Teaching Non-Jews Their Torah

In my previous post I discussed the basic problems with effective interfaith dialog.

All of which may be unimportant if Judaism is a prosletizing religion. Not in the sense that anyone would suggest that Jews are obligated to convert all people to Judaism. But if there is an obligation to bring all humans to conform to the 7 mitzvos benei Noach then perhaps we must overcome the problem rather than simply acknowledge it.

First, it looks to my eye that in practice most of the Jews who sell pendants and rings in the diamond exchange on 47th Street (in New York City) hold like Tosafos that trinitarianism conforms to the 7 mitzvos. Because otherwise selling crosses would be prohibited even in a market dominated by non-Jews. I don’t know which idea is dominant in the texts of halakhah. And yet, it seems to be common enough practice.

Second, those trinitarians who place the three-ness in the realm of their god-as-perceived would be observant Noachides according to all opinions. And a Moslem (assuming they are part of the non-murderous majority) also complies to the 7 mitzvos. Today’s more educated Hindus also teach that their 3.1 million gods are human perceptions of One Incomprehensible Divinity.

My point being, Noachidism is a meta-religion, a criterion a specific religion may or may not conform to. It might (see next issue) mean proselytizing to true polytheists, but it doesn’t mean “believe this specific religion”.

Third, are we obligated to teach Non-Jews? Or are we obligated to set an example for them to teach themselves? If we are supposed to passively lead them by example to Noachidism, not actively teach it, then it’s hard to call that missionizing.

The Sifri in Va’Eschanan can be read either way. The Rambam takes it to mean there is a mitzvah, either chiyuvis or qiyumis (either an obligation or a good thing to do if you happen to do it). I can’t tell. The Lubavitcher Rebbe clearly stated the Rambam obligated (Hil’ Malekhim 9 onward), but I think that is his novellum. The naive reading (pashut peshat) of the Rambam would be not to convert them to a religion of Noachidism, and only that he permits teaching them the parts of the 7 mitzvos they come to you to learn. Tosafos (Chagiga 13aein”) clearly says it’s a non-obligatory mitzvah to teach them the laws they are trying to observe. In contrast to the prohibition against teaching them the rest of Oral Torah. Unclear about the mitzvos they aren’t yet drawn to. If it weren’t for the LR, I would assume there is only one opinion shared by both rishonim.

Related: There is a Torahitic prohibition of lifnei iver (“[placing a stumbling block] before the blind”, enabling another to sin) with respect to leading a non-Jew to violate one of the 7 that they couldn’t otherwise do. But the rabbis saw no need to enact mesayeia lidevar aveirah (handing someone over to sin) when the issue is helping them do a sin that could have done (with more difficulty, and perhaps motivation-killing difficulty) without you, as they have with aiding a Jew to violate one of the 613. What are we suupposed to conclude from that?

Confrontation and Babel

וַיְהִי כָל-הָאָרֶץ שָׂפָה אֶחָת, וּדְבָרִים אֲחָדִים.

And the whole earth was of one speech and of one set of ideas.

- Bereishis 11:1

I blogged in the past about the difference between thinking in Biblical Hebrew tenses and in the tenses one finds in most contemporary languages and how the Holy Language does not distinguish between “he is a builder” and “he is building”. But vocabulary is a more obvious area where speaking a different language will change which thoughts come more naturally.

Rav Herschel Schachter recently criticized the actions of other students of R’ JB Soloveitchik, who engaged in interfaith dialog, teach Torah to Christians, and encourage Christian activities in Israel. (One such article is available on TorahWeb, here). R’ Shelomo Riskin defended his Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel. I am not interested in whether the events since RJBS wrote Confrontation call for a new halachic ruling than the one given there. I don’t understand the relevence of the question of whether the church is still hostile to Judaism or Jews, or whether not. It might not be productive if they hate us either way. It might be more productive to specifically talk with those who hate you, if it means understanding can replace hatred. I don’t know which, but that’s a tactical question, not a halachic one. I also believe that the underlying theme of such conferences is the search for a common ground, which in turn pushes toward novel (if plausible) interpretations of Judaism which aren’t what we would normally believe. But I really want to simply focus on the issue of whether such dialog is really possible, rather than whether it’s permitted.

