Shelach 5754

(Another version of this thought was included in Mesukim MiDevash for parashas Shelach, in the “Bemachashavah Techilah” column, pp 1-2. -micha)


Inherent Tension

Judaism sees man as a synthesis of two opposite concepts. On the one hand, man is a physical animal, on the other, he carries “the spark of the Divine.” As the Torah describes it:

Then G-d formed Man, dust of the ground and breathed into his countenance the breath of life.

Bereishis 2:7

Each of his parts pulls man in its direction. The physical man shares many of the needs of a creatures. He feels hunger, has sexual urges, wants comfort, heat when he is cold. He longs to satisfy his nerve endings.

We should be clear that the physical is not inherently evil. Shabbos would not be complete without three meals. Simchas Yom Tov, the joy of the holiday, is defined by the Torah by eating — by the holiday meal and partaking the Yom Tov sacrifices.

The spiritual man craves G-d and spirituality. He wants to be more than mere animal. Just as the physical man is not inherently evil, the spiritual man is not inherently good. Cult members too are striving to speak to G-d, to experience Him. As the Pesach Hagadah states, “In the beginning our ancestors were idol worshipers.” We take pride that they searched for G-d even though they reached the wrong conclusion.

While we are tempted to think of these two parts of our mind as complete opposites, they have one thing in common. They describe man as a creature, as a passive being pushed by the forces around it.

Every person is torn between these poles. We find ourselves pulled by the physical and the spiritual parts of our minds. The fact that there is a “self”, the one feeling this pulling, gives us a third piece to the human puzzle. There is a part of man that must do the deciding, that is endowed with the G-d given free will to choose his actions.

Since it is the “I” who is getting pulled by these two forces, the part involved with free-will must also be the seat of awareness. When we describe man as being “in the image of G-d”, we are describing this element of him. Aware, a decider of his fate, a creator.

Tzitzis as a Description Human Nature

R. SR Hirsch understands many aspects of this mitzvos to be osos, symbols Hashem uses to convey certain concepts and priorities to the core of each Jew. He finds the role and function of each of these components of the human condition alluded to in the mitzvah of tzitzis in two different ways: in the color of the strings in the tzitzis, and in their number. In “Collected Writings” (Volume III page. 126) Hirsch comments:

We find only three terms to encompass the colors of the spectrum: adom for red, yaroq for yellow and green, and tekheiles for blue and violet….

Red is the least refracted ray; it is the closest to the unbroken ray of light that is directly absorbed by matter. Red is light in its first fusion with the terrestrial element: adom, related to adamah [footstool, earth as man’s footstool — M.B.] Is this not again man, the image of G-d as reflected in physical, earthly matter: “vatichsareihu me’at mi’Elokim” (Tehillim. 8,6).

The next part of the spectrum is yellow-green: yaroq.

Blue-violet is at the end of the spectrum: techeiles.

The spectrum visible to our eye ends with the violet ray, techeiles, but additional magnitudes of light radiate unseen beyond the visible spectrum. Likewise, the blue expanse of the sky forms the end of the earth that is visible to us. And so techeiles is simply the bridge that leads thinking man from the visible, physical sphere of the terrestrial world, into the unseen sphere of heaven beyond….

Techeiles is the basic color of the sanctuary and of the High Priest’s vestments; the color blue-violet representing heaven and the things of heaven that were revealed to Israel… no other color was as appropriate as techeiles to signify G-d’s special relationship with Israel. A thread of techeiles color on our garments conferred upon all of us the insignia of our high-priestly calling, proclaiming all of us: “Anshei qodesh tihyun li — And you shall be holy men to Me” (Ex. 19, 6).

If we now turn our attention to the pisil techeiles on our tzitzith, we will not that it was precisely this thread of techeiles color that formed the krichos, the gidil, the thread wound around the other threads to make a cord. In other words, the vocation of the Jew, the Jewish awareness awakened by the Sanctuary, that power which is to prevail within us, must act to unite all our kindred forces within the bond of the Sanctuary of G-d’s law.

By wrapping a blue thread around the others we are demonstrating a fundamental principle. Physicality and mental exploration have great value, but only as tools. The end must be to strive to go beyond the spectrum, to reach to be closer to Hashem then we are today.

Elsewhere R. Hirsch explains the concepts symbolized by the numbers 6, 7, and 8. Dr. Isaac Levy includes this explanation in his English translation of Hirsch’s commentary to this week’s parshah (16:41):

The origin of this meaning is to be found in the work of the Creation. The visible material world created in six days received with the seventh day a day of remembrance of, and bond with its invisible L-rd and Creator, and thereby its completed consummation. Similarly the symbolism of the number seven in the Menora, in the Temple, in the Mussaf offerings, in the sprinklings of the blood on Yom Kippur, in the Festivals of Pessach and Succoth, in Sabbath, Schmita, Tumma etc. etc. The symbolism of the number eight: starting afresh on a higher level, an octave higher. The eighth day for Mila, Schmini Atzereth and Israel as the eighth of G-d’s Creations. With the creation of Israel G-d laid the groundwork for a fresh, higher mankind and a fresh higher world, for that shamayim chadashim and the `eretz chadashah for which Israel and its mission is to be the beginning and instrument (Is. LXV,17).

So that there are three elements in us. (a) our material sensuous bodies, like the rest of the created visible world = 6; (b) the breath of free will, invisible, coming from the Invisible One = 7; (c) the calling of Jew, coming from the historical choice of Israel = 8.

This too parallels the understanding of man that we have outlined. The six is physical, the seven represents free will, and the eight is man’s striving to be something more.

Tzitzis, worn so that “ye shall remember and do all My commandments”, is explained in this light.

These are the three elements out of which the tzitzis threads are woven. All these three elements are given to us, are woven into our being and are to be realized in completing our calling. But in these three energies two are to be the directing and ruling ones; the “six” in us is to subordinate itself to the seventh and eighth which are also given as part of us, and is to allow itself to be overcome, wound round, by the firm restraining bonds of duty…. Once the bodily sensuality has submitted itself to the bonds of duty through the Divine and Jewish elements, it becomes completely equal to its brother-energies, and like them, is to expand in free development within the limits of Jewish human duty.

The physical man finds expression, but only after he has been channeled and guided by G-d-like free-will and a drive to surpass nature. This is the essence of Hirsch’s vision of Torah im Derekh Eretz — Torah with the way of the world. Man’s goal is not to strive for spirituality to the exclusion of the physical, but rather to use the physical drives as tools for human growth.

In Hirschian thought, the complete human masters the art of six and seven, the physical and the mental. Notice that Hirsch calls the seven divine, not the eight of the spiritual creature. It is the free-will that makes man like G-d, merely being a passive resident of heaven pales by comparison.

According to the Rambam, it is the eighth string which is the techeiles. In this way the tzitzis instructs each Jew that he has the tools to strive for some thing beyond mere human. He must take his physical resources and divine intellect and apply it to the spiritual realm.

© 1995 The AishDas Society

Tiqanta Shabbos

This week I’d like to discuss three seemingly unrelated questions about the words of the tephillah:

  1. The focus of Shabbos Mussaf davening is the paragraph that begins “Tiqanta Shabbos…” What most readily jumps to the eye about the tephilla is that the 22 words it opens with are an anagram of the Hebrew alphabet in reverse. (“Tiqanta” starts with a tav, “Shabbos” with a shin, “ratzisa” — a reish, and so on.)While many tephillos are written with an alphabetic motif, it is far more rare for the alphabet to be presented in the reverse. What concept were the authors trying to express with this sequence?
  2. Yeshayah quotes Hashem, saying: “I am the first and I am the last; and besides me there is no god. And who is like Me…” (44:6) This same sentiment is found a number of times in tephillah. The pasuq is associated in the siddur with the similar declaration of G-d’s unity of the Shema. For example, in the paragraphs following the “short Shema” of Birkhos haShachar, as well as in the berakhah of ge’ulah [redemption] after the morning recitation of Shema “Emes Atah Hu rishon, ve’Atah Hu acharon — It is true that You are The First, and You are The Last…”The Kuzari makes a point of explaining that by “The First” and “The Last” we don’t mean that G-d has a beginning or an end. But this begs the question. First and last are terms that refer to a sequence. Something can be the first of a list, or the last in a collection. What is the list here? Of what is Hashem first and last?
  3. The Torah has two terms for “because”: “ki” (which also has 6 other translations, according to Rashi) and “lema’an“. These words also come up frequently in tephillah. We don’t expect Hebrew, since it was written by G-d, to have superfluous words. The two words must differ by connotation. But what is that difference?

Cause and Purpose

Aristotle lists four kinds of causes (Physics II:3). For example, consider a coffee table:

  • Material cause: What is it made out of? Wood, nails, glue, stain, varnish…
  • Formal cause: What is the form and function, the essence? It provides a place to put things down near the couch that is easy to reach when sitting on it. It therefore has a top, legs raising it to the desired level, it’s strong enough to hold a mug (remember to use a coaster!) or reading material.

These first two categories correspond to Aristotilian notions of Substance and Form, chomer vetzurah. The nature of the object being caused. The next two relate more to time.

  • Efficient cause: What produced it? This is what we usually think of when we speak of causality. The table exists because a carpenter converted the wood etc… into a coffee table.
  • Final cause: For what purpose, telos? The carpenter needed an income. The homeowner needed something to break up the space in her living room, to hold those nice pictorial books to give the room just the right look.

He therefore has two separate studies of events — causality (efficient causes; hereafter simply “cause”, matching common usage) and teleology (final causes). He believed that every event has a cause, an event that preceded it that forced it to happen, and a telos, an following event that was the purpose for this one.

Teleology is in disfavor today. Particularly in the era of Darwin, when life was seen to be the product of accident, the concept of telos was attacked, called a “fallacy” of the classical mind. For the Jew, however, there is no question. G-d created the universe, He did it for a purpose, and He insures that the purpose will be met. People have free will, and therefore act in order to place our plans into effect.
Everything has two reasons for happening: its cause and its purpose. This is provides us an answer to our last question. “Ki“, when used for because, introduces the cause. Therefor, in the Levitic song for Tuesday, we find “Let us greet Him with thanksgiving, with song let us shout for joy with Him. Ki — because G-d is a great L-rd…”

Lema’an” is associated with purpose. In the words of the Shema, “lema’an yirbu yemeichem, viymei bneichem — so that you will have many days, and your children have many days….”

Two Sequences
Aristotle was convinced the universe was infinitely old, and that it would last forever. Part of the reason for this belief is because of his concepts of “cause” and “telos”.

The cause of an event always happens before the event itself. For example, because the wind blew a leaf off the tree, it fell. First is the wind, then the falling. But every event has a cause. The wind too is an event, and it too has an earlier cause. We can keep on chasing earlier and earlier causes, and notice that the universe must have been older and older. This gives us a sequence of events, cause to effect, cause to effect…. In fact, Aristotle saw no end to this chain, and there for couldn’t believe the universe had a beginning.

The Rambam, in the Guide to The Perplexed (vol. 2, ch. 14), points out the flaw in this reasoning. He defines G-d as the First Cause.

We can now approach our second question. G-d is first of the sequence of causes. “Atah Hu rishon — You are The First [Cause].”

Aristotle has a similar argument that the universe could have no end. The purpose of an event, what the event should accomplish, comes after the event. The purpose for G-d providing wind to blow was that He wanted the rock to fall. Again, every purpose is also an event, and we have another sequence we can chase forever, in this case later and later in time.

This answers the second half of the question. G-d is The Last, The Culminating Purpose of all of creation. “All is called in My Name, and for My Glory I have Created it.” (Isa. 43:7)

The Day the is Completely Shabbos

In Birchas Hamazon, in the “harachaman” we add for Shabbos, the culmination of human history is called “Yom Shekulo Shabbos“, the day/time that is entirely Shabbos. Shabbos is called “mei’ein olam haba — the image of the World to Come”. This concept is also the subject of the Shemoneh Esrei for Shabbos Mincha.

Shabbos is not only testimony to creation, that Hashem is the First Cause. Shabbos is also intimately connected to, and preparation for, relating to G-d as the Culminating Purpose.

Rav Yaakov Emden connects the reverse alphabetical ordering of Tiqanta Shabbos with the concept of Mei’ein Olam Haba. We can suggest that this is the reason why. The sequence of letters in the alphabet are used to represent the sequence of events of history. The order of letters shows how we are viewing that sequence.

Normally, we can only see G-d’s hand in the world as First Cause. We look around and see “how great are your works, Hashem.” The alphabet of this world starts with alpha, the one-ness of G-d, and unfurls to the plurality of creation. Shabbos, however, we reverse the order — we start with the plurality of the universe, and end with the one-ness of G-d.

The zemirah says, “mei’ein olam haba, yom Shabbos menuchah — in the image of the World to Come, the day of Shabbos brings rest.” When we realize that everything that happens to us is for a purpose, everything is part of that pursuit of the Culminating Purpose, then we are at peace.

Parashas Lekh-Lekha 5756

Most young Yeshiva children come home sometime around Shavuos with the story of how Hashem offered the Torah to all the nations of the world, but only the Jews accepted it.

The medrash, as told in the Yalqut Shim’oni, tells how first Hashem went to Edom and offered them the Torah. They asked, “What is written in it?” Hashem replied, “Do not murder”. Edom declines because “our very substance is murder because our father, Eisav, was a murderer”.

Next, Hashem approaches Ammon and Moav. When they asked, “What is written in it?” Hashem replies “You may not commit adultery”. They too reject the Torah, because, “our very substance is adultery because our father, Lot, was sexually immoral”.

The third example given in the Yalkut is the Ishmaelites. They too want to first know what is written in the Torah before accepting it. To them Hashem says, “Do not steal”. They answer, “our very substance is theft, because our father, Yishmael, was a thief”. In this way, each nation declined, until Hashem approached the Jews.

