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Volume 34: Number 10

Fri, 29 Jan 2016

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Subjects Discussed In This Issue:
Message: 1
From: Micha Berger
Date: Wed, 27 Jan 2016 22:39:13 -0500
Re: [Avodah] Inifinite Value of Human Life

On Thu, Jan 28, 2016 at 01:24:35PM +1100, Isaac Balbin wrote:
: I would like to point to the wonderful Chiddush on this matter, as
: explained in the Shulchan Aruch HoRav, Siman [306:29]. This can
: be compared to the approach of the Mishna Brura, and also the Childush
: of the Levush....

I am having a hard time getting from your mar'eh meqomos to the
point you're trying to lead me to.

I assume you are referring to his distinction between compulsion to
leave Kelel Yisrael and compulsion to commit an individual sin?

Did you intend a connection to the question in the subject line,
whether the value of human life is very large but finite, or
if it is actually infinite?

Tir'u baTov!

Micha Berger             Here is the test to find whether your mission
mi...@aishdas.org        on Earth is finished:
http://www.aishdas.org   if you're alive, it isn't.
Fax: (270) 514-1507                        - Richard Bach

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Message: 2
From: Akiva Miller
Date: Wed, 27 Jan 2016 23:30:33 -0500
Re: [Avodah] 2 maariv minyans due to the snowstorm

R' Joel Rich wrote:
> Not everyone accepts the "whole concept of mincha/maariv." And would
> advise during the year as well to daven byichidut in that situation

Like who? And please don't just give names. Citations, please, so I can see
for myself. Thank you.

Akiva Miller
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Message: 3
From: Eli Turkel
Date: Thu, 28 Jan 2016 08:40:28 +0200
[Avodah] free will

<<I believe I can prove there is an unconscious although I can't prove
there's a "deep unconscious" that influences our conscious behavior.  I can
prove that there is at the very least a "shallow unconscious" that goes on
working without our awareness.  My proof is logical, experiential:

 I think everyone would agree to a "shallow unconscious ". An obvious case
is a baseball
player who swings his bat before he evewn consciously sees the ball.

However, the beginning of the discussion involved the Rambam who seems to
that every Jew has an "inner neshamah" that wants to do good
(unconsciously) even though the person himself is completely irreligious.

R Avraham, Shnerb and others claim that this is not what Rambam means and
there is no
such thing as a Jewish unconscious wish to do mitzvot. Rather Rambam is
stating that in his society a Jew remains Jewish because he wants to remain
part of the community. The only choices were to be a member of the Jewish
community or else convert to another religion, No chilonim.
As such a man who refuses to give a "get" to his wife realized that to
remain part of the Jewish community he really has to comply with the rules.
Thus even though he refuses after the bet din beats him he gives it
willingly because he is still part of the community and has not left.

Has nothing to do with unconscious feelings. R Avraham explicitly states
that as such the halacha would change today when society has changed.

Eli Turkel
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Message: 4
From: via Avodah
Date: Thu, 28 Jan 2016 12:17:39 -0500
Re: [Avodah] free will

In a message dated 1/28/2016 1:40:49 A.M. Eastern Standard Time,  
elitur...@gmail.com writes:

the beginning of the discussion involved  the Rambam who seems to hold
that every Jew has an "inner neshamah" that  wants to do good 
(unconsciously) even though the person himself is completely  irreligious.

Eli  Turkel

From my own experience I would say that it's true that every Jew, or almost 
 every Jew, really does have what you call an "inner neshama" that really 
wants  to do good.

--Toby Katz


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Message: 5
From: Rich, Joel
Date: Thu, 28 Jan 2016 10:44:23 +0000
Re: [Avodah] 2 maariv minyans due to the snowstorm

R' Joel Rich wrote:
> Not everyone accepts the "whole concept of mincha/maariv." And would
> advise during the year as well to daven byichidut in that situation
Like who? And please don't just give names. Citations, please, so I can see for myself. Thank you.
Akiva Miller
See biur Halacha on S?A O?C 235:1
Joel rich
distribution or copying of this message by anyone other than the addressee is 
strictly prohibited.  If you received this message in error, please notify us 
immediately by replying: "Received in error" and delete the message.  
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Message: 6
From: Akiva Miller
Date: Thu, 28 Jan 2016 06:53:43 -0500
Re: [Avodah] 2 maariv minyans due to the snowstorm

R' Joel Rich wrote:
> See biur Halacha on S?A O?C 235:1

Thanks! I had heard somewhere that it was the Gra who held this, but I
wasn't sure. The Biur Halacha refers to the Maaseh Rav, and now I see it
there, at number 65.

Unfortunately, as I anticipated, he does not give his reasoning. Does
anyone know how the Gra would hold in the morning case, where one must
choose between saying Shma on time, but Shmoneh Esreh during the fourth
hour, vs. all of shacharis before the end of the third hour?

Akiva Miller
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Message: 7
From: Micha Berger
Date: Fri, 29 Jan 2016 14:07:50 -0500
[Avodah] How did Abraham Discover God?: Part I - The

I am defying netiquette and list rules to copy this two-parter here
on list. For some reason I cannot fathom, Rabbi Dr. Seth (Avi) Kadish
chose to publish this piece on a site dedicated to teaching O Jews not
to believe in Torah miSinai. I want there to be another URL available.

And am hoping people here actually discuss it, of course.


The Illuminated Palace: An Introduction to Dogma in Jewish Thought A
single midrash on Parashat Lekh Lekha manages to touch upon the existence
of God and how to relate to Him, on the tension between Torah and science,
and on rabbinic criticism of Maimonides' thirteen principles.

                               - Part 1 -
                     How did Abraham Discover God?
                      The Rationalistic Approach

Rabbi Dr. Seth (Avi) Kadish

Why did God choose Abraham?

Nechama Leibowitz (of blessed memory) used to tell the following
story.[1] She was once invited to lecture at a seminar for officers in
the IDF, and stipulated in advance that each of them must bring a full
Tanakh to her class. As motivated soldiers they did just that. Then,
when she came into the classroom, she immediately told them to open
their books and find her the well-known story about young Abram
smashing his father's idols.

