Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Reading Mevakshei Panecha - Part 1 - Secular Knowledge and The Torah Jew

My Israeli friend Mechel recently gave me as a gift the book Mevakshei Panecha, an interview of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein by Rav Chaim Sabato. It is not an easy read although Rav Sabato is a writer par excellence. Rav Lichtenstein has developed the dialectical method to an art form and some chapters leave the reader in a state of confusion – at least that was the case with me. The effort to read is however well worth it as we get a glimpse of the workings of a great mind and a Gadol Betorah, one of the greatest of our time. I am about half way through the book and I want to share/discuss some points that I found enlightening and interesting. As the book is in Hebrew, I will translate the pertinent excerpts.

In a chapter discussing how to relate to values that come to us from outside the Torah:

“There are people including gentiles whose historical mission is one of creativity – literary or moral creativity. These are people that you see in them greatness whether greatness of the soul or moral greatness. How can one not be impressed with Samuel Johnson  ?  A man who started life in the London gutter and climbed to a level of Gemilat Chassadim that I wish I could reach. Should I ignore this just because he was a gentile? …. What nobility, what fear of heaven and dedication are projected and the final lines of the wondrous sonata of Milton regarding his blindness! Why should I ignore this?”

We are not talking about TIDE (Torah im Derech Eretz) which is generally seen as a utilitarian approach to secular studies but rather a fundamental appreciation of that knowledge and the creativity found in that world. An appreciation that sees it as part of the basic education needed to make us into perfected human beings and Jews. However Rav Lichtenstein does set some limitations.

“One has to differentiate between the ideal and the practical. In practice, one must be careful when importing values from the outside by looking at two issues. One issue is self-suspicion. When I am searching for values outside the Torah I must ask myself: what propels me to look for universal values? Why am I not looking for them in our own sources? Am I truly looking? Is the search occurring only after I have fully evaluated everything that is written in the Torah about these values without finding them, to the point of having to look outside? Is there another reason that I am compelled to look in places other than the Torah? … The second issue one must investigate is where these external values come from. Are they possibly coming from sources that from our standpoint are unreliable and unwanted? Having concluded these two analyses I find myself confronting a universal question and not necessarily a Jewish one. It is told that the Caliph Omar Ibn Hatab, one of the famous Caliphs in the middle Ages ordered the burning of the famous great library in Alexandria. He argued that if what is written in this library is true it must be found in the Koran and if it is not found there it must be false…”

Rav Lichtenstein subtly points out that the standard Yeshiva world argument that anything not found in the Torah must be false is an old argument developed by other religions. As he points out further this argument was quite common in 17th century England between the Puritans and their more enlightened opponents.  Rav Lichtenstein then fleshes out the immediate questions one has to confront when going out to look for external values. First we have to determine how well grounded the person that embarks on the search is. Is he easily swayed or is he self-confident and has a firm footing in his thinking?

“We then have to focus on two additional issues. One is the environment the person is in. When I say environment I refer to two things. First is to analyze the social, financial and cultural environments. The whole environment could be so different from what it once was, that the sources do not address the current situation. We have to however caution; the fact that the circumstances changed does not mean that one has to automatically expect a changed stand. Not every circumstantial change forces us to modify our thinking or outlook. But we must at least be aware of the changed circumstances. I always ask myself whether the situation I am in now is a mirror of the situation and circumstances that is presented in the words of Chazal and the Rishonim. Second, even if the environment has not changed, I have to ask are the tools that I have now different than those that were available to the past. And even if there is no change in either the circumstances or the tools, sometimes there is a change in the weltanschauung that I have to things, which may not be exactly the same it was once….”

Rav Lichtenstein is very sensitive to the changes that have occurred over time and the effect they have on how we look at them from the Torah viewpoint. We cannot let the Torah viewpoint become ossified to the point of making it irrelevant. Rav Sabato asks him if his father in law, RYBS Z”L was influenced by external sources.

“A certain person once asked me if Rav Soloveitchik was influenced by Kierkegaard. I understand that one who asks this question does so with a critical undertone, as if saying that should the Rav have been influenced by Kierkegaard, woe is to us!   I answered him that if the question was whether the Rav read Kierkegaard, of course he did!  But if the question was did he take anything from him? I don’t know for sure but I suspect the answer is positive too. Of course, a great person like the Rav, who learned Torah all his life, who is rooted in its world, its opinions and its values – such a person when he is confronted by a book by Kierkegaard, if after a careful inspection he discovers that the things he read in there are true, moral and deepen our understanding of divine worship, does he have to ignore them? Does he have to turn away from them? Why? Just because they are based on Kierkegaard? If the notion is true, he will take it and if not he will ignore it, not because it comes from Kierkegaard but because it is wrong... There is a problem that many people nowadays have, including Yeshiva students. They lack the ability to dive into stormy seas. They live in a world of fear. They are afraid of everything. A part of the Yeshiva world suffers from this disability. True, in some matters they are right, but in many other things, and not necessarily literary matters, they are not right…”

Rav Lichtenstein interestingly starts the discussion by setting very clear parameters. One has to analyze and be suspicious of one’s motives. We first have to explore the whole Torah and try to find an answer to the existential question that is intriguing the searcher. He then admits that there are contemporary matters and issues that because of the environment, the culture, the tools we now have, cannot be solved by ignoring external sources. And then he turns to the Rav and how he did take out good ideas from secular culture and introduced them into Judaism.  The way I read the progression of his thought is that people of the caliber of the Rav are able to independently fish in the deep waters of secular thought and find the kernels of truth that advance the thinking of a modern Jew living in our world today. He does not say it, but it is clear that he sees himself as capable of doing the same. Lesser scholars and other interested students can then study their insights which help them navigate the contemporary cultural currents. The Yeshivot are so afraid of possible deviance that they prohibit even that, thus restricting their members from fully participating in the contemporary world. As we will see further, this respect for truth from whatever its source leads Rav Lichtenstein to a unique and extremely enlightening perspective on the secular Jews of our time. I will write about that in an upcoming post.



Sunday, December 04, 2011

Reb Zadok on Attribution -

Several years ago I read an article which referred to an interesting approach by Reb Zadok Hacohen of Lublin  regarding attribution. At the time I was lazy to look it up and promptly forgot where I had seen the quote and of course could not find in the writings of Reb Zadok.  This Shabbat I read an article by Professor Moshe Halamish and lo and behold there is the quote again. This time I went to the source and looked it up. It is quite interesting so I decided to translate it and post it. It is in Sefer Hazichronot page 68a in a discussion regarding the different trends in kabbalah. Reb Zadok explains that Kabbalistic insights cannot be developed solely through rational processes. Reb Zadok then continues to explain how these metaphysical insights are acquired intuitively and through deep contemplation by certain perfected individuals.

