Why are there poor people

The gemara tells a story on Bava Basra 10a:

שאל טורנוסרופוס הרשע את ר”ע: אם אלהיכם אוהב עניים הוא, מפני מה אינו מפרנסם?
א”ל: כדי שניצול אנו בהן מדינה של גיהנם.
א”ל: [אדרבה!] זו שמחייבתן לגיהנם. אמשול לך משל למה הדבר דומה. למלך בשר ודם שכעס על עבדו, וחבשו בבית האסורין, וצוה עליו שלא להאכילו, ושלא להשקותו. והלך אדם אחד, והאכילו והשקהו. כששמע המלך, לא כועס עליו? ואתם קרוין עבדים, שנאמר …
אמר לו ר”ע: אמשול לך משל למה הדבר דומה. למלך בשר ודם שכעס על בנו, וחבשו בבית האסורין, וצוה עליו שלא להאכילו ושלא להשקותו. והלך אדם אחד והאכילו והשקהו. כששמע המלך לא דורון משגר לו ואנן קרוין בנים, דכתיב …
Turnus Rufus the wicked asked Rabbi Aqiva: If your G-d is a lover of the poor, why doesn’t he support them financially?
[R' Aqiva] said to him: To save us through them from the decree of gehennom.
[Turnus Rufus] said to him: On the contrary! This is what will obligate you in gehennom. I will give you a parable of what this thing is similar to. To a king of flesh and blood who gets angry at his servant, and throws him into jail, commanding about him that he not be fed nor given drink. Then one person cam and gave him food and drink. When the king heard of this wouldn’t he be angry over it? And you are called “servants”, as it says…
Rabbi Aqiva said to him: I will give you a parable of what this thing is similar to. To a king of flesh and blood who gets angry at his son, and throws him into jail, commanding about him that he not be fed nor given drink. Then one person cam and gave him food and drink. When the king heard of this wouldn’t he give the man a gift for it? And we are called “children”, as it is written…

This story is part of a pattern. In Medrash Tanchuma (Tzaria, Buber #7, Warsaw: second half of #5) Turnus Rufus acts another question of Rabbi Aqiva:

ביום השמיני ימול בשר ערלתו (ויקרא יב ג). אין כתיב כאן שיוציא הוצאות, ראה כמה ישראל מחבבין את המצות, כמה הן מוציאין הוצאות כדי לשמרן, אמר הקב”ה אתם משמחין את המצות, אף אני אוסיף לכם שמחה, שנאמר ויספו ענוים בה’ שמחה (ישעיה כט יט).
שאל טורנוסרופוס הרשע את ר’ עקיבא איזה מעשים נאים של הקב”ה או של בשר ודם.
א”ל: של בשר ודם נאים.
א”ל טורנוסרופוס הרשע: הרי השמים והארץ יכול אתה לעשות כהם?
א”ל ר’ עקיבא: לא תאמר לי בדבר שהוא למעלה מן הבריות, שאין שולטין בהן, אלא בדברים שהן מצויין בבני אדם.
א”ל: למה אתם מולים?
א”ל: אף אני הייתי יודע שאתה עתיד לומר לי כן, לכך הקדמתי ואמרתי לך “מעשה בשר ודם הם נאים משל הקב”ה.” הביאו לי שבולים וגלוסקאות.
[אמר לו: אלו מעשה הקב"ה ואלו מעשה בשר ודם. אין אלו נאים?
הביאו לי] אנוצי פשתן וכלים מבית שאן.
א”ל: אלו מעשה הקב”ה, ואלו מעשה בשר ודם. אין אלו נאים?
א”ל טורנוסרופוס: הואיל הוא חפץ במילה, למה אינו יוצא מהול ממעי אמו?
א”ל ר’ עקיבא: ולמה שוררו יוצא בו, לא תחתוך אמו שוררו. ולמה אינו יוצא מהול? לפי שלא נתן הקב”ה לישראל את המצות אלא כדי לצרף בהן. לכך אמר דוד  “אמרת ה’ צרופה וגו’ (תהלים יח לא).
Turnus Rufus the wicked asked Rabbi Aqiva: Which acts are more pleasant, those of the Holy One, or those of flesh and blood?
[R' Aqiva] said to him: Those of flesh and blood are [more] pleasant.
Turnus Rufus the wicked said to him: Behold heaven and earth — can you make anything like them?
Rabbi Aqiva said to him: Do not talk to me about something which is beyond creatures [to do], which they do not have mastery of them, but of things that exist among people.
He said to him: Why do you circumcise?
He said to him: I even knew you were going to say to me something llike this, therefore I preempted and said to you “the acts of fless and blood are more pleasant than those of the Holy One.
[Then R' Aqiva said to the staff:] Bring me sheaves and cakes.
He said to him: These [sheaves] are the Holy One’s work, and these [cakes] are made by people. Are they not more pleasant?
[Again R' Aqiva asked of the staff:] Bring me flax stalks and [linen] garments from Beis She’an.
He said to him: These [stalks] are the Holy One’s work, and these [fine garments] are made by people. Are they not more pleasant?
Turnus Rufus said to him: Since [G-d] wants circumcision, why doesn’t [the baby] emerge circumcised from the mother’s womb?
Rabbi Aqiva said to him: And why his umbilical cord emerge with him, if his mother were not to cut his umbilical cord? Why doesn’t he emerge [already] circumcised? Because the Holy One only gave Israel the mitzvos in order to be refined by them. That is why David said, “the speech of G-d refines” (Tehillim 18:31)

In the Timeaas (36c-d) Plato concludes that since our means of measuring time was the cyclic movement of astronomical objects so must the time they define be cyclic. The month and its cycle of phases, the year and its cycle of seasons define a cycle of time. The seasonal cycle also shapes the farmer’s lifestyle into cycles. Time cannot be measured without a predictable repetition of events, be it the falling of grains of sand, the swing of a pendulum, the escapement of a clock, the vibration of a quartz crystal or the waves of light emitted by cesium atoms.

Aristotle thought that time was a quality of change. Not that things change in time, but that change and motion have a property, the time in which they occur.

Most ancient societies viewed time as cyclic. And this is Turnus Rufus’s worldview. A universe that would be roughly the same a millennium after his death as it was since time immemorial. And so if Hashem wanted the poor to have want they need, or babies to be circumcised, it would only be reasonable for Him to make them that way.

This mindset is alien to modern man. The contemporary western view of time is linear, a dimension — a progress from the primitive to the advanced. This notion that history progresses comes from Judaism, from our view of time as running from First Cause to Ultimate Purpose, a history spanning from Adam to the Messianic Era and beyond. Linear time gives us a view of man in which he can redeem himself; he is not doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over. (See also the roles and language of cyclic and linear time “Miqeitz: Time and Process“.)

Because Turnus Rufus’s worldview didn’t include the notion of time as a progression, he conceived of the ideal universe as a perfect one. Rabbi Aqiva explained that the ideal universe is not one that is in any one moment perfect, but one that is constantly progressing to the ideal. And it’s such a universe Hashem created.

Similarly the Divine Ideal is infinite. A human, being finite, cannot ever be close to it. In fact, the most transcendent thing about people is our very ability to transcend. Hashem loves the poor, and He considers the circumcised male to be closer to perfection. For that matter, babies are more complete after the umbilical cord is cut by another person — and Turnus Rufus couldn’t argue about that. Hashem could have made a world in which people could have bread, fine clothes, even computers with their web browsers, without human effort. But better than a world without poverty or one where babies are born perfect is a world where people can make ourselves, can progress.

So, Should I Believe?

If the topic of how far we can stretch Orthodox believes, and whether Dr Farber’s paper violates those limists bore you, you might want to skip ahead to the subtitle “Toward an Orthodox Epistemology“.

Well, now that we spent two posts on the topic of a man who is considered to be an Orthodox Jewish rabbi and dayan but doesn’t believe in the historicity of any of the events of the Torah, including its revelation, we need to honestly explore our own motives, in disagreeing.

It’s not enough to simply declare some idea heretical as a means to discourage an honest exploration of the facts. More important is to ask how I can be sure he is wrong. When I say “Ani Maamin“, I am saying that I accept these ideas… not really as articles of faith, although that’s what we call them in English, but as ideas I trust, I can rely on. Maamin is from the same root that G-d will use when asking us at the end of life, “Nasata venatata be’emunah – were you trustworthy in your buying and selling?”

To Dr Farber, accepting a documentarian theory about the revelation of the Torah is just one more paradigm shift in a long series, like our confrontation with Greek philosphy, when our place in the universe was moved from the center to one planet that goes around one stars among “billions and billions” in a galaxy that is merely one among “billions and billions”, or the grappling with 19th and 20th century science on the subject of origins — cosmogony (Big Bang Theory, Inflation, etc…), Historical Geology, and Evolution.

