Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Fighting over the Kohen Aliyah

I spent this past Shabbos in a small community. There is no standard prayer service on Shabbos day, as the local Reform Temple only meets Friday night. The local Chabad Shaliach and Orthodox locals meet Saturday morning, but they generally fail to make a Minyan unless several Orthodox travelers have a good reason to spend Shabbos there. Additionally, a monthly Conservative prayer service congregates in the same building as the Orthodox group, and I was lucky enough to be staying in that building this past weekend.

I woke up early and prayed as I did not anticipate the Orthodox Minyan collecting ten men. So, at 10am when the two Services started, I decided to walk between the two services and meet some of the congregants. After playing with a 4 year old for a bit, I strolled into the Conservative Service right before they started to read from the Torah, and I got to witness something that really stuck with me.

The gabbai/chazzan noted that there were at least four Kohanim or Bas Kohanim in the House, so they would have to resolve who to call up for the first aliyah. Then she noted that possibly their group self-identified as a truly egalitarian group, in a way that rejects the Kohen-Levi-Yisrael traditional trifurcation, in addition to patriarchal synagogue models. So, she decided to put it to a vote (even though this group has been meeting monthly for years, and probably encountered this issue every single previous prayer service). But, it seemed that this was the week the issue came to a head, and a decision must be made for the twelve person group.

In the end, most people just nodded indifferently, so the Chazan said that the group would call a Kohen. Suddenly, a middle-aged woman in the corner raised her voice to declare her exasperation, exclaiming: “I don’t think we should call a Kohen. We shouldn’t have this outdated caste system! It’s disgusting and has nothing to do with our religion today. I find it offensive and heinous.” The group, for the most part, was surprised by the outburst. Clearly, the middle aged woman was very passionate about rejecting this Kohanic privilege and traditional standing. Yet, her eruption enjoyed such abhorrence lining her every word, that the four Kohanim in the crowd were somewhat flabbergasted by her stance. “Offensive… Heinous… Maybe we shouldn’t have these classifications anymore, but what she’s saying is a bit much,” one man said.

After the discussion went back and forth a couple times, the Chazan realized that if she allows this debate to continue, she will not be able to finish by her self-imposed noon deadline for the conclusion of services. So, she noted that everyone’s opinion has equal weight and veracity, and that she would love to continue this pressing debate after prayers, but for now, they must start to read from the Torah.

And so, who does she call up for the Kohen Aliyah? The middle aged woman. Wow! I couldn’t believe it. On the one hand, we can mollify our exasperation by claiming the Gabbai was trying to maintain order and affability among the group, but when we look closer, that did not happen. Everyone present, excluding myself and the two children, were mildly annoyed, and the hater got her way.

As I took a step back, I wondered: why had the Chazan given the middle aged woman the Kohen Aliyah. I don’t think she was worried about a(nother) hissy fit. They group had already voted – with their lifeless head nods – and she ignored it. It seems in the past, they had called a Kohen without debate. What was different about today?

It seemed to me that the chazzan was worried about the progressive nature of the Services. Or, to put it another way, that the Services should be flawlessly egalitarian in all ways. If democracy won out, one of the Kohanim should’ve gotten the first Aliyah. But as the chazzan was most worried about appeasing the reformist minded, tradition spurning, progressive Jew, everyone lost out. Her religion was manifest for everyone to experience, but it was not representative of the group.

Ironically, Chazal were worried about this exact situation. Well, not that people would reject the Cohen-Levi-Yisrael trifurcation at prayer services, but, that the order of aliyot would lead to dissension, and that is why Chazal established a standardized sequence for aliyot. It is interesting to note, Rambam writes (Gittin 5:8) that “it is common that the Kohen gets the first aliyah even if there is a sage, but this has no source in the Torah at all or in the Talmud…” Rambam appears to favor giving aliyot to the greatest Torah sage present at Services. Yet, traditional Jewish society has rejected this model in favor of the Kohen-Levi-Yisrael model, for several reasons, but not least of to make sure that there’s no fighting at synagogue. Next time I’m there, and I assume the topic is uncomfortably debated again, I’ll have to keep the chuckle to myself as I acknowledge Chazal’s insight into prayers.

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Maimonides’ Argument for God’s Existence: Another Answer to 2:24

One of the most hotly debated contradictions of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed is found in 2:24. Unlike the work’s many alleged contradictions, the problem of 2:24 is unique in that it unquestionably contradicts an earlier argument. Indeed, this type of blatant contradiction is astonishing in light of Maimonides’ description of the type of contradictions that one could expect an author to make. In his explanation of the seventh cause for contradictory or contrary statements, Maimonides divulges that an author may choose to carry on two discussions which assume conflicting premises. In doing so, the author is able to conceal his true stance from the vulgar for whom certain information would be deleterious. Notwithstanding, the contention of 2:24 obviously and openly contradicts Maimonides’ argument put forth but a few chapters earlier. Furthermore, this contradiction is surprising for yet another reason. It assumes that Maimonides would, and indeed did, construct an argument only to pull the rug out from underneath it a few chapters later. In view of these perplexities, we will begin by explicating the actual contradiction and then go on to offer yet another reconciliation to the ever-expanding literature on this issue.

To start, let us review the contradiction. It is made by contrasting the conclusion of an argument with a later assertion. In the chapters leading up to 2:24, Maimonides provides several arguments for God’s creating the world purposefully (be-kavanah).[1] The third argument is that the apparent disorder and irregularity of the spheres’ movements point to the fact that God set them in motion. By establishing that God acts purposefully, Maimonides is implicitly arguing that God created the spheres from non-existence.[2] Despite the persuasiveness of this argument, five chapters later Maimonides declares that one cannot construct a demonstrative (burhān, mofet) argument employing any conclusions drawn from information about the heavens. He says:

However, regarding all that is in the heavens, man grasps nothing but a small measure of what is mathematical; and you know what is in it… the deity alone fully knows the true reality, the nature, the substance, the form, the motions, and the causes of the heavens. But he has enabled man to have knowledge of what is beneath the heavens… this is the truth. For it is impossible for us to accede to the points starting from which conclusions may be drawn about the heavens; for the latter are too far away from us and too high in place and rank. And even the general conclusion that may be drawn from them, namely, that they prove the existence of their Mover, is a matter the knowledge of which cannot be reached by human intellects.[3]

 

So, while Maimonides claims in 2:19 that he has a proof that God created the spheres, he subsequently undercuts that conclusion by arguing that no one may construct a demonstrative argument regarding the Mover, or anything else for that matter, based on the heavens.[4]

This is all the more surprising when we take into account Maimonides’ four apodictic arguments for God’s existence at the beginning of book two.[5] Unlike Judah HaLevi who predicates belief in God on the collective experience of the Israelites in the desert, [6] Maimonides aligns himself with Sa’adya Geon and Bahya ibn Pakuda[7] who put forth either teleological or cosmological arguments to prove God’s existence. In a comparable fashion, Maimonides proffers four proofs for God’s existence that follow from the twenty-six propositions recorded at the beginning of book two of the Guide. The four proofs logically follow from conclusions already demonstrated by Aristotle and his followers. Yet, while these arguments are philosophical in nature (formulated without the need to appeal to empirical data), Maimonides repeatedly claims that the best argument for God’s existence is drawn from the heavens. He says: “For it is the greatest proof through which one can know the existence of the deity – I mean the revolution of the heaven – as I shall demonstrate.”[8] Similarly, he says: “We shall make it clear that there is no proof indicating to us the existence of the Maker, according to our opinion, like the indication deriving from the heavens.”[9] In the accompanying footnote, Pines elucidates the latter assertion. He explains that “the meaning seems to be that the proof in question is the most convincing of all.” Even in the very chapter of the argument at hand, Maimonides puts forth a matching claim. He says: “[T]here is no proof of purpose stronger than the one founded upon the difference between the motions of the spheres and upon the fact that the stars are fixed in the spheres.”[10] So while Maimonides claims to have proven God’s existence in the opening chapters of book two, several times he declares that the greatest proof of God’s existence is drawn from the heavens. But, the heavens – as Maimonides opines in 2:24 – cannot be used to prove God’s existence. Consequently, Maimonides’ arguments for God’s existence at the beginning of book two are also put into question. These problematic proofs for God’s existence only further highlight the force of the contradiction from 2:24.

Numerous Maimonidean scholars and translators have proposed answers to deal with the contradiction stemming from 2:24. For instance, Samuel Ibn Tibbon was the first to pen a reconciliation to the contradiction in his translation of the Guide. He construes the abstruse passage from 2:24 to mean that all information gathered from the heavens is inherently unknowable to mankind, save the existence of the Mover. With this explanation, Ibn Tibbon makes 2:24 consistent with Maimonides’ conclusion from his earlier argument for God’s existence. However, this interpretation did come at a price. Ibn Tibbon is able to substantiate this interpretation only by inserting the phrase ‘aval she’ar inyanam’ (but everything else) into the text of the Guide. In Ibn Tibbon’s defense, though, it may not have been his intention that this addition be added to the actual text. Harvey has already pointed out that in the gloss to some manuscripts of the Guide, the additional words are attributed to Ibn Tibbon’s pen, and not to Maimonides.

Joel L. Kraemer[11] puts forth the surprising hypothesis that Ibn Tibbon may have “had a different text before him” and “proposes” what that missing text would have said.[12] Kraemer attempts to deal with the contradiction by amending the text to read to exactly as Ibn Tibbon had already emended it. Kafah also follows a comparable approach to the contradiction in his translation of the Guide. According to Kafah’s translation, as understood by Davidson, he asserts that while the heavens do in fact demonstrate God’s existence, they cannot be used to demonstrate other matters.