“For this apprehension is an emanation from above to prophets through prophetic processes and to sages through Ruach Hakodesh, each apprehending according to the status of his knowledge, apprehension and personal perfection.  Moshe rabbeinu in his vision of the burning bush first and his later vision when God passed all His goodness in front of him, was shown God’s true unity. However, unlike Yechezkel he did not see the chariots, the Chayot and the Ofanim; he had other visualizations according to his status…. These different visualizations varied according to each sage amongst them Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai [the protagonist of the Zohar] whose visualizations varied at different times. So too in the Sefer Habahir attributed to rabbi Nechunya ben Hakana, and Sefer Hatemunah, attributed to rabbi Ishmael the High priest, other visualizations are found where they speak in a completely different vein. So too  the kabbalah of the Geonim that we find in the Pardes and other holy books,  a selection of which is reprinted in a small sefer named “Selection of Kabbalah from Geonim” (Warsaw edition), a reader may notice that it is a  totally different approach to kabbalah then what is found in Sefer Hazohar and its companions.  That is so because it is based on the vision that was experienced by one of the Geonim, the head of their school …. There is also is printed a sefer Mayan Hachochma that is attributed to Moshe rabbeinu which is also quoted in Pardes, Pelach Harimon, in the introduction to Sefer Emek Hamelech and others. It appears to me that it is accepted by the earlier sages that it is a holy book and it seems to me that it was written in the days of the later Geonim or close to that time by one holy person who through his Ruach Hakodesh was able to apprehend what Moshe rabbeinu did receive from Sinai (!) for a Chacham is greater than a prophet as Ramban in Baba Batra 12a writes see there as quoted in Ayin Yaakov.  The beginning of that sefer is already found in sefer Haiyun by Rav Chamai Gaon parts of which is printed in the above mentioned Selection. It is also mentioned in sefer Hakana etc… It seems to me that Sefer Haiyun was in front of the author of sefer Mayan Hachochma and he followed along the same path a little though we find many additional novel things that he apprehended during his own contemplation. For those who visualize the Chariot do it via Ruach Hakodesh  gained through knowledge and rational thought, which is however supplemented by superhuman apprehension emanating from above through Ruach Hakodesh as explained by Ramban…     ”

Reb Zadok is referring to Ramban who explains the Gemara that Nevuah no longer exists, as limiting it to prophetic visions however Ruach Hakodesh that accompanies knowledge of great sages still continues to exist. Reb Zadok explains that to be a supplemental insight that emanates from HKBH and that is Ruach Hakodesh.  I have attached a scan of the pertinent page in the original Sefer Hazichronot.

This is a fascinating concept developed by a Chassidic Rebbe who was also a great scholar and thinker and who had a very keenly developed critical sense. He discerns the different schools of Kabbalistic thought. The amazing thing is that he understands that Kabbalah is a personal experience rather than something that is transmitted. There seems to be a basic philosophical thinking that goes back to antiquity but is reinterpreted by each visionary according to his personal state of mind and thinking. That tradition of personal intuition and insight seems to go back to the prophets all the way to Moshe rabbeinu.  A sefer attributed to an earlier sage may be written by someone else at a later date and attributed to the earlier person if it supposedly was based on his thinking.  Is that what happened to the Zohar? Was it Rav Moshe de Leon’s insights according to Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai? Reb Zadok does not say so but can we infer so from his way of thinking?   


Monday, November 14, 2011

Circumcision and Child Sacrifice - Some Fascinating Parallels.

In 2006 (scary! my blog is over 5 years old) I posted this re the Akeida and it generated quite a few interesting comments at the time. To my surprise and I have to admit satisfaction my old posts are read and relevant five years later as I received a thoughtful email commenting on it. The comment triggered some further thoughts on the subject and here they are.

In the earlier post I explained my understanding of Rambam that Avraham was having internal debates about his dedication to God. The question that I did not address is why did his introspection lead to a vision that manifested a human sacrifice? The same thinking could have found other visions that are less jarring that would demonstrate his devotion. Apparently, the idea of sacrificing a child, especially a first born, was very much the custom of the time and that is where Avraham got this idea in his vision. Neviim are realists who live within their time and culture and their vision is formed by that reality.

To expand on this theme - the haftorah to this week’s Parsha is the story in Melachim 2:4 about the Shunamit woman who was helped by Elisha and gave birth to a son whom she almost lost later - a similar theme to Abraham's experience with Yitzchak. That is usually the case with Haftorot; they have some connection to the Parsha that is read before it. What most people miss in our Haftorah is the shouting silence that is heard by what is not read - the end of the story just preceding this one, Melachim 2:3:26-27.

כו  וַיַּרְא מֶלֶךְ מוֹאָב, כִּי-חָזַק מִמֶּנּוּ הַמִּלְחָמָה; וַיִּקַּח אוֹתוֹ שְׁבַע-מֵאוֹת אִישׁ שֹׁלֵף חֶרֶב, לְהַבְקִיעַ אֶל-מֶלֶךְ אֱדוֹם--וְלֹא יָכֹלוּ.       
26 And when the king of Moab saw that the battle was too sore for him, he took with him seven hundred men that drew sword, to break through unto the king of Edom; but they could not.
כז  וַיִּקַּח אֶת-בְּנוֹ הַבְּכוֹר אֲשֶׁר-יִמְלֹךְ תַּחְתָּיו, וַיַּעֲלֵהוּ עֹלָה עַל-הַחֹמָה, וַיְהִי קֶצֶף-גָּדוֹל, עַל-יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַיִּסְעוּ, מֵעָלָיו, וַיָּשֻׁבוּ, לָאָרֶץ.  {פ}              
27 Then he took his eldest son that should have reigned in his stead, and offered him for a burnt-offering upon the wall. And there came great wrath upon Israel; and they departed from him, and returned to their own land. {P}

The rabbis, quoted ad locum by Rashi and Redak explain that the King of Moab asked his advisers, what merits Israel has, that it deserves such miracles which help them in battle.   His advisers told him that their forefather Abraham offered his firstborn as a sacrifice when God asked him to do so. The king of Moab therefore did the same and sacrificed his own firstborn. God was angry because it contrasted the devotion that this man had to his god with Israel’s lack of the same as Israel was sacrificing their sons to strange gods which their own God forbade.  The rabbis clearly connected the two – the popular custom of child sacrifice and the Akeida.  Although it is very much the theme of the Parsha, the Haftorah starts immediately after these verses, skipping them because of God's wrath but the elephant is in the room for one who knows Tanach or bothers to look up the Haftorah in a Tanach.

There is a further connection of child sacrifice to the Mitzvah of Brit Milah. It is quite plausible that one of the reasons[1] for the Mitzvah of Milah is that it was meant as a replacement for human sacrifice, letting blood instead of killing the child. Symbolically the bloodletting is performed on the organ that is responsible for reproduction and future generations - that which this sacrifice, if it had been performed was precluding. In fact, the story of the birth of Yitzchak and subsequently the Akeida follow the instructions Avraham received about the Brit Milah. The Torah is telling us that after the commandment of Milah, child sacrifice has no place in religion. The Mitzvah of Mila that is performed at birth replaces it and if additional manifestations of devotion to God are needed, replace a human sacrifice with one of animals – the ram being a symbol for Korbanot.

The Bracha we make during the Brit Mila is (MT Hilchot Mila 3:3):
ואחר כך מברך אבי הבן, או המל, או אחד מן העומדין שם ברכה זו--ברוך אתה ה' אלוהינו מלך העולם, אשר קידש ידיד מבטן, וחוק בשארו שם, וצאצאיו חתם באות ברית קודש

The words קידש ידיד מבטן, are quite possibly a reference to the ancient cultural custom of child sacrifice. I heard this suggestion close to 30 years ago by Professor Haim Gevaryahu at the Brit Milah of one of his grandsons. I subsequently found it online with an attribution to him by his son Gilad Gevaryahu with a reference to the source for this conjecture.  

Philo of Byblos (64-141 A.D.) described a ritual in Canaanite religion as follows:

Among ancient peoples in critically dangerous situations it
was customary for the rulers of a city or nation, rather than
lose everyone, to give over the dearest of their children as a
propitiatory sacrifice to the avenging deities. The children
thus given up were slaughtered according to a secret ritual.
Now Kronos, whom the Phoenicians call El, who was king of
their land and who was later divinized––after his death––as
the star of Kronos, had an only son by a local bride named
Anobret (and therefore they called him Yedid1; even now
 among the Phoenicians the only son is given this name); when
war’s gravest danger gripped the land, he [Kronos] dressed
his son in royal attire, prepared an altar, and sacrificed him.

