Sunday, September 28, 2008

Textual Literalness - Contradictions as a Teaching Method.

Rambam in MN 1:46 writes –

The same is the case with the information concerning the knowledge of God given to the multitude of men in all the books of the prophets and in the Torah. For it was found necessary to teach them that God exists, and that He is in every respect the perfect Being. That is to say, He exists not only in the sense in which the earth and the heavens exist, but He is an Existent who is living, possessed of knowledge and power, active, and all the other characteristics which our belief in His existence must include, as will be shown below. That God exists was therefore shown to the multitudes by means of similes taken from physical bodies; that He is living, by a simile taken from motion. For the multitudes consider only the body as fully, truly, and undoubtedly existing…”

Scholars of antiquity argue that we have to read the text as is and that early Judaism was closer to the religion of the neighboring beliefs in the region. From a historical perspective, they may have a point and the Torah seems to agree when it tells the story of the Egel – the Golden Calf. Immediately after experiencing the Sinaitic revelation, they turned to idol worship! The scholars however overlook a basic difference. While the other religions accepted corporeal gods, Judaism was teaching away from it. When it taught the existence of a unique God, that statement if analyzed properly, led to the conclusion that God has to be incorporeal. Unfortunately, not everybody can arrive at that conclusion immediately and it requires a lot of intellectual development before that can be understood and internalized. Torah as a teaching tool uses a strategy that keeps the issue of searching for an understanding of God at the forefront of a man of religion. It is a strategy that by necessity has to work at all stages of development of the individual and the group at the time it was given, and for future generations, no matter how primitive or how advanced and sophisticated the individuals and societies are. One of the methods it uses is to set out certain beliefs, postulates, in a form that can be accepted by all and encourages the individual to develop an understanding of its meaning according to his personal state of development and sophistication. It is this process of constant refinement of how a person understands God that is the real Avodat Hashem that leads to Yediat and Ahavat Hashem, the goal of religion.

The Torah teaches that God “exists”. The idea of existence when attributed to God is quite complex. What exactly does “existence” mean when we talk about a transcendent entity? To establish that God exists the Torah therefore teaches that as we look at the results of His existence, our own existence and the universe we are in, we extrapolate that He must have commanded, acted, created and so on. By attributing action to God, we establish in our mind that He truly does exist. At the same time, Torah teaches that He is incorporeal and that therefore it is forbidden to make any physical representation of God. Rambam Yesodei Hatorah 1:8 -

הרי מפורש בתורה ובנביא, שאין הקדוש ברוך הוא גוף וגווייה: שנאמר "כי ה' אלוהיכם, הוא האלוהים בשמיים ממעל ועל הארץ מתחת
והגוף לא יהיה בשני מקומות.
ונאמר כי לא ראיתם, כל תמונה
ונאמר ואל מי תדמיוני, ואשווה
ואילו היה גוף, היה דומה לשאר גופים

It is made clear in the Torah and the writing of the Prophets that God is incorporeal. It says, “Hashem your God, is God in heaven on high and on the earth below” – a body cannot be in two places at the same time. It also says, “For you have not seen an image” [at Sinai]. It also says, “To whom can you liken Me and to whom can I be compared?” Had God been corporeal, He could be comparable to other bodies.”

These two teachings, that God exists and therefore acts and that He is incorporeal, are two contradictory teachings. That these two teachings contradict each other is not obvious to the novice and beginner and requires some sophistication. However, once a person starts thinking and learning he confronts the contradiction and start developing a more advanced understanding of “existence”, action and all the attributes as they relate to God.

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. Without incorporeality, there is no unity, for a corporeal thing is in the first case not simple, but composed of matter and form which are two separate things by definition, and secondly, as it has extension it is also divisible. 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. We point out the homonymity and the figurative application of certain terms discussed in this part of the work. Their belief in the unity of God and in the words of the Prophets will then be a true and perfect belief.” (MN 1:35)

Rambam thus sees the apparent contradictions, the dialectics, as a teaching method that lives up to the Torah’s goal, teaching men how to find God. As we grow in understanding and become more sophisticated, we confront the text and the apparent contradictions. We start developing a sense of when the text has to be read literally and when it is a metaphor or an allegory. This process is one of the various methods the Torah uses to keep us focused on our lifetime goal, finding God. Insisting on reading the text literally, as is the current trend in our community, defeats the Torah’s effort at making us an

ּ רַק עַם-חָכָם וְנָבוֹן, הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה

Surely, this great nation is a wise and understanding people.

I will discuss in upcoming posts if there are rules regarding how to read the different texts, those dealing with God and His relationship to us and our surrounding and those dealing with historical reports. I will also address the other methods Torah uses to keep us focused on the goal which will bring us back to Ta’amei Hamitzvot.

I wish all a Shana Tova and a Ketiva Vechatima Tova.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Textual Literalness - Law and Theology.