Hashem’s answer to each of the nations is strange. Why choose the one sin their forefather was known for? Especially since in each of these cases the sin is prohibited to all Benei Noach; they may not do any of these things even without getting the Torah.

By comparing this medrash to the opening pasuk in this week’s parshah, we can get a better understanding of the point of the story.

“Hashem said to Avram, ‘Go for yourself from your homeland, from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land which I will show you’.” (12:1) The first sentence recorded in the Torah of the Jewish mission on earth is a commandment for Avram to leave his home and his father.

Avram didn’t say, “I can’t worship G-d because my very substance his idolatry, because my father, Terach, manufactures idols”. Hashem orders Avram to leave the culture that made him, to leave his father’s sphere of influence, and he does.

Avram’s reply was “And Avram went, just as G-d told him”. (12:4) If Hashem said he could change, rise above Ur Casdim to become fit for both the land of Israel and the father of the people of Israel, then he goes.

Is man a creature of fate or of destiny? Is his future foretold, etched in rock, unchangeable? Or can he rebuild himself into something greater than he was?

Clearly the Torah insists on the latter. The very key to accepting the Torah is to be committed to use its ideas and its mitzvos to improve and to grow.

This was the failing ascribed to the other nations in the medrash. They saw a given flaw in their national character as their substance, immutable. Hashem wasn’t asking them about a particular prohibition, but about their commitment to leave their “father’s house”. If they do not believe they can change, what purpose can getting the Torah serve them?

Of Arks and Rainbows

There are two events in the Torah that can be identified as yeshu’os, by which I mean events where Hashem saved someone even though they didn’t really merit it.

The more obvious is Yetzi’as Mitzrayim, the Exodus. Hashem saved us just as we were slipping from the “49th level of impurity” into being hopelessly corrupt. And in the introduction before Az Yashir, the song by the Red Sea, we are told that “Vayosha’ Hashem… — and Hashem saved on that day Israel from the hands of Egypt…” (Shemos 14:30)

An earlier example is when Hashem saved Lot and his family from the destruction of Sodom. There too Lot was saved primarily in Avraham’s merit, that Avraham should be spared the pain of losing his nephew.

There is a common feature in these two stories. The ones being saved are restrained from rejoicing over the fall of those who were not. I would suggest that this is a property of yeshu’ah. Without the element of witnessing divine justice, there is no justification for reveling in the fall of the wicked. And here the potential witness was saved by Hashem’s mercy, justice isn’t in evidence.

Among the reasons the gemara (Megillah 14a) gives us for why we do not recite full Hallel on the last day(s) of Pesach is a medrash about G-d’s discontent with the angels joining in our singing Az Yashir. “The work of My ‘Hands’ are drowning in the sea, and you sing?” The day we crossed the sea is not to be one of unrestrained joy. Note that we do not have a similar muting of the joy of Chanukah, despite the deaths of the Saleucids and Hellenized Jews. The Exodus, however, was a yeshu’ah.

With Lot this point is particularly stressed. Lot was told not even to look back at the destruction. His wife was turned into salt for trying to do so.

What about Noach? Was his a yeshu’ah, or did he earn being saved?

There is a famous Rashi on the words of the first verse of this week’s parashah. “Noach was a wholehearted man in his generation.” (Ber’ 6:9) Rashi notes two interpretations of this comment. On the one hand, it could be taken as a compliment of Noach. Even in the environment and culture of Noach’s contemporaries, he was still a good person. Alternatively, it could be taken as a criticism. By the low expectations of that period, he was a good man. But had he lived in Avraham’s day, he would have been a nobody.

There is another debate recorded in Rashi that also touches on our question. In (6:16) Noach is told to make a tzohar for the ark. Rashi quotes Bereishis Raba, and again there are two positions. One defines “tzohar” to be a window, the other a gem.

I would like to suggest that these two Rashis are recording different aspects of the same disagreement. According to the first position, we look at Noach in terms of the relative scale of his potential. Noach did an excellent job, given what he had to work with. In that light, he merited being saved. Therefore, Noach was not in the position of Lot, he was allowed to see what transpired to his peers. Therefore, this tanna would have no problem saying that the ark had a window through which Noach could see out.

The second looks at him in an absolute scale. By that standard, he didn’t get as far. His salvation would therefore be seen as an act of Divine Mercy, a yeshu’ah. So to this opinion, the tzohar couldn’t have been a window. It was a gem that obscured his view.

After Noach left the ark, Hashem made a covenant with him. Hashem gave Noach seven mitzvos for all of humanity to observe and promised Noach that He would never again flood the entire world.

There are two seemingly contradictory halachos about rainbows. The first is that we make a berachah of thanks when seeing a rainbow (Berachos 59a). On the other hand, we are told not to gaze at a rainbow because it’s a sign of Divine Anger, that G-d is telling us that it’s only his promise to Noach that keeps Him from again flooding the world. (Chagiga 16a)

There is another difference between having the light come into the ark via a window or a gem. Light that comes in through a cut stone will be refracted. The inside walls of the ark would have been covered with little rainbows.

Perhaps this is another reason why G-d chose the rainbow to be the sign of his covenant with Noach. The rainbow reminds us that the world is our “ark” by painting a similar spectrum on our “walls”. The sign of the rainbow is therefore that of a yeshu’ah, of unmerited salvation. For which we should be thankful, but not proud.

Lechem Oni

Packing peanuts. That filler material stuck in the box to prevent breakage. You would think it has nothing to do with Pesach, right?

A few years ago, a friend showed me a halachic guide that discussed a kind of packing peanut that was wheat- or corn-starch based. The guide recommended getting rid of them for Pesach. Our first observation is that there are grounds to be lenient and the issue is complex and interesting. (Obviously, if this problem is relevant to you, you should ask your own rabbi.)

However, we have this tendency when it comes to chameitz to be more stringent than usual. This is based on the Ar”i za”l, who says that while halakhah only requires we eliminate pieces of chameitz that can possibly combine to be bigger than a kezayis, we should eliminate from our homes every taint of chameitz.

Chameitz, the Ar”i explains, is representative of the yeitzer hara, and therefore “Anyone who removes all chameitz from their house is assured of having a year without sin.”

So while it’s laudable to go after every speck of chameitz, my friend had to ask: Why are we spending day after day cleaning up dust, and absolutely none preparing for Pesach by removing our spiritual chameitz?

Good question, I thought. But what is “spiritual chameitz“? How do I get rid of something until I know what it is?

Let’s start with the converse. We know that chameitz isn’t matzah. There is plenty of Torah about the meaning of matzah. Perhaps if we look at that and take the opposite, we can get an idea of what chameitz means.

In historical order, the first time we find matzos in the Pesach story is during their servitude. Magid begins with the Aramaic words “Ha lachma anya — this is the poor bread which our forefathers ate in Mitzrayim.” In Hebrew, “lechem oni“, bread of poverty. Matzah as an experience of poverty and humility.

We are also given a second translation of “lechem oni“. Not only is “oni” a reference to poverty, but it can also be taken to mean “answer”. Matzah is also “she’onim alav devarim harbei — about which we answer many things” (Pesachim 36a). This is the matzah of which the Torah says “… וְלֹא יֵרָאֶה לְךָ חָמֵץ וְלֹא יֵרָאֶה לְךָ שְׂאֹר בְּכָל גְּבֻלֶךָ. וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר… — and you shall not have chameitz, and you shall not find any leaven in all your borders. And you shall tell your children on that day, saying…” (Shemos 13:7-8)

Third, the Pesach offering must be eaten “on matzos and maror”. Matzah was eaten the night of the exodus, immediately before Par’oh expellled us from his country. Simply because Hashem said it is a “choq olam — a decree, forever” (Shemos 12:17). Matzah as obedience to Hashem.

Last, there is the matzah of the exodus itself. When “וַיִּשָּׂא הָעָם אֶת בְּצֵקוֹ טֶרֶם יֶחְמָץ — the nation carried the dough because it could not leaven” (ibid v. 34). We left with zerizus, haste to do what right.

So we find that matzah speaks to four things: humility, acting thoughtfully, commitment, and zerizus.

The four find parallel in the four cups of wine, giving these messages to the structure of our seder.

The first cup is filled before Qadeish. After qiddush, allowing us to drink that wine, it addresses Urchatz, Karpas and Yachatz — washing in preparation for dipping a vegetable in salt water, the dipping itself, and breaking the middle matzah in two. When we break that matzah, we say “Ha lachma anya — this is the bread of poverty that we ate in Mitzrayim”. (Most Haggados place this within Maggid, but I think making it the explanation of why we’re breaking the matzah in Yachatz fits better. None of which impacts the point of this post.) All of which refer to humility, to life as a slave in Egypt.

After “Ha lachma anya” we fill the second cup for Maggid, and leave that cup out until it is drunk at the end of Maggid — telling the story of the Exodus. This is “answering over it many things”. Learning and teaching.

The third cup is poured before Motzi, and is out while we eat the matzah, the maror, and the meal. We reenact the eating of the Pesach offering (in two different ways, the majority opinion and Hillel’s), fulfilling all the physical mitzvos of the evening still available to us. This is the step of commitment and obedience.

The last cup is before us as we sing Hashem’s praises. It’s a cup purely of redemption, of leaving Egypt — both the historical and our current Egypts — with alacrity. “ישועת ה´ כהרף עין — the salvation of G-d is like the blink of an eye.” (Idiom from Pesiqta Zutrasa, Esther 4:17, popularized by the Abarbanel’s repeated use)

Getting back to our original question, if matzah reminds us of humility, acting thoughtfully, commitment, and zerizus, what is it we need to rid ourselves of before Pesach? Egotism. mindless routine, lack of commitment, procrastination.

In this light, the Ar”i’s statement is more easily comprehensible. If we eliminate these character flaws, we’d have far less motivation to sin. Following the common customs the Ar”i’s words inspired gives us time in various parts of every room, time we could spend replaying scenes from the past year and how we interacted with our family. If we are to go beyond the letter of halakhah and remove every possible speck of chameitz, it would be appropriate to do so with thoughts of eliminating our motivators for sin.

This is a — if not the — key feature of preparing for Pesach. And if we can do so, we can merit to not only celebrate the great Shabbos of Shabbos haGadol, but also the Great Shabbos of “life of the world to come” (traditional Shabbos Zemirah).

Pesach 5761: The Four Sons Confront Tragedy

The Haggadah tells us that the Torah addresses the question of telling the Passover story to our children by referring to four different kinds of children. One is wise, one is evil, one is uncomplicated, and the last doesn’t know to ask questions. Each son asks a question, even if the last does so in his silence. We can see from the question what they are looking to take from the seder experience.

I believe these four approaches follow through in how we react to tragedy as well. Given the dismal state of current events, perhaps this is worth some exploration.

R’ Joseph Ber Soloveitchikzt”l (“the Rav”) addresses the question posed by the Holocaust in his seminal work on religious Zionism, “Kol Dodi Dofeik”. His position is that the question of why is there human suffering can’t be answered. Any attempt to address theodicy is going to insult the intellect or the emotions, and quite likely both. But “Why?” isn’t the Jewish question. Judaism, with its focus on halachah, on deed, asks, “What shall I do about it?”

The Rav continues by quoting the Talmudic principle, “Just as we bless [G-d] for the good, so we bless [Him] for the evil.” Just as we dedicate all the good that comes are way to be tools in our avodas Hashem, we also dedicate ourselves through our responses to suffering.

This is the wise son’s reaction. “Who is wise? He who learns from every person.” The wise son is one who turns everything into a learning experience. His response to the seder is “What are the testimonial acts, the dictates, the laws, which Hashem our G-d commanded you?” How does G-d teach us to react to the events of Egypt and freedom? How am I supposed to react to tragedy?

When G-d presents tragedy to the wise son, they are called nisyonos — challenges or tests. Like the Akeidah, a learning experience for Abraham, to get him to fully realize his potential.

The second son, the wicked son, needs a wake up call. What the gemarah refers to as “yisurim”. In the weekday prayer “Tachanun” we ask G-d to forgive our sins “but not through yisurim or bad illness”.

The evil son of the Hagadah doesn’t respond to this wakeup call. He asks, — no, he says rhetorically, “What [good] is this job to you?” Our response is to blunt his teeth and point out that had he been there, he wouldn’t have been amongst those to merit the Exodus. We tell him that it’s not the tragedy that is leading him to rejecting G-d — it’s his rejection of G-d that lead him to the tragedy. I like to imagine he accepts this answer in the silence after the paragraph.

There is a second kind of yissurim, yissurim shel ahavah — tribulations of love. This is not where the person is being evil, but he’s not living up to his full potential. He too is in a rut, and G-d calls to him to break out of it and improve. G-d calls him to ahavah, to greater love and closeness to G-d.

This is the uncomplicated son, the one who believes with simple and pure faith. He asks “What is this?” and we answer with the Pesach story, with all that G-d did for us. Unlike the wise son, who wants to know all the laws of the day, all the nuances of how to react, the uncomplicated son is given motivation to cling to the A-lmighty.

Then there are times where the thing we want is a greater nisayon, a greater challenge, than the ones we don’t. And if we are not up to the challenge, if it’s a test that we couldn’t pass, G-d doesn’t make us face it.

There is a story told (Taanis 24b) of R’ Chanina ben Dosa, a man so holy that the Talmud tells numerous stories of miracles that occured to him. And yet one so poor that a heavenly Voice commented that the whole world was supported by R’ Chanina’s merit, but he himself lived off a small measure of carob from one Friday to the next.

Eventually his wife just couldn’t handle the abject poverty any longer. He agreed to her request that he pray for wealth. A heavenly hand came down and handed them a huge golden table leg. Certainly worth a fortune.