After letting them struggle for a few minutes to find the story, Nechama
tried to stop them, but they insisted that they all knew it, and so it
just had to be there somewhere in the Torah. After a couple more minutes
she interrupted them yet again, but this time she told them that they were
right: Even thought the story isn't actually in the Torah, it should have
been there! It just doesn't seem to make sense, at the grand moment of
"lekh lekha," for God to suddenly turn to a 75 year old man about whom
we know next to nothing (besides a few dry details about his family).

What the biblical narrative lacks is a statement about what kind of person
Abram was and why God chose him. That gap becomes even more vivid when we
compare Abram to the last great protagonist in the Torah, namely Noah,
about whom we are famously told that he was "a righteous man, blameless
among the people of his time; Noah walked with God" (Genesis 6:9). It
comes as no surprise, therefore, that Noah was chosen. But why Abram?

It is typical of midrash to make use of gaps in the Torah--large
or small, real or imagined--as opportunities for teaching important
lessons. In this case a good argument can be made that the gap is real and
significant.[2] The midrashic story of young Abram smashing his father's
idols is an attempt to explain why he was chosen, by portraying him as
someone clever and inquisitive, a nonconformist devoted to the truth,
who bravely confronted his family and society by vividly illustrating
the foolishness of their idolatry.

The Illuminated Palace

There is also another lesser-known midrash that describes Abram's youth,
and manages at the same time to touch upon the most acute tensions within
Jewish thought. From it we can learn some powerful lessons about dogma
in Jewish philosophy, about the difference between medieval and modern
thought, and about different ways to relate to God. This powerful
midrashic passage is known as The Parable of the Illuminated Palace.

In order to get into the mood of the midrash that we are about to study,
imagine a man, who lived centuries ago, and wanted to get from place to
place. Perhaps he was traveling from his village to the capitol city of
his province. If he was wealthy he might ride a horse or be carried in
a wagon, but if not then he might have to walk, carrying his belongings
on his back. Depending on the distance, such a journey by foot might
have taken many days, traveling on a path through meadows and forest,
and sleeping alongside the trail at night. The journey by day might
be a solitary one, and for lack of anyone else with whom to talk, our
traveler might speak his thoughts aloud to himself.

Let us further imagine that it is now close to the end of the third
day of his journey, and he is both weary and lonely, but still wants
to cover another short distance before the sun sets. Suddenly, above
on a hill to his left, he notices a human-made structure. As he comes
closer he sees that it is a fortified palace, and that it is both
inhabited and well-maintained: As the day comes to a close, he sees
light appear in one window after the next. Though as a stranger he has
no expectation of being invited in to stay the night, he still feels
a certain pleasure, even a sense of relief, at this unexpected sign of
domestication and civilization. Speaking aloud to himself he remarks,
"It would seem there is a master who attends to this palace." And then
to his surprise he hears the voice of the master inside, who, unseen to
the traveler, peers out at him through the window and speaks: "Indeed,
I am the master of the palace."

Now let us read the parable as it actually appears in the midrash
(Bereshit Rabba 39:1):

(1) And God said to Abram: Go, you, from your land...
(2) Rabbi Isaac opened (Psalms 45:11): Listen, daughter, and see, and
turn your ear, and forget your people and your father's house...
(3) Rabbi Isaac said: This may be compared to one who was passing from
place to place and saw a palace illuminated (birah doleqet).[3]^^
(4) He said, "Will you say this palace has no governor (manhig)?"
(5) The master of the palace peeped out at him.
(6) He said to him, "I am the master of the palace."
(7) Thus, because our father Abraham would say, "Will you say this
world has no governor?",
(8) the Holy One, blessed be He, peeped out at him and said to him, "I
am the Master of the world."
(9) (Psalms 45:12): And the king will desire your beauty...--to
beautify you in the world;
(10) because he is your master and bow down to him--that is, And God
said to Abram...

Although the midrash addresses the first verse of Parashat Lekh Lekha, the
verse with which Rabbi Isaac "opened" (2) is from Psalms, and its plain
sense has nothing to do with Abraham. Rather, what is being described in
psalm 45 is the power of the Davidic king, vividly illustrated through the
fate of a foreign princess who is being delivered to him in a political
marriage. Although the fact that she must leave her home and her family
bears some obvious resemblance to Abraham in a general sense, it is the
job of the listener to try to carefully cement the relationship between
the parashah at hand from the Torah (1) and the verse from "left field"
(2). This kind of riddle is a homiletic device, and the technical name
for this kind of midrash is petichta ("opening").

After his opening verse, Rabbi Isaac proceeds immediately with his parable
(3-6) and its explanation (7-8): Abraham was a wanderer and a traveler
throughout his entire life, and his first command from God began with
the very word lekh, go. He sought the "governor" of the world and found
Him. The palace in the parable represents the world, and its master is
the Holy One, blessed be He, who "peeped out" at Abraham (heitzitz),
meaning that He sees but is not seen.

Following the parable, Rabbi Isaac returns to the opening verses of
his riddle (9-10): Abraham was personally commanded by God, whom he both
sought and found, and was then rewarded for his obedience with the promise
of a blessing so great that future peoples would wish Abraham's fate upon
themselves: "and all the families of the earth will be blessed through
you" (i.e. they will be blessed in your name: "May you be like Abraham.")

The lovely young woman in Psalms was also exhorted to obey her new king,
but that in itself is not enough to identify her with the male Abraham. It
takes a clever midrashic twist to cement their common identity: Rather
than being desired by her new king for her beauty, he rather desires to
proclaim her beauty to all (out of his great love for her).

That is Rabbi Isaac's midrash, the Parable of the Illuminated Palace,
at face value. In it we find a man who seeks God, and a God who responds
to him. We find a God who commands and a man who obeys. God loved the
man who sought Him, and then acted upon His love.

