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.

The Semitic Perspective

In honor of Chanukah, I thought I would finally post my ideas on the differences between the Yefetic and Semitic perspectives. Yefes, and his son Yavan are the progenitors of western thought. Yavan, the Ionians, are the first Greeks to establish academies of art and philosophy, paving the way for the more famous Athenians. We, on the other hand, are descendents of Sheim, and our forefathers spent years studying his thoughts. Last year, I explored one consequence of Yavan’s gift of aesthetic (“yaft E-lokim leYefes — G-d’s beauty is for Yefes”) vs. Sheim’s focus on core value (“…veyishkon be’ohalei Sheim — and He will ‘dwell’ in the homes of Sheim.”) Teaser: “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. … 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…”

Another difference can be seen by contrasting the style of Aristotle with that of Rav Yehudah haNasi. 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.(I’ll try to use “perspective” only to refer to these basic ways of thinking that underlie many worldviews and schools of thought. Pretty much any western thinker works within Yefetic perspective. The issue is one more fundamental even than the differences between Socrates and Derrida. Socrates forces his opponent to make a distinction and show him how neither side really works — thereby forcing him to Socrates’ conclusion. Derrida also presumes that objective truth must be reducible into simple yes/no questions — and since the world doesn’t fit that, he focuses on the role of texts and social construct in how we see the world.)

As opposed to the way 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.

Yefes is reductionist, believing the world can be understood as the sum of its smallest pieces. Sheim is holistic, looking at the interconnections between those pieces, and the pieces only gaining meaning from the relationships in which they partake.

This is not only true statically, but also over the course of time. We get used to identifying “the cause” of something. Why did he hurt his foot? Because a can fell on it. Why did the can fall? Because someone else accidentally kicked it. And so on… However, it’s equally true that he hurt his foot because even though he usually wears iron toed hiking boot, he chose not to wear them that that day.

I would instead suggest that every event is like “the perfect storm”, every one has combinations of factors that come to a head at the same point. If we accept this proposal, then belief in modern science or even Newton’s deterministic physics does not rule out the existence of other perfectly valid causes. Saying that something happened because of a segulah, or nature, or mazal, or free will does not rule out that it’s happening because of the others — and Divine Providence.

Also, it means that identifying one cause of some tragedy does not mean that one is denying other causes. And not every cause need to be a source of blame, saying that the party is one of those “at fault” for what happened. Our being gathered in Eastern Europe in such density had much to do with the magnitude of the holocaust. But we weren’t at fault for being there.

(Even look at the difference between Western and Eastern idolatry: Semitic idolatry is not about polytheistic people-gods, reducing godhood to an easily understandable super-powerful “person” like Zeus. It’s about notions that seem to us far blurrier. Buddha nature in which everything is godly, but just isn’t aware of it. Hinduism’s single Divine that has 3.3 million expressions called “gods”. One fact, many perspectives. Is it avodah zarah or isn’t it? The cases in the gemara become difficult to apply. Christianity started on this road when it adopted trinitarianism, but at some point the church got too Westernized to be able to attempt to still retain it. Until you get to Tertullian, who insists that he believed it because it’s absurd [which in Latin primarily means self-contradictory].)

There is also a likelihood this issue played a role in the Maimonidian Controversy. For all his ties to mesorah, the Rambam’s project was from what we identified as a Yefetic perspective. Unlike the mishnah, his Mishneh Torah categories, divides and subdivides in Aristotilian style, with some connections overlaid, and far more often simply left implied.

While there is a historic debate whether there are 13 principles or three, I really don’t know what difference this makes except in semantics. Furthermore, according to the qabbalists there is no such thing a foundation principle in the Torah because every aspect of the Torah is a foundation principle without distinction one part from another…

Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah 2:356; tr. R’ Daniel Eidensohn

The Rambam tried to establish basics, from which everything flows. The Chasam Sofer presents the opposing qabbalistic camp, in which any Torah idea can be seen as an equally place to start exploring a complex network of truths. The issue was never articulated, but perhaps because “perspective” is something so primary that it’s difficult to establish a common dialogue across its borders.

Des Cartes famously said, “Cogito ergo sum — I think therefore I am.” A true skeptic can’t be sure of much. Even “1 + 1 = 2″ might be a delusion caused by insanity or a malevelent deity. The only thing one can be sure of is that there is an “I” doing the thinking, being sure. He then tried to prove the existence of other things, including G-d, with just this one given.

But even the Cogito is subject to this distinction. Are we individuals who interact, or only defined as individuals by the set of interactions we have with others? Moshe Rabbeinu lacked his full prophetic gift from the time of the Golden Calf until the rise of the next generation. The Or haChaim explains that this is because “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh” (Shevu’os 39a), which is usually translated “All Jews are guarantors one for another”. That’s consistent with another version of the quote, which ends “lazeh” (for this). However, “ba-“, in, implies a different meaning of the word “areivim”, mixture. All Jews are mixed, one into the other. Moshe’s soul did not stand alone, it is connected and overlaps those of the rest of the nation. When they lowered themselves with the calf, Moshe’s soul was diminished.

Even the “I” is not reductionist, but defined by its connections.

From this relation-based orientation comes a second distinction, a basically different approach to 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. R’ Meir Levin uses this idea as a basis for understanding derashos. He suggests that the role of qal vachomer, gezeirah shavah, heqesh, kelal uperat, are to establish for us relationships. This is why they play a role that sevarah, which is more compatible with western logic, does not.

This subtlety beyond all-or-nothing of the Semitic perspective is also the reason for a number of other things:

1- There are many opinions which understand “eilu va’eilu, “These and those are the Words of the Living G-d, but the law is like Beis Hillel” to mean that both sides of a halachic debate are literally and fully true. See earlier essays about eilu va’eilu.

2- When someone wants to formally make a tenai, a conditional (e.g. This divorce is valid if… Or: I promise this calf as a qorban if…), ideally he must make it in both the positive and the negative. “… if I do not return, and it is not valid if I do.” Because we allow for antinomy and for middle values between yes and no, saying the condition in the positive form need not imply its truth in the negative.

This has consequence in the Yiddish practice of avoiding ayin hara by phrasing compliments in the negative. However, “He’s not stupid” doesn’t actually mean “He’s smart.” He could be average, a middle ground. If they actually were considered identical, would the circumlocution avoid ayin hara?

3- The logic of deciding uncertainty in halachic situations.

I think that to understand halakhah’s notion of logical connectives, equivalents to the boolean notions of “this AND this are true”, “this OR this is true”, “this is NOT true”, etc… one should explore the concept of sefeiq sefeiqa, how to resolve cases with multiple doubts, when there are two unknowns in the circumstance we need to rule upon. We seem to have 5 logical states:
mutar: permitted, including mi’uta demi’uta, a “minority of a minority, ie negligable chance of prohibition
mi’ut: minority, of significant size
safeiq: doubt
rov: majority, and
assur: prohibited, including ruba deruba, an overwhelming majority).

There are debated questions. “Mi’ut bemaqom safeiq”, does a minority chance on one doubt and more even second doubt combine to make a majority. “Sefeiq sefeiqa de’eina mis-hapeches”, a second doubt that only exists if you consider the other one first. E.g. a doubt whether wheat sprouted after Pesach in light of one about whether it was planted before Pesach. If the answer to the second question is “no”, then obviously so is the first. These are debates about the nature of our connectives. Does “mi’ut OR safeiq” equal rov or safeiq?

Not that these states exist in all situations. In cases of qavu’ah, where doubt arose after a ruling was once made, any doubt is like “half vs half”. It seems to be boolean, ie the classical true / false, and therefore if we can’t establish one or the other we can’t procede.

For more on this point, see this draft appendix as well as this devar Torah for parashas Shofetim. In these essays, particularly the second (and much shorter) one, I tie the use of multivalent logic on the idea that halakhah addresses the world as experienced rather than the world as it may exist objectively. Therefore, a ruling could be on an experienced reality of “unknown”. However, once the matter is qavu’ah, reality was once determined, and therefore the question has a boolean resolution.

However, in response to Rabbi Levin’s writings on Semitic vs Yefetic worldviews, I came up with this second theory, that we do not strive individuate facts, and therefore the whole concept of subject-predicate doesn’t map very well. But they are far from mutually exclusive. The Semitic worldview better describes the human condition. This is why Kant assumed that anything real must be free of paradox, and that since he could construct paradoxes about time and space, they must be perceptions imposed by the human mind onto reality, rather than actually “out there”. Or why everyone is used to a single event creating conflicting emotions. And used to seeing something that is “sort of red”, or a person who is “kind of tall”.

(Loosely related is the question whether logic is inherent in Truth, and therefore of G-d’s essence, or a created notion that Hashem can therefore violate at will. See the entry “Hashem and Logic“.)