(Harold W. Attridge and Robert A. Oden, Jr., Philo of Byblos
The Phoenician Histroy: Introduction, Critical Text, Notes.
Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series 9. Washington,
D. C.: Catholic Biblical Association, 1981: 61–62.)

See also a post I wrote a few years ago.

[1] BTW Rambam in MN offers three and one more can be found in MT. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Rav Gedalia Nadel Z"L on the Rule of the Majority.

As I am learning Hilchot Ma’achalot Assurot with my chavruta and we are reaching the chapters that deal generally with Ta’aruvot, mixtures of forbidden and permitted foods, we decided to go over a shiur that Rav Gedaliah Nadel (RGN) gave in Kolel Chazon Ish on the subject of Rove – the rule of the majority. The shiur is printed in Rav Shailat’s Betorato Shel Rav Gedaliah and was approved by him. We found it to be very helpful. I will present here in my own words my understanding of his approach. I think it is important to see how a real original Torah thinker deals with a complex subject and I am hoping that I will learn something myself working through the issue this way.

There is an accepted basic general rule in cases of mixtures of forbidden and permitted foods, Issur and Heter that according to torah law (de’oraita) the minority is subsumed by the majority - -
מדאורייתא ברובא בטיל (TB Chulin 98b) . The rule (Bitul henceforth) has many detailed variations and arguments among the rabbis as to its application, whether it applies to all mixtures, whether they are of the same type of food or also when two different types are mixed together, does it apply to both dry with dry and wet with wet (liquids) mixtures and so on. The idea behind this rule is, as explained by Rosh (Chulin chapter 7 letter 37) that although when a mixture of Issur and Heter occurs, for example one piece of unslaughtered meat among two kosher pieces, we know that the forbidden meat is present and logically we would say that when one picks one piece to eat there is a possibility that it is the forbidden one and considering that neveila is an Issur Torah, a safek (when the Issur is not known) would be prohibited. The Torah however tells us (Gezeirat Hakatuv) that we consider it as if the Issur became Heter and we can even eat the whole mixture. In other words not only are we allowed to eat each piece on its own, but we may even eat the whole all at once (e.g. eat all the pieces) where the prohibited is necessarily also consumed.

The question is what is the source of this rule? If it is a Gezeirat Hakatuv where is it found in the Torah? Rashi in Chulin says that it is based on the verse in Shemot 23:2
לֹא-תִהְיֶה אַחֲרֵי-רַבִּים, לְרָעֹת; וְלֹא-תַעֲנֶה עַל-רִב, לִנְטֹת אַחֲרֵי רַבִּים--לְהַטֹּת.
Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou bear witness in a cause to turn aside after a multitude to pervert justice;

I will not go here into a discussion about the plain meaning of the verse versus the Midrash; suffice it to say that the Rabbis read the last three words אַחֲרֵי רַבִּים—לְהַטֹּת as telling a court, a Beit Din to decide according to the majority rule (see the first Mishnah in Sanhedrin 2a). Rashi is telling us that the rule that we follow the majority in a court ruling can be extended to Bitul. But where is the similarity? A court is trying to determine the truth. There is only one truth and the Torah tells us that we must accept the truth as seen by the majority. The other opinion is therefore not the truth; it is wrong, null and void and therefore non-existent. In a mixture, the prohibited food remains there though only in a minority, but it is present in some quantity. How does the unslaughtered meat become slaughtered meat? More surprising yet, is that we do not find this comparison in the Gemara. It is only the Rishonim who develop this comparison between courts and food mixtures. The Rosh as we saw sees this as a Gezeirat Hakatuv which traditionally is understood to be a rule that does not necessarily have a rational explanation. Had the Rabbis in the Talmud told us that it is so we would have been forced to accept it and assume that it is a tradition going back to Moshe, but how can Rishonim develop an irrational comparison?

There is a Gemara that, at first blush, seems to tie the rule of majority in courts to other Halachik situations of Rove. The Gemara in Chulin 11a says:
מנא הא מילתא דאמור רבנן זיל בתר רובא מנלן דכתיב (שמות כג) אחרי רבים להטות רובא דאיתא קמן כגון ט' חנויות וסנהדרין לא קא מיבעיא לן כי קא מיבעיא לן רובא דליתיה קמן כגון קטן וקטנה מנלן

  • -        What is the source of the rabbi’s rule: follow the majority?
  • -        You are asking for the source? Isn’t it written, follow the majority?
  • -        I was not asking about a majority that is present e.g. nine stores and Sanhedrin. I was asking about a majority that is not in front us, e.g.  Male and female minors.
The Gemara sees the case of majority rule in courts as comparable to the one of nine stores and therefore the latter can be deduced from the former. The comparison may be explained that when we accept the court’s majority rule it is because we assume that there is a strong probability that the opinion of the majority is correct and the contrary opinion is non-existent. So too, when there are nine stores selling Kosher meat and one Non-kosher and one finds meat in the street that must have come  from one of the stores and is now in doubt from which store it came from, the probability is that it came from the nine and not the single non-kosher one. In either case probability works for the majority – he probably found Kosher food and so too the court majority ruled correctly. That is not so in the case of Bitul; we always have the forbidden mixed with the permissible. How do we deduce from the courts that the forbidden – which is still present – is seen as non-existent? We still have no good explanation how the case of Bitul can be compared to the court case.

Rabbi Chaim Brisker (Chidushei Hagrach LaShas – stencil – Baba Kama 27b) suggests that there is Bitul in the case of the Courts. The Torah requires that a Beit Din be composed of a certain number of people, three for monetary matters, twenty three for capital cases and so on. In a case of a disagreement, when we follow the majority, aren’t we deciding a ruling without the required minimum of Dayanim? The Torah however teaches that if the minimum members are present, even when they are not unanimous, they can still rule and the ruling is binding. That shows that the minority opinion is not seen as non-existent but rather as agreeing with the majority. In other words, we see the minority as being forced to adopt the opinion of the majority and now we have a unanimous ruling by the required minimum Dayanim. It is an ingenious suggestion but works only if we assume that there must be a minimum of, for example, 23 Dayanim deciding the case.  We can also alternatively understand that the Torah requires a minimum of Dayanim deliberating a case and if a majority agrees they can then decide and rule according to that majority as long as 23 partook in the deliberations. Reb Chaim’s proofs from various sources, Tosafot in Baba Kama 27b and Sanhedrin 30a are not convincing. (RGN presents strong rebuttals which I will not discuss here).

In our discussion so far we have assumed that the reason for following the majority in the case of the courts and the nine stores is based on probability. This assumption needs to be reassessed.