First Interpretation: God as a Scientific Fact (Maimonides)

After reading this midrash, the average reader (and not just the modern
reader) wants to know something more. "It would seem there is a master
who attends to this palace," says the man in the parable. Is the universe
itself a testimony to God?

Such was the message of our midrash for Maimonides. In the first chapter
of his "Hilkhot Avodah Zarah" ("Laws of Idolatry") he describes Abraham
as the hero of monotheism:

After this mighty one [Abraham] was weaned, he began to search for
knowledge while he was yet young, reflecting day and night. And he
wondered how the sphere could follow its path continually, if it had
nothing to direct it [manhig]? And who makes it revolve (for it cannot
rotate itself)?

He had no teacher, nor anyone to inform him, being deep inside Ur of
the Chaldees among foolish idolaters. His father and mother and all the
people were idolaters, and he would worship along with them; but his
mind searched to gain understanding until he grasped the way of truth,
knowing rightness through his correct understanding. He knew that there
is one God, and He directs the sphere, and He created all, and in all
of existence there is no God but He...

This short passage requires some unpacking. Just before it, at the
very beginning of Hilkhot Avodah Zarah, Maimonides outlined his
famous explanation of how mankind devolved into idolatry. They began
by seeking to honor the servants of the Great King--the luminaries in
the heavens--but ultimately served them alone and forgot their Master,
and they were further misled by the lies of idolatrous priests. Idolatry
began as something foolish yet well-intentioned, and later developed
into an ugly perversion of the truth and the source of great evil. In
Maimonides' historiography, those who knew the one God in the generations
before Abraham were few and far between.[4]^^

According to Maimonides, Abraham vanquished idolatry through the power
of his mind, by considering the implications of the heavens and the
way they function. What Maimonides' presents here is the Aristotelian
model of the universe, in which transparent spheres rotate around the
earth, carrying the visible luminaries along with them. These spheres
are composed of thick heavenly matter (there is no vacuum between them)
and they rotate in geometric pathways. They are intelligent beings. Their
endless movement is caused by an unlimited power, for if the power that
moved them were to cease then they too would come to a stop. Here we
have the medieval opposite of Newtonian physics: All movement ceases
when the power causing it is exhausted.

Another difference between medieval and modern thought is the concept
of infinity: Aristotle denied the possibility of an "actual" infinity.
No object composed of matter can be infinite, no spacial dimension can
be infinite, and furthermore the very chain of causality itself cannot
be infinite. The movement and change we witness on earth is caused by
the rotation of the spheres above, and that rotation must ultimately be
the effect of one single ultimate cause, so that the chain of causality
at any given point in time always has both a beginning (God) and an end
(movement and change and life on earth). Since this chain of causality
is finite, and can be apprehended at least in part, it became highly
tempting for medieval philosophers to try to explain it as far as they
could, and that included saying various things about God.

Since all physical things are finite, the unlimited power that eternally
moves the spheres must be entirely incorporeal, lacking any aspect
of physicality. This is a consequence of the medieval proof of God's
existence as the First Cause, with which Maimonides began his Mishneh
Torah. For Maimonides, young Abraham proved the existence of God and
the truth of monotheism by using medieval Aristotelian principles, long
before Aristotle himself was born and well before the Middle Ages. Abraham
proved in absolute fashion that there is indeed a governor (manhig)
of the palace, properly understood as the First Cause of all movement
and change, from the revolution of the spheres to life on earth.[5]^^

Maimonides built his description of Abraham, as far as he could, out of
biblical and midrashic materials. This is as good an illustration as any
of a very important fact about medieval Jewish philosophy, namely that
it is not just philosophy per se, but equally (and perhaps primarily)
philosophical exegesis of the Bible and Chazal. Maimonides' reading of
our midrashic passage, and the way he uses it, reflect his intellectual
position: The existence of a single incorporeal God is not a matter of
belief or theory or guesswork, but a demonstrable scientific fact. In
fact, its clear demonstration is the foundation of all true science.

Idolatry, therefore, is no personal betrayal of God, but rather a
philosophical error. It is a colossal error with terrible consequences,
but an intellectual mistake at its core, nonetheless. The very same
thing would be true for atheism according to Maimonides. If you think
that there are many gods, or no God, or even if you are not quite sure,
then you are first and foremost an ignoramus (besides being an idolater
or a heretic). Ascribing this attitude to Abraham reflects Maimonides'
general conviction that Aristotelian science was not just "basically
correct" in terms of its content; rather, the truths of Aristotelian
science are an integral part of the Torah itself (and the key to its
correct interpretation).

This is a crucial point. One of the great debates in medieval Jewish
thought was whether or not it is right, or even possible, to "marry"
the Torah to Greek wisdom. We all know that for a marriage to succeed,
the two partners need to have something significant in common. If
they are too dissimilar then there won't be sufficient basis for a
relationship. Differences can be healthy if they complement each other,
but only if the relationship can still address basic needs and values.

Do the Torah and Greek wisdom share enough common ground to attempt
a shiddukh? According to Maimonides they did. And the greatest single
contribution of Aristotelian wisdom to their mutual relationship was
its absolute proof of the existence of one God, an incorporeal intellect
that is the ultimate cause for the revolution of the spheres.

That proof is the meaning, according to Maimonides, of the opening phrase
of the Ten Commandments: I am the Lord your God... (Exodus 20:2). Knowing
that there is a God is a commandment according to Maimonides, but a
person can only be commanded to do what he or she is capable of doing. In
medieval science, to know that such a God exists was an established
fact that any reasonably intelligent person could apprehend. Hence,
according to Maimonides, the Torah literally commands us to apprehend
it through the proper proof, as did Abraham long ago.

Nevertheless, there were also serious objections to the proposed marriage
between the Torah and Greek wisdom. Medieval Aristotelianism posited
a naturalistic reality: The Aristotelian God behaves according to its
nature, eternally causing the universe to function in much the same way
that a candle gives light or a tree casts a shadow on a sunny day. The
Aristotelian God cares nothing for the world that it generates nor for
the people in it; in fact, according to Aristotle, God has no awareness of
individuals and their changing circumstances. In the same vein the world
itself functions according to its nature eternally, and humans behave
according to their own natures. Not one of the three great realms--God,
the universe, and humanity--ever has any significant impact upon the
others. In this eternally static reality, all three of them continue to
behave as their natures dictate forever.