That night, R’ Chanina’s wife had a dream. They were in heaven, and all the other couples were sitting at three legged tables. Except for them. Their table only had two legs, it couldn’t stand.

Realizing that the third leg of their table was the gift they had received, she asked her husband to pray for it to be taken back. And it was.

R’ Chaim Vilozhiner associates the three legs of the table in this story with the mishnah (Avos 1:2) about the three pillars of the world: Torah, Divine service, and acts of charity. The Voice said, after all, that R’ Chanina supported the world.

The golden leg they received was the one of kindness. Until now, they had reason not to give more charity — they had nothing more to give. The story as R’ Chaim understands it (I wouldn’t say this about R’ Chanina ben Dosa on my own), suggests that R’ Chanina would have been unable to practice charity as he was worthy to had he had the opportunity.

So, R’ Chanina ben Dosa was poor.

Similarly, the person who is medically needy because that keeps him close to G-d. The person who, had he been healthy, would have been more distracted by the physical opportunities afforded him.

This is the son who doesn’t know how to ask. Unlike the wise son, who asks “How shall I respond?” or the son of uncomplicated, pure and simple faith, who asks “G-d, G-d, why have you forsaken me?” (Tehillim 22:1) this son isn’t asking anything. He isn’t capable of grappling with this issue — be it a tragedy, or be it the Exodus.

“You shall start for him.” Our response must be to help them grow.

Of course, these four sons are archetypes. Real people are wise on some issues, determined to be wrong about others. We have a simple straight to the point perspectives on yet other things, and there are those issues we aren’t prepared or ready to face. But it is only through growth that we can reach our goals as individuals and as a people.

© 2001,2002 The AishDas Society


We recently concluded Mesukim MiDevash, a weekly collection of divrei Torah on the subjects of machshavah, mussar, and the meaning of various teflillos. If you’re curious about what I was thinking about before starting this blog, many of the articles there are mine. Before that, mainly around seven years ago, I wrote the Aspaqlaria column you find in this directory. Most of those articles appeared in Yitz Weis’s Toras Aish.My current forum for sharing these kinds of thoughts is through public speaking. However, I wanted to spark a broader dialogue on the fundamental issues of our lives, so I started this blog. Feel free to comment, correct, and challenge the ideas in these “pages”. It is important to think about and grapple with these issues, even though many of them resist a full resolution. The intent behind this blog is to start the ball rolling, not to present prepared and simple answers to an inherently complex subjects.As I see it, the most fundamental things lacking from contemporary expressions of traditional Judaism are the philosophical underpinnings that give that observance context and structure, and the proper focus on tikun hamidos — realizing that the purpose of mitzvos is to enoble the self, and the goal of enobling oneself is to better one’s observance, to become a better eved Hashem.


I’m sure a reasonable number of readers are wondering just what is an Aspaqlaria anyway, and why would someone choose it as the name of a blog?

The gemara contrasts Moshe’s prophecy as being as though he saw through an “aspqalaria hame’irah”, while those of other prophets was as through an “aspaqlaria she’einah me’irah”. Similarly levels of wisdom between the earlier generations and the later are likened to the “aspqalaria hame’irah” and “aspaqlaria she’einah me’irah”. Last, the gemara uses this contrast to describe different levels of experiencing the Divine Presence amongst the deceased in heaven.

The Arukh defines “aspaqlaria” as lapis specularis, a relatively transparent mineral used in ancient times for windows. It’s a loan word whose root is the same as the English “spectacles” or “spectator” — to see.

According to Rashi (Sukkah 45b) the “me’irah” here refers to a mirror. However, that could be a lens that is as clear as a mirror, or a mirror itself.

The rishonim on Keilim 30:2 (the Bartenura, Tif’eres Yisrael and Tosafos Yom Tov) define the aspaqlaria to be a mirror, and “hame’irah” would be “well lit”. A translation of “mei’rah” that is appropriate if it means “window” as well. A clear view vs. a murky view.

In Yaaqov’s dream, a ladder ascended from the ground to heaven. In Or Yisrael, R’ Yisrael Salanter explains that the ladder was Yaaqov’s own soul. As R’ Chaim Vilozhiner writes in Nefesh haChaim (1:6 and elsewhere), of all of creation, only man is a combination of all the forces; man alone connects the worlds.An idea found in Seifer haYetzirah which thereby influences Jewish Thought from R’ Saadia Gaon’s rationist philosophy (Emunos veDei’os sec.6) to the Zohar is that the self is composed of three elements/aspects/attributes of the soul: nefesh, ru’ach and neshamah. (Another topic that deserves much future treatment.)

As the Vilna Gaon describes them (Peirush al Kamah Agados, Koenigsburg ed. 11a), the nefesh is man’s connection to the world around him, a product of his soul dwelling in a brain, subject to hormonal tides, etc… The ru’ach is man’s will, his self-awareness, the ability to live in the world of the mind. The neshamah is man’s existance in the spiritual realm, our presence in heaven, higher realities and higher goals.

The hedonist identifies with the pursuit of physical pleasures. His ru’ach is adulterated with habits of the nefesh, so that he only sees himself as a an animal being subject to the rules of nature.

There is no reason why one could not bring the neshamah into conscious awareness. Someone could drop the barrier between what he experiences on a spiritual level and his awareness.

One way of understanding the navi is just that. And this was the model I had in mind when speaking of the aspaqlaria as a mirror. The navi, by being able to see his full self, can see beyond the physical world and the world of his mind, can see the activities of angels.

(Another element of this shift in awareness is a shift from living in a reality dictated by physical law to one dominated by moral law. Rav Dessler uses this idea to explain a notion of the Maharal’s about the nature of miracles. See my Machashavah Techilah column for parashas Beshalach.)

The Rambam’s understanding of that mishnah could be either; the Tif’eres Yisra’el’s understanding is that he says it’s a mirror, the Tosafos Yom Tov understands the Rambam to translate “aspaqlaria” as “lens”. Rabbi Bulman zt”l documents the linguistic and scientific roots of the disagreement.

The difference in the metaphor is profound. Is the means to prophecy and wisdom a lens to help us see a higher realm, or a mirror that helps us better see ourselves?

This touches on two topics I’ve written about before: First the hashkafic fork, as R’ YG Bechhofer put it, between the chassid’s focus on deveikus, on cleaving to G-d, and the misnageid’s notion of the primacy of temimus, self perfection. See also my Machshavah Techilah column for Lekh-Likha which finds this dichotomy in Hashem’s injuction to Avraham that he “his-haleikh lefanai veheyei samim — walk himself before Me, and be whole.”

Second, there is a debate between the Ramban and the Abarbanel’s unserstanding of the Rambam as to the nature of prophecy. According to the Ramban, the prophetic experience is the transmission of a truth to the prophet using a dreamlike metaphor as a medium. The Abarbanel explains the Rambam as saying that the prophet peceives events actually occuring in higher realms, which his mind then clothes in the familiar when trying to make sense of it. This goes to the root of what was the “Man” in the chariot in Yechezqeil’s vision. According to the Rambam, it had to be a created thing. According to the Ramban, the Man was a metaphor standing in for Hashem Yisbarakh. Again, this was discussed in a Machshavah Techilah column, this one for Mishpatim.

In Yaaqov’s dream, a ladder ascended from the ground to heaven. In Or Yisrael, R’ Yisrael Salanter explains that the ladder was Yaaqov’s own soul. As R’ Chaim Vilozhiner writes in Nefesh haChaim (1:6 and elsewhere), of all of creation, only man is a combination of all the forces; man alone connects the worlds.An idea found in Seifer haYetzirah which thereby influences Jewish Thought from R’ Saadia Gaon’s rationist philosophy (Emunos veDei’os sec.6) to the Zohar is that the self is composed of three elements/aspects/attributes of the soul: nefesh, ru’ach and neshamah. (Another topic that deserves much future treatment.)

As the Vilna Gaon describes them (Peirush al Kamah Agados, Koenigsburg ed. 11a), the nefesh is man’s connection to the world around him, a product of his soul dwelling in a brain, subject to hormonal tides, etc… The ru’ach is man’s will, his self-awareness, the ability to live in the world of the mind. The neshamah is man’s existance in the spiritual realm, our presence in heaven, higher realities and higher goals.

The hedonist identifies with the pursuit of physical pleasures. His ru’ach is adulterated with habits of the nefesh, so that he only sees himself as a an animal being subject to the rules of nature.

There is no reason why one could not bring the neshamah into conscious awareness. Someone could drop the barrier between what he experiences on a spiritual level and his awareness.

One way of understanding the navi is just that. And this was the model I had in mind when speaking of the aspaqlaria as a mirror. The navi, by being able to see his full self, can see beyond the physical world and the world of his mind, can see the activities of angels.

These topics are only being touched upon. They ought get a more full treatment in their own entries.

The Fall of Mimeticism and Forks in the Hashkafic Road

In a famous article in Tradition titled “Rupture and Reconstruction“, Dr Haym Soloveitchik describes a change in how we relate to Judaism from pre-war Europe to post-war US and Israel. The rupture in Jewish life caused by the Holocaust forced a reconstruction process. Pre-war religion was largely mimetic, i.e. based upon what people do and how they respond. A transmission of the tradition by culture. In order to reconstruct, we turned to texts, to halachic codes and other formalizations.This fits with a saying of Chazal. “‘Listen, my child, to mussar avicha — the tradition of your father, and do not neglect toras imekha — the Torah of your mother.’ Do not read ‘imekha — your mother’ but ‘umasekha — your nation’.” Mandatory formal education is an obligation of the father, mussar avikha. The Torah learned by absorbtion, at the mother’s knee, by breathing the culture of our nation, is toras imekha / umasekha.I find this characterization ironic, given the identity of the author. His greatgrandfather and namesake, R’ Chaim Brisker, was famously textualist in his approach to halakhah despite living pre-war. Nor was Brisk the first: the Vilna Gaon often ruled based on theoretical argument in contradiction to mimetic tradition. Chassidus could not have emerged if people weren’t looking at the traditions and looking for a new justification for them.

And this isn’t simply true pragmatically. Philosophically as well, we started looking for movements to justify our lifestyle. The aforementioned Chassidus, Hisnagdus, Mussar, Hirschian neo-Orthodoxy were all trying to provide a basis rather than relying on Tradition, as Tevya the Milkman would have.

In distinction to Dr Soloveitchik’s thesis, I would instead speak of two ruptures. The first was the Haskalah, and with it the fall of mimeticism. However, the response to this in the 19th century was primarily to find new derakhim to give depth and meaning to our lives. (This is even true for Brisk’s hashkafah that halachah stands on its own, and hashkafah is to be played down, and the Hungarian approach of banning change. Asserting that structure must come from halakhah, or that one must manually preserve that which was hitherto part of the Jewish preconscious, are themselves textualist, formal changes.)

The Alter of Novorodok, in the first essay of Madreigas haAdam, speaks of various eras in human history. From the tanna’im until the haskalah was the period of the yeshiva. With the haskalah, the ir, the city, went out of sync with the yeshiva. Therefore there was a new need for Mussar, for the conscious inculcation of those values and reactions that until then would have been transmitted unsconsciously. In our terms, toras umasekha no longer tracked mussar avikha. It now had to relayed textually and formally, in the manner of mussar avikha.

It was therefore after the haskalah that the Ashkenazi world faced a fork in the hashkafic road, between sheleimus (self-completion, walking in G-d’s image) and deveiqus (cleaving to G-d, walking to Him).

The shift after the Holocaust was, in my opinion, the loss of direction. Rather than trying to fill in the gap with a formal philosophy or a program for tikkun hamidos and/or deveiqus, we’re just in a vacuum. We’re not just textualists, we’re focused almost exclusively on halachic texts. Aggadita is limited to nice truisms that can be repeated at the Shabbos table. And ironically that gives us fewer tools for halachic resolution. How does one decide which pesaq is right amongst those justified by the sources without focusing on a pre-halachic definition of “right”? And so we “play safe” or invoke the rules of doubt. A 19th century Chassid had a priority system by which his poseiq could decide which issues warrant chumrah, which qulah.

Uncoinicidentally, it was after WWII that Rav Dessler said we need to pursue a fusion of the two paths. That our generation is too poor to select Mussar or Chassidus (being the movements that extended sheleimus and deveiqus to their maxima) exclusively, that we need all the tools at our disposal.

Other Tines on the Fork

The hashkafic fork in the road that I’ve been referring to repeatedly has two approaches: sheleimus / temimus, the perfection of the self, and deveikus, cleaving to G-d. If you’d like, derekh Hashem as following the path G-d takes, and derekh Hashem as taking the path to G-d.Within Chassidus, one finds Chabad, acheiving deveikus through wisdom, insight and knowledge, and other forms of chassidus which focus more experientially. As Lubavitch calls them, Gachas chassidim. This is after the next three sefiros after Chabad: gevurah (strength and restraint), chessed (kindness and giving), and tife’eres (the splendor of their harmony.Within the sheleimus camp there are numerous approaches: Hirsch’s synthesis of Torah and derekh eretz, i.e. working within the world and advancing society in Torah ways, being a pefect Mensch-Israel; Mussar’s perfection of personality; the Yeshiva world’s perfection of mind through knowing G-d’s Torah, etc…

Other possibilities exist and similarly could have become movements.

The Ramchal’s position is a fusion of the two. In Derekh Hashem he writes that the ultimate reward is G-d Himself, and therefore man’s goal is one of deveikus. However, since G-d Himself is a Creator, to experience G-d Himself we need the experience of being creative beings, to earn our reward. Thus, Hashem created two worlds, this one in which we perfect ourselves, temimus, and the world to come in which we experience deveikus.

However, the Ramchal’s definition of temimus is entirely shaped by the fact that the point of that temimus is to be a being capable of as much deveikus as possible. Which is why he writes Mesilas Yesharim as structured around R’ Pinchas ben Ya’ir’s ladder to ru’ach haqodesh. His temimus is about a totally different set of midos than those in Cheshbon haNefesh or Orechos Tzadiqim. It’s a path that’s fully defined by both tines of the fork.

