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.

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