Monday, October 17, 2011
At the moshav modiin festival today I see a fragile old man walk past me, long grey hair, balding and white yalmuke laiden, tie dye shirt and baggy white pants. Something in his face looks like a square without corners, light seeping out gently. A salvation of sorts. I don't think much of it. Then at mincha I see him in shul, mumbling prayers to God with a rhythmic flow usually seen in those schooled in the prayer book at the tenderest of ages. Tie dye or black hat I think. And then I get it. Both.
Sunday, August 28, 2011
Rabbi Akiva warned them: When you get to the white marble, don't say "Water! Water!"
They went in.
One man died.
One man went mad.
One man cut the shoots.
Rabbi Akiva came out unharmed.
One made died:
He said: "I have lived my life with the belief that reason would lead me to my God. Now I see it does not. I cannot live." His soul departed, and we learn that God holds dear the passing of His righteous ones.
One man went mad:
He went running through the night, holding a lantern in his hand and asking strangers: Have you seen Him? Have you seen God?" They laughed a nervous laugh. Then he jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "I will tell you!" he cried "We have killed him -- you and I. All of us are his murderers!" He threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out.
One man cut the shoots:
He said: I will live only by that which can be demonstrated. That which cannot, I will disregard. Hope will come from within.
We therefore say he cut the shoots.
But Rabbi Akiva came out unharmed:
For he had remembered to remain silent.
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Maimonides term "Leida" transcends the bounds of an abstract logos and passes over into the boundless intimate and impassioned experience where postulate and deduction, discursive knowledge and intuitive thinking, conception and perception, subject and objects are one. Only in paragraph five, after the aboriginal experience of God has been established by him as a firm reality (in paragraph one) does he introduce the Aristotelian cosmological proof of the unmoved mover.
From Lonely Man of Faith
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
Kenneth Seeskin, Director of the Jewish Studies Program at Northwestern University, recognizes that Maimonides classic book on philosophy The Guide of the Perplexed is difficult reading for most people. It is long; made up of three books with 178 chapters. Secondly, Maimonides never intended that an insufficiently educated general audience should read it. He expected that his readers knew the sacred books of Judaism, the classics of Greek philosophy and the commentaries written on these classics. The third problem is that this book was composed in the twelfth century when science was radically different than it is today. Seeskin states that he intends to make Maimonides clear to modern readers. He does so by writing in clear English and by clarifying each point with examples from modern life.
What is idol worship?
Maimonides contends that the Torah considers idolatry to be the most reprehensible wrong. It is another name for ignorance, for disregarding what is rational. People can only worship God when they abandon superstition and other forms of ignorance and seek to understand God and the universe in a rational way. In a word, Maimonides felt that Judaism is a religion that teaches the truth. If people think that the Jewish faith is a belief system for which there is no supporting evidence, only blind reliance on tradition, they are wrong; this is not Judaism. This Maimonidean teaching becomes clear when we understand several of his ideas.
God has no body and human functions
Seeskin begins his book, as does Maimonides in his Guide, by stating that God has no physical form and does not act like a human being. Since God has no eyes, feet, and mouth, God does not see, move about or speak. When the Torah uses such terms as God looking, going up and down, coming near, speaking, and creating humans in the divine image, Scripture is speaking figuratively. The Bible does not intend that these words be taken literally because if they were taken literally, they would be describing a God with a body or doing an act that implies that God has a body.
As in English, God "looking" in the Bible does not mean that God has eyes, it should be understood as thinking, as in "I see your point." When the prophet Isaiah says in chapter 6 that he saw God, he means that he understood something about God. Similarly, when the Bible states that God "comes down," it means that there is a divine revelation, and "going up" means that the revelation ended, as in "she moved on to higher mathematics." God did not move. When Scripture writes that God is "coming near" it means that the person begins to understand, as in "the doctors are getting closer and closer to finding a cure." When a prophet hears God "speaking," he is thinking that he understands what God wants him to do. God has no mouth. The statement that humans are created in "God's image" does not imply that God has a physical form, but that humans are given intelligence. Thus the relationship between humans and God is not physical, but intellectual.
What can humans know about God and how should God be worshipped?
If God has no body, how can people describe God? Maimonides insists that it is impossible for humans to know anything about God. God is unlike anything here on earth. He is not like humans at all. When people speak about God knowing or God being all-powerful, they are saying something that is wrong. All we can do is confess ignorance.
If all biblical descriptions of God should be understood as figures of speech and if we cannot know anything about God, how can we worship God? Maimonides explains that while we cannot know God we can know what effect God has upon the earth and humans. We are unable to know if God is just and merciful; however, we are able to read in the Torah how God can cause justice and mercy to occur. This is really all we need to know about God, that God causes good, and we should copy these attributes of God and also act to produce good results. Thus Judaism is not a religion that encourages passive philosophical thinking about God, it is a practical and active religion that teaches true ideas about the world and helps improve individuals and society.
One of the ways that people can "copy" divine behavior is to remember that the Bible begins by teaching that people are created in God's image. Thus one human duty, indeed the paramount human duty, is to "copy" God by not accepting ideas simply because people claim that something is true; people have a duty to think rationally.
Seeskin stresses that Maimonides was opposed to religious fundamentalism; people must use their reason; this is what God wants. This is the implication of people being created in the "divine image."
How was the world created?
Since we cannot know anything about God other than the consequences of the divine acts, what can we know about how the world came into being? The Torah seems to say that God created the world out of nothing. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato claimed that God formed the world from pre-existing matter. His student Aristotle said that both God and the world existed for eternity. Some scholars are convinced that Maimonides was unable to decide between these three views. Maimonides states explicitly that if he wanted he could read the Bible as expressing any of the three views. "In fact," Seeskin writes, "he is so open minded about it that some scholars think he is actually committed to a version of the Aristotelian position." Seeskin himself thinks that Maimonides preferred the Platonic view.
Do miracles occur?