On the other hand, there are scholars who do not feel that demonstrative proofs could be drawn from the heavens at all, even when dealing with the First Mover. In the quote from 2:24, “And even the general conclusion that may be drawn from them, namely, that they prove the existence of their Mover, is a matter the knowledge of which cannot be reached by human intellects,” Herbert A. Davidson[13] retranslates “general conclusion” (istidlal in Arabic) to mean “drawing up of a proof.” Following a lexicographical analysis of Maimonides’ usage of ‘istidlal’ throughout the Guide, Davidson shows that one cannot be said to know or not know “drawing up of a proof;” rather, it is merely something one can contemplate. Accordingly, when ‘istidlal’ is used in the passage from 2:24, it is not the subject of the sentence in question. Davidson concludes that “[i]n the case of the heavens, man cannot acquire such propositions, and the heavens are therefore a matter to the knowledge of which humans can never attain.”[14]

Harvey argues that Maimonides knew the argument from the heavens was unsuccessful, but by placing it alongside the proofs from “contingent existence to Necessary Existence,” Maimonides desired that his readers will ignore the unconvincing aspects of his argument, and take note of the argument’s positioning. This argument is placed at this juncture solely in order to call his readers to acquire scientific knowledge. Similarly, Shlomo Pines also maintains that the contradiction is meant to stand and was purposefully placed as such. He affixes a footnote to his translation of the 2:24 text that says, “In Ibn Tibbon’s translation the passage has a different meaning.”[15] This, of course, implies that Pines rejects Ibn Tibbon’s reconciliation of the contradiction.

Generally speaking, these scholars follow one of two approaches: to reinterpret one side of the contradiction (and occasionally amend the text), thereby harmonizing the two contradictory statements, or to reveal that Maimonides had an agenda when he furtively planted the contradiction. Like Harvey,[16] we will take the latter approach. So, let us start by a new analysis of the paragraph in which the contradiction occurs. In it, Maimonides makes three distinct claims about Divine and human knowledge:

A)    Mankind can and does understand the workings of the sublunar world.[17]

B)    Mankind comprehends the observational and mathematical aspects of the heavens,[18] but does not grasp their ultimate reality.

C)    God alone understands the true nature of the heavens.

 

It is not at all obvious, philosophically speaking, what led Maimonides to the latter two assertions; even his contemporary, Averroes, disagreed with Maimonides’ assessment of mankind’s capabilities of knowledge of the heavens. There is no ostensible reason to differentiate between how Aristotelian logic or syllogistic reasoning applies to the sublunar world and the heavens.[19] And even if Maimonides is correct – if we cannot have true knowledge of the heavens – then why should we trust our mathematical or observational data about that realm at all? Quite possibly, those calculations are also inaccurate, and should be avoided when constructing a logical argument.[20]

While the aforementioned quote clearly establishes Maimonides’ positive attitude towards employing the sublunar world in constructing a syllogism, as well as his reservations about utilizing the heavens in an argument, we can still further clarify his stance on the remaining entities that possess form, but no matter.[21] There are many entities that reside somewhere between mankind and God in the medieval philosopher’s metaphysical hierarchy. While all physical items found on earth are ostensibly inferior to mankind, it is less clear what is above humanity. For example, while some rabbinic sources imply that angels are superior to their human counterparts, others indicate that man’s free will pushes him just over angels in the metaphysical ladder.[22] In Yesodei HaTorah 2:8, Maimonides says:

All these [spiritual] forms are alive. They recognize and know the Creator with very immense knowledge, each of the forms according to its level and not according to its greatness. Even the highest level is unable to conceive of the true nature of the Creator as He [truly] is, since its intellectual capacity is too limited to know or to grasp [Him]. It does, however, comprehend and know more than the form which is below it. This is true regarding each and every level, including the tenth level. This [level] also knows the Creator in a manner that surpasses the potential to know and comprehend [God possessed by] human beings made up of body and soul. None [of these levels] can know the Creator as He knows himself.[23]

 

This ambiguity is not present by Maimonides’ estimation of the heavens. He opines that the heavens are superior to mankind. He candidly announces in our quote from 2:24: “For the latter [the heavens] are too far away from us and too high in place and in rank.”[24] The heavens are not only physically above the human race, they are also metaphysically above.[25]

However, does this metaphysical chasm necessitate that mankind cannot understand but “a small measure of what is mathematical” about the heavens?[26] Indeed, it does. In this one aspect, the heavens are more similar to God than to mankind. The reason we cannot know the true reality of the heavens is because we lack the intellectual capability.[27]

In this regard, we can draw upon the doctrine of divine attributes, and apply it to the heavens. This doctrine of Maimonides’ is his most well-known example of human intellectual failings. In short, Maimonides maintains that one may not attribute positive characteristics to God. He even goes so far as to say that one who does so “has abolished his belief in the existence of the deity without being aware of it.”[28] The only way to garner true knowledge of God is through negative theology. Even terms that appear to be equally applicable to both mankind and God only seem that way; in truth, they are nothing more than homonyms. Maimonides spends most of book one proving these notions through a lexicographical study of a number of biblical terms. Maimonides concludes that mankind cannot access positive knowledge about God in any meaningful way.

In a similar vein, mankind does not have access to the true reality of the heavens. While mankind can both observe the heavens and calculate its motions, these empirical facts rely on mankind’s limited observational abilities and his interpretation of that data. Both these factors suffer from fatal flaws: mankind is not sensitive to all that happens in the moon’s sphere and above, and second, there is no guarantee that mankind possesses the proper tools to satisfactorily analyze the given data; even Aristotle misinterpreted and misapplied his astronomical data because of certain faulty assumptions! In this regard, we are no better that the prisoners chained to the wall in Plato’s “allegory of the cave.” Mankind does not perceive the true reality of the heavens, but only a shadow of their true form. For that reason, all speculation about the heavens is suspect.

Faur puts it succinctly in his summation that in “areas where no adequate tools of investigations are available, nothing can be known scientifically, and, therefore, knowledge is not certain.”[29] Faur is correct in perceiving that Maimonides took for granted that a true knowledge of the heavens was beyond the boundaries of the human mind.[30]

Now, Maimonides’ declaration – which immediately precedes our problematic passage – comes into full view. He says that “the deity alone fully knows the true reality, the nature, the substance, the form, the motions and the causes of the heavens.”[31] One should take care to note one of the facets on Maimonides’ list: the motion [of the heavens]. Maimonides – who was himself an expert astronomer well versed in the motions and rotations of the spheres as well as in the failings of other people’s calculations – would not even give in on this detail. While there is no reason to suppose that mankind could not eventually perfect the science of the spheres’ motions, Maimonides without chagrin claims that it will never happen. There is no reason for Maimonides to make such a bold assumption, save that he opines that mankind simply lacks a true understanding of the heavens.

Now that we have proven that Maimonides indeed opines that logical arguments and syllogistic reasoning cannot be based on heavenly data, how do we account for Maimonides argument in 2:19 that God created the world bekavanah based on the irregularity of the spheres’ motion? His unambiguous disavowal of information drawing from the heavens should negate any arguments drawing information from the heavens to get off the ground. Given that Maimonides includes this argument in the Guide, we would be remiss if we did not digress to examine the different types of arguments Maimonides recognizes as demonstrative.

Maimonides explicates which arguments are available for constructing a demonstrative argument in his Sinā’at al-mantiq (Treatise on the Art of Logic). He enumerates four types of true knowledge available for arguments: sense percepts, intelligibles, generally agreed upon opinions, and opinions received through tradition. Defining the type of argument, as well as the type of knowledge employed in said argument is particularly significant by arguments which draw data from the heavens. The heavens possess the unique feature that facts pertaining to them may fall into each of the four categories.[32] Depending on the type of supposition, the clout of the argument will shift between demonstrative, dialectical and sophistic.

Now, we possess the tools to categorize Maimonides’ arguments. In truth, Maimonides does not have any demonstrative argument for God’s creation of the spheres be-kavanah – he cannot; he rules out the very possibility in 2:24. Accordingly, when Maimonides says: “For it is the greatest proof through which one can know the existence of the deity – I mean the revolution of the heaven – as I shall demonstrate,”[33] he sincerely meant that it is the best argument for God’s existence, even though it lacks demonstrability.

A serious look at Maimonides’ introduction to book two makes it perfectly clear that he never really intended to prove God’s existence. He says: “The premises needed for establishing (be-qiyum) the existence of the deity, may he be exalted, and for the demonstration (moftim) that he is neither a body nor a force in a body…”[34] Four times in this short introductory paragraph Maimonides employs some version of the word ‘mofet,’ but when he speaks about proving God’s existence, he uses the word qiyum. He does not claim to go on to prove God’s existence demonstratively in the subsequent chapters; rather, he attempts to establish God’s existence based on both the first twenty-five demonstrative proofs, as well as the infamous twenty-sixth proposition. Accordingly, when we read his arguments in 2:1 and 2:19, we are not reading a demonstrative argument.

In fact in 2:19, where his arguments for a purposeful (be-kavanah) God, as opposed to a God who acts out of necessity (żad ha-hiyuv) appear, Maimonides never claims to tender a demonstrative argument. He says “My purpose in this chapter is to explain to you, by means of arguments that come close to being a demonstration (be-ra’yot q’rovot le-mofet), that what exists indicates to us of necessity that it exists in virtue of the purpose of One who purposed.”[35] Clearly, his aim in this chapter is to present dialectical arguments, not demonstrative. Accordingly, we could outright dismiss his claim from 1:71 that he will present mofet arguments; according to his own testimony, he only submits arguments that are close to mofet. Similarly, when Maimonides explains Isaiah 66:1 that “the heavens indicates (yoru)[36] My (God’s) existence, grandeur, and power, as a throne indicates the greatness of the individual who is considered worthy of it,”[37] one should not take the word ‘yoru’ to mean demonstrative. The heavens indicate His existence, but cannot be used to prove His existence demonstratively.[38] In the end, Maimonides implicitly acknowledges that there are no arguments of this world that can demonstratively prove God’s existence.