Can such a God be reconciled with the God of the Torah? Can an unchanging,
naturalistic universe be reconciled with the world that the Torah
describes? These are the fundamental problems that Maimonides dealt
with in his philosophical writings. His personal views on the matter are
unclear and sometimes contradictory. For this reason Maimonides' "true"
views have been debated continually for more than eight centuries--a
debate which continues to this very day.[6]^^

While the medieval science that Maimonides worked with seems archaic
today, the basic problem he dealt with is still quite relevant. The
idea of a naturalistic universe, a system of all encompassing physical
causality with no room for any autonomous, purposeful expression of
personal will (by God or man), is still at the root of the tension between
the Torah and any form of human wisdom that operates in a manner meant
to be objective and universally valid. The latter is best represented
today by academia.

Is God Really a Scientific Fact?

How well does Maimonides' interpretation of the Illuminated Palace
reflect the midrash? What Abraham says, in the original Hebrew of the
midrash, is "[tomar sheha'olm hazeh belo manhig]". But how should that
sentence be punctuated? In Maimonides' view this was no question at all:
Abraham was sure about God's existence, because the scientific proof
is absolutely conclusive. Therefore, what Abraham says in the midrash
must actually be a kind of a statement, a rhetorical question punctuated
with an exclamation point--not a real question. The midrash may be read
this way if we assume that the traveler in the parable was already quite
certain, even before the master of the palace replied to him. We also need
to assume that the high point in the midrash is in Abraham's discovery,
not in God's reply.[7]

But is the "proof" in the midrash which led to the traveler's realization
really conclusive? Seeing light appear in one window after the next
is a very likely indication that someone has personally ordained the
lighting of lamps. But could there be a different explanation? Might
not the spheres which carry the luminaries, once they are set in motion,
rotate forever (recalling Newton)? Nowadays, in our world of electronic
"Shabbat clocks" and digital programming, it is very easy to suggest that
something else entirely might cause light to appear in the windows before
dark. But even in the Middle Ages people were fully capable of realizing
that, in principle, there might be an alternative explanation, even if
they couldn't supply an easy concrete example of what that alternative
might be.

So might it be, contra Maimonides, that Abraham was asking a very real
question in the midrash? Perhaps the traveler who represents Abraham
wasn't fully sure there was a master of the palace, until that person
spoke to him personally? Perhaps it is not the traveler's question,
but rather the revelation of the master of the palace, which is the high
point of the midrash?


Having finished Part 1 of this Introduction to Dogma in Jewish Thought
by raising some questions about Maimonides' rationalistic reading of the
Parable of the Illuminated Fortress, Part 2 will deal with alternative
interpretations based on the idea of an experiential, living relationship
with God.

Rabbi Dr. Seth (Avi) Kadish studied for his Ph.D. at the University
of Haifa (2006) in Medieval Jewish Philosophy. He previously studied
at Yeshiva University where he received his rabbinic ordination and
master's degrees in Bible and Jewish Education, and then taught secondary
school for 8 years in the USA and Israel. He currently teaches medieval
Jewish philosophy, history and exegesis at Oranim Teacher's College,
and in the Overseas School at the University of Haifa. For many years
he taught immigrant soldiers in the Nativ program of the IDF education
corps, and adult Israeli Jewish education for the Hebrew University's
Melton School. He lives in Karmiel, Israel with his wife and children,
where they are involved in building modern Orthodox communities that are
open and welcoming to people of diverse backgrounds and outlooks. Rabbi
Kadish is the author of Kavvana: Directing the Heart in Jewish Prayer
<https://sites.google.com/site/kadish67/kavvana-en> and The Book of
Abraham: Rabbi Shimon ben Zemah Duran and the School of Rabbenu Nissim
Gerondi <https://sites.google.com/site/kadish67/avraham-avinu>.

[1] I heard it from her at Yeshiva University's Gruss Kollel in
Jerusalem, during the year 5751 (when she was already in her eighties).

[2] Rather than finding a gap here, I personally tend to think there
is great literary significance in the details about Abram's family at
the very end of Parashat Noah, along with all of the various instances
of toledot and lists of "begats" throughout Genesis. In light of them it
may be that God's sudden choice of Abram was ironic or purposely tragic,
but not unexplainable. But that is a topic for another time.

[3] Birah is usually taken to mean a stronghold or a fortress. In
the context of this midrash, where it stands for the entire world, it
implies something more grand and "palace" would seem appropriate. For
a further meaning of doleqet see the third interpretation below.

[4] The plain sense of the biblical text in Genesis is arguably
the opposite.

[5] For background and context on this and other medieval proofs for
the existence of God, see the exhaustive presentation in Herbert A.
Davidson, Proofs for Eternity, Creation and the Existence of God in
Medieval Islamic and Jewish Philosophy (New York and Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1987).

[6] For an excellent summary of the different possibilities inherent in
reading Maimonides, see "Four Readings of Maimonides", the final section
of Moshe Halbertal's new book: Maimonides: Life and Thought (Princeton
University Press, 2013). For two in-depth studies on Maimonides' views
by current scholars who differ in their conclusions, see Kenneth Seeskin,
Maimonides on the Origin of the World (Cambridge University Press, 2006)
and Howard Kreisel, Prophecy: The History of an Idea in Medieval Jewish
Philosophy (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001). Creation
and Prophecy are the two most important expressions of the problem of
naturalism. An eternal universe would seem to be naturalistic, while
creation supposes an individual act of will. Prophecy seems to imply
an act of personal will (God chooses to speak to the prophet), but it
can also be explained in terms of naturalistic causality. On a personal
level, I am agnostic regarding Maimonides' "true" beliefs. Extremely
convincing readings can be made in different and opposite directions,
and this has already been done for more than eight centuries. I don't
believe I have any new, fundamental insights into this question that
others have missed, nor do I think we will ever really know. In fact,
that may have been Maimonides' own intention. This is precisely what
has made Maimonides' philosophy perpetually fascinating for centuries,
and also provided a parnasah to a good many scholars in modern times.