In the latest issue of Tradition, Rabbi Marc Angel writes an article criticizing the move in Yeshivot and schools towards teaching literalism when reading Aggadot Chazal. The article states the obvious but is something that needs to be said over and over again and Rabbi Angel does a great service to our community in doing so. The article however does not discuss literalism in Torah and Nach, other than in passing regarding the age of the universe. That is a much more controversial issue and needs to be addressed too. I would like to address it in coming posts as it is a question that I have been asked about many times and I believe needs to be fleshed out.

Rambam in the introduction to MN presents the problem very succinctly.

“… is to give indications to a religious man for whom the validity of our Torah has become established in his soul and has become actual in his belief – such a man being perfect in his religion and character, and having studied the sciences of the philosophers and come to know what they signify. The human intellect having drawn him on and led him to dwell within its province, he must have felt distressed by the externals of the Torah and by the meaning of the above mentioned equivocal, derivative or amphibolous terms , as he continued to understand them by himself or was made to understand them by others.”

Rambam describes a person who has become convinced by his knowledge and understanding of the Torah, the ideas that underlie the laws and what they are meant to teach us, that it is a valid system to follow for a person that wants to perfect himself. Having accepted the practical aspect of the Law, he now is confronted by the seemingly incongruous philosophical and scientific presented as the underlying basis for that same Law. The way it is presented, the words it uses to describe the theological underpinnings are perplexing. They do not agree with his perceived reality.

“Hence he would remain in a state of perplexity and confusion as to whether he should follow his intellect, renounce what he knew concerning the terms in question, and consequently consider that he has renounced the foundations of the Torah. Or he should hold fast to his understanding of these terms and not let himself be drawn on together with his intellect, rather turning his back on it and moving away from it, while at the same time perceiving that he has brought loss to himself and harm to his religion. He would be left with those imaginary beliefs to which he owes his fear and difficulty and would not cease to suffer from heartache and great perplexity.”

The first option is the one taken by many especially those that have already left the religion. They go with their intellect and abandon the Laws that seem to be based on flawed logic and theology. But the real tragic figure is the person who opts for the second choice. That person lives a life of pain closing off his own mind and submits to what he considers an illogical system. The tragedy is that he is submitting to a figment of his imagination. In reality, this person is submitting himself to a flawed theology - “imaginary beliefs” - while the rejectionist too is distancing himself from a theology that is false and never intended. Our Torah is not called Torat Emet in vain. Not only is it true but it is teaching how to find the ultimate Truth. It is intended to develop our intellect not stifle it!

When we read a book, we try to identify the goal the author has set himself when he conceived it. Understanding that will explain the style, the meaning of the different chapters and generally the concepts in it. A law book is not written in the same style as a book on mathematics or physics nor is poetry similar to prose. As we are discussing here the Torah and the books of prophecy, we must take the same approach to them.

When we look at the Torah itself, the five books of Moshe, as compared to the rest of the books of prophecy – Nach - we see commonality and difference. Torah contains Laws, detailed rules of behavior, what we refer to as the 613 Mitzvot while the rest of Nach has almost no laws. The few laws found in Nach are all derivatives or variations on the laws already found in the Torah. On the other hand, both Torah and Nach contain non-legal, theological teachings in different forms ranging from interpretation of historical or natural events and the relationship of man to nature and God to exhortation for ethical and moral behavior beyond the purely legal. There are very few purely philosophical discussions in the whole of Tanach as it is almost always cloaked in a story or presented as the underlying motivation for practical actions.

Like all books of law, the language in the sections dealing with legal matters is precise and defined. It is accompanied by an oral tradition that teaches how to implement the laws in practice. However, in the sections of Torah as well the rest of Nach that deal with the theological, whether interpretation of historical events or descriptions of God, His interaction with the world and human beings and generally the physical and metaphysical, the language is much more vague and equivocal. As its name implies - Torah stems from Hora’ah - teaching – it is a system that teaches people not only how to act but also how to look at the world they live in. These two goals define the composition of the Torah and how it is presented.

Laws that deal with behavior and actions have to be able to adapt to circumstances. They cannot be static and rigid. The same thing that may be correct under one circumstance may be wrong under another. A radical example would be killing another human being. The Law states that taking a life is criminal, however is killing Hitler a crime? Paradoxically it is the precise language of the law accompanied by the oral Law that supplies the hermeneutical rules and tells us how to read, interpret and put into practice that same precise text, gives the law its required flexibility. There is much to be written about this and I plan to do so in the future. Here I want to focus on the theological component of Tanach first.

Unlike the practical Laws that require flexibility because their truth depends on circumstances, the underlying basis for theology, science and the laws of nature, are unchanging and inflexible. The rules that regulate the universe are rigid and predictable. We just have to discover and understand them, which is never easy but attainable at least in theory. So too is theology which is the way we look at our existence and interpret its raison d’etre. We are searching for the one unchanging and inalienable Truth. Here the Torah gives us the goal that we are trying to reach but leaves the method how we arrive at those insights up to us. The proofs and methods that convince us of these Truths have to be arrived at by each person on their own. For example, the Torah tells us that God exists and is unique. Understanding why that is so is our goal. The process that brings us to that recognition is in itself a teaching and a goal in its own right. It is therefore a very individualized process that cannot be laid out in a precise manner. The Torah therefore concentrates more in presenting the end result, the belief and Truths that we have to convince ourselves on rather than the proofs themselves and how to arrive at these Truths. Vagueness is therefore the proper teaching tool.

