Sunday, July 26, 2009

Truth at The Risk of Atheism in Levinas Thought and Understanding of Judaism.

I am reading Difficult Freedom – Essays on Judaism - by Emmanuel Levinas and came across a very illuminating and interesting idea.

“For Judaism, the goal of education consists in instituting a link between man and the Saintliness of God and in maintaining man in this relationship. … Judaism has decharmed the world, contesting the notion that religions apparently evolved out of enthusiasm and the sacred. Judaism remains foreign to any offensive return of these forms of human elevation. It denounces them as the essence of idolatry.

The numinous (supernatural – DG) or the Sacred envelops and transports man beyond his powers and wishes, but a true liberty takes offence at this uncontrollable surplus. The numinous annuls the links between persons by making beings participate, albeit ecstatically, in a drama not brought about willingly by them, an order in which they founder. This somehow sacramental power of the Divine seems to Judaism to offend human freedom and to be contrary to the education of man, which remains action on a free being. Not that liberty is an end in itself, but it does remain the condition for any value man may attain. The Sacred that envelops and transports me is a form of violence” (Emphasis in the original).

Believing in the supernatural and what Levinas terms the Sacred and making it part of life denies human freedom of will, denying the concept of actions and consequence, being that the interference of a supernatural power plays a greater decisive role in the outcome of any action. This understanding of the supernatural is experienced through the ecstatic, where the intellect relinquishes control. Violence denotes submission to the control of another by giving up voluntarily or involuntarily control of self. Levinas then uses this idea to explain Echad, the uniqueness of God.

“Jewish monotheism does not exalt a sacred power, a numen triumphing over other numinous powers but still participating in their clandestine and mysterious life. The God of the Jews is not the survivor of mythical gods. … Monotheism marks a break with a certain conception of the Sacred. It neither unifies nor hierarchizes the numerous and numinous gods; instead it denies them. As regards the Divine which they incarnate, it is merely atheism.”

In other words, by denying the concept of the divine of the religious forerunners of Judaism, it is seen as atheism. It reminds me of the reaction I get when I deny that there is a supernatural – “are you a believer, a Maamin?” I may be an atheist in the questioner’s eyes but he unfortunately is misled clinging to idolatrous notions.

“ … And one frequently encounters curious Talmudic texts which try to present the nature of Israel’s spirituality as something which lies in its intellectual excellence. They do this not through any Luciferian pride of reason, but because intellectual excellence is internal and the “miracles” it makes possible do not at all wound, like thaumaturgy [the working of miracles or magic feats – Wikipedia dictionary], the dignity of the responsible being; and above all because these “miracles” do not ruin the conditions for action and effort.”

The “miracles” in Judaism are connected to the prophet, a person of intellectual excellence. They are therefore the result of action and effort. The “supernatural” in Judaism does not take away human control but is the result of human effort, an understanding of his environment and taking advantage of it. A little further on Levinas confronts the risks that this thinking entails.

“The rigorous affirmation of human independence, of its intelligent presence to an intelligible reality, the destruction of the numinous concept of the Sacred, entails the risk of atheism. That risk must be run. Only through it can man be raised to the spiritual notion of the Transcendent. It is a great glory for the Creator to have set up a being who affirms Him after having contested and denied Him in the glamorous areas of myth and enthusiasm. It is a great glory for God to have created a being capable of seeking Him or hearing Him from afar, having experienced separation and atheism.”

One has to deal with reality using one’s intellect in the search for Truth. There are no shortcuts and it is not simplistic “faith” nor the ecstatic experience brought about by the imagination that will allow a man to attain Truth. It is the painstaking search, even at risk of atheism that will eventually allow for a true understanding of God’s transcendence.

This is my first encounter with Levinas and is at a very early stage. So far I liked what I read.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Hakirah Volume 8 Has Arrived

Hakirah Volume 8 is now in distribution and subscribers should be getting their copy in the next few days. It should be available at Seforim Stores sometimes this week. This volume contains some very exciting articles. A new Forum section has been added allowing for in depth follow up and debate on past articles or current matters of interest in our community.