Just now, in our lifetimes, this gap may be closing. Quantum Mechanics seems to require a logic in which something can be both up and down in a kind of combination called a “superposition of states”. And uncertainty is being modeled in numerous ways, from Fuzzy Logic to Bayesian probability, all of which involve states between “yes” and “no”. In Martin Gardner’s book on multivalent logics (logical systems that have values other than true or false), he shows that a system based on “true / false / neither” and one based on “true / false / both” produce identical definitions for AND and OR. In other words, the law of contradiction isn’t a given in any multivalent logic.Also, there is a growing science of emergent properties, involving notions like Chaos Theory. Models for networking have been built that work whether one is discussing the interactions of particles down on the quantum level, chemicals in a living cell, the neurons in the brain, people in an organization, or links between web sites. We are first now learning how to model connections rather than just the items being connected.But until these ideas leave academia and become the bedrock of how we view the world, we’re still tied to the Yefetic perspective.

Ikkarei Emunah

The Rambam lists his ikkarim in his introduction to the chapter “Cheileq” in Tr. Sanhedrin. The mishnah states “All of Israel has a portion in the World to Come except…” The Rambam is addressing the question of who is “Yisrael” in this mishnah, which beliefs keep one from their guaranteed portion in the World to Come. (See also Hilkhos Teshuvah ch. 3.)The Ikkarim isn’t. R’ Yosef Albo has three ikkarim from which he derives 8 shorashim (roots). Shorashim are just as mandatory beliefs as ikkarim. However, ikkarim are the postulates, shorashim their theorems. He also derives many anafim (branches), beliefs that are not defining features of Judaism.In fact, R’ Albo points out that all “revealed” religions share the three ikkarim. It’s the shorashim that distinguish Judaism from them. He is seeking the minimal list of primary principles that from which you can reason your way to a complete belief system. They both use the same word “ikkarim”, but to mean different things: necessary belief vs postulate.I thought it would be interesting to line up the Rambam’s ikkarim with those of the Seifer ha’Ikkarim. One point of strong similarity is that in Hilkhos Teshuvah 3, the Rambam defines three types of heretic. I would argue that this is an aspect of the same notion.

  • Ikkar 1- Hashem exists (Rambam ikkar 1) – H”T 3:7 denial makes one a min
    • Shoresh 1.1- Divine Unity (Rambam ikkar 2)
    • Shoresh 1.2- That He has no body (Rambam ikkar 3)
    • Shoresh 1.3- That He is beyond the concept of time (Rambam ikkar 4)
    • Shoresh 1.4- That He is perfect (Rambam ikkarim 2 and 5, see below)
  • Ikkar 2- Revelation
    • Shoresh 2.1- Accepting the nevi’im (Rambam ikkar 6)
    • Shoresh 2.2- Moshe Rabbeinu’s uniqueness (Rambam ikkar 7)
    • Shoresh 2.3- The binding nature of the Torah (Rambam ikkarim 8 and 9)
  • Ikkar 3- Divine Justice (Rambam ikkarim 10 and 11)
    • Shoresh 3.1- Resurrection of the dead (Rambam ikkar 13)

Even further, looking at Rambam’s Hilkhos Teshuvah ch. 3, he lists three kinds of heretic who loses their place in the world to come. Halakhah 7 (15 in Qafeh’s ed.) defines a min exactly in terms of those articles of faith listed above as corresponding to ikkar 1 and its shorashim.

Similarly, the Rambam’s definition of apiqoreis (3.8) includes his ikkarim that address the same issues as R’ Yosef Albo’s 2nd ikkar and its shorashim — the nature of revelation.

However, defying the Torah (shoresh 2.3) is considered a form of kefirah, as would be denying notions of justice or an afterlife (2:6). This is a different line, therefore, between what the Ikkarim calls the ikkarim of Revelation and Justice. Implicitly, the Rambam is saying that informing the people of the law has more to do with G-d’
So their entire debate, once stripped of terminology differences, is on two points:

1- According to the Ikkarim, belief in mashiach (the Rambam’s 12th ikkar) is an anaf, a branch on the Tree of Life, but not necessary for its survival. So, the Rambam declares a person who doesn’t believe in mashiach a heretic and has no place in the World to Come (Teshuvah 3:6), the Ikkarim does not.

2- R’ Albo’s fourth shoresh from his first ikkar is that Hashem is uniquely perfect. The Ikkarim does include the worthiness of Hashem as a focus of worship as part of His uniqueness. I can not tell is this is part of the shoresh, or an anaf of it. (Which would be prohibited, but as idolatry, not heresy.)

Hashem’s uniqueness is part of the Rambam’s second ikkar about His Unity — He is both indivisible and unlike everything else. The Rambam’s fifth ikkar is that no one but Hashem is worthy of prayer, specifically making it about not having no other point of worship. So unlike my inability to determine if the Ikkarim makes this a central belief, the Rambam is clear on this point.

Just tonight I saw a third list of ikkarim, this time also in the Rambam’s sense of the word. The mishnah in Avos (3:15 or in some editions 3:11) gives a different list of people who have no portion in the World to Come.

Rabbi Elazar haModa’i (from Modi’in) said, “Someone who desecrates sacred objects, or who disgraces the festivals, or who pales the face of his peer [by embarrassing him] in public, or who annuls the covenant of our father Avraham a”h, or one who interprets the Torah not according to halakhah — even if he has Torah and good deeds, he has no portion in the World to Come.

The Tif’eres Yisrael (ad loc) explains that each action is demonstrative of a lack of belief in a critical belief. He uses the term apiqoreis to refer to such unbelievers.

The first is someone who denies the existence of G-d. He has no reason to acknowledge sanctity.

The second believes in G-d, but believes that the world is eternal. That reality emanates from an impersonal deity and therefore is coeternal with him. (In short, Platonism.) Such a person denies both creation and G-d’s “Hand” in history, and therefore Shabbos and the holidays are meaningless to him.

The third heretic believes in G-d, who created the world and runs it, but denies the human soul. He believes that the mind is merely the mechanics of the brain and people are thus not different in kind to animals. He has no reason to value human dignity, and therefore nothing stands in the way of his embarrassing others.

The fourth believes in souls, but not the convenant with Avraham. An attitude represented by the one who tries to alter himself to hide the beris milah of that covenant.

The last category is the person who believe in all of the above, but not that the covenant includes the Oral Torah. Therefore, like a Fundamentalist or a Qaraite, he would be lead to concluding that any of his own conclusions drawn from the text are as valid as any other, with no mesoretic process relaying proper and improper derivations.

This last list doesn’t correspond to either of the others. But the most notable difference in content is that it doesn’t include any eschatology — it doesn’t require belief in judgment in an afterlife, nor of mashiach and the resurrection of the dead. This is a very different trend than the one I wrote of in an earlier essay:

I would argue that HQBH created the world with a tachlis, a purpose, He placed each of us in it with a tachlis, and what is righteous is righteous because it is in accordance with furthering that tachlis. …
This means that of the Rambam’s ikkarei emunah, perhaps the last three are the most critical. Without an eschatology, without a final state, we have no way of defining which acts advance us to that goal, and which are ra, shattering that which was already built.

Rav Dessler on Reality and Perception

Time — its existence is only within our perception. Creation is far more profound than our ability to grasp and far greater than that which is represented in our physical universe. Consequently, “creation” transcends any limitations of time. The concept of something being “beyond the limitations of time” cannot be fully grasped by the human intellect. Thus when considering “beyond the limitations of time”, it is projected into our minds as endless periods of time. And thus it seems to scientists as if the world evolved over millions of years.Question: If so, why then does the Torah establish the description of creation in terms of six days? The Torah wanted to teach us that the existence of all things is only in proportion to the spiritual content it possesses. Something that contains much materialism and little spirituality – its value and true existence is small because the existence of everything [is determined solely] according to the measure of its spiritual content. (And this is the meaning of the verse “[for] a thousand years in your eyes are as yesterday which passed…” The smallest component of time to us would be the “passing”, in our memories, of the experiences of one day in the past, and thus the terminology “which passed”.)

And according to what we have mentioned, the fact that the universe appears to scientists to be millions of years old, the reason is that every object which is empirically observable to us on a superficial level, actually alludes, on a more profound level, to a deeper more qualitative aspect, that is, an aspect relating to the fundamental nature of creation and its spiritual purpose. Thus, what appears as differentiated stages in the chain of superficial cause and effect processes, is essentially nothing but spiritual aspects and levels in the fundamental nature of creation, except that it seems like this to one with a materialistic perspective, the entire cause and effect experience is simply a superficial shell which encompasses these fundamental and essential aspects of creation.

- Rav EE Dessler, “Zeman veHishtalshelus”, Michtav MeiEliyahu vol IV, pp 113 (tr. R’ Simcha Coffer)

Rabbi Coffer uses this quote as the basis of a proof that Rav Dessler believed in a young universe, with the apparent age an artifact of the limitation of the scientific perspective. (See the above link.)

The translation itself, above, omitting his bracketed insertions and copious comments, seems pretty clearly otherwise. Rav Dessler asks and answers why the Torah uses a terminology of 6 days. This question is only meaningful if the notion of six days is no more valid than any other.

Rather, Michtav mei’Eliyahu promotes the idea that the flow of time and duration of time are concepts that don’t have their usual meaning with respect to the creation period. Therefore, the scientist projects his perception and his meaning on the problem. Which is not wrong, they’re simply human projections onto the incomprehensible. In other words, 13.7 billion years is not the wrong answer, nor is six days. They are each right, in their way. This is the same conclusion one reaches (although R’ Coffer obviously didn’t), looking at Michtav MeiEliyahu vol. 22 pp 150-154. See my earlier entry “Rav Dessler’s Approach to Creation“.

