Wednesday, December 31, 2008

What To Teach Children About God.

In MN 1:35, Rambam lists beliefs that everyone has to be taught and inculcated with from childhood. Looking at this list and how Rambam presents it has a lot to teach us about his way of thinking.

1. God is unique.
2. It is forbidden to worship any entity besides Him.

These two are fundamental beliefs that Rambam presents as obvious. He then lists beliefs that are not so obvious; in fact, some are quite controversial.

3. God is not a body.
4. There is absolutely no likeness in any respect between Him and the things created by Him.
5. God’s existence is unlike the existence of His creations.
6. God’s life is unlike any other living being He created.
7. God’s knowledge is unlike that of His creations that are endowed with knowledge.

In addition to these beliefs, all including children, have to be taught that the difference between God and His creations is not merely a difference between more or less but one that concerns the species of existence. “Our knowledge or our power does not differ from His knowledge or His power in the latter being greater and stronger, the former lesser or weaker, or in other similar respects, inasmuch as the strong and the weak are necessarily alike with respect to their species, and one definition comprehends both of them.” This is quite a mouthful for children to be taught! It is also noteworthy that except for the belief in God’s unity, all others are couched in the negative, what God is not. In reality if one thinks about this, all these beliefs are definitions of uniqueness.

What I find fascinating is that Rambam tells us that we have to teach everyone, whether children or adults who are not willing or able to learn the sciences, that they have “to accept on traditional authority” all the above. In other words, they should be discouraged from questioning the veracity of these statements and asked to accept them on trust. However, even these unthinking people have to be taught the definitions of what these beliefs are. Even children are expected to understand that “the term “existence” can only be applied equivocally to His existence and to that of other things other than He.” Is it not amazing that children are expected to understand something that many people at the time of Rambam and even nowadays cannot fathom? Rambam sees this as something that can be taught to all.

Rambam then gets even more daring. Everybody eventually ends up learning some scripture. When that learning occurs, these basic beliefs eventually create a conflict with the texts of the scriptures and force us to start thinking about these beliefs and develop a proper understanding of them. It is not the conflict between science and religion that triggers sophisticated thought but the conflict between belief and text!

When people have received this doctrine, are habituated to and educated and grown up in it, and subsequently become perplexed over the texts of the books of the prophets, the meaning of these books should be explained to them.”

What need not be discussed with children and the uneducated?

But the question concerning the attributes of God, their inadmissibility, and the meaning of those attributes which are ascribed to Him; concerning the Creation, His Providence, in providing for everything; concerning His will, His perception, His knowledge of everything; concerning prophecy and its various degrees: concerning the meaning of His names which imply the idea of unity, though they are more than one; all these things are very difficult problems, the true "Secrets of the Law"”.

The meaning of unity or, to be more exact, uniqueness is taught to all although it requires abstract thinking. His providence, in providing for everything, His will, His perception and His knowledge of everything are just presented as facts without explaining exactly what they mean. That is something that each one develops his own understanding as he confronts the texts, learns how to interpret them learns about the sciences and HKBH’s creations.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

All The Words Of Rabbeinu Moshe Are Of One Mind In All His Writings.

Many argue that Rambam’s Halachik work is completely independent from his philosophic writings. Some point to the title of his philosophic magnum opus, Moreh Hanevuchim – the Guide of the Perplexed – that its intended audience is the “perplexed”, the skeptics. In other words, Rambam really did not subscribe to philosophy but wrote the Guide as an apologetic work to satisfy those who are perplexed by the apparent irrationality of Torah. Those who are therefore not bothered by these issues should refrain from thinking about these things. This position is the official stance of most contemporary Chareidi Yeshivot. In the opposing camp, the argument goes that Rambam presents an exoteric position to the traditional public, the philosophically unsophisticated, and an esoteric position which reflects his “real” belief, to the more advanced thinker. This latter approach to Rambam goes back to his early traditional commentators and was keenly embraced by modern scholars, especially the Leo Strauss School. As I showed in my last two posts, I believe Rambam is a Man of Truth par excellence and says it as he sees it. He may sometimes write in a manner that requires great care and precision to his wording to really understand what he means, and he warns us in his introduction to the Moreh that he may tactically present an intermediate position that is inexact as a teaching method. However, Rambam held that Torah and philosophy are intertwined and interdependent as both present the truth. Not only is the theological component of Torah steeped in philosophy and the sciences but so too is Halacha.

I am reading Professor Menachem Kellner’s excellent Torat Ha’ikkarim and he points me to an interesting observation that he credits Professor Yaakov Blidstein. The last Mishna in the first Perek of Hagigah categorizes the different Halachot. Some are based on a detailed textual prescription while others are based on minimal text metaphorically described as “mountains hanging on a hair”. The Mishna ends by pointing out that all these different categories of Halacha are equally “the body of the Law”. In other words notwithstanding how little or how much textual support a Halacha has, all categories are equally authentic and binding.

The next Mishna, the first of the second Perek, deals with how different Halachot have to be taught. Matters that deal with family issues should not be taught to more than two pupils at once while scientific matters to no more that one pupil. Metaphysics should not be taught to anyone in an explicit manner but rather should be presented in a way that allows the intelligent pupil to develop an understanding on his own. At the end of a long discussion of the reasons for the restrictions, Rambam addresses the placement of this Mishna here and its continuity from the last Mishna.

. והזכיר ענין זה במקום זה לפי שאמר לעיל הן הן גופי תורה, לפיכך הזכיר ענינים שהם יסודות גופי תורה.

He [Rebbi the editor of the Mishna] mentions this subject [sciences and metaphysics – Ma’aseh Breishit and Ma’aseh Merkavah] here because he said [in the earlier] Mishna that “these and these are the body of the Law”. He therefore discusses now those matters that are the foundation [on which] “the body of the Law” [are based].

In other words, Halacha’s basis, its foundation and rationale is science and philosophy. Halacha is based on reality; it does not create its own reality as I have heard it argued many times. A true understanding of Halacha can only come if it is rooted in reality – sciences and philosophy. As Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk writes, “all the words of Rabbeinu Moshe are of one mind in all his writings”. There is no disconnect between his philosophical and his Halachik positions in fact they are complementary and interdependent. When one learns a Rambam in Mishne Torah, one has to look for the underlying scientific or philosophical concept to understand him correctly. That was the approach of the great Halachik giants, among them, Rav Meir Simcha and the Rogatchover; they saw the Moreh as the key to understanding Rambam in MT and vice versa.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Hakirah Volume 7 Has Arrived.

Hakirah Volume 7 is now on its way to subscribers and stores.

Here is the listing of the articles in this issue.

On the Psak Concerning Israeli Conversions
Yehuda Henkin

Conversion to Judaism:
Halakha, Hashkafa, and Historic Challenge
Marc D. Angel

Hasidism and the Rebbe/Tzaddik:
The Power and Peril of Charismatic Leadership
Elijah Judah Schochet

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s View of Secular Studies in the
Thought of Rabbi Joseph Elias: Some Critical Observations
Baruch Pelta

Was Rashi a Corporealist?
Natan Slifkin

A Hagiographer’s Review of
“Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters”
Asher Benzion Buchman

A Statistical Analysis of Iggeros Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:35
Sheldon Epstein and David Greenberger

“It is upon him to bring the proof”:
A Note on Historiography, Printing, and the
Power of Hearsay in a Position of Rabad
Yaakov Jaffe and David Shabtai

Wrapping Ourselves Blindly
Shimi Berger and Shloimy Zelcer


The Order of Lighting the Hanukkah Candles:
The Evolution of a Custom and the Influence of the
Publication of the Shulhan Arukh
J. Jean Ajdler

Backward and Forward:
An Unusual Feature of Kiddush Levanah
David S Farkas

‘Shalom Aleichem’ to Three People During Kiddush Levanah
Zvi Ron


הלכות ברכת הגומל
שמואל פנחסי

גדרו של בית דין לענין גרות
אליעזר בן פורת

There is still time to subscribe at


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Clarification On The Subject Of "Necessary Beliefs".

In the previous post, I argued that Rambam does not require people to believe in “untruths” for expediency’s sake although this is an almost universally accepted credo by Rambam’s traditional commentators and modern scholars. I showed that Rambam holds there are “ultimate end” Truths that we have to accept at first on faith and then work towards developing as deep an understanding as possible of these Truths. These Truths, when understood properly elevate us from in-potentia into in-actu human beings. To arrive at a correct understanding of these Truths, there are many other Truths, Intermediate Truths that need to be learned. These Truths are not only the sciences but also ontological observations about our existence. While the sciences deal with the physical world and the laws that underlie it, the ontological observations look for answers that explain the purpose and goal of our existence, deal with ethical and moral issues and generally encompass the world of ideas. Just like the sciences, these ontological observations that are part of the Intermediate Truths, have to be grasped rationally and arrived at through learning.

However, among these Intermediate Truths there are some that, for the sake of expediency, have to be accepted on faith even before we learn them and then convince ourselves rationally of their truth. One of these is Reward and Punishment. For a person to really understand the concept of long-term consequence to his actions, how everything we do may influence for good or bad things what may happen even long after we pass away, requires much learning and thought. It is only after having experienced repeatedly how our actions have consequences in the short term that we can slowly appreciate the medium and long-term effect they have. Many people do not even have the capacity for self-awareness and observation and will never develop an understanding that actions have consequences – they attribute every outcome to chance. To prevent the breakdown of an orderly society, the Torah presents this idea of consequences in a way that can be appreciated by all and requires us to accept it as a fundamental belief. It therefore tells us that if we act badly God will punish us and if we act properly, He will reward us. The psychological effect of such a belief coupled with a few experiences of short-term consequences to one’s actions, will convince most people to behave properly. It will take a thoughtful person to realize that what that means is that God created a world which is run on a system of cause and effect which translates to action and consequences when applied to people who have freedom of will. Just as we are required to accept on faith that God is unique and then develop an understanding of what that means, so too must we accept that God punishes the transgressor and then figure out what that really means.

Rambam in Hilchot Teshuvah chapter 3 lists all those that do not partake in Olam Haba. As we know, Olam Haba in Rambam’s worldview is a state that a person experiences when he becomes a man in-actu and acquires a correct understanding of God. Those who do not partake are therefore those that either have developed erroneous opinions or have acted in ways that prevents them from acquiring the necessary opinions. The belief in reward and punishment is omitted. Clearly, it is not an opinion that when misunderstood would preclude one from partaking in Olam Haba.