Volume 8 / Summer 2009

Letters to the Editor


Response to: “A Hagiographer’s Review”
Marc B. Shapiro

Asher Benzion Buchman

Response to: “Conversion to Judaism”
Eliezer Ben Porat

Marc D. Angel

Entering a Sanctuary for Hatzalat Yisrael:
An Exchange Michael J. Broyde and Kenneth Auman


Rabbi Banet’s Charming Snake
David Nimmer

R’ Shlomo Yehuda Rapoport (Shir),
Champion of Jewish Unity in the Modern Era
Chaim Landerer


Modern Scholarship and Yirat Shamayim
Heshey Zelcer

Who Was Re’uel?
Finding a New Solution to an Age-Old Puzzle
Yacov Balsam


Tradition! Tradition? Rambam and the Mesorah
Asher Benzion Buchman

The Beginning of the Jewish Calendar
Bernard Dickman


“Faith and Heresy” and “Principles of Philosophy”
Meir Zelcer


מקומו של "משנה תורה" במערכת החינוכית של ספרד והמזרח התיכון
יוסף פאור


בדין טבילה ביום במקום אונס
אליעזר בן פורת

Friday, July 10, 2009

The World To Come In This World - Does One Experience Olam Haba While Alive?

The first Mishna in Avot reads – כל ישראל יש להם חלק לעולם הבא – every member of Israel has a part in Olam Haba. The popular understanding of these words is that it talks about afterlife and that once a person dies something of him remains after death. Here is how Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner (January 21, 1749 - June 14, 1821) explains it in his Pirush on Avot, Ruach Chaim. In a discussion about the effects of a Mitzvah and an Aveirah on a person using a lot of kabalistic terminology, R. Chaim summarizes as follows:

ועל כן לא אמר התנא כל ישראל יש להם חלק בעולם הבא ואמר לעולם הבא כי בעולם הבא מובן כי הוא דבר בפני עצמו המוכן ומי שיזכה במצוות נותנים לו משם ואמר לעולם הבא שהוא עושה עתה העולם הבא במעשה המצוה והוא מעשה ידי האדם עצמו כי המצוה הוא עצם השכר והאור הוא בגן עדן בחיי האדם ולעתיד זהו שכרו

The Tanah therefore did not say that every member of Israel has a part “in” Olam Haba but instead said “to” Olam Haba, for [in Hebrew] “in” would connote that Olam Haba is something out there ready, and anyone that merited through Mitzvot is given thereof. On the other hand, saying “to” means that the person through his own deed is creating Olam Haba now, through the act of the Mitzvah. The Mitzvah is the reward itself and the light is in the Gan Eden while the person is alive and in the future that is his reward.

R. Chaim is saying that Olam Haba is experienced while the person is alive and that experience stays with him forever - ולעתיד זהו שכרו.

Rambam in Hilchot Teshuvah 8:8 writes -

[ח] זה שקראו אותו חכמים העולם הבא, לא מפני שאינו מצוי עתה וזה העולם
אובד ואחר כך יבוא אותו העולם. אין הדבר כן, אלא הרי הוא מצוי ועומד,
שנאמר "מה רב טובך, אשר צפנת ליראיך" (תהילים לא,כ).
ולא קראוהו העולם הבא, אלא מפני שאותן החיים באין לו לאדם אחר חיי העולם
הזה, שאנו קיימין בו בגוף ונפש, וזה הוא הנמצא לכל אדם בראשונה.

The reason the sages call it Olam Haba [the world to come] is not that it is not extant now and will arrive after this world is no longer. That is incorrect. It exists now as it says…. The reason they [the Rabbis] named it Olam Haba [the world to come]; it is because that life comes to a person after the life of this world, in which we exist in a combination of body and soul. That same [life] is found in every man at first.

Are R. Chaim and Rambam on the same page? I suspect not. However, I will leave the question hanging for a while. I hope to address these issues in future post.

Shabbat Shalom

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

For the Rational Faculty is God’s Glory” – כי השכל הוא כבוד ה

Every time I learn the Rambam I discussed in the previous post, I always find his statement - “for the rational faculty is God’s glory” – כי השכל הוא כבוד ה - fascinating. Rambam in MN 1:64 explains that one of the meanings of the words כבוד ה – is -

Sometimes the term "glory" denotes the glorification of the Lord by man or by any other being. For the true glorification of the Lord consists in the comprehension of His greatness, and all who comprehend His greatness and perfection, glorify Him according to their capacity, with this difference, that man alone magnifies God in words, expressive of what he has received in his mind, and what he desires to communicate to others.”

