Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Hakirah 11 Is On Its Way.

Hakirah Volume 11 is ready and will be mailed in the next few days. This issue contains very exciting articles and  I am sure will again exceed everybody's expectations.

You can see the list of articles and abstracts here.


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Miraculous Signs: Imagination or Reality?

Professor Chaim Kreisel a few years ago published a “lost” (censured?) book by Rabbi Nissim of Marseilles, a 14th century Provencal Rabbi, called Ma’aseh Nissim. The book main thrust is to explain the miracles that we find in the Torah so that they make sense in their context. The book has 14 introductory chapters (note the number 14, an important number for the Maimonidean which he was, as it is the number of books Mishne Torah has), which discuss fundamental theological issues. The author has a fabulous ability to understand allegorical verses and Midrashim and is apparently from the same school as an earlier contemporary, the author of Livyat Chen, Rabbi Levi ben Avraham (see the labels on the sidebar). The main part of the book follows the Parshyot, explaining the apparently unnatural events or laws discussed in them.

Here is a translation of a small segment in the 14th chapter of the introduction which I saw over the weekend in passing while researching a subject I am working on. I thought it to be quite interesting and I hope you will agree.

Rabbi Nissim’ style is to organize miracles into classes and categories. One class is composed of things that occur between God and the prophet and the second class is composed of those that involve the prophet with other people. Each of the two classes can be divided into two categories: Actions taken by the prophet as instructed or knowledge of a future event. He also assigns a different class and category for each homonym used in Scriptures for miracles. The following is his understanding of a sign – Ot.     

Regarding the first category of the first class, which are the miracles and wonders that occur only between God and the prophet: Every intelligent person who pictures [in his mind] and understands the essence of how God’s speech and His instructions to the prophets [truly] work, must believe that these [miracles] are prophetic and do not happen outside the mind.  They are not really happening and cannot be experienced by our external senses while our internal senses do experience them. If at times, our external senses also experience them, that experience is not real. It is imaginary. An example of such a miracle is the sign given to Avraham when the torch passed between the pieces [of the animals he cut up][1] and Gideon with the fleece of wool[2] and other similar ones. The theme is that the whole episode, the asking of a sign and the answer – the sign itself – all that was in a prophetic vision or a dream.  Namely, as the prophet [in his contemplation] had a revelation about some of future events via the riddles and parables of prophecy, his continuing cogitations trigger doubts. He now at times believes the revelation [as true] and at others doubts it to the point that he asks for a sign. The prophetic experience now becomes even stronger within him and [he apprehends] another parable [which makes him feel] as if a sign occurred in front of his eyes. As this theme repeats itself, it strengthens his convictions that the revelation is indeed true and God is indeed ready to make it happen.

I have thus removed from your rational [soul] the veil that envelops it regarding this class [of miracles] revealing its esoteric meaning. You will therefore no longer be surprised by these extreme wonders and the impossible, strange and improbable occurrences according to your rational mind will no longer confuse you. They after all do not retell real happenings but imaginary ones brought about by the imaginative faculty which composes things whether possible, wondrous or impossible. This too is possibly, how we understand the wonders Moshe experienced in the exchange between him and God such as the staff turning into a snake and the clear hand becoming white[3], namely they happened in a prophetic vision. This [vision] was meant to impress on him the obligation to free the Jewish people from Egyptian oppression, possibly by suggesting that Pharaoh who in parables is seen as the crocodile that stands between the rivers will be to Moshe like a staff at the hand of its owner and his [Pharaoh’s] strong arm will become leprous.”

The general idea in this segment is that Rabbi Nissim holds that when the Scriptures report what seems to be an occurrence involving a prophet, if it was something that does not involve others, that occurrence should be interpreted as a vision rather than an actual physical occurrence. It is important to note that the strategy Rabbi Nissim uses is not to force his interpretation as the only possible one but rather to give a variety of interpretations including literal ones, leaving it up to the reader to decide which makes more sense. He does not impose his opinions just presents them and lets the reader make up his mind. Thus, he offers literal explanations too to Moshe’s experience at the beginning of his journey into prophecy. However, his more esoteric explanations are daring and creative, taking a seeming fantasy and turning it into a rational and important teaching.

