Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Was Rabbi Moshe Taku A Corporealist?

Rabbi Moshe Ben Chasdai Taku (circa 1200-1250) was a younger contemporary of Rabbi Yehuda Hachassid  (1140-1217) and is considered nowadays in many circles as the central medieval proponent of a corporeal understanding of God. See for example this post by R. Nathan Slifkin where he also makes an assertion that earlier Ashkenaz Rishonim were not philosophically inclined and did not know any earlier philosophical writings. I never bought into this and could not imagine that such great and brilliant scholars would not have amongst them at least a smattering of inquisitive thinkers who would try to understand the reason for existence and other such philosophical issues.  True those were dark ages in Europe and contact with the southern part of the continent was tenuous, they still would have developed a philosophy of their own. As we will see, they did but also had more contact with the rest of Judaism then is commonly thought.

As I began learning Rav Sa’adyah Gaon’s (892-942) (henceforth Resag) thought, I started getting interested in his place in Jewish thought in a historical context and discovered that indeed he was the source of almost all medieval Jewish thought and all the divergent theologies that subsequently developed were based on Resag. I am currently reading Professor Joseph Dan’s magnum opus Toldot Torat Hasod Ha’avrit which is now up to 6 volumes with more to come. Volumes 5 and 6 deal mostly with the Chassidei Ashkenaz beginning with Rabbi Shmuel (born 1115), the father of Rabbi Yehuda through Rabbi Eliezer of Worms (1160-1238) known as the Rokeach and his generation. These Rishonim were part of the great Kalonimus family that migrated from Lucca, Italy to the German towns along the Rhine anywhere between 800 (during the reign of Charlemagne) and 973 depending on the historian. The Chassidei Ashkenaz led by Rabbi Shmuel and subsequently by Rabbi Yehuda Hachassid, the most prominent and famous leader amongst them, developed a mystical approach to Judaism which had its roots in the writings of Resag, Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1174), the Kuzari (Rabbi Yehuda Halevy - 1075-1141) at times expanding on the ideas proposed by these greats and at others disagreeing and using their ideas to argue for their own insights. Amongst the well-known writings of that school is the Sefer Chassidim which was composed in part by Rabbi Shmuel with the greatest part written by R. Yehuda and probably contains additions subsequently added by some of his disciples.  The Rokeach is another important sefer that is also central as a source in Halacha. Less well known but also important is the Arugat Habossem, a commentary on the prayer book and the Piyutim written around 1234 by Rabbi Avraham ben Azriel from Bohemia.  Another famous composition of that school is Shir Hayichud; the poem that is part of the Yom Kippur night prayer liturgy which has been shown (more about this later) to be a poetic presentation of Resag’s thought found in his Pirush on Sefer Yetzira and his Emunot Vede’ot. Although some think its author was Rabbi Yehuda Hachassid, it clearly was already well known and part of the liturgy at his time as he quotes it as a proof text in one of his philosophical writings. Rabbi Yehuda Hachassid was therefore clearly acquainted with the thought of Resag as were others in his school. In fact based on quotations that we find in their writings we can even trace quotes from Emunot Vede’ot- which is written originally in Arabic – to a translation that preceded the more common and well known R. Yehuda Ibn Tibon (circa 1120-1190) translation. It is not a verbatim translation but rather a flowery paraphrase.

This brings us to an important manuscript – the Sefer Hakavod – another sefer of that era and school of thought with many excerpts quoted by Joseph Dan in his book Toldot. Although the manuscript we have at Oxford is anonymous, Rabbi Yehuda Hachassid is named as its author by R. Moshe Taku in his Ktav Tamim (more about it later) and is a basis for a mystical sefer written by R. Eliezer of Worms the great pupil of Rabbi Yehuda. The Sefer Hakavod focuses principally on the question of how revelation – Nevuah – works. The problem is that there cannot be a connection between a transcendental God and a human being who is physical. God does not talk nor does He have a form or shape or body. That being the case what did the prophet see or hear in his vision? What exactly is Shechina the word used in Chazal to depict the presence of God? Sefer Hakavod proposes three possible explanations; one based on a Rav Hai Gaon Responsa, another based on Resag and the third its own explanation. I do not want to go into the details at this time but want to point out that all three explanations are consistent with an understanding of a transcendental God.

