is very specific; “as he has shown you in the mount”. “He” being their perception of a specific entity that showed them the altar. Just as angels represent the concept of laws of nature so do they represent the concept behind the construction of the altar. Clearly the Torah is alluding that the people “saw” angels at Sinai. There was a revelatory experience that let them “see” the significance of the construction of the Mizbeach just as they “saw” the general concepts underlying God’s world

Note how two out of the three words R. Hisda used as examples for his metaphor appear in this verse – נְבוּב and בָּהָר. The third word סָרוּ appears in Shemot 32:8

ח סָרוּ מַהֵר, מִן-הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִם--עָשׂוּ לָהֶם, עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה; וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ-לוֹ, וַיִּזְבְּחוּ-לוֹ, וַיֹּאמְרוּ, אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
8 they have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them; they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed unto it, and said: This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.'

In other words R. Hisda was telling us that the cause for the people’s mistake in making the Egel was their apprehending through revelation, philosophical and metaphysical concepts of God and the laws of nature that make up our existence, without proper grounding in philosophy. The mistake came about because they could not differentiate God the Creator from His creations which they so vividly “saw”.

I believe this to be an exemplary interpretation of what is referred to as Aggadah and shows how much thought went into a superficially simplistic statement. The literal minded reader will not be harmed and understand it as he is wont to; literally. He will be filled with wonderment about the miraculous tablets that were found with words carved into them from side to side. Presenting that reader with the concept of separate intellects, laws of nature, God’s will and methods of contemplation would have no meaning to him. R. Meir Simcha or other scholars of his caliber, on the other hand, would be able to decipher the message and share it with those who can see the truth behind it.

In the posts below I showed how Rambam interprets other verses and comments of Chazal in a similar vein.

Clearly R. Meir Simcha had Rambam in front of his eyes when he wrote this piece.

ל וַהֲקֵמֹתָ, אֶת-הַמִּשְׁכָּן: כְּמִשְׁפָּטוֹ--אֲשֶׁר הָרְאֵיתָ, בָּהָר. {ס}
30 And thou shall rear up the tabernacle according to the fashion thereof which hath been shown thee in the mount. {S}

מ וּרְאֵה, וַעֲשֵׂה: בְּתַבְנִיתָם--אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה מָרְאֶה, בָּהָר. {ס}
40 And see that thou make them after their pattern, which is being shown thee in the mount. {S}


  1. Actually, RMS is one of the few achronim I can think of offhand that refer to the Morah (the only two others that come to mind are his contemporary, the Rogatchover, and the Yismach Moshe, which is more interesting for it being a chassidishe sefer). Do you know of others?

  2. I cannot think of others offhand either. The Ysmach Moshe wrotes in his seder hayom that the first thing every morning was learning one hour Moreh.

  3. Great post as always.

    When you have a chance, please take a look at my recent post on Parah Adumah. I think you will enjoy it.