To be continued…

Friday, September 19, 2008

Our Grandson Gavriel Moshe -

Our grandson Gavriel Moshe put on Tefillin for the first time on the day of his Bar Mitzvah yesterday morning. We had the great Zechut to have four generations in the Beit Hakenesset at the time.

Gavriel is the sweetest bright loving son/grandson one can hope for and we look forward to watch him grow into a happy and successful young man.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The 13 Attributes - Formula or Contemplation?

As we approach the Yamim Nora’im, we will be repeating the 13 Midot of HKBH frequently. When Moshe was confronted with the Egel, the golden calf, upon his descent from Sinai, he was distraught and at a loss on how to lead the people considering his failure to distance them from idol worship even after the Sinai events. Moshe wanted to know how he could make sure that his leadership takes the people into Eretz Israel, but more so, that he builds a nation that will know God forever. The Egel had thrown him for a loop and he was in a quandary. God responded to his request by suggesting he focus on His 13 attributes.

Rambam in MN1:54 explains the meaning of this response –

Although Moses was shown "all His goodness," i.e., all His works, only the thirteen Midot are mentioned, because they include those acts of God which refer to the creation and the government of mankind, and to know these acts was the principal object of the prayer of Moses.”

In our search for God, we look at nature. We are awed by the intelligence we perceive in the laws of nature and through them, we start to get an understanding of God. We now have to translate what we learned into practical actions. Rambam continues –

Whenever any one of His actions is perceived by us, we ascribe to God that emotion which is the source of the act when performed by ourselves, and call Him by an epithet which is formed from the verb expressing that emotion. We see, for example, how well He provides for the life of the embryo of living beings. How He endows with certain faculties both the embryo itself and those who have to rear it after its birth, in order that it may be protected from death and destruction, guarded against all harm, and assisted in the performance of all that is required [for its development]. Similar acts, when performed by us, are due to a certain emotion and tenderness called mercy and pity. God is, therefore, said to be merciful: e.g., "Like as a father is merciful to his children, so the Lord is merciful to them that fear Him" (Ps. 103:13).”

The goal is the survival of the species and thus the individual that makes up the group. As part of the system, a child is born helpless and is provided with protection - the womb while it is an embryo, the parent’s love and protectiveness after it is born until the child grows up and fends for himself.

The governor of a country, if he is a prophet, should conform to these attributes… At times and towards some persons he must be merciful and gracious, not only from motives of mercy and compassion, but according to their merits”.

A leader that is also aware of how God created the world where everything is consequential understands that he has to emulate Him in his own governance. Just like God is selfless, after all, He is uniquely non-contingent and therefore there can be no reciprocity, so too must a leader act selflessly. The thirteen attributes stand for all the ways that a person who gets to a certain level of understanding should try to emulate God. The Gemara Rosh Hashana 17b reads -

א"ר יוחנן אלמלא מקרא כתוב אי אפשר לאומרו מלמד שנתעטף הקב"ה כשליח צבור
והראה לו למשה סדר תפלה אמר לו כל זמן שישראל חוטאין יעשו לפני כסדר הזה
ואני מוחל להם

Rabbi Yochanan said, were it not for the fact that it is a plain verse this could not be said, we are taught that God cloaked Himself like a Shaliach Tzibur (lit: representative of the gathering – a leader) and showed Moshe the order of prayer. He said to him: any time Israel sins they should act in this manner, and I will forgive them.

The verse the Gemara is dealing with is in Shemot 34:6 –

ו וַיַּעֲבֹר יְהוָה עַל-פָּנָיו, וַיִּקְרָא, יְהוָה יְהוָה, אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן--אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, וְרַב-חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת

There are two ways of interpreting this verse. Hashem passed in front of Moshe and Moshe declaimed Hashem, Hashem … or alternatively Hashem declaimed – Hashem…. Rabbi Yochanan chooses the latter interpretation namely, that God showed Moshe His attributes of action. Rabbi Yochanan is teaching us the meaning of prayer. It is not just a formulaic plea; it is a realization that we have to act in a certain way for things to improve. Prayer is the contemplation that leads to emulating God. It is not Moshe petitioning God with a formula, but rather Moshe “seeing” God’s ways, contemplating them with the goal of emulating them. Rambam in a responsa (Blau 267) says that he never declaimed the verse during the Krias Hatorah on a Ta’anit the way the popular custom is. He then continues to say that the correct way to read the verse is that God said, and that no one ever interpreted it differently.