I think one of the points RJBS makes in Confrontation means something more fundamental along these lines. He opens that essay, as I did this blog post, with a quote about the Tower of Bavel. We can speak about simple miscommunication due to the difference in language in the literal sense — most Xian denominations mean something different by the word “conversion” than we do, as they have room for “witnessing” as a buzzword where we wouldn’t. But when RJBS speaks about lacking a common language, I believe he means this on a deeper level — a lack of one-to-one correspondance of concepts.

To quote:

Second, the logos, the word, in which the multifarious religious experience is expressed does not lend itself to standardization or universalization. The word of faith reflects the intimate, the private, the paradoxically inexpressible cravings of the individual for and his linking up with his Maker. It reflects the numinous character and the strangeness of the act of faith of a particular community which is totally incomprehensible to the man of a different faith community. Hence, it is important that the religious or theological logos should not be employed as the medium of communication between two faith communities whose modes of expression are as unique as their apocalyptic experiences. The confrontation should occur not at a theological but at a mundane human level. There, all of us speak the universal language of modern man. As a matter of fact our common interests lie in the realm of faith, but in that of the secular orders.8 There, we all face a powerful antagonist, we all have to contend with a considerable number of matters of great concern. The relationship between two communities must be outer-directed and related to the secular orders with which men of faith come face to face. In the secular sphere, we may discuss positions to be taken, ideas to be evolved, and plans to be formulated. In these matters, religious communities may together recommend action to be developed and may seize the initiative to be implemented later by general society. However, our joint engagement in this kind of enterprise must not dull our sense of identity as a faith community. We must always remember that our singular commitment to God and our hope and indomitable will for survival are non-negotiable and non-rationalizable and are not subject to debate and argumentation. The great encounter between God and man is a wholly personal private affair incomprehensible to the outsider – even to a brother of the same faith community. The divine message is incommunicable since it defies all standardized media of information and all objective categories. If the powerful community of the many feels like remedying an embarrassing human situation or redressing an historic wrong, it should do so at the human ethical level. However, if the debate should revolve around matters of faith, then one of the confronters will be impelled to avail himself of the language of his opponent. This in itself would mean surrender of individuality and distinctiveness.

Words are pigeonholes for ideas. [Editorial comment: It seems I discussed this before in relation to Migdal Bavel the week of Noach, 1995. See here.] A community tends to refer to some concept, be it “ball”, “run” or “salvation”, and therefore their language has a word for it. If the idea rarely comes up, they would use an expression to define it. But if the idea isn’t part of their worldview altogether, one would have to start with the differences in givens and spend hours building up our worldview in order to explain the idea to them. And even then they only know the words in the abstract, absent the emotional attachments.

Ge’ulah” and “yeshu’ah” don’t really mean anything like “redemption” or “salvation”. Nor does “berakhah” have much to do with blessing, nor “qedushah” to holiness. To someone who thinks in English, fear and anxiety caused by danger, the unknown or the possibility of erring are all variants of the same thing. And we wouldn’t naturally compare awe to any of them. But in Biblical Hebrew, there is pachad in the face of danger, eimah of the unknown, and by calling both the fear of erring and awe “yir’ah”, one  does naturally see their common theme of dealing with something greater than myself.

The two religious groups’ worldview lend themselves to a different set of pigeonholes — we lack ground for common dialog. We not only lack a “safah achas”, we lack a “devarim achadim”.

I think this is what R’ Soloveitchik means when he speaks of an uncrossable abyss between faith communities, that we speak different languages that makes meaningful dialog simply impossible. Instead what happens is that the majority community’s language is used, and therefore the minority community ends up shoehorning ideas into a lexicon that doesn’t really describe them correctly. Judaism is bound to be misrepresented in these exchanges.