[7] Thus possibly suggesting that prophecy may be a naturalistic
phenomenon that occurs under the proper circumstances when a person is
capable and ready.

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Message: 8
From: Micha Berger
Date: Fri, 29 Jan 2016 14:12:26 -0500
[Avodah] Fwd: How did Abraham Dicover God? The Experiential

Part II


- How did Abraham Discover God? The Experiential Approach

The Illuminated Palace: An Introduction to Dogma in Jewish Thought
A single midrash on Parashat Lekh Lekha manages to touch upon the
existence of God and how to relate to Him, on the tension between Torah
and science, and on rabbinic criticism of Maimonides' thirteen

- Part 2 -
How did Abraham Discover God?
The Experiential Approach

Rabbi Dr. Seth (Avi) Kadish

Part 1 of this Introduction to Dogma in Jewish Thought concluded by
raising some questions about Maimonides' rationalistic reading of the
Parable of the Illuminated Fortress. In Part 2 we will now deal with
alternative interpretations based on the idea of an experiential, living
relationship with God.

Second Interpretation: God as a Personality (Crescas)

Two centuries after the death of Maimonides, Rabbi Hasdai Crescas (d.
1410/11) composed the first full-fledged "book of principles" of Judaism:
A complete work whose parts are organized according to a unique system
of the principles of the Torah. The book is called Or Hashem ("The Light
of the Lord").

Crescas' teacher was Rabbenu Nissim of Gerona (best known by his acronym
"Ran"),[1] who along with two generations of his students, was deeply
interested in defining the principles of the Torah. They subjected
Maimonides' list of principles to systematic analysis and offered
alternatives to it. What was shared alike by the entire school, and the
source of their preoccupation with the problem, was their rejection
of naturalism: The God of Aristotle cannot be the God of the Torah,
who is a personality possessing will. This was the foundation of the
Torah according to the Ran, its only true "principle". In his view,
any system compatible with it is a viable way to understand the Torah,
while any system that undermines it or rejects it will lead to the
destruction of the Torah.[2]^^

During the two centuries between Maimonides and the Ran, ever since
Maimonides first publicized the thirteen principles within his Commentary
to the Mishnah in his younger years, silence had reigned regarding
them. But that silence can be misleading, because this was precisely
the period of the great controversies that raged for generations
over Maimonides and his writings. It is most likely that the thirteen
principles were utterly ignored not because others agreed with them, but
rather because they were correctly seen as nothing more than a natural
outgrowth--and a relatively unimportant one--of a powerful and dangerous
world view that needed to be fought and defeated at its core. The theology
underlying the thirteen principles was far more important to Maimonides'
critics than were the principles themselves.

Rabbi Hasdai Crescas realized this more fully than any other member
of the school. To suggest an alternative to Maimonides' system of
principles could not be enough for him, because doing so could only
be truly effective if the entire philosophy underlying them was also
undermined. He therefore strove to collapse the dogmatic certainty of
medieval science that had reigned for centuries. That is why he took
aim precisely at the Aristotelian proof for the existence of God.

The first treatise of Crescas' Or Hashem
<http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=22063&;st=&pgnum=26> is about
the "roots" of the Torah, which are the existence of God and His primary
attributes (unity and incorporeality). These can be established with
absolute certainty based upon Aristotelian axioms that were enumerated
by Maimonides in his introduction to Part Two of the Guide to the
Perplexed. Because he was an honest seeker of the Torah's truth, and
in the spirit of the talmudic description of the House of Hillel who
"would give precedence to the opinions of the House of Shammai and even
teach them first before their own" (b. Eruvin 13b), Crescas therefore
<http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=22063&;st=&pgnum=10> divided
the first treatise of Or Hashem into three parts: The first part is
devoted to a full and fair presentation of the Maimonidean axioms and
proofs. In the second part he undermined those proofs through careful,
nuanced critical questioning of long-cherished philosophical axioms and
definitions.[3] In the third part he proposed his own new approach to
the existence of God, God's unity and incorporeality, which can coexist
with a non-dogmatic understanding of both the Torah and science.[4]^^

Crescas chose to conclude the first treatise of Or Hashem
<http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=22063&;st=&pgnum=135> with an
interpretation of the Parable of the Illuminated Palace:

    Most appropriate here is what they (of blessed memory) told in the
    midrash: This may be compared to one who was passing from place to
    place and saw a palace illuminated. He said, "Will you say this palace
    has no governor?" The master of the palace peeped out at him. He said
    to him, "I am the master of the palace." Thus, because our father
    Abraham would say, "Will you say this world has no governor?",
    the Holy One, Blessed be He, peeped out at him and said to him,
    "I am the Master of the world..." In other words, even though he
    inclined toward the truth, he didn't leave all doubt behind until
    the light of the Lord emanated to him, and that is prophecy.

Crescas' comment on our midrash is very brief, but loaded with
meaning.[5] The only thing he said explicitly about the midrash is that
Abraham's question was a very real one. The world provokes our most
important questions, but it doesn't supply easy answers.[6] Thinking
about the world made Abraham ask about whether there is a God, but he
couldn't be sure until God spoke to him. That act of divine
communication is of acute importance, so much so that in the above
passage Crescas called it the light of the Lord, which is, of course,
also the very title of his book.

That Abraham's question was real, and that the high point of the
midrash is in God's reply, are both crucial points, because together
they encapsulate two extraordinary elements in Crescas' thought. The
first is an attempt to return to a classical model of Judaism; the
second is a shift in the very nature of religion from medieval times to
the modern world.