Just as by demonstratively proving God’s existence, Maimonides admits failure, so too by the question of the eternity of the world or its temporal creation, Maimonides must also claim mankind lacks the intellectual tools. This point cannot be conveyed in any more straightforward manner than how Maimonides does so in book one of the Guide. He says:

And everyone who engages in speculation, who is perceptive, and who has acquired the true knowledge of reality and does not deceive himself, knows that with regard to this question – namely the eternity of the world or its temporal creation – no cogent demonstration can be reached and that it is a point before which the intellect stops.[39]

 

In the end, the creation-eternity debate is beyond the ken of the human intellect.[40] It remains in the realm of the dialectical, not because Maimonides lacks the proof to tip the scales in one direction, but because that proof does not exist in nature. Consequently, it should be no surprise that Maimonides requires such an exceptional person – he enumerates four qualities – to admit this heart wrenching fact. In Maimonides’ day, practically every religious and philosophical group laid claim to the ultimate truth in the creation-eternity debate. Maimonides, on the other hand, keenly observes that no party possessed the whole truth – demonstratively.

This also explains why Maimonides knows with certainty that no proof for creation in time will be found in nature. After explaining that creation in time was the opinion of both Moses and Abraham, he says: “Do not turn away from the opinion according to which the world is new, except because of a demonstration. Now such a demonstration does not exist in nature.”[41] The qualitative chasm that separates God and the heavens from the physical world preclude syllogistic reasoning from one realm applying to the other. Based on the first form of knowledge Maimonides enumerates, in his work on logic, that can be used to construct an argument – namely, sense precepts – Maimonides is quite certain that the sublunar world will not produce any proof for the eternity of the world. But how could he be so sure? Apparently, there is a qualitative chasm separating the physical world from its metaphysical counterpart and the feebleness of mankind’s intellectual feebleness precludes the possibility of his intellect ever being capable of bridging this gap. Hence, Maimonides explains by Job that “our intellects do not reach the point of apprehending how these natural things that exist in the world of generation and corruption are produced in time and of conceiving how the existence of the natural force within them has originated them.”[42] Ours minds did not and will not ever comprehend the metaphysical underpinnings of the physical world. But, this does not obviate the possibility that the world could one day be demonstratively shown to exist eternally based on the second type of knowledge, intelligibles (leaving aside the third or fourth types of knowledge). This is why Maimonides says: “Now such a demonstration does not exist in nature (emphasis mine).” Maimonides cannot rule out this other possibility, even though he maintains that creation in time was the opinion of both Moses and Abraham.

Now we can understand the ending to Maimonides’ mysterious quote: “And even the general conclusion that may be drawn from them, namely, that they prove the existence of their Mover, is a matter the knowledge of which cannot be reached by human intellects.”[43] While one can and ought to draw general conclusions about God’s existence, providence and nature from the heavens,[44] in no way could those arguments ever produce a demonstrative argument. In truth, philosophically speaking, God’s existence remains a matter the knowledge of which cannot be reached by human intellects for it can never produce a philosophically valid demonstrative argument. The heavens are too dramatically different from the sublunar world to produce a legitimate syllogism from one that applies to the other, and vice versa. Nonetheless, it is important to exert oneself to buttress the proof of God’s existence to the utmost of one’s ability for, in the end of the day, “There is no way to apprehend Him except it be through the things He has made; for they are indicative of His existence and of what ought to be believed about him, I mean to say, of what should be affirmed and denied with regard to Him.”[45]

In summation, we have seen that the heavens truly cannot be used to construct a dialectical argument (opposed to Maimonides claims in 2:19). Their nature is so totally different from anything a human could comprehend that whatever one concludes about them will inherently be faulty in some aspect. For the same reason, one cannot construct a demonstrative argument to prove God’s existence, and thus Maimonides does not really believe that he proffered a demonstrative argument for God’s existence.[46] Accordingly, whenever Maimonides claims he has proven, or will prove, God’s existence demonstratively, he has some ulterior motive in mind.[47]

Appendix: The findings of this paper take Pines’ conclusions in his article “The Limitations of Human Knowledge According to Al-Farabi, ibn Bajja, and Maimonides”[48] to their natural conclusion. While he opines that Maimonides takes an agnostic stance towards metaphysical knowledge, we are asserting that Maimonides would take an agnostic view towards arguments for God’s existence as well, which rightfully so, ought to be included in metaphysical knowledge. In other words, short of prophetic inspiration (and possibly even with it), a philosopher can never arrive at demonstrative knowledge of God’s existence.

If Davidson took such an unenthusiastic stance towards Pines “startling new thesis,”[49] one can only imagine how he would respond to the findings in this paper. In light of the criticism that one can rightfully lodge at the conclusions of this paper, we will proffer several other reasons to accept these findings and show why this thesis would not be solely “born within the context of contemporary Maimonides’ scholarship.”[50] First, let one of the fine points of this paper be clarified; it is not that knowledge of God is impossible; rather, knowledge of God that is demonstratively proven (dalla) is impossible.

a. The most important proof for these findings is that Maimonides dilly dallies in regards to his arguments for God. Not only does he claim to have proffered arguments that simply do not exist, he even says that he will offer the best argument for God, but then goes on to undercut that argument in 2:24.

b. The four apodictic arguments for God’s existence require the twenty-sixth premise in order to be valid. It should, at least, be questionable that Maimonides employs a controversial proof in a demonstrative argument. According to the policy he established for constructing a demonstrative argument, one may not employ contentious proofs. While Maimonides tries to do his readers a favor by proving God’s existence in two separate ways: by assuming the world’s eternity and then by not, it would be prudent for us to remember that if we base an argument on a premise that is dialectical, obviously, the conclusion is dialectical. This is still the case even if Maimonides uses P & –P in his argument, for while modern logic would accept the validity of an argument that follows from P & -P, Maimonides would not deem that argument philosophically worthwhile for, in truth, it is not demonstrative.

c. Davidson is irked over the fact that Maimonides asserts numerous details regarding God. For example, both in the Guide[51] and in the Mishneh Torah,[52] Maimonides makes clear that God “is the intellect as well as the intellectuality cognizing subject and the intellectually cognized object, and that those three notions form in Him one single notion in which there is not multiplicity.”[53] Technically, this is a positive assertion about God. In truth, Maimonides has no problem asserting positive attributes about God as long as the reader is aware that they do not represent God’s true reality. Because God’s knowledge is unlike ours, his intellection is completely different too. Maimonides accepts the dictums of the philosophers that are generally accepted because they allow one to speak intelligently about God. They allow mankind to legitimately reflect upon God’s existence.

d. Pines argues that Maimonides’ assertion in 2:24 that “Moses is the only human being that may be assumed to have had this knowledge” implies that Maimonides “considers that man can have scientific knowledge only of the phenomena of the sublunar world… Maimonides is of the opinion that no scientific certainty can be achieved with regard to objects that are outside the sublunar world.”[54] Davidson rejects that Maimonides is putting forth “a radical epistemological skepticism,” in this statement, but there is not really a better way to read it. Sure, it may be surprising to perceive just how different Maimonides viewed Moses from the rest of the human race, but that is not a reason to deny that Moses was truly that different.

e. While this is not the place to argue the relationship between the Mishneh Torah and the Guide, we would be remiss if we did not point to several halakhot in the opening book that further supports out argument. At the beginning of chapter two of Yesodei HaTorah, Maimonides informs his readers how it is that one can come to love and fear God. Subsequently, he details one chapter dealing with ma’aseh mirkava and then two chapters on the topic of maa’aseh bereishit. But in Yesodei HaTorah 4:12, Maimonides writes:

בזמן שאדם מתבונן בדברים האלו ומכיר כל הברואים ממלאך וגלגל ואדם כיוצא בו ויראה חכמתו של הקב”ה בכל היצורים וכל הברואים, מוסיף אהבה למקום ותצמא נפשו ויכמה בשרו לאהוב המקום ברוך הוא, ויירא ויפחד משפלותו ודלותו וקלותו כשיעריך עצמו לאחד מהגופות הקדושים הגדולים, וכ”ש לאחת מהצורות הטהורות הנפרדות מן הגולמים שלא נתחברו בגולם כלל, וימצא עצמו שהוא ככלי מלא בושה וכלימה ריק וחסר.

 

Accordingly, Maimonides explains that he recorded these chapters on metaphysics and physics in order to inform his readers “how to add to his love for God,” not just so they should gain knowledge of God. All the information on ma’aseh mirkava becomes a subcategory to the prescription to love God. Accordingly, philosophic knowledge is valuable in so far as it lends to love of God; otherwise, Maimonides should have included the information in these three chapters (or at least chapter two) within the first chapter of the Mishneh Torah where he describes the biblical prescription to acquire knowledge of God. As much as Maimonides denies the validity of the Kuzari’s God from tradition, this seems to be the exact God in which Maimonides is relegated to prescribing people to believe in, but for philosophical reasons. Maimonides does put forth all the philosophical knowledge of his days that points to God’s existence, but even he must admit in the end, that all these arguments failing is exactly the God he presents in the Mishnah Torah.

In the end, we have to ask: why would Maimonides spend so much time on arguments for creation when none of them work, on arguments for God’s existence when they all predisposed to a crucial flaws, on describing God when even he candidly fesses up that, ideally, silence would be a better option than prayer? Like the prophets and Sages before him, Maimonides employs arguments that are dialectical (or authoritative) in order to buttress a reality which lends support to what the religious community ought to believe.[55] In truth, the contradiction between 2:19 and 2:24 is one of the few clear examples of Maimonides systematically employing the seventh cause for contradictory or contrary statements. And while the Maimonidean commentators have all thought of ingenious ways to circumvent the contradiction, sometimes one must sit back and brood over the fact that a cleverly placed contradiction is not something to “answer up,” but something to appreciate.

 

[1] All Hebrew references are taken from the Ibn Tibbon translation and all English references are taken from the Pines translation and the page references are to this work.

[2] This type of argument is a version of the theological argument for particularization found in Alghazali’s writings.

[3] Guide 2:24 p. 327

[4] This is idea is reinforced by the prophetic revelation that Job experienced. Maimonides explains that Job realized that “there is no going beyond the description of natural matters – namely, description of the elements or description of the meteorological phenomena or description of the natures of the various species of animals, but of nothing else” (Guide 3:23 p. 496). The implication of the last phrase – “but of nothing else” – is that mankind has no access to the true reality of the heavens.

