Friday, April 27, 2007

But you shall love your fellow as yourself: I am the LORD

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843-1926) has a fascinating approach to the following verse in this week’s Parsha:

, וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ: אֲנִי, יְהוָה.
but you shall love your fellow as yourself: I am the LORD.

The first thing that comes to mind is what is the connection of loving your neighbor with Hashem? It is as if loving a fellow Jew proves the existence of God.

The idea that God is an entity that willed everything into existence in time is a basic belief in Judaism. The concept of a personal God that man can relate to makes sense only if that entity we worship has freedom of choice and will. The God of the philosophers, the First Cause in its pure concept, has no choice or will. It is just the “eminence grise” that is out there and explains how everything is here. We arrive at that concept by looking at the universe and noting that all things are contingent and therefore there must be a non-contingent entity out there. However if we look a little deeper we notice that the continued existence of the universe is dependent on how it evolved and made the right decisions to survive. There seems to be a built in mechanism that insures its survival. When we put living things into the equation, the very minute variations in the development of earth that would have made that impossible, the sense that there is an entity that programmed all this becomes stronger. It may not have been a willing entity - but an entity it is. When we add man into the equation, a being that has free will and choices, the appearance of a being that can think and make choices having developed by chance becomes counter intuitive. The God of the philosophers becomes a more distant possibility. Of course there is no definitive proof and the scientifically minded will bring a series of endless arguments to show how this is just conjecture and not provable. I agree – it is not provable. It is however also not refutable. As we are dealing with a non-material Entity, science which deals with the physical universe cannot show that a willing God cannot exist. Thus our intuition supported by Revelation and our history allows us to rationally believe in a unique God that willed and created everything in time. A God that is good because He put in place the mechanisms and the wherewithal that existence becomes permanent and self-sustaining.

The strongest argument for a willing God is man but an even more compelling one is the Jew. The survival of a nation through all the turmoil and persecutions remaining a unit that carries on for thousands of years against all odds is the greatest indication that there is a God who wills things. How else can we explain our continuity, in the face of all the challenges, if not that we are an integral part of a long term plan put into place by an Eternal, Unique but also a choosing and willing God? The Torah speaking for God is telling us that you yourself and your fellow Jew prove that I exist. Your existence and survival proves that there is order, thought and planning and therefore I am the God, the personal God that you are searching and trying to find. Love yourself and your fellow Jew. (Note that Rambam tells us that real love is a function of intimate knowledge).

Disclaimer: RMS like all great thinkers writes in a way that is understood by each of us according to his level. I have written this based on my understanding of the Meshech Chochma. I suggest that those familiar with Hebrew read it in its original. It is a beautiful piece worth the effort.

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. 1) If as Rambam says "real love" is a product of "intimate knowledge" and we can only surmise but not prove or disprove G-d's existence, much less gain "intimacy" with this G-d, then what kind of "real love" is possible?

    Answer: one that is self referencing. We define the rightness, and then we seek to reach our definition of what we define as right. Just like all other religions and ways of life. Nothing special about that, other than perhaps it works better for us than others work for others under the conditions we as a People experienced.

    But because it works, can we point to its utilitarianism as proof that G-d gave it to us? That seems like a weak argument. I can conclude from your argument that I should worship the indestructable Jews, just as easily as you might conclude that I should worship G-d, because the connection between G-d and Jews is alleged to be the Torah and there's even less proof of that than there is proof of G-d!

    2) If I concluded that G-d is a personal G-d as Judaism concludes, why do I NEED to conclude Torah, especially the Torah propounded by Rabbanim, is THE way of "knowing" G-d(if there was one)?

    It comes down to faith, man. Belief in G-d, and even more so belief in Judaism.

  2. There could be many plausible explainations for the persistence of the Jewish people, and I would argue that Jewish continuity is hardly the greatest indication of a personal God who intervenes in directing the course of human destiny. I agree with the first post; it is a testimony to tribal survival and the belief in its importance as much as ( if not more) than the sign that there is an eternal God.

    Be careful of making such an argument since it would imply that had Hitler succeeded it would have been proof against the existence of God.

  3. Anon 1 - Judaism believes in Revelation or prophecy. It believes that a person can elevate himself beyond the physical and acquire some kind of knowledge of HKBH. To rambam it is Negative Knowledge of which I have written a lot in my early posts. Love is a function of that intimacy. It is theoretical and experiential. IOW one has the take the theory and run with it in the hope, nay knowledge that if done with all our heart, we will experience it.

