Tag Archives: Babylonian Talmud

Is Listening to Non-Jewish Music OK? (A Non-Halakhic Discussion)

Joshe Homme, lead song writer and frontman for QOTSA, is one of my favorite musical artists. No one else I know likes his music.

Before we get back to biblical criticism (and I hope we’ll have some more guest posts before I get to  Rabbi Umberto Cassuto and some others), I want to talk about non-Jewish music for a moment. Why? Because Queens of the Stone Age are back, and I love their music. In my excitement, I’d like to point out a few theological issues with non-Jewish music. As I listen to non-Jewish music almost daily, you may conclude that I am either hypocritical on this matter, or that I think there is no problem. You’ll decide for yourself. As to the bottom line halakha le’ma’aseh (practical Jewish legal) aspect, I suggest you ask someone qualified to answer.

1) Avoiding Non-Jewish Music (A Mystical Perspective):

I’ll first outline why some mystical thinking would lead to the rejection of non-Jewish music. I won’t quote sources here, so please feel free to take me to task for this. Ask someone who is well versed in Kuzari, Tanya, Zohar, etc., regarding the points I’ll make here, and feel free to check out Maimonides’ Confrontation With Mysticism as well as Maimonides on Judaism and the Jewish People, both by Menachem Kellner, regarding Rambam and these views.

If one assumes that the Jewish soul is inherently superior to the non-Jewish soul, and also that the soul’s positive or negative qualities become a part of anything created by a person, then we have reason to reject non-Jewish music. This is because of the assumption that a non-Jewish soul is impure (if only because non-Jews eat non-Kosher food), and that it can only create something similarly impure. Non-Jewish music being impure, it will affect our souls negatively if we listen to it. In this view, spiritual forces, good and bad, work in a way which we might consider analogous to physical cause and affect. A good spiritual thing causes purity, while a bad thing (such as evil speech) causes spiritual impurity1.

So, if you believe these things, I suggest you try and phase out non-Jewish music, as well as the traditional Hasidic songs which really come from non-Jewish authors. This is by far more common than we think. It happens to be that my favorite tune for a Shabbat Song is Dror Yikra when sung according to the tune of “Sloop John B.”, the song most famously sung by the Beach Boys. My second favorite happens to be Dror Yikra according to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In”. That’s a really fun one, so I suggest you try it this week.

A rationalist may reject all of the points we have made here, however. Such a person will not assume that one’s soul is inherently good or bad, or that a person’s soul automatically affects their creation.Generally speaking, rationalists do not think that there are spiritual forces akin to physical cause and affect in play when we eat Kosher food, thus improving our souls, or harming them when we eat non-Kosher (the same goes for other mitzvot, such as the performance of sending away the mother bird, say). Rather, as we have explained elsewhere, keeping the mitzvot improves our souls in an entirely different way, which we will not get into here. In sum, keeping the mitzvot leads to the betterment of society and the soul, in Rambam’s opinion, and this is a natural process. . Now then, other points must be dealt with.

2) The lyrics:

I do not listen to lyrics, but I am weird in this regard. Most people do, and this being the case, it is harmful to listen to music which praises bad qualities such as excessive partying, materialism, etc., or even worse. Some songs praise rape or other unspeakable things, and even if you don’t listen to lyrics, we shouldn’t support people who praise these crimes.

So classical music is obviously on the table. There’s nothing wrong with it, and we’ll talk about the positive qualities good music has later on. It should be noted that there are certain artists whose lyrics can’t be ignored. Bob Dylan is the best example, but check out the “Reload” album by Metallica for some really impressive writing (or so I thought when I was 14). However, when it comes to artistic poetry, most of us will recognize the immediate value in this, so we won’t get into that here. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein fans will tout this, I imagine, though I find it hard to picture R. Lichtenstein listening to contemporary music.

3) The Danger of Having the Wrong Role Models:

Even worse is the danger that we’ll look up to artists as role models. Even when they are fine, normal people, it’s not like they’re moral philosophers or anything. They’re just guys who are good at one amazing thing. So no one should confuse a good musician for a role model. And of course, this is in regards to the good ones.I love Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, but they are not role models for Halakhic Jews by any stretch of the imagination.

4) The Positive Aspects of Non-Jewish Music:

I’ll risk stating the obvious here: Music can be an amazing and positive thing. It can be expressive, therapeutic, inspiring, and all of these things mean that we’ll be able to serve God better. We should be emotionally healthy (v’chai bahem), use the world to praise God (like King David did with his harp), and appreciate the marvelous wisdom in the world (ma rabu ma’asekha HaShem). When we hear great music from Josh Homme, about whom I know next to nothing, we should appreciate the wisdom God has given to man. Now that we have seen that non-Jewish music can be a good thing, we should ask if there is a  Halakhic reason to avoid it. I’m not qualified, so I won’t get involved, but everyone should be aware of the possibility that going to concerts and non-mitzva related parties with live music is forbidden. I’ll get back to this at the end. Obviously, in weddings and other religious celebrations we should have music, and we enhance our celebrations with it. But what about Jewish Music?