I just wanted to clarify my earlier post as I believe it is important to correctly read Rambam on this issue. It has implication on the whole issue of Ikarim, which I hope to address at some future date.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Are "Necessary Beliefs" True?

One of the most difficult ideas for traditional Jews to accept is the idea supposedly attributed to Rambam that there are such things as “necessary beliefs” in Judaism. In other words, there are things that are intrinsically incorrect and untrue but we are told to believe them because they help us in the fulfillment of our goal. It is how MN 3:28 is understood by most traditional commentators such as Shem Tov, Efodi, and Narboni and even more by modern scholars. This idea is used to explain some difficult Rambam statements elsewhere and is almost a credo. This idea goes against the grain of almost everything Rambam teaches which is anchored in the idea that finding Truth is the goal of humanity. I have struggled for years with this supposed Rambam position and, after many repeated readings of the chapter in different contexts, believe that I am finally starting to see the light.

Rambam in MN 3:28 explains that although the purpose and goal of the Torah is to make us into a people that “know” about God as opposed to just believe things about Him, the Torah does not teach us how to arrive at that knowledge. It just sets out God’s uniqueness, omniscience, omnipotence, will and eternity leaving it to us to prove those beliefs to ourselves.

Thus, Scripture teaches the Existence, the Unity, the Omniscience, the Omnipotence, the Will, and the Eternity of God. All these points are ultimate ends, but they can only be understood fully and accurately after the acquisition of many kinds of knowledge.” (MN3:28)

There are certain Truths that we have to work towards understanding them. These are Truths that we need to know for the sake of Truth itself and their knowledge is what transforms the mind of a person from being just another survival tool into fulfilling its potential for which it was created – to become a man as opposed to another living animal species. The knowledge of these Truths is what Rambam refers to in the above quote as “ultimate ends” and he lists them - the Existence, the Unity, the Omniscience, the Omnipotence, the Will, and the Eternity of God. These Truths are presented by the Torah as facts that we have to work towards proving their truth to ourselves by acquiring many kinds of knowledge that allow us to develop a realistic and true understanding of our environment and existence. That knowledge is too composed of many Truths which are seen as intermediaries necessary to attain the “ultimate ends”. With few exceptions, the Torah does not set these truths out as beliefs; it requires us to find them on our own in the process of getting to the “ultimate ends”.

There are other truths in reference to the whole of the Universe which form the substance of the various and many kinds of speculative sciences, and afford the means of verifying the above-mentioned principles as their final result. But Scripture does not so distinctly prescribe the belief in them as it does in the first case.” (MN3:28)

Among these intermediary truths is the understanding of how our actions are based on the free will God gave us, and the idea that each act has a consequences. Our actions are ruled by a system of cause and effect. This knowledge is one of the components that help us understand “ultimate end” types of knowledge - God’s will and omniscience. This intermediary knowledge however, is the exception and it is set down as a belief just as the “ultimate end” types of knowledge are. We are asked to accept this as a fact and to develop an understanding of it as we contemplate God’s creation. Rambam explains the reason for this exception -

“Scripture further demands belief in certain truths, the belief in which is indispensable in regulating our social relations: such is the belief that God is angry with those who disobey Him, for it leads us to the fear and dread of disobedience [to the will of God].” (MN3:28)

The idea of cause and effect of our actions is presented as Reward and Punishment by God. It is also presented as a belief rather than knowledge that needs to be acquired as a stepping-stone towards ultimate knowledge. It is so for an expedient reason.

In some cases, the law contains a truth which is itself the only object of that law, as for example, the truth of the Unity, Eternity, and Incorporeality of God. In other cases, the belief is necessary for the abolition of reciprocal wrongdoing or for the acquisition of a noble moral quality. Such is the belief that God has a violent anger against those who do injustice … or the belief that God hears the crying of the oppressed and vexed, to deliver them out of the hands of the oppressor and tyrant.”

According to this reading of Rambam, there are no “untrue” beliefs that we are required to accept for expediency’s sake. The Torah just demands that we treat this type of intermediary knowledge [truth] as we would an “ultimate end” type.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

My Last Words On An Unexceptional Book, To Say The Least , About An Exceptional Mind.

I slogged through about half of Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin’s book. I have to say that it only gets worse. He has a very simplistic understanding of whatever he reads and though he claims to be a Maimonidean, he is far from it. My original idea that we can use him to clarify subjects has not panned out because some of his ideas are presented so superficially that it is hard to even begin addressing them. I also can say (tongue in cheek) that Drazin’s theology is so distant from Jewish theology that the rule of not engaging in interfaith dialog may apply here! I therefore do not want to waste more time on this and will just point out a few things that caught my attention.

Chapter 5 is titled “Two More Halevi Idiosyncrasies”. He discusses the Kuzari’s understanding of Jews as Chosen People and I quote, “However, his [Halevi] notion of Jewish supremacy is outrageous and perverse, and his understanding of history illogical.” He then proceeds to state unequivocally, "Maimonides rejects these ideas”. Here again Drazin shows that he cannot deal with a nuanced approach. Rambam in Hilchot Avodah Zara 1:18 writes –

כיון שנתנבא משה רבנו, ובחר ה' בישראל לנחלה, הכתירן במצוות והודיעם דרך עבודתו, ומה יהיה משפט עבודה זרה וכל הטועים אחריה.

Clearly, Rambam accepts the idea of a Chosen People though he may disagree with exactly what that notion means. After all it is repeated many times in the Tanach see Devarim 6:6, 14:2, Yeshayahu 44:1, 41:8, Yechezkel 20:5, Tehilim 33:12 and many, many more. Furthermore, we do say the Bracha Asher Bachar Banu every morning and when we are called to the Torah. Although Drazin admits that we find these ideas in the prayer book, “the appearance of an idea in the prayer book does not make it a mandatory Jewish belief… One example of this is found in the many mystical prayers inserted into the prayer book by the mystics of Safed in the Sixteenth Century”. Do I have to say more? Drazin does not differentiate between a text set in place by Anshei Knesset Hagedolah as transmitted in the Talmud, which is mandatory and later additions that are voluntary. Are we expected to lie every day and say things we do not believe in? For a contemporary comprehensive discussion of the idea of the Chosen People, see Professor Lawrence Kaplan’s article published in “Maimonides in Da’at” by Bar Ilan University “Maimonides’ Singularity of the Jewish People”. There is no place for the disdain and complete lack of respect this author shows towards the great R. Yehudah Halevi! It just highlights Drazin’s own inadequacies.

His chapters on Ethics and Sacrifices are superficial and lack any serious substance. I skimmed through the rest of the chapters and made some notes where things really irritated me but it would be a waste to address those. However, the most outrageous is the chapter entitled “The Shofar Scares and Confuses Satan”. It highlights Drazin’s thinking process and his true theological position.

Drazin starts by proclaiming that Yom Teruah, the name given the day in the Torah means literally “shouting”. He then goes on to say that, the significance of the day is its being the first day in the seventh month, important because the number seven has deep meaning in Judaism. It reminds us of the seven days creation like other rituals that are connected with seven: Shabbat, Shemita and Yovel. Yom Zikaron, day of remembrance, the other name for the day in the Torah proves the point - a day of remembrance of the number seven! It is only later that it became known as Rosh Hashanah, because a “new” idea sprung up that we should start the year on the first day of fall. This non-biblical idea was based on a tradition that the sixth day of creation, the day Adam was created, was the first day of Tishrei. Once accepted Yom Teruah was replaced with Rosh Hashana. So far no great novelty other than a hodgepodge of old hat biblical criticism ideas that have been debated many times over. (For a good discussion, on the subject, see Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman’s commentary on Vaykra 23). Now comes the piece de resistance and I quote, “… that the blowing of Shofar on this day was started by the masses and was later justified by the rabbis using the two cited verses.” He then goes on and uses the one opinion among many in the Gemara that gives the reason for Shofar to confuse Satan the idea behind the masses’ new practice. The Rabbis then tried to mitigate the superstition by making two different kinds of blowing one series before the Amidah as a “more advanced spiritual concept” and the second during Amidah as the superstitious one. He ends the discussion of Shofar as follows, “In the next chapter we will discuss how Rosh Hashana is involved in other Rosh Hashana rites, including the Kapparot and tashlich ceremonies.” There is more along this vein in that chapter and it is not worth quoting. Again, Drazin shows his “erudition” and sophistication by not discerning between Halachot and customs, transmitted law and hermeneutic support. The most surprising part is that Drazin foists the whole idea on Rambam, as if that was his real take on things without bringing any proof to it. “In his MT Teshuvah 3:7 Maimonides rationalizes the blowing of the Shofar on Rosh Hashana. He writes that it is a way of calling the people to awaken from their slumbers, search their deeds and change their ways. Yet he admits that he knows no reason why the ram’s horn, and not another instrument, was chosen to perform the act.” Therefore, I guess, Rambam must have seen it like Drazin! That is the ultimate Chutzpah of this “erudite” Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin.

The word Teruah is closer to “noisemaking” than to “shouting”. The prooftext is exactly the hermeneutic derasha that the Gemara uses comparing it to how the Torah directs the practice on Yovel where the Torah itself defines Teruah as Shofar - וְהַעֲבַרְתָּ שׁוֹפַר תְּרוּעָה. The word Teruah may refer to other methods of noisemaking but when it comes to an announcement of a special time it is done with Shofar as the Torah itself defines it at Yovel. This comparison however is not the basis for the use of Shofar; it is only supportive. As we saw in my last post, Rambam explained that together with the written text of the Torah we received a set of explanations of the text including how to practice a ritual. Just as it was a received tradition, that Pri Etz Hadar is Etrog so too were we told that Teruah in this case is Shofar. The Rabbis then used the hermeneutic rule as support. [1]

ואף על פי שלא נתפרש בתורה תרועה בשופר בראש השנה, הרי הוא אומר ביובל "והעברת שופר תרועה . . . תעבירו שופר"
; ומפי השמועה למדו מה תרועת יובל בשופר, אף תרועת ראש השנה בשופר
(Hil Shofar 1:1)

The expression MiPi Hashemuah refers in Rambam to transmitted tradition. But of course, to Rabbi Dr. Drazin such a thing does not exist. He was not able to identify it from the start. Categorization of different kinds of halachot is beyond his capacity. Using hermeneutics as support a transmitted law, a Pirush Hamekubal, is beyond his ability to comprehend

It is a complete waste to spend your hard-earned money on this unexceptional book that is replete with errors and plain nonsense. I wish I could get a refund for my copy but I scribbled notes in the margins!