Race or Religion?
One often hears it asked and debated: Is Jewishness membership in a people (a race or ethnic group), or is it adherence to a religion? I think the question doesn’t even start; it’s an illusion created by the English language which coerces us to think in a false dichotomy.

English evolved in a culture that was primarily shaped by Christianity. So its words fit pigeonholes of types of community in categories that make sense to Christians (and people whose thought is of Christian heritage): co-religionists, ethnic groups, etc…

However, for example, Arabs are united by a shared language and the resultant culture. In the Sudan, the Arabs are Moslems who are genetically African. As are many of those who have faced such oppression in Darfur Moslems who are genetically African. They differ in language and resulting cultural elements. There is no word in English for the kind of peoplehood that is meant by “Arab”. But there is in Hebrew. Next Rosh haShanah, those of us using traditional liturgy will be thanking G-d for having “uplifted us above all other lashon — [people who are united by common] language”.

What kind of peoplehood is denoted by “Jew”? Neither the unity of coreligionists, as there are atheist Jews, Buddhist Jews, and Jews who believe in Christianity. Not the unity of genetics, as we accept converts. Nor that of culture — Ashkenazic food is very unlike Sepharadic, Yemenite music very different than that of German Jews. Similarly our art and poetry is as diverse as the cultures among which we have lived.

What are we? We are an am and an eidah, a kelal and a kehillah. Those are the words that emerged in Hebrew, the language in which we have done most of our thinking about who we are. The lack of clear English term to pigeonhole our self-identity into is a non-issue; it’s an attempt to define ourselves in someone else’s terms.

Rebooting on Sukkos

I discussed the following medrashim in more detail in Mesukim MiDevash for parashas Pinechas and in earlier blog posts “The Origins of Imperfection” and “Simchas Beis haSho’eivah“. In this post, I want to look at how each step in the progression I outlined before is addressed by the mitzvos of Sukkos. Enlarging the theme of what I said about Simchas Beis haSho’eivah to understand Sukkos as a whole.

The first we hear of Hashem allowing things to go in something other than the ideal way is in the creation of plants. There is a medrash (Breishis Rabba 5:9) that comments on a change in language in the middle describing of the creation of trees. Hashem orders the earth on the third day to bring forth “eitz peri oseh peri“, fruit trees that make fruit, yet the land actually produces only “eitz oseh peri“. Between the commandment and the fulfillment, something is lost. The medrash explains that originally the wood would have tasted like the fruit, so that it would truly be a “fruit tree”. Instead of the norm being that the wood of the tree would taste like the fruit, this is now the exception. The trees, or the angels entrusted to guard them, were afraid for their survival. If the wood tasted like the fruit, animals would eat the plant rather than the fruit, and they would die out. And so, the earth “disobeyed”.

The second step occurs on day four, with Hashem’s creation of the moon. In Parshas Bereishis (1:16) the Torah reads: “And G-d made the two large luminaries — the large luminary to rule the day and the small luminary to rule the night — and the stars.”

The gemara (Chulin 60b) points out an inconsistency in the pasuq. R. Shimon ben Pazi asks why the Torah first describes the sun and moon as “the two large luminaries”, but then it calls the sun “the large luminary” and the moon is called the small one. The gemara answers with a story. Originally the sun and moon were the same size. But the moon complained to Hashem, “Can there exist two kings sharing the same crown?” How can both the sun and the moon share the glory? G-d replies, “Go and make yourself smaller.” This pains the moon, and Hashem subsequently offers three consolations. When that fails, Hashem says that we are to bring a qorban to atone for His sin. The Maharsha explains that the story is about the Jewish people and our goals vs the world at large and theirs. The Jews are compared to the moon (see, for example Qidush Levanah). Edom, the dominant power, is the sun. Why do we live in a world that seems to be dominated by Edom’s principal, that might makes right? Why isn’t holiness the dominant idea, and right make might? This then is the second step.