Should the biblical accounts of miracles be understood literally? Seeskin notes that Maimonides is not altogether clear on this issue. He describes some biblical miracles as dreams and others as really part of the natural order. People viewing an unusual event might think that it is not natural - such as a twelfth century man seeing a plane flying in the air. While Seeskin is correct that Maimonides is unclear whether miracles occur, other scholars say that Maimonides is hinting that all "miracles" fall into one of these two categories, but he does not say this explicitly because he did not want to offend or confuse those people who felt strongly that God interferes with nature and performs miracles.
Does the universe contain evil? Maimonides answers, "No." Some things in nature appear to be evil but are not. It is impossible to have a universe without the imperfections inherent in material things. When a mountain is washed with rain, the rocks that compose the mountain will be eaten away. When the sun shines on part of the earth, the other part will be dark. When a doctor saves a person's life with surgery, the person will experience pain. This is the nature of this world. The eaten away rocks, the darkness and pain are not evil; they are the natural consequences of having a universe.
Why do good people suffer? Maimonides states that God is not behind misfortunes; suffering may come from one of three sources. The first is the one just described. The individual suffers because of the laws of nature. A wind or hurricane blows and harms a person. The second is the harm that people do to themselves, such as by laziness, greed or self-deception. The third is the harm that some people inflict on other people, such as cruelty, murder, robbery and injustice. Maimonides adds that people need to understand that the universe does not revolve around people. We do not know and cannot know why God created the world, but it seems clear that it was not focused on humans who make up a very small part of the world.
What is prophecy? Maimonides describes three positions. The first, the one held by most people, is that prophecy is supernatural. God chooses the person to speak to. The human has no choice in the matter and he or she may be smart or ignorant, rich or poor. The second is a natural view: prophecy is a natural event; it is a higher level of intelligence; only a highly intelligent and well-learned person can be a prophet. God is not involved. The third notion is called a compromise. It is the Maimonidean view. It accepts the second position that prophecy is a higher level of intelligence, but says that while God does not instigate it, God can stop it.
Scholars debate what Maimonides understood by his statement that God can stop prophecy. Seeskin takes Maimonides' words literally, although an individual has attained the level of prophecy and wants to communicate his or her ideas, God may not concur and may stop the prophet from speaking. However, others, such as Joseph ibn Caspi, say that God is not involved at all. He understands that Maimonides is saying that even the most intelligent person will be unable to express an understanding/prophecy if that person is ill or depressed. By saying "God can stop prophecy," Maimonides meant what he said at the end of the section on prophecy, in 2:48: many actions are ascribed to God even though the act is not directly done by God, but is simply the result of natural laws, but they are ascribed to God because God is the ultimate cause of everything, since God created the world and its laws of nature.
What kind of intelligence does a prophet need? A prophet must have both a keen understanding of the world and the imagination of how to implement what he or she understands. The prophet must also be virtuous. A person who only has one of these attributes will not be able to help improve people and society.
The Torah commands
Since prophecy is obtained through intelligence (and can only be stopped but not started by God, according to Seeskin), then, Seeskin writes, the Torah commands must also be the result of the natural use of intelligence. Yet all are divine in the sense that they contribute to human excellence.
Most Jews today and yesterday thought that they must obey God's commands even if they are irrational simply because God as king demanded that they be obeyed. Maimonides rejected this view. He wrote that all the Torah commands, without exception, are rational and have one or more of three purposes. They (1) teach true ideas, (2) help society, and (3) provide for an individual's physical or mental health. Since the goal of the commands is best achieved when people understand why they are acting, it follows that the proper way to observe the commands is to understand why they were instituted, teach this understanding to others and act in a rational way with others. Maimonides understood that most people are unable to do this.
Contrary to the method of study of most people today who feel that they have fulfilled the obligation of Torah study if they simply read the Torah at least in the synagogue without understanding it, as if the Torah were prayers, Maimonides felt that Torah must be studied carefully. He even said that only a person who has mastered secular subjects, such as philosophy and science, can decipher the wisdom in the Torah. A fervent recital of the basic biblical statement "Here Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one" twice a day places the Jew within the community of monotheists, but without study and understanding, the recital does not clarify what the community is committed to and how individuals can help themselves and others.
Maimonides recognized that some biblical commands were developed to wean the people away from idolatry (teach true ideas) and others were instituted because of the needs of people, for example God has absolutely no need for sacrifices, but the Torah allowed them as a concession because the ancient Israelites felt that this was the way to worship and show love to God.
In his appendix, Seeskin mentions that the Maimonidean scholar Leo Strauss put heavy emphasis on the talmudic prohibition against teaching esoteric matters publicly. Therefore Strauss concluded that Maimonides hid his true ideas in the Guide and that Maimonides real message is given in hints and clues. Seeskin writes that his approach is the opposite; he assumes that the Guide was written just like any other book of philosophy.
The difference in the two approaches was shown above in how Seeskin and ibn Caspi interpret prophecy and how Seeskin and others see Maimonides' view on miracles. It can also be seen in the fact that Seeskin ascribes to the generally accepted notion that Maimonides thought that all thirteen of his famous thirteen principles of Judaism are correct, while other scholars insist that he only considered a few of them to be correct.
Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Throughout the Guide, Maimonides considers four accounts of creation: that of the kalam, Moses, Plato, and Aristotle. He rejects the kalam account (GP 1. 71–73) according which one demonstrates that the universe must have been created and then reasons that if it was created, it must have a creator. Like Thomas Aquinas, Maimonides believes it is impossible to show by logical considerations alone either that the universe was created or that it is eternal. Though Maimonides says he believes in creation, he admits one can do no more than tip the scales in this direction. As of Guide 2.13, he limits his discussion to the theories of Moses, Plato, and Aristotle.
Unfortunately Maimonides' characterizations of these alternatives are neither precise nor historically accurate [Seeskin, 2005]. Suffice it to say that his treatment of them is mainly thematic. Briefly stated, they are:
Moses: the world was created de novo and entirely ex nihilo. Plato: the world was created de novo from a preexisting material substrate. Aristotle: the world is eternal and its existence is best understood as eternal information of matter.
