In a comment on my last post, Y argued against my use of the verse (Shemot 24:6)
ז וַיִּקַּח סֵפֶר הַבְּרִית, וַיִּקְרָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם; וַיֹּאמְרוּ, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע.
7 And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people; and they said: 'All that the LORD hath spoken will we do, and we will heed.'
The word Nishma could also translate “understand”. I used “we will do and understand”, in that order, as a metaphor for keeping the Mitzvot with the goal of gaining an understanding of God and our existence. I argued that the action becomes meaningful after one reaches an understanding of why we do them and whose command we follow thus searching, apprehending and finding God. The Mitzvot are a tool to be used in finding God, having no intrinsic value themselves other than being commands. Y questioned my “drash” which is really not exactly the simple meaning of the Gemara (Shabbat 88a), referred to in the comments, either. The Gemara is saying the Jews accepted the Torah blindly without knowing its content or evaluating their ability to keep it. They did not ask if it is hard or easy to follow its precepts, accepting them sight unseen. I on the other hand am intellectualizing it and saying that the Nishma is the goal of the Na’asseh, the action. I base it on Midrash Hagadol and Mechilta D’Rabbi Ishmael in Torah Shleima.
But the underlying argument with Y is very important and I believe is cause for much misunderstanding when discussions revolve around a text.
ט וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָּא אֵלֶיךָ
בְּעַב הֶעָנָן, בַּעֲבוּר יִשְׁמַע הָעָם בְּדַבְּרִי עִמָּךְ,
וְגַם-בְּךָ יַאֲמִינוּ לְעוֹלָם;
And the LORD said unto Moshe - 'Lo, I come unto you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe thee for ever. (Shemot 19:9)
God is saying that the Torah will be eternally relevant. It is not meant just for the generation that received it; it is meant for all Jews. Eventually its teachings will affect all humankind forever. Such a Torah must be read both textually and literally but also has to be interpreted so that it is relevant to each at the level he finds himself. Anyone reading the Torah can clearly see that it describes an evolutionary process of learning, growth and development. Early man was not as sophisticated and advanced as later man was. Even Avraham was not as advanced as Moshe – the latter knew the meaning of YHWH – negative knowledge – whilst Avraham only knew God through His actions and attributes. (For an in depth discussion of this particular issue, see my article Negative Attributes and Direct Prophesy available on the sidebar of the blog). The nation that came out of Egypt, the ex slaves, those who witnessed Sinai, were surely not as sophisticated and advanced as a contemporary Jew who is also up to date with current technology and scientific knowledge! Yet the Torah is eternal and must talk to both – the ex slave and the sophisticated scientist of the 21st century! That is why, unlike the Mitzvot, the commandments, where the Torah is explicit and specific; the Torah is very vague when discussing theological dogma. It is cryptic and presents it in a way that it is understood differently by each individual according to his sophistication and erudition. After all, when we talk about issues relating to God we are dealing with things that pertain to a transcendental Entity that cannot be properly apprehended even by the most advanced scientific type.
“This also is the reason why "the Torah speaks the language of man," as we have explained. It is the object of the Torah to serve as a guide for the instruction of the young, of women, and of the common people. As all of them are incapable to comprehend the true sense of the words, tradition was considered sufficient to convey all truths which were to be established; and as regards ideals, only such remarks were made as would lead towards knowledge of their existence, though not to a comprehension of their true essence. When a man grows perfect, and the mysteries of the Torah are communicated to him, either by somebody else or because he discovers them himself, being led by the understanding of one part to the study of the other, he attains a rank at which he pronounces the above mentioned correct opinions to be true. In order to arrive at this conclusion he uses the veritable methods [true scientific methods] either by demonstration, where demonstration is possible, or by strong arguments, where this is possible. He will have a true notion of those things which he previously received in similes and metaphors, and he will fully understand their sense.” (MN 1:33)
Unlike the Mitzvot, the active commandments, where rules can easily be set and followed, theology is very much individualized. Broad parameters are set; “the language of man” is used; that leaves the detailed understanding to each individual to develop according to his capacity. Not only is it dependent on the individual but also on where human knowledge goes. As new and better understandings of the universe that God created become known to humankind, the understanding of God, “the mysteries of the Torah”, changes. It therefore does not make sense to insist that the Torah has to be read only in the context of the time it was given.
In a lengthy discussion about the belief in creation from nothing, (ex nihilo), Rambam takes the position that it is not empirically provable. It is a belief that we accept based on tradition. It fits better with the concept of miracles, providence and reward and punishment. It also seems to fit better in a simple reading of the Torah. As there is no empirical evidence, to the contrary there is no reason to force metaphorical readings into the text. But here is where Rambam makes one of his famous and to many, shocking statement.
“We do not reject the Eternity of the Universe, because certain passages in Scripture confirm the Creation; for such passages are not more numerous than those in which God is represented as a corporeal being. Nor are the gates of figurative interpretation shut in our faces or impossible of access to us regarding the subject of the creation of the world in time.” (MN 2:25)
Basically, the text is malleable when dealing with theology or philosophical issues that affect reality. As long as it conforms to reality, there is no reason to interpret it. However, reality supersedes the text and wins out! It is even more than that. The text that seems to contravene reality in its simple reading does so for a reason. As a person is taught about God, His transcendence and uniqueness and is then confronted with a contrary text, that confrontation brings clarity.
“That God is incorporeal, that He cannot be compared with His creatures, that He is not subject to external influence, these are things which must be explained to every one according to his capacity. They must be taught by way of tradition to children and women, to the stupid and ignorant, as they are taught that God is One, that He is eternal, and that He alone is to be worshipped. … When persons have received this doctrine, and have been trained in this belief, and are in consequence at a loss to reconcile it with the writings of the Prophets, the meaning of the latter must be made clear and explained to them. They should be elevated to the knowledge of the interpretation of these texts, and their attention should be drawn to the equivocality and figurative sense of the various terms … so that the correctness of their belief regarding the oneness of God and the affirmation of the truth of the books of the prophets should be safe. ” (MN 1:35)
In other words, the text is equivocal for a reason – it provokes thought and forces us to confront it with reality. It thus helps us clarify reality by reconciling the text with it through interpretation. Let me give a short example. When the text attributes speech to God who we know is transcendental and non-physical, we realize that it is teaching us that there is communication between the transcendental and humans. As we delve into what it means and what seems at first contradictory with our concept of a transcendental God, we develop an understanding of the prophetic capability of man. We realize that the Torah is pointing out one of the most important aspect of human thought - the interaction of the rational and imaginative faculties with intuition in a perfected human being. The ex slave who came out of