1.      We can demonstrate that the Gemara in Chulin 11a did not see it that way. The Gemara accepts the comparison of the nine store case to the courts but does not agree to compare the case of the male and female minors to it. The latter case is one of Yibum – levirate marriage – with the involvement of a minor. A brother’s wife is considered an Erva –intimate relationships are forbidden with her - even after the brother’s death. If however the couple had no children, there is a positive commandment for the surviving brother to marry the widow.  The Mitzvah of Yibum supersedes the Issur Erva because, as the Torah explains, the brother is required to establish the deceased brother’s name – namely give him an heir. In the case that either the surviving brother is a minor or the widow is one, there is a possibility that either one will grow up sterile and thus will be unable to fulfill the intent of the law. We however do not worry about it and say that the majority of children do not grow up sterile and rely on the rule of following the majority. That being a probability why does the Gemara not accept it as similar to the majority rule of the court which we suggested is also based on probability? Why would relying on a probability of something occurring in the future רובא דליתיה קמן be less of a probability?  It shows that the Gemara was on a different track and probability was not the reason for this rule and when the Gemara differentiated between a majority that is present and one that is not, some other principle was involved in its thinking. Should one suggest that the Gemara was basing its question on a Gezeirat Hakatuv, namely that we see the Torah uses the case of the courts to set down the rule of Rove and that is a majority that is present that would also negate the comparison to the nine stores. A Gezeirat Hakatuv which supposedly has no rationale should not allow for deductions and extrapolations. The rule would apply only to the case where it is used and nowhere else.
2.      In the case of the nine stores, we described it as one finding a piece of meat in the street in a town where there are nine kosher butchers and one non-kosher one. It is only in that case that we follow Rove. In the case where one bought a piece of meat from one of the stores not knowing which store it was, the rule of rove does not apply and the meat is considered non-kosher. The basis of this ruling is a verse in Devarim 19::11
וְכִי-יִהְיֶה אִישׁ, שֹׂנֵא לְרֵעֵהוּ, וְאָרַב לוֹ וְקָם עָלָיו, וְהִכָּהוּ נֶפֶשׁ וָמֵת; וְנָס, אֶל-אַחַת הֶעָרִים הָאֵל.

The subject is the law of the sanctuary cities. The Torah allows for an accidental murderer to escape to one of those cities and remain safe from a vengeful relative of the victim. The Torah defines “accidental” and then adds a negative condition; should the murderer have lain in wait for his victim, he would not be eligible for sanctuary. That seems to be limiting what would be considered intentional murder to only when the murderer was lying in wait. One opinion is that it limits a case of someone throwing a rock into a group of ten people that contained one person who, if killed, the murderer would not get the death penalty. Even though the great majority of the people made the murderer eligible for the death penalty, that one ineligible one in the group saves him from that fate. The rule of Rove does not apply here because when the Rove is stationary we look at each individual as one of two (similar to the odds in dice) and therefore the exempting person is matched to each of the group individually. We now have an even possibility rather that Rove. The same applies to the nine stores in our case. If probability is the underlying basis for majority rule, how does it work here? How does this situation affect the probability of the murderer killing the one that exempts from death penalty rather than one of nine regular people? If again we would see this as a Gezeirat Hakatuv, how then can we extrapolate to the case of the nine stores and make it into a general rule that כל קבוע כמחצה על מחצה? 
3.      The entire premise that the majority of the Dayanim is correct is questionable. A difference of opinion amongst Dayanim is usually subjective. The case that presents itself has many nuances and to decide which of the two petitioners is telling the truth or his perception of what really happened is correct depends on intuition and other non-objective analyses; attitude, demeanor, body language and so on. A majority does not have a better chance to get at the truth than the minority. There are cases too that can be decided either way based on the text and the rules of interpretation. (We find in Hilchot Mamrim 2:1 that a later supreme court may overturn the ruling of an earlier one based on their own interpretation. My addition DG).  Clearly there is more than one truth. We must therefore conclude that the majority rule has nothing to do with the probability that they are correct. It is just a practical rule where decisions are required and we follow the majority right or wrong otherwise we would never arrive at a conclusion.
To answer the questions we presented, RGN introduces several what I consider revolutionary ideas and unique approaches of integrating Halacha, Philosophy and Psychology. RGN explains that the generally accepted idea that Gezeirat Hakatuv has no rationale is incorrect. When there are two or more ways to look at something, the Gezeirat Hakatuv, the Torah tells us the path to choose.  Without the Torah we would be at a loss how to proceed as each path has its own logic. However, the path chosen by the Gezeirat Hakatuv itself, the choice it made, tells us what the thinking behind that choice is and we can use that rationale for other similar situations.

The idea behind the Gezeirat Hakatuv of following the majority is that when a person is confronted by a mixture, the majority is dominant and is seen as the totality. For example, if a field is green but has some minor patches of yellow, a person that looks at the field refers to it as a green field.  A rice dish that has some vegetables mixed into it is referred to as a rice dish notwithstanding the other minority ingredients. This idea applies to all cases whether it is a court or a food mixture. It does not mean that the minority opinion in the case of a court is non-existent but rather the majority opinion that the court ruling follows is representative of this court. We see this in our day to day life too. The current Supreme Court is the Roberts court and its decisions are referred to as that court’s decision although there were dissenting opinions. The same applies in a mixture of permissible and forbidden foods. The forbidden food is there, in fact if more forbidden food falls into the mixture, enough for it to now constitutes a majority, the mixture becomes forbidden again – Chozer Veni’ur (see Rosh above a little further).  But while the forbidden food is in the minority, we refer to the whole mixture as permissible. Without the Gezeirat Hakatuv we would consider every mixture as questionable, every court ruling that has dissenters as unresolved, and the rules of Safek would apply – De’oraita lechumra and Derabanan lekula. If the subject matter is a Torah prohibition we would act strictly while if a rabbinic rule leniently.  The Gezeirat Hakatuv tells us to choose the side of the majority and act accordingly. We look at all “mixtures” as being uniform, whether it is a court with dissenters or a food mixture.

Now the two cases of the “nine stores” become clearer. When the piece of meat is found in the street, we look at all the town’s butchers from where this meat came from as one entity that is Kosher. The one store that is not kosher does not stand out in that whole. However, when a person doubts into which butcher store he entered to purchase, worrying that he might have bought it in the non-kosher one, we have two choices. We can look at the stores and see them as above or we can argue that when then person entered the store to buy meat, this store was a well-defined location that does not become one with the other store and therefore is not seen as one entity. The fact that he does not remember which store it was leaves the question open and the safek remains. It should therefore be treated as a Safek would. We therefore have the Gezeirat Hakatuv of, וְאָרַב לוֹ וְקָם עָלָיו, to teach us that indeed the second position is the Torah’s choice and it remains a Safek. There is a rationale for this choice and a very important one. A person who knows that there is a non-Kosher butcher amongst the town’s butchers is very much aware of that. This is very much on his mind. When a question develops in which store he purchased, a question mark will always remain in his mind. On the other hand when a piece of meat is found in the street, the whole focus is on this particular piece of meat. There is no awareness that it might be forbidden as most of the meat in town is kosher. Following the majority fits well with the persons perception. RGN explains, and to me this is the most important point, that Mitzvot are there to influence our behavior and our thinking. Human nature and perception therefore play a central role in how Halacha deals with all Mitzvot. There is no intrinsic Issur just as it relates to the self -control of the observant religious person. Permitting one to eat something that in his perception there still is doubt about its permissibility is counter-productive when self-control is the objective. Rav Sheilat in a note comments that RGN repeated this point in many of his shiurim.