Based on his explicit remarks, Maimonides prefers the theory of Moses but allows one to hold that of Plato as a reasonable alternative. But there has always been a school of thought that maintains that he is secretly committed to the view of Aristotle [Harvey 1981]. My own position is with those who argue that Maimonides' explicit remarks are an accurate account of his view and that all the arguments he offers point in that direction [Davidson 1979; Feldman 1990; Hyman 1988; Wolfson 1973).
The historical Aristotle did argue that the world is eternal and that whatever is eternal is necessary [On Generation and Corruption 338a1–4, Physics 203b 29, Metaphysics 1050b8–15]. His medieval followers took this to mean that while the world is ontologically dependent on God, there is no moment when it first comes to be and therefore does not owe its existence to a decision to create. As we might say, it exists not because of anything God does but simply because of what God is. Because God's nature does not change, according to this position, neither does the existence or fundamental structure of the world. The most important consequence of this view is that God does not exercise free choice, which is to say that according to the Aristotelian alternative, the world is governed by necessity.
The standard arguments in favor of this position take one of two approaches: either they show that there is something inherent in the nature of the world that makes creation impossible or that there is something inherent in the nature of God that does. An example of the former is that change always proceeds from something to something else, as when a chicken springs from an egg or an acorn develops into a full grown oak tree. If this is true, it is impossible for something to come to be from nothing (ex nihilo). An example of the latter is that if God is perfect, it makes no sense to suppose that God could ever do anything new such as bring the world into being.
Maimonides' answer to the first argument (GP 2.17) is that given the world as we know it, change does proceed from one thing to something else. But why should we assume the creation of the world has to follow the same pattern? An account of creation is a theory of origin, how a thing comes to be initially. By contrast, an account of change is a theory of development or alteration, how one existing thing emerges into another. For all we know, the origin of a thing may be completely different from its development later on. Thus it is presumptuous to suppose that we can extrapolate from our experience of the world as it is at present to the moment of its creation. It follows that the first argument against creation is not decisive, which means that creation remains a possibility.
Maimonides' answer to the second argument (GP 2.18) is that in a perfect being, willing something new need not imply change. If I will today to take a trip tomorrow and events intercede to spoil my plans, I may have to change my mind, but to suppose that something analogous happens to God is absurd. Assume I will today to do something tomorrow independent of external circumstances — to think about the numerical characteristics of pi. And assume that when tomorrow comes, I do exactly as planned. While I would be undertaking something new, to the degree that I had intended to do it all along, it would be misleading to say that I underwent a change. Certainly I did not undergo a change of mind.
Maimonides takes this to mean that it is possible for a being not affected by external circumstances to will something new as long as it is part of his original intention. This is sometimes expressed by saying that changing one's will is not the same as willing change. So once again, the argument against creation is not decisive.
Maimonides is aware that all his arguments establish is the possibility of creation, not its actuality. To go further, and argue for the actuality of creation, he returns to the claim that everything that is eternal is necessary. If it could be shown that there are features of the world that are not necessary, it would follow that the world must have been created. Here Maimonides challenges Aristotle and his followers on the issue of astronomy.
Medieval Aristotelians believed as follows. God thinks and manifests self-awareness. Because God is one and simple, what emerges from God must be one and simple as well. In this way, God generates the first heavenly intelligence. According to Alfarabi, because the first intelligence is aware of two things — itself and God — it is capable of generating two things: the second heavenly intelligence and the outermost sphere of the universe. By contrast, Avicenna held that because the first intelligence is aware of God and duality in itself, it generates three things. The difference need not concern us here. The important point is that God's production of the outermost sphere is indirect; the immediate cause is the activity of the first intelligence. The process continues until we get the ten intelligences and nine primary spheres that make up the standard picture of medieval cosmology.
Maimonides criticizes this account in two ways. First if the originator of a causal sequence is one and simple, there is no way for complexity to arise, and everything else in the sequence should be one and simple as well (GP 2.22). Even if the sequence contains thousands of members, there is no way to account for the complexity of a celestial sphere, which is a composite of matter and form. When we get to the inner spheres, we have to account for even more because not only is there the sphere itself but the stars or planets attached to it. They too are composites of matter and form. How can we have such complexity if we start with something that is radically one?
Second, there are features of the heavenly bodies that defy scientific explanation and thus appear to be contingent in the sense that they were chosen rather than necessitated (GP 2.19–24). If the outer spheres impart motion to the inner ones, we would expect spherical motion to slow as we move closer to the earth. But this is hardly the case. As Maimonides points out (GP 2.19):
We see that in case of some spheres, the swifter of motion is above the slower; that in the case of others, the slower of motion is above the swifter; and that, again in another case, the motions of the spheres are of equal velocity though one be above the other. There are also other very grave matters if regarded from the point of view these things are as they are in virtue of necessity.
If there is no explanation for why the spheres behave in this fashion, or why some stars and planets emit more light than others, or why some regions of the heavens are relatively crowded while others are empty, there is no reason to think the phenomena in question are what they are by virtue of necessity. If there is no necessity, there are no grounds for eternity. The alternative is to say that God created the world as a result of a free choice and fashioned it in a particular way.
Maimonides recognizes (GP 2.24) that his argument does not constitute a demonstration. Just because science cannot explain something now, it does not follow that it will never be able to explain it. As he himself admits, science can and does make progress. But in the case of the heavenly bodies, he thought progress very unlikely. Because they too far away to make close observations, and too high in rank, we can only rely on inferences based on accidental qualities size, speed, and direction. As long as this is true, we will never know their essential natures and will never be able to support claims of necessity. As long as this is true, creation, though not demonstrated, will always be preferable to eternity.