To quote the closing:

The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Every generation has its challenges, both intellectual and social. In the Rambam’s day, the challenge was Greek philosophy, and he wrote the Guide for the Perplexed. Greek philosophy is no longer the challenge, and our day needs its own Guide. … As committed observant Jews, it is our job, it is our job to keep the tradition alive by adapting the message of God to respond to these challenges, without fear and without apology, but with intellectual honesty, ethical sensitivity, and spiritual integrity. We must always be ready to face our Creator and our Torah with open minds and open hearts. Only in this way will we succeed in facilitating the growth of Torah observance in our day and allow the Torah and its message to flourish.

There are two basic differences between Dr Farber’s examples and his proposal.

The first is that until Orthodoxy hit the 19th century Counter-Reformation, it was rare to insist that the universe is less than 6,000 years old. Whether it’s the Rambam saying that the “days” of creation are causal steps that did not happen within time altogether, or the Ramban saying that the creation of the first pasuq was earlier in time to the world as we know it being laid out in a week, or Rashi saying that the Torah isn’t spelling out the historical sequence of events, or even back to the mishnah telling us that the Act of Creation is esoterica not to be taught in public.

This claim that belief in a young universe was rare among rishonim and early acharonim might be questioned by people of our era (products of the Counter-Reformation). But we can agree that there were such voices in the Oral Torah even without a scientific challenge, at a time when any finite age equally challenged the then-accepted the eternally old universe of Natural Philosophy and science. This is unlike the version of revelation Dr Farber would wish to invoke this as a precedent for. And as discussed in the previous post, the entire discomfort with the text of the Torah as we have it is based on the same error — that the Written Torah was ever written as a stand-alone document. We didn’t adapt Torah to these other ideas, they were part of the Oral Torah all along.

The second is that he is conflating the scientific and religious questions. The question of whether or not we evolved would be that of how Hashem created usReligion sets to pursue the purpose He created us for (the “why” to the extent we can understand it), or more accurately: to give us better tools for grappling with that problem.

The question therefore isn’t whether the contemporary Jew is “ready to face our Creator and our Torah with open minds and open hearts”, but whether we are willing to accept the reality of non-scientific questions and their answers. The difference between the heretic and the believer (in any religion) does not begin with the difference in their givens, but one step before — the epistemology each uses to assess which givens to accept.

Toward an Orthodox Epistemology

The gulf in communication is that the Jew who found his way in observant life has data points that the academic does not. We will differ therefore on which theory explains more of the data, more plausibly. To the Jew for whom the redemptive power of following halakhah is a first-hand experience, derashos cannot merely be a game, and the Oral Torah cannot be reduced to post-facto apologetics. The notion that the Torah was not dictated word-for-word, that any uniqueness in its style reflects something other than its supporting a far larger body of wisdom simply doesn’t fit experience: The way a piece of lomdus can find a consistent pattern from monetary law explaining an issue in Pesach. Or the way a Shabbos built on nit-picky details about how to make a cup of tea can provide a more rejuvenating experience than a more straightforward day of rest. Or…

People wish for a clear proof that would be easy to share with others. They feel that if I can’t prove it to an atheist or a Christian Fundamentalist, the justification for my own beliefs has no validity.

Scientism

The first obstacle to overcome is “Scientism”. (A term that unfortunately the Christian Right abused in debates over Creationsm, but a term in epistemlogy nonetheless.)

We live long enough after the industrial revolution that progress is thought of in terms of advances in science and technology; our ability to “fill the world and control it” (Bereishis 1:28). And so we overestimate the role of science, of the empirical world, in knowledge. Yes, science is our most reliable way of collecting facts, but only facts about the empirical world.

If you start out favoring theories that minimize Hashem’s Hand in history, that will shape your resulting conclusion. If you decide in advance that the only justification you’ll take seriously.

And then, ironically, most people don’t know enough of the topic to actually accept the science on its own merit, and for the man in the street it’s not so much scientism as reliabilism (deeming a source reliable). And you never hear about the details, that the final theory as it exists today could have one verse by three or more authors, that the original J vs E word usage thing doesn’t always work, etc… All that “cleanly comes apart” stuff isn’t true once you get beyond oversimplified tutorials.

Nor is any literary analysis really scientific or ever possibly freed from subjective bias. This is liberal arts, after all!

RYBS notes in the Lonely Man of Faith the effect of the spectacular success of scientific and technological progress on that loneliness:

Let me spell out this passional experience of contemporary man of faith. He looks upon himself as a stranger in modern society which is technically minded, self-centered, and self-loving, almost in a sickly narcissistic fashion, scoring honor upon honor, piling up victory upon victory, reaching for the distant galaxies, and seeing in the here-and-now sensible world the only manifestation of being. What can a man of faith like myself, living by a doctrine which has no technical potential, by a law which cannot be tested in the laboratory, steadfast in his loyalty to an eschatological vision whose fulfillment cannot be predicted with any degree of probability, let alone certainty, even by the most complex, advanced mathematical calculations — what can such a man say to a functional utilitarian society which is saeculum-oriented and whose practical reasons of the mind have long ago supplanted the sensitive reasons of the heart?

- Tradition Magazine v7n2
The Lonely Man of Faith, pg 8

Scholasticism

A second source of false certainty is a certain approach to philosophy.

The Rambam places great value on being able to prove things from first principles. And so the second section of the Guide to the Perplexed opens with a list of 26 propositions, which the Rambam then uses to prove that there is Creator who continues to run the universe. In the same vein he requires that the articles of faith not simply be accepted because that is what he was taught, but that it be a knowledge based on proof.

Arguments of the sort the Rambam demanded we base our faith upon only get embraced after we are already leaning in that direction. After all, philosophical proofs are “just” mountains of logic built atop first principles — and first principles too rise and fall on whether they correspond to our own experience. These 26 Propositions may have been self-evident to the Rambam, but today we don’t speak in terms of form and substance, or that time is a property of a process rather than a dimension in which processes can occur.

As it says very early in the Kuzari (1:13, tr. modified Hirschfeld to modernize archaicisms in the English):

The Rabbi: That which you express 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 proven.

And in the millennium since, few of those disputes have been resolved. And since the Rambam’s acceptance of Scholasiticism, philosophers like Des Cartes and Kant have shown that that isn’t the proper direction for philosophy altogether. Which is how we moved to movements like Existentialism, and its focus on explaining the world of our experienced.

To the Kuzari, and the Ramban (Shemos 13:16) after him, the strongest evidence for the Torah is tradition. “There is an excuse for the Philosophers. Being Greeks, science and religion did not come to them as inheritances.” But we do have a reliable tradition.

But this reliabilism has become weak in our era. Too many of us grew up in communities that rejected that tradition, so that even those of us who did grow up with it

Experience

I think the alternative is to work toward an inspiring avodas Hashem and limud Torah. The more one sees for themselves the redemptive properties of halakhah, the more confidence you have in the original revelation of laws, process and culture that gave you that din. And the more evidence it would take to convince them that the Torah wasn’t written didactically in order to serve a the seed for an Eitz Chaim, notes for a body of knowledge far larger than the text and a process of analysis, mode of thought and culture.We need to develop more self-confidence in our own non-empirical experiences, so that they too carry conviction.

I believe that  reason for the philosophical unreliability Rav Yehudah haLevi describes is that 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 existence, they must first accept all my givens, as well as the validity of each of my implications. (See “The Kuzari Proof part II” for a longer discussion of this point.)

So, by experiencing the redemptive power of Torah, we increase our confidence in the postulates that support the halachic process that gave us those practices. The outsider would think this is “faith” (which is a misleading word, given how many forms of Christianity developed the idea and colored its connotations). Or that it’s an argument from what one wants to be true, from liking Shabbos or whatever.

Rather, it is more like our confirming the Euclidean postulate that parallel lines never meet. We can mentally picture two lines that have the same slope, and we “see” in our minds that they never meet. We can’t show anyone else this “evidence”, but we then accept this postulate (at least in flat space) and build complex geometric proofs with this given. But no proof is more sound than our acceptance of the 5th postulate — which still rests on an internal mental experience. (See “The Kuzari Proof part I“.) And in fact, the more rigorous we try making our proofs, the bigger the structure we have atop our experience and the resulting set of posulates we are willing to work with, and thus the less confidence we have in the result. (As per The Argument from Design ver 4.0. At this point you might realize this blog has a whole category on this epistemology.)

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.

There is just an elegance to Torah in all its complexity of the sort one finds in a “beautiful” math proof, and not in human-created systems. I can’t articulate it to someone who hasn’t experienced it. It’s not an argument from the beauty of Shabbos, but from that within Shabbos that is there to find beautiful. And because it itself is a data point, not an argument build from the data points (givens / postulates), it can’t be articulated to those who haven’t experienced it themselves.

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?

But to me, Farber’s argument reads much like that of someone who did work on nuclear fusion and proved that sunlight must be orange. Someone who never found a clear sunny day for himself might buy into the theory. Those who have experienced a yellow sunny day would not find its issues pressing, and would shelve looking for flaws in it for later.