[5] The four proofs are summarized in J. David Bleich’s With Perfect Faith: The Foundations of Jewish Belief (Ktav Publishing House: New York, 1983) in the chapter on the “Existence of God,” p. 78.

[6] See Kuzari, part one

[7] See Hovevot Levavot (first treatise, chapters five and six) where he presents an argument demonstrates the existence of God based on the created nature of the universe

[8] Guide 1:70 p. 175

[9] Guide 2:18 p. 302

[10] Guide 2:19 p. 310. In a similar vein, Maimonides indicates as early as chapter 58 of book one that he has earlier proven God’s existence demonstratively. He says: “After this preface, I shall say that it has already been demonstrated that God, may He be honored and magnified, is existent of necessity and that there is no composition in Him, as we shall demonstrate” (1:58 p. 135). While Maimonides seems here to be alluding to his forthcoming four arguments at the beginning of book two, surely Maimonides did not put forth a philosophical argument for God’s existence before this point in the Guide.Pines also is bewildered by Maimonides’ claim to have proven God’s existence. He says in the footnote on page 135: “The statements regarding God are considered in this sentence as already demonstrated and as to be demonstrated later. This inconsistency, which may of course be explained away, cannot but strike the reader of this sentence.”

[11] Joel L. Kraemer’s “Maimonides on Aristotle and Scientific Method ,” from Moses Maimonides and His Times, ed. Eric L. Ormsby (The Catholic University of America Press: Washington, 1989), pp. 53-88.

[12] p. 79; it is possible that Kraemer was unaware of Harvey’s observation in the Guide manuscripts.

[13] Herbert A. Davidson’s “Further on a Problematic Passage in the Guide for the Perplexed 2:24” from Maimonidean Studies, vol. 4, ed. Arthur Hyman (Yeshiva University Press: New York, 2000), pp. 1-13.

[14] Jose Faur in his Homo Mysticus (Syracuse University Press: Syracuse, New York, 1998) argues that in the fields of metaphysics and astronomy, certainty is unattainable, istidlal is mankind’s only possibility. Mankind lacks the proper tools to reach certainty regarding theological matters for “burhan transcends the human faculty” (p.103). In other words, demonstrative proofs can only be produced from information that one has direct experience of. Like Davidson, for Faur, God’s existence could be inferred from the heavens, but cannot be demonstrably shown.

[15] Guide 2:24 p. 327

[16] Though Maimonides’ argument in 2:19 is deficient, working along side the subsequent argument, Maimonides goads his readers to acquire scientific knowledge.

[17] Like Averroes, Maimonides completely believes that Aristotle possessed perfect knowledge of the sublunar world. For example, he says that “everything that Aristotle has said about all that exists from beneath the sphere of the moon to the center of the earth is indubitably correct, and no one will deviate from it unless he does not understand it or unless he has preconceived opinions that he wishes to defend or that lead him to a denial of a thing that is manifest” (2:22 p. 319). There are many other such examples throughout the Guide.

[18] Even Aristotle’s knowledge of the heavens was wanting. Maimonides says that “Aristotle expounds with regard to the sphere of the moon that which is above it, except for certain things, something analogous to guessing and conjecturing” ( 2:22 p. 320). Averroes, on the other hand, felt that the knowledge of astronomy regressed in his day and that Aristotle had possessed a true knowledge of astronomy.

[19] Maimonides accepts that logical impossibilities are beyond God’s capabilities. This is evident from his discussion of Platonic philosophers where he explains that “His not bringing impossible things into existence does not argue a lack of power on His part – since what is impossible has a firmly established nature” (2:13 p. 283). But, this assertion – God’s inability to perform certain acts – is based on “what has a firmly established nature,” and that nature is firmly established by human logic working in the sublunar world.

[20] Unfortunately then, astronomers’ conclusions would be both be meaningless and worthless. In truth, Maimonides asserts that the job of the astronomer is functional in that he is to postulate the fewest orbits at a constant velocity for the spheres, regardless of whether his system represents reality as it truly is. See Menachem Kellner’s “On the Status of the Astronomy and Physics in Maimonides’ Mishne Torah and the Guide of the Perplexed,” from British Journal for the History of Science 24, 1991, pp. 453-63.

[21] See Mishneh Torah, Yesodei HaTorah 2:3

[22] While aspects of the heavens would be identical with the angels in Maimonides’ schemata, the point made in this paragraph refers solely to their visual aspect.

[23] Translation of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah by Eliyahu Touger, (Moznayim Publishing Corporation: New York, 2000). Also examples include: “They (the spheres) have neither taste nor smell, because these phenomena are present only in matter lower than they (3:3).” And, he says: “The knowledge of the stars and the spheres is less than the knowledge of the angels, but greater than that of men (3:9).”

[24] Guide p. 327

[25] See Mishneh Torah, Yesodei HaTorah, chapter 2:4-8. See Howard Kreisel’s “The place of Man in the Hierarchy of Existence in the Philosophy of Ibn Gabirol and Maimonides in Alef Shefer: Studies in the Literature of Jewish Thought, ed. Moshe Hallamish (Ramat-Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 1990). Strauss explains in his introductory article preceding the Pines translation of the Guide: “the Law agrees with Aristotle in holding the heavenly bodies are endowed with life and intelligence and that they are superior to man in dignity; one can say that he (Maimonides) agrees with Aristotle in implying that those holy bodies deserve more than man to be called images of God” (p. xxiii).

[26] In the Guide 1:52, Maimonides says: “It is clear at the first glance that there is no correlation between Him and the things created by Him” (p. 117). This implies that the heavens share a greater affinity with mankind than with God.

[27] And not because mankind lacks the mathematical know-how. If that were the case, then Maimonides would not be so pessimistic about mankind ever acquiring a true knowledge of the heavens. Furthermore, see Guide 1:73 p. 209 where Maimonides links knowledge of a thing’s causes with knowledge of it true reality.

[28] Guide 1:60 p. 145

[29] Jose Faur Homo Mysticus, (Syracuse University Press: Syracuse, New York, 1998), p. 103.

[30] Faur’s reasoning, though, is faulty. He anachronistically superimposes a modern skepticism (based on the common criticism lodged against inferential logic) upon medieval Aristotelians logic. He rightly claims that only istidlal (inference) is possible by astronomy, and not certainty. But, he then explains this contention by appealing to the fact that “scientific knowledge is restricted to areas that can be submitted to direct analysis. Thus ‘certainty’… is not operative in areas such as metaphysics and astronomy. There is no reason to acquiesce to Faur’s version of metaphysical skepticism.

[31] p. 327

[32] A) Al-mahsūsāt (ha-muhashim, sense percepts) – all mankind views the stars: their color, their shape,          their size, etc.

B) Al-ma’qūlāt al-awwal, (ha-muskalot, first intelligibles) – there are many self evident propositions in regards to stars; for example, they are exceedingly far away or the moon is closer to earth than the stars.

C) Al-mashūrāt (ha-mefursamot, generally agreed upon opinions) – for example, the substance of the stars is inherently different than the matter sublunar items are made from.

D) Al-maqbūlāt (ha-mequbalot, opinions received through tradition) – the Talmud records countless traditions about the heavens.

[33] Guide 1:70 p. 175

[34] Guide p. 235

[35] Guide 2:19 p. 303

[36] See the end of 1:31 where Maimonides writes that “the external meaning is indicative (yoru) of the corporeality of God” (p. 67). See also the end of 1:53 where Maimonides explains the way in which we should understand the divine attributes in Tanach. He says: “This is what ought to be believed with regard to the attributes mentioned in the books of the prophets; or, as we shall make clear, it may be believed with regard to some of them that they are attributes indicative (yoru) of a perfection likened to our perfections, which are understood to us.” In all three instances of the word ‘indicative (yoru), Maimonides employs it in a dialectical fashion that is based on the fourth type of knowledge we mentioned above, namely, ‘opinions received through tradition’ (ha-mequbalot). Similarly, when Maimonides explains that “there is no proof indicating to us the existence of the Maker, according to our opinion, like the indication deriving from the heavens” (2:18 p. 302), he truly believes that the heavens produce the best argument for God’s existence even though the argument will not be demonstrative.

[37] Guide 1:9 p.35

[38] Even when God made known the proofs for His own existence to Moses to be given to the Israelites’ “men of knowledge,” Maimonides employs the word ‘dalil’ (ra’yah, proof) instead of mofet (1:63) because, it seems, even God cannot provide demonstrative proof for His existence. Though, it is possible that Maimonides understands that God gave a dialectical proof to Moses because he knew that would be effective.

[39] Guide 1:71 p. 180. Similarly, Maimonides says: “I shall make it clear that just as a certain disgrace attaches to us because of the belief in the creation in time, an even greater disgrace attaches to the belief in eternity” (2:17 p. 294). In other words, neither opinion can be demonstrated.

[40] Strauss in his introductory essay to Pines translation of the Guide: “Creation is according to Maimonides not demonstrable, whereas God’s unity and incorporeality are demonstrable” (xxiii).

[41] Guide p. 322

[42] Guide 3:23 p. 496.

[43] Guide 2:24 p. 327

[44] Accordingly, Maimonides says: “For this reason that there is no stronger proof of [God acting] purpose[fully] stronger than the one founded upon the difference between the motions of the spheres and upon the fact that the stars are fixed in the spheres] you will find that all the prophets used the stars and the spheres as proofs for the deity’s existing necessarily,” (2:19 p. 310) even though the argument is not demonstrative. That was the job of the prophet.