    I know you like the idea of faith, it is a school in Judaism. If that is what feels good for you go with it but you cannot be selective. It is an all or nothing affair. it will only work if taken on faith the whole enchilada!And in that case abandon rational search.

    Anon 2 . i would never make an argument for the existence of a personal God based on the historical survival of the jewish people alone. It is only an adjunct and one of the reasons for our keeping the Yamim Tovim and also Shabbat.

    I am not sure where your comment re Hitler is leading. If he succeeded we would not be here discussing God's existence in Jewish terms. The fact that we are still here allows us to argue for a plan.

  4. Judaism believing in revelation and prophecy is part of what I mean by the self-referencing "defining rightness". That we believe it does not prove it or the negation of the opposite, that there is no such thing. That neither it or its opposite is proveable requires, then, "faith".

    As far as Rambam's appeal to "negative knowledge" this is a distinction without a difference. Because we are unable to describe all that G-d is, we are left only being able to describe what G-d is not. Once we define for example that G-d is justice and say instead that he permits none of what is injustice, what really have we added to our ability to have "intimate knowledge" other than a sense of awe at G-d's indescribability? The argument is useful, but in terms of "intimate knowledge" it leaves us chasing our tail. It gives us no knowledge of what G-d is, only a taste of what we claim G-d is not.

    WHich still brings us no closer to support for the premise that G-d "reveals" or sends "prophets" to reveal the Torah we received.

    I do not appeal to faith because I want to. I do because I am beginning to find the rational approach futile. G-d maybe a rational idea in some respect, as this idea is, I assert, hardwired into our psychological makeup. Even athiests and positivists believe in a G-d of sort but they call it "Man" with a capital M. We all have the necessity to believe in things bigger than we.

    But, the point is how Torah is tied into both how we are hard-wired and the "fact-of-G-d". You assert without support the role of revelation and prophecy, and that's fine if we understand where that's coming from. I don't see how you can use that as support for your appeal to "rationality", as though this were the "or" of the choice of "faith' or "reason". You are dismissing faith when it is precisely that that undergirds your appeal to reason. Same for Rambam, so you're in very good and honorable company. It lays at the basis of the name of your blog, and I think it's an impossibility. Beilieving is only believing. It is never knowing.

    That revelation and prophecy serves your conclusions is solidly a matter that sits on the foundation of faith, not rationality.

    What I really dislike about the argument I'm making is that it pulls everything down to the level of its utilitarian value. I do it because "it's good for me" or "it's helping the Jewish people to survive" or some such thing. I hate the idea that the "ideal" is so because it's utilitarian and merely "makes sense". Maybe that's the best of poor choices, the nature of the beast as G-d made it. If it were so clearly what I want it to be, perhaps it wouldn't be free choice at all.

    Therefore partially on this basis and partially on a slew of other thoughts, I reluctantly conclude "it's a matter of faith".

  5. >I hate the idea that the "ideal" is so because it's utilitarian and merely "makes sense".

    Exactly. Religion (God) then serves man rather than man serving God. Furthermore it becomes an artificial thing (Karl Marx's opiate).I do not believe that is what Judaism is about. I hear it from some Kiruv Clowns and I would run from such a religion.

    The process to understand this rationally is to first define what kind of proof we need to accept the existence of a personal God. It cannot be a scientifically based one because we are not dealing with physical phenomena but rather with metaphysical concepts. The way I see it is that as the question deals with an entity that is outside the physical all we have to do is show that our concept does not contradict logic. We therefore argue for a non physical mind or concept which we can describe as a blueprint for existence. ( This too is NOT GOD) Just like e.g. relativity existed before Einstein understood it, in fact before the universe came into being as the Big Bang conformed with that law that was already extant, so too all existence has an underlying blueprint. That is to me what the ancients refer to as the Active intellect. Revelation is the ability of man to connect with that entity. Einstein connected with one aspect of it. Others with other aspects and it is the source of all knowledge. Knowledge is de facto the deciphering of the information contained in that Active Intellect. Revelation is the human capacity to connect with it sometimes coming to conclusion through inspiration rather than by logical step by step deduction. (Read about how Einstein came upon his theory and you will see he intuited and then went back to prove it). To me Moshe and the prophets and their writing is the report of their experience in this type of revelation when they meditated about metaphysical issues. If I can understand it and even experience it sometimes I go back and see if it meets the criteria of not being contradictory to logic and I can accept it. I do not believe this is faith though it is also not purely empirical proof. RJM coined it as logical deduction and I like that.