התשובה אלו הקריאות כולן אין עיקר להן, ולא נזכרו כלל בדבר מדברי רז"ל, והקרוב אצלי, שהם מנהגי חזנין שנתפרסמו. אבל אני לא קראתי אותן מעולם, משום שאיני יודע לזה עיקר, והוא דבר שאין לו מובן ברור,
ושהשם הראשון אינו מן השלש עשרה מדות, הרי זה דבר נכון, לא שמעתי מעולם מי שחלק על זה
ופשוטו של מקרא מורה על זה, לפי שהוא יתעלה, אמר וקראתי בשם ה' לפניך, אחר כך סיפר קיום זאת ההבטחה, והזכיר, שה', יתעלה שמו, קרא ה', אל, רחום, וחנון וגו' ,

The contemplation of these attributes is meant to remind us that we have a role to play in God’s world as human beings. If we are to understand that role, we must start by contemplating the world God created and the results His actions have. By doing this we can get an idea of where all this is heading and what our role is in that. We then act for the long term good of the whole not just as a selfish individual.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Voice - Insight and Confirmation

Understanding “Kol” - the voice - as an apprehension rather than a sensory experience, Rambam in MN 2:33 explains –

It is clear to me that at the gathering at Mount Sinai, not everything that reached Moshe also reached all Israel. Speech was addressed to Moshe alone: for this reason in the Asseret Hadibrot the second person singular is used, [it would have been plural if addressed to all - DG], and he went to the foot of the mountain and communicated to the people what he heard.

In other words the difference between the apprehension of Moshe and that of the people is that they had a similar experience he was having, but while he was able to make sense of that experience and translate it into words, their experience was no more than an intellectual insight into Moshe’s experience.

The problem with understanding Kol as a prophetic apprehension by a mass of people is how to square it away with Rambam’s understanding of prophecy as a natural result of advanced metaphysical and theological speculation. How can one explain that a large group, men, women and children all were made into intellectual giants in a few days? In fact, Rambam discusses the whole Sinai experience in that context. In the chapter that lays out his basic theory on prophecy (MN2:32) he ends the discussion by stating –

As to the revelation on Mount Sinai, all saw the great fire, and heard the fearful thundering, that caused such an extraordinary terror; but only those of them who were duly qualified were prophetically inspired, each one according to his capacities.

Apparently, a person present at Sinai could experience Kol without having reached the level of prophecy. The people were taught certain necessary theological truths that allowed them to grasp intellectually and assimilate into their minds the existence of a true divine inspiration. Rambam does not define further what that apprehension was and considers that to be one of the great mysteries about that experience “The true reality of that apprehension and its modality are quite hidden from us”. Along the same lines, Rabbeinu Avraham, Rambam’s son in his Pirush on Chumash sees the three preparatory days as days of teaching theology and philosophy to the masses. He wonders at what such a crash course could be composed of to be successful. He attributes the lack of reports and details about the content of those teachings in the Torah, to their great depth and therefore secrecy. This Kol experience was unique. It never recurred since Sinai nor will it ever recur. It however confirmed to those present that Moshe was legitimate and that the reports he was bringing to them were authentic.

As we know, Rambam holds that the existence of God is empirically provable. The arguments for the existence of God are therefore something one can be taught and apparently that was one of the matters that was already accepted by the Jewish people who left Egypt. That is how I understand the answer that God gave to Moshe when he asked Him on what basis the people would accept him as their leader. He told him to tell them that he is a messenger of the same God they were taught about by their parents, the unique transcendental non-contingent entity. However, as God’s essence cannot be understood, it remained an abstract and intellectual argument. It is difficult for humans, who live in a material world, to really assimilate the existence of a transcendental God. Kol was able to change that and it confirmed the existence of God who was only known intellectually. That experience confirmed that God is transcendent and really “exists”. It is similar to a scientist who is able to confirm a scientific theory with a successful experiment. (See Devarim 4:12 and on).

The Israelites heard the first and the second commandments from God, i.e., they learnt the truth of the principles contained in these two commandments in the same manner as Moses, and not through Moses. For these two principles, the existence of God and His Unity, can be arrived at by means of reasoning, and whatever can be established by proof is known by the prophet in the same way as by any other person; he has no advantage in this respect. These two principles were not known through prophecy alone… When the people heard this voice, their soul left them; and in this voice, they perceived the first two commandments. (MN 2:33)

The convergence of the intellectual apprehension of the existence of God with the Kol experience legitimized the Kol experience and made it believable and acceptable to all. Kol worked because it confirmed something already known intellectually. Moshe who was much more knowledgeable could understand the other eight commandments while the people could only “hear” what was known to them independently – God’s existence, transcendence and uniqueness.

It must, however, be noticed that the people did not understand the voice in the same degree as Moses did. I will point out to you this important fact, and show you that it was a matter of tradition with the nation, and well known by our Sages. (ibid)

Of course, Rambam points out that even that apprehension of God was each according to his level of intellectual development. Moshe the greatest thinker of his time had an incomparably deeper understanding than the rest of the people.

