Monday, January 28, 2008

Four Cubits of Halacha - Rambam Shows How to Interpret an Aggadeta.

After writing my last three posts on Aggadeta, I would be remiss ignoring the following discussion of Rambam in his Introduction to Pirush Hamishna . After explaining the correct way of reading Chazal, he quotes a Gemara that supports his position and being an Aggadeta Rambam explains it, giving us an immediate example of how we should analyze and understand a Chazal. I believe that Rambam’s understanding of this Chazal is earth shattering for our times as it highlights a major deficiency in the thinking of our community and what I believe is the greatest threat to our long-term growth and survival.

ואמרו אין לו להקב"ה בעולמו אלא ארבע אמות של

הלכה. והתבונן בדברים אלו, שאם תבינם כפשטם ייראו בעיניך רחוקים מאד מן

האמת, כאלו ארבע אמות של הלכה בלבד הם התכלית, ולהזניח שאר המדעים

והחכמות, ובזמן שם ועבר ושאחריהם שלא היתה הלכה בלי ספק שלא היה להקב"ה

בעולמו כלום. אבל אם תתבונן בדברים אלו התבוננות מעמיקה, תמצא בזה חכמה

נפלאה, ותמצאהו כולל הרבה מן המושכלות, והנני מבארו לך כדי שיהיה לך זה

דוגמא לכל מה שיזדמן לך ולכן התבונן בו היטב.

“The Gemara [in Berachot 8a] says, “HKBH only has in His world four cubits of Halacha[1]”. Think about these words, for if you will interpret them literally, they will seem far from truth, as if the only objective [for man to attain perfection] are the four cubits of Halacha ignoring all other knowledge and wisdom. [This would intimate that] at the time of Shem and Ever and the following [generations], when there was no Halacha, God had nothing in the world! However if you will ponder these word thoughtfully, you will discover in them marvelous wisdom, encompassing much of acquired knowledge. I will now explain [this Gemara] as an example for other such sayings, therefore pay attention well!”

Rambam has laid out the problem with this statement of the rabbis. It just does not make sense that they would be telling us that we should only concentrate on learning what is nowadays called Torah, Halacha, exclusively of any other knowledge! Furthermore, it is inconceivable that before Torah was given, God had no place in the world. Were there not righteous people, starting with Shem and Ever, Noach’s children after the flood and continuing with Avraham and his children?

Rambam then has a lengthy discussion of how the different components of the world are interdependent and are needed for each other’s existence allowing for the most advanced creature, man, to exist. The need of the whole of existence for each component is its Raison D’etre, the reason it exists. The question therefore comes to mind what is Man’s reason to exist? Now that this advanced creature came into being, we still need to understand what is man’s reason for being? When philosophers looked at the role each component plays, they found that unlike all the others who had one or two roles and thus limited activities, man has multiple abilities and tasks. For example, an ant is a gatherer and that is its main activity, a spider weaves and that is its main activity while man can do many more and varied activities. As the philosophers thought about this more, “they concluded that man can do many things but they all have one goal - to help him survive so that he can accomplish one central and focused task, apprehension of acquired knowledge and knowing the Truths thoroughly.”

ומצאו שתכליתו

פעולה אחת בלבד ושאר פעולותיו אינן אלא להמשכת קיומו כדי שתושלם בו אותה

הפעולה היחידית והיא השגת המושכלות וידיעת האמתיות על בורים.

They realized that, because it does not make sense that man has no purpose other than promoting his own temporal survival without any other objective. If the whole of the universe apparently exists within a system that promotes its own eternal survival, man must have a role beyond his own personal survival, at the service of the whole. Furthermore, if we compare man to other living entities, he is no different from all of them except in his ability for abstract thought thus acquiring knowledge of his surrounding. Potential for acquiring knowledge is man’s uniqueness and he is no more than an animal until he actualizes this potential.

וגדול שבמושכלות השגת

אחדות הבורא יתעלה וישתבח וכל הקשור בכך מן המדעים האלקיים, לפי ששאר

המדעים אינם אלא כדי שיוכשר בהם עד אשר יגיע אל מדעי האלקות,

The most advanced acquired knowledge is the apprehension of the Creator and all that pertains to this in metaphysics [literally: Divine Sciences]. For all the other sciences are there to prepare [man] to understand metaphysics.”

For the acquisition of this type of knowledge and its retention, man clearly cannot be focusing on bodily pleasures. Indulging in physical pleasure requires major efforts, using the mind and working to have the wherewithal for that indulgence, leaving little room to successfully acquire knowledge. It also muddles a person’s thinking by distorting his value system, making pleasure seeking the goal rather than intellectual growth.


נתברר מכל ההקדמות האלה שהתכלית בעולמינו זה וכל אשר בו הוא איש מלומד בעל

מדות טובות, וכאשר נקנו למי שהוא מהמין האנושי המדע והמעשה, רצוני ב"מדע"

השגת האמתיות על בורים והשגת כל מה שאפשר לאדם להשיג, וב"מעשה" המצוע

והאיזון בענינים הטבעיים ואל ישקע בהם ולא יקח מהם אלא מה שיש בו קיום

הגוף, וכן שפור כל המדות, אדם שהוא במצב זה הוא המטרה

“It is clear from all this that the goal of this world of ours {as opposed to the Universe – DG[2]] and all it contains is to [produce] a learned person, who has good traits, an individual who belongs to humankind, who has attained knowledge and actions. By “knowledge”, I mean apprehension of the Truths and the knowledge of all that a man can know. By “actions”, I mean someone who is well balanced and [follows] the median in natural [physical] matters without wallowing in them, taking from them [the physical] only as needed for the sustenance of the body. Included in “action” is self-improvement. Such a person is the intended objective [of the world].

The perfected individual, the end result of this world of ours, consists of a person who has acquired all the knowledge that is possible and has also developed his person to be a perfectly attuned being that only procures the minimum necessary for sustenance. A person that is an ignoramus but a good person is better than an evil person is, but cannot be seen as an ideal. So too a self-described learned person who is not in control of his bestial self is not a true wise man. It is the combination of the two, knowledge and behavior that produce a perfect and ideal person. Rambam continues with a long discussion to explain why there are so many imperfect individuals. I will leave that for another post. He ends the discussion with -

וכיון שמדבריהם ע"ה אנו לומדים שני הדברים הללו

כלומר החכמה והמעשה ממה שביארו וממה שרמזו, בצדק אמרו אין לו להקב"ה

בעולמו חוץ מארבע אמות של הלכה

Being that from the Rabbis’ teachings we learn these two things, [self-control and self-improvement when it comes to] actions [and the obligation to learn everything that can be known when it comes to] “knowledge”, their saying that God has in his world only four cubits of Halacha is correct.