5) Jewish Music:

“There are two types of Jewish music: The kind that is mekarev (brings one closer) to God, and the kind that is merachek (brings one away from) God.”- Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Sadly, most modern Jewish music is terrible. Listeners might get the feeling that writers aren’t even trying. Besides for the overwhelmingly simplistic nature of most modern Jewish music, the style of music and melodies are almost always taken from a non-Jewish source. I’m really not sure what completely original Jewish music would sound like anyway. Klezmer, Carlbach, Miami Boys Chior, etc., all belong to non-Jewish musical cultures. Perhaps that should be considered an issue for some. This being the case, Jewish music should really be judged by the same criteria as non-Jewish music, though of course when it comes to lyrics, people taking from Tehilim, etc., are obviously giving us music with lyrics that can help us along spiritually. So then, I think we’ve touched on most of the major issues. For a superb summary of Halakhic and Jewish theological perspectives on music, check out what Rabbi Howard (Chaim) Jachter wrote here. If you want to know about the prohibitions involved with listening to music today, and especially with going to concerts or a bar with live music, then I suggest you read his post before discussing the problem with someone who is qualified2. I’ll finish off my own post with the last lines of Rabbi Jachter’s article.

“What should emerge from this review of Jewish perspectives on music is that we must take care that the music we listen to is in harmony with our Torah lifestyle and goals. Music with lyrics such as “she don’t lie, she don’t lie, cocaine” is very obviously incompatible with a Torah Hashkafa and lifestyle. The same can be said regarding all leisure activities. Care must be taken to ensure that one’s leisure activities enhance one’s relationship with God and Torah and do not, God forbid, detract from it.”

Before we actually get back to biblical criticism, I hope we can aslo discuss what the sin of Korach is. I have an idea, and I’d love some feedback.


1-Are you thinking of Plato’s ideals here? Me too. Check out 9 and 1/2 Mystics by Herbert Weiner for some interesting points about this. I’m in the middle of it now. Also, Gerschom Scholem’s Major Trends In Jewish Mysticism is a must for interested laymen.

2- Also, don’t forget to read Rambam in the 5th chapter of his “Shmoneh Perakim” as well as his commentary on Avot, 1:16. Further recommended reading is Siach Nachum R. Nachum E. Rabinovitch, OH (alt. OC) 35. He says there that 1) Even before the Temple was destroyed, music which was lustful, led to inappropriate desires, or had inappropriate language was forbidden, and 2) After the Temple was destroyed, celebration with live music or purely vocal music sung over wine was forbidden as well. Number one likely covers a lot of music today. A much more limited point is made by R. Kagan in his MB on a note Rama makes. In OC 53:25, Rama writes that a Shaliach Zibbur who enjoys non-Jewish music should be removed if, after protest, he does not stop listening to it. MB says this is in regards to music used for Avoda Zara, and not just any music. He quotes Bach as saying it must be music which is designated for the purpose of  AZ.



Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus, Rationalism

Is Modern Biblical Scholarship A Danger to Traditional Belief? (Part 5): Dr. Nahum Sarna

This is the 5th part in a series discussing whether modern biblical scholarship is a danger to traditional Jewish belief. The first 3 parts, two speeches and a Q&A session from Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and Dr. James Kugel, are available here, here, 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. Additionally, since we are, after all, discussing traditional Jewish belief, it might be worth taking a look at our short summary of Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith, and some of our other posts discussing Jewish belief such as Russ’ six part handbook to the Creation-Evolution Debate and Is It Possible to Keep the Mitzvot Without Believing?.

Since we’re taking a look at modern biblical scholarship and traditional faith, I thought it might be worthwhile to check out what Professor Nahum Sarna had to say on the matter. Dr. Sarna, who was a professor of Biblical Studies and Chairman of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandies University as well as an ordained rabbi from the Orthodox “Jew’s College“, kept Jewish law. While he is often not considered an Orthodox Jew, possibly due to his career as a biblical scholar and his association with the Conservative Jewish theological Seminary, I think many in the Orthodox community would want to hear from him if he were alive today.

In regards to his personal beliefs, I am given to understand that Dr. Sarna did not believe in labels at all. Rather, he tried to be a good Jew, and left it at that. As I understand, he sat on the Rabbinical Committee at an Orthodox synagogue and studied with several well known Orthodox rabbis, including Britain’s Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie. The latter was interested in grooming him as a successor, which is no small praise.

A person who is often (rightly or wrongly) characterized as not being Orthodox, but who does share our commitment to Halakha (Jewish law) raises questions regarding what exactly it means to be a Jew, and an Orthodox one in particular. From reading 3 of his books, as well as much of his excellent running commentary on Bereshit and Shemot, he seems to have been very traditional, though how traditional can a Bible scholar be?

As we said, James Kugel would tell you “very”. I think Sarna would as well, but both of these eminent scholars may be biased on the matter.

On the one hand, reading Dr. Sarna’s books, it is unsurprising to find that they seem very traditionally Jewish in their themes, messages, and values; after all, they are books about the Bible. On the other hand, all of that is aside from the criticism part (“Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”).

I can get to those themes another time, but I was just wondering if Rabbi Leibtag’s advice to sometimes reconstruct parts of the metaphorical bridge of Jewish faith  would lead to something like Dr. Sarna’s work.