Shavua Tov.

[1] BTW, the exact understanding how this works and how it affects what is considered De’oraita is a long argument between Rambam and Ramban in Sefer Hamitzvot Shoresh 2.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Basis For Talmudic Authority - Is Halacha "Correct"? Were The Early Rabbis Superhuman?

In my previous post, based on my reading of Rambam’s introduction to Mishne Torah, I showed that the core of Talmudic authority are the Transmitters of TSBP, the גדולי חכמי ישראל המעתיקים תורה שבעל פה coupled with the subsequent Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin had the authority to extrapolate and extend laws to variants and new cases using hermeneutics and promulgate new legal ordinances - Gezeirot, Takanot and Minhagim. This authority is not based on acceptance and agreement but is legally binding because it is “correct”.

This morning I took the time to read chapter 6 of Professor Menachem Kellner’s book “Maimonides on The Decline of The Generations”, where he analyzes the same text and though he reads it a little differently, (of course I think I am right!) he does not at all imply that the laws are in any way not “correct”. His main argument is that Rambam did not view the earlier Rabbis as superhuman, but rather their authority stems from historical circumstances which gave them certain advantages – the existence of a central authority and the gathering of a great number of scholars who had reliable transmitted traditions. I have no problem with that position and in fact subscribe to it as being Rambam’s perspective as long as we accept that the authority of the authentic transmitters is inviolable and should be the basis for subsequent Halacha. That is very different from the point Rabbi Dr. Drazin tries to make in his book that all Torah law is based upon acceptance and not because of its “correctness”. Drazin however does not explain what constitutes “correct” in the context of Halacha. I do not see how one can argue for objective correctness unless one subscribes to a mystical basis for Halacha, which we know Rambam rejects. I think that it is quite clear what has been promulgated under the system of legal authority - transmission of TSBP and the authority of the Sanhedrin – is “correct” in this context.

On page 23 Drazin recruits the Beit Yosef as another denier of what he refers to as the doctrine of “the decline of the generations”. Here is what Drazin says.

In his [Beit Yosef] comment on Maimonides’ Laws of the rebellious elder 2:1-3, he posed the question: If Maimonides is correct and later Rabbis are more intelligent than earlier ones, why did the Talmudic sages not dispute the earlier rabbis whose ideas are in the Mishna? He answered his own question: “it is possible to say that when the Mishna was completed it was established and accepted that later generations would not dispute the earlier generations”. This is precisely Maimonides position in his introduction to Mishne Torah.”

This statement is an illustration how when one has no ability to read a text and comprehend it in its proper context can mislead the uninformed. Let us turn to his source and see what it really says.

Hilchot Mamrim 2:1 legislates –

א בית דין הגדול שדרשו באחת מן המידות כפי מה שנראה בעיניהם שהדין
כך, ודנו דין, ועמד אחריהם בית דין אחר, ונראה לו טעם אחר לסתור אותו
הדין--הרי זה סותר, ודן כפי מה שייראה בעיניו: שנאמר "אל השופט, אשר יהיה
בימים ההם" (דברים יז,ט)—
אין אתה חייב ללכת, אלא אחר בית דין שבדורך.

As we saw in the previous post, there is a category of laws that are based on Sanhedrin’s ability to extrapolate Mosaic Law to new cases and situations using the rules of Hermeneutics – the famous 13 Midot of Rabbi Ishmael. This is the only category of Law that precedent rulings are not binding. Any subsequent Beit Din can overturn the ruling of a previous one, no matter how great the earlier ones were, if this Beit Din can present a good argument and garner a majority. Although Rambam clearly states בית דין הגדול which refers to a constituted Sanhedrin of 71 judges (this point is noted by Rav Elhanan Wasserman) Beit Yosef assumes that all Batei Din can do so even after the abolishment of the Sanhedrin. He therefore asks why is it that we find in the Gemara that Amoraim would not argue with Tannaim even in cases that used Hermeneutic rules. He answers that it is by convention. The discussion has nothing to do with “greatness” or “decline of the generations”. It is a discussion of the rules of the legal system and applies to a specific category of laws. All agree that if we had Sanhedrin today, they could overturn laws based on Hermeneutics that were promulgated even if by the Beit Din of Moshe or Yehoshua. Beit Yosef read Rambam as saying that even without Sanhedrin the laws derived through hermeneutics could be overturned. He therefore was forced to assume convention as being the basis for the Amoraim’s acceptance of these types of rulings reported in Mishna.

As I said earlier, I agree that Rambam does not see authority of the earlier Rabbis based on superhuman greatness but rather on circumstances which gave them the opportunity to be the authentic transmitters of TSBP but that is very different from a generalized statement that Torah authority is based on acceptance and is not necessarily “correct”.

In his summary on this topic, Drazin writes –

A basic doctrine among many Orthodox Jews is the conviction that the earlier generations of rabbis were intellectually superior to their descendants due to a natural decline in intelligence from one generation to the next. Those who hold this view use it to support their decision not to question the ruling of earlier rabbis. They take a passive, non-questioning stance in regard to Halacha.”

Again, Drazin shows that he has very little familiarity with the Halachik system. One has to pick any Halacha in Shulchan Aruch, trace it from its origins in the Talmud through Rif, Rambam, Rosh, Tur, Beit Yosef, Bach, Taz, Magen Avraham and finally the Aruch Hashulchan and the Mishna Berurah and be amazed at the different perspectives on each Halacha. I have not yet encountered a Posek who takes a “passive, non-questioning stance in regard to Halacha”. However all Possekim, whether of Rambam’s school who do not accept a superhuman explanation for earlier authority or from the other schools who do, agree that the earlier generations, the authentic transmitters of TSBP have precedence in Halacha. Not only are the transmitted Laws binding but so too are the decisions they made, as recorded in the Talmud, binding. And yes, they are “correct”.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Basis For Talmudic Authority.

On page 29, of “Maimonides The Exceptional Mind”, the author makes the following statement:

He [Maimonides] writes that the Halachik component of “the Babylonian Talmud is binding on all Israel… because all the customs, decrees and institutions mentioned in the Talmud received the assent of all Israel”. Thus, only the “customs, decrees and institutions”, the Halachik elements, received “the assent of all Israel”.

He makes this statement to support his position that Rambam held that we are not bound to accept the Aggadic discussions in the Talmud. We are only bound to the Halachik ones[1]. That is however not where I want to focus. I want to zero in on the quote from Mishne Torah because the way the author presents it is a complete misinterpretation and shows a lack of Halachik expertise. The implication is that the only reason we are currently bound, according to Rambam, to Talmudic law is because it was accepted by all of Israel and not because there is an inviolable Mesora that binds us. The author also uses this quote to support another one of his positions that he tries to foist on Rambam claiming that he did not accept the primacy of earlier sources over later ones because they were greater. He refers to a book by Menachem Kellner, which I have but have not read who supposedly makes that claim too. His argument is that as halachot are dependent on “acceptance”, precedence does not imply greatness[2]. Here is how he puts it:

Maimonides recognized the authority of the earlier Rabbis and accepted their decisions but only because each of their rulings “derives from the role they played in Jewish history” [highlighted in the original I guess a quote from Kellner]. Maimonides was thus expressing the belief that the rabbinic decisions were not correct per se, but, since the majority of Jews had decided to accept the early rabbis’ Halachik decisions, they became authoritative”.

Here are Rambam’s words in the original – (Introduction to Mishne Torah)

ומשני התלמודין, ומן התוספתא, ומספרא ומספרי, ומן התוספתות--מכולם
יתבאר האסור והמותר, והטמא והטהור, והחייב והפטור, והכשר והפסול, כמו
שהעתיקו איש מפי איש מפי משה מסיניי
גם יתבאר מהם דברים שגזרו חכמים ונביאים שבכל דור ודור, לעשות סייג לתורה, כמו ששמעו ממשה בפירוש "ושמרתם את משמרתי" (ויקרא יח,ל),
שאמר עשו משמרת למשמרתי.
וכן יתבאר מהם המנהגות והתקנות שהתקינו או שנהגו בכל דור
ודור, כמו שראו בית דין של אותו הדור, לפי שאסור לסור מהם, שנאמר "לא
תסור, מכל הדבר אשר יגידו לך--ימין ושמאל" (ראה דברים יז,יא).
וכן משפטים ודינין פלאיים שלא קיבלו אותן ממשה, ודנו בהן
בית דין הגדול של אותו הדור במידות שהתורה נדרשת בהן, ופסקו אותן הזקנים,
וגמרו שהדין כך הוא. הכול חיבר רב אשי בתלמוד, מימות משה ועד ימיו.

There are several groupings of halachot, each with its own characteristics, and their compilation makes up the bulk of the two Talmudim, the Bavli and the Yerushalmi. The first group is made up of the halachot that were transmitted directly from Moshe at Sinai. In his introduction to Pirush Hamishna, Rambam is more detailed and explains that this group is composed of two subgroups – Pirushim Mekubalim Mimoshe (PMM) and Halacha Lemoshe Misinai (HLM). PMM are the oral explanations Moshe received on how to practice the Mitzvot and interpret the text, for example, that Pri Etz Hadar is Etrog or that Anaf Etz Avot is Hadas. These transmissions, Rambam is adamant, were never forgotten and there is no argument about them. Much has been written about this position of Rambam and many have questioned it, but that is Rambam’s adamant position. HLM too according to Rambam, were unanimous. He gives a partial listing of them in his introduction to Pirush Hamishna. There is much controversy about how to discern which HLM is really Misinai, whether they all have a status of De’oraita or not, but again that is Rambam’s adamant position that there cannot be arguments about them. In other words, if we see an argument in the Gemara about a Halacha, according to Rambam they cannot belong to this first group. The halachot in this group are binding by definition, just as the written text is binding. It does not depend on whether they were accepted by all Israel or not. As we will see later, the Talmud is the last reliable compilation of these transmitted laws and traditions.

The second group is comprised of laws that were created by the rabbis to extend the Torah law to prevent transgressions of the core law. These are referred to generally as Gezeirot Derabanan. Arguments are common and discussions went on at times for generations, whether to implement such a law. The process here was that eventually the Sanhedrin debated these laws and if the majority agreed, implemented them. Once implemented, they had to be accepted by the people. If after a time the people did not accept them and the practice did not spread across a majority, they were abolished. If they did, they became immutable and can never be changed. (An example of such a Halacha, that is immutable, is the prohibition of mixing bird’s meat and milk. One that did not make it is the prohibition of eating oil from a gentile.)