This Kol experience coupled with the natural displays of thunder and lightening impressed the people to such a point that they agreed to submit to the yoke of heaven – the Torah that Moshe was about to give them.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Hearing the Voice

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי
בָּא אֵלֶיךָ בְּעַב הֶעָנָן, בַּעֲבוּר יִשְׁמַע הָעָם בְּדַבְּרִי
עִמָּךְ, וְגַם-בְּךָ יַאֲמִינוּ לְעוֹלָם

9 And the LORD said unto Moshe - 'Look, I am about to come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people may hear when I speak with you, and they will also believe in you forever.' (Shemot 19:9)

Rambam in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah chapter 8 comments –

ומניין שבמעמד הר סיניי לבדו, היא הראיה לנבואתו שהיא אמת שאין בו
דופי--שנאמר "הנה אנוכי בא אליך בעב הענן, בעבור ישמע העם בדברי עימך, וגם
בך יאמינו לעולם
מכלל שקודם דבר זה, לא האמינו בו נאמנות שהיא עומדת לעולם, אלא נאמנות שיש אחריה הרהור ומחשבה

How do we know that Ma’amad Har Sinai alone is the proof that his [Moshe’s] prophecy is unquestionably true? For it says – “'Look, I am about to come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people may hear when I speak with you, and they will also believe in you forever.” We see from this that before this experience, they did not have an eternal belief in him but rather one that with time doubts and thoughts [creep in].

In my last post, I quoted Rashba who elaborated on the virtues of skepticism basing himself on Rambam’s understanding of this Passuk. Here I want to focus on the things mentioned in this verse that were supposed to clear up the skepticism. Rambam (MN 2:33) notes that the verse reads בעבור ישמע העם בדברי עימך - so that the people may hear when I speak with you – which implies that they did not necessarily hear the words themselves, only that Moshe was spoken to by God. In fact, there is a verse that makes that clear.

יב וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֲלֵיכֶם, מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ: קוֹל דְּבָרִים אַתֶּם שֹׁמְעִים, וּתְמוּנָה אֵינְכֶם רֹאִים זוּלָתִי קוֹל.

12 And the LORD spoke unto you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the voice of words, but saw no figure only a voice. (Devarim 4:12)

The people did not hear the words themselves, just a voice – a sound. The word the Torah uses for this type of apprehension is קוֹל. What does “hearing” in this context mean? Is it a sensory experience or is “hearing” in the sense of understanding? In a discussion of the meaning of “face to face”[1] as in –

ד פָּנִים בְּפָנִים, דִּבֶּר יְהוָה עִמָּכֶם בָּהָר--מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ.

4 The LORD spoke with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fire- (Devarim 5:4)

Rambam in MN 1:37 comments –

“It פָּנִים is also a term denoting the presence and station of an individual… In the same sense the word is used in the following passage, "And the Lord spoke unto Moses face to face," which means as a presence to another presence without any intervening medium between them….In another passage, it explains, saying - “You heard the voice of the words, but saw no figure only a voice" (ib. iv. 12). Hence, this type of speaking and hearing is termed "face to face”… Thus it will be clear to you that the perception of the Divine voice without the intervention of an angel is expressed by face to face.”

The result of the experience of “hearing” God “speaking” is a perception that the person is standing face to face with Him. This type of “hearing” could be sensory if the speaking was a physical voice. However, when God “speaks”, Rambam tells us, it is only an apprehension by us that there is speech. God is transcendental and does not speak with a mouth and voice.

“… I do not think that I need explain to you the inadmissibility of the attribute of speech in reference to God. This is the case particularly in view of the general consensus of our community on the Torah being created. This is meant to signify that His speech that is attributed to Him is created. It was ascribed to Him only because the words heard by Moshe were created and brought into being by God, just as He created all the things that He has created and brought into being.… When we are told that God addressed the Prophets and spoke to them, our minds are merely to receive a notion that there is a Divine science which the Prophets attain… The two terms, when applied to God, can only have one of the two last-mentioned significations – will or volition, or a notion that has been grasped by the understanding having come from God. There is no difference whether the divine thought became known to man by means of an actual voice, or by one of those ways of prophecy which we shall make clear. We must not suppose that in speaking God employed voice or sound.” (MN1:65)

I have highlighted what to me is a very important statement. “Hearing” in the context of man who hears God is an apprehension. How that apprehension came to that man is irrelevant as long as he is sure that it is divine. What counts is that the person has apprehended some divine science and knowledge. Clearly when the people “heard” the voice, it was not a sensory experience but rather one akin to prophecy which we have seen is the result of an intellectual process. When the Torah says that the people “heard” God speak to Moshe, they experienced an apprehension that they could not translate into coherent words. Rambam in Yesodei Hatorah uses the following metaphor –

והקול מדבר אליו; ואנו שומעים: משה, משה--לך אמור להם כך וכך.

And the voice spoke to him and we “hear”, Moshe, Moshe go tell them such and such.

By themselves experiencing prophecy to an extent, the people were able to accept and understand that Moshe too has prophetic experiences though much more intense one, so much more intense that his prophecy was incomparable to theirs.