Anyway, for those of us who want to know Professor Sarna’s views on traditional faith and modern criticism, he has left us a very illuminating introduction to his classic Understanding Genesis. We’ll look at a few of the points he makes there.

1) There were many, many books written by the Jewish people thousands of years ago. More than twenty books which we no longer have are mentioned in the Bible, and it seems likely that there would have been many more. In fact, in Dr. Sarna’s opinion, there were other holy books, even, that we no longer have. These books likely disappeared  for many reasons, including the difficulty of distributing books at that time in history, the high rate of illiteracy, the then harsh labor involved in writing and copying books, the weather in the Land of Israel, and the many conquerors who tramped through Israel throughout history, leaving destruction in their wake.

The Bible, however, did not disappear. Why not?

“There is one simple explanation. The books of the Hebrew Bible survived because men firmly and fervently believed them to be the inspired word of God, sacred literature. We can no longer know the criteria of selectivity adopted by those who fixed the Cannon of Jewish Scriptures. Certainly, there must have been other books regarded by the people as being holy at one time or another, but why they did not enter the final Cannon cannot be determined. Yet it is beyond doubt that it was not the stamp of canonization that affirmed the holiness of a book; rather the reverse. Sanctity antedated and preconditioned the final act of canonization. The latter was in most cases a formality that accorded finality to a situation long existing….Ultimately, it was this conviction that preserved the Bible and gave it irresistable power.”

It seems to me that Sarna has described the traditional situation here. The Mishnah mentions the canonization of certain books, and it stands to reason that even those who opposed including the Song of Songs in the Bible thought it was divinely inspired, as Sarna says. Sadly, most of us no longer think the Bible is important at all, and the point seems moot.

2) According to Dr. Sarna, the intellectual movements which led to humanism and the rejection of religious authority naturally challenged faith and the theocentric (God centered, as opposed to man centered) nature of the Bible. The critical methods used in the 19th century when approaching the Bible of course posed their challenge as well, specifically in regards to the belief that the entire Torah was dictated word for word to Moses.

According to Sarna, the “fundamentalists” did not help this situation.

“They mistakenly regarded all critical biblical studies as a challenge to faith. There remained no room for the play of individual conscience; the validity of genuine intellectual doubt was refused recognition. By insisting dogmatically upon interpretations and doctrines that flagrantly contradicted the facts, the fundamentalist did not realize the self -exposure of an obvious insecurity that was more a reflection upon his own religions position than a judgement upon biblical scholarship. For it declared, in effect, that spiritual relevance can be maintained only at the expense of the intellect and the stifling of the conscience.”

This approach, Sarna tells us, led to many people considering Bible study childish, since they were not encouraged to study it in a serious and challenging way in school. Naturally, having been taught it in a simplistic way, they began to consider Bible study inferior to other areas of study.

The truth is, I have had a few teachers myself who indeed taught us that our conscience and thoughts were a disruption to the service of God, and not a part of it. These teachers weren’t fools, but were smart, charismatic  and effective communicators, some of whom I learned a lot from. Additionally, I have met many, many similarly intelligent and wonderful people who think that is is important for our religion that we find God inscrutable, and that we ought to ignore what may seem to us to be a clear fact.

This of course reminds us of Rambam’s statement:

“My endeavor, and that of the select keen-minded people, differs from the quest of the masses. They like nothing better, and, in their silliness, enjoy nothing more, than to set the Law and reason at opposite ends, and to move everything far from the explicable….But I try to reconcile the Law and reason, and wherever possible consider all things as of the natural order….” (Essay on Resurrection p. 223, available here.)

3) Finally, commenting directly on our problem, Dr. Sarna says the following:

“Of course, the fundamentalists frequently take refuge from modern scholarship by appealing to “tradition”, by which they mean medieval authority. The illegitimacy of this position as an argument of faith is, however, easily demonstrable. The medieval scholars made the most of all the limited tools at their disposal. But they did not have access, naturally, to the modern sciences of literary and textual criticism and to the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, linguistics, and comparative religion. We simply do not know how they would have reacted had all this material been available to them.”

Dr. Sarna, then, assumes that some of the Medieval authorities (Rishonim) may have engaged in modern criticism themselves, if they were alive today. In light of what we have seen in our last post, this doesn’t seem impossible, but I don’t know.

Finally, Dr. Sarna says the following, which perhaps best summarizes his position on modern scholarship and traditional faith:

“Another misapprehension, shared alike by the followers of “pietism” and “scientism”, was that the recognition of the non-unitary origin of the Pentateuch must be destructive of faith and inimical to religion. But is it not to circumscribe the power of God in a most extraordinary manner to assume that the Divine can only work effectively through the medium of a single document, but not through four? Surely God can as well unfold His revelation in successive stages as in a single moment of time.”

Continuing on, Dr. Sarna notes the many shortcomings of modern criticism, including a “bias against the people of Israel” and “unsupported or insufficiently supported conjecture”. None the less, in his opinion, the Torah has come from more than one document, and “this is a fact that has to be reckoned with.”

With all of this in mind, we see that Dr. Sarna takes biblical criticism very seriously, but doesn’t see it as a real challenge to faith. Rather, it:

“provide(s) the means to a keener understanding…and may prove to be the key to a deeper appreciation of their religious message. Far from presenting a threat to faith, a challenge to the intellect may reinforce faith and purify it.”

