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.)


  1. I agree. Many people read the text from end to beginning, and do not notice few pointers. For example, Shemoth 19:
    3 "And Moses went up unto God" - Moses prophesied.
    "...and the LORD called unto him out of the mountain, saying: 'Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel:
    4 Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto Myself."

    Now, a chidush (renovation, resumption):
    5 "Now therefore, if ye will hearken unto My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be Mine own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine;
    6 and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.'"

    The renovation is a new plan which they did not know of before. Now they have a universal-religious role: Torah. What does Moses do afterward?
    7 "And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which the LORD commanded him."

    So Moses goes to the elders and tells them that God wants to give them Torah. What was their reaction?
    8 "And all the people answered together, and said: 'All that the LORD hath spoken we will do.'"

    I would say that even though we had a tradition of a savior who shall redeem them from the yoke of Egypt and bring us to the land of our forefathers, this story of a compulsive Torah was not part of the plan. Is this Moses' religious philosophy he thought of in the Egyptian or Midianite courts? Go figure what he did for decades apart from the nation.
    And that was their response. Again:

    'All that the LORD hath spoken we will do.' Not what you say (Moses).

    "And Moses reported the words of the people unto the LORD."
    Moses complains to God that the people do not wish to hear him. And only then:

    9 "And the LORD said unto Moses: 'Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with thee, and may also believe thee for ever.'"

    And this how Rashi understand this too:
    ט את דברי העם וגו' - תשובה על דבר זה שמעתי מהם שרצונם לשמוע ממך אינו דומה השומע מפי השליח לשומע מפי המלך, רצוננו לראות את מלכנו.

    9. the words of the people, etc. [Namely] a response to this statement I have heard from them [the Israelites], that they want to hear [directly] from You. [They maintain that] there is no comparison between one who hears [a message] from the mouth of the messenger and one who hears [it] from the mouth of the king [himself]. [They say,] “We want to see our King!” -[from Mechilta]

    Rashi compares this to a messenger passing the words of the king. The messenger might make the words up, or distort the words of the king.

    And this is what Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi says in the Kuzari (Even Shmuel):
    והנה גם חכמי בני ישראל שהסכימו לו בדקוהו וחקרוהו הואיל ולא האמינו אמונה שלמה כי ידבר האלוה עם בשר ודם ועמדו בספקם זה עד אשר השמיעם האלוה את דברו בעשרת הדברות כך נהגו בו בני עמו לא מתוך סכלותם כי אם מתוך חכמה כי יראו פן יש באותותיו תחבולה מתחבולות האצטגנינות או אמנות דומה לה

    and the sages from among the children of Israel who agreed with him [being the savior] examined him an and tested him for they did not believe that God speaks to flesh and blood and remained in this doubt until the God announced his words in the ten utterances. This is how his people treated him not from their folly but from wisdom...

  2. Rashi's source is Mekhilta deRabbi Yishmael Yithro - masekhta deBehodesh parasha beith:

    "אמרו, רצוננו לשמוע מפי מלכנו, לא דומה שומע מפי פרגוד לשומע מפי המלך. אמר המקום תן להם מה שבקשו, בעבור ישמע העם בדברי עמך, ד"א, אמרו רצוננו לראות את מלכנו לא דומה שומע לרואה "

    Indeed skepticism is not a product of Ashkenaz or southern Spain (Rashba's responsa came from Perpignan, not far from RYHAL's dwelling place) but from the sages of Israel throughout their generations.