We now come to Rabbi Moshe Taku. Abraham Berliner (1833-1915) wrote an article about the Shir Hayichud which was translated from the German and published by Mossad Harav Kook (1969) in the two volume Selected Writings (Hebrew) pages 147-180. Berliner did not have access to the Oxford manuscript of Sefer Hakavod thus not knowing of its reference to Shir Hayichud. He therefore claims that the first mention of the poem is in R. Moshe Taku’s (RMT henceforth) Ktav Tamim (KT henceforth). He then proceeds to give a short appraisal of KT and its author. Here are some excerpts that I hope will give a flavor about this interesting Rishon.

RMT was born in Tachau   (Tachov nowadays and part of the Czech Republic). He lived in Regensburg  and died in Neustadt next to Vienna. R. Yehuda Hachassid also lived in Regensburg at approximately the same time thus it is probable that both he and RMT had access to the same sources and writings. We know that RMT sent a Responsa to Magdeburg around 1225-1230 which indicates that he flourished somewhere between 1225 and 1250 giving us an approximate date for his publishing KT. The manuscript of KT that we have is only a small part of a much more extensive sefer. The fragment that remained is complemented by a long quote in Arugat Habossem. In KT,  RMT attacks the philosophical/theological theories that were circulating during his time, quoting from Sefer Hakavod, Yessod Mora vesod Torah of Ibn Ezra, Sefer Hamada of Rambam, Shir Hayichud and Emunot Vede’ot in its paraphrased translation (see above). He accuses them all of inventing theories, all building on Resag’s writings, which according to RMT distort what Chazal really believed.

There is a poem called Shir Hayichud, I heard that it was authored by R. Bezalel using the Sefer Ha’emunot as a basis. He did not author it completely because from the stanza beginning with Shadai, R. Shmuel (the father of R. Yehuda Hachassid) authored it.”   

Abraham Berliner comments that R. Bezalel is unknown from anywhere else but this reference to him here is probably the source for a later claim that the author of Shir Hayichud is the Christian priest Michael Basilios (the name Basilios and Bezalel having a similar sound). The Vilna Gaon indeed forbade the saying of it in his shul and tried to find the name Michael Basilios in the acrostic at the end of day 3.

Abraham Berliner argues that contrary the popular belief, RMT was no corporealist at all. Corporealism was anathema to all Jewish scholars. The issue was how to deal with verses in Tanach and sayings of the Rabbis that contradicted this basic belief. Resag followed by other medieval philosophers developed a sophisticated approach, interpreting all these difficult utterances allegorically or as a metaphor. RMT objected to that approach and felt that it is better to accept these corporealist statements as they are, admitting that we do not know how to interpret them. The interpretations lead to distorted and wrong opinions that inadvertently support one form or other of Corporealism.  

Berliner argues that RMT had a highly developed critical sense and questioned everything. In a discussion of the limits of human apprehension RMT quotes a Sifre that Moshe at the time of his death was able to apprehend so much that what he had apprehended during his life seemed obscure (Aspekaleria She’eina Me’ira)[1]. He follows this by a quote from the controversial Sefer Shiur Komah that refers to the Sefer Aleph Beit Derabbi Akivah, which belongs to the Heichalot literature. He prefaces it by questioning “if it is reliable being it is not found in our Babylonian Talmud, or in the Yerushalmi, or in the well-known Midrashim. For there are books that were forged by the Christians to fool the world, like Perek Shira where it says at the end of it[2] that whoever reads it constantly so and so vouch for him… So too in Sefer Ha’evarim (?) it is written that His right hand is called such and such and His left such and such. At the end he writes that “Rabbi Ishmael says that whoever knows this secret I and Akivah vouch for him”. One cannot trust this as they write this to reinforce their words.”  In other words these reinforcing comments in themselves create a doubt about the authenticity of these books. He then comments, “Every person that is disturbed by these external writings should ignore them and by doing this will not lose his love of God”.

Berliner points out that we clearly see that RMT holds that God is beyond our comprehension and only objects to explanations of contrary texts that are possibly wrong. He objects to speculative metaphysics and prefers to remain silent in awe of the unknown. His greatest criticism is directed at Resag, who he sees as the inventor of this approach and all others including the Chassidei Ashkenaz led by R. Yehuda Hachassid as his followers. “My complaint is on the Sefer Ha’emunot for he accepts foreign knowledge and sinned greatly by distancing many people from perfect fear of Heaven to speculate about matters to the point that they no longer know where they stand. He supports the star gazers (astronomers?) who have a grudge on the words [disagree] of our Rabbis and their perfect Torah, preferring their nonsensical prattle. Have we not suffered enough from the sayings of the Christians, pupils of jesus, who interpret the Mitzvot of the torah allegorically or from our compatriots the Karaites who deny the oral law, led by their wicked leaders Anan, Shaul and Abusseri[3] and the rest of their unholy friends?”  