I think, if we may compare Dr. Sarna’s opinions to Rabbi Leibtag’s and Dr. Kugel’s, that we may say in short that he seems to agree with Rabbi Leibtag that modern tools can be used to strengthen faith. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they’re in complete agreement on all important issues, but in the basic question of reading the Bible anew with modern tools, it seems they agree. Dr. Kugel, on the other hand, disagrees and emphasizes the need to read the Bible in the traditional way, while making use of the full breadth and depth our tradition. I have been told he does not think highly of Dr. Sarna’s approach, and since they so strongly disagree on this important question, we can see why.

At any rate, this provides another voice dedicated to keeping Jewish law to our discussion. I think next time we’ll check out Umberto Cassuto, who was a Chief Rabbi in his home town in Italy, before he fled to Israel to become a celebrated Bible professor.


Filed under Tanakh/Bible

Is Modern Biblical Scholarship A Danger to Traditional Belief? (Part 3)

Why is King Shapiro the picture in this post? Keep reading to find out!

Just in time for Shavuot, I’ll post some notes from the question and answer session with Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and Dr. James Kugel on modern biblical scholarship and traditional Jewish belief. The first posts, notes on the presentations from Leibtag and Kugel, are available here and here.

I don’t remember all of the questions, but they can be partially inferred from my notes. The first had to do with the historical accuracy of the Torah.

In regards to this, Rabbi Leibtag emphasized what he had pretty much told us already: The Torah is not a history book. The goal of the Prophets is not to teach us history. Rather, we study Torah for the message in it. Archaeology has the goal of teaching us history, and obviously Rabbi Leibtag thinks this can be important. None the less, to focus on what happened historically seems to be to miss the point in his opinion.

Kugel added to this that it’s hard to argue with archaeologists, but as Rabbi Leibtag said, the texts are out to teach us something other than history. We all know that the Creation narrative bumps up against science. But the point of Bereshit isn’t to teach us science. The lesson there is that we must keep Shabbat, which is separated from the first six days.

Kugel also described an idea at that point which he has described elsewhere, and which we have eluded to before. This is the idea that the Torah is like an old family photo album, which has captions on the photos. The modern scholar tells us to ignore the captions. A picture doesn’t lie, so we should only pay attention to the photographs if we want to know the history of the people in the photos.

We, however, look at the photos in another way. We received not just those photos, but “all those words”, that came with them. We interpret the photos according to the captions, our Oral Torah. “What we care about is what the words mean”, not what took place in history.

On this note, I want to emphasize it is not only that the Torah is not a history book. It is also not a science book. Science is important, but the Torah focuses on what many call “the ought”, that is, what one ought to do. Science tells us how we might do it, but doesn’t provide a reasoning for us to choose one action over another. Without some goal, direction, or philosophy, there’s simply no reason why one “how” should be chosen over another. So why would the Torah be a science book?

There are other reasons to argue against the Torah being a science text book, but this isn’t the place. Back to biblical scholarship.

2) The next question was in regards to the authorship of the Biblical books. Modern scholarship seems to have challenged our traditional beliefs about who wrote the books, so should we still believe in the divine authorship of the Bible?

I think Kugel was the one to answer this. According to what I wrote down, his response was again something he had already said to us: Who cares who the prophets are? If it is divinely given, that’s good enough for us.

We don’t know the rules of prophecy, and contradiction may not be a problem in it, so that shouldn’t necessarily cause us to look for more authors anyway. There’s really no way to prove authorship one way or another.

In regards to the similarities between our religion and others (for instance, the Mesopotamian Sabbath), Kugel noted that we focus on the differences between our religions, presumably because those are the things that will tip us off to the messages in the Torah. Additionally, he noted that if Judaism had no similarities to other religions, it would have had to start from scratch.

This might confuse people as a rationale for the creation of religion; if God is communicating with man, why doesn’t He just communicate a pure divine work that has nothing to do with the rest of the world, let alone other religions?  Won’t people think our religion is just copying others, and that we made it up?

However, the truth is, there are many good reasons for Judaism to look like other religions. The basic reason is that the Torah is the meeting between the divine and man. If you want to see more, I posted about it recently here.

3) The next question had to do with the Sages, and their knowledge of the back-histories of the Bible. If the Sages didn’t know that some parts of the Bible were similar to Pagan writings and religion, why should we trust them? Additionally, would they have cared if they did know?

Rabbi Leibtag answered first, flatly telling the crowd that the question doesn’t matter at all. Again, in his opinion, perhaps the Torah has a history most of us are unaware of or not, but in the bottom line, it is divinely authored (or edited!) and we look for the messages in the Bible. This is what’s important, and we don’t really care about this kind of question.

Kugel chose to elaborate a little more on the question. In his opinion, the Sages were in fact aware of the (now) surprising history of much of Judaism (I suppose we might find it similar to Rambam’s long description of idolatrous histories of the mitzvot in MN starting 3:30-ish), but they did not focus on it. Rather, like Rabbi Leibtag said, they focused on the divine message in the Bible, as opposed to the history of the text. The divine messages and lessons are what they focused on and tried to pass on to us.