Another case where Rav Dessler (Mm”E vol. pp 304-312) focuses on the role of perception in defining reality is his elaboration of the Maharal’s understanding (Gevuros Hashem, 2nd introduction) of nisim (miracles). See my essay at Mesukim MiDevash for Beshalach, pp 1-2:

The Maharal … writes that rather than being an exception to the rule, nissim follow their own rules. Indeed, miracles occur all the time, but on their own plane of reality. This is why Yehoshua requests “shemesh beGiv’on dom – the sun should stand still in Giv’on.” (Yehoshua 10:13) The sun stopped for the Jews in Giv’on, who were on a plane where miracles operate, but not for anyone else. Literally two different realities were simultaneously experienced. Not two different perceptions of the same event, but two conflicting things were real, depending upon which world one occupied.

Most of us live within a world in which the laws we call “teva” apply. R’ Chanina ben Dosa, however, lived in a world where the laws of neis applied. In this world, oil and vinegar are equally flammable…. Rav Eliyahu Dessler elaborates on this principle. Mekubalim speak of four olamos, each of a higher level than the previous: asiyah (action), yetzirah (formation), beri’ah (creation) and atzilus (emanation)….

People have two sources of information that they consider absolute. The first is their senses – sight, sound, and so on. The second is their self-awareness. The senses bring us information about the physical world. Self awareness brings us concepts like truth, freedom and oppression. Someone mired in the desires of the senses lives in the physical world. He focuses his attention on it, just as everyone focuses on that which is important to them. “Every tailor notices and looks at the clothing of the people in the street; and similarly every shoemaker, shoes…” The man of the senses therefore perceives it as more objective and more absolute than the world of the self…. This is olam ha’asiyah.

However, one can rise above that to the olam ha’yetzirah. This is not merely another level, but another world with its own laws, laws that do not conflict with free will. Those who focus on this world have no question that free will exists. To them, it is the ideals of this world that are more objective and absolute, and the senses, more subjective. Rav Dessler explains that this is how nissim can impact one person’s senses and not another’s. Yetzirah is the Maharal’s plane of nissim, and as the Maharal noted different people will perceive the miraculous differently, or not at all. And so the sea split in olam hayetzirah, but not in olam ha’asiyah.

According to Rav Dessler, someone who truly sees the world in terms of justice and kindness, freedom or oppression, to the extent that those laws are more objective and more absolute than gravity, conservation of energy, or electromagnetic force, then those laws actually do drive their reality. Such a person would live in a world of neis rather than teva.

(In a different essay, Rav Dessler relates neis to the person’s emunah. One can’t be influenced by the presence of miracles. Therefore, miracles only occur to those whose faith is already unshakable without them. The two perspectives are identical: One discusses the causal connection between rising up to olam hayetzirah and experiencing miracles, the other discusses how the connection is just.)

In both his discussion of time and of the laws of nature, Rav Dessler seems to be taking a consistent position, something along the lines of philosophers like Kant or Ernts Mach (an opinion shared by Einstein). Reality is at least as much the order we project on the world as the world “out there” itself. Mach uses this idea to explain why the universe is so sensible. We can explain natural law through science and math as we structures them because we’re actually studying the order we impose on the universe, not the absract thing “out there”. If reality is a product of both the external reality and what we impose on it, then consistency is not necessarily a given, particularly consistency between observers.

Ernst Mach’s description:

The goal which [science] has set itself is the simplest and most economical abstract expression of facts.
When the human mind, with its limited powers, attempts to mirror in itself the rich life of the world, of which it itself is only a small part, and which it can never hope to exhaust, it has every reason for proceeding economically.
In reality, the law always contains less than the fact itself, because it does not reproduce the fact as a whole but only in that aspect of it which is important for us, the rest being intentionally or from necessity omitted.
In mentally separating a body from the changeable environment in which it moves, what we really do is to extricate a group of sensations on which our thoughts are fastened and which is of relatively greater stability than the others, from the stream of all our sensations.
Suppose we were to attribute to nature the property of producing like effects in like circumstances; just these like circumstances we should not know how to find. Nature exists once only. Our schematic mental imitation alone produces like events.

- “The Economical Nature of Physical Inquiry”, excepted by J. Kockelmans. Philosophy of science: the historical background. New York: The Free Press, 1968

If we aceppt the idea that people of sufficiently different spiritual statures have different mental schema, then yes — miracles and even the definition of time, would depend on the individual.

In that Mesukim, I mentioned the following possibility:

Perhaps this approach leads to the conclusion that the biblical archeologists’ enterprise is doomed to failure. The archeologist lives and explores the world of teva. But the nissim recorded in Tanach did not occur within the world of teva, perhaps we should not expect to see evidence of them there.

Perhaps the inability to find archeological evidence of the flood or the tower of Bavel is akin to Rav Dessler’s description of the time of creation: “[I]t seems like this to one with a materialistic perspective, the entire cause and effect experience is simply a superficial shell which encompasses these fundamental and essential aspects of creation.” And perhaps if we had more meritorious archeologists, ones who glimpse into olam hayetzirah, they would find such evidence. (But would be unable to share it with the rest of us.)

This would mean the problem understanding the mabul is not a contradiction between the Torah and the empirical data, but an inconsistency inherent in different peoples’ version of the empirical world.

I realize that people with more rationalist, positivist, empiricist bents would find this resolution dissatisfying. And those without such inclinations would be unlikely to be bothered by the question. But it’s an interesting thought either way.

Rav Dessler On Reality and Perception, part II

(This post is an erratum and addendum to points made in “Rav Dessler On Reality and Perception“.)1: A correction. I wrote that in order to experience miracles, one must lift themselves into a world where moral law is more absolute than physical law. This is only partly true. Alternatively, Hashem can push the person into that world — as need requires. This is how the Egyptians experienced the miraculous turning of water into blood. It was obviously not a merit that allowed them to experience a non-natural punishment. Rav Dessler concludes chapter 3 of our essay, “All perceptions of olam ha’asiyah are not absolute at all, but are relative to the needs of the topic.” (p 310)Whether the difference is one of merit or of need (which in turn is usually caused by merit), the thesis stands: There is no reason to assume that just because the people of that generation experienced a flood, people of our era must find evidence of that flood.

2: The relationship between perception and reality is the subject of the next paragraphs, the first two of chapter 4: “We find that we learn according to this that our perception is itself the reality of the world for us. … This perspective seems strange to us, but it is only because we live in olam ha’asiyah and see the physical as literally (mamash) absolute…” (Note: The Hebrew actually borrows the word “absolute” throughout the essay.)

This is pretty clearly a phenomenologist position. (Phenomenology: A philosophy based on the intuitive experience of phenomena, and on the premise that reality consists of objects and events as consciously perceived by human beings.)

3: Rav Dessler himself extends the inability to experience miracles with the inability to experience their legacy. This is why we compute the molad from a point in the creation year, without accounting for the month that took fewer days because one of them was extended when the sun stood still for Yehoshua.

Roads and Cities

(This is a second angle on the same topic as my earlier Semitic Perspective post, as well as Mesukim MiDevash for parashas Behar.)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, dibrah as statement or idea. These are primary, and the relationships between them are seen as a consequence of the essence of those objects.

Our Mesorah 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 the roles it plays. 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. (See also part II of the entry on tenses in Hebrew.)

Morally, Western Civilization places rights more central than duties. “Live and let live.” As long as no one else is harmed, an action should not be prohibited.

Jewish morality is founded on the opposite principle. As I wrote earlier:

Moshe Rabbeinu lacked his full prophetic gift from the time of the Golden Calf until the rise of the next generation. The Or haChaim explains that this is because “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh” (Shevu’os 39a), which is usually translated “All Jews are guarantors one for another”. That’s consistent with another version of the quote, which ends “lazeh” (for this). However, “ba-“, in, implies a different meaning of the word “areivim”, mixture. All Jews are mixed, one into the other. Moshe’s soul did not stand alone, it is connected and overlaps those of the rest of the nation. When they lowered themselves with the calf, Moshe’s soul was diminished.

(The “bazeh” version is found in the Ein Yaaqov, which in general is considered more accurate than the Vilna edition of Shas.)

The notion of “areivim zeh bazeh”, or even “zeh lazeh”, is diametrically opposed to the west’s “live and let live”. We are not asked to respect the individuality of others; instead our attention is called to our need to relate to them. Giving someone space is appropriate in many situations, but not if it means one could stop self-destructive behavior but doesn’t.

A person is defined by the relationships he maintains. As I wrote on Pesach, those relationships are generally grouped by the internal one he has with himself, the one we maintains with G-d, and his relationship with other people — Torah, Avodah and Gemillus Chassadim. The ideals of Da’as, Rachamim and Tif’eres are the essence of the ideal self because they are the ideals of each of those relationships.

Chayei Sarah – Kibbush and Chizuq

1. Buying Ma’aras haMachpeilah

It is interesting to note that Judaism’s holiest sites were not conquered but bought. Parashas Chayei Sarah opens with Avraham purchasing the Ma’aras haMakhpeilah and the fields around it. Later, Yaakov buys the city of Shechem from Canaanite princes, the sons of Chamor (Bereishis 33:19). Similarly, Shemuel II concludes with David haMelekh purchasing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from Aravnah the Jebusite.