Finally, the Gemara in Chulin that differentiates between the cases of the courts and the nine stores and on the other hand the case of Yibum of minors can also be understood with this reasoning. While the courts are seen as one entity and the decision ignores the dissenting minority, that is not so with the case of Yibum. The possibility of a minor becoming sterile is rare but that possibility is not part of a group or entity where the overwhelming majority can swallow it up and thus ignore it. Here we need to turn to probability, a totally different concept. The Gemara therefore looks for a different comparison.  אחרי רבים להטות would not cover this case.
I believe that we learned two very important ideas from this discussion of Rove by RGN. The first is that a Gezeirat Hakatuv has rationale and that rationale can be applied to other cases. The second is the idea that, as Mitzvot are for the betterment of humans and not to placate God, as we apply the practical rules of a Mitzvah, we look at how it affects the person who performs the mitzvah. It is not the actual reality that plays a key role but rather the perception of the person affected. These are very Maimonidean concepts! We also learned that we must not separate learning from its applications in real life and take into account the influence it has on the person who is committed to Halacha.
I left out a few other references that RGN addresses such as a Mordechai in Chulin who quotes a rabbeinu Yakar and a Tosafot in Baba Kama that suggests that Rabbi Meir who takes into account the minority does so only in cases similar to Yibum of a minor. They add to the theses of RGN and strengthen it but it would be an impossibly long post and possibly distracting from the main point.

Shabbat Shalom.


Friday, October 28, 2011

The Perspicacity of Our Leaders - A Heart Wrenching Case Study.

I am not a historian and I don’t usually write about history but I cannot contain myself from writing about this very disturbing and terrible story. It is an indictment; I believe one of many indictments, of Da’at Torah (Da’as Taireh J) and demonstrate clearly how wrong and distorted the thinking of the leaders of the Agudah and the other parties further right of them is. This goes for the leaders of the Agudah back to its formation in the early 1900’s and for the current “Gedolim” and their sycophants. It also points to how wrong what I believe are the fantasy worlds our brethren live in who believe that the supernatural and its supposed powers are part of religion and denying it is considered Kefirah. The “hardening of hearts” of these leaders, similar to the one of Pharaoh and Sichon, as understood by Rambam in the 6th chapter of Hilchot Teshuvah , is unfortunately seen today every time one reads about one of the shenanigans of these leaders or reads one of their hate filled diatribes, distorting reality.

When I heard about the recent passing of Professor Mendel Piekarz I decided to buy several of his books. Over the years I had read articles he wrote and now I had the urge to read more. I just finished the first book – Ideological Trends of Hasidim in Poland during the Interwar Period and the Holocaust (Hebrew) - which was published in 1990 (shows how up to date I am with History) and I am extremely shaken. It is a fact- filled report and analysis based on the writings of the religious Jewish Polish leaders of the inter-war generation, how they ignored the signs of the impending catastrophe and how the majority refused to even acknowledge it when the sword was clearly unsheathed and upon their neck. It reminds me of the letter Rambam wrote to the sages of Montpellier (see page 480 in Rav Shailat’s letters) where he blames the destruction of the Temple on the Jews turning to the supernatural instead of diplomacy and defense. Much of this is generally known and much has been written about this (see Hakirah )   including the episode I focus on in this post, but it must be retold again and again to remind us that all we have is our sechel, our own intelligence, and the supposed supernatural powers and “De’ah” of our “Gedolim” is pure hogwash and probably falls under the rubric of idolatry.
The Belzer rebbe, Rav Aharon Rokeach, managed to escape from Poland to Hungary through the efforts of many of his worldwide followers who expended every possible effort to save him from the extermination camps.  This was at the beginning of 1944, a few months before the Nazis invaded Hungary.  His plan however was to go on to Palestine, using highly-rationed Jewish Agency certificates to enter Palestine, provided by the hated Zionists, those same people whom he blamed for the holocaust because of their lack of religiosity and their courage taking matters into their hand in Israel, thus upsetting the higher spheres from whence all power emanates. The Belzer Rebbe’s brother, Rav Mordechai Rokeach of Bilgoray (the father of the current Belzer rebbe), who was 22 years younger and his brother’s spokesman made a farewell speech in Budapest which was printed in the Haderech journal on February 7th 1944. I have attached below a copy of pertinent pages of a copy of the original publication which I want to discuss.

After a somewhat convoluted exposition of his view of what caused the destruction of Polish Jewry, basically a veiled indictment of the Zionist movement, R. Mordechai addresses his brother and his own planned escape from Europe. Here is the translation beginning 3 lines from the bottom of the first page.

“I have some more to say to you, to address your thoughts and illuminate your eyes, regarding that which I heard many of you say that you are afraid and shudder with fear, saying that our leaving is difficult for you. You are further worried wondering whether possibly my brother the Tzaddik who sees the future, knows of danger looming over this country and is therefore running away to go to Eretz Israel, the land God blessed by saying “I will bring peace to the land”.   He is going to a place of peace and rest and we, God forbid he leaves to our despair. What will become of us? Who will protect us? Who will save us? Who will pray and advocate for us? I therefore feel obligated to tell you the truth dear friends, the sages of Hungary, that as one who is close and near my great brother I know that he is not running away, leaving in a rush as if wanting to flee from here but rather is going because he has a strong wish to go to Eretz Israel, the land that is ten times holier than anywhere else. I personally know that this has been his greatest wish for some time, the great aspiration of his pure soul is to go to the city of God, so that he can awaken God’s pity and goodwill for the nation so that they no longer suffer saving the remainder [of the nation] and see to it that their enemies are destroyed. This is alluded to in the verse (Breishit 49:14) “He [Issachar] saw that the homestead was goodly, that the land was delightful, and he put his shoulder to the load, became a toiling serf.” Rashi explains that Issachar became a toiling serf to his brethren by legislating for them Torah laws. I wonder what Rashi meant with this? I believe that he is saying that the Tzaddik [Issachar] sees that this country and its inhabitants will have peace, for the homestead is goodly and only good will befall our brethren the inhabitants of this land. Seeing that, the Tzaddik now sees the land, the one he always thrived to move to because it is delightful, for it is where the ultimate [divine] delight is present, the land of milk and honey is sweet and delightful both physically and spiritually and it also is the place he spoke about going to in earlier times when he was still home.”   

In retrospect this speech is pathetic, so pathetic that this section was completely left out when the post-war hagiographers recounted the “miraculous” escape of the Belzer rebbe from Europe (see Bezalel Landau and Natan Orenter’s “The Holy Rabbi of Belz… pages 141 159). Did he really mean it when he said that the Hungarian Jews were safe? Was he that stupid? The Rebbe and his brother by this time had lost all their family having left them behind while they fled. How could he in good faith claim that his brother could see the future, that he had any perspicacity when he had stopped many of his followers from leaving Poland between the wars because of his anti-Zionist stance? 

Several months after this episode, the Stropkover Rebetzin reacted to this speech in a heart wrenching way. One of the Sonder Commandos  at Auschwitz took notes of his experiences and hid them around the ovens. They were discovered after the war and one of them related the following: (My translation from Hebrew which is a translation of the original Yiddish)

“At the end of May 1944 a transport of Jews from Kasho (Kosice) arrived. Amongst the various Jews was the old Rebetzin of Stropkov, an 85 year old Jewess. She declared: I see the end of the Hungarian Jews has arrived. The government had given the opportunity for the great part of the Jewish Community to escape. The people asked the advice of the Admorim (the Rebbes) and they always calmed the people. The Rebbe of Belz said that Hungary will be spared and only suffer fear. The bitter moment has arrived, when the Jews could no longer save themselves. True [the future] was hidden from them [the Rebbes] by divine decree, but they saved themselves running away at the last moment to Eretz Israel. They saved themselves while leaving their flock to be slaughtered.  Ribbono Shel Olam! At the last moments of my life I beg You, forgive them for the great Chilul Hashem [they caused].”   

Are we ever going to learn? 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Defining The Written and The Oral Law - A Short Overview.