He also objects to the approach that tries to synthesize theology with scientific theory of the day. He says that we have to accept the statements in the Torah and Chazal at face value and not worry about their practical aspect. It is better to live with the questions then to come up with erroneous opinions that the original author never meant.

This opinion of Berliner about RMT that he is not a Corporealist is supported by Joseph Dan[4]. Coming back to the start of this post, RMT saw the Chassidei Ashkenaz as philosophers and he objected to that.  Clearly philosophy was not alien to their school but in fact they were innovators in the field. It is ridiculous to accuse them of being ignorant of the intellectual ferment that was ongoing during the Middle-Ages because they developed theories based on demonology and other superstitions. That was the science of their culture, time and location and was the accepted wisdom which at the same time did not negate their philosophical speculation. Demons and angels were part of the physical world while God and His relationship with man is a metaphysical issue.

 It is important to note that R. Yehuda Hachassid was of the Kalonimus family and the elder R. Kalonimus is quoted by Rashi many times in his commentary on Shas referring to Girsa’ot he brought with him from Rome (Italy). Rashi learned in the Yeshivot in Ashkenaz which were all part of that school of thought. It is inconceivable that Rashi was not aware of all this thinking that was ongoing there and had no inkling of philosophy. I think that “Corporealism” is a label that is used indiscriminately and much more has to be defined about what incorporeality means before we can append that label to an intelligent and brilliant Rishon.  I hope to address this further in this forum and elsewhere.

[1] The editor of KT does not find this Sifre which is not uncommon with Midrashim quoted by Rishonim which are no longer extant in current editions. I wonder if that is the basis for Rambam’s description of the death of Moshe, Aharon and Miriam in MN 3:51.
[2] I am not sure if he refers to Aleph Beit or Perek Shira.
[3] I have no idea who Shaul and Abusseri are. I would appreciate if a reader helps.
[4]RMT is quoted with great respect by Ramban in commentary on the first Perek in Gittin, who was his contemporary and refers to him as alive as do many others of his contemporaries and subsequent generations of scholars.   

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Waters of Merivah - Punishment Commensurate With The Sin - What Sin?

Last week’s Parsha we read about the waters of Merivah where the people found themselves without water and clamored for Moshe and Aharon to provide it for them. Moshe eventually took care of the problem but his reaction was deemed inappropriate and was the cause for him and Aharon not entering Israel later. The Midrashim followed by the Rishonim discuss at length what exactly the sin that produced such a harsh punishment was and the reasons cover a wide range which I do not want to get into here. Rambam in Shemona Perakim (introduction to Massechet Avot) chapter 4 has a very unique approach which is strongly rejected by Ramban in his Pirush on the Torah. Although this exchange is quite well known I would like to focus on a detail that I have not seen discussed and I believe is a very important point that needs to be fleshed out.  

Here is how to Rambam presents his position:

ואתה יודע, שאדון הראשונים והאחרונים, משה רבנו, כבר אמר עליו השם יתברך:
יען לא האמנתם בי להקדישני לעיני בני ישראל (במדבר כ', י"ב
על אשר מריתם את פי למי מריבה (שם, כ"ד
על אשר לא קדשתם אותי (דברים ל"ב, נ"א
כל זה! וחטאו, עליו השלום, הוא שנטה לצד אחד הקצוות במעלה אחת שבמעלות המידות, והיא הסבלנות!
כאשר נטה לצד הרגזנות, באומרו: שמעו נא המורים (במדבר כ', י'). דקדק עמו הקדוש ברוך הוא: שיהיה אדם כמוהו מתרגז לעיני עדת ישראל, במקום שאין הרגזנות ראויה
וכגון זה באדם שכמותו חילול השם הוא, שכן תנועותיו כולן ודיברותיו, הכל למדים מהם וחומדים בהם האושר בעולם הזה ובעולם הבא. ואיך ייראו בו הרגזנות, והיא ממעשי הרעים כמו שבארנו, ואינה נובעת אלא מתכונה רעה שבנפש.
אבל אמרו בעניין הזה: "מריתם את פי" אינו אלא כמו שאבאר. וזה, שלא היה מדבר עם עמי הארץ, ולא עם מי שאין להם מעלה, אבל עם קהל שהקטנה שבנשיהם הייתה כיחזקאל בן בוזי, כמו שזכרו החכמים. וכל מה שיאמר או יעשה, יבחנוהו. וכאשר ראוהו שהתרגז, אמרו:
ודאי אין הוא, עליו השלום, מאלה שיש להם פחיתות מידה! ולולא ידע שהאלוהים התאנף בנו על דרישת המים, ושאנחנו הכעסנוהו, יתברך, לא היה מתרגז”.
ואנו לא מצאנו לשם יתברך שהתרגז או שכעס בדברו אליו בעניין הזה; אלא אמר: קח את המטה והקהל את העדה, וגומר (במדבר כ', ח’).