Following the rule that I set myself on length of posts, I will leave further discussion of the verse I started with here for another post. So far, we have seen that “speaking” and “hearing” the voice are not material or sensory but intellectual events. More to come on this subject especially Kol.

Shabbat Shalom.

[1] Note this is different from Peh el Peh – mouth to mouth.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Our Ancestors Taught Us That Skepticism Is A Virtue!

Having understood the meaning of Shechinah as something we visualize in our mind rather than a factual entity, we are now ready to try to understand the experience at Har Sinai. I would however like to quote a remark that Rambam makes at the end of the chapter that discusses the issue in depth –

“The true reality of that apprehension and its modality are quite hidden from us, for nothing like it happened before and will not happen after. Know this.” (MN2:33)

First, let us look at how Rambam introduces the discussion of Ma’amad Har Sinai in his Mishne Torah. (Yesodei Hatorah chapter 8)

א משה רבנו--לא האמינו בו ישראל, מפני האותות שעשה: שהמאמין על
פי האותות--יש בליבו דופי, שאפשר שייעשה האות בלאט וכישוף. אלא כל האותות
שעשה במדבר, לפי הצורך עשאן--לא להביא ראיה על הנבואה: צרך להשקיע את
המצריים, קרע את הים והצלילם בו. צרכנו למזון, הוריד לנו את המן. צמאו,
בקע להם את האבן. כפרו בו עדת קורח, בלעה אותם הארץ. וכן, שאר כל האותות.

The Jewish people did not believe in Moshe Rabbeinu because of the [miraculous] signs he made. One who believes because of signs has doubts for he always wonders if the sign was not produced through sleight of hand and magic. All the signs [Moshe] made in the desert were done as needed and not to prove [the validity] of prophecy. It was necessary to drown the Egyptians; he split the sea and sunk them in it. We needed food; he arranged for the Mann. They thirsted; he split the rock. Korach’s faction rebelled against him; the earth swallowed them. And so goes for all the other signs.

As an introduction to the event at Sinai, Rambam tells us that miracles do not prove that man can interact with the divine powers. Any intelligent person will immediately question an abnormal event and see it as manipulation rather than proof of anything real. Interestingly, Rashba, (Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet 1235-1310) a pupil of the Kabbalist Ramban (1194-1270) and himself a noted Mekubal discusses Rambam’s take on the Sinai experience in a responsa and presents this skeptical view very succinctly. He was asked whether he believes that there were miraculous unnatural physical events at Sinai and also whether the people experienced a sensory perception. In other words, did the mountain tremble, did the people hear the noises and so on or are these all metaphors? If on the other hand they are metaphors for a prophetic experience, how could such a mass of people acquire prophecy without being philosophers and thinkers? I plan to analyze his response at length as I go along with the subject, but here I want to focus on his take on the effect of miracles. He argues that because miracles should be questioned as to their authenticity, they have only a temporary effect. Here is how he puts it –

. האחד, שממנו למדו האבות,שלא [יתפתו] אחר הדברים שיכנס בהם שום ספק, עד שיבחנוהו הרבה שאין בו צד פקפוק אלא האמת. והוא שהי' משה נביא האמת, עליו השלום, מסתפק אם יאמינו לו, אע"פ שהוא בא לבשרם להצילם מן העבודה הקשה. כאמרו: לא יאמינו לי.וכלל הענין ההוא, לפי שידענו שלא יאמינו, רק בדבר אמתי והכרחי, אין בו שום צד פקפוק. וע"כ אף כשהגדיל ה' לעשות הנפלאות והנוראות במצרים, עד שהוציאם בזרוע נטויה, ובמוראים גדולים. עוד הוצרך להוציא הפקפוק מלבבם, מפני שכל מה שנעשה במצרים, אפשר שנתפשטו בהם, או מקריים טבעים, או עניני החרטומי'. ולפיכך, לא האמינו במשה אמונה מוחלטת, עד עמדם בקריעת ים סוף יורה על זה, מה שאמר שם: ויאמינו בה' ובמשה עבדו. ותרגם המתרגם: ובנביאות משה עבדיה. שזה באמת נמלט מטבע המקריים, שאין הים נקרע במקרה בלילה אחד, ובבקר ישוב לאיתנו. וזה הוציא מלבבם הפקפוק, אמנם לשעתם. והוא שאמרה רחב הזונה: כי שמענו את אשר הוביש ה' את מי ים סוף מפניכם. לא הזכירה אחד מן הפלאים והמופתי' הקודמים במצרים, רק זה לבדו, לכונה שאמרתי. ואמנם, אף לאחר קריעת ים סוף, נכנס עוד בלבם (ספקו) צד פקפוק, אולי משה לבד שהיה חכם מכל האדם, ומכל מי שקדמו, ידע לעשות כן, והם לא יבחינוהו. וחזרו עוד להמשך אחר הספק והפקפוק. ומעתה, לא נשאר להם שום בחינה בנבואת עשה, זולתי שיגיעו הם בעצמם לענין נבואי, להוציא מלבם כל פקפוק. וזה היה במעמד הנכבד ההוא, ונתאמת האמת ונצדק קודש