Interestingly, Kugel told us at this point that in his opinion, his work and perspectives are a continuation of the tradition of the Sages. Most of us would have thought that a professor of biblical criticism would not consider himself to be so traditional. However, tradition for Kugel is what guides us in reading the Bible. He just seems to think that the Rabbinic tradition is a little different than what most of us think (for instance, in his opinion, many of the Sages probably thought God has a body, despite Rambam’s protestations otherwise in his principles and elsewhere).

4) Finally, one questioner asked about what he termed “the elephant in the room”. It seemed many times during the night that Rabbi Leibtag and Dr. Kugel were advocating a position which contradicted our belief in Mosaic authorship of the Torah. This is of course one of Rambam’s principles of faith, and as I like to remind people, Rambam wrote that we should hate and destroy someone who does not believe in his 13 principles. So this is an important question. Should the crowd have lynched Dr. Kugel, before turning to kill Rabbi Leibtag?

Rabbi Leibtag answered first. First, he told us (for the second time that night) that in an argument between Rambam and him, you should follow Rambam.

Next, he recommended that we read Marc B. Shapiro’s amazing (my description) book on the 13 principles, where he lists many traditional authorities who disagreed with the Rambam’s formulated dogmas. These great rabbis and sages throughout Jewish history disagreed with Rambam, and (it seems) it was OK.

Additionally, Rabbi Leibtag conjectured that Rambam may have written the belief in complete Mosaic authorship for the masses. However, his own opinion may have been that it was not heresy to believe the Torah was not entirely authored by Moses (and we’ll remind readers of the opinion in the Talmud that Moses did not write the last 8 verses in the Torah).

However, one may also interpret the Rambam away from what he seems to be saying, in Leibtag’s opinion. It is not so much that Moses wrote every word of the Torah, that is important to Rambam to emphasize. Rather, Rambam wants to emphasize that every word came from God, and that it is all true. To focus on the authorship misses the point.

(I have to note here that on its face, this seems like quite a stretch as an interpretation.)

At any rate, Rabbi Leibtag emphasized that the Bible has a message for us, and to focus on who wrote Isaih and how many authors it had simply misses the point. There is a call to us, and we must listen.

Finally, Rabbi Leibtag told us that there is no fourteenth principle of faith that Rambam is always right. Perhaps he got this one wrong. This was one of the highlights of the night in my opinion.

Happily, we have now reached the disagreement between Dr. Kugel and Rabbi Leibtag. Leibtag speculated that Dr. Kugel would tell us only to study the Bible with our present traditions (the “captions” which Dr. Kugel mentioned earlier). In Leibtag’s opinion, however, we created new traditions, and we survive challenges through our Torah study.

Dr. Kugel then stood to also answer this question, and also began by recommending Dr. Shapiro’s book. He also recommended Dr. Menachem Kelner’s “Must A Jew Believe Anything?”. These are two of my favorite authors, so I will happily tell you here that I felt quite validated hearing this.

Dr. Kugel also raised the possibility that Rambam was writing for his time when he posited a pure Mosaic authorship for the Torah. At the time, it was a common Muslim attack on Judaism that Ezra had falisified the Torah, and that our Jewish tradition was in fact false. In response to this, Rambam wrote that not one word had been changed since Sinai, when Moses received the entire Torah. This would have aussuaged doubts in the Torah.

The last thing I’ll note before closing up over here is that Dr. Kugel told us that in his opinion, to read the Torah by focusing on the words without our tradition (as many Orthodox Jews, including Rabbi Leibtag at times, do today) is an exercise that must end with biblical criticism. In his opinion, there is no realistic line that can be drawn.

Dr. Kugel lingered for some time after the question and answer session, and he said many more interesting things to the group of people who pestered him, including being very gracious to the weirdo who asked him for a photo. Additionally, he remembered my wife from his class a couple of years ago, which was completely awesome. Finally, I asked him to sign his book “In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief”, which is a superb book which I highly recommend. Having said that, I really recommend all of his books that I have read.

I think, if there is anyone left who is interested, that I’ll continue this little series with a follow up or two. In my next post I might include some of the things Dr. Shapiro wrote in his book about great rabbis in our history who did not accept a complete Mosaic authorship of the Torah, which is really interesting. Additionally, he wrote recently on the Seforim Blog about divine authorship, and it’s worth checking out. Just to be clear, I recommend actually buying this book so you can have it around.

After the Shapiro post, I think I might post about Sarna or Cassuto, or maybe Rav Dovid Zvi Hoffman. We’ll see. I have a feeling I might be the only interested person by the time we get to that.

Have a Chag Sameach!

PS. I feel that after the first two posts, I should include another great quote from the night. Besides for Rabbi Leibtag’s remark that there’s no fourteenth principle that the Rambam is always right, the winner is probably Dr. Kugel’s statement that “I’m not schizophrenic”. People seem to think that to teach biblical criticism and believe in divine authorship is only possible for a split personality. Based on the things he said to us, I believe him; what do you think?


Filed under Philosophy, Tanakh/Bible

Is Modern Biblical Scholarship A Danger to Traditional Belief? (Part 2)

Me with James Kugel!

Me with James Kugel!