I. Returning to a classical model of Judaism: The Bible and Chazal
rarely if ever touch upon the question of whether God exists. God is
there, and powerfully so. The real question is not whether or not God
exists, but rather what is the state of our mutual relationship with
God: Is it characterized by love or hatred? Respect or disgrace?
Loyalty or betrayal? The God of biblical religion and halakhic Judaism
is a personality, not a concept.

Take marriage as an example. A great many things can and do happen over
the course of a marriage but one thing that has never happened, at
least in my marriage, is to wake up in the morning and ask: Does my
spouse exist? The question would be silly because we experience our
partners all the time in a personal context.

Such is the God of the Bible and Chazal: God is always there, and
powerfully so. The question is not whether God is there, but how we relate
to God. The most vivid example of this in the entire Bible is Job, to
whom it never occurs to take the suffering of the righteous as a reason
to call God's existence into question. Instead, throughout the poetic
body of the book, he wags his finger at God time and again in accusation
(so to speak): "You are very much there. You are there, wicked, cruel and
vicious. You are there, evil and corrupt. You are there and I hate you!"

This is why for Crescas, to know that God exists cannot possibly be
a commandment. God is known through living experience, not through
logic. It is, therefore, no accident that the preface to Or Hashem
<http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=22063&;st=&pgnum=22> is
entirely devoted to refuting Maimonides' contention that knowing God is
a commandment. One theme Crescas emphasized throughout Or Hashem is that
ideas in general cannot mitzvot, not even for the most important "root"
of the Torah, namely that God exists.

The God in Crescas' Or Hashem is a personality capable of love, who
chose to communicate with Abraham. God is a personality known through
experience, not a concept derived through logic. Abraham's relationship
with God is fraught with difficult and even horrific experiences, but
never since God speaks to him the first time does Abraham have reason
to question God's existence. The same is true for the nation of Israel,
Abraham's descendants, who experience God throughout the Bible and beyond.

In this way Crescas took what he saw as an aberration, namely the
medieval philosophical view of God as a concept, and removed it by
refuting the scientific basis for the concept. He thus allowed for a
return to the God of the Torah, who is experienced through life, rather
than being apprehended through rational inquiry. We might even suggest,
anachronistically, that the very term "Middle Ages" would have been
deemed quite accurate by Crescas, who saw medieval Aristotelianism as a
system that had wrongly replaced the classical approach of the Torah,
and whose removal would enable prophecy ("the light of the Lord") to
return to Israel at the dawn of a new age.

II. Shifting from medieval to modern religion: Crescas dealt with a
great deal of what we would now call "science" in the first treatise
of Or Hashem. Perhaps the greatest difference between medieval science
and modern science (although one with which Crescas himself didn't much
engage) is that the latter insists on empirical verification. Logic on
its own is insufficient. Theories need to be confirmed by conformity to
hard facts, and those facts need to be objectively verifiable by anyone.

Because of this, religion ceased to be a scientific issue in modern
times. God cannot be tested for in a laboratory. Any good scientist,
or at least one who has a decent grasp of the history of science, knows
that God is simply not a scientific question anymore. Science cannot
define God or describe God, and it certainly cannot determine whether or
not God exists. Something that is known through subjective experience,
rather than through objective observation and argumentation, cannot be
dealt with on a scientific level. This is why religion in the modern
world ceased being a scientific matter, and instead became a matter
of personal experience and conviction. In the case of Judaism, it is a
matter of both personal and national experience and conviction.

It is thus no accident that Crescas' abandonment of the conceptual
God of logic, in favor of returning to the personal God of life, is
tightly connected to the historical shift from medieval science to
modern science. Crescas was deeply convinced that the Torah itself had
been grossly distorted by medieval thought, from which it needed to
be disengaged and liberated in order to regain its own integrity. This
was his personal motivation for trying to undermine the core concepts
of Aristotelian science. To further this goal he was even willing to
sacrifice that aspect of Aristotelianism most beloved to medieval Jews,
namely its absolute proof for the existence of a single incorporeal
God. For Crescas, a God who could be proven (or needed to be proven)
wasn't a God at all. At the very least, such a God certainly wasn't the
God of the Torah.[7]^^

It must be emphasized that in no way did Crescas engage in anything
remotely like the cheap disparagement of modern science that is popular
among some Orthodox Jews today. He didn't try to save the Torah by
engaging in apologetics (otherwise he would have been quite satisfied
with the Aristotelian proof of God, as were some of his contemporaries
and students). Rather, in order to honestly uphold the Torah, he
placed himself firmly at the cutting edge of the science of his day
by questioning its underlying concepts, and was thus able to offer
alternatives that other contemporary scientists found compelling. He
tried to rethink assumptions on both sides for every issue he confronted:
No idea proclaimed in the name of the Torah, and no product of human
wisdom, was obvious to him or beyond question. By shattering popular
notions in both realms he did not merely reduce the friction between
them, but allowed each one to enrich the other. In fact, he was one of
a handful of men who so cogently challenged the core of medieval science
that they ultimately paved the way for the scientific revolution of the
16^th century.

Crescas is thus a powerful example of how personal attitudes and
motivations can be valuable tools toward unlocking new venues in
academia. This is true so long as they are openly and honestly
acknowledged, and on condition that the quality of research is not
compromised and the quest for truth retains its integrity.[8] As a man
of Torah, Crescas achieved this by insisting that the Torah be studied
and understood on its own terms, and science on its own terms. Honesty
and rigour are called for in both worlds, but each realm enjoys its
own sovereignty.[9]^^

The honesty and rigor exhibited in Crescas' thought are not just important
in terms of his contribution to humanity. For our purposes here, his
central contribution is to the intellectual lives of Jews loyal to the
Torah. To understand why this is so, recall that the first treatise
of Or Hashem is about God's existence, unity, and incorporeality. In
other words, it is designed to parallel the first three principles
of Maimonides.