The Limits of Orthodoxy

I feel a need to chime in about the contretemps about Dr Zev Farber’s essay “Avraham Avinu is My Father: Thoughts on Torah, History and Judaism” on thetorah.com. But first I want to lay out some thoughts about defining heresy, who qualifies as a heretic, and the limits of Orthodoxy, which may not be the same thing.

To be clear, I was informed that Dr. Farber’s role on IRF’s beis din is administrative, and any discussion of whether his article constitutes kefirah has nothing to do with the validity of their beis din or the converts it produces. Besides, I’m not a poseiq!

I – Categories of Belief

One of the problems with discussing the question of whether an idea someone shared is heretical or not is that the word “apiqoreis” is thrown around too readily today. Therefore, a conversation which tries to limit itself to the question of whether a given idea is apiqursus or kefirah inevitably raises the emotional responses of a personal accusation. As it is, it’s hard to avoid taking the words “your belief system is heretical” impersonally, but the climate has made things worse. So, let me open by defining the technical terms.

The Rambam (Hilkhos Teshuvah 3:6) speaks of three kinds of heretics:

The min, which the Rambam defines (3:7) giving a list of wrong beliefs about G-d: the atheist, the polytheist, someone who believes in a god that has a body, etc…

The apiqoreis, which includes people with various beliefs about how G-d runs the world. Note the origin of the word; it’s the Aramaization of the name of Epicurus and his followers, who denied that the universe has a Lord. An apiqoreis is described (3:8) as denying prophecy, that no knowledge flows from G-d to the heart of man, denies Moshe’s prophecy in particular, or does not believe that G-d Knows what people do and think.

Last, Rambam discusses (3:8) the kofeir, which has subtypes.

  • The kofeir baTorah is someone who denies the Torah in one of 3 ways:
    • someone who says that one sentence or one word is not from Hashem, such as he claims Moshe wrote that part himself;
    • someone who denies the Oral Torah or contradicts the members the chain of mesorah that transmits it, or
    • someone who says that a single mitzvah was exchanged, or (like the Christians and Moslems) that the Torah was superseded.
  • The kofeir betchiyas hameisim denies the eventual resurrection, and
  • the kofeir bebei’ah hago’el does not await the messiah.

Notice that these categories pretty much cover the same ground the Rambam described in his commentary to the mishnah, the introduction to Chapter “Cheileq” in Sanhedrin — generally known as the Thirteen Iqarei Emunah (Articles of Faith). The difference is that the mishnah discusses a philosophical point. “All of Israel have a portion toward the world to come”. Which the Rambam explains refers only to Jews in good standing, and then he lists which beliefs would be required to secure at least some portion. Here he defines halachic categories in the negative (things the iqarim exclude), which have labels that reappear in a number of places in the code and impact how we are to treat other Jews.

There is a second difference: the criteria here are spelled out in far less detail. They are less specific in what must be believed. Which is also true of accepted halakhah. We don’t so much hold to the standard of the Rambam, we found it overly shaped by his own approach to Jewish Thought. He would exclude schools of Qabbalah, for example, which most contemporary rabbis would consider holy. Instead, we demand that a philosophy explain how it fits in the forms found in Ani Maamin and Yigdal without redefining them. After all, there is a reason why Yigdal found its way into every contemporary traditional liturgy, from Germany to Yemen.

So I think it’s fair to say we do hold of the 13 Articles of Faith on a legal level, for example in discussing questions of which beliefs we demand of a conversion candidate for their geirus to be valid, who may be counted toward a minyan, whether they can handle uncooked kosher wine, etc… But notice my vague phrasing “in discussing questions”, we’ll see in the next section that there is a second piece to the question when we shift from labeling beliefs to classifying people.

Bible criticism is therefore a form of apiqursus about Moshe’s prophecy and presumes kefirah about the revelation of every word of the Torah. After all, if the text were dictated as it is by G-d for the sake of being a seed to start the halachic process, and to be notes that are a small part of a primarily Oral body of wisdom, all the textual questions of the bible critic don’t begin.

II- Beliefs vs.People

But it is not a given that someone today who believes in kefirah would qualify for the label “kofer“. For something like a conversion candidate, or to appoint a Chazan, since intent is part of the mitzvah, answering the question about belief is sufficient. But when deciding whether the person is themselves some form of heretic who must be kept aside from social interaction, and thus his wine is prohibited to me, or whether he cannot be counted toward a minyan, there is an issue of culpability for those beliefs.

The Rambam excludes those who have Qaraite beliefs because they were raised in a Qaraite home from the label (Mamrim 3:3). So it would seem that someone who believes in meenus, apiqursus or kefirah because of upbringing is not in the halachic category of min, apiqoreis or kofer as a person. Rav Yaakov Etlinger (Teshuvot Binyan Tzion Hachadashot 23) applied this ruling to the Reform Jews of his day. And the Chazon Ish (YD 2:16,28) says this applied to all Jews today, as even those of us from Orthodox homes are impacted by being in the minority, we are bucking the zeitgeist and even G-d has been so silent.

Moving from the product of his upbringing to the seeker of the truth, the Raavad (on Teshuvah 3:7) writes that someone who believed in error that G-d had a body because of studying the many verses in Tanakh written in human, body-related idiom, could be holier than the Rambam. He is often taken as ruling that while G-d does not have a body, it’s not heretical to think he does. But it’s also quite likely that the Raavad instead meant that because of the way the person reached this bit of meenus, he is not himself a min. Rav Kook (Shemoneh Kevazim 3:31) and the Piaseczner Rebbe (Benei Machashava Tova, pg 19) hold that’s the Raavad’s intent, and both accepts that position. But more clearly, the Radvaz (responsum 4:187) ruled about a man who said Moshe was Divine that he is not an apiqoreis because his error was the result of an honest search for the Truth. To the Radvaz, heresy is an act of rebellion; these definitions are the measure of how far one must rebel against traditional beliefs before qualifying. And the Iqarim (1:2) considers even such a person, who honestly explored the topic and ended up being convinced of heresy among “the pious and righteous of Israel”, which echoes the Raavad’s description of the rabbis who believed in a G-d that had a body as being “among those greater and better than him” (an earlier manuscript has “among the great and good”).

The Rambam (Hilkhos Eidus 11:10) says that any of these three kinds of heretic would not be a valid witness in beis din, which means he couldn’t serve as a dayan on a beis din either (Nidah 49b). And so the Shulchan Arukh concludes (CM 32:22). Whether this would include those who belief kefirah but do not themselves qualify as koferim is a question I couldn’t find an answer to. It is easier to find the various views followed today with respect to a tinoq shenishba, someone who doesn’t believe because of their upbringing, and whether they can be counted toward a minyan, or if their uncooked wine may be shared. The subject of serving as dayan or the person who was misled by an honest study eluded me.

But I think we can agree that someone who preaches kefirah shouldn’t be given a position of authority to use as a soapbox to spread his teaching.

Rav Aharon Soloveitchik permits counting someone who was raised to believe meenus or apiqursus (heretical beliefs about G-d, revelation or His interaction with the world) toward a minyan as long as their beliefs still leave prayer a meaningful concept. I would think there is a parallel issue here. Deciding halakhah is not only a science it is also an art. There is a feel for how the halakhah ought to flow that is only taught through shimush (lit: service), apprenticing under a mentor rebbe. Chazal attribute Yehoshua’s succession after Moshe to the extent of his shimush. (Bamibar Rabbah on 21:14, Temurah 16a) They attribute the explosion of disputes between the students of Hillel and Shammai not to the teachers’ ideology, but because they didn’t commit themselves sufficiently to shimush of their respective rebbes. (Y-mi Chagiga 2:2 vilna 10b, Sotah 47b) Without that feel for the art, a genius with access to the Bar Ilan CD is still not a halachic decisor.

So even without labeling Dr Farber a “kofer” as a person, his belief in kefirah makes it impossible for him to continue to qualify as a rabbi or dayan. Someone who doesn’t share the historical sense of where halakhah flows from from can’t share the same opinion of the development and art of pesaq, regardless of how well he mastered the texts

III – Is He a Shomer Shabbos?

All this talk about the technical definition of kefirah aside, historically we generally didn’t bother questioning people about their beliefs. Instead, we presumed that Shabbos observance testified that they believed all the basics. This could be understood two different ways: We can see this as simply a pragmatic solution, the only way to avoid handing out a test (taken with a lie detector!) to every person we wish to count toward a minyan. If so we do indeed require that he adhere to the Thirteen Articles of Faith, as in the prior section, but we can presume that a Shabbos observant Jew does. But then, someone who writes a paper summarizing his faith would still be judged according to the , despite being meticulous in his observance.

Or, we could consider this an actual halachic criterion of who we are supposed to treat as a Jew in good standing, rather than my argument above that we expect the beliefs listed in Ani Maamin or Yigdal. And it’s hard to prove this point from the literature, because people could be using “believes the 13 Ani Maamins” or “believes the iqarim” as idioms. Much the way we say someone “follows the Shulchan Arukh” when we mean that they follow accepted halakhah even when it differs from the rulings of the Shulchan Arukh and the Rama. I personally do not subscribe to this position, but it’s worth exploring before deciding something drastic.