He then shows how the rabbis in the Midrashim, were addressing the same story in a similar manner. Discussing the difference between a dream or fantasy and a prophetic vision, he points out that dreams always contain irrelevant parts while in a prophetic vision every detail counts.

Our Rabbis explain, “and it [the staff] became a snake – because he [Moshe] spoke Lashon Hara on Israel, emulating the tradecraft of the snake [as in Adam and Eve].” They also explain regarding the hand turning leprous, white as snow, [that it is a punishment] for saying “behold they will not believe me” and “when someone suspects innocent people he is punished bodily” (Shabbat 97a). We follow the Rabbis approach, namely, being that this was a sign [Ot] to Moshe for his request [for answers] from God, the sign contained these details to make Moshe aware and teach him certain points. It also possibly may indicate to Moshe that if he should throw the staff on the ground it will become a snake, pointing out that , Moshe’s rational mind which when used properly is his staff and support, should he let it become polluted by earthly matters it will turn on him and become a poisonous snake and kill him. On the other hand, should he then lift it from the ground, and use it for lofty purposes thus strengthening his rational faculty, his mind will again be a support and something he can rely upon.

Rabbi Nissim understands that the Rabbis, by trying to interpret every detail in the story, are telling us that the story is a prophetic vision and as such, every detail has meaning. This understanding is an expansion of Rambam in his introduction to MN where he also points out that prophecies at times, every detail is important while at others not. In the case of Yaakov and the ladder, it describes a prophetic vision where every detail counts. A chapter in Mishlei which uses a parable of a prostitute to discuss the human mind and its potential, details are unimportant and needed to fill in lacunae in the parable.

As this translated segment refers to a variety of verses and stories spread all over the Scriptures, I have decided not to copy each verse but just to references where the verse Rabbi Nissim refers to can be found. It will be a worthwhile exercise to look at them after reading this piece. It is an eye opener.


[1] Breishit 15:17.
[2] Shoftim 6:11-40.
[3] Shemot 3:1-8.

Monday, March 07, 2011

More About Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin's Unreasonable "Maimonides: Reason Above All."

Eliezer Abrahamson posted this short review of the over promoted book by Israel Drazin on here and on Amazon. I have written about this book earlier here . 

Maimonides was one of the greatest rabbinic figures in history. He made a profound and permanent impact upon the Jewish world, and his influence spread well beyond the borders of the Jewish community. He was universally recognized as a great scholar of the Bible and Talmud, and his works have become basic texts of the Jewish canon. At the same time, Maimonides was an original thinker who put forth a number of opinions that were controversial in his own time and some of these controversies resonate until today. The bulk of the controversy surrounds his efforts, mainly in his great philosophical work,�Guide for the Perplexed, to resolve conflicts between traditional Jewish teachings and Aristotelian philosophy.

Because of the importance of Maimonides and the debates surrounding some of his opinions, a good introductory work to the thought of Maimonides and his contemporaries, clearly explaining where and how he differed from other major figures, would be highly desirable. Unfortunately, that is not what the reader will encounter when reading Israel Drazin's new book,�Maimonides: Reason Above All.

Despite the book's promising description and the author's apparent qualifications, the book not only fails to live up to expectations, but it even fails to attain the most minimal standards of academic competence and intellectual honesty. The book is replete, page after page, with misstatements, distortions, and dishonest citations and quotations. After a great deal of effort, I was forced to conclude that I could not find a single redeeming characteristic in the book.

Drazin fails to understand the opinions of any the scholars he is discussing, whether it is Maimonides himself, other Jewish scholars, or even non-Jewish philosophers. He appears to have difficulty with even basic reading comprehension. For example, on page 26, Drazin begins a detailed analysis of a statement from "the poet Yehuda Halevi" in which Halevi negatively contrasted Maimonides with his father. This is an amazing statement, in that Yehuda Halevi, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers and poets, died in 1141, when Maimonides was about two years old. (This should be immediately obvious to anyone with even a passing familiarity with Jewish intellectual history.) The quote that Drazin is discussing - which he got from a secondary source (which does�notascribe the quote to Yehuda Halevi) - was actually written by L. M. Simmons, an English rabbi, in the Jewish Quarterly Review in 1890. Drazin's failure in this simple citation is unfortunately typical of his entire work. Over and over again, Drazin makes basic errors of fact and comprehension.