Rambam interprets this Aggadeta in a completely original and counter intuitive way. Unlike the traditional understanding that the rabbis are discouraging learning outside the four cubits of Halacha, he sees Halacha as encompassing all knowledge and action. The ultimate goal is the acquisition of all knowledge while the Mitzvot themselves, what we traditionally call Halacha, are a necessary condition to allow us to acquire and retain that knowledge. Learning the halachot themselves, what we traditionally refer to as Halacha, have as their purpose to know how to do the Mitzvot and not the ultimate “learning”. The ultimate learning is to know the universe we live in and through it know HKBH as much as a human can.

. וכן אם היה האדם ירא ה' פרוש, מרחיק

התענוגות זולתי בכדי קיום הגוף, מתנהג בכל הענינים הטבעיים בדרך הממוצעת,

והורגל בכל המדות הטובות אלא שאינו מלומד, גם זה חסר שלמות, אלא שהוא יותר

שלם מן הראשון, לפי שמעשיו אלה אינם מתוך ידיעה ברורה והכרה יסודית,

ולפיכך אמרו חז"ל אין בור ירא חטא כמו שביארנו.

A God fearing person, an ascetic who has distanced himself from pleasures beyond what the body requires, behaves in the median path as it relates to the natural [physical] needs, who has good traits but is unlearned, lacks too in perfection. Although he is better than the first, [one who claims that he knows but has no self-control], he lacks perfection because he does not act out of conviction and clear knowledge. That is why the Rabbis say, “An ignoramus cannot be a person that fears sin”.

A God fearing person or one who fears sin is not one who does not understand why he is following these rules, does them because he is afraid of the potential punishment or bad consequences. A God fearing person is one who does good deeds and imposes self-control on himself because he understands that it is necessary if he wants to find Truth thus God. He does all this because by doing it he will train himself and perfect himself so that he will be able to acquire the knowledge necessary to answer the existential questions – know God to the limit a human can.

As we can see understanding an Aggadeta is quite complex and requires us to read it very carefully, making sure it does not go against reason. The literal and simple reading may sometimes convey the opposite of what it is really telling us. The only way we know what the real message is when it is rational and agrees with reason.

On a personal note, when I first understood Rambam’s position regarding what we call “learning”, I was afraid to let myself go in that direction. It was so contrary to what we had been taught in Yeshiva about “learning” that I was sure I was mistaken and misguided. As I continued studying Rambam’s thought, I found that he repeats this theme all across his writings. I slowly became convinced that I was reading him correctly and that for whatever reason his teachings have been ignored or even worse, censored and suppressed through misinterpretation whether willful or unintentional. When we learn Gemara and spend time on issues that are not pertinent to the ultimate practical Halachik ruling on how to act, we are wasting our time. Rambam, I am convinced and can prove it from his many writings on this subject, would not consider that a Kiyum of the mitzvah of Talmud Torah. We have to look at the text but even more important, try to wrest out the idea behind the Halacha, the concept that runs through it. For that is what drives the practical aspect of the Halacha, how the mitzvah has to be practiced or the prohibition has to be respected. Ultimately, we learn Halacha [I use it here in its popular meaning] only to know how to keep the Mitzvot so that we can become self disciplined and unbiased by personal urges, to allow us to understand the world we live in and through it the Creator.

I find this understanding of what Torah is and what the goal of man is, exhilarating. It gives meaning to everything I do without the usual obsessive behavior followers of the minutiae of Halacha tend to develop. It also gives meaning when I learn a Gemara working my way through the Rishonim who try to squeeze out from the text and the different details of how a Mitzvah (negative or positive) is traditionally practiced, the concept underlying the rule. It is by knowing the concept that they then can apply the rule to the different situations that come up in our daily life that are impacted by this rule. Ultimately, once I know how to keep the mitzvah, I have to understand what it is meant to do for me, helping me to better answer the existential questions that confront us all constantly. Keeping that goal in mind all the time, gives meaning to my praxis. It is not a burden and restrictive but a voluntary choice to help promote my intellectual growth.

Post script: There is much more to say about the philosophical and theological implications of Mitzvot. I do not want to leave the impression that they are two independent ways of thinking linked only through causal connections. They are completely intertwined and interdependent. The Rav in his shiurim has shown how far and deep this connection is. But that will have to be discussed when the occasion arises.

[1] The exact quote is since the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, HKBH… Rambam omits this.

[2] I make this comment to differentiate between the existence of man being the objective in the context of the world we live in contrasted with man not being the objective in context of the whole of existence – the universe and the cosmos.


  1. First of all I just started reading your blog and I love and am inspired by your posts, keep up your wonderful work, and I believe its part of what is wonderful of the internet. I doubt I would have been exposed to these ideas, even 20 years ago. Second of all, growing up I was always taught or more probably self taught the concept of mitzvas being values to themselves, and them having theurgic properties. For example, I would not do an avaira, or do a mitzva, because of the reward or punishment that will come from that doing. Each act was a self enclosed universe, and had a value on its own. I do not believe I was subconsciously happy with this concept philosophical and theologically, but thats what I conceptualized to myself. Nowadays I see the concept of shmiras hamitzvas as an elevation of the soul, of a betterment of myself in this world that will effect me in both olam hazeh and olam habah. This is so much more meaningful to me, and I am therefore excited that this idea is resonated by the Rambam.