[45] Guide 1:34 p. 74. Similarly, Maimonides says: “I have already let you know that there exists nothing except for God, may He be exalted, and this existent world and there is no possible inference proving His existence, may He be exalted, except those deriving from this existent taken as a whole and from it details (1:71 p. 183). Even though Maimonides claims but a few lines earlier that he intends to “formulate for your benefit with a view to demonstration regarding the three problems in question – I mean the existence and oneness of the deity and the refutation of the doctrine of His corporeality,” our present quote shows that Maimonides does not intend to give more than “a possible inference (ra’ayah) proving His existence.” But, we should not minimize the place of ra’ayah in Maimonides’ thought. He would reject Faur’s assertion that: “Although some of the opinions may be highly probable, they should not be regarded as certain” (p. 102). To the contrary, Maimonides feels they should be regarded as certain. Many times, the best argument one could produce is supported by hijaj or istidlal, but that does not mean one should suspend one’s claim to certainty until burhan is produced, for in most cases, it never will. See Arthur Hyman’s article “Demonstrative, Dialectical, and Sophistic Arguments in the Philosophy of Moses Maimonides,” from Moses Maimonides and His Times, ed. Eric L. Ormsby (The Catholic University of America Press: Washington, 1989), pp. 35-51, where he provides evidence from Maimonides’ parable of the royal palace “that dialectical no less than demonstrative arguments have cognitive significance” (p. 51) for Maimonides to some extent equates he “who has achieved demonstration” with he who has reached “close to certainty.”

[46] Maimonides maintains that one of the goals of philosophical training is to turn religious beliefs, generally inculcated from tradition and/or authority, into certain knowledge. In the Guide (3:23 p. 492-3) Job’s shift from traditional knowledge to certain knowledge comes to culmination with the appearance of the whirlwind. How could this take place; what was Job made aware of? It seems he was only made aware of the fact that he cannot understand. In this context, this was definite knowledge.

[47] In a similar vein, in 2:33, Maimonides explains that the Israelite nation did not hear God speak at Mount Sinai, but rather, “everyone who knows of God’s existence demonstratively knows of God like he is a prophet.”

[48] The essay was published in Isadore Twersky’s “Medieval Jewish History,” vol. 1 (Harvard University Press: Oxford, 1990), pp. 82-109.

[49] See his article “Maimonides on Metaphysical Knowledge” from Maimonidean Studies, vol. 3, ed. Arthur Hyman (Yeshiva University Press: New York, 1993), pp. 49-103.

[50] Davidson, “Maimonides on Metaphysical Knowledge,” p. 54.

[51] Guide 1:68

[52] Sefer Madda, Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 2:9-10

[53] Guide 1:68

[54] Pines, “The Limitations of Human Knowledge According to Al-Farabi, ibn Bajja, and Maimonides,” p. 93.

[55] Faur explains: “The aim of the theologian – unlike the philosopher – is not to expose the truth but to defend and promote a set of doctrines” (95).

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Welcoming Death

I welcome death: not to be lowered into hollowed out earth, or to perceive a snapshot of the afterlife, but to greet the sullied concept into the vicissitudes of my daily life along with everything else trite. Now that I am in my thirties, death trickles in… In youth, most people know no death. Maybe a grandparent or a dog, but those are exceptional, special, sad. Death, however, is not common then. With an overdose here, a suicide there and an occasional freak accident, eventually death knocks at our everyday door for entrance, to be welcomed into our mundane lexicon until it becomes as common as the morning sun. I’m excited everyone is finally catching up.

For me, death has always been there, or at least since my father’s death. Most people can recall vividly their worst memory. Not because of its impact, but because it’s sealed within you without any hope of extrication. One sight on the day of my father’s death is that memory. I had not known my father was dying. He had cancer for several years, but I was twelve and stupid. This sounds surprising, and even amusing in its naiveté, but I had not known that my father could die. It was not a possibility that my mind ever broached. It never entered my train of thought, no matter how sick or lifeless he was. I did not deny the future, but simply did not recognize it.

On the last day of his life, I went to school. In fact, I remember my younger brother remained home, and I was angry that he was taking advantage of my sick father’s situation. After all, my brother was not sick. He should go to school along with me and my other two siblings. But he cheated my mother, or so I thought, and fooled her. While she knew this was my father’s last day of life, and kept my younger brother at home purposefully, that explanation never crossed my mind at the time. When we returned home around four o’ clock, there were no less than fifteen cars sprawled throughout my driveway, front lawn and parked in the street. I had never seen so many cars flooding a house’s façade. Every inch was covered with cars. I had no memory to compare this sight with. But. It hit me then, as quick as a gunshot. He’s dead. To this day, I don’t understand how I made the leap from father to dead father, but it was instantaneous. Maybe the idea of his immanent death rest is my subconscious, but that sight of those cars permitted the notion of death to barge immediately in. The second we got halfway down SW 32nd Terrace, the bend in the road quickly revealed my house and those cars, and I knew he was dead. I didn’t know the next step, or the emotions to stream or how to feel at all. Death was not part of me. But, I evolved. Death was part of me.

I felt comfortable with joking about death, jokes of the Holocaust, AIDS, cancer. These jokes and comfortability with death has made some people feel uncomfortable, but that was OK. They would learn from my wisdom, eventually.  My newly formed outer shell made me immune to the sensitivities of regular folk. I felt a special kinship with those who also experienced the death of a parent. We knew something that no one else knew, even if we could not articulate it. Death was in me, and I was proud of it. I was better. I could wear death on my shoulder like a war wound, whip it out when I desired a laugh, sympathy or just to continue an awkward conversation. Death is interesting, and I was better for owning it. It made me stronger, and more dominant. But my calm and security with death was/is odd to some.

Two thousand years ago, the average life expectancy was under thirty years of age. Death was common, and part of the vernacular. He who knew no death at all stages of life was impossible. We live in the first century where I can wear death proudly as an anomaly. But that also dissipates with time. Death is creeping up, trickling in, on my peers finally. They soon will wear her, not as a sign of pride as I did, but as one wears wrinkles and bad knees. It’s different. They will never experience it as I had it, but I’ll take what I can get. I’m excited that life’s tide is pulling back to reveal death’s shore. Soon you will be me too.

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Is Kayin the Son of the Angel of Death?

בראשית פרק
ד
: (א) וְהָאָדָם יָדַע אֶת־חַוָּה
אִשְׁתּוֹ וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד אֶת־קַיִן וַתֹּאמֶר קָנִיתִי אִישׁ
אֶת־יְקֹוָק
:

And Adam knew his wife Eve, and she
became pregnant and she bore Kayin. And she said “I have acquired a
man with God”.

Picking up on the odd formulation that Chava has “acquired a man with God”, Targum (pseudo) Jonathan1 reinterprets the beginning of the pasuk as well. It is not that Adam knew Chava in the classical sense- rather, he knew (or found out) something about her.

(א) ואדם ידע ית חוה איתתיה דהוה חמידת
למלאכא ואעדיאת וילידת ית קין ואמרת קניתי לגברא ית מלאכא
דיי
:

And Adam knew about Eve his wife that she was desired by an angel, and he [the angel] knew her, and she bore Kayin, and she said “I have acquired a man with an angel of God”.

(I hope I have translated the above exactly correctly. Please let me know if I have
not!)

Explaining this, (and you can also find this in Hebrew in your standard edition of Mikraot Gedolot), the Perush Al Yonatan2 says the following:

ואדם ידע את חוה וכו‘: על פי המדרש, פירוש ידע הבין, ממה שלא הייתה דמותו מתחתונים אלא מעליונים, לכך ידע שהמלאך סמאל נתאוה לה ובא עליה, וזהו איש את הפירוש עם המלאך

And Adam knew his wife Eve, etc.”: According to the Midrash, the meaning of “he knew” is that “he understood”, from this that his [Kayin’s] appearance was not from those below, but was from those above, therefore he knew that the angel Samael desired her [Chava] and came upon her 3.

So in this explanation, the angel who impregnates Chava was not just some angel. Rather, this was Samael, who may be identified with the Angel of Death, or the Yetzer Hara/Satan4. He could be citing Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer, chapter 21, since his phrasing is similar to it5.

At any rate, I think this is a fascinating interpretation. In it, of course, Shet is the second son of Adam, not the third, and he and the murdered Hevel are only half brothers with Kayin, who is only half human, and may even be the son of the Satan himself (quite logical then, that he is the first to shed blood).

Further, things become even more interesting when we note that this midrash, which says Kayin is the son of Samael, also says that he is the first to do teshuva (see also Psikta DeRav Kahana Shuba 11 and Ramban and Ibn Ezra to Gen. 4:16).

Additionally, in chapter 22, the Midrash notes that all wicked generations descend from Kayin, which is easy to take in a non-literal sense (ie. they follow in his ways, though his descendants were killed out in the flood), or in a literal sense, that those who are evil are acting on the genetics passed on from Kayin (in which case, some of his descendants survived the flood6). If the latter is the true intent, then much of the world (all of it, perhaps?) is descended from Samael.

Notes:

1This commentary was apparently certainly not written by Jonathan Ben Uziel, who only wrote a commentary on Nach, or so says the Hebrew wikipedia:
2I’m not sure who the author is. I think it may have been written in the 16th century by David ben Jacob of Szcebrzeszyn, but please let me know/ comment
if you know otherwise. I won’t be looking into it at this time. See
here on this particular author:
http://books.google.com/books?id=n7w5AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA464&lpg=PA464&dq=who+wrote+the+commentary+on+pseudo+jonathan&source=bl&ots=jFVy8FwZ-e&sig=aUIlkzdxsXQ5Lt39AmM-RB2J878&hl=en&sa=X&ei=mJaDUurVNoLMsQS4sICQDw&ved=0CE4Q6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=who%20wrote%20the%20commentary%20on%20pseudo%20jonathan&f=false
3The best that I can tell from a short Bar Ilan search is that “Ba aleha” in the Mishnah appears to be consensual, though in contexts where the behavior is not approved of, or is a sin for some other reason. In Tanakh, the term appears to have to do with battle or land, so that it doesn’t appear in a context which seems to me to be directly relevant. Please let me know if I have misinterpreted, however.
4 See Abot dR. Natan hosafa b to nusach Alef, chapter 4, Bereshit Rabbah, Vayera 56, Shemot
Rabbah Beshalach, 21, Devarim Rabbah,
V’zot HaBrakhah, 21.
5 The same idea appears in chapter 22 there as well.
6 eg. through Naama, as in Midrash Rabbah, cited by Rashi on Gen. 4:22.

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Aaron, the High Priest, should have been Executed!