This appears to be the thesis of The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised, by R’ Melech / Dr. Mark Shapiro. This would mean that our exploration of whether Dr. Farber’s beliefs could be accepted as within the Orthodox fold, should focus on whether those beliefs succeed in maintaining enough of the traditional motivation for Shabbos observance. Notice even by this yardstick, we aren’t simply asking if he observes; no one would consider an atheist who observes Shabbos for cultural reasons alone to be a believing Jew.

Which really boils down to the question of whether Dr. Farber’s position actually does succeed at what he set out to do. Can someone subscribe to multiple authorship of the Torah, even under prophetic influence, without undermining the halachic process and consequently the laws of Shabbos? Bringing us to my next post. (Don’t worry, the draft is pretty far along. Shouldn’t be too long of a cliff-hanger.)

Orthodoxy and Biblical Criticism

This is part two of my reactions to the internet discussions about Dr Zev Farber’s essay “Avraham Avinu is My Father: Thoughts on Torah, History and Judaism” on thetorah.com. In the first part, I tried to lay out how I view the topic of what is Orthodoxy and what is an Orthodoxy Jew, just to set the scene.

Very quick summary review:

  1. I personally believe that we in practice use the standards of Ani Maamin or Yigdal to decide which beliefs could remove a Jew’s good standing.
  2. I am willing for the sake of this discussion (which would otherwise be quite short) also consider a more loose definition, and ask who is a shomer Shabbos. The term is an idiom for a reason. Meaning, rather than looking at the beliefs as a law in themselves, we will require those beliefs that justify living according to halakhah (including Shabbos in particular).
  3. There is a gap between judging beliefs and judging the people that have them. There could be more to being a heretic than believing in heresy, there is the element of why they believe and culpability. We really didn’t have the material to answer the question, and pragmatically answers differ between contemporary posqim anyway. But it’s important to know the question is there.

So, here we are not discussing the status of Dr Zev Farber, but the status of his beliefs. I still think it’s self evident that if we find his beliefs problematic, we as a community need to say so, and not give him a forum to teach them. Therefore, I am more uncomfortable with the subsequent statements from key people in Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the International Rabbinic Fellowship, who are keeping him in his post, then with Dr Farber himself. (Although you’ll note I’m uncomfortable using the titles “rabbi” or “dayan” to refer to him.)

Besides, anyone who can’t help quoting Zaphod Breeblebox the Zeroth (a character in the British satire Science Fiction book series The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy) in the middle of a serious paper spelling out some of his most cherished beliefs sounds like someone whose company I would really enjoy.

I – Key Quotes

But now, I want to address Farber’s specific claims. He writes:

To adapt an idea I heard from a wise mentor, if the Borei Olam (Creator) can fashion a universe in which pond-scum can eventually evolve into Rabbi Akiva, then how much more so can God use the voices of the nevi’im to form theTorat Hashem! (God’s Torah).

 

THE WAVE THEORY
Revelation derives from the channeling of divine through human conduits. Although I consider nothing in the Torah to be specious, the insights of the Torah must be framed in a way sensitive to the context specific nature of revelation. If one wishes to uncover its message, the Torah must be studied in depth and in relation to the historical reality of the ancient world in which it formed.

I believe that people over the years, through some sort of divine encounter, have been given insight into God’s plan for Israel / the Jews and that these things were put into writing by the various prophets who experienced them and their disciples. Over time these revelations are synthesized and reframed. In the beginning this was how the Torah and the other books of Tanach were compiled. Over time the process moved on to the creation of other works, including the core works of Oral Torah like the Mishna and the Talmud…

And:

Given the data to which modern historians have access, it is impossible to regard the accounts of mass Exodus from Egypt, the wilderness experience or the coordinated, swift and complete conquest of the entire land of Canaan under Joshua as historical. At what point biblical historiography and ancient history begin to overlap in significant ways remains highly contested—some would say with the accounts of the United Monarchy (the period of Saul, David and Solomon) others with the account of the Northern king, Omri (beginning in the late tenth century).

So he accepts the theories of Bible Criticism and schools of Biblical Archeology as having shown that the Torah’s traditional foundation is mythical. So how does Dr Farber maintain his own relationship to the Torah and halakhah?

In my world-view, humans have the capacity to function in more than one mode. There is a mode where the person is totally on his or her own, and there is a mode where the person encounters the divine and channels it in some way. I understand this mode to be related to the traditional concepts of nevua (prophecy) and ruah ha-kodesh (holy spirit). I will call it prophetic mode. …

The prophets, like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, certainly function this way….

The same is true of the Torah, I believe, which is the prophetic mode at its most sublime. If there are contradictions which cannot be answered by literary readings, this is because they reflect the respective understandings of different prophets channeling the divine message in their own way; each divine encounter refracts the light of Torah from the same prism but in a distinct way.

To adapt an idea I heard from a wise mentor, if the Borei Olam (Creator) can fashion a universe in which pond-scum can eventually evolve into Rabbi Akiva, then how much more so can God use the voices of the nevi’im to form the Torat Hashem!  (God’s Torah).

In this installment I hope to discuss the question: Can this edifice actually stand or is it self-contradictory?

II – Does it Work?

Dr. Farber lists a number of examples of the kinds of things that make up a compelling argument for concluding the Torah was redacted together from multiple documents by different authors. As these are only illustrative examples, I won’t address each one. The point isn’t the examples, but the kind of thought they demonstrate. Since our focus here is whether his philosophy does indeed support halakhah, I will take his first example of alleged “Contradictions in Law”: “Do slaves go free on the seventh year (Exod. 21:1-6, Deut. 15:12-18), or do they go free in the Jubilee (50th) year (Lev. 25:39-55)?”

Chazal, of course, note the same contradiction. We can be sure that Farber is aware of the Yerushalmi Qiddushin 6b (probably directly if not via the Rambam) which says that a Jewish slave is freed at shemittah, if they sold themselves or if court sold them (e.g. to repay a debt incurred stealing an item) and they wish to leave. If someone sold by court chooses not to, they go through an ear piecing ceremony (mentioned in the quoted portion of Shemos) and remain slaves until no later than yovel. And this is as the Rambam codifies it as well (Avadim ch. 3).

In general, Bible Criticism is based on different assumptions about the nature of the text than Jewish Tradition does. We believe that the Torah, and Tanakh in general, describes events that were not typical. In fact, that the events themselves were as much part of how Hashem “wrote” His message to mankind as the books. We believe that the written Torah is Cliff Notes to a fuller body of wisdom, “merely” the seed to a Tree of Life planted among us, a process we were given and instructed how to work.  So, yes, Hashem orchestrated similar but different events, wanted Yaaqov to have 7 children in 12 years, tells the same story in different ways or calls the same person by different names, and presented the term limits of a Jewish slave in terms that engender halachic discourse.

If someone believes that Hashem planned the Oral Torah and halachic process as part of His Intent when He composed the text, there is no question for the Bible Critic to address. That is not to dismiss the need to understand the peshat, the plain meaning of the verse. But there is no “why?”, we know the Author’s motivation to at times make that peshat less than obvious — there are other layers that we can only find through those indicators. They are not imperfections to be attributed to a human element in authorship or inconsistencies to be attributed to redaction.

There is something paradoxical about Farber’s belief in a text that evolved from the voices of prophets into Hashem’s word. If you accept it’s Hashem’s Word, and that Word is of the sort that supports Jewish Tradition and the halachic process, there is no longer motivation to speak of multiple “voices of prophets”.

Underlying the whole exercise was the presumption that Oral Torah and halakhah are an afterthought, and not part of the original texts. Thus Chazal’s answers come across as weak apologetics, rather than reflecting the true body of the full corpus of the Torah in which the Oral and Written are a single entity. And I do not believe that traditional Shabbos observance can stand on that foundation.

(In contrast, Chazal teach that the Oral Torah actually was given first!  The ideas of the Torah were given at Mt Sinai, but the text was given either piecemeal over the next 40 years, or all at once at the end of Moshe’s life.)

And I could have taken a short-cut and noted that Dr Farber also realized that the halachic process would not stand unchanged. To resume my first quote from his essay:

In my view, Judaism is essentially a wave that eternally sends the messages of God. However, in order to understand how to apply these messages we must understand how any given halacha or ideal functioned in any given society, particularly the original society, ancient Israel. When we understand this, we can “subtract” the societal elements to see the ideas in their relative purity and reapply them to our times. Waves, however, require continuity. For this reason, it is vital to understand how the Torah functioned in every generation since Moshe in order to do this right. This requires serious study and thought.