  2. Allegorize this... Talmudic literature represented biblical figures in the image of the rabbinic world of chazal. The rabbinic ideal of Talmud torah is projected onto the Patriarchs; their children learn in the batei midrash of Shem and Ever. In B"R (95:3) Jacob tries to establish a house of Tamud where he might teach Torah in Egypt. Avraham knew hilchot eruv (Bereshit Rabba 49:2 and 95:3), both chatzerot and tavshilin. Yitzchak was sent to Ever to study Torah after the akedah(B"R 56:11).Yaakov studies at both Shem’s and Ever’s house of study. Even Adam Harishon was devoted to "Talmud Torah"(Sifre Devarim 410), kept shabbus (B"R22:13) and even recited Tehilim(B”R16:5). Aaron taught the ignorant how to recite keriyat shema(Seder Eliyahu Rabbah 14).

    As you undoubtedly know I have offered only a sample of what can be found in the talmud and midrashim of the period.The upshot is that biblical figures davened and learnt Torah just like the rabbis. Why were chazal committed to these anachronisms? For the same reason the Rambam misreads chazal. The Talmudic rabbis were convinced that since learning and davening were superior to earlier forms such as korbanot(B.Menachot110a), the ancients who were blessed by God must have been aware of and engaged in the knowledge and practices that would in time be the ideal of Jewish behavior. The Rambam can’t believe that chazal who are his guides in halacha did not accept his metaphysical ideas, so he tries to project his ideals onto chazal. I bet you will find a Rambam somewhere saying that the Avot were metaphysicians.

  3. ZB - Thank you for your encouragement. It is comments like yours that give me the impetus to continue writing.

    EJ - We are coming back to an old discussion. Talmud Torah is not only the discussion of the minutiae of halacha but encompasses all knowledge including sciences, Ma'asseh Beishit and metaphysics, Ma'asseh Merkavah see mishna in Hagigah. One may not learn any of these subjects without Birkat Hatorah! In hil Talmud torah Rambam writes that Pardes is included in Talmud. That is a halachik ruling and not a philosophical discussion!

    I believe if you look at the quotes you bring with that perspective you will see that Chazal were not allegorizing but telling us that the learning of Shem Va'ever and the Avot were indeed science and metaphysics which teach you about the Creator.

    I am surprised that a well read person like you, , have such a problem accepting this. What makes you think that the existential questions that we have now were not also in the forefront of Moshe and every generation since? Why do you assume that they were less interested in understanding the world we live in than we are? Why do you have such difficulty accepting that there were different Rabbis finding different answers just like in our times? Of course they were steeped in physics and metaphysics and talked about it all the time, we find traces of that in gemara (ben zoma mibachutz, akivah kelach etzel negaim veaholot, kishuim etc...)very cryptically because only Rashei Perakim are permitted.

    The need to see things literally is exactly what Rambam saw as Bizayon of Torah - those who argue for that assume that Chazal were ignoramuses who like the "gedolim" of our times refuse to accept reality. They would have said baruch hacham harazim if confronted with Newton or Einstein not the stupid reaction of the "frum" idiots.

    Chazal may not have had all or even correct answers re physics but they certainly had questions and yearned for answers and the truth like all great people would!Do not underestimate them nor should you underestimate their perception of the famous predecessors like Sem Va'ever and the avot.

  4. >Avraham knew hilchot eruv (Bereshit Rabba 49:2 and 95:3), both chatzerot and tavshilin.

    See Meiri intro to Avot (my post on this) and Meshech Chochma in I believe Vaytzeh.

    >even recited Tehilim

    You mean composed one of the psalms- correct - he too was dealing with his existential issues!

    Shabbat represents the belief in Creation ab nihilo. Without that it has no meaning that is why we are required to say Kiddush on shabbat. The Rav in his shiurim lezecher aba mari has a beautiful and fantastically enlightening discussion on the subject!

    EJ- Gal Einacha vetabit niflaot batorah ! Remove the blinders that the traditional learning in Yeshivah have put around your mind!

  5. Questions…if I wake up in the morning and straightaway open up chemistry textbook, I must first make birchat hatorah? You aren’t serious.

    I have no trouble thinking Talmudic rabbis thought about metaphysics, since I accept the views of the extreme wing of the Lieberman-anti Alon school of Talmudic studies, and believe with(because of) them that Greek culture permeated rabbinical life, both in Palestine and later in Babylonia. (see The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature, by Charlotte E. Fonrobert and Martin S. Jaffee (Editors).) I have no idea what the Avot or Adam Harishon did in their spare time. That is why we study midrash, to learn what chazal thought. What is at issue is not what the avot did, but what chazal thought they did. On my view people who read the midrashim literally, are in tune with what chazal wanted to assert. You both misread chazal and are still projecting the ‘present’ onto the past, except it is the present of 1200 versus 200.

    The midrash says, I think, Adam said mizmor shir leyom hasabus, not that he composed it. I have to check.

    The deeper issue between us is whether a rational scientific person must accept some modern approach to historiography in reading ancient texts. You don’t and I do. I have no problem that you don’t; I do have a problem with your feeling that your acceptance of hard sciences makes you rational while the yeshiva- Orthodox are mired in superstition. In the Slifkin fights everyone accepted evolution as being true today. They objected to its application to the past. Every charedi accepts hard sciences as true or justified by the evidence. (see for example Meiselman’s paper.)

    If you would say all that you do, and marry it to some evolutionary conception of religious development, as most Reform theologians have done, we would then only disagree on the value of myth, but we would agree that myth permeated the bible and the Talmud. But since you essentially reject historicism, your views are in principle the same as the Zohar reading his ideas back into chumash, parsha by parsha. Such a reading violates our sense that if there is no mention of sefirot in Berashis it was not the intent of the pasukim to say anything about sefirot. Same with rationalist derashot.

    I realize we are getting to a point of becoming somewhat incomprehensible to each other. Since we are both trying hard to communicate, it must be an indication of significant differences in our thinking.

  6. >Questions…if I wake up in the morning and straightaway open up chemistry textbook, I must first make birchat hatorah? You aren’t serious.

    If you are doing it in the process of searching for God you sure do!

    You say: and believe with(because of) them that Greek culture permeated rabbinical life, both in Palestine and later in Babylonia

    then you say:
    That is why we study midrash, to learn what chazal thought. What is at issue is not what the avot did, but what chazal thought they did.

    If you put the two together don't you think that Chazal's opinion of what they did was also colored by their Greek knowledge?

    What you are insisting on as are all those who insist on literalness is that chazal were either stupid or they considered that the earlier generations were. Why?