    I highly recommend you read Judaism, human values and the Jewish State by Yeshayahu Leibowitz. I think based on your comment it will speak to you. If you are fluent in Hebrew get his Sichot al Shemona Perakim, al Torat hanevuah shel Harambam and Al Pirkei Hashgacha.

    Shavua Tov.

  6. If I understand you, you are saying that "revelation" is, to use the comparison you made with Einstein, on the level of "theory". Moshe and the neviim posited a "theory" about what is truth, and that this theory occured to them is an occurance we call "revelation". This is not how revelation is generally perceived or presented. It is rather more like punching your code into a cash machine, and receiving in return cash. It is receiving something "out there" and putting it "in here", something that always existed but was not always grasped by me.

    But it's still theory and not fact, and that we resonate with it may come from logical induction (not actually deduction, I don't think). Swineburne uses this argument, too. It's convincing to a degree. He makes the case that we can take numerous arguments that deductively can't be proven and combine them into an inductively proven one. Kind of like lots of buckets with holes that when placed one in the other holds water.

    But this still only works for me thusfar for a proof of "G-d". It doesn't work for the next step, "proof that Torah is from G-d".

    If Judaism presented itself as a theory of what G-d wanted, I think I could grasp this as a fair statement. But it presents itself as fact. That Moshe received the "word" from G-d and repeated it word for word is one of Rambam's dogmas of faith.

    I can't argue that Orthodox Judaism doesn't "work". It does, for a lot of people. It's a glorious system, and to tinker with it and not "just get on with it" for the things that bother me is really a waste of time. It's not "truth" with a capital "T" that I want as much as I want rabbis who tell me the truth - when they know something (fact) and when they don't (theory). That's the difference between what you are talking about and what Einstein did. Also, Einstein is assisted in his fact-finding by the ability to measure his theories by experiment. A system that has two rabbis disagreeing about the same thing means, if daat torah is true, that one of them doesn't know the truth or is lying, or that both don't understand that they really are passing judgment on theory (such as the nature of G-d about which there is no reference, as opposed to halacha which is self-referencing).

    Regarding Yeshayahu Leibowitz I would like to read this book. I've heard about it but not yet purchased it. I fear, though, that his position, based on what I heard, is at its bottom a utilitarian one. One is Jewish because being Jewish is like being a good citizen - we have duties, and we must perform them to remain so. If this is what he is saying, I'm not sure how I'd profit from his book, as that seems to me still to be utilitarian.

    You're spot on regarding utilitarianism being about G-d serving man, or at least being co-equal with him and this doesn't make sense to me. That's why I militate from it.

    Bottom line, my problem here is a loss of faith in the rabbinic system. I want to believe they tell the truth, but often I see they are misled. I just wish I could find rabbis who say "this is what I know, this is what I don't, and this is what is impossible to know". It undermines the whole thing for me, as it draws me into doubt about whether if there was a Torat Moshe m'Sinai, that we can believe we have the very same Torah today that we had then. I need full trust to believe this, because I cannot prove it. It's a matter of faith.

  7. >It is receiving something "out there" and putting it "in here", something that always existed but was not always grasped by me.

    My understanding of revelation is more like this description. When we understand something and it fits into all the pieces that were bothering us, we "know" that it is true. That is what Moshe and the neviim grasped. Moshe more so because of the high and as Rambam says different, level of revelation he enjoyed. (read my article in Hakirah vol 1 at

    Seeing it that way translate the meaning of Moshe repeating word for word what he perceived. In my posts comparing Rambam and Ramban re mesora there is a marked difference between the two. Ramban's truth is relative. Two opposite opinions may both be true and it is the meaning of Elu ve'elu. To my mind the problem with this approach, though it is the accepted theory in Yeshivot today ( and I believe one of its problems), weakens the divinity of the hallacha. It says that the truth is as interpreted by Beit Din Hagadol and according to later expansion of the idea, even today's rav or gadol.

    Rambam believes there is only one truth at the core which never changes and only the additions are BD dependent.Without Beit Din Hagadol there is no binding new rulings after the sealing of Talmud.

    Just reading this debate makes you realize that ultimately we believe in a core divine revelation which is the Torah both written and oral and the acceptnace of na'asseh venishma.