One reason [why Sinai was a prophetic experience] is that our ancestors taught that one should not be seduced by matters that are questionable until they check them out thoroughly; satisfying themselves that there is not kernel of doubt, only truth. That is why Moshe, the true prophet, was concerned that they would doubt him even though he came to tell them that he was going to save them from the hard labor [they were suffering], as he said “behold they will not believe me”. That was so because we know they would not believe anything unless it was true, undeniable and self-evident. That is why even after God brought about the great and fearsome miracles in Egypt to the point that they were freed by His outstretched hand and fearsome acts, Moshe still needed to remove any further doubts from their minds. For everything that happened in Egypt could possibly be explained as a natural occurrence or magic. They continued therefore to doubt until they came to the splitting of the Yam Suf. That is why the Targum translates, “they believed in God and Moshe His servant” as “they believed in God and in Moshe’s prophecy”. For this was too far out to be natural. The sea does not split by chance in the middle of the night and is back to its normal by daybreak. However this only removed their doubts temporarily… for even then they started doubting and thinking that possibly Moshe who was smarter than all men past and present was able to make this happen. They therefore again became skeptical. Therefore, the only way this skepticism would disappear was only if they themselves experienced prophecy. That was what happened during this glorious stand and truth and holiness was verified.” (Shut Harashba 4:234)

How different was the thinking of the Rishonim! They saw skepticism as a virtue so unlike our community’s contemporary thinking. Intelligent people do not accept anything without a “double blind study”! Our ancestors were smart and left us a legacy that we have unfortunately lost along the way. Rashba understands that Sinai was an experience that did not involve physical miracles only. As we will see Rambam goes even further and seems to doubt that there were any abnormal physical events that could not be explained away naturally. To both of these thinkers though, the main event was a matter of apprehension.
Not all Rishonim saw it this way. R. Yehudah Halevi in his Kuzari and even further back Rav Nissim Gaon in his Megilat Setarim felt that only sensory and physical experience could verify Moshe’s prophecy. Following in their path, I find that we would base our whole belief in Moshe’s prophecy on a very tenuous argument. I believe that Rambam’s approach avoids these pitfalls, as we will see.

In this post, I touched on the purpose and goal of Ma’amad Har Sinai – verification of Moshe’s immutable prophecy. In the coming posts I will touch on the experience itself as explained by Rambam (as I understand him.)

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Holiness Defined - The Meaning of Kadosh.

Matt at Kankan Chadash has written an excellent definition of holiness. Enjoy and learn.

Monday, September 01, 2008

What is Shechinah (part 2) - Makom and Kevod Hashem

In the last post we saw that God does not descend or for that matter go up, pass or change place in any way, but rather it is we who visualize such actions during our contemplations about God. God as the ultimate transcendental entity is not bound by time and place. In fact, the word “place” does not apply to Him at all but rather it is we who visualize God this way when we try to relate Him to our reality and existence. It is a hierarchical position rather than a physical place that is created by our minds as we try to apprehend God.

“In the verse, "Blessed be the glory of God (Kevod Hashem) from His place" (mimekomo) (Ezek. iii. 12), makom has this figurative meaning. The verse may be paraphrased "Blessed be the Lord according to His rank and the greatness of His portion in existence". Wherever makom is applied to God, it expresses the same idea, namely, the rank of His existence, there being nothing like or similar to that existence, as will be shown below.” (MN1:8)

When we say God “exists”, existence as it applies to Him is non-contingent. To us that type of existence is unimaginable. In our reality, there is nothing that exists completely independently and alone. It must be caused by something, be located somewhere and have limits, interacting with something else. “Existence” as applied to God, the only non-contingent entity by definition, is therefore equivocal and of a different rank, hierarchically ahead of everything considering that He is the cause of their existence. That is the subject of the Midrash (Breishit Rabah 68:10)

ויפגע במקום
ר' הונא בשם ר' אמי אמר:

מפני מה מכנין שמו של הקב"ה וקוראין אותו מקום

שהוא מקומו של עולם, ואין עולמו מקומו, מן מה דכתיב (שמות לג

הנה מקום אתי,

הוי, הקדוש ברוך הוא מקומו של עולם, ואין עולמו מקומו.

אמר רבי יצחק

כתיב (דברים לג מעונה אלהי קדם,

אין אנו יודעים אם הקב"ה מעונו של עולמו ואם עולמו מעונו, מן מה דכתיב (תהלים צ

ה' מעון אתה

הוי. הקדוש ברוך הוא מעונו של עולמו, ואין עולמו מעונו.