    Torah is for teaching and not a report of historical facts. Why do you insist it is the second? Do you really think the Rabbis were busy trying to reconstruct historical facts? Is it not more likely that they were smart enough to realize the Torah reports only what has a lesson for generations and interpreted so that it has meaning for their time as we are to do with the same text for our own times? Don't they say that Torah is eternal? Why do the Yeshivah crowd insist that the rabbis were stupid?

    It is not that we are coming from a different position. of course we rae but the problem is that you are wrong and the fundamentalsts are too because instead of 'harishonim Kemal'achim they say Keshotim!

    I believe that those who insist the derashot are literal are "mevazei Hatorah velomedeiha" and may fall under the rubric of Ein lahem chelek CV.

    Now see what you have done ! Made me into a Kana'ay! :-)

  7. Again...if saying that the midrashim I quoted are literal is a sufficient condition for me to be consigned to some remote place michutz lemachneh, then I am indeed guilty. But I did not say, and in fact believe the opposite. Chazl did not have a developed sense of history.Because they believed Torah is to be read as an eternal document synchronically, they projected the values they had(davening and learning), and which we have until today back onto the avoth. We have these values because we think it is the way to go. So it is unfair to say that we think of chazal as stupid. The Rambam projected a different set of values onto the avoth by darshining/misreading or re-reading chazal. Over the years it turns out the literal reading of chazal was the dominat thread in the mesorah. The Rambam also lacked a developed historical sense.

    Both you, the Rambam, and chazal read Torah synchronically. So we also differ whether Torah can be interpreted today without irony in a synchronic way, when it goes against the simple reading of the text and the synchronic reading that dominated Jewish thinking. You are not saying here is how I or the Rambam would darshin chazal to make them fit into the Rambam's scheme. You are saying this is what the text really means, and if you don't believe like I do, woo c''v, and I know this because the Rambam said so.

    I think I better stop while I'm behind.

  8. I believe what EJ cannot fathom is any other pshat in chazal other then the yeshivish or charaidi derech halimud. This derech is extremely easy and convenient to attack, especially in the internet, by using modern,rational, and scientific arguements. And I've seen it done time after time after time. It gets very frustrating for me and others as skeptics or doubters, pigeonhole orthodox halachick Judaism only as current charaidi hashkafah looks at it. Once you try to argue that this is not necessarily the pshat, they argue that this isn't true Judaism. Why must Judaism be irrational!!!! If you believe that Torah is Emes then don't denigrate those who try to rationalize yiddishkeit. If someone doesn't believe its true, then they are just creating a straw man and their arguments are irrelevant.
    Also EJ, there is a vast fundemental difference between using historical view of chazal and the Torah, by using contemporary historical methods, and being a rational Torah Jew. (For instance, we as Orthodox Jews have certain au priori's that we believe, even though it isn't part of the 13 principles, that chazal weren't chas v'sholom idiots etc etc) Also using a modern historical approach, is worlds apart from believing in empirical scientific evidence. One is a philosophy, a derech halimud if you will, that I believe denigrates and demeans both chazal and the Torah. And the other is using proven scientific evidence (ala Slifkin) and trying to reconcile it with chazal and tanach.

  9. > you are saying this is what the text really means, and if you don't believe like I do, woo c''v, and I know this because the Rambam said so.

    I am saying more than that - Chazal tell us here is how we read it based on our understanding and you do the same with yours.

    >Over the years it turns out the literal reading of chazal was the dominat thread in the mesorah.

    What Mesora are you talking about? I think I need to straighten out everyone who bandies that word on the internet. But even if I use your concept of the word, Rashba, Meiri, Rambam, Maharal, Maharsha, and a list of many many more, all the great meforshim and thinkers all say that aggadeta are to be read allegorically. So where is your mesorah? The only ones who insist otherwise are a few "gedolim" in our time.

    The true ones who know better do it because they have their own agenda which is believe a mistake!

  10. ZB…I plead not guilty as charged. Chazal say there was a YSV, a Yeshivat Shem Vever. I say if you read Torah with some sense of history, there were no yeshivoth in 2000BC. But let’s say we don’t care to think of Torah as being constrained by what we think life was like at that time. If we interpret Torah as one timeless entity, then the fight between the Rambam and the folk tradition is not about the projection of an anachronism onto a distant past. Both do. The folk tradition thinks they were learning Torah shebikesav and the Torah shebaal peh that came to be written down around 300 and then around 450 to 700 in the 2 Talmuds.(They did not say they were learning Rambams, though I don't see why we should not say so on a synchronic reading). The Rambam says there was a yeshiva, but they were really studying metaphysics(philosophy) and science, much like him. I say from a modern naturalist perspective, which is neither rationalist or irrationalist both are drashot.

    I do not object anyone trying to rationalize yiddishkeit. Rationalize to your hearts content. I specifically said projecting of one’s values onto the past is not idiotic, nor did I ever say any of the values held by chazal are idiotic.

    Your last point is complex and needs to be untangled, but not today by me. I believe rationality today requires one should sign on whenever possible and to the extent allowed by Orthodoxy to naturalizing Jewish texts and Jewish history. Rationalism without any attempt at naturalism is a denial of modernism and is no less medieval than the irrationalism of late chassidus, which Rabbi Guttman finds so unacceptable. Having a sense of history, a diachronic reading of texts and periods as a method of reading is the evolutionary project applied to human life. Evolution as you know is not always from lower to higher,(the Whig reading in cultural anthropology), though many times it is. Even Slifkin and I believe Rabbi Guttman reject a literal Genesis 1-11 because of a sense of how natural and early human history should go.

    Rabbi Guttman ...where does anyone say the beit midrash of Shem Vever did not exist, and the maamawrei chazal in question are to be interpreted allegorically? I am not saying no rishon other than the Rambam ever interpreted ANY agadah allegorically.

    What mesorah....oh kabbalah and chasidus. When Rashi refers to yeshivat Shem Vaever, he doesn't say and BTW it is an allegory.He doesn't even have a word for allegory,(I hope).

    The mesorah read torah synchronically.Some of these texts were taken as literal,some were darshaned, each thinker sorting it out according to his ideas.One type of drasha is an allegory. . Not only do chazal and everyone that follows darshan, Tanach itself does so in multiple places, the most obvious being Divrei Hayamim. If the Book of Jubilees had been incorporated into the canon, it would be obvious most midrashim are not allegories. I think Philo, a Jew deeply influenced by Greek ideas and ideals, was the first to allegorize Torah in a systemic way.