For Maimonides, the absolute demonstration of these three principles
according to reason was the only possible basis for a true
understanding of the Torah. However, for Crescas, objective reason
ultimately proves little or nothing about God. Reason cannot uphold the
Torah, but neither can it refute the Torah. Crescas' goal was to
neutralize reason, and thus relegate it to its own realm, namely to the
world of objective human inquiry. In this way he freed the Torah to be
understood on its own terms, in its proper context, namely the
experiential, subjective and living relationship between God and

Third Interpretation: The Palace in Flames

Returning to our midrash, an alternative reading has been suggested.
The Hebrew term birah doleket may not mean "Illuminated Palace" at all,
but rather "burning palace", i.e. a castle that is going up in flames.

Rabbi Enoch Zundel ben Joseph of Bialystok (d. 1867)
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enoch_Zundel_ben_Joseph>, in his commentary
Etz Yosef <http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=14385&;st=&pgnum=89>,
interprets our midrash as follows: The lonely traveler stumbles upon a
vestige of civilization, but it is burning down. The impressive palace
most certainly had a governor who built it and maintained it for a time,
but now he seems to have abandoned his manor. So the traveler asks,
"Does this mean the palace has no governor?" And then, suddenly, the
governor reveals his presence.

In other words, when Abraham saw the idolatrous civilization around him
collapsing and facing disaster (as described in related midrashim about
events in Parashat Noah), and God didn't intervene, he began to doubt that
God cared about the world anymore. But then God spoke to Abraham and told
him that all of the calamity and destruction was His will as punishment
for the wicked. He chose to let His palace burn. And henceforth, should
anyone ask whether the world still has a governor, the key to the answer
would no longer be the Palace itself, but rather in the unique experience
of one man and his family: Abraham. It is in the special divine providence
for Abraham and his descendants, in the extraordinary history of Israel,
that God's hand will continue to be revealed in the world.

I would like to take the "palace in flames" reading in a slightly
different direction. Note that in midrashic parables, it is often
important to pay attention to where the allegory doesn't fully match
what it stands for. In our parable, the traveler stumbles upon a burning
palace. But if the palace stands for the world, then Abraham doesn't
just stumble upon it. Rather, he is within it and a part of it.

An exclamation point is therefore called for when the traveler cries out,
"Will you say this palace has no governor?!" It is not intellectual
inquiry that is going on here, and he isn't just musing about whether
or not the governor has abandoned his palace. Rather, what we have here
is a personal cry for help, and even a challenge to God: "Isn't there
anyone in charge who can save the world?! How could God allow this to
happen?! Why isn't God taking responsibility?!"

There are many people who seek out God in times of pain and peril. In
my reading, the traveler represents them.

When reading the midrash this way, God's reply is particularly
fascinating. "I am the master of the world," God tells Abraham. One way
to understand this blunt response is that God has ordained the disaster
currently engulfing the world (as the Etz Yosef suggested). It is God's
will, and the decree stands despite any human protest. Considering
Abraham's difficult life, it seems quite reasonable to interpret the
midrash this way.

However, it can also be understood differently. When the traveler calls
out for help, the master of the palace reveals himself. By doing so the
Master says: "You are not alone. I identify with you in your time of
trouble." Such a reply might indicate that when a catastrophe befalls
humanity it is not just an accident of history but has meaning, as do
the human lives that it affects, and that God cares despite His harsh
decree. Furthermore, the divine identification with human suffering spurs
action: The very fact that the palace has a master--even though He has
consigned it to burn--calls upon Abraham (and humanity) to rescue the
moral order that is going up in flames.

The reply might further suggest that God not only identifies with human
suffering and shares our pain, and not just that His care calls upon us
to act, but that God actively assists us and supports us in ways that
might be difficult to discern. According to this, the lesson of the
midrash would be something similar to the famous poem, "Footprints in
the Sand." <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Footprints_(poem)>

It is thus entirely possible that the whole medieval debate about proofs
of God's existence is not really what our midrash is about. The midrash
focuses not on the palace (and what it does or doesn't prove), but on
the flames (God's apparent abandonment of the world). In this case the
midrash is making a claim about the value and meaning of human life
and experience, and that God is concerned about them. It focuses even
more closely on Abraham, turning him into a potent symbol of divine
involvement and care. Such claims reside in an entirely different realm
than rational inquiry or science, which have nothing to say about them.


Reading the midrash about Abraham and the Illuminated Palace in multiple
ways shows that the criticism of Maimonides' thirteen principles by later
thinkers is not just technical. A surface reading of some of these works
might suggest that they do nothing more than discuss the details of the
system (i.e. what should be listed as a "principle of the Torah"), or
that they pursue a somewhat broader but still technical goal, namely to
analytically redefine how a system of principles should be built. But
when they are read carefully as part of a dialogue with Maimonides
and with each other, we can see that their critique of Maimonides'
principles is ultimately a negation of the very notion that the Torah
depends upon objective reason, and it has harsh implications for the
related notion that ideas can be commanded.[10] Crescas' interpretation
of the Illuminated Palace is a vivid example.

God is a personality to live with, not a concept to be analyzed. The
Torah is a covenant between God and Israel, in the context of a
relationship, not a neutral expression of abstract, objective ideas.
What the Torah cares about is how we live--and most of all about the
inner intentions and loyalties that inform our behavior towards God,
Israel and humanity--not our intellectual positions. The upshot of the
analysis of "principles of the Torah" among the rishonim is that the
Torah is not intellectual dogma, it is rather a way of life with God.

As this essay was being published online, it became known that Rabbi
Ovadia Yosef had passed away. My personal thoughts about him may be
found here <http://j.mp/1VvI4bv>. This essay is dedicated to his memory.

Rabbi Dr. Seth (Avi) Kadish studied for his Ph.D. at the University
of Haifa (2006) in Medieval Jewish Philosophy. He previously studied
at Yeshiva University where he received his rabbinic ordination and
master's degrees in Bible and Jewish Education, and then taught secondary
school for 8 years in the USA and Israel. He currently teaches medieval
Jewish philosophy, history and exegesis at Oranim Teacher's College,
and in the Overseas School at the University of Haifa. For many years
he taught immigrant soldiers in the Nativ program of the IDF education
corps, and adult Israeli Jewish education for the Hebrew University's
Melton School. He lives in Karmiel, Israel with his wife and children,
where they are involved in building modern Orthodox communities that are
open and welcoming to people of diverse backgrounds and outlooks. Rabbi
Kadish is the author of Kavvana: Directing the Heart in Jewish Prayer
<https://sites.google.com/site/kadish67/kavvana-en> and The Book of
Abraham: Rabbi Shimon ben Zemah Duran and the School of Rabbenu Nissim
Gerondi <https://sites.google.com/site/kadish67/avraham-avinu>.