    Where I believe the majority of skeptical thinkers go wrong is that they do not focus on what the goal of the Torah and Mitzvot are. It is not their fault but that of our leaders who have abandoned Rambam's rational thinking for the mystical approach of the mekubalim. The goal of everything we do is to train ourselves and make ourselves into better people so that we can get a better understanding of our existence and its relation to God. Finding God is the goal not the starting point. A child who is indoctrinated about God especially the current popular approach, believes in an imaginary non entity. The Torah is supposed to help us, by making us into better people both morally and cognitively, to spend our life searching for truth. there is only one ultimate truth - God - because He is the only non contingent entity. Ultimate truth is non - contingency.

    With this in mind we do not follow the Torah because it is divine - we follow it because we believe in its goals. Once we accept that, accepting it as immutable because of moshe's special prophecy and consequently its divinity is no longer an issue. I have tried to get this accross many times without much success. It is not faith but chosing an approach to answer the ultimate existential questions and being confident that along the way we will understand.
    וּבָחַרְתָּ, בַּחַיִּים--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה, אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ
    it all boils down to choice. It is also finding a community of seekers and joining with them in the ultimate search for truth. I know that even within the community they are hard to find but they are out there if you look carefully.

    Leibowitz is not utilitarian but rather starkly rational. I do not agree with all his interpreations
    of Rambam but he does an excellent job introducing us to rambam's thought within our contemporary understanding of the world.

  8. "With this in mind we do not follow the Torah because it is divine - we follow it because we believe in its goals"

    That's a MAJOR change from what I'm used to hearing. It clarifies your perspective immensely, but I don't really follow why Rambam would say we have to concur in order to be "Jewish" that the Torah we have today is the same as was received by Moshe, and that was received unchanged from G-d (that is, "divine"), if this position is true..

    Using your observation, I may say that Moshe had ideas that resonate with our human common sense about what G-d is and society should be. We therefore especially value what he said.

    But the same is said about Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson by scholars of the American Constitution. Similar to Talmudic development, American Law developed at least two major schools of approach, one that was interested in the "intent" of the Founding Fathers in an attempt to be conservative and prevent change, and the other their "ideals", attempting to predict by analogy what ideals the Founding Fathers would have countenanced today, for the purpose of encouraging change.

    Just as people ask whether it should matter them now what T. Jefferson thought, interesting and wise though he may have been, they ask as well why, if Torah is not divine, Moshe's thoughts should be anything more than "very special". But not binding, certainly.

    Now I can't really do anything with the question and remain Jewish. We cannot be a community of one, is what it boils down to. It may be very well true that Moshe didn't get it all right, and especially it may be likely that much of what came afterward skewed from what Moshe intended (the mesorah has stories that suggest as much) even if he DID get it all right. That "it works" for the most part, not forcing us to tame our intellectual gag reflex to live as a Jew, is helpful, but there are just things too difficult to swallow. The mystic/chasiddic Judeogroupies make it very difficult to keep my eye on the prize not because they are irrational, but because they have completely wiped out the middle ground that I lived in, the place where you claim I can find the community that suits me.

    Regarding Leibowitz's perspective I"m currently reading David Hartman's "A Living Covenant". He offers his own views on Rambam and on Leibowitz's view of Rambam. Rambam isn't so easy to figure out, it seems. :-)

  9. >why Rambam would say we have to concur in order to be "Jewish" that the Torah we have today is the same as was received by Moshe

    Do not misunderstand me. The Torah is immutable and it is upto us to figure it out. It is also Divine to insure its immutability and no other will ever be received. However it is not BECAUSE it is divine that I follow it. I follow it because of the goal it wants me to achieve.

    There were many great legal minds who put together lkegal systems. What makes the Torah different and unique is that combines, law and metaphysical ideas and makes them work together. i will be writing about this soon as I am in the middle of another project.

    Re Mysticism chassidism et al - all those theories are unfortunately the bane of judaism. The great Rishonim like Ramban were very careful in how they disseminated the stuff and it was always kept within a certain rational sphere mostly based on Plato. The later generations unfortunately few did a good job. There are great rational mystics such as RMS of Dvinsk, Rav Kook in the last generations but they are rare and few apart.

    yes Rambam is not easy. One has to read him many times and all over to get even a smidgen of how brilliantly the man thought. hartman is not bad. The Rav has good stuff where he combines Rambam with ramban in the backgrpund - a more platonic approach.