Picking up where my last post left off, I’m going to write down some of the notes I took on Dr. James Kugel’s talk at Lincoln Square Synagogue the other night. Dr. Kugel, beyond being an eminent scholar in the Bible and its early ancient interpretations, is a charming speaker with a subtle sense of humor (the same goes for his writing). He clearly enjoys the topics he writes about, and as a reader and listener, I find his attitude infectious.

Entertainingly, he began with a “PG13” warning. Biblical scholarship is not for everyone in his opinion. In fact, when asked to speak more loudly after he had listed some of the challenges that modern scholarship poses to traditional faith (he must have listed somewhere between 6 to 9 examples in quick succession), he joked that we were better off for not being able to hear him.

Some of the challenges arising from biblical criticism strike right at the heart of Jewish belief; the Torah implies (and later tradition asserts outright) that all of the Torah was given at Sinai, but the Documentary Hypothesis and its derivations argue there were many authors, who lived in different time periods. They also make this claim about several other books in TaNaKH (the Bible), and question whether or not King Solomon really wrote proverbs or the Song of Songs, and whether or not many stories in the Torah are historically accurate, including the Exodus, the conquest of Israel, and King David’s dynasty. (He mentioned that while some elements of the Exodus story have been affirmed by archeology, the evidence doesn’t seem to point to the Israelites having been there when the Torah implies.) And so on, and so forth.

In Dr. Kugel’s opinion, there are 4 ways for the faithful to approach modern biblical scholarship.

1) Dismissal of archeological evidence: Kugel thinks this is too hard to do, and he also mentioned that most Bible scholars are not out to disprove the Bible. The exception, he quipped, was in regards to the children of ministers who later become scholars. I think he really meant this though.

2) Some choose to accept what goes well with faith, and to ignore the difficult parts. Thus, we might say Isaiah has 2 authors (Ibn Ezra says this, after all!) but to say this about the Chumash itself is too hard, and we draw a line. Kugel doesn’t think this is a good idea, and he thinks if you accept the basic approach of the critics, then it is very hard to draw a line denoting when you no longer accept their conclusions.

3) To say “it’s right, but I don’t want to know”. It seems obvious to me why such an approach really doesn’t work. Kugel confessed that he is unable to live like this, and that he couldn’t hold himself back from studying research which is vital to the things he believes. In fact, he told us, it was the things that bothered him which brought him to the road he’s on now, and led to his career.

4) The fourth option isn’t hard if you think about it, or so Dr. Kugel told us. Or at least, it didn’t seem hard to him, since he’s adhered to this option for some 40 odd years.

The way Kugel phrased it, modern scholarship is NOT the truth about the Bible. Rather, it is the truth about a certain kind of way of looking at the Bible. As he explains it, modern scholarship is born in the Protestant Reformation when Protestants attacked Catholic readings of the Bible, which consisted of many oral traditions. This tactic served to undermine Catholic power and influence. The argument between the Catholics and the Protestants could be rephrased as follows: do the words of the Bible tell you the whole story? If yes, as the Protestants believed, then traditions which deviated from it should be ignored. If no, as the Catholics believed, then extra-biblical traditions were a vital part to understanding the words of the Bible. The Protestant motto was sola scriptura, “just the words (on the page) of the Bible”.

Of course, even with just the words on the page, interpretation was hard to pin down, and some people were being sentenced to death by Protestants for not keeping the Sabbath! Pinning down the objective meaning of the text being the goal, they sought to learn more about the text from just the words themselves.

What do they tell us?

If we just look at the words themselves, we’ll naturally have many questions about historical accuracy, since verification (as well as many details) is not included in the word economical Bible.This serves as the basis for modern scholarship, which to this day seeks to learn about the text from itself.

Jewish tradition, however, has a different perspective. Jews have never thought the Bible was just the words on the page, and we have always had an Oral Torah, with commentary and meaning clinging to every word. “An eye for an eye” now means money, and there are 39 categories of prohibited creative labor on the Sabbath, etc. Our Torah is incomplete without the oral traditions which came down with them.

But how old are these traditions?

Quite old, in Kugel’s opinion. Jubilees (c. 200 BCE) talks about Abraham’s 10 tests 400 years before the Mishnah does, and the Dead Sea Scrolls similarly contain many traditions which weren’t written down in Rabbinic writings until later on.

“This is no minor disagreement” in Kugel’s opinion. Modern scholarship is not interested in these traditions, but Judaism doesn’t think the Bible can be read without them. Because modern scholarship doesn’t focus on the Bible with its traditions, it should not be considered the objective truth about the Bible. Rather, when the scholarship is good, it is the truth about a certain conception, the “just the words on the page” conception, of the Bible.

As for us, we’re obsessed with the Oral traditions, which basically tell us how to fulfill the most basic idea of the Bible: How do we serve God?

If it seems the literal text of the Bible contradicts this goal, then the Sages informed us how to reread the verse. Why? Because the Oral tradition and the goal of serving God come before the literal text of the Torah. This may seem like a radical idea, but in truth, those of us who study Talmud know that the phrase “Don’t read it this way; rather understand it to mean…” is quite common.

The Torah serves as the first word in how to serve God, but this mission is continued and embodied in the Oral tradition, later written down in the Mishnah, Talmud, etc. Our oral tradition continues, and in Kugel’s opinion, now includes the prohibition of using electricity on the Sabbath. All of this in order to better serve God, in the most exact way possible.