[1] Most famous as the author of Hiddushei ha-Ran and Derashot ha-Ran
(1320-1376). Rabbenu Nissim Gerondi and Rabbi Hasdai Crescas were the
rabbinic leaders and halakhic authorities of Spain during their respective
lifetimes. However, probably because of the horrific circumstances under
which he lived, Crescas never composed the great halakhic work that he
planned. Or Hashem was meant to be part one of a two-part work called
Ner Elohim: The first part (Or Hashem) is constructed as an alternative
to Maimonides' Guide, and the planned second part (Ner Mitzvah) was
meant to replace Maimonides' Mishneh Torah (!). The second part was never
written. Crescas devoted his life not to writing, but to rebuilding Jewish
communities in Spain that were shattered during the fierce persecutions
of 1391. For some background on the school of the Ran, see the first
chapter of my dissertation, The Book of Abraham: Rabbi Shimon ben Zemah
Duran and the School of Rabbenu Nissim Gerondi (University of Haifa,
2006) <https://sites.google.com/site/kadish67/avraham-avinu>.

[2] For an in-depth analysis of ikkarim and "books of principles of the
Torah" in the school of Rabbenu Nissim Gerondi, see the third chapter of
my dissertation <https://sites.google.com/site/kadish67/avraham-avinu>.
For a full history of Jewish dogma from its beginnings through Abarbanel's
Rosh Amanah, see the book by my teacher and friend Menachem Kellner,
Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought (Oxford University Press, 1986).

[3] In parts one and two of the First Treatise, Crescas dealt extensively
with a wide variety of matters from physics to metaphysics, and from
mathematics to the careful use of scientific language, most of which
would seem at first glance to be foreign to a book called "The Light
of the Lord" about the principles of the Torah. But it is helpful to
remember that in the middle ages the word "philosophy" incorporated the
entire corpus of rational inquiry or systematic thinking, including all
of what we call "science" today, and that "philosophy" as a whole was
the primary intellectual challenge to traditional Judaism.

[4] My use of "non-dogmatic" here is an attempt to convey Crescas'
goal in Or Hashem of leaving open as many intellectual options as
possible. In terms of the Torah, this means not to claim anything in
the name of the Torah that the Torah does not clearly and absolutely
claim for itself. In terms of rational inquiry or science, it means
not to claim anything in the name of reason that reason itself does not
firmly establish. For instance, can one ascribe positive attributes to
God? According to Crescas, neither the Torah nor rational inquiry negate
that possibility. Can there be an "actual infinity"? One can use try to
use reason to negate the idea (as did Aristotle), but the arguments are
not convincing. In our case, does the nature of universe "prove" that
it has a First Cause in the Aristotelian sense? According to Crescas
neither the Torah nor rational human inquiry insist that this is so.

[5] Or Hashem as a whole is characterized by extreme brevity, but its
terse text contains the some of the most profound ideas in medieval
Jewish philosophy. It is surpassed only by Maimonides' Guide in its
combination of originality and high quality argumentation.

[6] Natan Alterman homed in on this point in his light-hearted poem
"The Little Cleric" ([Haqleriql haQatan]). The world naturally inspires
wonder in children (and sometimes even in adults). The questions that it
inspires, and the places they can lead, may sometimes be troubling for
parents, as for the atheistic couple in Alterman's poem who listen
to their child in horror, as his questions make him sound like a
primitive religious fanatic to their ears. At the same time, as the poem
acknowledges, things can also move in the opposite direction. But honest
struggling with questions is healthy regardless of where they may lead:
"No Marxist ever grew up in an incubator... And besides, those concerned
have forgotten, for they too were once Little Clerics! But it was no
tragedy, because there is One who cares and takes pity: They grew up
Epikorsim, thank God!" The poem is from The Seventh Column, vol. 1 (Tel
Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuhad, 1973), pp. 200-202 (Hebrew); the text can be
found below in the comments section. There is no question that Alterman
was influenced by the midrashic model of Abram as a youth.

[7] The most that can possibly be established about God through reason,
according to Crescas, is limited and stunted. In Or Hashem I:3:3 he sums
up his position by saying that the universe--the totality of nature and
causality, whether it is finite or infinite--is in itself nothing more
than a contingent possibility that can either exist or not. What can
therefore be said is that there must be some sort of a "switch" that
turns reality on. This is a far cry from both the isolated grandeur of
the Aristotelian God who is an incorporeal intellect, and the powerfully
involved God of the Torah who is a personality.

[8] Joshua Berman eloquently expressed this idea in a short video that
used to be found in a personal website devoted to his book, Created
Equal. The point was that coming from an Orthodox Jewish perspective
can be an advantage for a serious scholar, even (and perhaps especially)
in a field like biblical scholarship that often involves direct, acute
tension at the very core of Jewish tradition.

[9] For more on Crescas as a scientist, and on dealing with the tensions
between Torah and science, see my essay found here <http://j.mp/1ZZ3S0k>
(a bit of which has been lifted into the current text).

[10] How this general attitude played out in various competing
systems of ikkarim will be explored in future essays; this is the
first installment of what I plan to be a series. I will continue with
further installments, God willing, as time and opportunity permit. A
highly tentative (and evolving) list of general topics and various
specific points that I would like to address in the future may be found
here <http://j.mp/1ntle9n? (comments and suggestions are welcome). For
those who would like to read more in the meantime about how and why the
medieval critique of Maimonides' ikkarim developed, see chapter 3 of my
dissertation <https://sites.google.com/site/kadish67/avraham-avinu>.


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