Over Yomtov I was asked how I understand the argument between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akivah recorded in Yoma Perek 7 Mishnah 3 about the order of the Korbanot on Yom Kippur. After all both Tanaim were around during the Churban, especially Rabbi Eliezer who was a Talmid of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai and was already a noted scholar at the time of the Churban, so how did they not know how it was done? That question indeed applies to many other such arguments between Tanaim about daily practices. Was there no mimetic practice?

After Yeshiva I walked away with a very confused concept of what are Torah Shebiktav and Torah sheba’al peh, the written and the oral Torah. I don’t know how others see it, but I was convinced that Moshe wrote the torah at Sinai, adding pieces over time until Arvot Moav while he also transmitted oral law that he received from God including the 13 hermeneutical rules. The oral law was composed of these laws and their extension derived through the 13 midot and that was Torah sheba’al peh.  I was always a little confused about how to differentiate between what Moshe received and what was derived later and how all could be seen as Sinaitic and I lived with my confusion. Of course no one directed me to the Rambam’s Hakdamah to the Mishnah or even to Hilchot Mamrim which was outside the yeshiva learning curriculum.   It is only later, on my own and in learning with Chaveirim that I finally built a clearer picture about this whole issue.

Rambam in his introduction to the Mishnah describes in detail how Moshe received each Mitzvah orally together with its Pirush and Biur, explanation and clarification, and then transmitted them to Aharon individually repeating the same to Aharon’s sons in his presence, again to the Elders of the people in the presence of the former and the people in the presence of all the preceding ones. Then Aharon and the others repeated the procedure so that everyone heard each Mitzvah and its explanations and clarifications four times. Only then did each one write down the text of the Mitzvah privately and memorized the explanations and clarifications, repeating all this amongst them and analyzing all this material. Rambam refers to the Pirush and Biur jointly as “Kabbalah”.

“And the elders spread amongst the people to teach and review until that Mikra [dictated text] is known and they understand how to read it [comprehend it]. And they teach them the Biur [explanation] of that Mikra as it was given by God. That Biur is [comprised] of generalities [about the Law].  And they [the people] were writing down the Mikra and memorizing the Kabbalah orally, and it is thus that the Sages say “Torah Shebiktav and Torah Sheba’al Peh”.”  (Introduction to Pirush Hamishna)

The dictated text was to be memorized and then written down verbatim and the Rabbis refer to it as the written Law, Torah Shebiktav while the Kabbalah was to be memorized in an oral form. The Kabbalah being comprised of the Biur and the Pirush is referred to by the Rabbis as Torah Sheba’al Peh. It is only that portion of the oral law that is the original designation of Torah sheba’al Peh. This process of transmitting Mikra and Kabbalah went on for the 40 years of the Midbar without any official written document other than the Luchot – the Tablets. During this period, besides each person writing down for themselves the verbatim text and memorizing the kabbalah, questions about cases that were not covered by the Mikra and the Kabbalah were debated as to which Mitzvah they would pertain and what ruling should apply. Those debates were based on the 13 hermeneutical rules and when divergent opinions were proposed, decided by majority vote of the court – Beit Din. The Kabbalah part of the Law was maintained orally in its original form through the generations and Rambam claims that it was never forgotten nor was there any question about its exact content. All recorded arguments were always in the other parts of the Law, the derivative parts which are called Talmud (Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:11-12).

Finally at the end of the forty years in the desert, as Moshe felt death approaching, he gathered up the people and offered to review with anyone that had forgotten a certain Kabbalah and answer any question that may have arisen. It is only then that Moshe began writing the 13 Sifrei Torah, twelve of which he gave one to each tribe and the 13th to the tribe of Levi to place in the Aron next to the tablets.

In Hilchot Mamrim 2:1 Rambam writes:
א  בית דין הגדול שדרשו באחת מן המידות כפי מה שנראה בעיניהם שהדין כך, ודנו דין, ועמד אחריהם בית דין אחר, ונראה לו טעם אחר לסתור אותו הדין--הרי זה סותר, ודן כפי מה שייראה בעיניו:  שנאמר "אל השופט, אשר יהיה בימים ההם" (דברים יז,ט)--אין אתה חייב ללכת, אלא אחר בית דין שבדורך.

A Great Court that arrived at a conclusion about a Law using one of the Midot (hermeneutical rules) and implemented that Law, was followed by a subsequent Court who found another argument to contradict that [earlier] ruling, that later court may do so. They may rule according to their own conclusion as it says “… to the judge that will be at that time”, you do not have to follow other than the court of your generation.

It is completely acceptable for a court to overturn a ruling of a predecessor if it is for a case that was derived using the hermeneutical rules. As long as the Mikra or the Kabbalah was not affected, rulings that result from derivative deductions using the traditional methods of analysis may result in divergent rulings from court to court. Of course, we are talking about the Supreme Court - בית דין הגדול of a particular period versus one of a different time. There was no divergent ruling during one period as the Supreme Court always had the final word. Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akivah were merely reconstructing possible arguments of the different courts at different times. The order of the Korbanot on Yom Kippur may have been different at different periods of time. The practice in the Temple was not exactly the same from generation to generation.

Continuing with this presentation of the different components of the Torah received at Sinai, Rambam in his Introduction to the Pirush Hamishna addresses the category of Halacha Lemoshe Misinai (HLM). Where does it fit in, if we already have the Sinaitic Kabbalah? He explains that the Kabbalah many times can be shown in the text either through a direct textual analysis or through the hermeneutical process. The way to discern whether a ruling is based on Kabbalah or on hermeneutical rules is by checking if there is any argument or dissension on the Law. Those that have arguments amongst Rabbis cannot be based on Kabbalah and must be derivative while those that do not have any argument recorded, may potentially be Kabbalah.

“Although [these laws] were based on Kabbalah [Mekubalot] and there is no argument about them, these Pirushim may be derived through exacting textual analysis of the Mikra that we received using the hermeneutical method, Asmachta method, as well as the clues and indications found in the Mikra. When you see argumentation and dissension based on logical methods where proofs are adduced for one of the Pirushim and other such discussions, … [Rambam brings the discussion Sukkah 35a about the Etrog], that is not because they ever had a doubt and were looking for proof for what it (Pri Etz Hadar] is, for we saw since the times of Yehoshua until now that an Etrog was used together with a lulav every year without any dissension. They were only looking to see if they could find in the Mikra an indication that it was an Etrog. The same goes for their [textual] deduction regarding the Hadas, or their deduction that one who amputates any  limb of a fellow human being pays a fine …

The rabbis tried to find textual support for the Kabalot they received over the generations going back to Moshe. They assumed that as they came from the same author, there must be a self-evident clue or an underlying theme in the text that took into account that oral Kabbalah.  When they could not find any such clue, they would say that this Kabbalah is HLM. HLM is a designation of a Kabbalah that has no trace in the Mikra.

This brings us to a Rambam that at first glance is hard to understand. In Hilchot Chovel Umazik 1:5

ומניין שזה שנאמר באברים "עין תחת עין . . ." (שמות כא,כד; ויקרא כד,כ), תשלומין הוא--שנאמר "חבורה, תחת חבורה" (שמות כא,כה), ובפירוש נאמר "וכי יכה איש את ריעהו, באבן או באגרוף . . . רק שבתו ייתן, ורפוא ירפא" (ראה שמות כא,יח-יט).  הא למדת ש"תחת" שנאמר בחבורה תשלומין, והוא הדין ל"תחת" הנאמר בעין ובשאר אברים

How do we know that “eye for an eye” that it says in the case of [damage caused to] limbs is payment, because it says “a wound for a wound” and it is explicit [elsewhere] “should a man hit another with a stone or a fist… he should pay for his idleness and healing”. We thus see that [the term] “for a [Tachat]” that is used in the case of a wound means payment, so too does it mean in the case of the eye and other limbs payment.