When we stop to think about Kugel’s conception, Rabbinic Jews will probably find it easy to understand. Abraham is not the first monotheist in the Torah. Esau doesn’t really seem so bad. But the Sages read the literal words in light of Rabbinic theology, and we don’t read the Torah without the captions written in by the Sages.

In regards to the divine origin of the Torah, Dr. Kugel echoed Rabbi Leibtag’s point that modern scholarship simply cannot shine any light on this issue. We don’t know the rules of how God communicates with man, and the Torah doesn’t contain markings that tell us exactly how prophecy works. While scholars can help us understand the historical context of the Torah, in the end divine origin is beyond their purview.

However, Kugel asked, if divine origin can’t be proven (and if it can’t be disproven, it can’t be proven either), then why believe it? A rabbi once told Kugel that he thought the Torah is man’s response to the ineffable (too great to be expressed in words) God. In Kugel’s opinion, this approach is far from the truth. In fact, “ineffable” is the opposite of God’s policy. God is “extremely effable” in Kugel’s words.

What this means is that Judaism believes it is God’s policy to talk to man, and a lot. He comes into our world, and He interferes in it. A man made Torah is impossible in Judaism. Rather, God, who constantly speaks to man, comes down and gives it to us.

While we hold that God comes into our world, and that the Torah came from heaven, it is important to note that God has given it to us. There was a “hand off” (his phrase) from God to us, and now we’re in charge, and we’re responsible for interpreting the Bible.

Kugel concluded his speech by telling us that his words were basically plagiarized from his forthcoming book “The King in the Sacntuary”. I cannot wait to read it.

I’ll finish this section with Dr. Kugel’s quote of the night. He told us that a teacher in an Orthodox high school remarked to him that they were using his book, “How To Read The Bible”, to teach seniors about biblical criticism. “Don’t do that!” he responded. “It wasn’t written for people in 12th grade!”

The teacher,however, retorted that Kugel is fooling himself if he thinks seniors don’t know what biblical criticism is, and if they don’t know in high school, they’ll be in for a real shock when they get to college. At least with proper instruction, they will not find it so threatening.

I’ll finish off part 3 with some of the questions the crowd asked to Rabbi Leibtag and Dr. Kugel, and the answers they gave to them. I’ll also just mention here that after he was done speaking, Kugel twice said that he really had a lot more he wanted to say, but he didn’t have time. Some of what he wanted to say will be in his forthcoming book, and if I recall correctly, he told us at least one point he wanted to discuss is in his book on Jubilees, “A Walk Through Jubilees“. If you’re interested in it, go to a library, because it is prohibitively expensive.

Part 3 will also make explicit the disagreement between Dr. Kugel and Rabbi Leibtag that I mentioned in the last post, but if you’ve read both of them, you’ll be able to figure out what it is before I tell you.

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


Filed under Miscellaneous, Tanakh/Bible

Organized Religion- Good Or Bad?

Now that there’s a new Pope, I can’t help thinking about the positives and negatives of Organized or (Institutional) Religion. I think for the most part, when I’ve heard the term “Organized Religion” it has come from someone saying they don’t like it. In my experience, these negative feelings have come from people who consider themselves religious/spiritual, but do not wish to take part in the institutional aspects of whichever faith.

I think there are many reasons that people may feel this way, but I’ve basically come into contact with two main explanations. The first is that institutions restrict religion, making it too formal and ritualized, when it should be something that flows from the soul. The other claim is that the organized religions basically go after each other and create, if not war, then something less than a complete peace (if only by arguing).

Now, as a Halakhic Jew, I’m just about as organized and institution oriented as you can get, so you might reasonably assume that I support this type of religion. This is true, though from the perspective of Jewish law, even if you strongly disagree with the system, it is still binding. That is a good example of the possibly constricting nature of institutional Judaism.

On the other hand, I can’t help but think of the positive aspects of this kind of religion.

1. Organized Religion Can Be Shared. Spontaneous Spirituality Cannot Be: It seems to me that if we abolished the institutions involved in religion, and in Judaism I think this includes the law as institution, we would basically also abolish shared religion. Each person might have their own religious feelings and beliefs, but there would be no way to share it.

For the Jewish people, this basically means no more Jewish people, since this is what binds us. And lest you respond that a pure nationalism is possible, I will ask you how exactly you define the Jewish people? Even if you want to reject the Halakha, you must have some organized and formal definition which we might share and rally around.

So for the national religion, of which Judaism is the only example off the top of my head, it seems impossible to survive without at least some major organized points, just in order to keep us together. In fact, how can any group worship together, or how can a parent share a religious act with a child? It is true that they could both perhaps do some act which feels religious to each them, but to do it together requires a shared act and planning. Jewish law gives us the ability to share our religion together, whether it is by the Passover Seder or morning prayers.

There is a larger point here, I think. Spirituality in Judaism is born of a sense of community. Although the individual’s spiritual life is very important, in the bottom line we all go to Shul together, are responsible for each other, etc. A lone person’s spiritual life may be very full, but remains the worship of just that person.