Aaron, Moses’ brother, should have been executed for the sin of the Golden Calf. If not through the plague that ravished the nation (Exodus 32:35) “because of what Aaron did,” then possibly when Moses rallied the Levites (Exodus 32:17) to execute 3,000 of the Golden Calf participants; if not then, there was still another chance to Divinely off Aaron when Moses forced the Israelites to drink the ground-up Golden Calf-water mixture (Exodus 32:20). In a failed attempt at exculpating his actions, Aaron throws out the disclaimer: “you know the nation is evil (Exodus 32:32), only further validating his guilt. True, Moses interceded on Aaron’s behalf (Deuteronomy 9:20), but then again, Moses himself also rebuked Aaron (Exodus 32:21-4), as Aaron was guilty of breaching the Israelite religion’s most basic proscription. As a witness to these events, the charge of nepotism must have appeared even stronger than when Aaron and his family were handed the Israelites’ eternal priesthood. Everyone actively involved in the Sin of the golden Calf is killed, save Aaron.

As Aaron survives the incident, he remains a candidate for the position of Kohen Gadol. But, when we take a step back, the fact that Aaron becomes Kohen Gadol is surprising, to say the least. Rabbinic literature assumes that the Israelite firstborns were originally intended to serve as the Israelite priests, but because of their role in the Sin of the Golden Calf, this honor was wrested away from them and handed over to the Aaronic family and the Levites. Indeed, originally Moses along with the rest of the Israelite leadership sent the “Israelite youths” (who Rashi identifies as Israelite firstborns) to enter into a covenant with God on behalf of the twelve tribes (Exodus 24:5) and later the Torah states that God sanctified the firstborns when he did not kill them in Egypt (Numbers 8). Nonetheless, eventually the firstborns are swapped for the Levites (ibid), without a reason being offered. Ironically, there is not even a whisper of firstborns transgressing by Sin of the Golden Calf (despite Rabbinic literature’s pronouncement), while Aaron is rightfully fully chastised; and yet, firstborns lose their choice status, in lieu of the least likely candidate!

There is an ambiguity in most people’s memory of the narrative which stands at heart of this matter: when does Aaron become a Kohen? On the one hand, one sedra earlier (Exodus 28 & 29), the process prescribing the sanctification of the Aaronic family for priestly service is found. As this sedra appears before the Sin of the Golden Calf, if one assumes the Torah is written in chronological order, it would be impossible to defend the premise that the Aaronic family only became the priestly family after the Sin of the Golden Calf. On the other hand, if the Aaronic family only became the priestly caste right before the erection of the Tabernacle, then we revert to the question of why: why would they be deserving after Aaron sinned so heinously?!

The worship in the Tabernacle is the Israelite religion’s way to worship God. Most other forms of worship were completely unacceptable. But, the commentators argue over whether it had to be that way. Ramban argues that humans have a natural drive to serve God, and depending upon a society’s resources, humans will serve the Deity however they can. Ramban offers the example of Cain and Abel’s offerings. Never was Adam or his two sons Divinely ordered to serve or praise the Divine Being: Don’t eat some fruit: yes, serve God through sacrifices: never prescribed. Accordingly, when Cain and Abel decided to offer animal and fruit offerings (Genesis 4), they were tapping into an underlying psychological drive to worship God through physical means. Or maybe, they just felt like it was the right thing to do. Either way, the Ramban cites this example as proof that sacrifice and offerings always existed, and would have existed had the Israelites sinned by the Golden Calf or not.

Rashi, on the other hand, offers a different understanding of offerings.  Rashi contends that the existence of the Tabernacle, of priesthood, prescribed offerings and times, etc. are a consequent of the Israelites failing by the Sin of the Golden Calf. Without that mistake, the Israelite firstborns would have been the sole priests for the nation. Every family would have its own personal priest, instead of one family owning all the priestly positions.

When one understands the fundamental reasons behind the two positions, it becomes clear that Rashi and Ramban are not that far apart from a worship perspective. Rashi would agree that Cain and Abel brought free will offerings. Indeed, even after the Tabernacle’s erection, free will offerings still existed. But, that should not undermine the obligatory elements of Temple service. Priesthood, in its ‘post-sin of the Golden Calf incarnation’ actually incorporates both elements: obligatory and free-will offerings. Originally, firstborns would have offered whatever offerings they chose, but after the sin of the Golden Calf, only the Aaronic family could offer these offerings on behalf of families. Unhindered religious expression is too dangerous a tool for most people, so it was taken away from the Israelites and handed over to one people. According to Rashi, this was the necessary consequent of the Sin of the Golden Calf. The sin was rooted in the people’s false belief that anyone can access God however they want (through whatever means they want), so God had to repudiate such a juvenile notion.

Aaron is already wearing his priestly clothes in this picture

Aaron is already wearing his priestly clothes in this picture

But why was Aaron chosen for this role? According to Rashi, the Tabernacle only existed as a consequence of the Sin of the Golden calf. As Aaron lead the Israelite towards the Sin of the Gold Calf, he should not have even been a candidate for the position. Really, he should’ve been killed with everyone else who sinned with the Golden Calf! In truth, the choice of Aaron as the High Priest was his punishment. He took it upon himself to lead the Israelites down the road of arbitrary (idolatrous) worship. Instead of insisting that the worship of God be underscored by basic monotheistic principles, he allowed for arbitrary worship to take place: worship that was authentic and genuine, but misguided. His punishment was that he would have to be on top of one of the most fussy, nitpicky and meticulous systems of worship ever prescribed. This is no coincidence. This is the exact punishment that one would expect for Aaron and his family considering his sin was creating an idolatrous vehicle for the worship of God.

So, the Aaronic Priesthood is a mixed blessing. It has both positive and negative elements. First, it took on all the positive elements of a human’s natural desire to serve. Through the priest, people can offer free will offerings. But, those offering are limited in scope, in times, in how they have to be eaten, killed, burnt, etc. These regulations are the punishment (or the tikun) for the misguided belief that caused the creation the Golden Calf.

When Aaron’s two sons (Leviticus 10:1) die because they offer an unauthorized offering in the Tabernacle, Aaron remains silent. He understood that he was originally spared by God for the sole reason to teach others that worship of God cannot be about themselves. Of course, he could not comment upon their deaths and took their deaths as a fact of life. It is not without irony that we note that Aaron’s firstborn, Nadav, died in this incident. It would be disingenuous had God permitted Aaron’s firstborn to serve in the Tabernacle in lieu of all the Israelite firstborns, considering that Nadav’s father, Aaron, is the one that brought about this change. He had to die.

(1) The only mention of this swapping process is found in Numbers (chapter 8) where it states: “[The Levites] are given to me from among the Israelites in place of the firstborns.” While Aaron is never singled out as earning his status in place of firstborns, the Torah states that God is “giving the Levites to Aaron and his sons” to work in the Tabernacle. Not only is he now High Priest, but all priests and Levite families are his admins!

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Kill the Copts… No Kill the Syrians… No Kill the Jews!

;SDLKdnkf;wkng'ksjddg'askdjfThis past month a church in Minya, Egypt was forced to cancel Mass for the first time in 1600 years. While over the past two millennia the Coptic Church has experienced no shortage of anti-Christian sentiment and persecution in Egypt, the lawlessness towards Christians hit a zenith recently. For Copts, distancing themselves from their holy sites – if those edifices still happen to stand – was the only reasonable course of (in)action considering the utter brutality carried out against the Copt’s infrastructure. In fact, in the last two weeks, 37 churches have been destroyed, scores of Christian businesses ransacked and several worshipers have been killed by Muslim Brotherhood members. As the Brotherhood represents the pro-Morsi Islamicist side of Egyptian politics, Copts – as Christians – are (rightfully so) seen as siding with the army and pushing for a strong, secular Egyptian government. While Copts make up about ten percent of the Egypt’s ninety million strong population, this nine million person minority clearly experiences the daily pangs of Islamicist persecution.

While Egypt experiences a taste of civil war, Syrian civilians – especially around Damascus – suffer the real thing daily. With China and Russia obstructing the UN from taking a unified stance against Assad’s regime’s killing of civilians, most Western powers feel chained by the specter of Iraq and the belief that unilateral action is unfavorable, and must be shelved as the preferred method of a true world power.

Allow me to raise the following hypothetical: if Jews still remained in Egypt or Syria, what would be their plight? As we can be certain our imagined Jewish minority would have voted against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in post-Mubarak elections last year, would their plight be any different from the Copts? Could we even suppose that this Jewish minority – representing significantly less than the ten percent of the Egyptian population that the Copts claim – would not have been persecuted? Indeed, we could be sure that a mini-Kristallnacht would have been perpetrated against the Jews over the last month. On the Syria front, what if Jews had not trickled out of Syria since 1948? In truth, the world cannot even protect Sunni Muslims from the Shiite and Alawite ruling party of Syria. As Assad kills thousands of innocent civilians, gases cities and brutally tortures traitors to his cause, what would be the plight of the 2013 Syrian Jew had they not fled over the last six decades? Ought we to believe that the world would intervene if these Syrian Jews were genocidally killed during the Syrian revolution? Syrians cannot even protect themselves from their own cruel regime with over 100,000 murdered and counting, and as pointed out above, Russia and China obstruct world efforts to intervene. Would the world, today, intervene to save the Syrian Jew? The Christians of Egypt can claim over a billion Jesus followers worldwide who can do nothing for them but watch in horror. Sunni Muslims also enjoy over a billion adherents, but no one intervenes. So, would someone stand up for our hypothetical Jew? The only reason that a Holocaust does not occur today is because there are no Jews left in all those Arab lands, and those Jews happen to be reasonably safe in Israel already. Let not one of us lie to ourselves and believe that in 2013, our contemporaneous Human Rights Council or the world’s sense of morality and ethics would prevent a Holocaust against Middle Eastern Jewry in Arab lands if not for the safe haven that is State of Israel. Only through Israel is there life for these Jews!