This comes in a discussion of the importance of self-control in the perfection of an individual. Rambam points out that Moshe, the master of all prophets (considered perfected individuals having attained prophecy) was punished, as the quoted verses make clear, in the harshest tone. Moshe and Aharon are accused of (i) not having enough faith which would have sanctified God in the eyes of the people; (ii) to have rebelled against His word; (iii) for not having sanctified Me. Rambam exclaims:

So much [punishment]?! Moshe’s sin was for having strayed to one of the extremes of a [human] trait namely equanimity, straying toward anger by saying “listen O rebels!” HKBH took issue with him that a man of his caliber should become angry in front of all the people when anger had no place under the circumstances. Such a behavior for a person of his caliber is a Chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) for every move and word of his is watched carefully [by the people] so that they can learn from his actions in their desire for happiness in this world and in the world to come. How can they countenance in him anger which is one of the negative [human] traits that stem from an unperfected personality?  I will now explain the meaning of [the accusation] “for you have rebelled against My word”. He [Moshe] was not talking to Amei Ha’aretz [ignoramuses] neither was he talking to persons who did not have a certain level of perfection; he was talking to a crowd where the lowliest amongst its women was at the level of [the prophet] Yechezkel ben Buzi[1].  Everything that Moshe said or did was analyzed [tested]. When they saw his anger they assumed that a perfect person like Moshe would not become angry unless God was angry about our actions too. However we do not find any hint that God was agitated or angry when He spoke with Moshe on this matter; all He told him to do was to take the staff and gather up the people.”  

This last sentence is of utmost importance. When we read the story in the Chumash, our first impression is that the anxiety and fear induced agitation that comes across from the way the people spoke to Moshe is misplaced and wrong. The impression one gets from the way the text reports the reaction of the people is that it is critical of them. Indeed, Moshe and Aharon felt attacked and it would seem almost fled to the tent of gathering from their wrath. However, according to Rambam’s understanding, that was not correct. The people had every right to be angry at Moshe for having brought them to a place without water and without adequate preparation to deal with that shortage. The Rabbis confirm this way of thinking. Several Midrashim (see Yalkut Shimoni ad locum) point out that God criticized Moshe and Aharon for sitting Shiva for the death of Miriam while the people are dying of thirst urging them to do something about it! When a problem faces people they are expected to act to resolve the problem and not turn to what I term misguided “Bitachon”.  The Midah of Bitachon is to have self-confidence and act after having become convinced that the action about to be undertaken is in concord with HKBH’s will and not refraining from acting relying that God will take care of things. Moshe with his reaction misinformed the Jewish people. He taught them an erroneous hashkafah - theology. That is the greatest sin that warrants the harsh punishment - loss of leadership after the goal was reached!

Ramban in his analysis picks up on this idea and seems to agree that in general there is no criticism of the people for acting anxiously when it is warranted. He however reads in between the lines that God was not very pleased with the people and also points to a verse in Tehillim 106:32 that clearly say that the people angered God during this episode. However a careful read of that verse in its context lessens the problem. The important thing about Ramban is that he does not disagree with the premise that it is appropriate for people to be anxious when they are confronted with a situation such as this and that it is required of the leaders to prepare for such eventualities. Even in the desert where the impression we get is that God led them and micromanaged them, ultimately the responsibility fell on the people and their leaders to provide for themselves.

I believe this is an important point that needs to be made in our contemporary society where the mainstream thinking is that frumkeit requires what I term misguided Bitachon. 

[1] Rambam refers to Chazal who say the vision seen by a woman slave at the Red Sea, was not seen by Yechezkel ben Buzi (at the vision of the chariots).  According to Rambam’s understanding of prophetic visions, these do not appear to unworthy people. A prophetic vision is the result of a person intellectually advanced and with a developed personality.