A third group[3] are legal conventions established by the Sanhedrin addressing new or problematic practices that arise in society, generally dealing with commerce and monetary issues. Similarly, Sanhedrin established customs in ritualistic law that they felt were important for religious reasons. This group too needed popular acceptance in practice for them to become immutable.

It is important to note that these last two groups required two conditions: promulgation by a Sanhedrin and acceptance. Both conditions are required to make them binding.

The fourth group is comprised of laws that were promulgated over time by the Sanhedrin, using the established hermeneutic rules for comparing cases. There were many discussions before these laws were established and usually required a majority vote. Interestingly these laws were not immutable and in fact, any Sanhedrin could overrule an earlier one. Reinterpretation was open and permitted as long as there was a Sanhedrin. Note that this applies only to this category while all the others are immutable.

נמצא רבינא ורב אשי וחבריהם, סוף גדולי חכמי ישראל המעתיקים תורה שבעל פה,
ושגזרו גזירות והתקינו תקנות והנהיגו מנהגות ופשטו גזירותם ותקנותם
ומנהגותם בכל ישראל, בכל מקומות מושבותיהם.

Having detailed the composition of the Talmudim and described Torah Sheba’al Peh (TSBP), the whole corpus of Oral Law, Rambam explains that in fact Ravina, Rav Ashi and their contemporaries, were the last transmitters (more exactly copiers) of the TSBP. Included in this corpus of reported rulings are the decisions of the last Sanhedrin that could use the hermeneutic rules to change how new developments were looked upon by the Torah, thus making those rulings binding until a Sanhedrin can be reconvened. Included too are the ordinances promulgated by Sanhedrin that required acceptance and were accepted by “all the Jews wherever they lived”, thus making them binding eternally.

With this last statement, Rambam summarizes the authority of the Talmud. It is the only reliable repository of all the rulings that are binding on the Jewish people. It has nothing to do with acceptance but with it being the correct transmission of the Oral Law going back to Moshe.

Rambam now addresses a completely new issue. He outlines the reality, where arguments can arise even with the Talmud theoretically being binding. One possibility is new Takanot and Gezeirot that a Beit Din sees fit and necessary to address a specific situation that may arise. The other is when there is a difference of opinion on how to interpret a Talmudic ruling or how to apply it to a new situation or both. In both cases, the local Beit Din has jurisdiction but the ruling is not universally binding.

לפיכך אין כופין אנשי מדינה זו לנהוג במנהג מדינה אחרת, ואין אומרין לבית
דין זה לגזור גזירה שגזרה בית דין אחר במדינתו. וכן אם למד אחד מן
הגאונים שדרך המשפט כך הוא, ונתבאר לבית דין אחר שעמד אחריו שאין זה דרך
המשפט הכתוב בתלמוד--אין שומעין לראשון, אלא למי שהדעת נוטה לדבריו, בין
ראשון, בין אחרון.

As the Talmud was the last reliable source for the tradition of binding Law, Rambam argues that any decision beyond the Talmudic law, whether it is an interpretation or extension of Talmudic law or a new ordinance is not binding on the whole of the Jewish people. It is only a localized ruling that applies only to the areas the court that made the ruling has jurisdiction. Other Batei Din whether contemporary or later, are not bound by these decisions.

But what about the ordinances (Takanot and Gezeirot) that we find in the Talmud that were promulgated after the Sanhedrin no longer existed? What about the post Sanhedrin laws that we find in the Talmud that use hermeneutic rules to address new cases and could have the imprimatur of a majority vote? What authority do these laws have to be binding on all of Israel? Why are they more authoritative than the post Talmudic laws? After all, both of these lack the authority of Sanhedrin?

אבל כל הדברים שבתלמוד הבבלי, חייבין כל בית ישראל ללכת בהם; וכופין כל
עיר ועיר וכל מדינה ומדינה לנהוג בכל המנהגות שנהגו חכמים שבתלמוד, ולגזור
גזירותם וללכת בתקנותם.
הואיל וכל אותן הדברים שבתלמוד הסכימו עליהם כל ישראל,
ואותן החכמים שהתקינו או שגזרו או שהנהיגו או שדנו דין ולמדו שהמשפט כך
הוא הם כל חכמי ישראל או רובן, והם ששמעו הקבלה בעיקרי התורה כולה, איש
מפי איש עד משה רבנו.

Because the Talmudic laws enjoyed the agreement of all of Israel and furthermore, those who promulgated these rulings were the majority of the Chachmei Israel, the juridical experts, and at the same time the last reliable transmitters and interpreters of the law, these laws are universally binding unlike post Talmudic ordinances and laws. It is for these particular laws, the post Sanhedrin ones, that agreement plays an authoritative role. Drazin bases his argument on acceptance on this last statement of Rambam. As we can see, it is a complete misreading of the text and has no basis in it. The authority of the law in general comes from the basic laws being traceable back to Moshe as Rambam puts it

שהעתיקו איש מפי איש מפי משה מסיניי

Clearly the older the authority the more reliable it is. Rambam never said that the earlier authorities were recognized because their ruling “derives from the role they played in Jewish history”. On the contrary, it is exactly those rabbis that were the transmitters of the early rulings that were recognized as authoritative. They were the authentic transmitters of the Mesora which is binding on all of Israel because it is based on Mosaic Law, the original Law.

[1] The real source for this supposed position is the Pirush Hamishna in three different places, where Rambam says that whenever there is a rabbinical argument about a non-praxis related matter we cannot decide the Halacha according to one of the positions; that is very different from a blanket rejection of Talmudic Aggadah. The author does not even refer here to that source.
[2] He repeats this further on page 24 in another context and I will address that in a follow up post.
[3] in this quote seen as a subgroup of the last one, in Pirush Hamishna Rambam sees them as a separate group.

Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin and Maimonides - An Unexceptional Book About An Exceptional Mind.

A new book on Rambam that has been published recently, “Maimonides, The Exceptional Mind” by Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin of Jerusalem and Boca Raton was recently brought to my attention. After reading about 30 pages, I was ready to put it down as I felt that the author distorts Rambam’s positions while he insults the great Rishonim who disagreed with him. I then thought about it and decided that I can use his misreading and distortions as a tool to explore Rambam’s real positions. Now we all know that Rambam in all his writings is very subtle and leaves room for different readings of the same text. But there is a legitimate and responsible way of reading him and there are irresponsible ways. Rabbi Dr. Drazin ways are irresponsible. I believe that unlike when there is a legitimate disagreement about Rambam’s position, the obvious misinterpretations by this author are a good opportunity to flesh out Rambam’s thinking while at the same time highlight the peril of reading him superficially. Furthermore, under the guise of teaching the masses, Rabbi Drazin writes in his introduction, “Therefore, I thought it proper to address this book to the general public and to minimize footnotes”. The lack of footnotes however also takes away the ability of an uninformed reader of checking out the sources and deciding for himself whether the author interpreted correctly. I will try to rectify this omission and turn to the sources.

Let me say a few words about process. As I am writing these posts while simultaneously reading the book, there may be subjects the author addresses further again. I will therefore try to limit each post to one subject and if as I proceed the subject is reopened and I want to add to it or change, I will refer to the earlier post and link the two.

Already on page 3, there are already a few mistakes that I attribute to poor editing. The book reads, “The great nineteenth century rabbi Maharam of Rotenberg….” He lived in the thirteenth century (1215-1293).

On the same page, Drazin writes, “Maimonides’ disciple Joseph Ibn Caspi wrote to his son….” Joseph Ibn Caspi was a Maimonidean scholar in the 13th and fourteenth centuries in Southern France and not Rambam’s disciple. Rambam’s disciple was R. Joseph ben Yehudah, a North African who eventually settled in Aleppo and later Baghdad.

In the upcoming posts I plan to address the more substantive issues raised by this book.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Mumbai, the Holtzbergs A"H and Some Thoughts on Hashgacha (Divine Providence).

A close friend of mine was in Mumbai two weeks ago and visited with the Holtzbergs A”H on Wednesday, exactly a week before the tragic events begun. He was debating whether to stay on for another week for business reasons finally deciding to leave, thus possibly saving his life. This got me into thinking and rereading some pertinent chapters in MN.

Rambam MN3:17 writes:

For I do not believe that it is through the interference of Divine Providence that a certain leaf drops [from a tree], nor do I hold that when a certain spider catches a certain fly, that this is the direct result of a special decree and will of God in that moment. It is not by a particular Divine decree that the spittle of a certain person moved, fell on a certain gnat in a certain place, and killed it; nor is it by the direct will of God that a certain fish catches and swallows a certain worm on the surface of the water. In all these cases the action is, according to my opinion, entirely due to chance, as taught by Aristotle. … It may be by mere chance that a ship goes down with all her contents, as in the above-mentioned instance, or the roof of a house falls upon those within. But it is not due to chance, according to our view, that in the one instance the men went into the ship, or remained in the house in the other instance: it is due to the will of God, and is in accordance with the justice of His judgments, the method of which our mind is incapable of understanding.”

Let us analyze the case of the falling leaf. Wind is a natural occurrence. That a leaf drops when wind blows is another natural event. Both of these events have nothing to do with chance. They are predictable results of the natural system of cause and effect put into place at creation .The winds result from variable temperatures and thus air pressure on different expanses of the earth. These are natural events that exist within nature and allow for the existence of life on earth. Theoretically, this event could be predictable. A powerful enough computer, a well-developed mathematical model of probability with adequate data input of all the variables should be able to foresee this event. Looking at the world this way it is pretty much deterministic. However, the fact that a “certain” leaf, this specific leaf falls is the result of pure chance. The natural event is not chance; the particular entity impacted by the event that is present at that particular moment in that particular place is chance. No cause and effect is involved in the choice of that entity. Looking at chance in this case, it can be said that it is spontaneous, there being no outside sentient influence on that particular leaf. The wind blew and that leaf just happened to be there.