    I think we have covered the material and our differences pretty well. I am here to to point out alternatives, not to win or convince you of anything. I hope I have accomplished that goal.

  11. See Shadal on the trend of allegorizing Chazal here.

    Kol Tuv,

  12. "Rashba, Meiri, Rambam, Maharal, Maharsha, and a list of many many more, all the great meforshim and thinkers all say that aggadeta are to be read allegorically."

    I am not saying this is not so, but something to watch out for: aggadeta is not the same as "haggada," and is not the same as "midrash aggada." These refer to distinct categories, and a conflation of the categories can lead to error.

  13. Josh -

    Ramchal only was against the philosophical approach but the kabbalistic one, which is even less based on any old transmission, more on personal giluy elyahu, he could live with!

    I don;t think rambam differentiates between aggada, aggadeta, or midrash. They are all allegorical.

    I don't understand why it is so anathema to accept what makes sense. If we see chazal in these area as allegorical they come across as great thinkers which they were. Insisting that any of this is literal to me is stupid and insulting!

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  15. Shadal was related to Ramchal, and Shadal was against the kabbalistic approach as well. Indeed, the quote I provide is part of his Vikuach al Chochmat hakabbalah, where he links the kabbalists to the philosophers, and blasts both.

    My note about the differentiation was in terms of "Rashba, Meiri, Rambam, Maharal, Maharsha, and a list of many many more." I have not looked at each of them inside, in terms of where they say this, I believe it a danger to conflate. For example, Maharsha I can see much more allegorizing aggadeta than doing so for midrash aggada. {Update: But I did actually examine this to see that this is so.} Indeed, even R' Avraham son of Rambam mentions a type of midrash aggada which is not meant allegorically.

    "what makes sense" is a subjective measure, and I can understand that it makes sense to you. From my perspective, saying they meant certain things literally is not stupid or insulting, just as it would not be insulting to say they believed (like Aristotle) in spontaneous generation. They show tremendous sensitivity to nuances in text and theme in midrashim. Whether they also meant it literally or not, every midrash is a gem, written with incredible insight, much more than almost anyone operating today...

    All the best,

  16. Josh - sorry you are right I confused Shadal with ramchal.

  17. EJ,

    I think that you are displaying at several levels the shortcomings of modern academia regarding drashot chazal. And if your only source in the mesorah that chazal intended aggadah as historical reality is the silence of rashi then we are in deep trouble indeed. Lo Raino Eino Raaya is a principal all but abandoned in the softer "sciences"

    As far as what the messorah actually does communicate to us regarding the way to read aggadata, I believe can be split into two major categories:

    1) Those who see aggadata as basically being the "shul drasha" of the day. According to this school which includes some of the geonim, the Ramban, the Meor Einayim, and others, chazal were using whatever tools they felt were best at communicating with their generation. This approach sees the historical anachronism as being secondary as the purpose of the drash. It denies that there necessarily had to be a deeper layer - it is sufficient that the drash managed to grab the attention of the audience and keep it long enough to get to the punch-line.

    2) The approach that all aggadata has deeper meaning that needs to be unraveled through deeper study. This approach was championed by the Rambam and the Maharal and is what you object to in your critique. It is an approach that is very much part of the messorah.

    There is a very small minority of rishonim (two really and I doubt you heard of either) who championed a literal reading of midrash. They were roundly rejected by all who came before and after them and we can consider them an historical anomaly.

    All in all, there is a sense one gets from your posts that a true historical approach requires one to see all maamarei chazal at literal historical statements. You have not provided, however one shred of evidence from either chazal or anyone who came after that this is the correct way to approach these texts. Before you continue with a tone that is a bit condescending, you may want to bring some type of argument as to why this is a more correct way to read the text.

    Further, I have to say that as someone who I have seen champion post-modernism more than once, it surprises me that you take such a dogmatic approach regarding the reading of text. Ein haDevraim Reuyim leMi sheAmram.

    Further, If I may suggest an approach which I think may be acceptable to both you and David, I would advise you both to take a look at Rav Kook's hakdama to Ein Aya. If you do not have access to this, please email me at and I would be happy to scan and email it to you.


  18. Thank you Chardal - A very succinct exposition. I do not have the ein Aya and would love it if you would email to me.

    I am still jealous of your great move!

  19. I will scan it ASAP. Just make sure you let me know next time you come to eretz haKodesh!

  20. Chardal, I'm intresested in learning some of Rav Kooks hashakfah. What English (or english/hebrew) text can you recommend?

  21. Do you want translations of Rav Kook's writings or articles in English about Rav Kook?

  22. Both I guess, however mostly good transilations of Rav Kook's writings and philosophy.

  23. Translations are few. The most important ones are done by Rav Bezalel Naor. You can but all of his translations through his web site:

    The most important work to be translated is of coures Orot but I would also recoment "When God Becomes History" which translates Rav Kook's historisophical essays.

    There is a translation of Rabbi Prof. Ish Shalom's docotorate on Rav Kook:

    There is also a good book of essays edited by Prof. Lawrence Kaplan:

    Other collections of essays on Rav Kook in english:

    Other translations:

    A good hagiography:

  24. Chardal…I am of the first school. I believe the midrashim I cited are an anachronism. They were a way of the rabbis communicating to their own and future generations the importance of their values of learning and davening. They wanted to resolve the contradiction that God was in direct contact with the avot and yet there is no mention of the avot ever having learnt Torah. Not caring about history in our sense they had no qualms in saying what they did. Did chazal believe they were projecting an anachronism? Hard to say, but I think you need a concept of history which they didn’t have. Without a sense of what really happened, the notion of chazal having a concept of an anachronism is itself an anachronism.

    I have no problem at all for the Rambam offering a further drasha as to the deep meaning. I do have a problem saying this is not a further drasha or reading but THE only possible way to read the text, and he who rejects it is a fanatic, a kofer or a fool, After all, as you point out I have advocated post modernism on many an occasion. Whether the ostensible deep meaning has any appeal rests on the plausibility of the underlying philosophical claims, the extent to which the reading seems forced, and other considerations on which there are no exact aggregation rules. I do feel if the majority of pesukim and agadatas have to be qualified as kaviyachol and as allegories, the theory is so top down as to not be adequate to the data. It is analogous to an ethical theory which corresponds to few of our intuitions, or a scientific theory that does not explain our observations.