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Authority with Autonomy- R. Emanuel Rackman

“…Moses prayed that the entire congregation might consist of prophets. In periods of overwhelming Jewish illiteracy -as when the Hasidic movement emerged and today- there was and is an undue amount of unquestioning reliance upon “Rebbes” or so called Gedolim (great men). I regard this phenomenon as unfortunate. When Jews become more knowledgeable in their Jewishness, I hope they will recapture in their personal lives a great amount of autonomy, interpreting and applying cherished source materials even as they continue to rely on centralized authority in most matters affecting persons other than themselves.”- Rabbi Emanuel Rackman in his One Man’s Judaism page 19-20 (Philosophical Library, NY 1970)

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by | August 18, 2013 · 5:09 pm

How Does Halakha Work? (R. J.D. Bleich)

Rabbi J. David Bleich is a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University, an expert in Jewish law and medical ethics, and the author or editor of some 15 books.

I thought I might write a little bit about the theories behind Halakha as a system according to Rabbi J. David Bleich, who is the author of the Contemporary Halakhic Problems series, a prominent Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University, and the head of its advanced Kollel Le-Hora’ah. Less known are his short book on Ralbag’s theory of providence and his work on Jewish belief entitled With Perfect Faith, of which I have only read the first. At any rate, he’s a genius and expert in Judaism, so he’s a person in a good position to tell us not just how Halakha might be applied in specific situations (or general theoretical ones), but also what the theoretical underpinnings of Halakha are. The reason I mention his knowledge of Jewish philosophy is because this indicates we can rely on him to be expert in Jewish belief, which cannot be separated from Jewish Law.

Anyway, in his introduction to the fourth volume of Contemporary Halakhic Problems, Rabbi Bleich writes a little bit about the nature of Jewish Law, and I thought I might summarize a few of his points from there. If I recall correctly, this introduction describes Halakha in a way which is quite similar or the same as the introduction to the first volume of the series, and I think we can assume R. Bleich is consistent. However, I encourage you not to take my word for it, which is really something you can only do on a blog, since there’s basically no accountability. This, of course, is one of the reasons no one respects blogs.

On to some important points from Rabbi Bleich:

1:

 “Halakhah is an intellectual discipline, but its pursuit is accompanied by awesome moral and religious responsibility…halakhic error or laxity is as dangerous to the soul as other forms of error may be to the body.” (p.xi)

This demonstrates, as we noted, that Jewish Law and belief are tied to each other. Our values have to accompany our legal pronouncements. Additionally, Halakha is not just a cultural treasure or expression. Rather, the “mitzvot…are a matter of spiritual life…”

2:

“There is nothing in these volumes…that is innovative in the true sense of that terms, just as there is nothing innovative in a treatise on physics. Both disciplines have as their subject a closed, immutable system of law-physical in the case of the latter, regulative in the case of the former.” (p.xii)

Here Rabbi Bleich describes Halakha as a closed system, with internal and set rules which guide it as a process. New rules aren’t invented, and what looks like new is really something old being exposed in a new way. Like physics, the world hasn’t changed just because we now know that the world isn’t flat. Rather, our understanding of the old immutable laws has expanded. So too in Jewish law, old rules are understood in a new way, though they have never actually changed.

This being the case, we should now note Rabbi Bleich’s position that Halakha is a totally objective system “in its pristine form”. Thus, subjectivity may creep in, but this is not ideal. Rather, it should be treated as math is, with set rules to be followed.

So too, like science, the Halakhist acts “on the basis of the canons of his discipline as understood by his quite fallible intellect, not on the bassis of subjective predilections.” (p.xiii)

If we put this idea together with the notion that Jewish Law and belief should not be separated from one another, perhaps we might come to the conclusion that Jewish Belief is objective, at least in some ways, and within certain limits. For instance, we might say that it is an objective Jewish belief that the Torah is Divine, but that there is no objective position regarding rationalism or mysticism. This is just an example, but if Jewish law is to remain objective, and it cannot be separated from the fear of Heaven (p. xi), then the fear of Heaven must have an objective understanding in some way.

3:

“Leniencies and permissive rulings exist in abundance. The point is to seek neither the stringent nor the lenient, but the view that is most authoritative. Moreover, there usually is a view which has been accepted in practice by the majority of poskim as the accepted standard. Thereupon, such a ruling becomes normative and deviation cannot be considered other than by virtue of  compelling reasons.” (p.xiii)

R. Bleich tells us that his above point is obvious to anyone with a complete instruction in Jewish Law, but that some need to be reminded. These people try to reconcile Halakha with the outside world or outside norms, when, as R. Bleich has already told us, Halakha is a closed and independent system. Therefore nothing new can be brought into it, even though there lenient positions available to be relied upon if we do in fact allow ourselves to influenced by the outside world.

An example of this might be the question of women who wish to be called up to the Torah. This is permitted according to the strict law (in Rabbi Yehuda Henkin’s opinion1), and we might wish to call for equality and institute this practice. Should we do it? No Halakha will be broken. R. Bleich tells us that the answer to this sort of question should be sought by turning to the authoritative positions in Jewish law, and measured according to its own norms.

4: While Halakha is objective, there is disagreement, since no two minds are the same, and even the same formal rules can be interpreted differently or given different weights by competing authorities (p.xiv). These authorities must be more than computers who can spit back relevant sources, and their understanding of the “art” of Halakhic decision making entails the ability to identify relevant issues and questions, and apply the principles they’ve learned. Additionally, there are policy calls, even though policy cannot judge between competing theories or precedents (p.xv). I’m not exactly sure where the line is drawn in Rabbi Bleich’s opinion. He does tell us public guidance may need policy considerations, even though the law may be clear. For instance, if a rabbi is afraid that a group will misapply a permissive ruling, he may tell them it is not permitted.

However, Rabbi Bleich makes the following important point:

“Unfortunately or otherwise, it has become the practice in some highly erudite and respected rabbinic circles for halakhic authorities to issue pronouncements decrying certain practiced without indicating that those statements are prompted by policy concerns rather than by immutable halakhic standards. This has given rise, in the eyes of some, to the entirely erroneous perception that Halakhah itself is policy driven and hence, in the final analysis, subjective in nature.” (p.xvii)

Suffice it to say that this problem is widespread, and it creates a terrible ignorance of actual Halakhot, beyond convincing people that Halakha is whatever rabbis want it to be, according to their own policy considerations. If Rabbis can do whatever they want to push what they see as Jewish values, then there is no end to how they can change our religion, whether by adding to the law or getting rid of it entirely. Even more informal interpretations of Halakha therefore must admit the strong objective elements that are present in it which guide it.

5: Lastly, this may be clear already, but I’ll note it anyway. Halakha deals with new modern questions, in Rabbi Bleich’s opinion, but it has clearly formulated rules as to how to deal with these questions. It does not pay attention to modernity or modern philosophies on their own merit then, but merely examines the new situations which arise due to them, and then independently asserts what the rule is (p.xvii).

I think I summarized the gist of Rabbi Bleich’s approach as portrayed in his introduction to his fourth volume of Contemporary Halakhic Problems. I hope I haven’t misled you in regards to his opinions, but I recommend you check out the book and his essays in Tradition anyway, so you can make the call then. At any rate, Rabbi Bleich is a tremendous Talmid Chakham, but suffice it to say that his opinion is not the only one around. It is however,  fairly clear, though I’m still left with questions regarding policy and subjectivity in making judgement calls. If Halakha is supposed to be totally objective, what exactly is the missing piece which keeps Halakha from being like math? Why is the fear of Heaven required, so long as as the clear and formal guiding rules of Jewish law are followed? And if the fear of Heaven is required, what exactly does it mean to be a qualified ya’re shamayim?

R. Bleich answers the latter that “In its most fundamental sense yir’at shamayim, fear of Heaven, is the reflection of a conviction that halakhic error or laxity is as dangerous to the soul as other forms of error may be to the body” (p. xi), but I’d like to read more about this point. What are the non-fundamental elements to the fear of Heaven? And why does “fear of Heaven” seem to mean a fear for one’s soul when Rabbi Bleich knows that yir’at shamayim is best translated as “awe of Heaven”, which would most likely be more akin to recognizing God’s greatness and then desiring to serve him because He is God, not because our souls may be damaged if we do not? How important are the answers to these questions, and what if someone gives the “wrong” answer? Perhaps Rav Bleich addresses this elsewhere; I don’t know. If you do, please send me the reference or a link.

1Understanding Tzniut: Modern Controversies in the Jewish Community, page 101-105 (UrimPublications, 2008)

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Solving the Tuition Crisis: a Proposal

Problem: As with most ills in the universe, one is hard-pressed to care or put forth the mental effort to ameliorate an issue before the problem personally impacts one’s own life. Looking down the barrel of a $30,000+ bill for my three children’s Jewish Day school tuition has swiftly led me to look at the crisis under new light. I stand ready to propose an answer. I have laid out this proposal to many friends, parents, educators, and professionals, and have received mixed reactions. Like most issues that affect the Jewish community as a whole, my proposal will not solve the whole kit and caboodle, but it should lead us on the right track towards lowering Day School tuitions, lessen the need for financial assistance, and further concretize the realization that only an integrated and systematic communal approach to this issue will resolve the problem.

Proposal: Upon the completion of Day School (generally either 8th grade or 12th grade depending upon the Day school), the parent agrees to offer a small annual gift, say $100, towards the school indefinitely.  The parent would agree to this donation before his/her child is accepted to the school, and it would be a pre-condition of the child’s acceptance to the Jewish institution. If the parent refuses to accept this additional philanthropic stipulation, then the child will not be accepted to the school.

Reasoning: When a parent sends his/her child to a Day school, the parent is actively rejecting public school education (and possibly many private schools as well). In effect, the parent is claiming that I believe that the Day school is better for my child, or fits in better with my values (or has some ulterior motive). Regardless of the reason, the person is buying into the philosophy of the school, directly or indirectly. The parent may be choosing the lesser of the two evils in choosing the school, and may not fully agree with many of the school’s educational, political or philosophical decisions; nonetheless, the parent is still choosing the school, for better or worse.