The quality of this work is so poor that it does not really deserve a detailed response. There is, quite literally, not a single issue that Drazin presents accurately. When attempting to present a dispute, Drazin usually gets both sides wrong, and misses the actual point of disagreement entirely. In other cases, Drazin creates disputes where none exist. Drazin's presentation of Maimonides is so heavily biased, that it quickly reaches the point of absurdity.�

Drazin effectively attempts to reconstruct Maimonides as a religious naturalist who rejected creation ex nihilo, miracles, providence, prophecy, the existence of the soul, the resurrection of the dead, and any God-oriented purpose in religion. Drazin openly admits that it is only possible to do so by denying many - many!! - of Maimonides' own statements. Drazin believes that Maimonides' was simply lying when he said these things. This is a major theme of Drazin's work, that Maimonides engaged in a "holy lie" (a phrase coined by Nietzsche that Drazin uses repeatedly) and knowingly made completely false statements to deceive the masses (for their own good, of course). Drazin makes this claim not just of some of the more difficult passages in Maimonides'�Guide for the Perplexed�(even this is debatable), but of vast swathes of his writings, including large amounts of material that was unique to Maimonides. For example, Maimonides was the first Jewish scholar to create a formalized dogma of Judaism, his 13 Foundations, which Maimonides argued must be fully accepted in order for one to be a legitimate member of the Jewish faith. This idea was original to Maimonides, and, indeed, many authorities disagreed with his formulation (although, by and large, they agreed with its content). Drazin, however, would have us believe that Maimonides himself did not believe many, possibly most, of these foundations.

Even when Drazin directly quotes Maimonides (and others), he does so dishonestly, carefully editing the quote (using ellipses to remove inconvenient material and inserting material in brackets) to support his point even when the full quote, in context, would not only fail to support Drazin's point, but actually contradict it. This betrayal of the reader's trust is exacerbated by the fact that many of Drayzin's most radical assertions are supported by nothing more than anonymous "scholars" without any reference to who these scholars are, what they actually said, or where and when they said it. Given Drayzin's repeated inability to comprehend the material he is writing about, and his dishonest citations of material that people can actually check for themselves, it is simply impossible to trust his assertion of the opinions of scholars whom he fails to even identify.

If Drazin's presentation of Maimonides is absurd, his presentation of other Jewish thinkers is grotesque. For example, Drazin apparently understands all anthropomorphic depictions of God, midrashic, kabalistic or liturgical, to have been intended in the full literal sense. Thus, his presentation of Lurianic kabbalah on page 241 is beyond laughable; it is a caricature of a caricature.

Even Drazin's discussion of non-Jewish philosophers is incompetent. For some reason, Drazin chose to include an entire chapter on Rene Descartes, apparently to argue that Descartes was not sufficiently "rational". In the course of this discussion, Drazin completely mangles Descartes, and demonstrates a complete failure to grasp even the most basic elements of his thought. Drazin's "refutation" of Descartes' "cogito" - again given in the name of anonymous scholars - is so shallow that it wouldn't past muster in a seventh grade classroom discussion.

If Drazin's work were of a better quality, it would be worthwhile to enter into a deeper discussion of some of the arguments he puts forth. For example, the relationship between the thought of Maimonides and the thought of his son, Abraham, is one that requires serious study. However, Drazin's presentation of the thought of both figures is so distorted that he contributes nothing to the discussion except confusion.

In short, Drazin's book is so... awful... that readers will not only learn nothing new, but, far worse, they will learn a large number of things that are not so. If a reader wishes to educate himself about the thought of Maimonides, there are many vastly superior works. My personal recommendation as a basic introduction would be�A Maimonides Reader�by Isadore Twersky.