  25. By literal I mean when chazal said "X" they meant to convey X. I said they had no sense of history, so I never meant to assert they were asserting literal historical statements. Look, suppose I said David Copperfield unknown to most everyone went to Alaska when he retired. I filled in a gap in the Dickens story. Was it literal? How else would you describe it?

    ZB says I am too yeshivish and charedi. You say I am condescending. I ask you to read the exchanges over these past months. I never said a bad word about anyone, including chazal, the Zohar and chassidus. I am not the radical in these dialogues and I am not doing the condescending. I accept folk religion as it is and offer no program of translation into some medieval and foreign higher and truer philosophical dialect. It is our esteemed baal hablog who is offering the one final language that is true and to which all must bow down and into which every previous rabbinical or biblical statement must be translated.

    My position is the same as many scholars of bible, midrash and kabbalah. An outstanding example is Michael Fishbaine’s Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking which I highly recommend.

  26. EJ

    I would like to address the comments you make about Chazal.

    First I do not even try to say that there is no more than one allegorical explanation to a Midrash as I believe there are many. Rambam himself gives three to Yakov's ladder! and that is a passuk!

    I also agree that the Rabbis when they made the derasha to their audience used language that fit their times. However just like the stories in Tanach, there were many more derashot than the once that were recorded for posteriority. The criteria that was used for recording was the same as the one used in tancah - Nevuah shene'amra ledorot nichteva" Only those that had eternal meaning were written. That at once tells us that the meaning it had at the time it was said is not important. For example what relevance has Yrmyahu's nevuah on reliance on Mitzrayim when that episode is long forgotten?

    The whole thing therefore has meaning to us only in the internal sense as to what it teaches us. It is completely irrelevant what it meant at the time. it is only relevant if it makes sense to us.

    So there may be an endless interpretation of a midrash and it will be subjective to waht makes sense to the reader and the circumstance he is in. One who insists on literalness or the historical context misses the point.

    EJ I commend you on your sensitivity and your respectful argumentation. I try to "emulate" you but am not always successful, so if I ever overstepped the boundaries of courtesy please forgive me. I really enjoy and respect your opinions.

    Your comments about the 13 midot and the idea of emulating God I will address in many of the upcoming posts. It is not an easy answer and rambam spent a big part of MN dealing with that. Tov and Rah, Schar Ve'onesh, Hashgacha, justice, are all very complicated and I believe I understand a lot of what Rambam tries to teach in that area. I also have many problems with many of his ideas. I have however learned to humbly persist and continue working on him. He is an incredible teacher!

  27. The problem EJ is that you seem to accept Judaism as a folk religion, and your gospel is based on biblical scholars. That is not a very successful recipe for modern Judaism or any other religion for that matter. This partially explains the "tremendous" success of the Conservative and Reform movement today.
    To be honest, I bet you are philosophically conservedox, and you probably grew up orthodox. I appreciate you love of right wing orthodox Jewry, but I also think you aren't yeshivish or charaidi, nor are you chasidish. However you do have a fascination and certain with this type of orthodox Judaism. I know I or this blog would never convince you of the truth or maybe even the legitimacy of Maimonedean Rational Judaism, however there are those of us who believe in a true mesorah that is not based on either mysticism or post-modernism. We see the word of God in the Torah, and do not cower in fear of rational arguements. However, our philosophical underpinnings are based on TORAH rationality, not post-modernism and/or "positive" historical Judaism.
    I am sorry EJ if I am being to harsh, but its frustrating to me that educated individuals have such a hard time giving the Rambam a chance, and are more then content labeling Judaism a folk religion.

  28. zb...You first presume to say that I "pigeonhole Orthodox halachick Judaism only as current charaidi hashkafah looks at it." Hence my characterization of your remark. You then fight with your previous description and say I am not charedi etc. Your conjectures as to who I am or was, are your prerogative, but not particularly relevant or appropriate. I have previously said of my own methodology that I wrote my blog from a secular point of view, and that I believe in a naturalist reconstruction of Jewish history whenever possible. I mean that ceteris paribus the explanation that doesn’t rest on metaphysically un-provable assumptions is to be preferred. It is because of my commitment whenever possible to naturalism that I assume the projection of a yeshiva in the time of the avot is an anachronism.

    By folk religion I mean those elements in Tanach, Talmud and subsequent mefarshim that do not meet the standards of 'TORAH rationality' or 'Maimonedean Rational Judaism.' I feel they nevertheless become part of the history of Torah thought and are to be respected as such without throwing them away. You feel you are respecting these ideas by translating them into an allegory, which you usually cannot even begin to specify, rather than take chazal to mean what they say they mean. When it comes to kabbalah, heichalot literature etc. you just turn away. We have a major disagreement as to which method shows the greater respect. I don’t take any mitzvah in the Torah, however strange and irrational as an allegory. I see no reason to change my attitude when it comes to narratives. Genesis 6:2 -4 means what is says, no less than any other story in chumash.

    I do agree together with "positive historical Judaism" that the ideas of contemporary Jewish scholarship are valuable and frequently helpful in understanding the great works of torah as well as the history of the Jews. You misread me one more time when you imply that I favor mysticism. I will not denounce it as superstition or the source of all current evils.At the same time no one has ever said that my remarks were woozey or illogical, and I have never advocated any mystical doctrine as true, even those of Rav Kook. To read this blog for two days and then suggest I cower in fear of rational argument is both thuggish and uninformed.

    As to what you might mean by my not giving the Rambam a chance is beyond me. This isn’t American Idol and I am no judge.

    I do not fit into your scheme of things in a neat way. My advice is read the comments of people that are more congenial to your thinking. Forget about me.I will reciprocate.