This might be why the Ramchal’s philosophy is so popular today, being most like the “default position” most Orthodox-from-birth Jews pick up in their childhood.

A fourth option is common in some Orthodox academic circles. Note that Hashem doesn’t enter into a beris with us as individuals; the covenant is between G-d and the Jewish people. Therefore the role of mitzvos is not personal wholeness or personal closeness to G-d, but our part within the role of the Jewish people in the world.

This approach has the advantage of only requiring that mitzvos make sense as norms, not for each individual to which they apply. Gender differences don’t have to fit every man and every woman, but can be explained in terms of the value to the Jewish People of having this standard, given propensities amongst men and women as a whole.

Last, if we look at the second mishnah in Avos, we find three pillars: Torah, Avodah and Gemillus Chassadim. Or, as the Maharal puts it (Derech haChaim ad loc): perfection of one’s relationship with oneself within the world that is our minds (Torah), perfection of our relationship with G-d within Shamayim (Avodah), and perfection of our relationship to others who we encounted in the physical world (Chessed).

The deveikus approach seems to say that one can make Avodah primary, and from that everything else will follow. The temimus approach makes Torah (as the Maharal explains it) primary, and a perfect self naturally will be one that serves Hashem and is generous to others. However, what about a chessed centered Judaism? It sounds to be Hillel’s message, when he says to the prospective convert that all of the Torah is “that which is disturbing to you, do not do to others — the rest is commentary.”

When I noted the lack of such a movement on Avodah, Rn Chana Luntz suggested that perhaps the Beis Yaakov movement is founded on this principle. It seems so.

Emunah Peshutah vs Machashavah

A basic problem when approaching Jewish philosophy is the appropriateness of studying it altogether. As Prof. Sholom Carmy wrote on Avodah:

The people who keep insisting that it’s necessary to prove things about G-d, including His existence, seem to take it for granted that devising these proofs is identical with knowing G-d.
Now if I know a human being personally the last thing I’d do, except as a purely intellectual exercise, is prove his or her existence.

Focusing on the Philosopher’s G-d makes it difficult to see the Personal G-d. On the other hand, without theology, our picture of G-d is blurry, and often wrong.

So the question is, what is the appropriate balance between the two?

I found a variety of opinions:

1- The Rambam seems to belittle emunah peshutah. Yedi’ah is the key to olam haba. The hoi palloi may have to settle for the vague approximation of emunah peshutah, but the philosopher’s machshavah amuqah is superior.

2- The Baal haTanya invokes a mystical resolution. The conflict is a function of pursuing machshavah amuqah from a source other than the Yechidah Kelalis. (The one sage each generation who is like “Moshe in his generation”.) Through the unity of the national soul’s yechidah, a single view of G-d emerges even at both planes of existance.

3- At the other extreme, Rav Nachman miBreslov discouraged the study of theology, placing all value on having a relationship with HaQadosh barukh Hu. The philosopher’s G-d, while logically sound, is cold, transcendent and incomprehensible — very unconducive to this natural parent-child style relationship which is at the center of his definition of “deveiqus” and man’s tafqid.

4- The Brisker approach is to avoid the whole subject. As Rav Moshe Feinstein put it, it’s a hashkafah of not studying hashkafah. It differs from Rav Nachman’s position not so much in that they feel it’s wrong, but that it’s pointless. The ikkar is learning halakhah and man’s duty in this world.

R’ YB Soloveitchik puts forth this position in his essary Qol Dodi Dofeiq: The Jewish question [of tragedy] is not “Why?” but “How am I supposed to respond?” Rabbi Soloveitchik simply wasn’t curious about theological questions. His philosophy has an existentialist agenda. It doesn’t deal with questions of how G-d is or how He runs the world, but rather he presents a detailed analysis of the human condition and the world as we see it. Because our dilemma is part of the human condition, he discusses it as a dialectic. Rabbi Soloveitchik has no problem with the idea that we simultaneously embrace conflicting truths. However, he leaves little record of his own personal confrontation with the tension of this particular dialectic. I believe it’s his Brisker heritage.

The problem with positions 3 and 4 is that they do not have the support of either the scholastic rishonim (eg: Rav Saadia Ga’on, the Rambam, R’ Albo), the antischolastic rishonim (eg: R’ Yehudah haLevi), the kabbalistically inclined (eg: the Ramban), nor the Ramchal, the Besh”t, the Gra, R’ Chaim Vilozhiner… Their nature is that only an explicit discussion of our particular problem would turn up antecedents. One can’t argue from silence that some rishon agreed with them because perhaps he simply chose to commit his time to publishing in other areas.

5- When thinking about this further I realized that I assumed a different stance when writing AishDas’s charter. I think it warrants mention because I believe it’s the position of the Mussar Movement. It reflects the approach I see utilized by Rav Dessler in Michtav MeiEliyahu.

R’ Lopian defines mussar as dealing with the space of an amah — getting ideas from the mind to the heart. We often think things that don’t reflect how we feel and many of the forces that influence our decision-making. Akin to RYBS’s dialectic, we embrace different ideas and motives in different modes of our consciousness.

As for our contradiction, the question is one of finding unity between mind and its ability to understand and explain, to philosophize about G-d and His governance of the universe, and the heart and how we feel and react toward Him.

Emunah, bitachon, ahavas Hashem, yir’as Hashem, etc… are middos. They are not acquired directly through study, but through the tools of tiqun hamidos. (With the observation that constant return to a subject operates on both levels.) There is a reason why the kiruv movement is built on the experience of a Shabbos, and not some ultimate proof of G-d. (Aish haTorah’s “Discovery” program, the only counter-example that came to mind, is intended to be a hook, to pique people’s interest to get them to that Shabbos, not kiruv itself.)

Rather than seeing this as a dilemma, I saw it as a need. We can embrace both because each involves a very different component of self. And since avodah must be bekhol nafshekha, we actually MUST study both machshavah and mussar. Meaningful avodas Hashem must require involvement of both mind and heart.

The Troubles of Relativism

Science has proven a fundamental boon in comtemporary culture. To the extent that the word “fact” has taken on two meanings: a single true idea, and something which can be verified experimentally. Thus blurring the reality, the truth, of the non-empirical. What can’t be proven to others is presumed to be less true, or “true for him” — the one who had the experience — alone.As an Orthodox Jew, I believe in an absolute Truth. G-d exists, whether or not I can prove the fact experimentally or even if I can’t prove it in any way shape or form. That’s an absolute truth, not simply true for me.Similarly, the existance of my mind: either I have a mind or I don’t. The fact that I can never share my mental life with another person doesn’t change that. Artificial Intelligence experts tend to discuss the “Turing Test”. The idea is that rather than create a computer that has a mind, if we can create a computer whose output can’t be distinguished from a person’s, we have succeeded. That would be in itself an admirable acheivement. However, it must not be confused with the original goal of actually creating an intelligence. Yes, I can only assume that other people are like me and have minds based on their behavior. Yes, there is no way to disprove sollipsism. But still, there either is a mind or there isn’t. The unanswerability of the question doesn’t make the answer less real. Just less knowable.There’s a saying that the scientist is climbing a cliff, and someday he will reach the top only to find the theologian is already there. I read in an e-zine the suggestion that he would then continue his climb, confusing the theologian with being more cliff, only to find nothing. I think we’ve had so much success with our hammers that we’ve denied the reality of everything but nails.

There is also an absolute moral standard. People may be more or less aware of this standard, but there is one “out there”. People deal with maps of the terrain, some maps closer to reality, some further. Again, I may not be able to prove which is closer, but that doesn’t make the terrain less real.

Moral relativism is really a lack of belief in the reality of any moral position. Uncertainty parading as virtue.

As Orthodox Jews, we should resist the current tendency in language toward relativism. The dictionary defines a fact as an item of truth. If people do not also use it to mean “an fact that was demonstrated experimentally” they keep their own thoughts clearer, as well as slow the pace of society’s drift.

(This entry is not really an end in itself. It’s a prelude to one on “Rights and Duties” and another on “Psychology and Mussar”.)

Psychology and Mussar

The story so far from the previous two entries:
Contemporary western society puts its trust in science to the extent that things outside its domain are assumed to have a lesser reality. The current stance toward morality is therefore one of uncertainty, which is paraded as the virtues of tolerance and relativism. It also means that instead of lauding free will as the ability to choose to be good, the west values it as an end in itself. There is no common moral code, since morality is perceived as only “true for” a given person, not absolutely real the way gravity is. This then translates into America’s oft-copied rights-based legal system, one in which the law’s only goal is protecting rights, rather than one based on duties to serve a higher goal.This disbelief in an absolute moral standard also shapes the self-help and psychology industries. The American Psychiatric Association’s DSM IV is a guide to diagnosing mental illness. Its definition of illness is that which interferes with the person’s function. IOW, the goal of psychology is to help a person gain the internal freedom to be what they desire to be. Not to align those desires to some particular, more productive goal.The following is from my notes taken of R’ Ephraim Becker’s lecture at the Mussar Kallah in Houston (2-May-04).

Self-help addresses (1) loss of productivity; and (2) personal pain. In Torah (including Mussar) we’d call these yisurim (trevails). But Mussar wouldn’t want you to attack yisurim. Yisurim are triggers, part of the solution. They aren’t the things that need changing, they are causes to get up and change something. Mussar adds to self-help the notion of duty. One doesn’t try to eliminate yisurim, but their causes — which reside in flaws in our ability to carry out our mission.

Self-help, tries to eliminate the bumps in life’s paths, eliminate the restrictions of one’s autonomy. Mussar, being about growth as a Jew, sees them as tools.

One presumes that the person is his own best moral guidepost, and therefore the unwanted in one’s life is certainly appropriate to eliminate. The other is based on the idea that the Torah describes for us an absolute objective morality. It’s our job to study that terrain and live by ever-improving maps of it as we learn more over time. Problems in our lives wake us up to inconsistencies in that map.

Miriam Adahan’s EMETT is “Emotional Maturity Established Through Torah”. Its goal is not to find the Torah’s definition of the emotional ideal. It’s to help someone with a Torah-based lifestyle find “emotional maturity”. The goal is defined by the zeitgeist, as are nearly all of her tools (despite the words “established through Torah” in the acronym). Similarly, Rabbi Avraham Twersky’s variant of the 12-Step approach is self-help, not Mussar.

I don’t see this as an inherently negative goal. The self-help movement is to my mind a positive thing. But it’s not Mussar. In both cases of the Orthodox writers I named, they believe in the Torah ideal, that there is an absolute goal to which one should be working. However, they keep it distinct from their psychological advice. (With the exception of citing traditional Jewish texts to make their points.) The approach is more that one first strives through self-help and psychology to be a fully productive being, then one applies that increased productivity to being a good and happy Jew.

Mussar is truly a synthesis — fully religion and fully psychology. It’s not psychology as a precursor to being able to live a religious life, but shaping oneself into an eved Hashem. Mussar is the approach to Judaism in which the self-improvement is a defining feature of the Judaism. Inseparable. One is improving oneself not simply in order to be able to reach the spiritual goal, but because that very goal is to constantly “shteig” (Yiddish: climb) as they’d say in Slabodko.

(Because of this relationship, it’s possible for Mussar to use self-help techniques — and still pursuing a distinctly different goal. R’ Leffin of Satanov can adapt Benjamin Franklin’s diaries to produce Cheshbon Hanefesh, and perhaps Rav Dessler’s notes on tolerance are based on a Reader’s Digest version of “How to Win Friends and Influence people” by Dale Carnegie. But they were put into drastically different use. Not merely “how to win friends” but how to embody gemillus chassidim (supporting kindness) and mitzvos bein adam lachaveiro (mitzvos between a person and his peer). Even the very title, giving it a value in aiding you produce (“winning friends” “influencing people”) rather than a moral goal, speaks volumes about the difference between self-help and mussar.

Psychology is internal work. Without an anchor in an external value system, its goals tend toward the narcissistic. Mussar is entirely about living in step with the true moral terrain of creation. Therefore, while it too is internal work, it doesn’t end there. The shteiging is to improve relationships that bridge outward from you by improving the one thing in your control – yourself.

Very existentialist. The ideal is to be striving for the ideal. The constant process of becoming, rather than to statically be.

The Kuzari Proof, part I

[I later found I had a more formal presentation of this idea in Mesukim MiDevash for Yisro.
This post was updated Apr 18, 2007, with a quote of Luis Ginsberg taken from Hirhurim.]

Rav Yehudah Halevi makes a statement in The Kuzari which is usually taught as follows: No one could invent a story that alleges all of the target’s audience’s ancestors experienced some miraculous or otherwise special event. It is implausible that a lie could be consistently retold by millions. And, the audience’s reaction would be one of disbelief, “Why does he know all about this event, and we never heard of it before from our grandparents?”Since Judaism uniquely makes claims of national miracles and national revelations, events with audiences of millions who are the ancestors of nearly all of the target audience (excepting geirim) this gives Judaism a unique claim to authenticity. The commonality of the story amongst so many and the acceptance of the story by their descendents is unique. (In contrast, Jesus’s alleged miracles were only said to be witnessed by at most the 500 attendees of the wedding at Cana, and the target audience isn’t primarily the descendents of those guests.)

I do not believe this is the Kuzari’s point. But for what it’s worth, this argument is flawed for two reasons:

First, there are counterexamples, other cultures that had myths about their origins that they all believed. For example, the Theban origins myth.

Second, and this may explain how the counterexamples emerged, the assumption is made that the claim is made out of the blue, in a single stroke. It doesn’t account for gradual acceptance of a story. Say something starts out as a myth about a subset of the people, and it’s known to be a bed-time story. The next generation it’s “some say”. Over several generations, it can become “official history” about everyone, with no one generation expressing the disbelief that is critical to this argument.