R. Yoseph Ber Soloveitchikzt”l, explained the meaning of qinyan, acquisition, in a speech given to the student body of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in the Spring of 1985. He noted that the root of the word qinyan is /קנה/, to manufacture. (It is also used in lesaqein, to repair.) This is because of the origin of the concept of commerce. Originally people owned what they made, the animals they raised, the plants they planted. The need for people to acquire things they were not personally able to make, lead to trading, barter, and eventually money. Purchasing uses the same root, because purchasing is a surrogate for manufacturing things yourself. I manufacture this, or provide this service, convert it into money, and exchange that effort for someone else’s manufacture or effort in providing that.

Once something is bought you have therefore also acquired its entire history. The person who sold it to you has effectively declared that “all I have done to increase its value was as a surrogate for you doing it yourself.”

2. Kibbush vs Chazaqah

R. Aharon Soloveitchikzt”l (Logic of the Mind, Logic of the Heart) writes of two kinds of acquisition. The first is “chazaqah”, holding. It comes from Hashem’s commandment to Adam “to guard the garden and keep it”. (Bereishis 2:13) This is the gift of reaching unto things through cultivation, work and dedication.

The other kind of acquisition R. Aharon calls “kibbush”, grasping. This kind of activity comes from Hashem’s other imperative to Adam, “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth vekhivshuhah — and subdue it”. (Bereishis 1:28)

In approaching the Benei Cheis, Avraham describes himself as “geir vetoshav anokhi imakhem — I am a stranger and a resident amongst you”. Avraham lived in two worlds, in the spiritual as well as the physical. He was amongst the Benei Cheis, but also apart from them. This gave Avraham two tools: chazaqah and kibbush.

The Western World is based on “might makes right”, “kochi veotzem yadi asa li es hachayil hazeh – my might, and the strength of my hand won me this battle”. The spirit of the West is “the hand of Eisav— the spirit of kibbush. Avraham didn’t feel the need to enforce his will with power, it was okay for him to be a geir.

Without kibbush society would not progress. We would have no new science or engineering, no new territory, evil would not be vanquished. But kibbush must have limits. While Hashem did command “vekhivshuhah”, He certainly wanted man to rise above the level of warring tribesmen.

The other is the gift of cultivation, of work and dedication and of reaching unto things and people through love, consideration, and guidance (“chazaqah”). We can attain great heights through kibbush, but we can’t just constantly be looking to go further and to extend, we have to also develop what we have.

R. Aharon finds in this distinction the source of the gender differences in halakhah. Males have a tendency toward uncontrolled kibbush, while women are more focused on chazaqah. This places women on a higher spiritual plane than men. When a woman says “she’asani kirtzono — for He has made me according to His Will”, it is implied that men are further from that Will than she is. Women’s innate qualities as the last created creature (Rabbi Soloveichik words this as “the crown of Creation”), are already aimed at the fulfillment of G-d’s ultimate desire for mankind. The reason for the extra mitzvos and extra ritual placed on males is to reign in that uncontrolled kibbush.

What is that “ultimate desire for mankind”?

3. The two Batei Miqdash

R. Chaim Soloveitchik holds that there is a distinct difference between the sanctity of Eretz Yisroel that came with the first commonwealth and that of the second.

The first Temple did not create a permanent qedushah (holiness). The reason given is “that which was acquired through conquering is lost through conquering. The First Commonwealth built on land acquired in the wars of the days of Yehoshua and the Shoftim (Judges), was itself conquered.

The Second Commonwealth was “merely” an immigration of a group of Jews who decided to live in the land as Jews. It is predicated on the mitzvos done there, the education of children raised there. That kind of sanctity can not be undone. “Qidshah lisha’atah viqidshah le’asid lavo – it was sanctified for its time and sanctified for all time to come”. Even today, Har Habayis (the Temple Mount) has the sanctity of the Temple.

R. Aharon understands his grandfather’s words in the light of this distinction. The first commonwealth was founded on kibbush. It therefore had an inherently inferior qedushah. The second commonwealth was built by chazaqah. When Hashem tells Zecharia, “Not by force and not by might but by My spirit”, He is saying that the second Temple should be build on chazaqah, not kibbush, to lead to a permanent sanctification. “Neqeivah tesoveiv gever.”

Rav Aharon Soloveitchik notes Chanukah’s connection to Sukkos. According to Seifer haMakabiim, on the first Chanukah people who had just missed being oleh regel, going up to the beis hamiqdash, with their esrog and lulav, did so then at their first opportunity. Beis Shammai taught that one should light 8 lights the first night of Chanukah, 7 the second, learning from the 70 bulls offered for the mussaf on Sukkos, which also declined in number each day: 14 the first day, 13 the second, etc… Rav Yosi bar Avin or R’ Yosi bar Zevida explains that Beis Shammai are emphasizing the link between Chanukah and Sukkos. (We follow Beis Hillel, and teach that the ideal is to increase as the holiday progresses. They do not deny the connection; but rather Beis Hillel asserts an overriding halachic principle — that we increase in holiness over time.)

The concept of being a geir vetoshav is at the center of the similarity between the two holidays. Sukkos is a time when the toshav leaves his home to experience geirus in the Sukkah. Chanukah is also about the ger’s Chazaqah, the rededication of the second Beis haMiqdash. Not about winning the war – the war wouldn’t be over for years – but about being able to live in Israel as Jews, with access to the beis hamiqdash.

4. Qinyan as Chazakah

We go from looking at Rav Aharon’s elaboration of his grandfather’s concept to using his brother’s, R. Yoseph Ber’s insight to extend R. Aharon’s concept of chazaqah to things acquired by commerce as well. To buy something is to exchange a token of the chazaqah you have put into something else, and trade it for chazaqah on this object.

By combining these ideas, we understand why Chevron, Har haBayis and Shechem were bought. Buying is a means of chazaqah. It is inherently holier than if our claim were based on military victory.

The same idea can be used to understand why the gemara in Qiddushin (2a) asserts that the form of marriage is identical to that of a qinyan. This idea is proven from a gezeirah shavah (a comparison of terms) between the phrase “ki yiqach ish ishah — when a man takes a woman” (Devarim 22:13), and Avraham’s offer to Efron “nasati keseph hasadeh, kach mimeni — I have placed money for the field, take it from me” (23:13). In both cases the expression of “qichah — taking” is used.

(The halakhah is not teaching that women are ch”v bought and sold like chattel. You don’t need a gentile slave’s consent in order to buy him. Purchasing’s two parties are owner and buyer, not buyer and item bought. The fact that the wedding can not occur against her will shows that it isn’t a purchase. Second, the laws of ona’ah – overcharging and underpaying – would apply, and the value of the ring would need to be within 1/6th of the bride’s value.)

In the case of Chevron, Avraham was acquiring the entire field — from the beginning of time until the end. By making marriage assume the qinyan format we are acknowledging that the bride and groom were literally made for each other, and hopefully will remain together until the end of time. By using the form of chazaqah, the marriage, qiddushin, is on a higher plane. Like the ma’aras hamachpeilah, like the second Beis haMiqdash, the qiddushin thereby has the possibility of being an eternal holiness.

5. Gevurah and its Resolution

In Avos 4:1, Ben Zomah says “Who is a gibor, a warrior, one who is koveish his yeitzer, his inclination [toward evil]”. This is a proper use of kibbush, to vanquish evil, to change it into a tool for serving Hashem. It is interesting to note that the one who uses kibbush is called a “gibor”, from the same root as a word for man in the sense of specifically male as used in our pasuq in Zechariah – “gever”.

We find the term gibor in a prophecy about the messianic age. “How much longer will you stray, back-slidden daughter, and remain hidden and withdrawn? For Hashem has created something new on the earth, neqeivah tisoveiv gever — woman shall encircle man.” (Yirmiah 31:20-22)

We can attain great heights through kibbush, but we can’t succeed in establishing a Paradise on earth unless we couple it with chazaqah. At the end of history, the Jewish people, the fallen daughter, the ger vetoshav, will return to Hashem. The principle missing in this galus, the balance of kibbush and chazaqah, will be restored. As man realizes that he is a spiritual being, thereby being freed from needing to be overly focused on the gibor’s battle against the yeizer. The neqeivah, the feminine side, chazaqah, will be restored to its rightful role.

In the time of the Messiah, there will be no pursuit of kibbush, rather everyone will pursue the gift of chazaqah. So women’s Divine endowment and her mandate to be true to that endowment is consonant with humanity’s spiritual and moral goals in the Messianic Era.

A Broad Life

A recurring concept in Rav Hutner’s writings on Shavu’os (Pachad Yitzchaq, no.s 5, 13, 40) is the idea that talmud Torah isn’t limited to sitting in front of a book.