Maimonides (GP 2.25) also offers a practical reason for believing in creation: How can a God without free will issue commandments? Beyond this there is a textual reason: belief in creation does less violence to scripture than belief in eternity. He concludes that the theory of Moses offers the best alternative, while that of Plato, which retains the idea of creation de novo, is acceptable. Though some people fault Maimonides for not coming up with a stronger argument on behalf of Moses, he would reply by saying that given the limits of our knowledge, this is the strongest argument we can expect. Although Maimonides is often seen as part of the Aristotelian tradition, and often expresses praise for Aristotle, his account of creation indicate that he is willing to depart from Aristotle when he thinks the arguments lead in that direction.
Sunday, July 3, 2011
Friday, June 24, 2011
LACK OF LOGIC
Sometimes, as we approach parashat Korach, we become so involved in lofty ideas and concepts that there is a danger of forgetting what Korach actually did, and the main lesson to be learned from the parasha. All kinds of explanations and reasons are offered for this episode, for the fact that this group rebelled against God, while the bottom line remains that there is no real explanation that can answer the question of why Korach acted as he did. This is the main message of the parasha: that a person who gets involved in conflict and argument acts illogically.
We look at great people who squabble with each other, and wonder: What got into that respectable, elderly man, who used to be so wise, to lead him into such foolishness? We forget that there is really no logic in a squabble.
In contrast to Korach's illogical behavior, Moshe and Aharon act with composure and equanimity. The Gemara, commenting on their demeanor, tells us:
The world exists only for the sake of Moshe and Aharon. There is it written, "What are we? (Va-anachnu ma – figuratively, we are ma)," while elsewhere it is written, "He hangs the world on nothingness" (belima).
Rabbi Ilaa said: The world exists only for the sake of one who holds himself back at a time of argument, as it is written: "He hangs the world on belima (figuratively, on restraint)." (Chullin 89a)
The world exists not by the merit of the pious, saintly ascetics of the world, but rather by the merit of someone who holds his mouth at a time of argument! It is specifically in this that a person's greatness is expressed.
We must remember that any person who gets into an argument has a "Kamtza" – a core of companions. He also has a "bar Kamtza" – people who dislike him. We should not think that if we enter into a dispute, we will be immune to the deterioration and illogic that always follows. We must elevate ourselves to the level upon which the world rests – the level of Moshe and Aharon, who held themselves back at a time of argument.
Adapted by Rami Yanai
Translated by Kaeren Fish
From the weekly Yeshivat Har Etzion Emails
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: "I seek God! I seek God!" -- As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? -- Thus they yelled and laughed.
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him -- you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
"How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us -- for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto."
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. "I have come too early," he said then; "my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars -- and yet they have done it themselves.
It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: "What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?"
[Source: Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.]
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
The power of the spirit, today.
Tuesday, June 7, 2011
What has been said of Christian anti-Judaic doctrine-that, while it may not have been a sufficient condition for the Holocaust, it was a necessary one-can also be said of the speculative ontological tradition in Western philosophy. The tradition is as old as Thales, the Western world's first philosopher. It is said that he was walking along one night gazing skyward, contemplating the mysteries of the heavens, when suddenly he fell into a hole. He climbed out of the hole and resolved never again to take a step without first looking to be sure of the firm ground under his feet. Thus the birth of the Western speculative tradition, with its clambering after syllogistic certainty and final solutions, logical universality and universal conformity, all of which led to the deadly equation of thought with being.In the first century of the Common Era the Stoic Seneca taught that anyone who would submit the world to himself should submit himself to reason (see Letters 37:4). That, indeed, is the ontological project: to rule over reality through reason and thus appropriate everything outside the self for the self. Knowledge is the key. Knowledge reduces good and evil to concepts, nothing more than the understanding and ultimately the will of the knowing ego. Knowledge, then, is power, and power is the only reality. Jewishly understood, knowledge here is daat, which is a "joining together" intoa sameness, so that, once the categories are reduced to a human concept and not a divine commandment, there is no distinction between good and evil. Hence the biblical warning: on the day you eat of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, you will surely die (Genesis 2:17).Not only will you die-what is worse, you will murder, as it soon happened with Cain, who, rather than Thales, was perhaps the first philosopher. For with Cain we see the first positioning of the thinking ego at the center of all things. We die on the day we eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil because on that day we make good and evil into a self-serving sameness, in a vain attempt to become "like god" (Genesis 3:5), as the Gerer Rebbe, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter, has taught (1998, 10). The god we Would resemble, however, is not the God of Abraham, who is loving and compassionate, long-suffering and quick to forgive (see Exodus 34:5-7), but is the self-styled god of the speculative ego. Therefore, says Fackenheim, the ego's implicit denial of the God of Abraham, from whom the soul emanates, "is self-destruction or rebellion; it is never merely an erroneous objective stance" (1968, 38). That is why we die-die as Cain's soul died, by murder-when we eat the fruit of speculative ontological philosophy.The most the speculative thinker can muster with regard to a god outside himself is an Unmoved Mover or First Principle that neither judges nor cares. It simply is, neutral and indifferent. And, because it neither judges nor cares, the thinker can justify anything he can will. Despite every good intention, with reason as the philosopher's absolute, logical necessity is his or her truth, and with logical necessity comes natural necessity, so that all things are locked into an ineluctable chain of cause and effect, with the First Cause as the first link in the conceptual chain. Further, once the mind is situated at the center of reality, the body soon becomes the enemy, as we see, for example, in Plato's Phaedo (80a-81a [Plato 1969b]); and once this move is made, physical suffering-both in the self and in the other-becomes a matter of stoic indifference. After all, it is necessary, as the Stoics maintained. "What is noble?" Seneca asks. And he answers: "To bear adversity contentedly, taking whatever happens as if it we had wished it for ourselves" (Naturalium Quaestionum Libros 3:4 [Seneca 1996]). Because all that is, is necessarily so, said Marcus Aurelius, "to be disgruntled at anythingthat happens" degrades the soul (Meditations 2:16 [Aurelius 2003]). Said Spinoza, the Jew who was a philosopher but whose philosophy was hardly Jewish, non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere ("laugh not, weep not, curse nothing, but understand") (Spinoza 1914, 2:4). Thus the consolation of philosophy.The philosophical indifference toward the suffering of the other human being stems from the indifference of Being itself, of its First Principle. The Unmoved Mover is moved by nothing, neither by suffering nor by joy, neither by righteousness nor by transgression, and least of all by prayer. Understood as sheer perfection, the ontological god of the philosophers is in need of nothing, as Aristotle asserts: it neither loves nor is in need of love (see Eudemian Ethics, 7.1244b [Aristotle 1992]). Nor does it have a name: we do not cry out "Y-H-V-H!" or "Father!" to the First Principle. The logos is not the Creator who summons us to rejoice, who is swayed by prayer, who in His love for us commands us to love others, and so on. In a word, the logos of the philosophers is not a caring who but a mute and indifferent what. Collapsing god, world, and humanity into the categories of thought, the speculative ontological tradition situates god in the self and the self in an isolation that would ultimately prove to be a source of sheer horror.