In other words, there is textual support for the non-literal interpretation of “eye for an eye”. This kind of textual support may be subject to debate. It is not uncommon for arguments amongst Tanaim and Amoraim to develop on such type of analysis. Is this a ruling by a specific court and the ruling may be overturned by another just like any hermeneutically derived law?

ו  אף על פי שדברים אלו נראים מעניין תורה שבכתב, כולן מפורשין הן מפי משה מהר סיני, וכולן הלכה למעשה הן בידינו; וכזה ראו אבותינו דנין בבית דינו של יהושוע, ובבית דינו של שמואל הרמתי, ובכל בית דין ובית דין שעמדו מימות משה ועד עכשיו. 

Although these words appear to pertain amongst matters of the written law [i.e. are based on textual analysis – DG], all are as explained from the mouth of Moshe from Sinai, and all are practical Law as performed by us always.  Our forefathers saw this ruling in the court of Yehoshua, in Shmuel of Ramah’s court, and in every court that was ever in place from the time of Moshe to our time.

Although it would appear from the Talmudic discussions that this non-literal interpretation of the text is based on textual analysis, the fact that we have no records of any court ever dissenting leads us to accept this as a Pirush. It is a Kabbalah based interpretation which has been shown to agree with the related laws in the text. It is therefore also not a HLM as Rambam wrote in the previously quoted introduction to Pirush Hamishna. The Law in this case is so different than the plain text עין תחת עין and there is no dissension recorded, the Gemara taking it for granted and other than looking for a clue in the written text, there is no discussion of it being otherwise is an indication that it belongs to the category of kabbalah. Rambam sees it important to point this out and make it clear in this Halacha.

For a much more detailed discussion of this whole subject see Torat Neviim by Maharatz Chayot (Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Chayot) in volume 1 of Kol Sifrei Maharatz Chayot page 111 and on. Since much more has been written on the subject both in traditional learning circles and academia. The above is a simplified presentation that I have organized for myself. 

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Resag's verdict on the Belief in the Transmigration of Souls - Gilgul - Nonsense!

In the most recent issue of the Jewish Review of Books there is a rather acerbic exchange between professors Flatto and Nadler about whether the Noda Beyehuda was a crypto-Kabbalist or not.  That exchange then migrated to the web in the form of at times insulting comments and exchanges on a post on the Hirhurim blog here which led to the removal by the blog owner of all comments. I am really not interested in getting into the debate although I am more inclined to side with Nadler, especially since one of the NB’s greatest and most famous pupil, Rabbi Eliezer Fleckeles is noted for his public anti-Kabbalist stand in his Teshuvah Me’ahava, see also here . I however would like to translate a segment of Rav Sa’adyah Gaon (Resag) on the subject in the sixth Ma’amar of his Hanivchar Be’emunot Vede’ot (page 214 in Rav Kafieh’s edition) which is illuminating about the worldview of one of our classical greats.

“I will further say[1] that there are some people amongst those that are referred to as Jews that I discovered that they believe in Gilgul referring to it as “transmigration”. The idea, to their mind, is that the soul of Reuven passes to Shimon, then to Levi and then to Yehuda. Most of them believe that it is possible for the soul of a human to be present in an animal and the soul of an animal in a person, and other such nonsense and confusions. It became clear to me what illusions has brought them to believe in this and I found that there are four mistakes that caused this, which I will mention and refute. The first mistake of theirs is their erroneous following of four of the theories about the soul which I have disproven, or possibly because they follow the theory of those who believe there can be more than one spiritual entity[2], all theories that I have already disproven[3]. Their second mistake is because they observed the personality of many people and noted that they resemble the nature of animals. Some people are meek like sheep while others are aggressive like feral beasts, while others are nasty and debased like dogs and others are fleet like birds and so on. They therefore deduced that the only possibility for this wide variety amongst humans is because of their animalistic souls. This demonstrates, God preserve you from such calamity, their great stupidity, for they think that the human body causes essential changes to the soul, so much so that it can transform it from an animal one to a human one. That [transformed] soul then changes the human being to the point that he takes on animal behavior while he looks human. It is not enough that they made the soul into an entity that continuously changes essence without establishing for it an individual essence, they also contradicted themselves by giving it the power to change the body by overturning its essence while at the same time the body changes it. This is totally irrational.”

Resag then addresses the two other arguments for transmigration. One argument is that without transmigration it would be unjust on the part of God to let young children die. It is only if we believe they lived in the past that their death can be seen as a punishment for deeds done in a past life and thus see it as justice. He dismisses the argument summarily by pointing to their misunderstanding God’s justice and the concept of reward and punishment. The other argument is from various texts and verses in Tanach.  He addresses every one separately showing how they misinterpret and at times read verses out of context. Finally he adds –

I would not have bothered to mention their theory, rightfully so, as it is quite ridiculous, if not for fear of causing fools to be misguided.”

It is interesting to see how Resag took it for obvious that the idea of Gilgul is irrational and even questions the Jewishness of those who believe in it. Of course other Rishonim felt otherwise and by the time Ramban wrote his Pirush on Chumash he saw it as an essential part of reality as the underlying rationale for certain Mitzvot such as Yibum.  By the time the Arizal arrived it became central Jewish dogma with some of the more mystically inclined considering it heresy to deny such evident “truth”.  I personally am happy and feel quite comfortable to agree with Resag relying on him to pull me out of Gehinom for my heresy in this matter.

[1] This is an idiomatic curiosity of many of the medieval writers.
[2] This segment is a little difficult to decipher (see Rav Kafieh’s note 3). Apparently Resag is saying that they base their understanding of Gilgul on a foreign, non-Jewish, concept of spirituality.
[3] This segment is at the end of a lengthy discussion about the soul and spirituality which I hope to address separately.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Must a Corporealist Always Be Considered a Min According To Rambam?

I just read a very interesting article by Professor Harry Wolfson A”H  in a collection of his articles translated into Hebrew published by Magnes Press entitled Hamachshava Hayehudit Bi’yemei Habeinay’m (page 283). This article, “The uniqueness of God and His transcendence in Rambam’s thought” (the article was English in its original and I am sure my translation of the Hebrew title is not exactly its original title) discusses the opening halachot of the Mishne Torah (MT) in the first chapter of Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah. Wolfson shows how Rambam was subtly addressing concepts that were prevalent at his time in the writings of different Muslim and Christian philosophers and theologians. That is not the focus of this post but rather an issue he discusses within the context of the article.

Rambam explains God’s absolute uniqueness as meaning that God cannot be compared with any other existent and that is one of the central Halachot in that chapter which then elicits quite a bit of discussion and clarifications.  One Rambam argument is that perfect uniqueness negates corporeality for if God is corporeal even if uniquely so, He would still be comparable to another corporeal entity. Therefore when we declare in Shema that God is One we are saying that God is unique in an absolute uniqueness that cannot be compared to anything else that exists. The understanding of this is according to Rambam the positive commandment of Yichud Hashem as he explains in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 1:4

והואיל ואינו גוף, לא יארעו מאורעות הגופות כדי שיהא נחלק ונפרד מאחר; לפיכך אי אפשר שיהיה אלא אחד.  וידיעת דבר זה--מצות עשה, שנאמר "ה' אלוהינו, ה' אחד"

Being that He is not corporeal, the accidents that occur in a body do not occur to Him that would allow for Him to be divided and separated from another. Therefore He must be One only. Knowing this is a positive commandment as it says “Hashem is our God, Hashem is One”.