Why do we only make birkhas haTorah once a day? Tosafos explain (Berakhos 11b) “she’eino miya’eish mida’ato, shekol sha’ah chayav lilmod — because it is never lost from his thought, because at all times he is obligated to learn.” Rav Hutner adds that Tosafos don’t just mean that because the obligation is constant. Rather, part of learning Torah is “lilmod al menas la’asos — learning in order to do”. Thus, a life lived according to the Torah is not a break in talmud Torah, but part of the fulfillment of the obligation.

He uses the same idea to explain what would seem like two extra words in the Rambam (Talmud Torah 13). If someone is in the middle of learning, and a mitzvah arises. If the mitzvah can be done by someone else, the person should not stop his learning. However, if it can not, either because no one around is capable, or because the mitzvah is incombent on this particular individual, then he should stop — “veyachazor lelimudo — and he should return to his study.” Why does the Rambam need to tell us that he should return to studying?

How the person acts when the mitzvah is complete tells us something about how he did the mitzvah. Stopping one’s learning is only permitted because it is lilmod al menas la’asos. If the mitzvah is being done as part of a life-long commitment to Torah, then of course the person would return to his study as soon as he is able.

The halakhah is that if someone forgot to say birkhas haTorah and said Ahavah Rabbah before Shema, he needn’t say birkhas haTorah. Ahavah Rabbah qualifies as a birkhas haTorah. How? The berakhah refers not only to learning Torah, but also to fulfilling mitzvos?

Again Rav Hutner explains that other mitzvos are not a break from talmud Torah, but rather are a fulfillment of lilmod al menas la’asos.

Last, he invokes the same idea to explain the words of Reish Laqish (Menachos 99). Commenting on the verse “asher shibarta — which you have broken”, Reish Laqish says that Hashem is praising Moshe for breaking them. And this is used to demonstrate the idea that “pe’amim shebitulo zu hi qiyumo — there are times that [Torah’s] nullification is its fulfillment”. Fulfilling the Torah’s ways is part of talmud Torah, even when that meant destroying the very Torah itself.

So far we discussed the concept of mitzvos, but Rav Hutner’s tendency toward breadth goes much further than that.

In Rav Hutner’s Igeros (pg. 84), he answers a student who felt like he was split, living a double life — a life of Torah and a secular life centered a career. Rav Hutner answered with a metaphor: If a person has a home, and in addition he takes a room in a hotel, he is living a double life. But if the person has a home that has two rooms, he is not living a double life, he is living a broad life.

By placing it all only one roof, there is a broad unity, not a split.

(This sentiment is strongly aligned with that of Rav Hirsch’s Torah im Derekh Eretz. But an analysis of the different ways different acharonim modeled this relationship is for another time.)

In Pachad Yitzchaq, Pesach (#69), Rav Hutner comments on the opening verse of “Shir haShirim asher liShlomo — A song of songs, which is Solomon’s”. Why is Shir haShirim called “of Shelomo’s” in a way that his other works, Mishlei and Qoheles, are not?

Rav Hutner describes the greatness of Shelomo’s generation was that it went beyond the usual celebratory event, the victory of good over evil that we find David praising in song. Rather, in Shelomo’s day there was also a victory of the secular by the holy. There was no truely secular, because everything served the holy.

This is a recurring thought in Rav Hutner’s thought — the role of “reshus” (the permissable, as opposed to the prohibited or the mandatory) and how does one sanctify it.

There are two ways to do so. The first is by using reshus to accomplish things that allow you to accomplish more qedushah. (This thought is also found in the introduction to Alei Shur, as a way to live a fully sacred life.)

The other is to see the secular world as a metaphor for the deeper truth. “Bekhol derakhakha da’eihu — know Him in all your ways.” Sleep could be simply a creature comfort, it could be a way to rest for a day of holy activities, and it could also be a metaphor through which we can understand the concept of techiyas hameisim (resurrection of the dead). This connection is made by E-lokai, neshamah shanasata bi. Upon waking up, we remember that Hashem will restore that soul after death.
Shir haShirim uses romantic love in this way, giving it as a way to understand the love between Hashem and His creation. Thus, it is more fully representative of the accomplishments of Shelomo’s time than his other works.

A life of Torah must include reshus, placing one’s second room under the same roof. Without which even the mitzvah of talmud Torah is itself incomplete. And that is why that student’s pursuit of a career did not necessitate his making a second birkhas haTorah.

Returning back to his letter to the student who felt like he lived a double life, Rav Hutner explains this using a powerful statement from Chazal. “Whoever lengthens the ‘echad‘ [of Shema], they lengthen for him his days.” This statement isn’t only true of how one says Shema, but is therefore also true of living the meaning of those words. Rav Hutner tells this student who is now a professional not to consider his career a distraction. Quite the contrary! Someone who lives a Torah life, and does so as broadly as possible, has the berakhah of earning a long life.
A very powerful message to take from Shavu’os.

Angels and Idols

What exactly was the sin involved in the making of the Eigel haZahav, the Golden Calf?

Rashi (Ex 32:1 “asher yeilekhu“, “asher he’elanu“) says it was actual idolatry.

The Kuzari (1:97) says it was a representation to be used as a conduit between man and G-d. A Moses replacement. Not so much a violation against the second and third of the Rambam’s articles of faith (Divine Uniqueness and Divine Incorporeality), but a violation of the fifth — that we are not to worship anything in the role of middleman between G-d and ourselves.
The distinction between the two may boil down to choosing which phrase in the Torah is the primary motivation given by the Jews.

The people saw that Moshe was late to come down from the mountain; the people ganged up on Aharon, and they said to him: “Arise, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this man Moshe who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what happened to him.”

- Shemos 32:1

Rashi comments on the words “a god who shall go before us”, and the Kuzari writes about their worrying about Moshe’s non-return.
I could make a historical argument for the Kuzari’s position. In Egyptian mythology, the minor deity that purportedly pulled the cart of prayers up to heaven and blessings down to mankind was Apis, a bull (or man with a bull head). Oxen were towing animals in their society. In Egypt, Apis was the courier of prayers to the other gods, and of blessings to man. It is quite plausible that they thought that without Moshe, they needed a new conduit to G-d, and therefore turned to Apis.

Apis’s holiday was on the 15th of the 8th month. There were two temples at the far sides of Egypt, Memphis and Heliopolis, that had representations of Apis, golden bulls, in front of them.

Yerav’am, when he founded the Malkhus Yisrael, needed to establish a new religion that would free them from being tied to Yehudah and the Temple in Yerushalayim. Among his changes were that he shifted Sukkos from the seventh month to the eighth, and he built temples in Beis-El and Dan with bulls in front of them. It would seem that a pretty conscious imitation of Apis worship was still around.

Thus, the notion that the golden calf was a product of the same mentality, and thus an attempt to replace Moses would explain why they chose the animal they did. The connection between Yerav’am’s religion and the eigel is made explicitly by Tanakh. Yerav’am’s language on consecrating his bulls even parallels that of the Jews when the eigel was completed:

And he [Aharon] received it [the gold] from their hands, and shaped it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf; and they said: “These are your gods, Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”

- Ibid. v. 4

The king [Yirav’am took counsel, and made two golden calves; and he said unto them: ‘You have gone up to Yerushalaim too much, here are your gods, Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”

- Melakhim I 12:28

Lehavdil, the keruvim on the aron, that the golden calf as well as the Northern Kingdom’s bulls are the product of a false understanding of the keruv concept.

The keruvim had the faces of children, either one boy and one girl or two boys, and a pair of long bird-like wings that arced over the ark. We do not know what else — if anything — they had. Could have been just a pair of busts, heads with wings and nothing else; or perhaps an entire body. When the Jews got along with each other, they faced each other. When they did not, the keruvim turned away from each other. This would only be seen by the Kohein Gadol on Yom Kippur and by soldiers who saw the ark during war. I assume, therefore, that it served as a call to repentance on Yom Kippur or when preparing for battle.

These are different than the keruv as discussed in Bereishis, who guards the entrance to Eden while holding a sword of revolving fire.

It is also different than the keruv as implied by Yechezqeil. In 1:10, the angels called chayos (Living Beings) present at the Divine Chariot are described as having four faces: that of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. However, in 10:15 we’re told that a chayah is a keruv, in the two visions he them saw identically (10:22) and the keruv has the faces of a keruv, a man, a lion and an eagle. The face of the keruv replaces that of the ox. This implies that a keruv is an ox-like thing, that being the corresponding face. (Even though “chayos” has a more common meaning of “wild animal” to the exclusion of “beheimos”, domesticated ones like oxen. Then again, people aren’t chayos either, and one of the faces of the chayah is human.)

The Chaldeans worshiped a god called Kirub, who was a bull with a human face. So the linguistics point to this interpretation as well. (It also supports Maimonides’ assumption that idolatry began with the worship of G-d’s “entourage” as a way to honor Him.)

I would therefore suggest that this middleman god is a single thread of pagan thought — be it Apis, Kirub, the eigel, or bulls at Malkhus Yisrael. They are a misunderstanding of the notion of keruvim.

Yerav’am’s sin therefore carries an echo of Korach’s. The medrash tells us that Korach brought Moshe a garment entirely made of techeiles (blue wool) and asked whether it needed tzitzis. When Moshe replied that it did, Korach scoffed. If the whole garment being blue is insufficient, what difference would one thread make? Korach tried to declare the whole world holy and thereby leave nothing sacred.