Rambam then proceeds to interpret the word Kevodo in the verse that we say four times (as Leizer pointed out) daily in our prayers to mean that through understanding creation one can appreciate the glory of God –

ג וְקָרָא זֶה אֶל-זֶה וְאָמַר, קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת; מְלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ, כְּבוֹדוֹ.

3 And one called unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory. (Yeshayahu 6:3)

In other words, the glory of God is a human perception. God has no glory per se just as he has no attributes. Glory is only the human verbalization of a perception while using the rational faculty. The perfection of the world and the human being’s understanding of it compel him to appreciate God’s glory.

“The term - מְלֹא –full - is also employed to signify the achievement of perfection in virtue and of the latter’s ultimate end…. In this sense it is said "The whole earth is full (מְלֹא) of His glory" (Isa.6:3); the meaning of this verse being that the whole earth bears witness to his perfection, that is, indicates it.” (MN1:19)

The way to glorify God is to get to know Him. That is only possible through His creation and we, using our rational faculty to understand it. This takes us to the other verse which we also say four times daily –

יב וַתִּשָּׂאֵנִי רוּחַ--וָאֶשְׁמַע אַחֲרַי, קוֹל רַעַשׁ גָּדוֹל: בָּרוּךְ כְּבוֹד-יְהוָה, מִמְּקוֹמוֹ.

12 Then a spirit lifted me up, and I heard behind me the voice of a great rushing: 'Blessed the glory of the LORD from His place. (Yechezkel 3:12)

God does not have a place. We place Him in our minds during our meditation as we attempt to apprehend Him. As we develop an idea of God‘s glory by studying His creation we place Him.

“In the verse, "Blessed the glory of the Lord from His place" (מִמְּקוֹמו) (Ezek. iii. 12), makom has this figurative meaning, 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… For example, we have explained here makom in the sentence "Blessed be the glory of the Lord from His place" (מִמְּקוֹמו). But you must understand that the word makom has the same signification in the passage "Behold, a place (makom) is with me" (Exod. xxxiii. 26), namely, a certain degree of contemplation and intellectual intuition (not of ocular inspection).” (MN1:8)

When we talk about God and his rank, we are talking about a hierarchy in a system of cause and effect. As everything we know is caused by something else if we follow the trail we end up with the First Cause namely God, the unique entity that is not the effect of anything else. That puts God as the first in a hierarchical ranking of cause and effect. This is an intellectual process and it is we, in our minds that we place God in that position. Whenever we use the word “place” – Makom – when we talk of God we are saying that we are positioning Him in our minds in a certain place whether a location or a hierarchy. That explains why we refer to God as Hamakom Baruch Hu – the Place, blessed is He. When we talk about the transcendental God we, humans, can only do so after we somehow place Him in our minds.

Metaphysics deal with the existence of God and how we perceive Him. Just as the contemplation of Creation, triggers in us awe and makes us glorify God, the ability itself He has given us to do that, our rational faculty, glorifies God too.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Rational Faculty and Metaphysics.

The first Mishna in the second Perek of Hagigah reads as follows -.

אין דורשין בעריות בשלושה, ולא במעשה בראשית בשניים; ולא במרכבה ביחיד,
אלא אם כן היה חכם ומבין מדעתו.

One may not expound about sexual laws before three [people], nor about Ma’aseh Breishit before two nor about the Chariot before one unless he was knowledgeable and can understand on his own.

Rambam in Pirush Hamishna explains that sexual laws can be taught to no more than two people at once to avoid side discussions which could result in one or more participant missing a detail. People have a tendency to let their personal bias enter into these matters and lack of information may cause wrong decisions. Ma’aseh Breishit is defined as the sciences and research into the dawn of Creation. Because these subjects are very difficult for the masses, it can only be taught one on one. Ma’aseh Merkavah – the Making of the Chariot – “is metaphysical speculation [literally: knowledge of divine matters] that comprises the discussion about the whole of existence, the existence of the Creator, His mind, His attributes, the necessary existents that emanate from Him, the angels, the Nefesh [soul] and intellect that attaches itself to man”. One may not teach Ma’aseh Merkavah even on a one to one basis, unless that person is knowledgeable and has the ability to understand things on his own. The word דורשין - to expound refers to a form of transmission where there is a text or tradition and the teacher elaborates. When it comes to Ma’aseh Merkavah the Mishna limits teaching to allusions only without elaboration, as the student has to extrapolate on his own.