  29. EJ,

    I appologize if I have insulted you. I, however did not call you condescending but rather that you are using a tone which is a bit condescending and re-reading your posts on this thread have not changed this assersion. I think what set me off was your assertion that David rejects historicism. I don't think that is fair nor true. Again, I implore you to bring mainstream sources from the messorah that support literal readings of midrash or even some external argument showing that the genre of midrash was meant by its authors to be literal. Do you think chazal REALLY believed that moshe was 20 feet tall? Did they really believe that אדריינוס קיסר שהרג באלכסנדריא של מצרים ששים רבוא על ששים רבוא כפלים כיוצאי מצרים (yes, that number is 360 billion people killed by the cesar)?? You may say yes ... but I say that it is much more likely that the number shishim ribo had symbolic meaning and this is how it is used in the midrash. How do I know? well... based on the fact that symbolic number, measurements, constructs are used in a consistant fashion in chazal and due to the fact that chazal themselves say Chachamim dibru beLeshon Guzma (pretty much explicitly saying that when they say X, they don't really mean X) and because the other side of the argument does not bring any external proof to show that chazal approach their own words in a literal manner.

    You say that you are of the first school, but I am not sure you are. The first school does NOT say that when chazal said X, they meant X. It finds other purposes for their words which are not always a deeper meaning. I have no problem if someone takes this approach, but I do believe that taking a literal approach is insulting to chazal and no explanation of their lack of historiocity will justify statements which are not Mitkablim al HaDa'at.

  30. EJ, I am not going to get into a long winded argument with you, but first of all you have partially misunderstood what I was saying. Perhaps I wasn't clear enough, or perhaps its difficult getting across complex ideas through written communications in comment form.
    First of all, I have been reading comments from you since you had your blog, and many of the times you have posted here and in other blogs. I do have an idea where you are coming from from all that you have written, while you just have some snapshots of my views. Basicly, I don't understand how you see a contradiction in my top two points. I am arguing with your point that you need to take chaza"l literally in all their haggadatas, as that is more true to them and to historical reality. Your idea of naturalizing Judaism by holding that chaza"l meant what they said (ie the charaid viewpoint) and then arguing that they were wrong, is taking the Slifkin concept and extrapolating that too anything and everything that you don't agree with historically (not just empiracally). This is not a belief held by any normotive Orthodox opinion, hence I then said you aren't charaidi etc...
    You correctly said, there is a major difference between the two ways of thought in Orthodox Judaism, and that is correct, but both are still part of Orthodox Juadaism. Naturalizing chaza"l and perhaps Tanach is just not, and that is what I have difficulties with.
    I think you succinctly explained the difference between how you think then we do. You said you started you blog based on a secular way of thinking, and then you extrapolate Judaism from that frame of reference. The basis for both mine and this blogs (and Chardal's) viewpoint is that our baseline is Orthodox in nature and we go on from there. That is why we probably talk past each other at times. This is why we would take historical conjecture probably less seriously then you would, when looking back at chaza"l and tanach.
    Another problem I have personally with your natural viewpoint, is that there is no way to naturalize revelation. In other words, if someone believes that something incredible and incomprehensible happend to our ancestors roughly 3500 years ago, then their baseline of both looking at chaza"l and Jewish history is diametirically different then the historical outlook. Revelation I believe changes the equation, and therefore adds the element of hashgacha pratis (or even ruach hakodish) in the words of chaza"l. That is why I believe the Rambam takes the words of Chaza"l seriously, as he has this a priori of both a revelation in sinai and and legitimiciy of the words of chaza"l.
    Now without a revelation, naturilization is the correct way to go, but the belief of the uniqueness in Judaism stems from the it is TRUE and the correct path and belief for both us as Jews in particular and the humanity in general.
    However, I am not sure if you are arguing that chaza"l just held incorrect historical ideas, or believing that chaza"l's philosopy
    was man made, a product of their time, and therefore prone to error.

    Also (this is my opinion) I don't turn away from mysticm or Kabbalah. I fully believe that kabbalah (learned properly) is a fine derech in approaching both Judaism and the world. Its just that this path doesn't resonate to me and others for many reasons, and we believe that rational Judaism is more Emes and offers more both individually and collectively.

    Also I am sorry you misunderstood me, about "not cowering in fear from a rational argument". I never meant to imply that you feared arguing in a rational manner, aderabba I believe you are extremely proficient in debating. What I meant is that those mystically-inclined have a hard time arguing rationally, because they don't give any credence to any empirical evidence...So I was just engaging in polemics when I called them "cowering in fear", I just believe that they have a hard time getting their message through.

    Sorry for my long winded rebuttal, again I am sorry if I offended you, but I want to get across as accurately as I could my difficulties with your shita.

  31. > What I meant is that those mystically-inclined have a hard time arguing rationally

    Now I am offended! :)

  32. Chardal you have a different type of mysticsm, a type that I don't yet understand. (I guess because I haven't learnt Rav Kook philosophy yet). It seems you have a mystical viewpoint that is grounded in rational Judaism, but I guess you can correct me on that.
    I think there is a chiluk when you use mysticsm as a way to understand reality, versus using mysticsm to deny the validity of reality.
    Also when I said those who have a hard time agruing, are those who use tools provided by current right wing charaidi hashakfah.

  33. Its not so complicated.

    Mysticism looses value when reason is not allowed to guard it against excesses just like rationalism looses its value when it constrains all thought to such an extent that the soul can not breath and the imaginative faculties atrophy.

  34. zb...I thank you for your clarifications.

    My goal in WRITING, (I said nothing about being) under a pseudonym from a secular, naturalist point of view has been to write in as broad and nonsectarian way as I can, in a way that any Jew can relate to and hopefully find something of value. The moment I become real, whether Satmar or Jewish renewal the attention turns away from the content to the stripe and to me. Because of this perspective I try not to assert God says X, only report so and so says “God says X.” This distancing is machshir the study of the most obscurantist ideas, texts, stripes and theologies . This doesn’t mean I can’t have strong opinions and identifications FROM a particular perspective, I obviously do. My method need not be more objective or neutral, but it does prevent all sorts of polemics, and hopefully opens up some new possibilities.

    The topic before us is not whether to be Orthodox, or whether to be rational, however understood. I assume those constraints are here from the outset. The question is how should, an Orthodox Jew who is a rational person read certain problematic texts. Wrapping yourself in a mantle of Orthodoxy and saying unlike others you believe every sentence is true solves nothing, since you have yet to determine the meaning. Anyone, the biggest apikores, can repeat your mantra, and say, as an example, yetzias mitzraim is an allegory.