While it makes sense to support an institution that will eventually benefit your family, it is harder to compel parents to start paying a percentage of tuition, or donating some nominal amount to the high school they intend to send their kids, even if they know they will send them there, before their kids come of age. On the other hand, after the fact, once their children graduated from the school, the fact that the parents entrusted their most valuable possessions in the world to this institution to teach them how to be a person, prepare them for life or even simply babysit the child all day, is reason enough to continually support the school. In truth, this is the argument that development officers makes towards alumni and parents of alumni all the time. Sometimes their arguments work; sometimes it falls on deaf ears.

Defeaters

  1. Parents will not agree to this indefinite arrangement.      Answer: They could send their kids elsewhere. There’s a public school somewhere that will be happy to accept that student. Unless a parent buys into the philosophy, financial stability and longevity of the school, why ought a school accept that kid? Let the parents find another school.
  2. Parents need to see immediate benefit to this arrangement or they will be angry and despise the school. We should not cause the parent to hate the school even before their child starts.     Answer: They will see an immediate benefit after the first graduating class. Let us imagine that half of this supplementary donation goes to the school and half towards tuition assistance. At the beginning of the year, parents will receive a letter that tuition is, in the first year possibly $2 less because of this program, and each subsequent year, the tuition will be lessened more and more. Over time, parents will see the substantial benefit that they reap from this program.  Of course, it might be a bit demoralizing to receive such a small decrease at the start, but every program has to start somewhere.
  3. Some people will agree to this arrangement and never fulfill the annual pledge upon the child’s graduation. Are we to sue them?        Answer: People are people. There are always people who will not fulfill their pledge to a Jewish organization. That is not a reason not to accept pledges or to compel people to make them.
  4. When a child graduates, the parent will still experience the hardship of High School, or even college. It is unfair to impose an additional financial burden upon the parent in this instant.     Answer: In this case, it makes sense to allow the parent to postpone the gift by four years. There are probably thousands of other examples of financial hardships that a parent may claim. First, this is why the gift is such a small amount. It shouldn’t push anyone over the edge. Second, delays in the payment in extenuating circumstances are obviously completely fine.
  5. If one is compelled to give charity, then it is not charity. In truth, it is simply an additional bill. We should call a spade a spade. Answer: First, most traditional Jews donate ten percent of their salary to charity. According to many commentaries, this is at least a Rabbinic prescription. Nonetheless, even though G-d or the religion mandates this donation (AKA it is obligatory), no one claims that it is not charity anymore. Charity can, in fact, be obligatory and still remain under the definition of charity.
  6. Schools will continually raise tuition prices, off-setting any benefit this proposal may have.    Answer: it is true that most schools raise the tuition annually, but that does not mean that supplementing the tuition would be meaningless. The financial committee who sets the annual tution price would be expected to act in good faith and set the tuition independent of this auxilary fund.

Conclusion: My three siblings and I graduated from the Samuel Scheck Hillel Community Day School in North Miami Beach, Florida. My mother was never truly excited about our education there and always harbored several complaints and/or reservations regarding our education. Nonetheless, she continued to send all of her children through its system. In fact, my family has Hakares HaTov (goodwill) towards Hillel and for the good that it generated in our lives. It is our family’s alma mater after all. Nonetheless, I promise that my family has never given another penny to Hillel after my youngest sibling graduated. This is because we felt that our contractual arrangement with the school had finished. We might even reason, “Hillel got as much as it could out of us while we there with its high tuition, so why should we continue supporting Hillel subsequently? That is its current students’ parents’ job now, not ours!” As long as we do not currently gain some form of gratification from the school, they will not receive our dollars. This myopic, juvenile, self-centered approach truly destroys the financial stability of schools, and shows a lack of care for the well-being of the Jewish community as a whole. Let us contractually agree to donate! My proposal seeks to change the way that we view the institutions in that we choose to educate our children. Let us be partners with our school.

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Modern Orthodoxy and Modern Bible Study

by Ben Zion Katz

Dr. Ben Zion Katz’s  guest post is the 7th part in a series discussing whether modern biblical scholarship is a danger to traditional Jewish belief. The first 3 parts, two talks and a Q&A session from Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and Dr. James Kugel, are available herehere, and here. The fourth part, a very short list of some Rabbinic sources that do not believe Moses is the sole author of the Torah, is available here, and a short look at Dr. Nahum Sarna’s approach to the matter can be found here. Our last post, a thought provoking guest post by rabbinic student Ben Elton, is called Revelation, Tradition, and Scholarship: A Response. It is available here.

The Torah is the basis of all Judaism. In traditional Jewish thought, the Torah is considered to have been dictated by God to Moses, and the text of the Torah that we possess is considered to be a record of that revelation. It has been claimed that modern, critical biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism are irreconcilable. This book demonstrates that modern biblical scholarship is not as scientific as its proponents make it out to be, while traditional Jewish exegesis is more critical than is commonly appreciated. A synthesis of the two approaches is presented in the concluding chapter.

It has been claimed that modern, critical biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism are irreconcilable. This book demonstrates that modern biblical scholarship is not as scientific as its proponents make it out to be, while traditional Jewish exegesis is more critical than is commonly appreciated. A synthesis of the two approaches is presented in the concluding chapter. (from Amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/Journey-Through-Torah-Documentary-Hypothesis/dp/9655240886)

At present, the Modern Orthodox intellectual world is engaging academic Bible study with renewed vigor.  In addition to this website, there is also thetorah.com and the recent comments by Professor Marc Shapiro on the Seforim blog, for example. Perhaps the plethora of books dealing with this topic on an accessible level by authors such as Richard Elliott Friedman, James Kugel, Marc Brettler and others, or the teachings of Rabbis Bin Nun, Leibtag, or Bazak in Israel to name a few, are a factor.  Whatever the reason, I am excited by the current intellectual activity, as I have been thinking about this issue for 40 years.

A scholar by temperament, I cannot shut off my academic brain when I study Jewish texts.  On the other hand, as a practitioner of evidence-based medicine, I require hard data to change my practice.  With this outlook, I believe that Orthodoxy today is less broad than the Rabbinic Judaism of centuries past, but also that modern, academic Bible scholarship is not the hard science its practitioners claim it to be.

As most people reading this blog are undoubtedly aware, the leading academic theory as to how the Bible came to be written is the documentary hypothesis (DH), often associated with the name of Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918).  The DH claims that the Torah was preceded by 4 separate sources (or “documents”), each of which told the history of Israel in its own way.  These purported documents were later edited together, thus accounting for some of the apparent duplications and contradictions found in the Torah.  Of course, these discrepancies had been known for centuries, but were by and large dealt with by the rabbis on a case-by-case basis, rather than with a single, over-arching theory.

There have been attempts to deal with the DH by serious Orthodox Jewish thinkers for over a century.  David Zvi Hoffmann (1843-1921) wrote Biblical commentaries that attacked the DH on its own terms, as well as an entire book Ra-ayot Machriot Neged Wellhausen (Convincing Proofs Against Wellhausen, Jerusalem, 1928; available at Hebrewbooks.org).  Professor Umberto Cassutto also attacked the DH on its own merits in his famous Eight Lectures (translated by Israel Abrahams, Jerusalem 1961).  Rabbi Dr JH Hertz in his monumental English commentary on the Pentateuch also attempted to deal with the DH, mainly in the Additional Notes at the end of each book of the Torah.  The late Rabbi Mordechai Breuer essentially accepted the conclusions of the DH but placed them in a religious context by claiming that they were all authored by God (see for example the chapters related to Rabbi Breuer’s approach in Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations, ed. By S Carmi, Jason Aaronson, 1996).  David Weiss HaLivni, in his books Peshat and Derash (Oxford, 1991) and more fully in Revelation Restored (Westview Press, 1998) argues that the Torah was improperly preserved during the Babylonian exile and had to be restored as best as it could be by Ezra after the return to Judah in the mid 5th century BCE.

In the first 2 chapters of my recent book A Journey Through Torah: A Critique of the Documentary Hypothesis (Urim, 2012), I critically examine the linguistic and literary evidence for the DH.  In chapters 3-8 I demonstrate that traditional Bible exegetes can be quite analytical.  In the concluding chapter I provide a synthesis that I believe to be both traditional and academically sound.

Since my book appeared, Dr. Joel Baden published The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis (Yale, 2012), which focuses solely on the literary aspect of the DH, arguing that the latter is primarily a literary solution to a literary problem.  Dr. Baden also assumes that there was a single, minimalist compiler who edited the disparate sources.  However, as I point out (Jewish Bible Quarterly, in press) there are literary difficulties with Dr Baden’s admittedly clever solutions.  The “documents” that Dr. Baden isolates are not as complete or consistent as claimed, nor is the compiler as consistent or minimalist as advertised.

On the other hand, it is not as if modern scholarship has nothing to teach even the most Orthodox of Bible students.  For example, the tragic story of Yiphtach and his daughter (Judges 11:29-40) cannot be understood without realizing that houses in ancient Israel were constructed on 3 sides of a courtyard, where the animals were kept; thus when Yiphtach rashly vowed that he would sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house after his battle with the Ammonites (Judges 11:30-31), he undoubtedly thought the first thing that would come out to greet him would be an animal  from his courtyard, not his daughter.  Egyptologists explain that Joseph’s Egyptian name Tzaphnat Pa-aneah means “sustainer of life” an apt name for the one who saved Egypt from famine, and that Moses’ name means born of (water), just as Ramses’ name means born of Ra.

Academic Bible scholarship offers the same serious challenges to traditional Judaism as did evolution.  The latter, however, was backed by hard evidence (fossils, DNA, etc., etc.) and most of the intellectual Modern Orthodox world has accepted evolution in some manner and Torah as two different manifestations of truth.  Until such hard evidence becomes available to support the DH (eg finding an ancient scroll in the Judean desert resembling one of the purported Pentateuchal sources, for example), I do not believe we need to swing open “the gates of figurative interpretation” (Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, Book II, chapter 25) quite that far.

Ben Zion Katz M.D. is author of A Journey Through Torah: A Critique of the Documentary Hypothesis [Urim, Jerusalem, 2012]

If you’d like to submit a guest post or response, please contact me on Facebook or Twitter.

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