From the beginning, then, Western philosophy has stood in opposition to Jewish thought. Fackenheim explains:
At its apex, the God of Aristotle is ... the prime mover of the universe and the ultimate cause of what order there is in it. Even so, however, he is not beyond the universe but only the highest part of it. All this is in sharp contrast to the God of the Tenach, who makes His first appearance as Creator of heaven and earth. He does not create earth alone while dwelling Himself in heaven. He rather creates heaven-heaven fully as much as earth. And yet, though infinitely above the world and the humanity that is part of it, He creates man-him alone-in His very own image! The God of Aristotle does no such thing. (Fackenheim 1987, 108-9)
More than that, says Fackenheim, "having created heaven and earth, He, as it were, Himself'walks in the garden" (1970a, 40). Which means: the One who is most infinitely beyond all there is, is most immediately present within
all there is, making beyond and within into synonyms-a move utterly alien to ontological thought. As Elokim beyond, God judges; as 7-H-V-H within, He loves. Only thus understood can He be understood as the Creator, who in the constant movement of creation enters into a relation, both as King and as Father, with the human being created in His image and likeness.
Fackenheim correctly points out that, working only with what is, ontological "philosophical synthesis" cannot arrive at creation (1968, 77), the category most essential to Jewish thought. Indeed, in the opening line of Genesis it is written, `Bereshit barn Elokim," where bereshit is not precisely "in the beginning" God created, but rather "the first thing" or "most fundamental principle" is that God created. And with creation comes a revelation born of love. Ontologically speaking-and in contrast to Jewish teaching-there is cause but no creation, calculation but no caring, reasoning but no revelation. The god of Aristotle commands nothing and enters into no covenant. It asks nothing and demands nothing, for it is in need of nothing. It simply "is," without ultimate or inherent meaning or significance. A philosophy that embraces such a god cannot help but be hostile toward the God of Abraham, as well as toward the children of Abraham, who are His witnesses. One understands why the Talmud warns us to stay away from speculative philosophy (Berakhot 28b; Bava Kama 82b). It is a warning that the rabbis have repeated throughout the centuries and into modern times-indeed, especially into modern times, when the speculative tradition has reduced the child of God to a mere specimen of this race or that, of this gender or that, of this culture or that, who merely exists alongside others, operating only from self-interest, without ever entering into a genuine relation with anyone.
Sunday, May 29, 2011
One such question relates to verse 2:
What does שְׂאוּ mean?
ב שְׂאוּ, אֶת-רֹאשׁ כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם, לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם--בְּמִסְפַּר שֵׁמוֹת, כָּל-זָכָר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָם.
'Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of names, every male, by their polls
Could it mean "count", a logical translation of the word, given its context?
Such a translation would be deeply problematic, because the Torah specifically warns Moshe against counting the nation, and he has to do so only indirectly, through each person's donation of half a shekel.
יב כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת-רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם, וְנָתְנוּ אִישׁ כֹּפֶר נַפְשׁוֹ לַיהוָה, בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם; וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה בָהֶם נֶגֶף, בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם
'When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel, according to their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the LORD, when thou numberest them; that there be no plague among them, when thou numberest them.
So translating שְׂאוּ as "count" is a problem.
The earliest occurrence of a word in the Torah with the same route is found after Cain's offering is rejected by God. In Genesis 4, he is told:
Not only does the word here refer to being lifted up, it also refers to being lifted up in the context of man's actions.
ז הֲלוֹא אִם-תֵּיטִיב, שְׂאֵת, וְאִם לֹא תֵיטִיב, לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת רֹבֵץ; וְאֵלֶיךָ, תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ, וְאַתָּה, תִּמְשָׁל-בּוֹ.
If thou doest well, shall it not be lifted up? and if thou doest not well, sin coucheth at the door; and unto thee is its desire, but thou mayest rule over it.'
So how does this relate to Numbers 1:2?
The Ramban offers a fascinating insight from the Midrash which relates the word שְׂאוּ to Joseph's time in jail, and the story of his interpretation of dreams. There, Joseph tells Pharaoh's butler that he will be raised up (reinstated) to his former position, but that the baker's head will be raised up (hung) on a tree. The word used for both scenarios has the same route as שְׂאוּ
יג בְּעוֹד שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים, יִשָּׂא פַרְעֹה אֶת-רֹאשֶׁךָ, וַהֲשִׁיבְךָ, עַל-כַּנֶּךָ; וְנָתַתָּ כוֹס-פַּרְעֹה, בְּיָדוֹ, כַּמִּשְׁפָּט הָרִאשׁוֹן, אֲשֶׁר הָיִיתָ מַשְׁקֵהו
within yet three days shall Pharaoh lift up thy head, and restore thee unto thine office; and thou shalt give Pharaoh's cup into his hand, after the former manner when thou wast his butler.