Yerav’am took the two keruvim and placed them at opposite sides of his country. The Divine Presence would appear in a pillar of smoke from between the keruvim in the Mishkan and Beis haMiqdash. Now, Yerav’am declares, that holiness is everywhere.

There were two utensils in the first Beis haMidash that had images on them — the aron had keruvim and the legs to the laver that Shelomo made. Both share a law — they were not made of a separate piece welded on. The keruvim had to be of the same gold, part of the lid of the aron; not welded, but of the same piece. Thus making it clear that they were secondary to the Torah and not worship-worthy gods in their own right.

As the Rambam explains the birth of idolatry:

“In the days of Enosh, the people fell into gross error, and the counsel of the wise men of the generation became foolish. Enosh himself was among those who erred. Their error was as follows: “Since God”, they said, “created these stars and spheres to guide the world, set them on high and allotted unto them honor, and since they are ministers who minister before Him, they deserve to be praised and glorified, and honor should be rendered them; and it is the will of God, blessed be He, that men should aggrandise and honor those whom He aggrandised and honored – just as a king desires that respect should be shown to the officers who stand before Him, and thus honor is shown to the king.” When this idea arose in their minds, they began to erect temples to the stars, offered up sacrifices to them, praised and glorified them in speech, and prostrated themselves before them – their purpose, according to their perverse notions, being to obtain the Creator’s favor. This was the root of idolatry, and this was what the idolators, who knew its fundamentals, said….

- Laws of Idolatry 1:1

Synthesis and Dialectic

Rav Shimon Gershon Rosenbergzt”l passed away. He was more commonly known as Rav Shagar, a nickname he picked up when a friend starting calling him by the initials on the corner of his tallis. Rav Shagar was Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Siach Yitzhak, staunchly Religious Zionist, with a mystical, spiritualist bent. Rav Shagar was 57 years old when he lost the battle against pancreatic cancer.

In looking for a thought of his to write, I found the following quote in Haaretz (11 Jan 2005):

One can say that it is a difference that can already be found in Rabbi Kook compared to Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Rabbi Kook presents the goal as being harmony among all the various values, whereas Rabbi Nachman viewed contradictions as a source of religious ecstasy. When you try to live simultaneously in all the worlds, there is a danger that you will end up living simplistically and superficially, or that you will try to force harmony. I identify with harmony as a goal, but in the real world, one must learn to live with contradictions. From this respect, one of the original sins of the religious-Zionists was their enslavement to the vision of Ben-Gurion’s ‘melting pot.’ Instead of creating a uniform prayer service, each community should have been allowed to foster its own identity, and what they would all share would be the very feeling of Jewish brotherhood.

To Rav Kook, the concept of unity is fundamental. Everything flows from Hashem Echad, and therefore all distinctions are, at the deepest level, illusory. The “secular” Zionist is in reality doing sacred work. In fact, the notion of secular can be defined as that in which we can not perceive the underlying sanctity — even though it’s no less there. Rav Nachman doesn’t write from the perspective of ultimate realities. Given that we are human beings living under a condition of tzimtzum (a “constriction” of [the perceptability of] Divine Presence), we do face contradictions. It is in how we face them that provides us with challenge and growth experiences.

Rav Shagar suggests that one can divide their statements in terms of context — Rav Kook discussing the ultimate goal and Rav Nachman describing how to live through the reality that we are always “only” trying to get there. Therefore one can fully believe both, but it would be Rav Nachman’s perspective that is more useful in defining a lifestyle.

This reminded me of a thought about one of the differences between Rav Hirsch’s “Torah im Derekh Eretz” (TIDE) and Rav JB Soloveitchik’s notion of Modern Orthodoxy, which YU dubbed “Torah uMadda” (TuM). I am tempted to apply the same observation, about differences in context, here.

Rav Hirsch sought synthesis. To him, the ideal person was one who was ennobled by Torah and refined by high culture (Derekh Eretz). My favorite formulation of the TIDE position is that of the Seridei Eish:

The Torah, according to Rav Hirsch, is the force that gives form. Form, to Aristotle’s thought, means a thing’s essential nature in distinction to the substance from which it is embodied. Derekh Eretz is merely the matter on which Torah works.

- Essay in “Shimshon Rephael Hirsch: Mishnaso Vishitaso”

TIDE is a lifestyle that is wholly Torah and wholly derekh eretz, in that the Torah is what gives form and function to a cultured life, and culture is the substance to which one applies Torah.

Rabbi JB Soloveitchik, on the other hand, spoke in terms of unresolvable dialectics. In an earlier blog entry I noted his use of contrasting archetypes of cognitive man vs. homo religiosus (in Halachic Man), Adam I vs. Adam II (in the Lonely Man of Faith), the community of destiny and the community of fate (Community, Qol Dodi Dofeiq, the SCA responsum), etc..

This is also true in his formulation of TuM. (Despite Rabbi Lamm’s frequent use of the word “synthesis” in describing TuM, I do not believe that this meaning of the word “synthesis” was R’ Soloveitchik’s goal.) One of his few talks on TuM is commonly referred to as “Ramatayim Tzofim” — two peaks from which to look out over the landscape, using a phrase from Shemu’el I 1:1. Man is torn between two peaks, which stand distinct. And in fact, it is the free will that emerges from choosing between these alternatives that is man’s “image of G-d”, our entire calling.

In true neo-Kantian fashion, Rav Soloveitchik argues that human nature is characterized by antinomies, equally true but conflicting models of reality. They present philosophical tensions. Halakhah gives us the tools to navigate these conflicts of values, but they are not to be resolved.

Notice that here too, Rav Hirsch speaks in terms of theory, defining the ideal human being as one living a life that is entirely Torah and yet composed of Derekh Eretz, whereas Rav Soloveitchik describes the reality, and living with the conflicts that we actually confront. The ideal may be one of unity, but life is a process of reaching for an ideal; not actually ever getting there. Thus, the two perspectives need not be taken as contradicting.

(At least, not on this point. TIDE and TuM differ in other ways. A topic for another entry.)

Rather, one must know when to use each perspective. I think that seeking unity where there is none is no less fraught with danger on this front than in Rav Shagar’s original case. The TIDE seminary did not succeed at producing its own leadership; the Torah study in such a school was always lighter than that of the full-time Torah study of the Lithuanian yeshiva. It also failed to produce secular education of the quality of Germany’s universities.

Many complain about some of the material taught at Yeshiva University; classes that include Greek mythology, or teachers that espouse heresy. However, Rabbi Soloveitchik (according to vol. II of R’ Rakeffet’s book) lauded YU’s independence, running a full yeshiva and a full university totally unconnected from each other but under the same roof. In Lander College, the rashei yeshiva have veto power over what is taught in the university. The YU experience allows a student to deal with the confrontation of the two unadulterated worlds in a safe context, rather than provide a fused experience that will provide less preparation for living according to the Torah in the “real” world. To my mind, Rav Soloveitchik’s perspective is more appropriate. The only question is whether there is sufficient rebbe-student connection for the exposure to the more questionable parts of the secular world to truly be safe. A pragmatic problem. But if this side issue were addressed, I would conclude that we do live in a world of dialectic, not synthesis, and that is what a school must prepare its students to face. We need to learn harmonious coexistence, and realize life is a never ending struggle for a unification only achieved at history’s culmination.

Note that without the resolution of that pragmatic problem, though, YU runs the risk of presenting students with questions they are ill prepared to answer. Dialectic is a way to live, but we can’t focus on it as though it were also the goal toward which we are striving — or else we run the risk of winning the battle by losing the war.

TIDE, variants on a theme

In an earlier post, I raised one very fundamental difference between Rav Hirsch’s “Torah im Derekh Eretz” (Torah with culture, hereafter “TIDE”) and Rav JB Soloveitchik’s attitude toward the secular, which YU titles “Torah uMadda” (Torah and other knowledge, “TuM”).

TIDE is a lifestyle that is wholly Torah and wholly derekh eretz, in that the Torah is what gives form and function to a cultured life, and culture is the substance to which one applies Torah.

Rabbi JB Soloveitchik, on the other hand, spoke in terms of unresolvable dialectics…. One of his few talks on TuM is commonly referred to as “Ramatayim Tzofim” — two peaks from which to look out over the landscape, using a phrase from Shemu’el I 1:1. Man is torn between two peaks, which stand distinct. And in fact, it is the free will that emerges from choosing between these alternatives that is man’s “image of G-d”, our entire calling.

… Rav Hirsch speaks in terms of theory, defining the ideal human being as one living a life that is entirely Torah and yet composed of Derekh Eretz, whereas Rav Soloveitchik describes the reality, and living with the conflicts that we actually confront. The ideal may be one of unity, but life is a process of reaching for an ideal; not actually ever getting there. Thus, the two perspectives need not be taken as contradicting.

(At least, not on this point. TIDE and TuM differ in other ways. A topic for another entry.)

This is “another entry.”