The Jewish community already tried that experiment, combining bible criticism and historical and sociological analysis of halakhah to justify a different legal process, one which balances Tradition and Change. It’s simply not Orthodox halakhah. (And in fact that system devolved to the point where Conservative observance of kashrus full-time is at 3% and the movement’s leadership has been working on pulling out of a nosedive for the past decade. Which is not a good thing, but that’s a topic for a different post.)

Dr Farber’s belief system stands up neither to the Ani Maamin test nor the Shomer Shabbos one.

And last, is there serious reason for others to feel the challenges posed by Biblical Criticism and Archeology are insurmountable, such that the Torah needs to be understood in a new light? Are those of us who insist on maintaining classical Orthodox beliefs intentionally blinding ourselves to the truth? Stay tuned for part 3!

The Rambam’s Philosophy and Mesorah

The argument over whether the Rambam’s philosophy had a place in Jewish Thought didn’t end in 1306 when the Maimonidian Controversies (that began in his lifetime) died down. Even to this day, in many circles his Guide for the Perplexed and the first four chapters of the Mishneh Torah are not studied. (For similar reasons, in these communities, when Chovos haLvavos is studied, they skip Sha’ar haYichud and avoid its Artistotilian underpinnings.)

The Maharal writes (Tif’eres Yisrael ch. 9):

הפילוסופים אשר זכרנו למעלה, יתנו שם ותפארת אל השכל, ועל ידי המושכלות יקנה האדם הנצחיות, ויעשו המעשים הישרים והטובים כמו תכונה וסולם, אשר יגיע בהן אל המושכלות. ומזה הסולם נפלו.

The philosophers that we mentioned earlier give recognition and glory exclusively to the intellect, believing that through intellectual achievements a person can acquire permanence. They made upright and good acts like preparation and a ladder with which to reach for comprehension. And from this ladder they [the philosophers] fell.

The “philosophers” the Maharal describes includes the Rambam. Such as in Hilkhos Teshuvah ch. 8:2-3:

וכן זה שאמרו עטרותיהן בראשיהן כלומר דעת שידעו שבגללה זכו לחיי העולם הבא מצויה עמהן והיא העטרה שלהן כענין שאמר שלמה בעטרה שעטרה לו אמו, והרי הוא אומר ושמחת עולם על ראשם ואין השמחה גוף כדי שתנוח על הראש כך עטרה שאמרו חכמים כאן היא הידיעה, ומהו זהו שאמרו נהנין מזיו שכינה שיודעים ומשיגין מאמתת הקב”ה מה שאינם יודעים והם בגוף האפל השפל. כל נפש האמורה בענין זה אינה הנשמה הצריכה לגוף אלא צורת הנפש שהיא הדעה שהשיגה מהבורא כפי כחה והשיגה הדעות הנפרדות ושאר המעשים והיא הצורה שביארנו ענינה בפרק רביעי מהלכות יסודי התורה היא הנקראת נפש בענין זה, חיים אלו לפי שאין עמהם מות שאין המות אלא ממאורעות הגוף ואין שם גוף נקראו צרור החיים שנאמר והיתה נפש אדוני צרורה בצרור החיים, וזהו השכר שאין שכר למעלה ממנו והטובה שאין אחריה טובה והיא שהתאוו לה כל הנביאים.

Similarly, when they said that the righteous people have crowns on their heads they were referring to the knowledge because of which they inherited a place in the World To Come. This knowledge is always with them, as is their crown, as Solomon said, “…with the crown with which his mother crowned him.” It is also written, “and everlasting joy shall be upon their head”—this is not physical pleasure that they will receive, but the crown of the Sages, i.e. knowledge. When they said that they will benefit from the radiance of the Divine Presence they meant that they will know and understand the existence of God in a manner that they couldn’t while in their gloomy and paltry bodies.
Whenever the word “soul” is mentioned, it does not mean the soul-body combination but the actual soul itself, which is the understanding given by the Creator and which causes other understandings and actions. This is the form which was explained in the fourth chapter of the Laws of The Basic Principles of The Torah. It is called “soul” with respect to this matter. This life, which does not involve death, for the reason that death is an occurrence of the body, or a body is called the bond of life, as it is written, “Yet the soul of my lord shall be bound with the bond of life”—this is the reward above which there is no other rewards, and the goodness above which there is no other goodness, and with which all the Prophets were granted.

In his commentary on the Shulchan Arukh (YD179:13), the Gra takes exception to the number of ideas stated by Chazal that the Rambam dismisses as allegorical because they didn’t fit within his rationalistic thought. (Although I must confess that in the cases of amulets and astrology, my sympathies lie with the Rambam, we are discussing here the cause, not specific cases.) The Vilna Gaon writes that the Rambam was “led astray by the accursed philosophy”.

The Gra’s contemporary, Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu Horowitz of Vilna (1765-1821), writes in Sefer HaBris (Section 1 2:6; tr. R’ Daniel Eidensohn):

The Givat HaMoreh wrote in the introduction to his sefer that the reason that it took such a long time for the full development of philosophy was because of the great wisdom of Aristotle and his unprecedented stature. Because of this his views were followed by all the scholars generation after generation in a slavish manner. It was viewed that anybody who disagreed with him was as if he were arguing on self-evident reality. In exactly the same way, the reason that there has been a long delay in the development of our theology is because many think that to disagree with something that the Rambam said is to disagree with something which is self evidently true. The two processes are almost identical because in fact the concepts of the Rambam are those of Aristotle – as is well known. However all men of integrity while they love the Rambam – love the truth more. This is as the philosopher said, “I love Aristotle and I love Socrates but the truth I love more.”

The R’ Hirsch’s complaint against the Rambam reads much like the Maharal’s. He writes in The Nineteen Letters of Ben Uzziel (letter 18):

The age gave birth to a man [R' Drachman's footnote: Maimonides], a mind, who, the product of uncomprehended Judaism and Arabic science, was obliged to reconcile the strife which raged in his own breast in his own manner, and who, by proclaiming it to the world, became the guide of all in whom the same conflict existed.

 

This great man to whom, and to whom alone, we owe the preservation of practical Judaism to our time, is responsible because he sought to reconcile Judaism with the difficulties which confronted it from without instead of developing it creatively from within, for all the good and the evil which bless and afflict the heritage of the father. His peculiar mental tendency was Arabic-Greek, and his conception of the purpose of life the same. He entered into Judaism from without, bringing with him opinions of whose truth he had convinced himself from extraneous sources and he reconciled. For him, too, self-perfecting through the knowledge of truth was the highest aim, the practical he deemed subordinate. For him knowledge of God was the end, not the means; hence he devoted his intellectual powers to speculations upon the essence of Deity, and sought to bind Judaism to the results of his speculative investigations as to postulates of science or faith. The Mizvoth became for him merely ladders, necessary only to conduct to knowledge or to protect against error, this latter often only the temporary and limited error of polytheism. Mishpatim became only rules of prudence, Mitzvoth as well; Chukkim rules of health, teaching right feeling, defending against the transitory errors of the time; Edoth ordinances, designed to promote philosophical concepts; all this having no foundation in the eternal essence of things, not resulting from their eternal demand on me, or from my eternal purpose and task, no eternal symbolizing of an unchangeable idea, and not inclusive enough to form a basis for the totality of the commandments.

 

He, the great systematic orderer of the practical results of the Talmud, gives expression in the last part of his philosophic work to opinions concerning tlie meaning and purpose of the commandments which, taking the very practical results codified by himself as the contents of the commandments, are utterly untenable cast no real light upon them and cannot go hand in hand with them in practice, in life, and in science…

What then is RSRH’s complaint? That the Rambam was too Aristotelian, and it led him to study Judaism from the outside, casting upon it the Hellenic philosopher’s priority of knowledge rather than morality. And as proof, Rav Hirsch points to the fact that system of taamei hamitzvos the Rambam presents in the third section of the Moreh Nevuchim leaves many elements unexplained. For example, this quote from sec. 3, ch. 26 (tr. Friedlander, emphasis added):

I will now tell you what intelligent persons ought to believe in this respect; namely, that each commandment has necessarily a cause, as far as its general character is concerned, and serves a certain object; but as regards its details we hold that it has no ulterior object. Thus killing animals for the purpose of obtaining good food is certainly useful, as we intend to show (below, ch. 48); that, however, the killing should not be performed by nechirah (poleaxing the animal), but by shechitah (cutting the neck), and by dividing the œsophagus and the windpipe in a certain place; these regulations and the like are nothing but tests for man’s obedience.

RSRH argues that the Rambam only failed to find the meaning to the details of the mitzvos because his assumption that mitzvos serve to either (a) teach true monotheism, (b) wean us away from idolatry, or (c) create a society which enables us in these pursuits is based on Aristotle’s emphasis on abstract knowledge rather than the Torah’s emphasis on ethics and personal refinement.