  35. chardal,

    Are we on the same blog? David most certainly rejects historicism. He just said one comment back "It is completely irrelevant what it (stories, prophecies) meant at the time." He has been arguing from day one that one can impose whatever meaning is necessary on a text for the purpose of ending up with the right philosophical ideas. As to sources, read the Fishbaine book. Part of the issue is the quantity that has to be allegorized, as we shall see. He shows how myth making is plentiful and continuous from Tanach thru the Talmud and into the Zohar. Turing to your example, lets agree that chazal didn’t believe Moshe was 20 ft. tall, the words "20 ft. tall" means 20 ft. tall. Symbolic meaning is not a substitute for the meaning of the words, but an explanation of why they said he was twenty feet tall.

    Here is how I see it in a very schematic way. Charedim have a normal theory of meaning and weird ideas as to what is true. MO of the Slifkin school are more in agreement with the world on what sentences are true, but screw up the meaning of sentences. I am with MO on truth and charedim on meaning. So in the Genesis case, which I think is very serious unlike the midrash cases, I believe the sentences mean what they say, and are false given what we know about the world. I handle this problem realizing that we can not say Torah is not true by this complicated post modernist two world view that I argued for on XGH and which no one accepted.

    Here is the rub. In a translation scheme that maps most sentences from the original text into false sentences according to us, there is this Davidson idea of charity that we should/must consider the possibility that our translation scheme is wrong. This is what is bothering everyone here, to wit that I am attributing to chazal and Tanach endless false beliefs. My response is that even if I were right, the bulk of sentences turn out to be true or acceptable by us. And even when we find chazal, have false beliefs, when looked at from the perspective of the time those beliefs were held to be true. Here is where historicism is so important.

    So one last time. If chazal say in Hebrew "the moon is made a green cheese," and there are many occurrences of the words where they refer to moon, green, and cheese, there is no reason to say the sentence means something else. We should certainly be precluded from doing this if everyone at the time believed that the moon was made of green cheese.

    I do believe you are raising an important and difficult issue, and I hope you hang around so that we can talk about it some more.

  36. EJ,
    From a historical point of view it is always interesting to understand what the writer meant. From a practical one it is not. The Rabbis saw Torah as a teaching exactly what the word means from Hora'ah . If we start from that premise, any story that the torah tells us it does so because it is meant to teach. When Torah tells us Breishit in six days what is it teaching us? Is it telling us that the world was created in six days which is irrelevant to us practically or is it telling us that we have to look at the world and how it is structured - that there is a cause and effect hierarchy - and through the analyses of that process we will arrive at the God/creator/First Cause?

    Let us accept that Torah is divine, could it have taught true physics at the time it was given and be understood? If it wanted to talk to the generations of antiquity and to those of our days and in five thousand years from now it had to deal with how things are perceived and not how they work. It tells us that no matter how things are understood to work we have to accept and look at it from a perspective that includes a God/Creator.

    If that is the lesson and it was meant as an eternal lesson, the only thing that is relevant as far we are concerned is what it is telling us now. It does not matter what it meant 500, 1000.3000 years ago!

    The same applies to all the Pessukim that deal with Historical facts, the rabbis interpretation thereof, the rabbis own teachings and that of their followers. that approach has been the only accepted by the great Jewish thinkers in all times.

    There were periods in the development of our people when a major step had to be taken. There was such a great discord between reality / science of the time and what had been taught until then. Great thinkers of those times which could have been multi generational led us through these transitions. Some approaches were more successful than others and there were competing approaches. How does one measure success? I don't think it is in numbers but rather which approach seems to be closer to reality and truth. I posit that between the two approaches Maimonides and Nachamanides - the former is more attuned to our reality.

    I also believe - though Chardal is better informed than I am in this area - that Rav Kook 's major work was to salvage Ramban's approach and adapt it to our reality. I am very interested in exploring how he did it but I keep on falling back to deal with issues in Rambam that I have not resolved satisfactorily. I have made some progress. (R. Meir Simcha did similar work though not systematically and much less explicitly.)

    When I say Ramban i also include the developments that followed him through Maharal, Zohar, Arizal even Gra and Chassidim.

    My beef is with the superstitious ideas and practices, including some we find in halacha as practiced and taught by Poskim, and they are legitimate poskim. I am not learned enough to follow my own practice though if I find a possek of stature who will agree with my thinking, I will follow him on that particular practice. Superstition to me is the bane of this world and the greatest obstacle to human development - it is to me Ikar Avodah Zara - and that is the underlying subject of my current and upcoming posts.

  37. EJ,

    You say:

    "Turing to your example, lets agree that chazal didn’t believe Moshe was 20 ft. tall, the words "20 ft. tall" means 20 ft. tall. Symbolic meaning is not a substitute for the meaning of the words, but an explanation of why they said he was twenty feet tall."

    Which leads me to think that we were talking past each other. I was never debating whether the words 20 ft. tall means 20 ft. tall but rather whether if chazal say that moshe was 20 feet tall, if they believe in reality that he was that tall. I don't believe that they did. I don't think that there is any major component of our messorah which says they did and you have not yet pointed to such an approach other than pointing out that rashi never says its allegory. I just don't accept that chazal meant such things literally unless you point out to me some common ancient scientific belief that it would have been normal for chazal to share with the rest of the world.

    I have a lot of respect for your "two truths" solution although I do not accept it myself, one of my main teachers, R' Chaim Eisen teaches a form of it. (I think that one could argue that Rav Soloveitchic does as well) The reason I do not accept it is that I believe it flies in the face of the religious desires of man. We want to see the world as one, not as two or three. The entire beginning of orot haKodesh is a build up to R' Kook's concept of Yichudim which is the kabbalistic counterpart ot the Hegelian thesis/antithesis/synthesis paradigm only it operates on a level which is inclusive of reason yet not consumed by it.

    Now, I have no problem saying that chazal had false beliefs. I can think of many. What I do have a problem with is what I believe is a mischaracterization of the genre of midrash.

    BTW, if you email me, I would be happy to forward you Rav Kook's intro to Ein Aya where he gives us his approach to midrash, I think you would enjoy it and that it would supply some common ground to this discussion.