There is something deeply in common between TIDE and the Slabodka school of Mussar. Both focused on self perfection in all ways. Slabodka students took care in dressing with dignity and according to the latest style. (Students of other yeshivos would poke fun at it.) And while Slabodka did not have secular classes, it was presumed that students learned such things informally. Rav Avraham Elya Kaplan describes his peers’ heated debates on the merits of Kant, Hegel, Freud and Marx. The ideal Slabodka student had a character refined by Mussar, spent most of his day studying Torah, was admirable even in the secularly cultured person’s eyes, and dreamed of revolutionizing the world.
We also explored Rav Hutner’s notion of living a broad life. In the contrast made above, this idea is clearly more akin to Rav Hirsch’s unity than Rav Soloveitchik’s coexistence. Perhaps this is because of the similarity (and yet quite different!) between Slabodka, which was where Rav Hutner studied, and Hirsch’s TIDE.

A second fundamental difference is rolled into the definitions I gave above for derekh eretz and mada respectively – culture vs. secular wisdom. Rav Hirsch is idealizing a person who is a refined and upstanding member of his society. Rav Soloveitchik is speaking about knowledge. It was quipped on Avodah once that both want to produce the “Rabbi Dr.”, however TIDE wants an MD whereas TuM’s doctor would be a PhD.

Derekh Eretz’s refined member of society is not merely phrased in terms of taking the ennoblement that society has to offer. It also means contributing back to it. In Rav Hirsch’s ideal, the Jewish people are to be society’s moral voice. As Noach blessed his sons, “The aesthetics of G-d are with Yefes, and dwells in the house of Sheim.” We, carriers of Sheim’s mission, are to bring G-dliness into the social structures Yefes gifts to society.

This question isn’t directly addressed in R’ JB Soloveitchik’s TuM. Academics are known for their challenge of having to escape the ivory tower and live in the real world, and so this question isn’t central to the whole TuM formulation. However, we already discussed his brother Rav Aharon’s outspokenness on Vietnam and Biafra. I would therefore judge universalism to be part of the American Soloveitchiks’ worldview, but from the concept of kavod haberios (the dignity of man) and not necessarily a direct expression of TuM. (Or perhaps someone can show a significant rift between their understandings of TuM, something I am taking for granted is minimal.)

Then of course there are other “Torah and” models:The Chazon Ish promoted “Torah va’Avodah” (used to mean something different than the Bnei Akiva motto) — “Torah and productive work”. The fusion of Torah with earning a living. In his utopia, not everyone is in kollel.

The Chazon Ish’s notion is pragmatic. As the gemara puts it, there was a debate between R’ Yishmael and R’ Shim’on bar Yochai as to how to live. R’ Yishmael advised getting a job, and Rashbi advocated full time study. The gemara concludes “many tried to live as R’ Shim’on but few succeeded”. Life isn’t designed to be Torah only, thus it can’t be its Designer’s ideal that a full time life of learning is for all but those few.

The Vilna Gaon argued that all knowledge had essential unity. That it’s impossible to know Torah without knowing what one can of everything else — it’s all one thing.

It was usual (or perhaps: a pearl) in [the Vilna Gaon’s] mouth, that a measure that a person is lacking in the treasured knowledge of the forces of nature, will be lacking 100 fold of the wisdom of Torah.

- Qol haTor pg 123

Thus theGaon’s ideal is also shaped by the pragmatic, but in a very different way than the Chazon Ish’s. The Chazon Ish speaks of how to succeed at living. Vilna Gaon is asserting that there is no way to succeed at Torah while pursuing a “Torah only” curriculum.

Perhaps related to the Gra’ position is the Rambam’s identification of ma’aseh hamerkavah (Ezekiel’s vision of the Divine Chariot) with metaphysics and theology, of a ma’aseh bereishis with the study of natural philosophy (roughly what we today would call “science”).

Rav Kook dismissed “Torah and” as being fundamentally illusory. Everything is from G-d and therefore inherently holy. There is only the obviously holy and that in which the sanctity is less visible. Everything one does that further’s Hashem’s goals are therefore of value. Even if the person doing it doesn’t realize his aims in those terms. This is how Rav Kook spoke of the holiness of the non- and anti-religious chalutz, who served Hashem’s aim of returning us to our land even while r”l denying His Existence.

And so, in Rav Kook’s worldview, harmony reigns, not Rav Soloveitchik’s notion of halakhah guiding one on how to choose between conflicting values. Secular knowledge is only seeming secular; in truth it is holy. Thus the conclusion is much like the Vilna Gaon’s — the unity is inherent in the material. However, Rav Kook provides a mystical explanation for the unity, whereas the Vilna Gaon’s was a pragmatic one about the nature of being knowledgable.

Rav Kook similarly sees that underlying holiness in participation in the best of contemporary civilization. Of course, he would say the best would be to do so in the context of developing Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael, a factor not addressed by TIDE or TuM.

My own inclination, for what little it’s worth, is that the ideal is one of unity. I am not sure a human being can ever reach that ideal, but in any case, I am not there. And so I must recognize that to me Torah, mada and derekh eretz will at times yield conflicting priorities, and I must follow halakhah to decide among them.  Going beyond the Brisker outlook, I would say that I must also follow mussar, an awareness of where I need to grow at this point in my life, to provide guidance where halakhah does not.

I do not see how mada has value in and of itself, I am more inclined to value it as the Vilna Gaon does — knowledge is all one piece, and knowing more of one thing makes you more able to understand everything else.

Similarly, once one listens to mussar’s call to be a mentch and mada‘s call to be a knowledgable one even beyond the boundaries of the Torah, the call to derekh eretz to Yefes style refinement, has already been heard.

I am similarly unsure of the inherent value of derekh eretz. Derekh eretz, though, overlaps greatly with both with mussar and being a mentch and with mada. And in terms of high culture, much of it s mada

כג אלול תשס”א

Tonight begins the 6th yahrzeit. It can be no coincidence that it is a weak before Rosh haShanah that we have the reminder of how a beautiful sunny day can, in the blink of an eye, turn into the most horrible of tragedies.

…בראש השנה יכתבון, וביום צום כפור יחתמון
On Rosh Hashanah they will be written, and on Yom Kippur they will be sealed…

… מי יחיה ומי ימות,
מי בקיצו ומי לא בקיצו,
מי במים ומי באש…
מי ברעש ומי במגפה,
מי בחניקה ומי בסקילה…

… who will live, and who will die,
who in their time,
and who before their time
… who by fire… who in noise …
who by suffocation, and who by falling…

What is frightening is that we really can’t deduce who. The rescuer who didn’t make it out, or the broker who lived for his next trade who did. Two people standing next to each other — one lives, the other doesn’t. We have no means of knowing, for each person, which result is the fulfillment of “letav avad — [all that the All Merciful does,] He does to accomplish good.”

We pass before Hashem — כבקרת רועה עדרו, מעביר צאנו תחת שבטו — the way sheep do before a shepherd, letting each one pass under his staff to be counted for tithing.

And in one moment, a sunny clear day turns dark..

ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזרה. Note we aren’t promised that repentence, prayer and charity will destroy the evil decree or erase the evil from the decree. Even in the middle of a mitzvah, as Avremel SemanowitzHy”d who stayed with wheelchair-bound co worker, he can still be robbed of that chance to escape. Rather, we are promised that they are מעבירין, allow us to cross over, to get through it.

We can not be good in this world in exchange for promises of an idyllic life. There is no idyllic life. Nor would such a life be a “good one; it would simply be living by informed greed. We should act so as to have a purposive life, a meaningful one, one in which even the worst of tragedies or one’s own end can be faced with a belief that it has a purpose.

As the Vilna Gaon put it: We say in Shema “אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם — that which I [Hashem] command you today”. Did Hashem actually command us to perform mitzvos today? The meaning is that every moment I am alive, every act that I do, I should be thinking that I was placed there by the Creator. Hashem created the universe such that this needs to be done. Only I can accomplish this task. It could only be done here and now. And so I stand here and now to do this essential duty, one which is a permanent feature of the universe.

Victor Frankel describes an attitude much like this in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. In his study of how various people managed through the Holocaust (including himself), he found it was those who associated meaning with their lives who faired the best. And this was the one thing the Nazis could not rob of him. Even if all they left him was the ability to suffer, his suffering too is a task only he could accomplish, only at that time and place, and the universe is different than the one it would have been had he chosen to suffer differently.

With berakhos for a Shanah tovah umsuqah, as the Bostoner Rebbe put it, a year that is we not only conceptually know to be good, but has a sweetness we can taste and experience, and no ro’ah, no tragedies to get through,
Shetir’u baTov,

Why I’m a Man

My son Shuby said something interesting to me over lunch today. Shuby is a very cute nine-year-old little boy with Downs. His ability to actually articulate the words isn’t caught up with his ability to decide what to say, so our conversations involve some checking what he was trying to say, some signing, etc…

After I gave him his food, Shuby said “Thank you, ma’am.” I explained that I’m a man, and “ma’am” is only for women. If he wanted to add anything, the word should be “sir”.

Shuby then said something, and signed “davening” — hands holding siddur and shuckling.

Checking, I asked / translated, “I go to shul because I’m a man?”

“No,” Shuby explained, “Daddy is a man ’cause he goes to shul.”

The line of reasoning he awakened seems quite sound.

It’s not that women are pardoned from the obligation of attending minyan. It’s that souls of which G-d wants to obligate in minyan that He makes as men.