The reason why I doubt that this is Rav Yehudah haLevi’s intent is because he had the king already approach a philosopher as well as a Christian Scholast, and the king already rejected philosophical proof as unconvincing. The Rabbi provides as a counterpoint to his statement (Kuzari I, par 13), “The Rabbi: That which you describe is religion based on speculation and system, the research of thought, but open to many doubts. Now ask the philosophers, and you will find that they do not agree on one action or one principle, since some doctrines can be established by arguments, which are only partially satisfactory, and still much less capable of being proved.”

In other words, the Rabbi’s basis for belief is not one based on “speculation and system”. It’s not philosophical proof. Reducing his words to an argument of the style described above defeats the whole point Rav Yehudah haLevi is trying to make! As he later writes (par 63), “There is an excuse for the Philosophers. Being Grecians, science and religion did not come to them as inheritances.”

The Kuzari can be seen as a response to Rav Saadia Gaon’s “Emunos veDei’os”, “The Guide for the Perplexed”, “The Ikkarim” and other such philosophical text. Rav Yehudah haLevi rejected the entire tendency of placing Jewish belief on Greek Philosophical underpinnings.

Instead, he says that Judaism is unquestionable for the Jew because it is our heritage.

What is being mistaken for the above proof is the Rabbi’s argument to the king, who didn’t yet accept this heritage as his own, and needs to assess that entire choice. But not the approach advocated for a Jew.

I see a kindred — but still very different — approach in existential thought.

One of my signature files, the only one that’s a self-quote, reads, “The mind is a wonderful organ for justifying decisions the heart already reached.” This echoes the King of the Kazar’s objection, that for any philosophical position justified by argument, there are conflicting opinions whose adherents claim equally valid arguments.

The Kiruv Movement is not founded on philosophical dispute. The most effective kiruv tool is the experience of a Shabbos. People do not accept the proofs of G-d and the Divine origin of the Torah and halakhah and therefore keep Shabbos. Rather, they experience Shabbos, get first-hand experience of the power of halakhah, and based on that believe in the authenticity of the Torah and its own claims about its origin.

In addition to the experience of performing mitzvos, Torah study too has this defining characteristic. Torah has an elegance one finds in the most “beautiful” of mathematical proofs despite tackling concepts far less simply defined. A discussion of the laws of theft could explain a seemingly unrelated point in the laws of Shabbos with a single theory (sevarah) uniting both.

I should be clear that I’m not speaking of the emotional reaction of liking Shabbos. Rather the experience of Shabbos, the first-hand but internal to the mind qualia of Shabbos, that that reaction is based upon. It is as real and as objective as the experience seeing a ball. And just as I unquestioningly accept that a ball is red if I see that it’s red. I similarly accept the reality of Shabbos.

To extend this metaphor: What if many of us see the ball as red, but others, perhaps even a far larger group, insist they see it and it’s blue? Would their claims shake my faith in my own group’s perception, or would I trust my own eyes? (Assuming they work in general.) Why would the claims of another faith community (even the community whose faith is agnosticism or atheism) shake my belief in Torah?

Torah is based on first-hand experience of Torah, not on its “principles of faith”. My belief in those principles is because they explain that which was experienced, not the other way around.

Rabbi Prof. Shalom Carmy posted something similar to Avodah:

People who throw around big words on these subjects always seem to take for granted things that I don’t.

The people who keep insisting that it’s necessary to prove things about G-d, including His existence, seem to take it for granted that devising these proofs is identical with knowing G-d.

Now if I know a human being personally the last thing I’d do, except as a purely intellectual exercise, is prove his or her existence.

R’ Gil Student posted the following quote from Louis Jacobs, We Have Reason to Believe, pp. 25-26, 28-30 on Hirhurim:

Since Kant, these proofs [of God’s existence] have been heavily assailed…. Many theologians, nowadays, accept the validity of these refutations and admit that there can be no proof of God in the sense that there can be no proof of a mathematical formula… But they go on to remark that we can be convinced of a thing beyond of a shadow of a doubt by means other than that of mathematical proof. There is no such proof, for instance, of the existence of other human beings beside ourselves, yet we are convinced that they do exist… In other words a distinction must be drawn between proof and conviction — proof is one of the ways to conviction but there are other ways, too…

Many have arrived at this conviction as the result of a personal experience which convinces them that God exists. These men would rule out of court the very discussion of whether God exists, for, they would say, if a man is truly in love he does not ask himself if he is in love. The experience of God’s Presence is sufficient…

Other thinkers, again, hold that though each of the traditional proofs in itself is unconvincing, taken together they are convincing… Granted that the proofs carry no weight as evidence, they are indications and as such have the power of supplementing each other…

What it all amounts to is this, that while the existence of God cannot be proved if we start from the beginning, none of us do, in fact, start from the beginning. We are presented with two alternative beliefs about the ultimate reality and we have to choose between them. According to one view God exists–it is He Who created us, Who fashioned our minds and implanted the moral sense within us so that we are capable of recognising beauty, truth and goodness and fighting ugliness, falsehood and evil. In this view the difficulty is how to account for the existence of evil. According to the other view there is no God… In this view the difficulties are how mind came from matter, how life emerged where there was no life before, how the universe itself came into being, how the good is possible of realisation and how man came to strive for it–how man as a tiny part of the universe came to pass judgment on it?

Judaism neither stands on proof nor ought to be about proof. (In this approach. Obviously R’ Saadia Gaon et al disagreed.) Rather, it stands on our having a relationship with Hashem and His Torah.

This goes back to my position, described in the entry “Emunah Peshutah vs Machashavah“, that emunah is not an intellectual indeavor, but a middah. Emunah is the response to an experience, machshavah is the development of a philosophy based on that emunah to give it enough detail to add further meaning to that experience, aid in decision making, etc…

It also presumes that someone takes experience of the non-empirical to be as strong of an argument as those of the empirical world. A conclusion implied by the first part of “The Troubles of Relativism“.

The Kuzari Proof, part II

All proofs require first principles. A proof starts with givens, postulates, and derives a conclusion from them. Regardless of how sound the proof, the conclusion could never be more solid than those givens. In other words, if I want someone to accept my rigorous proof of G-d’s existance, they must first accept all my givens, as well as the validity of each of my implications. Making a proof more rigorous will involve spelling out more givens and more deductive steps. Ironically, getting someone to accept the more rigorous proof requires that the person start out agreeing with more of your perspective, not less.We could ask someone to experience Z and therefore believe Z. Or, to agree that he has grounds from experience to accept X and Y — and don’t X and Y combined imply Z? But if he doesn’t accept X as a given? Well, we can prove X from T and U, and Y from V and W. There is an infinite regress possible, continually trying to prove our first princples. Getting to ever more self-evident statements.Perhaps this is why in practice we are more moved by the experience of a Shabbos than by an argument proving its Divine origin. Even if we accept the argument, we know how many givens we’re not bothering to question. And every once in a while the mind speaks up “But what if…?” There are so many more “if”s to wonder about than if someone builds his faith on his shemiras hamitzvos.

But at some point we rely on postulates, things that are so in consonant with our experience, generalizations from our experience, or things we learned from reliable sources that we don’t require proving. Even in a proof, there is where we begin our proof.

The deeper faith is one in which the principles of Judaism are postulates, not theorems that require proving. If we can, after the fact, gain greater appreciation for them through proof, or understand their implications, connotations are less fundamental details by giving them philosophical treatment, great.

This is what I meant when I wrote that while there is an obligation to engage in machashavah amuqah, emunah itself is a middah — an attitude, not the product of that deliberation.

Just as we rely on information from our senses and generalizations from them to produce postulates about which we reason, we can also rely on mental experience. Einstein’s heavy use of thought-experiments is one example. So is our acceptance of Euclid’s posulate about parallel lines — despite the impossibility of parallel lines of infinite length ever really existing.

Yes, people convince themselves that they had experiences they did not. They can confuse the line between the experience itself and their judgement of it (liking or disliking it, etc…) This is true of mental experiences as well as sensory impressions. We color our memories, often quite profoundly, but we don’t go through life questioning conclusions based on what we recall. Simply, we trust ourselves, particularly after repeated experience. We develop a fear of falling well before we learn anything formal or rigorous about gravity. Why shouldn’t religion be accepted on the same terms?

Proofs have a role in deepening understanding — after the basic principles have been accepted. This is why the Kuzari has much to say philosophically, as long as one’s belief is not on philosophical foundations.

The rejection of deriving Judaism philosophically is not only Rav Yehudah haLevi’s approach. It’s also a central feature of R’ Chasdai Crescas’s objection to the Rambam in Or Hashem.

A final note about other faith communities and their experiences: It’s not really my problem. I shouldn’t need to be able to validate my experiences in the eyes of others before accepting them myself. After reaching that point, I can use philosophy to try to understand questions like this one. Just as the Kuzari does. After invoking the superiority of tradition over philosophical proof, the rabbi does offer rationals. But only after.

Argument by Design ver. 4.0

Ver 1.0:Medrash Temurah:

“G-d created” (Gen. 1:1): A hereic came to Rabbi Aqiva and asked, “Who made the universe?”. Rabbi Aqiva answered, “Haqadosh barukh Hu“. The heretic said, “Prove it to me.” Rabbi Aqiva said, “Come to me tomorrow”.
When the heretic returned, Rabbi Aqiva asked, “What is that you are wearing?”
“A garment”, the unbeliever replied.
“Who made it?”
“A weaver.”
“Prove it to me.”
“What do you mean? How can I prove it to you? Here is the garment, how can you not know that a weaver made it?”
Rabbi Akiva said, “And here is the world; how can you not know that Haqadosh barukh Hu made it?”
After the hereitc left, Rabbi Aqiva’s students asked him, “But what is the proof?” He said, “Even as a house proclaims its builder,a garment its weaver or a door its carpenter, so does the world proclaim the Holy Blessed One Who created it.

One can argue that Rabbi Aqiva’s students realized that his proof was far from rigorous. His reply revolves around giving a parable to make the conclusion self-evident. Not contructing a deductive argument.

Ver 2.0:

The Rambam’s version of the proof in Moreh Nevuchim II invokes the Aristotilian notions of form and substance. We find that without an intellect giving the process a desired end product, natural processes reduce forms from functional to non-functional. People make objects out of metal, nature takes the substance and eventually turns it into a useless lump of rust.

Therefore, the notion of an infinitely old universe is untenable. In an infinite amount of time, all functional forms would have disintegrated.

Ver 3.0:

This is roughly the same argument as the Rambam’s, brought up to date with 19th century thermodynamics. Rather than speaking of functional forms, we recast the question into one of a lack of entropy.

All processes require an increase of entropy. Entropy is simply a fancy word for what boils down to randomness in the small scale. A visible state has more entropy if its molecules are more random. When you spill a drop of ink into water, the ink spreads until it’s all a light blue liquid. Entropy increased. In microscopic terms, the molecules of ink and water started out nearly ordered, with all the ink in one spot at the surface of the water, and ended up an even random mixture of ink and water molecules.

Given an infinitely old universe, entropy would be at a maximum. All of existance would be a thin mixture of nuclear particles, or perhaps hydrogen atoms.

The requirement that entropy increase does not rule out evolution. Entropy could be decreased in the order and design of living beings at the expense of increased randomness elsewhere, say in the arrangement of molecules in the air, or of energy or even a thin stream of atmosphere leaking off the earth. If the increase in entropy offsets the decrease inherent in life, the ledgers are okay.

ver 3.5

In the 20th century science accepted the notion of the Big Bang, and finally realized the universe has a finite age. The challenge shifted from proving the universe has a finite age to proving that the origin shows intent.

The entropy version of the argument can make the transition. By definition, low entropy states are unlikely ones. In fact, Roger Penrose in The Emperor’s New Mind computes just how unlikely. Given the current estimate of 1060 nuclear particles in the universe, the probability of the universe begining in a low entropy state is 1010123. That’s a number so huge, it has 10123 zeros in it!

To assume that the universe shot odds that long is irrational. Clearly the moment of origin wasn’t random, and statistics isn’t a meaningful way to model it.

ver 4.0

However, using information theory we can raise questions about the existance of ordered items, from atoms to stars and solar systems to the evolution of life.

Much has been made of the notion of “irreducible complexity“, introduced by Michael Behe, a biochemist. If some living system requires multiple parts, each of which serve no purpose alone, how did the system evolve? How can the mutations that produce part A be coordinated with those that produce part B? He therefore argued that evolution demonstrates intelligent design, that there is a Designer who is loading the dice, doing that coordination base on his desired end goal.

However, there is also a standard reply. Perhaps the organism had an A’ that was part of a different function, and a B’ used either for this function on its own, or in a third system. Then, as A’ and B’ shifted to make this new system, the new system made the old functions obsolete (e.g. there’s a new means of locomotion, and now the fins are redundant) and A and B emerged to more simply address the new, more efficient, method of solving the need.

Chalmers definition of “information” (as opposed to Claud Shannon’s earlier definition, still used in telecommunication) makes a distinction between two kinds of unpredictability: information and noise.

Take a stream of information. Fortunately people today are pretty well exposed to the notion that any such stream can be transmitted as a sequence of ones and zeros. If there are patterns in that sequence, we can reduce them by simply describing the pattern rather than sending each one. A message that is composed of 10101010… for 1 million bits (spots that could be either 1 or 0) can be sent quite concisely, as something representing (“10″ repeat a million times). One needn’t send 2 million bits to do it. Even if certain sequences of bits are more frequent (such as that representing the word “However” in one of my postings) we can give them a shorthand and sent the sequence in fewer bits. This is how information is compressed in zip files or the advertised 5x speed enhancement on dial up connections. Claude Shannon, the father of Information Theory, defined information in a message as the minimum number of bits (spots that could be either 1 or 0) with which it could be represented. Therefore randomness, which can not be reduced to a description of an algorithm, contains the most information.