I am not sure the gap is as extreme as Rav Hirsch’s portrayal. I believe that while the Rambam does place intellectual knowledge as more central than moral refinement, the Rambam also felt the two were inseparable — that the lack of knowledge is the primary reason for people making bad moral choices. This topic was addressed in a post about the Rambam’s theory of knowledge and akrasia (why people make decisions they know are wrong) and knowledge, but in the course of preparing this post, I also started rewrite that entry.

Still, this gap is very real in that it does give a “spin” to doing the mitzvos that few contemporary Jews would share. Are you more comfortable sharing the idea that mitzvos are to teach us abstract facts about G-d, or to train us in how to act more like Him?

But I want to back off from the subject of bad decisions, mitzvos, and the Rambam’s understanding of the ideal person to leave them for the rewrite that I hope to post next.

In Aristotilian Physics, any motion begins with an intellect imparting impetus to an object. And that motion or change continues until that impetus runs out. I decide to throw a ball, the ball continues on the path my arm gives it, until the impetus I gave the ball runs out, and then the ball falls. (More on this idea and how it shows up in the gemara in the post “Aristotle, Science and Halakhah“.)

Still this explains why his Metaphysics is centered around intellects. So Aristotle posited a start to the whole causal chain, an Unmoved Mover, Who Exists in eternal contemplation of Himself. Unchanging, but thus causing change. And from this Unmoved Mover, there is a sequence of intellects down to the Active Intellect, which is the bridge from disembodied intellects to the spheres and people — intellects that are wedded to objects within they physical universe. Therefore, the key to human perfection, according to Aristotle, is to connect to this Active Intellect, and the only way to do so is to share its thoughts. In other words, to gain philosophical understanding.

The Rambam makes one drastic change to this model, but otherwise accepts it in its entirety. (An idea I also ready discussed at length; see “Maimonidian Qabbalah – Part III“.) Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover is subject to the laws of nature (metaphysics and physics), whereas the Rambam credits the Creator with being their source. So, the Unmoved Mover couldn’t be credited with starting the universe ex nihilo, because Aristotle understood that only forms change — nature does not allow for the increase or decrease in quantities of matter. And so his universe has no beginning. The Rambam basically defines G-d in terms of the Unmoved Mover (Moreh Nevuchim 1:69), but since nature is itself a creation, G-d is capable of creating ex nihilo or performing miracles that violate the laws.

Similarly, Aristotle’s chain of intellects become identified with the angels. Quoting the Rambam (Freidlander’s translation, MN 2:6) “We have already stated above that the angels are incorporeal. This agrees with the opinion of Aristotle: there is only this difference in the names employed — he uses the term ‘Intelligences,’ and we say instead ‘angels.’” See also Yesodei haTorah 2:5-6:

5: Since they [the angels] possess no body, what separates the form [of each] from the other? Their existence is not alike. Rather each one is below the level of the other and exists by virtue of its influence, one “above” the other. Everything exists by virtue of the influence of HQBH, and His Goodness. Solomon alluded to this idea in his wisdom, saying (Qoheles 5:7): “Because above the one who is high there is a watcher [and there are others higher than them].”

6: The expression “‘below’ the level of the other” does not refer to height in a spatial sense like, “He is sitting higher than his colleague”. For example, when speaking about two sages, one of whom is greater than the other, we say, “one is above the level of the other.” Similarly, a cause is referred to as “above” the effect [it produces].

But Aristotle’s physics doesn’t match reality, where the ball follows a parabolic trajectory. The notion of momentum, which is conserved, is very well established. And the planets in their orbits conserve momentum pretty well, and one doesn’t need to posit their being embedded in intelligent spheres. (Minus losses due to the gravity of the sun and other planets — but those two are seen exactly as expected by the math.) Although in practice objects on earth pretty consistently lose their momentum to friction, including air drag. Aristotle’s physics was replaced by Newton’s.

The entire notion of a chain of intellects to translate Divine Will into physical action isn’t necessary. The Rambam’s justification for needing intellects to cause grass to grow and everything else attributed to angels simply isn’t there. And thus there is no reason anymore to assume there is an Active Intellect, or that aligning one’s intellect to a progressively higher understandings brings one up the chain of angelic causation closer to G-d.

By wedding so much to Aristotle, the Rambam’s philosophy requires major translation to have a place in a contemporary world-view. Aside from the issue I want to focus on in the next post, on how the Rambam marries this idea of the centrality of understanding concepts to the role of mitzvos and morality, its role in obtaining prophecy and [other forms of] Personal Divine Providence [hashagah peratis].

Don’t Forget Daf Alef!

A thought that I had amidst all the talk about the start of Daf Yomi Cycle #13…

But first: Mazal Tov to all the mesaymim!

There has been much talk lately about one of AishDas’s central themes: seeing the forest for the trees. Eg the Spring 2012 issue of Klal Perspectives, and R’ Dr Gidon Rothstein’s recently published seifer, “We’re Missing the Point.” We have universal education at a level that is rare in Jewish history, enabling new levels of halachic observance as well. But to quote [R Peli's notes of a shiur by] R’ JB Soloveitchik (On Repentance pp 97-98):

Even in those neighborhoods made up predominantly of religious Jews, one can no longer talk of the “sanctity of Shabbat.” True, there are Jews in America who observe Shabbat… But it is not for Shabbat that my heart aches; it is for the forgotten “erev Shabbat” (eve of the Sabbath). There are Shabbat-observing Jews in America, but there are no ‘erev Shabbat‘ Jews who go out to greet Shabbat with beating hearts and pulsating souls. There are many who observe the precepts with their hands, with their feet, and/or with their mouths – but there are few indeed who truly know the meaning of the service of the heart!

The Vilna Shas famously starts each mesekhta on daf beis amud alef — page 2a. And there are many cute thoughts about it, such as learning modesty from the fact that even when you’re finished, you still haven’t even learned page 1. (However, the Vilna Yerushalmi does start on 1a.)

What is happening in the edition of the Bavli is what we find in many books — page numbering includes the front matter. So the Bavli does have a daf alef, it typically looks something like the picture to the right. And so, nearly every copy of the Vilna Shas begins with the picture of an ornate gate.

פִּתְחוּ לִי שַׁעֲרֵי צֶדֶק; אָבֹא בָם, אוֹדֶה קָהּ.
זֶה הַשַּׁעַר לַה’, צַדִּיקִים יָבֹאוּ בוֹ!

Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will go through them, I shall praise G-d!
This is the the gate to G-d — righteous ones go through them!

- Tehillim 118:19-20 (and Hallel)

Yes, we must learn gemara and understand it well, but it is possible to learn gemara and not once mention Hashem’s name. I would suggest that we need to remember daf alef, perhaps pause at it before and after learning. If our learning the trees is not not tied to developing our appreciation of the forest, if we learn without taking personal lessons about righteousness and approaching the Creator, what is its value?


PS: My proposal for the venue for next cycle’s siyum:

Things to Thank the Maccabees For

Over the years that I’ve been blogging, I noticed a number of ways in which Jewish and Hellenic thought differ. Not just difference of philosophy — differences even more fundamental than philosophy. Ideas that conflicting schools of thought that belong to the same culture rarely argue. The things people raised in each culture take for granted.

I thought in honor of  Chanukah, I would construct a list. Aside from discussion and argument over the items I listed, I invite others to add to it.

MONOTHEISM

(This doesn’t appear in my blog; it’s just too central to Judaism to ignore. But “Hashem and Morality”  discusses how monotheism plus the notion of spiritual progress, discussed next, combine to give a possible definition for morality.)

The notion that there is a Creator wasn’t alien to Hellenic culture, Plato taught that He took eternal matter and made the universe we have around us. Aristotle speaks of the First Cause and the Unmoved Mover.

What Judaism gave the west was the notion that this implied something about reality now. That the events around us can’t be pinned on capricious and petty acts of gods who are portrayed as powerful but often spoiled people.

Without the notion of the universe being the product of plan and thought, science never would have gotten off the ground.

It also implies life has purpose.

LINEAR TIME

In the Timeaas (36c-d) Plato concludes that since our means of measuring time was the cyclic movement of astronomical objects so must the time they define be cyclic. The month and its cycle of phases, the year and its cycle of seasons define a cycle of time. The seasonal cycle also shapes the farmer’s lifestyle into cycles. Time cannot be measured without a predictable repetition of events, be it the falling of grains of sand, the swing of a pendulum, the escapement of a clock, the vibration of a quartz crystal or the waves of light emitted by cesium atoms.

Aristotle thought that time was a quality of change. Not that things change in time, but that change and motion have a property, the time in which they occur.

Most ancient societies viewed time as cyclic.

But this mindset is alien to modern man. The contemporary western view of time is linear, a dimension — a progress from the primitive to the advanced. This notion that history progresses comes from Judaism, from our view of time as running from First Cause to Ultimate Purpose, a history spanning from Adam to the Messianic Era and beyond. This acceptance is an accomplishment of the Maccabean revolution against the Greek mindset. Linear time gives us a view of man in which he can redeem himself; he is not doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over.