וכל המסתכל בארבעה דברים, רתוי לו כאילו
לא בא לעולם—
מה למעלן, מה למטן, מה לפנים, מה לאחור. וכל שלא חס על כבוד
קונו, רתוי לו כאילו לא בא לעולם.

One who contemplates four things, what is above, what is below, what is before and what is after, warrants his not coming into this world. One who has no respect for the glory of his owner warrants his not coming into this world.

Rambam explains these cryptic statements as follows: [I will paraphrase and expand rather than translate – also note the version here is the one available at the Bar Ilan site while I base myself on the much clearer Rav Kafieh edition and translation].

פירוש המשנה לרמב"ם מסכת חגיגה פרק ב
ואמר בהפחדת המשליט מחשבתו במעשה בראשית בלי הקדמות כמו שאמרנו כל המסתכל בארבעה דברים וכו'. ואמר בהרתעת המשליט מחשבתו ומתבונן בעניני האלהות בדמיונו הפשוט מבלי שיתעלה בשלבי המדעים כל שלא חס על כבוד קונו וכו'. ורתוי לו כאלו לא בא לעולם, פירושו שהעדרו מן האנושות והיותו מין משאר מיני בעלי חיים טוב למציאות מאשר היותו אדם, מפני שרוצה לדעת דבר שלא לפי דרכו ושלא לפי טבעו. כי לא ידמה מה למעלה ומה למטה אלא סכל בעניני המציאות. וכשירצה אדם המרוקן מכל מדע להתבונן כדי לדעת מה על השמים ומה תחת הארץ בדמיונו הנפסד שמדמה אותם כעלייה על גבי בית, וכן מה היה קודם שנבראו השמים ומה יהיה אחרי העדר השמים, ודאי שזה יביאהו לידי שגעון ושממון. והתבונן בביטוי הנפלא הזה האמור בעזר אלהי באמרו כל שלא חס על כבוד קונו, הכוונה בזה מי שלא חס על שכלו, כי השכל הוא כבוד ה'. וכיון שאינו יודע ערך הדבר הזה שניתן לו הרי הוא מופקר בידי תאותיו ונעשה כבהמה, וכך אמרו מאי שלא חס על כבוד קונו זה העובר עברה בסתר, ואמרו במקום אחר אין המנאפים מנאפים עד שתכנס בהם רוח שטות, וזה אמת, לפי שבעת התאוה איזו תאוה שתהיה אין השכל שלם. והזכיר ענין זה במקום זה לפי שאמר לעיל הן הן גופי תורה, לפיכך הזכיר ענינים שהם יסודות גופי תורה.

By asking the four questions, a person demonstrates that he is not ready to learn the sciences and research the dawn of creation – Ma’aseh Breishit. Asking the question of what is above or below indicates that one’s ludicrous concept of the world is of a multi-level structure or questioning what was before creation and what will be afterwards is pure idiocy as Rambam explains in MN that time is a function of existence. Rambam rightfully points out that these questions do not make sense when one has a good basic knowledge of the sciences. “And now contemplate this fabulous saying that has been said with divine help [great inspiration], “one who has no respect for his owner’s glory”, that refers to one’s rational faculty for it is God’s glory. For one who does not appreciate the value of what was given to him [the rational faculty] is addicted to his urges and is like an animal.” Rambam points out that this last comment refers to Ma’aseh Merkavah, metaphysics. Here the limitation is not lack of knowledge but lack of development of the rational faculty and consequently a lack of control over one’s urges.

When dealing with ontological matters, scientific knowledge does not suffice. While sciences can be taught albeit to a limited audience of one, metaphysics cannot. Concepts cannot be taught explicitly even to a qualifying student, as only the transmission of “chapter headings” (see Gemara 13a quoted by Rambam) are permitted. There is no exposition or expansion. In every oral or written transmission, the person on the receiving end rarely has exactly the same understanding as the transmitter. Each one has his own experiences and personality that affect how they understand the matter. In scientific matters experimentation and the use of mathematical symbols help to make sure that everyone is on the same page. When only “chapter headings” are transmitted, it is practically impossible that both, the teacher and the student have the same understanding. That is why it is so important that the student’s rational faculty be in control.