John von Neumann, in his seminal speeches on Automata Theory (published as a book in the 1950s), spoke about the information content inherent in a machine. You can compare two machines by looking at the number of bits it would take to describe them. If the machine has fewer parts, it will require fewer bits. Similarly if the parts are simpler. Also, if the parts do not require the same precision in order for the machine to work, one can describe them in fewer bits. von Neumann found that machines below a certain information threashold can only make machines simpler than themselves.

These automata, this interacting collections of parts, is Behe’s irreducibly complex system presented in other terms. And von Neumann usefully gives us a method for measuring them.

As opposed to Claude Shannon’s definition of “information”, G J Chaitin launched a feild called “algorithmic information theory” that gives a generalized version of von Neuman’s measure to define “information”. Randomness comes in two sorts: information that is useful to the message, and noise, the static that garbles it. Information is only that which is necessary to describe the message to the precision necessary to reproduce what it describes.

So how did complex automata, such as life, emerge? Invoking the roll of randomness and evolution, von Neumann argues that proto-life (or the proto-solar system) did not produce the information in the resulting system itself. Information came in from the outside.

That outside information is provided by evolution involves two basic steps: the introduction of mutations, and the filtering process of which mutations survive. Yes, mutations add randomness and Shannon-information to the system. But why would that randomness be Chaitin-information rather than noise? In fact the leading cause of the static on your radio is the very source of many of the mutations that evolution requires — cosmic radiation. It would be like the probability of static just happening to produce the recipe for an award winning pie. (Actually, that’s a huge understatement.) Needless to do the math to show that even in 5 billion years, it just won’t happen.

To make the probabilities more likely, one needs to invoke “survival of the fittest”. It’s not billions of years of distinct rolls of the dice, but the successful rolls are links and combine. The flaw here is a shift in the definition of “successful”. Successful at surviving is not correlated to the notion of being part of an automaton in the future. The evolution of “part A” in some irreducible system is not more likely because it can come from A’, which is useful alone. One needs to also look at the likelihood of A’ arising, the likelihood that it could be reused, that there is a path from one system to another, etc… Since they’re uncorrelated, once you multiply the probabilities together, you couldn’t have improve the odds over simply tossing a coin for each bit.

Which argument is most convincing? Version 4.0, based on math, many models of the cosmology, geology and biology of our origins, but very rigorous, or Rabbi Aqiva’s simple appeal, using a comparison, to show how the point should be self-evident? The ver 1.0, being closest to reducing the claim to a postulate, carries for me the most appeal.Rabbi Aqiva gives us the tools for emunah. Building on that emunah, we can understand it in greater depth, subtlety and beauty using these more formal forms of the argument. But the formality hides the dependence on assumptions from which to reason, not replaces them.


Here is a domain in which the split between philosophy and relationship that we’ve been exploring for the past few posts comes to the fore.I developed a philosophy about theodicy, tzadiq vera lo, why tragedy visits people who live far more righteously than others who seem to be free of it. I explored four different reactions to tragedy, comparing them to the different kinds of tragedy named by chazal, and suggested their role in our lives. See my essay “The Four Sons Confront Tragedy” written uncoincidentally the Pesach after 9/11.

However, when news of the tsunami reached me, I was still devastated. Because I was in downtown Manhattan on 9/11 it became my emotional yardstick for tragedy. I still carry around a huge burden of anger toward the people who perpetrated the attack. Now we’re facing a tragedy that current estimates place at forty times the cost of life, with the real possibility of that number doubling due to the secondary effects of disease and hunger.

How can I not be angry? Or at least overwhelmed, shocked, and confused by my Father’s actions? The words that came to mind were those of Avraham avinu, when he learned of the fate of Sedom and Amora. “Chalilah lekha mei’asos davar kazeh, lehamis tzadiq im rashah — It should be far from you to do such a thing, to kill the righteous with the wicked; Chalilah lekhah, hashofeit kol ha’aratz lo ya’aseh mishpat — that the Judge of the entire world would not do justice.” I wrote something to this effect to an email list. As pointed out to me, and my brain knew this without their help, Avraham didn’t voice his anger after the fact, but was pleading with G-d to avoid the tragedy.

And if our goal in life is to “walk yourself before Me and be whole” then we should be looking to see how everything we witness was intended to be witnessed by us.

But to be satisfied with the explanations means that one is willing to settle for ideas about His existance than actually connected with Him. My response, although certainly inappropriate, was at least a real one. I think that much of the reaction that my comment garnered was from our habit to think about G-d, rather than to truly relate to Him as Beloved, Father and Master (c.f. Yedid Nefesh).

Another problem is that kiruv has focused on our ability to market traditional Judaism rather than our ability to teach it. Not everything can be tied up in a nice bow with a simple and satisfying-sounding answer. First, with respect to effective kiruv, admitting to a student that we simply don’t know is both more honest and more trust-gaining than pretending we have the answers to all the questions. As I wrote in “Four Sons”, tragedy exists to be confronted, not explained away. For much of Judaism, the beauty is in its ability to let us frame the questions meaningfully and productively, not answer them.

Politeness and Taharah

The word “polite” comes from the Latin “politus” via the Old English “polit”, to polish. Polish is itself of the same derivation.I think this is a very telling statement about Western Culture. Politeness is about perfecting the surface. It doesn’t demand a change of the self, but putting up the appropriate front for others.

This is the key to a contrast Stephen Covey (most famous for “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People“) makes between his approach to self-help and the majority of the field. His book is about finding your core values and seeing how to implement them — including improving your relationships. To give an example Covey doesn’t make explicitly, Dale Carnegy deals with improvement by giving pragmatic and surface-polishing approach, “How to Win Friends and Influence People“.

In Mesukim MiDevash for Chukas, I identified the Jewish approach to the relationship between mind and the physical world with taharah. Taharah is also the term used for the purity of a metal — the menorah must be made of (pure gold). zahav tahor. Taharah, then, is the lack of adulteration of the mind with prejudices caused by the body. Free to choose when to pursue its physical needs and desires, man can consciously control his relationship to the physical world and the people we encounter in it.

Judaism looks to create ba’alei chessed, people who relate to this world primarily in terms of its opportunities to give and share with others. Not to simply be polite and act inoffensively. Which doesn’t quite work; backstabbing while smiling and using just the implications is a feature of “polite society”. But to actually have a relationship with the other.

The Legislative Authority of a Bas Qol

A brief summary of the Encyclopedia Talmudit entry on “Bas Qol”, the paragraph about its impact on halachah:An Achna’i-style oven was made from pieces of pottery that were not cemented together. So, the question arose: Can it, like any other oven, become tamei? Or, is it like shards of pottery which can not? Rabbi Yehoshua and the other sages ruled stringently. Rabbi Yehoshua ruled leniently.When the vote was taken, Rabbi Eliezer disputed the result. “If I am right, let the carob tree prove it.” The tree flew through the air. But the chakhamim replied that we don’t accept halachic rulings from trees. He similarly makes a stream flowed backwards, and even the walls of the beis medrash started to buckle. All three times, the miracles back Rabbi Eliezer, but the sages insist the law follows the majority. Rabbi Eliezer then appeals to heaven, and a bas qol declares, “Why are you disputing with R. Eliezar, for the Halakhah is according to him everywhere”. Rabbi Yehoshua rose to his feet and said, “It is not in Heaven.” (Devarim 30:12)Several generations later, Rav Noson asked Eliyahu haNavi what happened in heaven during that story. He is told that G-d “smiled” and said, “Nitzchuni banai — My children have defeated me!”

However, in Eiruvin 13b, the bas qol is relied upon to give precedence to Beis Hillel. “These and those are the words of the living G-d, but the halachah is like BH.”

The two stories therefore appear to conflict on the question of the precedence of bas qol vs. normal halachic process.

1- Rav Nissim Gaon (Berachos 19a), opinion I: The bas qol said “halachah k’moso b’chol makom”. As a general rule, the halachah is like R’ Eliezer, but not here. The halachic conclusion does not contradict the bas qol, and it’s even possible that the BQ caused them to reach their decision.

2- Ibid, opinion II: The bas qol was only a test for the sages. Again, normally BQ would have halachic power.

3- Tosfos (Eiruvin 6b) I: The bas qol was only for the kavod of R’ Eliezer, who called down the opinion of Shamayim. BQ does NOT have halachic authority.

#3 is only possible (assuming that G-d doesn’t lie) by saying that R’ Eliezer and R’ Yehoshua were in an eilu va’eilu situation — both were right. Therefore, to show R’ Eliezer respect, G-d asserts that R Eliezer isn’t wrong even though the halachah is like R’ Yehoshua. In short, exactly the same point made by the BH vs BS story.

4- Tosfos II: There is a difference between whether the bas qol runs counter to metahalachah (normal halachic process), or in accordance with it. Bas qol can confirm a ruling, but not run counter to normal halachic process. Metahalachically, we follow BH because they are the majority. The BQ only confirms that fact.

(Why did it need confirmation? Probably because this is the first generation that the Sanhedrin was in exile, and because BS were generally considered the sharper group. Therefore there was a crisis in confidence in rejecting BS’s opinion without word from the Chamber of Hewn Wood.)

5- Or Samei’ach (Yesodei HaTorah 9:4): There is a distinction between whether the bas qol is clarifying a particular halachah and whether it speaks of a person’s ruling. In the first case, BQ is certainly not followed — metahalachah is the G-d-given means of creating new halachah. (cf
Temurah 16:1, where the prophet Yehoshua refuses to retrieve lost halachos via prophecy.) In the second, we do follow Beis Hillel, as per the BQ. (Although R’ Yehoshua disagreed about this use of bas qol as well.)

#5 appears to be nearly identical to #4, but with the added statement that given two true answers (speaking of one of two extant rulings), i.e. metahalachah allows one to follow either, BK can be followed. His conclusion is that even had BH and BS been of equal number, the halakhah would still be like BH.

In short, RNG gives authority to BQ to override halachic process, and the Achnai story’s bas qol is a special case for two different reasons. Tosafos and the OS agree that BQ has less authority than metahalachah, and possibly even no halachic say at all.

In either case it’s a question of whether one follows pre-existing rules for making halachic decisions despite supernatural evidence. It’s support for the notion of metahalachah, not for arbitrary leeway in making decisions.

FWIW, RYB Soloveitchik notes that “nitzchuni” does not mean “conquered”. Rather, by the normal rules of grammar it would be singular first person passive causitive of netzach (eternal). At the end of the Achnai story G-d is actually saying “My children have made Me [i.e. My Torah] eternal”. Which it would not be if we were limited to those decisions revealed at Sinai that weren’t lost.

Divine Timelessness

Bereishis Rabbah( 5:5):

G-d made the creation of water conditional on its splitting before the Jews when they left Egypt….It was not just with the sea that He made a stipulation but with everything that He created during the six days of creation…. G-d commanded the sea to divide, the heavens and earth to be silent before Moshe…the sun and the moon to stand still before Yehoshua, the ravens to feed Eliyahu, the fire not to burn Chananya, Mishael and Azariyah, the lions not to harm Daniel, the Heavens to open before Yechezkeil and the fish to spit out Yonah.

(See also Rambam Shemoneh Peraqim, ch 8, his commentary on Avos 5:6, and Rabbeinu Bachye on Avos 5:8. Sources posted to Avodah by R’ Daniel Eidensohn.)

The problem with miracles is that they seem to imply that G-d changed His Mind between establishing the natural order and choosing to perform that miracle. However, G-d is timeless.

G-d’s timelessness seems to also pose problems with free will. How can I be free to choose when G-d already knows what my choice will be? Rabbi Aqiva seems to simply take it as a divine mystery, “hakol tzafui vehareshus nesunah — all is foreseen, but freedom is granted.” The Rambam, in Hilkhos Teshuvah, also describes it as a Divine Mystery. If we can’t understand what it means that He knows something, where He and His Knowledge are one, and where learning (which is a process of change, and therefore of time) is not involved, how can we discuss mysteries about how that knowledge interacts our free will?

The Or Samei’ach explains it slightly differently. Just as His Knowledge of the past does not change the nature of the present, so too His Knowledge of the future. Because to Him, past and future are the same.

Rav Dessler writes that our perception of the flow of time is a product of eating of the tree of knowledge. With eating the fruit, man’s free will became centered on a progression from desire to effort to fulfillment or frustration. This gives our concept of time a flow, a direction. Rav Dessler compares our perception of time to looking at a map through a piece of paper with a small hole in it. One can move the hole from city to city along the roads. But that progression is a product of how we’re looking at the map, not the map itself. Adam saw “from one end of the world to the next”, an expression also used of a baby’s soul before birth. They see the map without the paper in front; all of time from one end to the other.

Rav Dessler’s metaphor is akin to Paul Davies’ description of Einsteinian spacetime. In relativistic physics, the universe is a four dimensional sculpture. We think of it as a 3d movie, with time having a flow that the three spatial dimensions do not. But that’s an illusion of our perception.

From this perspective, the Or Samei’ach’s answer is compelling. G-d is like an observer, looking at a sculpture. Yes, the observer could look at one point in the height of the sculpture while touching or moving a lower one. Just as G-d could Know the entirety of history while interacting with any one point in it.

G-d doesn’t know today what I will decide tomorrow, because G-d doesn’t have a “today”. G-d simply knows. The nearest way in which we can assign a point in time to His knowledge is when speaking of when His actions impact creation. And Hashem assures us, using Yishma’el as an example, that man is judged “ba’asher hu sham as he is there” not based on his future. Within time, the direction of causality is preserved.