(Judaism simultaneously embraces a cyclic view of time. As the Hagaddah phrases the purpose of the seder, “A person is obligated to see himself as though he himself came out of Egypt.” Every Shavuos we are to accept the Torah anew. Our holidays not only repeat the cycle of the Exodus, they are tied to agricultural events and thereby the cycle of seasons. The holiday is both reliving the Sukkos of the desert as well as celebrating bringing in our crops. Time is like a spiral staircase, we revisit the same things, but each time at the next stage in a progression.)

The notion of nature being designed led to the start of science, and the notion of progress led to the accumulation of technology.

But more importantly, both are necessary components to finding meaning and purpose in one’s existence.

TAHARAH

(By which I mean the middah and mental attitude, not halachic ritual purity.)

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.

Taharah is also the term used for the purity of a metal — the menorah must be made of zahav tahor (pure gold). 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.

This distinction dates back to Noah, who saw in Yefes an attention to surface matters and thus aesthetics. “Yaft E-lokim leYefes – G-d’s beauty is for Japeth, veyishkon be’ohalei Sheim – and he lives in the tents of Sheim.” Yefes’s son Yavan is the one for whom Ionia was named, Yavan is Hebrew for “Greece”. Yefes sees beauty, Sheim develops an internal G-dliness.

With the taharah mindset, it’s not just about behaving properly, it’s about finding improper motives in the mix and trying to eliminate them. Thus, we don’t look for proper behavior, but look to develop core values which are manifest in that behavior.

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 requires a soul that is pure.

NETWORKING

Do roads exist to connect cities, or do cities exist to serve the roads? We naturally assume the former, that roads are built to allow people and goods to travel from one center to another.

However, historically speaking, it’s usually the reverse. Medina, in Saudi Arabia, grew from the crossroads of trading routes. Canaan was at the crossroads of three continents, and its very name comes from the word for “traders”. This is why the Israel of Na”kh was so often crossed by the soldiers of Assyria and Egypt, en route to the other to battle. And being at a traffic center placed us in the ideal situation to influence world thought. Because of the centrality of shipping, New York, Baltimore and Boston all grew around their harbors, and many European cities are on rivers — London, Paris, Budapest, Frankfurt, etc…

This is illustrative of a basic issue of perception, one which may not be the most central to Judaism, is perhaps most fundamental. It shapes the framework in which Jewish tradition looks at the world and frames its questions and answers.

Western Thought is based around the notion of “things”, devarim in the biblical sense — davar as object, diberah as statement or idea. These are primary, and the relationships between them are seen as a consequence of the essence of those objects.

Our tradition seems to pretty clearly be based on the idea that “cities are defined by their roads”, in other words, that the essence of an object is in how it relates to others. This is very much related to what I wrote above about taharah. A person is the sum of his relationships, they aren’t surface matters. And therefore, the word “boneh” means both “is building” and “builder”. While someone is building, he is a builder. The difference between a present tense verbs and active participles (a builder, a fisher, a watcher, a guard, a guide, etc..) is not meaningful from this perspective.

Aristotle catalogues. He divides a subject into subtopics, and those subtopics even further, until one is down to the individual fact. Greek thought was focused on reductionism. To understand a phenomenon, break it down into smaller pieces, and try to understand each piece. This is typical of the Yefetic perspective.

In contrast, look how Rav Yehudah haNasi redacted the first mishnah. The beginning of the mishnah could have said that the time for evening shema is from sunset until 1/3 the night. But instead it uses referents involving kehunah, taharah and ashmores. This is not to confuse the issue, but because from the Semitic perspective the key to understanding one mitzvah is from its connections to everything else.

HUMAN LOGIC

And from the notion of holism and a network view of reality, we get a totally different perspective on logic.

The West never formalized the notion of reality having gray areas. For example, the question of whether a ball is red gets fuzzy around the edges of the notion of red. Add just an invisible tincture of blue, and it’s still red. Keep on adding blue, and at some point it’s clearly purple. But at some point in the middle, it’s “sort of red”. Classical logic has no way to describe that “sort of”.Since Aristotle’s day, western logic has had two basic rules:

The Law of Contradiction: Something can never be both true and false. From this law, we have the reductio ad absurdum; we can assume something is true if denying it leads to a contradiction.

The Law of Excluded Middle: Something is either true or false, not neither.

These seem so self-evident to us, one wonders how other positions could exist. However, had we grown up in the Far East, we wouldn’t be so Yefetic.

In a perspective that focuses on connections, there is no isolated fact. Therefore, many things Yefes would consider a single yes/no question are complex, shaded, and nuanced to Sheim.

Think how badly the logic of Aristotle or Boole occlude “fuzzy logic” issues, like the difference between “John isn’t tall” and “John is short” where John is of roughly average height.

And how many human realities involve ambivalence and dialectic, our ability to embrace conflicting viewpoints simultaneously emotionally and even rationally, despite the usability of the Law of Contradiction for human-scale physical events?

We frequently feel both joy and sorrow over an event — because we relate to it in multiple ways. The talmud‘s example is finding out one is rich, because of the death of a wealthy but beloved parents.

Human reality is dialectic on the intellectual plane as well. To cite one case from Rabbi JB Soloveitchik’s writings, is it not true that “Society exists to serve its members” and yet “A person’s highest calling is to benefit that society”?

By divorcing human experience from reductionism, Judaism gave the west the tools for exploring our own reactions.

None of which would have been preserved had the Maccabees lost the war.

Allegory and Literalism

In an earlier essay, I wrote about mandatory beliefs in Judaism. What about the less central claims? There is a specific mitzvah obligating us to believe the events of yetzi’as Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt. But a topic of much discussion in the Orthodox corner of the internet (and in particular, the blogosphere) is whether one must believe that there was a global flood in the days of Noach, or a Tower of Bavel. Are we required to believe these historical claims as well? Or in general, where along the line from creation, to these prehistorical sources to the avos, the forefathers, to the Exodus is the line where one may say this is not history, whereas anything afterward was intended by the Author to be historically accurate?

I think it is more useful to use the formulation we offered in that essay. Focusing on what can or can’t be declared allegorical, even though it’s the most frequently found phrasing of the problem, misdirects us from the core points.

The Me’iri (Avos 3:11) tells us that there are three kinds of verses: phrases that are clearly allegorical and not literal; phrases that are literal; and phrases that are both. Mind you he is saying this in explaining the mishnah that tells us that someone “who reveals explanations in the Torah which aren’t as the halakhah” has no portion for the world to come. The determination of which verses are allegorical and which not was given at Sinai, and can only be determined by tradition.

We also see from the Me’iri that declaring something an allegory isn’t the same thing as saying it’s not historical. Hashem is just as capable of authoring a history that stands to the student of that history as a parable from which to learn as He is capable of authoring a story in a text. In fact, “ma’aseh avos siman labanim — the act of the forefathers is a sign for the offspring”, demands that we look at the biographies in Tanakh through this perspective.

Second, the Maharsha condemns a stream of thought amongst Rabbis in Provence, who stated that Avraham and Sarah represent chomer and tzurah (substance and form), the 12 brothers represent the 12 astrological signs and the forces behind them. However, for all we know, his opinion was based on a misunderstanding of their position. Did they mean — as the Maharsha assumes — that there was no historical Avraham and Sarah, that the story is actually Hashem’s way of teaching us about chomer and tzurah? Or, that Avraham and Sarah truly did exist, and their lives were depicted in the Torah as they were so that the lives serve also as lessons for us of deeper truths?

Regardless of which they meant we see here the difficulty in determining whether a rav was calling something ahistorical. The positive claim “this is allegory” is insufficient.

Third, there are a few oft-cited statements as predecessors to the idea of creating our own interpretations that I feel are not applicable.

a) The Rambam writes that the three angels that Avraham saw as men coming to visit him came in a prophetic vision. In fact, he adds, every time an angel appears in a story, the story must be a prophetic vision. (I wrote in Mesukim more about this concept and the Ramban’s rejection of it, and my understanding of the Abarbanel’s take on the debate, and my own theory about the underlying dispute.)

This is often cited as an example of the Rambam using Aristotilian philosophy to deviate from accepted understanding of these episodes. However, it’s neither based on Aristotle, nor the Rambam! The Rambam cites Rav Chiyya haGadol in Bereishis Rabba 48. No deviation.

b) The Ramban attributes the rainbow to nature, whereas Chazal (Avos 5:6) speak of the rainbow as being among the things created twighlight at the end of the week of creation, in a list that includes Bilaam’s donkey, the mon, etc… Furthermore, the Ramban explicitly states that he is doing so because Greek science shows that it’s a natural phenomenon. That the rainbow did not first appear after the flood as a sign of Hashem’s covenant with Noach, but that it was a preexisting phenomenon that Hashem appointed as a sign.