יט בְּעוֹד שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים, יִשָּׂא פַרְעֹה אֶת-רֹאשְׁךָ מֵעָלֶיךָ, וְתָלָה אוֹתְךָ, עַל-עֵץ; וְאָכַל הָעוֹף אֶת-בְּשָׂרְךָ, מֵעָלֶיךָ.
within yet three days shall Pharaoh lift up thy head from off thee, and shall hang thee on a tree; and the birds shall eat thy flesh from off thee.'
Here we see that the word יִשָּׂא is used in two opposite contexts, both relating to the subject's actions.
So, does the Torah use the word שְׂאוּ to mean count, or is there a deeper meaning attached to the word?
Perhaps 3 key stories in the book of בְּמִדְבַּר can point us towards an answer: the stories of the spies, Korach, and Aaron and Miriam relate to examples of dissatisfaction and egotistical rebellion against Moses, that all end in disaster. These stories warn readers against the destructive potential of such hollow behavior.
In using the word שְׂאוּ to describe the nation numerically - the Torah's message seems to be that numbers in-and-of-themselves are not the true measure of potential. Rather, we can achieve our potential - whether it means to be raised up for the good, or for the bad, depending on our actions.
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Well, that is if you read it according the Kehati Mishnayot. Yidish Wikipedia describes father and son as Ben Garon.
[Hananiah ben Hezekiah Ben Garon/Gurion] was a Jewish Tanna sage, contemporary of House of Shammai and House of Hillel era. [It is recounted that] that after several sages had weighed in, to make Genizah (put out of use) the Book of Ezekiel, he made aliyah to the Land of Israel and took 300 barrels of oil along with him, and shut himself at that place, where he looked up and studied their claims, until he was able to resolve the contradictions.
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Were he alive today, Maimonides would disqualify all non-Yemenite Torah scrolls. But this "less perfect" version of the Torah is what my father and grandfather listened to in synagogue, and it is the version that has been sanctified by the study of countless Torah scholars. It is this that makes it authentic, even more authentic than the Crown that for centuries had almost no contact with the people who would have benefited most from it. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the final resting place of the Aleppo Codex is not a synagogue but a museum, which is where we place the valued parts of our heritage that we no longer use in our everyday life.
Not sure I agree on the last part, but it is food for thought.
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
On the question of the status of Sfirat Ha’omer today we find three different opinions in the Rishonim. Most Rishonim are of the opinion that nowadays the mitzvah of Sfirat Ha’omer is only of rabbinic origin. On the other end of the spectrum we find the Rambam (Tmidim U’musafim 7/22,24) who is of the opinion that mitzvat Sfirat Ha’omer is Mideorita even in the absence of a Mikdash and the bringing of Omer. According to Rabenu Yerucham the counting of days is mideorita at all times while the counting of weeks is mideorita at the time of the Mikdash and only of rabbinic origin today. The rational behind this distinction is that the passuk which mentions the Omer speaks of “U’sfartem…sheva shabatot”, count seven shabatot, namely weeks not days. The next passuk which states “tisperu chamishim yom”, count fifty days, does not speak of the Omer at all.
Monday, April 11, 2011
But, I've recently started paying closer attention. The first part of this section is the story of the Akeida, that traumatic description of Abraham's willingness to offer up a human sacrifice to G-d, because he is told to do so. The second part is a collection of Biblical and Talmudic verses that cover a few of the sacrificial rituals that form part of the Divine service, including the washing of hands, slaughtering of animals, and creating of powerful aromas. And then, finally, there is a concluding section about Rabbi Yishmael and his 13 principles for learning the Torah.
So what we have here is:
1. The Akeida
2. Highlights of the Temple Service
3. Learning Torah.
Are there 3 elements here that actually represent the same idea -- that of drawing near to God?
First, human sacrifice, a "gift" to God, or the "gods", so as to come close to God -- through an act of murder -- which is at the same time a sacrifice. The idea seems to have been to allow nothing to stand in between God and man, not even a son.
Second, the Temple service, which removed this aspect of murder and still allowed for sacrifice, for giving up something of value, again, in order to come close to the God.
Finally, without the Temple Service, it is the Torah that becomes the medium through which, this list suggests, we come close to God. But how? Is not sacrifice the way to express this closeness? What is given, that allows us to categorize Torah as the natural heir to sacrifices?
Some will answer that in accepting Torah, a person is giving up their own will, in order to accept God's Will.
Although that can be the case, it is often not so -- Mitzvot like charity and honoring parents do make good sense after all, and we often even derive pleasure from them. Senseless Mitzvot would surely not pass the test of time, and would be abandoned.
Perhaps then, one might argue that the Rabbis of old were hinting at how they saw Torah. For with Torah, there is an embracing of the whole. The idea of a Divine Law, covering all actions both public and private, although sometimes a sacrifice of one's will and sometimes not, is at all times a giving of oneself.
And perhaps this is why, when formulating the prayers, the Rabbis of old placed Rabbi Yishmael's 13 principles at the conclusion of the Korabanot section. By creating a medium - Divine Law - through which to give oneself wholly to God, Torah becomes the progressive heir to the sacrifices of antiquity.
Saturday, March 19, 2011
So this time round, as I search for meaning in a portion of the Torah that is dedicated to the rituals of sacrifice, such as sprinkling blood on an alter, I'm fortunate to have come across two modern thinkers from the Orthodox camp, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Yehshayahu Leibowitz, who seem to be aware of the tension between the central role of sacrifices in Torah-Judaism and their problematic nature in the contemporary world.
First Rabbi Jonathan Sacks - who talks about the replacement of sacrifices in Rabbinic Judaism with prayer being possible because the sacrifices themselves symbolized psychological processes, and therefore when they became impossible due to exile, were able to be replaced. How?