In Sefer Hamitzvot, Rambam counts this commandment as the second Mitzvat Asseh - positive commandment. Based on this proposition Rambam then rules in Hilchot Teshuvah 3:7 listing amongst the 5 people considered Minim;

והאומר שיש שם מנהיג, אבל הם שניים או יתר; והאומר שיש שם ריבון אחד, אלא שהוא גוף ובעל תמונה
One who says that there is a Leader, but there are two or more; and one who says that there is one Lord but He has a body and an image [is a Min].

Three questions come to mind about the meaning of the word האומר – one who says - in this context.  

1.      Does it mean that only one who says so, namely is convinced rationally that it is so is considered a Min or even one of the masses who is just going along with the simplistic understanding of things? Wolfson presents the question even more incisively. Let us take the proposition that God has a body, what would be the status of a simple person who cannot conceive of anything “existing” without it having substance. Existence without substance is not something we can recognize with our senses but requires a lot of philosophical training to really appreciate such a possibility. Would a simple person who could not conceive existence without substance but still maintains that God is unique, also be considered a Min?

2.      When Rambam says that one who says that there is a leader but there are more than one is a Min, does he include someone who believes that God has external attributes? Most people would have trouble grasping what Rambam demonstrates that God with accidental attributes is synonymous with Him having substance. Would a person who cannot conceive of such a concept and believes that God has attributes but at the same time has no substance, be considered a Min? Or is a Min only one who is convinced of that philosophically, namely “says so”?

3.      Finally, in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 1:8 Rambam quotes three verses as textual proof that God has no body. One of them
ונאמר "ואל מי תדמיוני, ואשווה" (ישעיהו מ,כה); ואילו היה גוף, היה דומה לשאר גופים
The [prophet] says: “to whom can you liken Me, to whom can I compare?” If He were a body, He would be likened to other bodies. 
Rambam ties God’s unity and incorporeality together; because the prophet says that He is incomparable to other existents, therefore He cannot be corporeal like they are.  This is a philosophical argument that Rambam superimposes on the text to prove that God is not corporeal. Let us say that a person argues that God has a body but it is unique and exclusive to God. Does not that too meet the criteria of incomparability? Would such a person be a Min? 

In this post I will discuss Wolfson’s resolution to the first question leaving his answer to the other two for upcoming posts.

In sefer Hamitzvot Asseh 2, Rambam starts by saying, היא הציווי שנצטווינו להאמין בייחודthe commandment is to believe in uniqueness. The verse that he uses as the source for this Mitzvah is שמע ישראל ה' אלוקינו ה' אחד. He then subtly changes the presentation of the mitzvah by saying

וקוראים למצווה זו גם 'מלכות שמים' כי אומרים כדי לקבל עליו על מלכות שמים, כלומר ההודאה בייחוד והאמונה בו           
This Mitzvah is also referred to as “rule of Heaven” as they [the Rabbis] say “to accept upon himself the rule of Heaven” namely the acknowledgement in unity and the belief in Him.

Rambam moved from belief to acknowledgement. At the beginning of each section of Halachot in MT, Rambam lists all the Mitzvot that underlie the rules that will be discussed in that section and they are supposed to parallel and be traced back to Sefer Hamitzvot[1].  At the beginning of Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah he lists this Mitzvah as לייחדו[2] – literally to make Him unique. What exactly does he mean with that? Wolfson suggests that Rambam is thinking of the Midrash Shir Hashirim 7:11 (and from there this entered into the daily prayer book) ומיחדים שמו שתי פעמים ואומרים שמע ישראל ה' אלוהינו ה' אחד They declaim His uniqueness twice [daily] by saying Shema … Thus not only is it a requirement that one believe in the uniqueness of God but also one has to declaim acknowledgement of that uniqueness. Halacha takes a theological Mitzvah and turns it into a practical performance; belief becomes a declaration.

Halacha is not satisfied with a positive commandment. It also establishes a negative commandment, the first negative commandment in Rambam’s count -

היא האזהרה שהוזהרנו מלהאמין אלוהות לזולתו יתעלה
It [the commandment] is that we were forbidden to believe that anyone else is a deity.

Here too when the Mitzvah is listed at the beginning of these halachot Rambam changes it slightly to give it a practical performance format –

שלא יעלה[3] במחשבה שיש שם אלוה זולתי ה
One should not bring to mind that there is a deity besides God.

Again, believing is changed to” bringing to mind”, a willful act rather than a simple belief. This is further confirmed as the Halacha describes this prohibition (idem 1:6) -

וכל המעלה על דעתו שיש שם אלוה אחר, חוץ מזה--עובר בלא תעשה, שנאמר "לא יהיה לך אלוהים אחרים, על פניי.
 Anyone that brings to mind that there is another god in addition to this One – transgresses the negative commandment, “you should not have other gods upon my face” …

But what does “bringing to mind” entail? In Hilchot Avodah Zara 2:6 the detailed description of how this prohibition is transgressed

כל המודה בעבודה זרה, שהיא אמת--אף על פי שלא עבדה, הרי זה מחרף ומגדף את השם הנכבד והנורא
One who acknowledges an Avodah Zara (idol) that it is true, even if he has not worshipped it, he reviles and curses the glorious and fearsome Name [God].

Rambam then adds- ואחד העובד עבודה זרה, ואחד המגדף את השם whether someone worships an idol or curses the Name … Clearly the two prohibitions are similar both in their context and their action so much so that acknowledging more than one god is seen as cursing Him. Considering that the prohibition of cursing God is only transgressed once one declaims the curse

 אין המגדף חייב סקילה, עד שיפרש את השם המיוחד של ארבע אותיות שהוא אלף דלת נון יוד, ויברך אותו בשם מן השמות שאינן נמחקים

One may therefore assume that acknowledging an idol is done by declamation too. A declarative acknowledgement of an idol as true is the practical transgression of “bringing to mind” that there is more than one God so by extension when Rambam said והאומר שיש שם מנהיג, אבל הם שניים או יתר – a Min is “one who says that there is a Leader, but there are two or more” he is only considered a Min if he says so – if he makes a declarative acknowledgement of a plurality of gods. Thus someone who cannot conceive that God has no substance, that such an entity could “exist”, but maintains that God is unique, however contradictory that position is logically , he is not a Min; he is just a misguided simple unsophisticated Jew. [4]

[1] See the introduction to Sefer Hamitzvot where Rambam explains that the work is a preparation for his upcoming Mishne Torah as a way to insure he does not skip over a Mitzvah. Having done that, he again lists all the Mitzvot at the beginning of Mishne Torah and again at the beginning of each Sefer and again at the beginning of each section of Halachot.  
[2] See also the listing at the beginning of MT where he lists the Mitzvah as
לייחדו, שנאמר "ה' אלוהינו, ה' אחד
[3] יעלה can be translated “come” to mind or “enter” the mind which would have a passive connotation or “bring” to mind which is active . However when the Halacha is described Rambam uses וכל המעלה which must be translated anyone who “brings” to mind making it clear that יעלה is meant in its active connotation.
[4] I refer the reader to Hakirah 11 page 232 where Professor Menachem Kellner seems to have missed this Wolfson article. See further Hakirah 10 page 135 in Rabbi Buchman’s article where he seems to have arrived at a similar conclusion as Wolfson from another perspective.