But again, this is also a non-example, as the list ends “the writing [on the luchos] and the art of writing”. A sofeir does not violate the laws of nature every time he puts quill to parchment. Being on the list means that it was significant and part of the Divine Plan from the begining. Not that it’s miraculous.

c) Rav Zvi Yehudah Kook labels all of the Torah before Hashem’s command to Avraham “Lekh lekha” to be prehistoric (assuming פרה- is being used to spell “pre-”, not “parahistoria”). Does this not mean that one can take the same approach to this entire section of the Torah that one takes to the week of creation? If that week need not be a week, why must the flood be a flood?

Again, not really. He’s using a loan word from English. When an archeologist calls something “prehistoric”, he isn’t saying it’s less real, or mythical. He’s saying that is comes from a period before we can establish an organized history. R’ ZY Kook is labeling the pre-Abrahamic material “prehistoric” as an introduction to asking why the Torah begins there, and not with the forefathers.

Much of the dispute is also what people see to be the primary question. In that sense, it’s like the abortion debate. One side calls itself “pro life”, because to them the question is whether one supports the sanctity of life or not. The other, “pro choice”, because they are looking at the issue as a matter of autonomy.

To the rabbis who banned R’ Natan Slifkin’s works, the question of innovation to accommodate science is one of emunas chakhamim, faith in our sages. To those who are bewildered by the ban, it’s one of seeking comprehension. So, while one side asks for an explanation, the other responds that demanding justification and not simply trusting the ruling, is itself a symptom of the problem. They can’t sit down to explain their position, because to do so would be to defeat it.

Another question, as we saw above, is determining how much, if any, of the Torah is necessarily literal history. Must the first moment of time have been 5766 years ago? What about the flood and the tower of Babel? The forefathers? One is obligated to believe in the Exodus and Sinai, so it would seem the line, if any, must be in Genesis. If one makes the line that of halachic obligation, is it at Yaaqov’s encountered with Lavan, since one who brought a bikurim offering had to state “Arami oveid avi — An Aramian/trickster [attempted to] destroy my forefather”?

Or one can see the question as the scope of mesorah. Is it halakhah, and only those beliefs that impact halakhah? After all, can one speak of an obligation beyond the scope of halakhah — isn’t that a paradox? In which case, can we treat everything else merely theory to support the halachic lifestyle? This would ruling is in disagreement with the Tosafos Yom Tov I cited in the earlier essay, who rules that one must even understand the verse “and Timnah was a concubine” in a manner consistent with tradition. It would also be in disagreement with the Rambam, or at least my understanding of his position.

1984, NewSpeak and the Holy Language

A long while back I wrote some thoughts on the dispute between the Ramban and the Rambam about what makes Hebrew the holy language, in the context of a general dispute over the context of qedushah. The Rambam says that Hebrew’s holiness comes from it having no native expletives, even sexual organs are identified by euphemisms or loan words. The Ramban, just as he defines “and you shall be holy” as going beyond the letter of the law, defines the sanctity of the Hebrew language in terms of its relationship to G-dliness — not “merely” that it toes the halachic line.

Along the lines of the Ramban, I want to explore the relationship between language and thought. Your mind is less capable of managing those ideas if you’re thinking in a different lexicon and grammar. Knowing the assumptions behind the language is actually a precondition for correctly understanding the worldview! This is my justification for spending time looking at verb tenses and parts of speech in the Hebrew of the Tanakh,  or the implication of the hononimity of “tov meaning both “functionally good” (it does its job well) and “morally good” (such as a good person), or the numerous times I start the discussion of a topic with the etymology of the root of the Hebrew term.

To quote 1984 (George Orwell, 1948) the story’s Ingsoc (English Socialist] leaders invented the language of NewsSpeak for this reason:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought–that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least as far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect method. This was done partly by the invention of new words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever…A person growing up with Newspeak as his sole language would no more know that ‘equal’ had once had the secondary meaning of “politically equal,” or that ‘free’ had once meant “intellectually free,” than, for instance, a person who had never heard of chess would be aware of the secondary meanings attaching to ‘queen’ or ‘rook.’ There would be many crimes and errors which it would be beyond his power to commit, simply because they were nameless and therefore unimaginable.

This is an informal form of a notion in linguistics called the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis”, formulated by Edward Sapir and further developed by his student, Benjamin Lee Whorf. Here is  Sapir’s formulation (The Status of Linguistics as a Science, 1929):

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the
medium of expression in their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection: The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached… Even comparatively simple acts of perception are very much more at the mercy of the social patterns called words than we might suppose…We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.

And Whorf writes in “Science and Linguistics” (1956 edition):

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds — and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way — an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.

Similarly (but lehavdil!), the language the Torah was given in and which was shaped by a community that followed it will make it easier to think along the same lines.

Aggadic Stories, History and Halakhah

Someone raised on Avodah the following question (see the posts listed here under two different subject lines, “Kinyan on Shabbos??” and “Kinyan on Shabbos? (Har Sinai)” ). The first Shavuos was on a Shabbos. Didn’t we acquire the Torah — doesn’t this imply a qinyan on Shabbos — which is prohibited? What about our being made avadim, servants, of the Almighty? And the event is compared to a wedding, which we don’t perform on Shabbos.

I answered on-list on a technical level — a qinyan is allowed on Shabbos if it’s for the sake of a mitzvah or according to others for the sake of Shabbos. And what could be more for the sake of Shabbos than giving us the covenant that includes Shabbos? (It was previously commanded at Marah, but it’s the version given at Horeb that is binding today.) The Rama famously performed a wedding that was scheduled for Friday but ran late into Shabbos. (There were extreme circumstances, but still, he permitted it.) Etc…

However, I think there is a meta-issue that is more significant to discuss, and therefore I’m elaborating on the Avodah post where I raised that issue here.

The comparison of matan Torah to a qinyan, a wedding or avdus isn’t necessarily halachic. It is more reasonable to think it’s on an aggadic level, and this whole question doesn’t really begin.

Also, given my attitude toward the historical accuracy of aggadita, I wouldn’t assume that placing Matan Torah on Shabbos is a historical claim. Nor would I assume it isn’t. The point is to provide a, not a study of history. History and legend were blindly mixed because the question is just off topic to talmud Torah.

This is actually easier to support mesoretically than assuming that these narratives were intended as historical assertions (in addition to their metaphor). See R’ Daniel Eidensohn’s “Da’as Torah”. Despite what is presented as the “frum” answer today, this is the position of R’ Saadia Gaon, the Rambam, his son R’ Avraham, the Maharsha, the Maharal, the Vilna Gaon, R’ Hirsch, R’ Yisrael Salanter, etc… Because someone might be surprised that this is the actual normative traditional attitude toward aggadita, I’ll give two sources that I already had on-hand.

The first I posted recently. With respect to aggadic stories, the Rambam (introduction to his commentary to chapter Cheileq in Sanhedrin, a little before his list of the 13 articles of faith, identifies three categories of people, two wrong camps, and one right one. The erroneous approaches are: (1) Those who take all the fantastical claims of the stories as literal, find them absurd, and ridicule the Torah for it; and (2) Those who take them as literal, take them seriously, and therefore believe in an absurd distortion of the Torah. The correct approach is (3) to realize that the Torah convey deeper truths via hint and riddle. (Which he laments is a class of students of the Torah that is small and far between, a class in the sense that “the sun is in the class of all suns.)

And from Rav Yisrael Salanter:

We are living now in the period following the German conquest of several districts of France. The German Kaiser has now become the mighty sovereign of many isolated provinces, which he has united into one mighty state. In order to immortalize its victory, the German government changed the appearance of the eagle in its national emblem, making it two-headed instead of one-headed (as it was until now). Historians, writers and poets praise the conquest with exaggerated descriptions. I myself have read the lines, “The German eagle has spread its wings from Memel to Metz. One of its claws grips Koeln, while the other is in Baden.” Instead of detailed and realistic descriptions of international wars, what they record for posterity are symbols and hints that are only well understood by the generation in which the events occurred.

With the changes of time, memory of the events will fade, and all that will remain will be the terse symbolic account. A long time from now, people will read that in German a two-headed eagle spread its wings for 500 miles. Perhaps they will laugh at this, just as they laugh at [the stories in] the aggada.

The same thing happened to us. Chazal used terse symbolic language to describe the events of and before their time, and they recorded the Torah’s wisdom and mussar in epigrams. These sayings were only understood by the people of their generations, and by mequbalim of later generations.

The notion that the forefathers observed the entire Torah, even Rabbinic rulings, is also an aggadic story, and is no more likely or not to be historical. But it’s not even made about the generation in question.

ALL THAT SAID, it seems to be the rules of aggadic stories, even the ones that aren’t historical, that they do not have any of the “good guys” doing something we wouldn’t. And so we still find commentaries trying to justify things on a halachic basis. This shouldn’t be taken to mean they assumed the events actually occurred!

Which was the thing I was trying to do here. I don’t think there is any reason to believe there actually was a qinyan of any sort done on Shabbos as part of Matan Torah. Still, because Chazal use that metaphoric language, it must be able to work halachically — or else they would have chosen different metaphors.