In the case of the man who spits and kills a gnat with his spittle, a variant is introduced. This particular gnat is where it is because in its quest for food or protection from the environment it arrived at that particular place at that exact moment. The initial act or movement it undertook was natural, a result of the survival instinct all creature are endowed with. The gnat however could have gone slightly to the right or the left, the fact that it was exactly here where the spittle fell at that exact moment is purely chance. The man too spat to clear his throat, a natural act of self-indulgence and comfort. It is no different from the gnat’s instinct for survival. The man too could have chosen to spit a little to the right or the left and the fact that he spat at the exact moment the gnat was here at the exact spot is too pure chance.

Now let us look at the sinking ship. The wind that caused the storm is a natural event and as we said earlier, has nothing to do with chance and is theoretically predictable. The fact that this ship is present at that place at that time however, has to do with the decision of the sailor to place it there and we will talk some more about that a little further. In this case, the sailor’s sentience plays a part in the event’s outcome, the sinking of the ship. However, as far as the ship itself is concerned, this particular ship being where it is can be ascribed to chance which in this case is non-spontaneous; it comes from the outside - the sailor. What about the sailor himself? The passengers? Here things get a little more complicated.

Sentience in man is no different from the survival instinct in any other creature. Sentience is just a tool that developed in man to make up for other deficiencies he has compared to other creatures and is necessary for his survival. The normal decision process is no different from the gnat’s choice of place and time, though maybe a little more sophisticated. A man has the ability to assimilate data about his environment and depending on his sophistication, predict that a storm is brewing and avoid entering the area. His decision to go or not to go is based on self-preservation and is just an added tool that a man has, to use for that purpose. It all is part of the natural system that governs our universe and is ascribed to God who created the system.

As regards phenomena produced regularly by natural causes, such as the melting of the snow when the atmosphere becomes warm, the roaring of the sea when a storm rages.... Events caused by man's freewill, such as war, the dominion of one nation over another, the attempt of one person to hurt another, or to insult him are ascribed to God….” (MN2:48)

The day-to-day decisions that people make using their mind and freewill that are necessary for their personal wellbeing and survival are seen as being natural just as wind and rain are. They are also ascribed to God who established these natural laws at creation. But that is only if the decision is based on personal survival and narcissistic self-preservation. If only the personal interest is taken into consideration, even if it encompasses others such as family and children, it is no more than a natural process some of which are subject to chance. However when a man develops the potential that comes with sentience, the ability to think beyond the immediate, beyond the self, when he can look at the whole of creation and act according to the insights he gains from this contemplation, he takes nature into his own hands and controls it. A man who tries to “read the mind of God”, who searches for Him and tries to understand His ways no longer acts with only self-preservation in mind. He acts in a way that fulfills the role he sees for himself as part of God’s universe. Chance does not play a role when he acts in this way. Chance has a place in the normal acts of self-preservation but not in the actions of a man that works towards the loftier goal of emulating God. Hashgacha – Divine Providence (as opposed to Providence) is a word that is used to describe the state a person is in when he acts towards these higher goals. In Hebrew, the word Hashgacha is the opposite of Mikreh – attention or watchfulness versus chance or randomness.

If man frees his thoughts from worldly matters, obtains knowledge of God in the right way, and rejoices in that knowledge, it is impossible that any kind of evil should befall him while he is with God and God with him. When he does not meditate on God, when he is separated from God, then God is also separated from him; then he is exposed to any evil that might befall him, for it is only that intellectual link with God that secures the presence of Providence and protection from evil accidents…. It is now clearly established that the cause of our being exposed to chance, and abandoned to destruction like cattle, is to be found in our separation from God.” (MN3:51)

The sailor and the passengers in the example of the sinking ship made a decision to board it at this time, to this destination and to brave the storm. The question is on what basis was the decision to travel made? If it was done for personal interests, without trying to “read God’s mind” and act accordingly, they are subject to chance. Their death is tragic and senseless. On the other hand, if the decision was based on “knowledge of God in the right way”, no evil can befall them. Their death, tragic as it is, was not in vain. It was at the service of the greater good.

Looking at my friend’s visit to Mumbai and his timely departure, his decision to leave was induced by a combination of rational thought, emotion and instinct totally unrelated to the unfolding events. He could have gone on this trip a week later and be caught up in the events. He was lucky. He can ascribe his departure to God who gave him the ability to think and act freely, but I do not think that we can refer to this as Hashgacha.

On the other hand the Holtzbergs A”H, unquestionably led a life of “knowledge of God in the right way”. The fact that they are tragically dead, “it is due to the will of God, and is in accordance with the justice of His judgments, the method of which our mind is incapable of understanding.” The good they did in their lifetime, short as it was, affected many over the years. Lives have been changed thanks to them and generations will be affected by that. The result of their hard work will remain for a long time among the people who knew them.

הַרְנִינוּ גוֹיִם עַמּוֹ, כִּי
דַם-עֲבָדָיו יִקּוֹם; וְנָקָם יָשִׁיב לְצָרָיו, וְכִפֶּר
אַדְמָתוֹ עַמּוֹ.

43 Sing aloud, O ye nations, of His people; for He doth avenge the blood of His servants, and doth render vengeance to His adversaries, and doth make expiation for the land of His people.

Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Earth!!! Do not cover my blood! - אֶרֶץ אַל־תְּכַסִּי דָמִי

John Hobbins at Ancient Hebrew Poetry says it well!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Fascinating Yemmenite Midrash

A friend sent me two Yemmenite Midrashim[1] that say the same thing in slightly different versions. According to the editor’s notes on both Midrashim, one by Professor Toby, an expert on Yemmenite Jewry, it is an accepted and well-known popular story in Yemen folklore. The one I am paraphrasing is from Midrash Habiur. The Midrash comments on the following verse in Devarim 31:21

וְהָיָה כִּי-תִמְצֶאןָ אֹתוֹ רָעוֹת רַבּוֹת, וְצָרוֹת,
וְעָנְתָה הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת לְפָנָיו לְעֵד, כִּי לֹא תִשָּׁכַח מִפִּי

21 then it shall come to pass, when many evils and troubles are come upon them, that this song shall testify before them as a witness; for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed;

For it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed: He promised them that the Torah will not be removed from them nor will it disappear. There is a tradition that the Jews did not have the Torah during the First Exile. Ezra Hasofer wrote down from memory all the 24 books and could not remember the first part of this sentence in Shir Hashirim -

יב לֹא יָדַעְתִּי--נַפְשִׁי שָׂמַתְנִי, מַרְכְּבוֹת עַמִּי נָדִיב.

12 Before I was aware, my soul set me upon the chariots of my princely people. (Shir Hashirim 6:12)

He asked an Am Ha’aretz (an unlearned man) if he remembered the beginning of the verse in Shir Hashirim that ends with מַרְכְּבוֹת עַמִּי נָדִיב. To which the man said
לֹא יָדַעְתִּי-- - I don’t know! That jolted Ezra’s memory and he remembered the missing words. The Midrash continues that this is why the Mesora has עה on this verse, the acronym for Am Ha’aretz, to remind us that Ezra needed the help of one.

I have very little to say about this Midrash other than that it triggers a great many thoughts about how some of our rabbis understood Ezra’s role in writing down the torah. The fact that it was an accepted traditional story in the Jewish community in Yemen is even more telling.

[1] For a short overview of the Yemmenite Midrashim, see Torah Shleima Vol. 1 in the introduction note 11.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Logic Behind The Laws Of Purity

In the previous post, I quoted Rambam in Hilchot Tume’at Ochlin 16:14 and I would like to delve a little further into the subject.

אף על פי שמותר לאכול אוכלין טמאים ולשתות משקין טמאים, חסידים הראשונים
היו אוכלין חוליהן בטהרה ונזהרין מן הטומאות כולן כל ימיהן; והן הנקראין
פרושים. ודבר זה קדושה יתרה היא, ודרך חסידות שיהיה אדם נבדל ופורש משאר
העם, ולא ייגע בהן ולא יאכל וישתה עימהן: שהפרישות מביאה לידי טהרת הגוף
ממעשים הרעים, וטהרת הגוף מביאה לידי קדושת הנפש מן הדעות הרעות, וקדושת
הנפש גורמת להידמות בשכינה, שנאמר "והתקדשתם והייתם קדושים, כי קדוש אני

Although it is permitted to eat impure foods and drink impure liquids, the early Chassidim ate even their regular foods in purity, keeping away from impurities all their lives. They were called Perushim (the famous and wrongly maligned Pharisees of the New Testament און גליון!). This behavior is considered extra holiness and ways of Chassidus when a person separates himself from the general populace, not touching them nor eating together with them. For such separation purifies the body [by keeping it] from bad deeds. Bodily purity brings about a mind that is holy [rejecting] incorrect opinions. Holiness of the mind causes one to emulate the Shechinah as it says, you should make yourselves holy, and become holy for I am holy.

In MN 3:47 Rambam explains that the reason for the laws of impurity are to inculcate a sense of awe and respect when people entered the Beit Hamikdash. The whole idea of having a place dedicated to the service of God was to create a physical focal point where we can dedicate and concentrate on existential and theological issues. As humans, we have difficulty with abstract ideas. If we cannot touch and feel something in one way or the other, we do not believe it exists. The existence of God and His role in our existence can only be arrived at through deduction and inductive thinking. It was therefore necessary to have a place to which we assign a certain aura of holiness where we can act out our reverence and devotion to HKBH. We created a place where God, who is not a physical entity and thus takes up no space, is present in our minds.

I repeat that the object of the Sanctuary was to create in the hearts of those who enter it certain feelings of awe and reverence. … But when we continually see an object, however sublime it may be, our regard for that object will be lessened, and the impression we have received of it will be weakened. Our Sages, considering this fact, said that we should not enter the Temple whenever we liked, and pointed to the words: "Make thy foot rare in the house of thy friend" (Prov. xxv. 17). For this reason, the unclean were not allowed to enter the Sanctuary, although there are so many kinds of uncleanness, that [at a time] only a few people are clean.”

The idea of the laws of impurity was therefore a part of the whole process of service in the Beit Hamikdash. In fact, it was the least physical of the types of service performed there. It was a mental focus on watching one self and paying attention at all times as preparation for the real goal of the Beit Hamikdash, the contemplation of God and His actions so that we can emulate them. It is therefore quite understandable that the Rabbis extended this idea to daily life using the application of these complicated rules that involved keeping the mind focused at all times paying attention to every action one does. Seeing the Beit Hamikdash as a necessary concession to the human condition, they endeavored to transcend that frailty and see God’s presence at all times and in all places.