On day 3, the notion of needing to be concerned about the “real world” entered creation, which made it take on a life of its own, hiding its true nature of being merely the means toward holiness. Now, this second thing became a competing power. The moon sees a power struggle between itself, the pursuit of holiness, and the might of the sun.

The gemara (Succah 35a) explains, “‘P’ri eitz hadar’ — that its fruit tastes like the tree.” A defining feature of the esrog is that it did not participate in the rebellion of day three. Based on this, Medrash Rabba (15:6) identifies the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the eitz hada’as, with the esrog. Adam and Chava ate the fruit bein hashemashos, at the end of the sixth day (Sanhedrin 38b). A period of time when day and night overlap. The sun and moon, might and holiness, vie for rule. According to the Zohar, had they waited until Shabbos, the fruit would have been permitted to them. The eating of the fruit, therefore, has much to do with the blending of real and ideal, and internalizing it. And ever since then, every decision man makes is an irbuviah, the product of an inseperable blend of motives.

We come to Sukkos soon after Yom Kippur. We just tried to return to the ideal Hashem made us to be. And on Sukkos, we have mitzvos to celebrate the creation of humanity that could have been.

We already mentioned the esrog, the fruit that represents bitachon, trusting in Hashem for its survival rather than making what seems to be the safer choice of not having the plant itself taste pleasant to animals. The other three species of the mitzvah are also in part chosen for how taste of the fruit (if there is one) and plant relate. Vayira Rabba (30:12) famously notes that while the esrog has both a pleasant smell and a pleasant taste, the lulav’s fruit has a pleasant taste, but the branch has no smell, the hadas branch has a pleasant smell but neither it nor its berries have a pleasant taste, and the aravah has neither. The four species show us how to overcome the weaknesses of individuals through the bitachon of the community.

The second mitzvah of Sukkos is to live in the sukkah. A denial of the might-makes-right of my brick and mortar house to depend on an alliance between myself and Hashem to stay safe in my sukkah. Again, a revival of the theme of bitachon, but we can now see it in the light of the re-creation of man of the High Holidays. The Sukkah is the “lesser light” of the fourth day.

The third mitzvah unique to Sukkos is the nisuch hamayim, the pouring of the water through the mizbeiach to the ground below. This was the cause of great celebration, the Simchas Beis haShoeivah, as the water was drawn and brought to the Beis haMiqdash.

And a mist came up from the ground, and gave moisture to the whole face of the earth. And Hashem E-lokim formed the man, dust from the ground, and He breathed in his nose a living soul; and the man was a living spirit.

– Bereishis 2:6-7

“And a mist came up from the ground”: For the topic of the creation of man. He raised the tehom [groundwater?] and gave moisture to clouds to wet the earth and to make man. Like one who kneads bread, who adds water and after that kneads the dough. So too here, “He gave moisture” and then “He formed.”

“Dust from the ground”: He collected dust from the whole earth, all four directions… Another opinion, He took his dust from the place about which it says “an altar of earth you shall make for Me.” He said, “If only the dirt would be an atonement for him, and he would be able to stand.”

– Rashi ad loc

In his work “Pachad Yitzchak” on Sukkos, R’ Yitzchak Hutner notes the steps of creation of man, according to this second opinion in Rashi. First, G-d adds water to the earth to make clay, then He forms man and breathes a soul into him.

R’ Hutner writes that this is exactly what we recreate during nisuch hamayim. The kohein pours water on the very spot Hashem did. This is accompanied by the Simchas Beis haSho’eivah, with its celebration and singing. Music is the most spiritual of the seven wisdoms. It speaks and moves the soul on a fundamental level. Through song we imitate G-d’s breathing a soul into Adam.

When we do teshuvah, Hashem fulfills His promise “And I will give you a new heart, and place a new spirit within you.” (Yechezqeil 36:26) Sukkos is a celebration of man’s ability to recreate himself, and therefore recreated in a more ideal form the steps of our original creation.