Similarly, our opening issue. Miracles were written into creation because Hashem has no “initially” and “later”. The decisions were made “simultaneously”, for want of a better word to say “not separated by time”. And in fact, they were therefore the same decision.

This is true for every event of all of creation. God created a 4d sculpture. Not a watch that He could then leave to run on its own. (The use of the word “then” in the previous sentence is a tip-off. It makes sense only in the context of time.) Picture the printing of a timeline in a book. The spot of ink representing 1702 was printed in the same act as the spot representing 2004. Because from the perspective of His Action there is no time, all of the history of the universe is equally ma’aseh bereishis — the act of creation. Our persistence from one moment to the next is the same “strike of the printing press” as the six days at the far end of the timeline. Deism is simply not tenable if time is a created entity.

Rav Dessler’s Approach to Creation

(You might want to see also Different Approaches to Creation, a survey that just touches on a variety of opinions, as well as Divine Timelessness.)
I think that in order to understand Rav Dessler’s position about the nature of time during ma’aseh bereishis one needs to start with MmE vol II pp 150-154, aptly titled “Yemei Bereishis veYemai Olam“. Comments of my own that I feel can’t wait for the end of the maamar are in square brackets.
Rav Dessler opens by defining the nature of time-as-we-know-it. In the first two paragraph he establishes the connection between time and free will. The flow of past to future is that of desire to fulfillment.In the section “Havchanas haZeman“, Rav Dessler points out that time passes as a function of the number of experiences we have. When we have more experiences, we have more opportunities for choice, for fulfilling desires.

But while man’s choice now revolves around many issues, Adam qodem hacheit [AQH] had only one choice, and therefore didn’t have the same connection to the flow of time. [pg. 151] We can not understand what time was like to AQH.

The next section is “Zeman Sheishes Yemei Bereishis“. It opens with the assertion that since the 6 days of bereishis were before the completion of creation, the havchanas hazeman was different. The six days are “diberah Torah kelashon benei adam” (the Torah talks like the language of people), that the Torah’s discussion of ma’aseh bereishis (the act of creation) is like explaining something to a blind person by drawing parallels to touch.

[Does that qualify as justifying allegorization of the narrative altogether? His phrase is “bederekh dimyon” (in the manner of comparison). But at least with regard to time, Rav Dessler is saying the Torah’s terminology is one of dimyon, not literalness.]

Rav Dessler quotes the Ramban (1:3) who explains that the 6 days were literal days of hours and minutes, and also the 6 sephiros from Chesed to Hod. According to Rav Dessler this means that to our perception it would be 6 literal days, but the core of the issue is that of 6 sephiros. The Bahir says that this is why the pasuq says “ki sheishes yamim” — through these 6 days, 6 sephiros — “asah H’ es hashamayim ve’es ha’aretz…” — Hashem made the heaven and the earth….

[Sidenote: The Rambam also identifies the days of creation with steps of unfolding creation, rather than a measure of time. See this entry.]

[pg 152] Rav Dessler again quotes the Ramban (this time, 2:3) who draws parallels between the 6 days and the subsequent 6 millennia. The Ramban sometimes says that one is “romeiz” (hints at) the other, sometimes “kenegdo” (corresponding to it), and sometimes the actual identification — that the day “hu” (it is) the millennium. From this Rav Dessler concludes that the Ramban identifies the two — the current millennium is the same thing as the Friday of creation, which seems to us to be a hint to it, or corresponding to it.

The Gra identifies the 6 days with the subsequent 6 millenia, and [pg 153] had Adam not eaten from the eitz, the world would have only lasted those 6 days, and the first Shabbos would have been olam haba. And in the end of days everything will return to their maqor. And (emph Rav Dessler’s or Rav Aryeh Carmell’s) “the present is this time, which is knowledge of good and evil.” Rav Dessler understands the Gra to mean that the six millenia we’re living through is a post-sin perception, it is entirely a product of our knowledge of good and evil.

The last section “Zeman: Qevi’as Mahuso” (Time: Establishing His Nature) takes it’s name from the nature of the person. With each moment and each impression, some of the potential of the person is actualized. People think of themselves as stable, and the world moves around them. But this is an error.

It says in Nidah 30b that a baby before birth sees “from the end of the world until its [other] end”. But when he’s born, he enters the hiding caused by time, the unity of creation speaking the Unity of the Creator is concealed, and only the present seems real. In the world of action (olam ha’asiyah), every moment is fixed by the action. [pg 154] Every moment following the Torah adds some light to his mahus, and similarly ch”v in the reverse. Through his free will [thus connecting this definition of the time to the one in the opening of the lecture] he establishes his nature, thereby giving a flow to time.

Rav Dessler compares our perception of time to looking at a map through a piece of paper with a small hole in it. One can move the hole from city to city along the roads. But that progression is a product of how we’re looking at the map, not the map itself. After death, the paper is removed, and one can see the entirety — not a progression.

Hashem is the One Who “looks until the end of generations” because He can see the whole. Rav Dessler closes with an exhortation to learn Torah, do mitzvos, cling to the truth, to rise beyond seeing the world through a little hole in the paper.

Some more of my own thoughts:
Rav Dessler holds that time-as-we-know-it flows, time-as-AQH-knew-it barely flowed, and time before AQH didn’t flow at all. Because the concept of a flow from past to future is so central to what people think of when they read the word “time”, I think it’s fair to say that time didn’t exist during the act of creation, only something more like “Time” (capitalized in the style of Platonic ideal, but in quotes) or “block time”.
Why “block time”? It’s Paul Davies’ term. Davies is a philosopher in Australia who published some popular books on science and philosophy. one of them titled “Time’s Arrow” about where the flow from past to future comes from. (He also has Scientific American article on the subject available on line.)
In relativity, the universe is not so much a 3D movie as a 4D sculpture. The flow of time isn’t inherent in relativity, and it’s difficult to explain why time is experienced so differently than the 3 dimensions of space. This 4D “block” lead to the term “block time”. This sculpture sounds much like Rav Dessler’s “seeing the entirety”, so I think the use of his term is meaningful when speaking of his view of “Time” during creation, the end of days, or of a soul before and after its life.

It is interesting to follow the parallel between Rav Dessler’s metaphor and Davies’ to explore how Rav Dessler’s position compares to R’ Yaakov (“Gerald”) Shroeder’s resolution of the time of creation issue. To start: both dismiss the notion that 6 days does not rule out it also being something else.

The Kuzari Proof, part III

A recent email from Yeshivat Har Etzion of a shiur by Rav Chaim Navon included the following quotes from R’ JB Soloveitchik’s essay “Uvikashtem MiSham“. Notice the poetic treatment of the idea that knowledge through proof is indirect, yet one’s belief in and relationship with the Creator should be first-hand.

While the philosophy of the Middle Ages and also that of the early modern period expressed the search for infinity and eternality in an objective manner, through the formulation of definitive proofs, which were thought to be logically valid, the modern view presumes to deny the logical-objective worth of these proofs…

This view came to uproot, but ended up planting; it came to deny, but ended up believing. It denied man’s ability to draw indirect conclusions through proofs… But instead of eradicating all these proofs from its book, it accepted and reaffirmed them as non-mediated experiences that are not based on logic, but rather are expressed through sudden revelation and illumination. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Uvikashtem Misham, pp. 127-128)

The experience of God in man’s confrontation with the world expresses itself not through proof based on an act of abstraction, but through a feeling of sudden revelation of an unmediated fact in the consciousness of reality. (Ibid., p. 131)

In this shiur, Rav Navon associates the approach of emunah through proof with the Rambam, as we already discussed in parts I and II of this discussion. Emunah through direct experience, the position I believe is Rav Yehudah haLevi’s, is shown to be shared by the Raavad. Which is why the Rambam depicts Avraham avinu as being an accomplished philosopher of 40 when he finds G-d, whereas the Raavad says he was three. (Hil’ Avodah Zara 1:3; both positions were previously taken in medrashim.) See the shiur for more…

Brisk and Telzh

At some point during my time in YU I chose not to follow the more popular “track”, leading to Rav Herschel Schachter shlit”a’s and lbchl”ch R’ YB Soloveitchik zt”l’s shiurim. Instead, I chose Rav Dovid Lifshitz zt”l’s shiur. A key element of that decision was my sense that something inherent in Brisker Derekh did not speak to me; Rav Dovid’s approach was that of his rebbe’s, Rav Shimon Shkop’s, variant of Telzher Derekh. While I don’t believe that then I could have articulated why that is all that clearly, I have given a good deal of thought to the matter since, and hope to do so now.First, what is Brisker Derekh? Perhaps a good place to start, not in the least because it is somewhat humorous and therefore memorable while still being pretty accurate, is with Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer’s essaycomparing how various darkhei limud would try to answer the question, “What makes tea sweet, is it the sugar or the spoon stirring?”The Brisker answer:

There are two (tzvei) dinim in sweetening tea: The cheftza (substance), i.e., the sugar; and the pe’ula (activity), i.e., the stirring with the spoon. Everyone knows that Lipton is the “Brisk” tea because it has a double (tzvei dinim) tea bag.

This is typical of Brisker Derekh which seeks distinctions, chaqiros. One therefore contrasts multiple cases, or multiple opinions in a single machloqes to see how they differ. The explanations involve ideas like cheftza vs. pe’ulah, or cheftza vs. gavra (is it that the object must have something done to it, or that a given person has a duty to do something?), or pe’ula vs. chalos (the time or location of the action vs. the time or location of the change of halachic state), etc… This allows the Brisker to fit the rulings under discussion into overarching halachic rules.

In a sense, the Brisker derekh is a scientific endeavor. In an experiment one compares the experimental set with the control set, trying to find two that only differ in one point so that the scientists can determine which point is the cause of the phenomenon. Then the phenomenon is fit into a larger pattern, to get a single formula that fits a wider variety of cases. Finding the chaqirah and using it to tie the case into a broader principle.

In contrast, here’s the Rav Shimon derived response:

It is the Hitztarfus (Fusion) of tea molecules and sugar molecules that makes the tea sweet.

Telzh was founded by R’ Eliezer Gordon, a student of Rav Yisrael Salanter. Telzh wasn’t a mussar yeshiva, although it had a strong mussar program. However, its approach was far more intellectual. Rather than the emotional Mussar Shmuess, the Telsher approach focused on Shiurei Da’as, classes on thought an attitude. This made it different enough not to be considered part of the movement.

(My own rebbe, Rav Dovid Lifshitz, was a strong believer in the use of the shmuess and emotion. For example, shmuessen usually included singing a song. I remember most semesters began with a shmuess and a song. Once we sang “Vetaheir libeinu” for over twenty minutes before the start of the zeman.)

Still, the mussar roots of Telzh meant that the notion that halakhah as a whole has a purpose was a given. As was the idea that the purpose is sheleimas ha’adam, completion of the self. Therefore, while Brisk sought the explanation of individual laws in terms of halachic principles, Telzh looked for the purposive explanation. Therefore while Brisk looked at multiple opinions of a single case, or multiple cases, Telzh focused on the singular. Even if looking at multiple opinions, it was to find what they shared in common, not to find contrast. What do these opinions say about what is essential about the meaning, purpose and role of the mitzvah?

Fundamental to Brisker philosophy is the idea that halakhah has no first principles. It can only be understood on its own terms. As R’ JB Soloveitchik describes in Halachic Man, it’s only through halakhah that man finds a balance between his religious neediness for redemption and his creative constructive self. (Ironically, a true halachic man would never explore the questions addressed by Halachic Man! R’ JB Soloveitchik’s loyalty to Brisk, while true in terms of derekh halimud, style of studying gemara, was compromised on the perspective level by his interest in philosophy.)

Brisker Derekh gave the post-haskalah observant Jew a mental experience that compared to the thrills of scientific study. Telzher Derekh gave him the excitement of philosophical study. As well as connecting his learning and mitzvah observance to his quest to be a better Jew.

Loosely along similar lines, Rav Chaim Brisker rejected the argument in favor of Radziner tekheiles because it was a scientific one, not halachic in basis. Halakhah is itself the primary basis, non-halachic argument is irrelevent.This distinction is also manifest in their approach to going beyond the letter of the law. The Brisker chumrah is one where the person is chosheish leshitas… — concerned for the position of so-and-so. The notion that while the baseline law is lenient, one may want to “cover all the basis” and satisfy all opinions. Entirely in terms of mechanics of law. In Telzh, a chumrah would be chosen based on the person’s plan for sheleimus, an awareness of what flaws they’re ready to address, and finding opinions that can be related to it.I was recently asked why someone would wear Rabbeinu Tam tefillin if it wasn’t an expression of uncertainty that Rashi’s opinion was correct. That’s a Brisker position — chumros are about cheshash, uncertainty in ruling. In Telzher thought (and not uniquely Telzher), one might do so because they found a kavanah that better fits the order of parshios in Rabbeinu Tam tefillin, and wishes to experience that in addition to fulfilling what they know to be law. Contrast this with R’ JB Soloveitchik’s statement that “there is no ritual in Judaism”; he saw no reason in additional rituals, things like kavanos only have meaning for him if they were products of halachic imperative.

In short, Brisk asks “Vus?” (What?), Telzh asks “Fahr vus?” (Why?)Anyone who has been following this blog should be unsurprised by which one I felt spoke to me.

Trends in Resolving Torah and Science

This is the nearest I plan to get to discussing L’affaire Slifkin on this blog. I’m not going to discuss issues dealt with by R’ Gil Student in his Hirhurim blog, or in any of the other Jewish blogs. My opinion is already better represented on line already than what I could produce. When I read R’ Shternbuch’s article I noticed a subtext. Once I stripped away all the points about which I disagree, this unwritten given that I saw as a subtext still rung true.I see two basic and opposing trends in how segments of the frum world approach the question of apparent conflicts between Torah and science. An action, and a reaction. I find both worrisome. And, while R’ Shternbuch’s essay represents an example of the reactionary trend, I share his concern about the action.