It is interesting that Rambam in this Halacha states that the goal of the laws of impurity are to lead us eventually to correct opinions about God so that we can learn His ways and emulate them. In his Pirush Hamishna in the introduction to Seder Taharot he writes (my translation/paraphrase based on Rav Kafih’s edition)

They [Rabbis] also said regarding [the laws] of impurity and purity that they are the core [guffei] of the Law. Why not? After all they are the ladder to the [acquisition of the] Spirit of the Holy as they said purity brings about holiness etc…”

Clearly, Rambam here gives us a picture of what to him is revelation and prophecy. It is not some out of the body mystical experience but rather an understanding one arrives at when one learns about and emulates God’s ways. But even more telling is that holiness is not some kind of abstract aura that permeates a place or a person. One is holy when one emulates God, where every action is thought out and works towards a goal and a purpose.

In Hilchot Mikva’ot, at the end of chapter 11, the last chapter of Sefer Taharot, Rambam writes –

[יב] דבר ברור וגלוי שהטומאות והטהרות גזירת הכתוב הן, ואינן מדברים שדעתו של אדם מכרעת אותן, והרי הן מכלל החוקים;

It is clear and obvious that [the laws of] impurities and purities are scriptural decrees. They are not among the things that a person can decide upon [logically] and are therefore classified among the Chukim.

The popular understanding is that there are societal laws, Mishpatim, that are conventions that are necessary for society to function properly. There are ritual laws, Mitzvot, that remind us about important theological matters. These categories are considered rational and sensible. Then there are irrational laws that have no reason at all and we just do them because we are so ordered. They are seen as whimsical, ritualistic and illogical even at times wrong and counter-intuitive. Rambam vehemently disagrees repeatedly in all his writings. Every law is rational and has a reason and purpose all focused towards one goal – make us into perfected human beings. The laws of Purity are categorized as Chukim because the rules themselves are arbitrary. There is no logical reason why, for example, earthenware cannot be purified while metal utensils can. That is a scriptural decree. The concept and idea of purity however is more than logical; it is the core of Torah. They are the laws that are at the top of the pyramid that is the goal of the whole enterprise of Torah - to know God and have correct opinions about Him so that we can emulate His actions.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

What Is The Purpose of Torah Law? A Cosmic Viewpoint.

There are certain times in our thinking that we know we had a crucial insight that answered many difficult questions that were lurking in our minds. These insights often open an entire new avenue of thought and understanding. Over the years, I had several such moments that changed and influenced my thinking going forward. I experienced such a moment recently when I was working on my article on Avodah Zara published in Hakirah 6. As I was rereading Rambam’s explanation of the word Tov mentioned so often in the description of creation, I realized that Tov Me’od which appears at the end of creation when man comes into existence addresses man’s purpose, goal and his part in the totality of existence. Rambam sees the whole of existence as an interconnected interdependent system, where each component has a built in mechanism that promotes self-survival and survival of the whole. All components however have very defined roles without any freedom of choice on how to act while humans are endowed with the potential for creativity, thinking and acting responsibly. It is that potential that differentiates man from all other components of the universe and it is that ability that informs him what his expected contribution to the survival of the whole is and therefore his goal in existence. Thus, creation was complete and Tov Me’od, a term denoting the permanent continuity of all that was created, could be used. Working towards understanding and fulfilling the potential of humanity is the responsibility of each individual, the community and all of humankind, generation by generation, over the millennia. For man to know how to fulfill his part in the whole of existence is not simple and straightforward. It cannot be known without understanding thoroughly how every component works, what its purpose is, where the whole enterprise of existence is going and the risks and challenges it all faces. That knowledge however is elusive. It has taken humanity thousands of years to even begin scratching the surface of the different sciences that try to explain how things work. We are just at the beginning of the process of deciphering the laws of physics, chemistry and biology etc… empirical knowledge that can be physically demonstrated. Ontological questions which have no empirically proven answers are the most elusive and may never be answered satisfactorily. However, for the ontological premises to make sense they have to be anchored in reality as demonstrated by the sciences but they also require personal perfection if they are to be the Truth and not just subjective conjectures.

It has been proved that moral conduct is a preparation for intellectual progress, and that only a man whose character is pure, calm and steadfast, can attain to intellectual perfection: that is, acquire correct conceptions. …For this science is, as you know, different from the science of Medicine and of Geometry, and, from the reason already mentioned, it is not every person who is capable of approaching it. It is impossible for a man to study it successfully without moral preparation; he must acquire the highest degree of uprightness and integrity…Therefore, it was considered inadvisable to teach it to young men; nay, it is impossible for them to comprehend it, on account of the heat of their blood and the flame of youth, which confuses their minds. That heat, which causes all the disorder, must first disappear; they must have become moderate and settled, humble in their hearts, and subdued in their temperament; only then will they be able to arrive at the highest degree of the perception of God, i.e., the study of Metaphysics, which is called Ma‘aseh Merkavah.” (MN 1:34)

The problem is that the push for survival is instinctual and present in each of us for our own selfish self-preservation even at the detriment of the other. It is not obvious to us that unless we act in a way that protects and promotes the survival of the totality of existence we will self-destruct. It is this instinct that is the cause of wars, environmental destruction and is at the root of many of humanity’s societal ills which hinder its development towards fulfilling its intended role. Furthermore, when faced with ontological questions that require a clear unbiased perspective, narcissistic tendencies cloud our thinking. When there is no concrete evidence to support an answer to an abstract question, we tend to pull in the direction that satisfies egotistical tendencies. This instinct therefore has to be channeled so that it allows us to find the true answers that will inform our actions.

That is where the Torah comes into play. The Torah through its Mitzvot teaches morality and ethics forcing people to look beyond their own selfish narcissistic needs and interests. The ritualistic commandments, those commonly referred to as Mitzvot bein Adam Lamakom, are needed to keep us focused at all times on the ontological questions while at the same time forcing us to go beyond our built in tendency of taking care and satisfying our physical needs. The societal Mitzvot teach us ethics, morality and the need to think of the other while also organizing society so that people live peacefully with each other. The Mitzvot are therefore tools to make us better people so that we can fulfill our raison d’etre and learn how to play a responsible role in the continuity of existence.

The general object of the Law is twofold: the welfare of the soul, and the welfare of the body. The welfare of the soul is promoted by correct opinions communicated to the people according to their capacity. … The welfare of the body is established by a proper management of the relations in which we live one to another. This is achieved through two things. One of them is the abolition of their wronging each other. That is to say, that we do not do, every one as he pleases, desires, and is able to do; but every one of us does that which contributes towards the common welfare. Secondly, by teaching every one of us such good morals as must produce a good social state. Of these two objects, the one, the well-being of the soul, or the communication of correct opinions, comes undoubtedly first in rank, but the other, the well-being of the body, the government of the state, and the establishment of the best possible relations among men, is anterior in nature and time.” (MN 3:27)

With this perspective, I believe most of the questions that plague us about the reasons for specific supposedly illogical Mitzvot vanish. For example, the laws of impurity generally seen as Chukim have no intrinsic value. Their primary purpose is to remind us that we are about to enter the places designated to make us focus on metaphysics and God, the Beit Hamikdash. The idea is to not make our presence there mundane and create an aura of holiness and restraint from physical matters. Its extended purpose is as Rambam says in Hilchot Tume’at Ochlin (16:14)

אף על פי שמותר לאכול אוכלין טמאים ולשתות משקין טמאים, חסידים הראשונים
היו אוכלין חוליהן בטהרה ונזהרין מן הטומאות כולן כל ימיהן; והן הנקראין
פרושים. ודבר זה קדושה יתרה היא, ודרך חסידות שיהיה אדם נבדל ופורש משאר
העם, ולא ייגע בהן ולא יאכל וישתה עימהן: שהפרישות מביאה לידי טהרת הגוף
ממעשים הרעים, וטהרת הגוף מביאה לידי קדושת הנפש מן הדעות הרעות, וקדושת
הנפש גורמת להידמות בשכינה, שנאמר "והתקדשתם והייתם קדושים, כי קדוש אני"

The idea is to create an aura of holiness and separation from day-to-day preoccupations and personal needs to allow the person that wants to focus on the existential issues to do so and arrive at correct conclusions that are not narcissistic and self-serving. The ultimate purpose of these laws is therefore to develop correct opinions and find the true ways of HKBH so that we can emulate Him. The laws of impurity are an important tool, one of many, in leading us to that understanding.

“We must bear in mind that all such religious acts as reading the Law, praying, and the performance of other precepts, serve exclusively as the means of causing us to occupy and fill our mind with the precepts of God, and free it from worldly business.” (MN3:51)

And what is the point of filling our minds with God and thinking about Him?

“The prophet thus, in conclusion, says, "For in these things I delight, says the Lord," i.e., My object [in saying this] is that you shall practice loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. In a similar manner, we have shown that the object of the enumeration of God's thirteen attributes is the lesson that we should acquire similar attributes and act accordingly. The object of the above passage is therefore to declare, that the perfection, in which man can truly glory, is attained by him when he has acquired--as far as this is possible for man--the knowledge of God, the knowledge of His Providence, and of the manner in which it influences His creatures in their production and continued existence. Having acquired this knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, and thus to imitate the ways of God.” (MN 3:54)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Avraham's Prophetic Vision - Sdom's Destruction.

(I recommend that Breishit Chapters 18 and 19 be read before reading this post.)

The story of Avraham and the angels has generated a lot of controversy among the Rishonim. The discussion centers round Rambam’s famous statement that this is a report of a prophetic vision rather than a real life occurrence. Rambam in MN 2:42 as usual, is a little cryptic and I will try to flesh him out. After explaining that whenever the presence of an angel is mentioned in the text in any part of the story, it must be a prophetic vision, Rambam brings the following example:

This important principle was adopted by one of our Sages, one of the greatest among them, R. Hiya the Great (Bereshit Raba, xlviii.), in the exposition of the Scriptural passage commencing, "And the Lord appeared unto him in the plain of Mamre" (Gen. Xviii.). The general statement that the Lord appeared to Avraham is followed by the description in what manner that appearance of the Lord took place. Avraham at first saw three men and ran whereupon they spoke and were spoken to. R. Hiya, the author of this allegorical explanation, says of Avraham’s words, "My Lord, if now I have found grace in thy sight, do not, I pray thee, pass from thy servant," were spoken by him in a prophetic vision to one of the men; he says in fact that Avraham addressed these words to the greatest of these men. Note this well, for it is one of the great mysteries [of the Law].”