Types of Thought: Gender Differences, part II

In the previous post we spoke of gender difference in terms of extending society’s reach vs developing what we have – R’ Aharon Soloveitchik’s “kibush vs yishuv” (as discussed in this devar Torah for parashas Chayei Sarah), and R’ SR Hirsch’s outside vs inside. (And Dear Abby’s goal vs process.) And in the post before that we started discussing the Hebrew terms for various modes of thought starting with “Atah Chonein” and Ashkenaz’s “dei’ah binah vehaskeil” vs. the Sepharadi (and “Sfard”) “chokhmah binah vada’as“.

Binah and Da’as -

a convergence of the previous two topics

The gemara makes two statements about cognitive differences between men and women.נ

נשים דעתן קלות – Women, their da’as are “light”

בינה יתרה נתנה להן – Extra binah was given to them.

The fact that women are described as being more focused on binah than on da’as in comparison to men ties this post to the previous one. In the following, I take the Tanya’s position on defining da’as, but I use Rav Hirsch to explain binah, since it resembles the Tanya’s but provides more detail.

We described da’as as knowledge. But not simply zikaron, the memory of ideas, but the knowledge that changes how we think. It is thus both da’as, the synthesis of chokhmah and binah, as well as keser, their source. Males, zekharim, with their intimate link to memory, are more prone to da’as.

Binah is deductive and inductive reasoning. According to Rav Hirsch, the word is related to livnos, to build, and bein, between, making distinctions. I would suggest from this that each connotation is based on a different kind of reason:

  • Deductive reasoning builds conclusions from existing ideas. If all people are mortal, and John is a person, John is mortal.
  • Inductive reasoning divides cases into categories about which we can form rules. If we see one duck and it flies, and another duck and it flies, and another, we eventually concludes that ducks in general fly. (Of course, someone could similarly conclude that all birds fly, until his case-collection includes an encounter with an ostrich or penguin.)

In what way is there a conflict between da’as and binah? Da’as limits our modes of thought. In thinking the way one is supposed to for a discipline, one may be more accurately working within the discipline, but one will be blind to an answer if it happens to fall outside the discipline. We saw in the previous post how da’as can cause one to lose sight of their vocation, Rav Hirsch’s “danger that he may completely lost himself in this struggle, that in striving to acquire his means he will lose sight of his real vocation… It is then the woman who leads him back to what is truly human in him.” It is through binah that women

Only men can serve on a court, both for deciding cases, and in the legislative and interpretive capacity of courts of men with Moses-derived ordination. And from there, we have rules about only men giving hora’ah and only men testifying to those judges in questions of guilt. (Anyone can testify about the permissibility of an object, which is why I can rely on my wife in the kitchen.)

Making halakhah is a discipline, following the laws of how to make laws. Thus, it’s relegated to men. The greater creativity and deductive ability of a woman’s binah doesn’t produce a more right answer. However, when it came to aggadic issues, where the criterion is truth, not legal process, it was the women who historically saved the Jewish People from major errors — from their unwillingness to follow the men in building the golden calf until “neqeivah tesoveiv gever“.

A third approach, which I guess could also be the same answer in a different guise, is based on Mishlei 1:8:

שְׁמַע בְּנִי, מוּסַר אָבִיך; וְאַל תִּטֹּשׁ, תּוֹרַת אִמֶּךָ.

Listen, my son, the to instructions of thy father, and do not forsake your mother’s Torah.

To which Chazal add (quoted by Rashi ad loc), “Do not read ‘your mother’s Torah – תורת אמך’ but rather ‘your people’s Torah – תורת עומתך'”. We learn from our mothers things that are deeper than words — our values, our reflexive reactions, our emotional balance. (Again, assuming the ideal world, where each gender has the opportunity to fill the role it is better suited for.) Things we get and transmit culturally.

Textual teaching is an obligation on fathers.

Perhaps even the reason why more male prophets’ vision are recorded than women’s is because men are a better vehicle for the kind of messages that can be textually transmitted in a book. Da’as, formalized thought. While G-d’s covenant with Abraham is recorded in seifer Bereishis, His covenant with Sarah is recorded in our culture, in Jewish values, in who we are.

This cultural knowledge is the essence of Oral Torah. Arguably the entire need for a halachic process that ever increases in codified halakhah is that we need to create formal rules as we lose that natural feel for right and wrong of the Sinai Culture. As I wrote in (yet another) earlier post:

There are two ways to learn a language: The native speaker doesn’t learn rules of grammar before using them, he just knows what “sounds right”. In contrast, an immigrant builds his sentences by using formalized rules, learning such terms as “past imperfect” and memorizing the forms that fit each category. R’ [Moshe] Koppel[, in his book, Metahalakhah] notes that the rules can never perfectly capture the full right vs wrong. A poet has to know when one can take license.

He argues that halakhah is similarly best transmitted by creating “native speakers”. It is only due to loss of our progressive loss of the Sinai culture with each generation that we need to rely on transmitting codified rules. … Earlier cited cases are the loss of culture that occurred with Moshe Rabbeinu’s death, when 300 halakhos were forgotten, and Osniel ben Kenaz reestablished them – chazar veyasdum. Similarly the reestablishment of numerous dinim by Anshei Keneses haGedolah after the return from the Babylonian exile – shakhechum vechazar veyasdum. Leyaseid, he suggests, is this codification.The informal knowledge of a “native speaker” is limited by the capacity of the human mind. But still, it captures more of the ineffable whole, the true “divrei E-lokim Chaim” than can be set down as formal rules.

See this early post and the first article in Mesukim miDevash for Bamidbar on the notion of Mussar as a conscious teaching and internalizing of that which in the ideal we would have naturally absorbed from our environment. Reducing toras imekha – umasekha, to mussar avikha. The natural, free-flowing binah into a discipline of how to think, da’as.

So far, I’ve made a hash of things. I took ideas from people who contradict on how they define different terms, and blended their ideas together on the terms in which they agree. In the next entry, be”H, I will try to provide a more dictionary-like collection of the words for various types of thought.

What Exists?

Bishop Berkley said that  “reality” is a set of inputs G-d feeds into our souls. In His compassion, he allows us to work together by giving us consistent worldviews with each other. Which is why when a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, it makes no sound. But then, there is really no tree nor that part of the forest, either.

I don’t believe that.

The Tanya (the defining text of Chabad chassidus) says that the only thing that exists is G-d, then when we say “there is none but Him” we don’t just mean no other gods, but nothing at all else exists but Him. The Lurianic notion of tzitzum, Divine “withdrawal” to “make room” for the universe is deemed an illusion. Thus, the problem I’m avoiding by a judicious use of quotes, or throwing in a “so to speak”, they use to prove it can’t be real. G-d can’t really limit Himself. He gave us free will, and thus the illusion of being independent entities. And everything else we see that we think is independent is part of that illusion. It’s a different form of reality is all in our heads, in creating such a gap between the One Real “Thing” and the many things we think are there. In Chabad writings this is associated with “yeish meiAyin” (something from nothing, the Hebrew version of ex nihilo), which they would have to write with that capital “A”. From G-d’s perspective, He is the Yeish (Something), and everything else is ayin (nothingness). From without our illusion, He is the Ayin, and we are the yeish that comes from that nothingness.

Kant was less extreme. He spoke of the neumenal, that which is actually “out there”, and the phenomenal, the world as experienced. He believed there actually is a neumenal universe that lies behind what we do physics on, but we don’t really know what’s it’s like. E.g. he tried to prove that time and space are phenomena, not inherent.

Esnst Mach (after whom they named the speed of sound) and Einstein took this one step further and used it to explain why science is possible. The latter often said, “the most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible”. How is it that our mind’s logic matches the world’s rules? Not just one the gross scale, which is obvious what shaped that mental logic was the ability to make sense of the events around us. But even in details like coming up with tensor calculus just a few years before it became the central way of expressing General Relativity? Science has gone well beyond the intuitive or that which would give a particular kind of mind more survival value. And yet we can still reason about the universe. Their solution: We are analyzing the phenomenological universe — the kinds of things we can measure and find patterns in is itself shaped by the structure of that mind as the theory created to explain it.

Rav Dessler has his own variant of this notion. He asserts that the flow of time is a phenomenon, created when man ate from the fruit, and his whole worldview became centered on desire, pursuit, and attainment (or frustration) — a time sequence. He uses that idea to discuss time during the week of creation; according to R’ EE Dessler, the concept is entirely incomprehensible, and one could give it any duration depending on how you look at it. It was literally a week, literally billions of years (but that’s a sadly materialistic perspective, in his opinion), and also literally the subsequent 6 millenia of human history. Doesn’t make sense? Right — neumenal time doesn’t fit how we think.

He has a similar approach to nature vs miracles. A person has to be very different than the norm, but he could reach the level where moral law defines his phenomenological universe more than physical law. Such a person experiences miracles. Even if it means someone else would experience a conflicting reality!

(My own position is along Rav Dessler’s lines, as you can tell from all the links to places where I discussed various elements of it in more detail.)

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.

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.

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.

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.


(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.


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.


(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.


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.


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.

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:

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].

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).


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…


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 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.)

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.


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


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


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.

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.