The short answer is that overwhelmingly the prophets, the sages, and the Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages realised that sacrifices were symbolic enactments of processes of mind, heart and deed that could be expressed in other ways as well. We can encounter the will of God by Torah study, engage in the service of God by prayer, make financial sacrifice by charity, create sacred fellowship by hospitality and so on.
So despite the massive attention to sacrificial rituals that the Torah gives, the actions described merely channel deeper feelings that existed, and I might add, possibly still exist. Perhaps it is the task of the student to seek these emotions, and ask whether they exist in him or her?
Yishayahu Leibowitz points to a fascinating Talmudic commentary on the language used in Leviticus 3 37
זֹאת הַתּוֹרָה, לָעֹלָה לַמִּנְחָה, וְלַחַטָּאת, וְלָאָשָׁם; וְלַמִּלּוּאִים--וּלְזֶבַח, הַשְּׁלָמִים
Loosely translated as
This is the law of the burnt-offering, of the meal-offering, and of the sin-offering, and of the guilt-offering, and of the consecration-offering, and of the sacrifice of peace-offerings;
The question asked by Rava here is why does each sacrifice type have to be preceded by the Hebrew letter "lammed" "לָ" which means "of the..." ? Surely it would have been enough to simply state the sacrifices themselves, without adding the "lammed" "לָ" a total of six times!
He answers that the Torah is using a word play with its supposedly extraneous use of the "lammed" "לָ". Since "לָ" is also the first letter of the word לֹא, which means "no", it is placed there to teach us that anyone who studies the Torah doesn't need a burnt offering, doesn't need a meal offering, doesn't need a sin offering and doesn't need a guilt offering.
Astounding really. Or maybe not. But one thing is clearer for me now anyway: a set of seemingly irrelevant and problematic rituals has become, dare I say, intriguing. I hope to explore.
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Can someone be both humble and feel satisfied with his own strengths?
Reb Moshe Chaim Luzzatto has an interesting approach in his Messilat Yesharim: He likens a person's recognition of his own strengths to the case of a poor man receiving charity. Just as the gift received by the poor man is both a source of joy and a reminder of his dependency, so too with personal strengths - they are satisfying but should also invoke a feeling of gratitude for having been given to a person.
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
We see here that what characterizes Amalek throughout the generations is the concept of "mikreh" – attributing everything to randomness and coincidence - while Am Yisrael is permanently "on the way" (ba-derekh), a concept denoting continuity. Amalek maintained an ideology of non-ideology: everything is permissible; there is no journey, no direction; everything is coincidental; there is no absolute value that must be held dear. Am Yisrael, in contrast is always "on the way" – they have a direction and an objective; they have clear values to which they cleave.
Sunday, February 27, 2011
Proponents of the first view -- that the Oral Tora is an explanation of the Written Tora -- could, for example, cite the Mitzvah of Tefillin in defense of their claim: We are told to bind "these words between our eyes and on our hands", but we only know from the Oral Tora that this means Tefillin on our foreheads and arms. Thus the Oral Tora comes to explain the words of a verse that would otherwise be unintelligible to us.
Proponents of the second view -- that the Oral Tora is a separate entity, bound to the Written Torah but with equal and independent authority -- might cite the 39 Melachot of Shabat as an example of their claim: Traditionally, the prohibitions of the Shabat are linked to the work that was done on the Mishkan. But nowhere in Sefer Shemot are 39 categories of labor clearly mentioned when building the Mishkan. The only clear textual link between the Mishkan and Shabat is the juxtaposition of the narrative(s) regarding the building of the Mishkan with the Commandment(s) to observe Shabat. The idea of 39 Melachot of Shabat is first introduced in the Gemarah. The Torah does explicitly forbid work, lighting a fire (lo tevaaru esh), and collecting wood and manna (I think -- forming the basis for eruvin and prohibitions of cooking). Chazal, however, taught and passed on most of the melachot of the mishkan, and their corresponding prohibitions on Shabat, without having clear textual references for them in the Chumash.
So the question -- according the second view -- is: how strong is the link between the Oral Tora and the Written Tora? How independent is the Gemarah of the Chumash? Isn't it dangerous to give equal authority to the Oral Tora, which is continuous, dynamic and evolving today, as to the Written Tora, which is a sealed Book?
Yishayahu Leibovitz, who discusses this issue in his commentary of the Chumash, quotes the Baal Haturim on Parshat Vayakhel. Here, in a subtle but tremendously significant observation, he points out that the 40th word (39 + 1) of Parshat Vayakhel, (from Shemot 35:1) is -- Shabat! (Check it out for yourself.)
Of course, some will put this down to mere chance. An irrelevant fluke. And who could disprove them? But others -- dare I say believers -- can see much, much more here. What they can see is that the idea of 39 Melachot, that formative characteristic of what Shabat is in the Talmud, is hinted at, albeit mysteriously, in the Chumash! It is a remarkable example of how truly intertwined the Oral and Written Toras are.
Monday, February 21, 2011
Maybe it symbolizes the fire in our souls that is lit when we serve God. It is a unique fire - a fire that doesn't consume - and a fire that cannot even be described, only experienced.
Some speak about God creating the world as an act of kindness. The truth is, that when the Rabbis talk about accepting the Yoke of Heaven (Torah), they don't really talk about why one should accept this Yoke. If God created the world as an act of kindness, why does it matter whether finite man accepts or doesn't accept the Torah? Does He care?
Maybe the answer is that the fire-that-burns-but-doesn't-
Pirkei Avot teaches a man not to get arrogant if he knows a lot of Torah, because it is for this he was born. Prayer, Torah, Good Deeds, allow us to touch God, and for this we are indebted to His kindness.