Rambam reads the scriptural text as follows –

א וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו יְהוָה, בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא; וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב פֶּתַח-הָאֹהֶל, כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם.

1 And the LORD appeared unto him by the plains of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day.

This verse is an introduction stating that Avraham, sitting in the heat of the day got lost in thought and experienced a prophetic vision. It must be a vision, as God is not physical and can only be “seen” in the mind’s eyes. The rest of the story is a description of that vision. Thus, when Avraham speaks, his mind sees him as speaking and when the “angels” speak, it is Avraham’s mind that hears them speak. In other words, Avraham was contemplating how HKBH runs the world and during that cogitation, he became aware of the imminent destruction of Sdom. Rambam brings an interesting proof to his position.

ג וַיֹּאמַר: אֲדֹנָי, אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ--אַל-נָא תַעֲבֹר, מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ.

3 and said: 'My lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant.

This verse is the subject of a Halachik discussion in Massechet Shevuot 35b that revolves around who we understand is: אֲדֹנָי - “my lord”. One way of understanding is that as Avraham was contemplating some aspect of HKBH, he moved away to thinking about more mundane matters, such as his childlessness. He therefore, in his vision, begged God forgiveness for being distracted and promised to return soon to the subject at hand. According to this interpretation, אֲדֹנָי is the name of God and therefore has certain Halachik requisites when written in a Sefer Torah. The other way of interpreting it is that Avraham was talking to the “angels” in his vision begging them not to bypass him. According to this understanding, the word אֲדֹנָיis translated “my lord” and has no special requirements when written. This interpretation however is problematic. The word אֲדֹנָיis singular as is the rest of the sentence while there were three “angels”. Rav Hiya addresses it and explains that Avraham spoke to the greatest among them. The way Rambam quotes Rav Hiya, where is the proof that the men were angels and therefore Avraham was having a prophetic vision? Furthermore, what caused Rambam’s excitement and why did he see in this apparently innocuous statement one of the “great mysteries of the Law”?

Rav Hiya’s comment is preserved in Midrash Raba Breishit 48:3 (Theodor- Albeck Edition page 486) –

ויאמר אדני אם נא מצאתי חן תני ר' חייא:
לגדול שבהן אמר: זה מיכאל.

The Midrash adds two crucial words זה מיכאל – namely the angel Michael - which Rambam omitted. These kinds of omissions are quite common in Rambam who expects us to check his sources and fill in the blanks. Although there could be a deeper reason, I believe this to be a didactic method where Rambam sees his role as a teacher who prods his students to think. What is however the meaning of “greatest” among them? How did Avraham know who was the “greatest? The Gemara in Yoma 37a says that the middle person is the leader by convention. But I believe there is much more to this.

In MN2:6 Rambam explains that angels are a general description of the various forces and concepts that regulate our existence. Among other things –

Rather do all these texts state plainly that all this – including the various parts of that which exists and even the creation of the limbs of animals as they are – has been brought about by the intermediation of the angels. …that God has placed in the sperm a formative power which produces and shapes the limbs, and that this power is called "angel," or that all forms derive from the act of the Active Intellect, and that the latter is the angel, the Prince of the World, frequently mentioned by our Sages…”

In other words, the laws and forces of nature that are responsible for the existence of the physical world are at times, referred to as “angel”. This particular “angel” responsible for physical existence and its continuity, is referred to by the rabbis as The “Prince of the World”. Interestingly Rav Kafih refers us in his notes to Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer chapter 27 where the “Prince of the World” is identified with the angel Michael.

Putting all these pieces together, we get the following picture. Avraham was sitting in contemplation thinking about God and trying to apprehend Him through His creations – our world. As he was considering the forces of nature that cause things to exist and observing natural phenomena, he came to realize that an impending cataclysmic disaster was about to happen nearby, in Sdom. He arrived at that conclusion in a flash of revelation which came in the form of a vision where the forces took on the form of the three “angels”. Interpreting the vision, Avraham understood that the middle one represented the “greatest” of the three, namely “Michael the Prince of the World” who represents the natural laws and forces responsible for nature. The vision had a little side theme where Avraham’s conviction that he was about to have a son with Sarah, was reinforced. As Abravanel explains Rambam, the rest of the story including the part of Lot’s escape and his wife turning into a heap of salt, are all part of the vision. Avraham realized the magnitude of the upcoming event and struggled with how to understand God’s justice in light of such general disasters that sweep up the evil and the righteous. The vision that Lot unlike the rest of the town, though reluctantly, will finally realize that escape was the only solution, is I understand an answer to that question. If one is sufficiently attuned to one’s surroundings and can overcome their greed, laziness and paralysis that cloud man’s objectivity, many times he can predict and foresee these natural disasters. If ten people in town are righteous, in other words, able to foresee and accept the impending disaster, they might convince the whole town to escape. Unfortunately, in his vision, Avraham saw that only Lot would have the necessary prescience. The vision comes to an end and the disaster unfolds.

כז וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם, בַּבֹּקֶר: אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם--אֲשֶׁר-עָמַד שָׁם, אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה.

27 And Avraham got up early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the LORD.

כח וַיַּשְׁקֵף, עַל-פְּנֵי סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה, וְעַל-כָּל-פְּנֵי, אֶרֶץ הַכִּכָּר; וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה עָלָה קִיטֹר הָאָרֶץ, כְּקִיטֹר, הַכִּבְשָׁן.

28 And he looked out toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the Plain, and beheld, and, lo, the smoke of the land went up as the smoke of a furnace.

Reading the story in this manner there is no question that all this was a vision. Furthermore, it teaches deep and important lessons about the meaning of Divine Providence, man’s role in it, God’s justice, righteousness and man’s freedom to act responsibly or irresponsibly. The text becomes a treatise on philosophical issues of great importance and relevance to our religious thought and practice.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Meaning of Bitachon - Confidence.

In the previous post, I discussed Avraham’s self-doubt that is depicted so vividly in the story of Brit Bein Habetarim. However, this introspection did not lead to inactivity and paralysis. Notwithstanding all the doubts Avraham felt, taught and recruited people to follow him in what he understood to be the path of God.

כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו, לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה
אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה,
לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט--לְמַעַן, הָבִיא יְהוָה עַל-אַבְרָהָם,
אֵת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר, עָלָיו.

19 For I have embraced him, so that he will charge his sons and his household after him, to keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice that the LORD may bring upon Abraham all that which He spoke concerning him.' (Breishit 18:19)

In a responsa to R. Ovadyah the Proselyte (Blau edition responsa 293 also see my post ) Rambam sees this verse as a description of Avraham’s accomplishments.

ועיקר הדבר שאברהם אבינו הוא שלמד כל העם והשכילם והודיעם דת האמת וייחודו
של הקב"ה ובעט בע"ז והפר עבודתה והכניס רבים תחת כנפי השכינה ולמדם והורם
וצוה בניו ובני ביתו אחריו לשמור דרך ה' כמו שכתו' בתורה +בראשית י"ח י"ט+
כי ידעתיו למען אשר יצוה את בניו ואת ביתו אחריו ושמרו דרך ה' וגו'.

Avraham taught the people the true Law, the unity of God and rebelled against idolatry by disrupting their [the gods] service. He also brought many under the wings of the Shechinah [HKBH] teaching and commanding his children and his household to follow in the ways of God as it says in Breishis 18:19…

Furthermore –

It was the chief aim of their [the Patriarchs] whole life to create a people that should know and worship God. “ For I have embraced him, so that he will charge his sons and his household after him "” (MN3:51)

Clearly, this constant introspection did not stop Avraham from pursuing his goal of building a nation that acknowledged the existence of God as Creator and endeavored to emulate Him by partaking in His creation. Apparently, the Torah is teaching us that tension between self-doubt and self-assured action must be maintained at all times. I would like to suggest that the self-confidence that counteracts the paralysis that may result from self-doubt is what the Middah Bitachon is.

It is striking that Rambam does not define Bitachon in any of his writings as far as I can tell. I did a search on Mishne Torah and the word does not appear in its entirety. In the listing of subjects section, of both Rav Kafieh and Michael Schwartz’s editions of the Moreh Hanevuchim the concept Bitachon is not defined. The popular concept of Bitachon, where one relies on God and personal action is seen as a prop is alien to Rambam thinking. To him there is only one approach; think about what you are about to do, perfect yourself so that personal biases and preferences do not lead you astray, make sure the action is consistent with the goals you have set for yourself based on your understanding of what is right and then act with confidence. Bitachon is not a standalone virtue but is an integral part of Emunah – belief – which to Rambam means learning God’s ways and emulating them through actions that are consistent with them. Bitachon is the self-confidence needed to act when you know that it what you are about to do is correct overcoming self-doubt.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Avraham's Great Virtue - Self Doubt.

There is only one rational method for finding and understanding God and that is through contemplating His creations. It is a deductive process through which we hope to get to know HKBH’s will by observing the results of that will in our existence and act in accordance with that understanding. That is the meaning of going in God’s ways, the positive commandment of Vehalachta Biderachav; the eighth Mitzvat Asseh listed in Sefer Hamitzvot. It is a thinking that has to be at the center of every decision we make whether on matters that have immediate and short-term effects or medium and long-term even multigenerational consequences. As every act of ours has consequences, knowing the goal and what we want to accomplish is the key to how we act. The problem is that we are always left wondering whether we have truly understood correctly God’s will and even if yes, are our actions the ones that will take us to the goal we set for ourselves. It is with that in mind that we can understand the importance of Midot, working on our character and behavior urges and wants, making sure that our own personal bias for self-gratification do not blindside us. A hedonistic narcissist can never be expected to make a correct decision no matter how intelligent, learned and smart he may be. That is the Torah’s goal, to give us the tools to make us into that perfected human being. But in reality, no matter how perfect a person may be, there is never full and unquestionable certainty. There is always a lingering doubt in the mind of that perfected human being whether he is doing the right thing.

Avraham Avinu started by contemplating the universe and his existence in it and came to the conclusion that there is a God who willed creation and if we want to understand our goal here on earth, we must learn to emulate Him.

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.
(Hilchot Avodah Zara 1:9)

Avraham concluded from his contemplation that he is obligated to spread this teaching to all of humanity. Only by understanding this, will humanity be able to fulfill its purpose and role as an integral and important part of the universe and God’s great creation. This vision is the meaning of

ב וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ, וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ; וֶהְיֵה, בְּרָכָה.