R’ JB Soloveitchik, in The Lonely Man of Faith, contrasts Adam as described in Bereishis 1, with that of ch. 2. Adam I is described as the last step in creation, the pinacle, who should “be fruitful and multiple, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea and the bird of the sky…” Master of all he surveys, through his science and technology. Adam II is a partner with G-d as he names the animals. His marriage isn’t about procreating, but “and they shall be one flesh”, having a relationship with another. In the ideal, one finds a balance of these archtypes; using halakhah, we can navigate this dialectic. However, in contemporary society, where “progress” is identified with technological progress, man overly identifies with Adam I.

So, one can phrase the current encounter as a dilemma between how to balance Adam I and Adam II when our perceptions of science and of Torah contradict. I write “our perceptions” because in reality, of course, they can’t contradict. The same Author wrote both nature and the Torah. However, our understandings can be inaccurate, incomplete, or simply limited by our being merely human trying to understand something with the complexity of a masterpiece by an Infinite Author.

While many scientists do realize that saying “The apple fell because of gravity” and “G-d made the apple fall” do not contradict, many do. There is an entire culture of Scientism which believes that religion stems entirely from an ignorance they’re working to eliminate. For example, I found a HS bio book that said (roughly, from memory):

Using evolution, we can explain how life as we know it emerged. We see how complex organisms can arise without there being any preexisting design.

If not exactly that, it’s pretty close to it. Or less subtly, people like Dawkins or the “Skeptic” column in Scientific American wouldn’t be complaining about Intelligent Design. ID is the idea that all of current theory about our origins is as right as any other theory, but that it shows there is a Designer who got us to this point. These people and numerous other scientists labeled “Creationism in sheep’s clothing”.

In “Scientism” the pursuit of science is confused with the pursuit of knowledge. There is an old saying that science is like climbing a cliff. When the scientist finally scales to the top of the cliff, he’ll find himself where the religious have been all along. However, the person who turns science into his “Ism” will mistake the religious man for just more cliff, and keep on climbing! (And sure enough, he’ll reach the top of the man’s head and not find anything when he looks around…) It is an egotistical cry of Adam I, proclaiming himself master of all and denying the existance and reality of anything beyond his mastery.

When frum Jews seek natural explanations, what motivates us? Why isn’t “G-d performed a miracle for His unfathomable reasons” sufficient? How many of us are doing so because deep down we’ve bought into Scientism’s premises, and we only do invoke G-d for things we can’t otherwise explain. The notion of finding physical explanation is sound, defending by the Rambam, his son R’ Avraham, the Ralbag, and others.

I’m speaking about our motivation for choosing this path: Is it hashkafic?

Nor is a lack of creationism the only objection under discussion. It’s also, a question of the mabul and Bavel, which many Orthodox Jews question the historicity of, or question whether they were global, neither idea have the same masoretic foundation to build from as a non-literal creation. And a general question of when Chazal’s pronouncements are to be questioned. The role of changes of scientific theory in pesaq. Are maamarei Chazal placed “on the run” fleeing from the advancing tide of science? Or do we better anchor them, and try our hardest to find their own logic, unchanging in the face of changes in theory?

In theory, these could be very different hashkafic questions. So why are so many people reaching the parallel conclusions in each? Regardless of the existence of a reason or justification for each step taken, there is an emergent pattern in much of contemporary O thought that is disconcerting. Why does one seek those reasons that so consistently justify retreat? Is this not typical of western man, of this over-focus on Adam I, maximizing the role of human comprehension and minimizing the need to invoke G-d?

I think that’s what R’ Shternbuch was writing about when he says, “Nevertheless their concern is to make even this miraculous event as close to nature as possible. In other words, they much prefer to make the world as natural as possible and to minimize the miraculous.” He’s not talking about nature vs. miracle, but whether we elect to invoke G-d, or elect to keep the universe a place we can comprehend or master. And if it’s not R’ Shternbuch’s concern, it’s still mine.

But I’m no less concerned by this reaction to the shock of modernity, common in a large segment of the population. The proper response to rampant Adam I-ism is not an exclusive focus on Adam II. Man was not designed to be a passive recipient of G-d’s beneficience, but a covenental partner. We can not forgo our own ability to think and create, or to leave that responsibility to a select few.

Someone emailed me about the current “antisophical” trend in world view. He described it as a reaction to the birth of Reform. I also described this phenomenon way back at the start of the creationism discussion, when I wrote that I believe that more people insist on literalism now than did before there was a scientific challenge. It’s why so many insist on taking every medrash literally (a position not supported by rishonim or the vast majority acharonim). It’s also why even amongst the words of chazal, we gravitate toward the fantastic. For example, there are two Rashis about the age of Racheil when she married Yitzchaq. Children are taught the opinion that she was 3, not necessarily the one where she was 15.

This trend I see as more damaging even than another reaction to Reform — the neglect of Nakh and diqduq.

There is no word “antisophical”. The tendency to prefer black-and-white solutions is described from a word related to the Sophists, though: it’s “unsophisticated”. Preference should be given precision, not simplicity.

So how do I expect these conflicts to be resolved? Each one, case by case. No easy answers, no trends should emerge. It’s a dialectic tension, a point over which life isn’t supposed to be easy. And many questions will not yield an answer to us. It still is the problem of the finite man trying to understand the work of an Infinite Creator.

A mashal:

We currently have two very successful physical theories: quantum mechanics (QM) which was born in the head of Heisenberg y”sh and developed by numerous other people — most of them Jews. Including Einstein. There is also relativity (which has two parts: special and general), which was pretty much entirely Einstein’s. QM works well in the domain of the very small, relativity works well with the very large. (In between, Newton’s old system is a good enough approximation and people don’t bother with such things.) But they are based on contradictory assumptions. Figuring out quantum gravity — a theory of gravity that fits both QM and relativity, is a challenge. Filling this challenge are things like string and membrane theories, the Higgs Boson (the subject of the book “The God Particle”, and others. For now, there is no real resolution.

But even though the two theories are built on contradictory assumptions, scientists place trust (bitachon) in them. They each work so well in their chosen domains, making more successful predictions than any other theories in science. For example, in a GPS device, a chip that was designed using QM adjusts for the effects of gravity on the signal from the positioning satellite, in accordance with general relativity. The scientist and engineer have faith (emunah) that each will have to be tweaked only minorly to get them to fit, not a major overhaul.

As you can tell from my use of language, I think this is a fitting metaphor. There are times when you simply have to use science for its target domain, understanding how the physical universe behaves, and Torah for its target domain — understanding how I ought to behave, and my place in life. And simply have emunah that some resolution exists.

Eilu vaEilu – part I

Before giving my own thoughts, I would like to discuss two recent articles on Eilu va’eilu:

As background: The gemara (Eiruvin 13b) speaks of a protracted debate between Batei Hillel and Shammai. Finally, a bas qol emerged and said “Eilu va’eilu divrei E-lokim Chaim, vehalakhah keBeis Hillel — these and those are the Words of the Living G-d (or: G-d of Life), but the law is like Beis Hillel.” (I already wrote on the role of this bas qol in defining law.) The question is whether this is meant literally, that G-d gave us multiple contadicting messages, and if so, how and why?

RM Halbertal proposes that there are three basic positions on plurality in halakhah:

1- Retrieval: All of Torah was given at Sinai, and therefore machloqesin (debates) are due to forgotten information.
He finds this opinion to be typical of many ge’onim and the Seifer haQabbalah, and is based on statements like “Why were there so many debates between the schools of Hillel and Shammai [when there were so few between the mentors themselves? Because they did not properly serve their rabbis.” Implied is that much was forgotten because of this lack of connection to the previous generation.

2- Accumulative: Torah is built analytically from what was given. Therefore, machloqesin come from different minds reaching different conclusions. This is the Rambam’s position among others. It comes from sources like Rabbi Aqiva’s “finding mounds and mounds of laws in the crowns atop the letters”.

Personally, I would be inclined to say that these need not contradict, and perhaps both types of debates occur. Except that according to the Rambam, there are no machloqesin in underived law; in his opinion this is one of the critical features of a halakhah leMosheh miSinai (a law given to Moshe since Sinai). The Rambam makes the flawlessness of the mesorah incontravertable. Only contructions are open to debate. So, while one may choose to embrace the idea that both occured, one must be aware that that’s not shitas haRambam.

3- Constitutive: The poseiq (halachic decisor) doesn’t discover what’s correct halakhah. Rather, part of the definition of “correct” is the poseiq’s say-so; Hashem gave them the power to decide and define law. This is the position of the Ramban, the Ritva and the Ran. A typical source: In order to make sanhedrin you needed to be able to find 49 arguments that something is tamei, and 49 that the same something is tahor. G-d gave us all 98 arguments, and empowered the rabbinate to decide which is law.

Here, I don’t see why one must assert they are different. After all, even the Ramban and his students don’t give the poseiq carte blanche. He may have the power to define law, but there are limits to which definitions are valid. It would seem from the Ritva (see the quote below, in the discussion of the other article) that the process of finding choices fit the “accumulative” model; G-d could have given us all 98 arguments not directly, but implicitly for us to derive. The argument the poseiq actually derives and finds authoritative could then be correct because of the “constitutive” model, because that’s man’s role in the halachic process.

R’ Michael Rosensweig’s article gives a different perspective. (I’m skipping the first two sections, getting right to the subject of machloqes within halakhah. Otherwise the scope would be too broad for this format.)RMR cites the ma’aseh of “eilu va’eilu” (Eiruvin 13b) and the gemara (Chagiga 3b) describing learning as one rav insisting tamei, the other tahor to open a discussion of halakhic plurality.The Nesivos haMishpat holds that in reality one opinion is wrong, but the mitzvah of talmud Torah includes the studying and winnowing out of wrong opnions. RMR understands this to mean that studying these opinions is part of the encounter with devar Hashem (word of G-d).The Netziv defines two types of pesaq:

  • Hora’ah, dating back to the role of the kohein. From this perspective, both positions are the “substance” Torah, in a literal understanding of “eilu va’eilu”.
  • Hakhra’ah ledoros (making a determination for generations), the logical analysis of the shofeit mechoqeiq (legislating judge). This produces the hilkheta gemirei (deduced conclusion), and as Moshe Rabbeinu was taught “everything that a student will in the future give hora’ah”, Moshe was actually taught that one was more true than the other as he was told which will be the future hora’ah. Within this category, there are two subtypes:
    • Nitzotzos (term taken from Sanhedrin 34a), or netu’im (from Chagiga 3b), which maintain some or Torah (light of Torah), but of lesser quantity.
    • Those which are outright rejected.

RMR then shows that the Rama might conform to this model.

Rashi (Kesuvos 57a, “QM”L”) seems to support a real plurality. To quote:

When a debate revolves around the attribution of a doctrine to a particular individual, there is only room for one truth. However, when two Amorairn enter into a halakhic dispute, each arguing the halakhic merits of his view, each drawing upon comparisons to establish the authenticity of his perspective, there is no absolute truth and falsehood. About such issues one can declare that both represent the view of the living God. On some occasions one perspective will prove more authentic, and under other circumstances the other view will appear to be more compelling. The effectiveness of particular rationales shift as conditions of their application change even if only subtly.

The Ritva (on “eilu va’eilu”, Eiruvin 13b) writes, “When Moshe ascended to receive the Torah, it was demonstrated to him that every matter was subject to forty-nine lenient and forty-nine stringent approaches. When he queried about this, God responded that the scholars of each generation were given the authority to decide among these perspectives in order to establish the normative halakha.”

The Ritva’s phrasing, that matters being subject to 98 different approaches rather than Moshe being given 98 interpretations seems to me to be what R’ Moshe Halbertal called the “accumulative” approach, even though he then continues to weave it with the “constitutive” one. But to return to R’ Rosensweig…

The Maharshal writes that since each soul was at Har Sinai, each soul presents its perspective on emes. The soul doesn’t simply passively report the emes. The Maharal similarly peaks of a the Ideal pesaq as manifest in heaven, and how man in the “real world” can only approximate that Ideal. (Very Platonic, to my ear.) The reason for plurality is because the actual truth can’t be fully captured within this world.

This last opinion reminds me of R’ Moshe Koppel’s position in “Metahalakhah”. He argues that halakhah is best transmitted the same way grammar is: the native speaker’s feel for right and wrong. It’s only due to loss of our status as “native speakers”, our progressive lost of the Sinai culture, that we need to codify rules. And just like codified rules of grammer, the rules only approximate the reality they’re trying to describe. The Maharal says that this world can’t capture halakhic truth, whereas RMK is arguing that even of that which was given at Sinai, it could not fit a rule set.

RMR opens section IV with an explicit statement of the “constitutive” perspective. Since halachic truth includes plural views, the poseiq is defining which truth is law. The fact that the other is true doesn’t make is any more acceptable as a fall-back position legally.

According to the Maharshal and the Arukh haShulchan, the need for pesaq is “so that it will not be like there are two Toros”. Since either position is truth, it’s not a need to determine Torah, but that of communal unity. The zaqein mamrei (a rebellious elder who refuses to bring his ruling in line with the Sanhedrin’s) is punished because the effects of his actions (“like two Toros”, ruining the entire concept of halachic process) are so damaging — not because he’s promoting falsehood.

The Ran and the Chinukh apply lo sasur (do not disagree) to modern rejections of rabbinic conclusions, not only the zaqein mamrei in the Sanhedrin. Maharam ibn Habib (aside: should I recognize this name?) applies a ZM parallel to any judge, and “we do not divide money according to the majority” (ie rulings are all or nothing, you don’t make someone repay proportionally according to the percentages of votes among the judges) requires him to acquiesce to the majority.

[In part II I will iy”H discuss my own thoughts and opinions on the subject.]