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Within the Jewish tradition, Buber's conception of revelation as direct, intuitive, non-cognitive, and ecstatic took shape as a reaction to three views of revelation that had predominated within Judaism. One was the tradition, going back to Maimonides, Saadia, and others, according to which revelation occurred through human reason. Throughout the Middle Ages, when Judaism and Aristotelian science and philosophy came into conflict, one common outcome was a view of revelation and prophecy conceived as an accomplishment of reason, especially scientific rationality. A second view held that revelation was the individual and communal reception of Torah, of a divine voice that communicated literally the word of God either in spirit or in fact, to Moses, the prophets, and then designated heirs of the mantel of authoritative receptivity. This view was canonized within the rabbinic tradition as the doctrine of the two Torahs, the Written and the Oral Torah [Torah sheb'al peh and Torah shebichtav]. A final view was that the revelation itself was linguistic but somehow shrouded in the mists of Biblical antiquity, that it was then embedded in the commentaries and later rabbinic reflections, and that contemporary access to it could be had only mediated through the interpretive tradition. This view was enshrined within both the rabbinic texts and within the Kabbalah. What all of these views shared as a common assumption was the notion of mediation; ongoing revelation was an indirect exposure of the divine to the human through some agency-reason, special experience, language, or some combination of these.
Buber had an affinity for the experiential side of mysticism and for the fideist reaction to modern rationalism. Indebted to Kierkegaard and his reaction to the Hegelian tradition, he turned to a conception of revelation as direct divine-human relation. Revelation or faith was, to be sure, grounded in human experience, but it was a larger notion. Faith incorporated the entire life of the believing Jew as he or she sought to respond in language and in action, in myth and in ritual, to the experience of revelation. The believer's experience confirmed or transformed the significance of the pristine encounter between God and the people of Israel, the earliest response to which is recorded in the Biblical story. For Buber, even in his early or mystical period, the revelation of God to the Jewish people was not a revelation of a content as much as the revelation of a presence. This presence made a demand, called for a decision. To be sure, prior to World War I he associated the moment of revelation, on the human side, with ecstatic experience, a view he would later abandon. Nonetheless, the key was that this revelation was not for him a matter of content, rational or linguistic, but rather a matter of demand and decision.
Every single Thou is a glimpse of that. Through every single Thou the basic word addresses the eternal Thou.... [Each Thou] attains perfection solely in the immediate relationship to the Thou that in accordance with its nature cannot become an It. One does not find God if one remains in the world; one does not find God if one leaves the world.... Of course, God is "the wholly Other"; but he is also the wholly same: the wholly present ... the mystery of the obvious that is closer to me than my own I. What is ... the primal phenomenon, present in the here and now, of what we call revelation? It is man's emerging from the moment of the supreme encounter, being no longer the same as he was when entering into it. The moment of encounter is not a "living experience" (Erlebnis) that stirs in the receptive soul and blissfully rounds itself out: something happens to man.... The man who steps out of the essential act of pure relation has something More in his being, something new has grown there of which he did not know before and for whose origin he lacks any suitable words....
Man receives, and what he receives is not a "content" but a presence, a presence as strength. This presence ... includes three elements.... First, [it makes] life heavy with meaning ... second: [the meaning] is guaranteed. Nothing, nothing can henceforth be meaningless.... [The meaning] does not wish to be interpreted by us-for that we lack the ability-only to be done by us. This comes third: it is not the meaning of "another life" but that of this life.... The meaning we receive can be put to the proof in action only by each person in the uniqueness of his being and in the uniqueness of his life. No lprescription can lead us to the encounter, and none leads from it.
Rosenzweig and Beyond
Revelation is a reciprocal event. God and human agency collaborate; the divine reveals and the human receives. Revelation succeeds only when both occur. But, one might ask, how can both occur, for after all the divine is divine and the human human? How can the absolute reveal itself, communicate, touch the relative and limited, and still be absolute? And how can the conditional and finite receive the absolute and survive the encounter?
One solution to this paradox of revelation is mystical union. Not only is the human in touch with the divine; it also achieves unity and wholeness in the very act of encounter. But it does so-the self accomplishes unification-only by grabbing one horn of the dilemma. The divine remains divine, but the human does not, as it were, remain human. The self dissolves into the godhead; distinctness and limitation are overcome. The divine and the human come into direct, unmediated encounter but only by means of the sacrifice of the human.
Franz Rosenzweig, so far as I can tell, never leaned in the mystical direction-although others, from Georg Simmel to Buber, Georg Lukacs, Ernst Bloch, and Gustav Landauer, did. Rosenzweig's response to the need for revelation and transcendence and the challenges of historicism, relativism, and nihilism was, in a sense, to grab hold of both horns, to hold together the divine and the human, to argue for the integrity of each and to accept their ultimate incommensurability, and yet to remain with the immediacy of their encounter. Buber, in his conception of dialogue, came to agree to something similar. Both started with the need for human orientation, for the groundedness of value and direction; both recognized the limitations of reason, nature, and history. Value, purpose, and meaning must be grounded in what transcends nature and humankind. But how? Only by means of an act of divine grace. Humankind cannot bring about the divine directedness; it can receive it, respond to it, and even need it. But God and God alone can enter history and nature, open itself to human acknowledgment, and call forth human response. In the spirit of such a view, in 191$, Rosenzweig became a convert to Eugen Rosenstock's notion of revelation as an event of orientation, which he took to be a decisive response to the problems of relativism and nihilism. It was this view that he developed from 1917 to 1918 into a full-blown account of what revelation is, how it occurs, and what it means to humankind.
But revelation contains no human language as its content. Revelation is an event of-akin to-address and response; yet it employs no concepts, words, or expressions. What language there is in the orbit of revelation occurs before and after, most notably as one mode of response to the orienting directedness itself.
Sunday, January 16, 2011
The Fields: There has been much critical commentary concerning a statement you are alleged to have made: “All men are Jews.” Did you ever actually make this statement? Do you believe it is true? It is, of course, a view one cannot take literally. In any event, would you elaborate on the “All men are Jews” statement?
Malamud: I think I said, “All men are Jews except they don’t know it.” I doubt I expected anyone to take the statement literally. But I think it’s an understandable statement and a metaphoric way of indicating how history, sooner or later, treats all men.