2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and be thou a blessing.

ג וַאֲבָרְכָה, מְבָרְכֶיךָ, וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ, אָאֹר; וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ, כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה.

3 And I will bless them that bless you, and curse them that curse you; and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.'

Rambam in MN 3:29 explains:

God said to him, "And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee" (Gen. 12:3). The result of the course which Abraham took, is the fact that most people, as we see at present, agree in praising him, and being proud of him; so that even those who are not his descendants call themselves by his name.”

Avraham met great resistance and started to doubt whether he could succeed. That is where the vision, a result of the great internal strength that Avraham had, his ability to overcome his doubts and act according to his principles and what he thought to be correct, that played a role in his continuing on this path. Building on the take of Rav Gedalia Nadel in my earlier post that the Dor Haflagah and Nimrod depict a movement towards monarchy, subjugation of the masses and empire building, Avraham, a contemporary, was reacting against this. That explains the sequence of the stories and the reason for their being reported as a way of putting the life and work of Avraham in context. That is how I understand the Rabbis’ meaning when they tell the story of his being arrested and released and in consequence fleeing with his family.

Avraham’s doubt did not stop here. As he continued on this path, he continually stopped and wondered whether he was doing the right thing. The story of the Brit Bein Habetarim depicts that self-doubt in very stark terms. He doubts whether his path will lead to success. He has no descendants and fears that once he dies all his hard work will go to waste. The vision that he has reinforces his conviction that he is doing the right thing but it also depicts realistically how hard this will be. The darkness that envelops him in his dream, the birds and carrion that populate it are a very poignant depiction of his state of mind. He however sees the hope and is convinced that his endeavor will eventually succeed.

This process of always doubting and convincing oneself of the correctness of one’s action, in other words stopping to take inventory every step of the way, is exactly the correct way to proceed.

ו וְהֶאֱמִן, בַּיהוָה; וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ, צְדָקָה.

6 And he believed in the LORD; and He counted it to him for righteousness.

This verse has baffled many a commentator – see Rashi, Ramban. Rambam addresses it in MN 3:53 as follows:

“When you walk in the way of the moral virtues you do justice unto your rational faculty, giving her due that is her right. And because every moral virtue is called Tzedakah, it says "And he believed in the Lord, and he accounted it to him as Tzedakah" (Gen. 15:6) I mean the virtue of faith.”

After explaining that in Tanach the word Tzedakah refers to situations where we have a moral obligation to give someone his due, such as alms to a poor man, Rambam uses this analogy to our verse. Faith is not a blind emotional belief as it is commonly thought to be. Emunah is a rational process where we have to convince ourselves through intellectual and rational thought that our understanding of the universe as being the result of God’s will is correct. We also have to convince ourselves that our actions that result from this contemplation are correct and not prompted by our personal biases. That is only possible if we perfect our moral virtues. Our rational faculty is what makes us into human beings and its ultimate perfection is acquiring this great knowledge of what we are here for, what our role is in this and how to act accordingly. All intellectual growth accompanied by moral perfection are geared towards that goal and are therefore the dues we are giving to our own rational faculty. Doubt and self awareness, constantly questioning ourselves and wondering whether we are on the right path is an integral part of that process. The Torah sanctions it nay praises it. Humanity has known many visionaries from dangerous crackpots to brilliant people who were convinced they found the right path, the ways of God and knew His wishes. Only those that were truly virtuous and full of self-doubt have brought good to the world. The others eventually self-destructed taking along many to their destruction.

I believe that if we approach the text with this perspective much of the difficult questions about its historicity, its context and its relevance, are answered. It is how the rabbis looked at it in the Midrashim, if we read them carefully, and how Rambam and many other great thinkers approached it.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Rav Gedalia Nadel A"H on Breishit - The Thinking of a Great Gaon.

Several years ago, when the Slifkin controversy was raging, several blogs discussed Rav Gedalia Nadel’s A”H theories about how to read Breishit. This Shabbat I decided to reread his Sefer and I have to say it was exciting and enlightening. For those unfamiliar with Rav Gedalia, he was a Talmid of the Chazon Ish A”H and at a time Rosh Kolel there, later Rosh Yeshiva in Viznitz. He was a charismatic figure who created a revolution in Viznitz which ended up with his followers breaking away and he being fired. He was a brilliant Gaon and Tzaddik, who at one point, I think during the ’67 war, tried to enlist into the army being rejected because he was too old. He also was a winemaker who tried to make a living from that. He was an iconoclast who voiced his opinions which got him in trouble with the zealots who tried several times to put him in Cherem. Fortunately, the cooler heads, especially the leaders of Kolel Chazon Ish, who knew his greatness and the appreciation the Chazon Ish had for him, prevented that from happening. He used to learn on a daily basis Moreh Hanevuchim with his family and at some point started to give a Shiur in Chumash to a select few. Rav Yitzchak Sheilat of Ma’aleh Adumim used to sometimes attend these Shiurim and wrote up notes which Rav Gedalia approved and eventually published them under the name of “Mitorato Shel R’ Gedalia”. There eventually was a threatened ban against the sefer and a compromise reached where it is not sold in stores and can only be gotten directly from Rav Sheilat. Here are a few gems from this sefer pertinent to the last two Parshyot.

RGN claims that until chapter 5 we are told about what he calls prehistory. History as we know it and the count of years that we currently have starts 130 years before the birth of Seth which is where Chapter 5 starts. The first Adam is not necessarily the name of an individual but rather a description of early man. Cain represents man that was involved with physical survival while Hevel represents the thinker. Shepherds, in their isolation, were usually the philosophers of old. They had lots of time for contemplation. The early stages of humankind had both of these elements in it and this process of development of human societies could have been going on for millennia. People multiplied over that time and spread all over the world. In Chapter 5, the Torah focuses on a group of men who lived in the Fertile Crescent, specifically with an individual referred to as Adam, who had a son Seth and eventually traces his descendants to Noach. RGN notes that until the birth of Seth the Torah describes the different people whose names it lists as inventors of things needed for the physical wellbeing of humankind. Cain built a city, Yaval invented musical instruments and Tubal Cain developed forges and metalworking and so on. On the other hand, from Seth on, the signposts of human advancement were in the spiritual and existential realm[1], man trying to understand his own existence, though at first leaning towards idolatry with Enosh while turning towards God with Chanoch. Human history that interests us starts at that point.

The Flood was a localized affair restricted to the Fertile Crescent, the area in which our story takes place. It was a calamity that befell a specific society and culture. It does not make sense that the rest of the world would suffer because of the happenings in the Fertile Crescent. When the Torah tells us that Noach gathered all the animals into the Ark, it refers to the local fauna. Even then, it does not mean that every single species was put on board, just those that were important. So I guess giraffes, elephants and rhinos did not necessarily make it on-board. When the Torah says that all living things died, it refers to those seen by the survivors, not to the whole world.

RGN has what I believe to be an insightful but obvious, once told, approach to the rainbow. The rainbow is not a new development. It had been around since times immemorial. Whenever it rained the survivors of the Mabul would feel a panicky moment that a new cataclysm is about to occur again. When the sun came out after the rain, a rainbow appeared in the clouds. HKBH told the survivors that whenever the rain ends and you see that rainbow, remember that this disaster was a singularity and as the rainbow confirms and I promised, there would be no flood of such cataclysmic proportions again. The same physical occurrence that until now was little more than just a beautiful phenomenon will from now on be much more meaningful.

I found the following idea appropriate for today – Election Day.

ח וְכוּשׁ, יָלַד אֶת-נִמְרֹד; הוּא הֵחֵל, לִהְיוֹת גִּבֹּר בָּאָרֶץ.

8 And Cush begot Nimrod; he began to be a mighty one in the earth. ט

הוּא-הָיָה גִבֹּר-צַיִד, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה; עַל-כֵּן, יֵאָמַר, כְּנִמְרֹד גִּבּוֹר צַיִד, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה.

9 He was a mighty hunter before the LORD; wherefore it is said: 'Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the LORD.'

י וַתְּהִי רֵאשִׁית מַמְלַכְתּוֹ בָּבֶל, וְאֶרֶךְ וְאַכַּד וְכַלְנֵה, בְּאֶרֶץ, שִׁנְעָר.

10 And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.

Note the name Nimrod in Hebrew reflects the idea of rebellion – Mered. Note too that although the verse says, “he began to be a mighty one in the earth” we already had such mighty ones at the end of Breishit before the flood –
הֵמָּה הַגִּבֹּרִים אֲשֶׁר מֵעוֹלָם, אַנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם – “the same were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown”. Furthermore, the words גִבֹּר-צַיִד – mighty hunter can be seen as a metaphor for someone who knows how to ensnare people with words. RGN reads these verses as introducing us to the first politician, Nimrod, who was able to unify people and convince them to organize themselves into nation states. Nimrod successfully introduced the idea of monarchy and politics. He formed a kingdom.

This brings us to the story of the Tower of Bavel.

א וַיְהִי כָל-הָאָרֶץ, שָׂפָה אֶחָת, וּדְבָרִים, אֲחָדִים.

1 And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech.

“Devarim” stands for ideas and, שָׂפָה is how we express those ideas. Even if at the time there were a variety of languages, the words, though different, expressed similar ideas. There was cultural homogeneity in that area of the world. Nimrod the consummate politician along with the other leaders, decided to institutionalize this homogeneity. The symbol for this culture would be this very high tower a projection of power and might. This would unify the people and be a springboard for further conquest, bringing more under this homogeneous monarchy, a form of popular enslavement. HKBH would not countenance that. The ideas of human freedom and independence willed into creation by HKBH are strong enough to overcome this push for subjugation and enslavement.

As we can see from the above, Rav Gedalia approached the text with an open mind. He read these reports in the Torah as fundamental ideas that describe human nature, man’s relationship with the universe and his search for an understanding of his environment, existence and God.

[1] אָז הוּחַל, לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה.
וַיּוֹלֶד בִּדְמוּתוֹ, כְּצַלְמוֹ
וַיִּתְהַלֵּךְ חֲנוֹךְ, אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים; וְאֵינֶנּוּ, כִּי-לָקַח אֹתוֹ אֱלֹהִים.
זֶה יְנַחֲמֵנוּ מִמַּעֲשֵׂנוּ, וּמֵעִצְּבוֹן יָדֵינוּ, מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר אֵרְרָהּ יְהוָה.