אמר רבי אבא בר יודן:

לגבור, שהוא רוכב על הסוס וכליו משופעים אילך ואילך, הסוס טפילה לרוכב ואין הרוכב טפילה לסוס, שנאמר

כי תרכב על סוסך

The Midrash starts by saying that God is not placed within the world but rather the world is within Him. Space is a defined area within infinite non-space. Infinite non-space can only be conceived in our mind as it is immaterial, a negative concept. The Midrash follows and says that the world is not God’s dwelling but rather that God is the world’s dwelling. Rambam in MN 1:70 in discussing the word רוכב – to ride - as it applies to God explains -

The rider is better than the animal upon which he rides. The comparative is only used for the sake of convenience, for the rider is not of the same class as the animal upon which he rides. Furthermore, the rider moves the animal and leads it as he likes; it is as it were his instrument, which he uses according to his will; he is separate from it, apart from it, not connected with it. In like manner, the uppermost sphere, by the rotation of which everything moveable is set in motion, is moved by God, who is separate from the sphere, and is not a power in it. In Bereshit Raba we read that in commenting on the Divine words, "The eternal God is a refuge" (lit., a dwelling, Deut. xxxiii. 27), our Sages said, "He is the dwelling of His world, the world is not His dwelling." This explanation is then followed by the remark, "The horse is secondary to the rider, the rider is not subservient to the horse; this is meant by 'Thou wilt ride upon thy horses'" (Hab. iii. 8). Consider and learn how they described the relation of God to the sphere, asserting that the latter is His instrument, by means of which He rules the universe.”

Rambam understands that Rabbi Abba is explaining Rabbi Yitzchak’s comment. The metaphor of dwelling is an idea of ownership and control. Just like the rider, though the horse carries him, no one would doubt that the rider is in control, so too when we describe God’s relationship to the world as its dwelling, we are saying that He controls it. We sense Him through the results of that control, our existence, which we translate as Him being the dwelling the world resides within, not a matter of space but a hierarchical relationship - He controls it.

In discussing the word Nigash – came close – as in Shemot 24:2 –

ב וְנִגַּשׁ מֹשֶׁה לְבַדּוֹ אֶל-יְהוָה, וְהֵם לֹא יִגָּשׁוּ;

And Moshe alone shall come near unto the LORD; but they shall not come near, after explaining

that “coming near” in this context is nothing more than mental concentration, Rambam adds –

If, however, you wish to take the words "And Moshe shall draw near" to mean that he shall draw near a certain place in the mountain, whereon the Shechinah was, or, in the words of the Torah, "where the glory of God (Kevod Hashem) abode," you may do so provided you do not lose sight of the truth. There is no difference whether a person stand at the centre of the earth or at the highest point of the ninth sphere, if this were possible, he is no further away from God in the one case, or nearer to Him in the other. Only those who obtain knowledge of Him approach Him; while those who remain ignorant of Him recede from Him.” (MN1:18)

Rambam here equates Shechinah with Kevod Hashem and tells us that both, in their “real” meaning, as opposed to the “acceptable” one, refer to intellectual knowledge of God. In other words, the Shechinah does not rest in a place nor does the Glory of God - the Kevod Hashem – but rather it is man who places them or alternatively God that they represent, in a physical place that is the result of His actions or command but does so only in his mind, intellectually. That is because man cannot fathom “existence” without it taking up space and locate it in a defined place. In discussing the rationale for building the Beit Hamikdash, Rambam explains –

Avraham selected the west of the mount as the place toward which he turned during his prayers for the Holy of Holies is in the west. This is the meaning of the saving of our Sages, "The Shechinah" (the Glory of God) is in the West" (B. T. Baba B 25a). They stated in the Talmud Yoma that our father Abraham fixed the direction toward which one should turn in prayer, I mean the Temple of the Holy of Holies. I believe that he did so because it was then a general rite to worship the sun as a deity. Undoubtedly all people turned then to the East [worshipping the Sun]. Abraham turned therefore on Mount Moriah to the West, that is, the site of the Sanctuary, and turned his back toward the sun.” (MN3:45)

When the rabbis say the Shechinah is in the West, they are telling us to focus our attention and visualization of God with our back to the sun. We do that to negate the idolatrous beliefs of our ancestors who conflated God with His tool – the sun. Prayer, to be more exact, the Amidah, the Shemona Esreh is a thrice-daily process of focusing and concentrating on our constant search for understanding and knowledge of HKBH. We visualize God during that process. Avraham wanted to make sure that we do not conflate God with His creation, the sun, a common error during his time. (Unfortunately, this is still extant nowadays, even in our communities, the sun having been replaced by other creatures/creations).

I hope that I have made it clear that God is not bound by space and time, thus when we say that God was somewhere, descended, went up or when we say that the prophet ascended, came close and so on, we are only describing an internal visualization rather than a physical fact. With this in mind, I will now try to deal with the experience at Sinai. I just want to end this post by pointing out the practical importance of understanding what Rambam teaches us here. We say the verse mentioned in MN1:8 above at least three times daily –

בָּרוּךְ כְּבוֹד-יְהוָה, מִמְּקוֹמוֹ.

'Blessed be the glory of God from His place'(Yechezkel 3:12)

In this verse, we have the words “Kevod Hashem” and “Mimekomo” all discussed here. I always try to remind myself when saying the passuk that it is one of the central ideas of prayer.