Doesn’t his smile make you want to organize a religion?

2. Planning Is Good: Furthermore, organization of course comes with all of the obvious advantages that planning and preparation give to actions over those actions which are done spontaneously. Someone who plans may find out while there is still time that the charity they thought of donating to is tied to a terrorist organization (and this actually is not as rare as we might think) whereas the spontaneous gift giver may end up giving a few dollars to drug dealers, terrorists, or others who it is                                                                                          wrong to support.

 All of this is not to say that spontaneous religious feeling isn’t often very important (especially in prayer, say), but rather to defend what is sometimes put down unfairly in my opinion.

Additionally, I’d like to consider the arguments that religion creates. As we all know, religions tend to disagree with each other, and this may perhaps be multiplied within a religious group, where different factions argue for one opinion or another. This is, of course, especially true of Judaism, where arguing is basically our bread and butter.

Now, it is very understandable why many of us want to refrain from all the disagreement (and all of this is without even getting to the wars caused by religion), but I still think we might find many advantages in arguments, provided they are conducted in a respectful manner.

3. Arguing Is Good Too: First, arguing helps us test opinions and get closer to the truth1. If we are going to worship God together, then it is important to consider the way we do it, even though this requires disagreements.

Additionally, arguing is a sign that we are not complacent. We wish to move forward, analyze ourselves, our religion, our law, and our shared experiences. Through sifting through minute discussions, even those discussions which go on for thousands of years, we come closer together.

Relevant to this is the fact that Torah needs disagreement. Those of us who study Talmud know that each page is filled with machlokot, or arguments. Torah, which requires disagreement by its very nature, is considered to be equal to all of our other commandments and values (provided that we put it into practice).

4. Disagreeing Together: Additionally, arguing, while it seems to be something which highlights the gap between two parties, also highlights what is in fact shared by those two groups. A group of people arguing about how to serve God agree they must serve God, since the argument would be quite foolish and pointless otherwise. And so on and so forth.

So I might just be naive, but this whole organized religion thing doesn’t seem too bad to me! But what do you think?


This article is really a bit of a sequel to my earlier post Is Judaism Too Dry?. If you’d like to submit a guest post or response, please contact me on Facebook or Twitter.


1As is well known, the Common Law system, which operates in such countries as Britain, the US, and Israel, relies on this point. It is called the Adversarial System for this reason.



Filed under Miscellaneous

Divine Providence in Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed

by David Pellow

This post was originally submitted as a midterm paper in David’s course ‘Maimonides and His Modern Interpreters’ with Dr. Kenneth Green.


In the final chapter of The Guide of the Perplexed Maimonides writes “the perfection of man that may truly be gloried in is the one… who knows His providence extending over His creatures as manifested in the act of bringing them into being and in their governance as it is” (III.54, Pines p. 638). Maimonides devotes significant attention in the Guide to understanding divine providence “as it is”. He presents his own beliefs on divine providence as being directly opposed to an opinion of the Sages and some of the Gaonim (III. 17, Pines, p. 471) and highlights a contradiction between two opinions presented in the bible (III. 23, Pines p. 492). He refers to some of the details of his understanding as “extraordinary speculation” which reveals “divine secrets” (III. 41, Pines p. 624) and as something which “came to me through something similar to prophetic revelation” (III. 22, Pines p. 488). This paper will present Maimonides’ understanding of divine providence and attempt to highlight some of the divine secrets which it reveals.

Five Approaches to Providence:

There are five opinions about the nature of divine providence that Maimonides considers before developing his own. The first opinion is attributed to Epicurus and states that there is no providence whatsoever. Maimonides considers this opinion to have been successfully disproven by Aristotle and dismisses any further consideration of it. The second opinion is that of Aristotle who believes that the permanent and ordered things which exist in the natural world receive divine providence. This means that the celestial bodies and the species are the objects of providence, while individuals, even of the human species, are not – everything that happens to them is by chance. The opinion of the Ash’arite sect is that everything is the object of divine providence; even the random movements of inanimate objects result from the divine will. The fourth opinion is that of the Mu’tazilite sect which believes that man has free will but also that divine providence governs everything according to the divine wisdom. (III. 17, Pines pp. 464-470)

Before presenting the Jewish opinion, Maimonides explains the reasons behind the other opinions of providence. Aristotle’s view conforms to his observation of nature in which what occurs to individuals of earthly species is not orderly. The Ash’arites’ opinion is a result of the principle of God’s omniscience – since God knows all, everything which occurs is necessary with reference to Him and results from the divine will. The Mu’tazilites do not want to ascribe the injustices of the world to divine will and believe in human beings’ free will. Therefore they say that all of God’s actions are a result of His wisdom and there are no injustices. (III. 17, Pines pp. 465-469)

The Opinion of the Jewish Law:

The opinion of the Jewish Law rests on two principles – that humans have absolute free will, and that nothing God does is unjust. The consequence of these principles is that all the good or bad circumstances which befall people are the deserved rewards or punishments for their actions. However, “the various modes of deserts” (III. 17, Pines p. 469) are unknown, which explains why occurrences can appear to be unjust.

After presenting these opinions, Maimonides summarizes them and mentions a number of additions to the opinion found in the Torah made by Sages and Gaonim which he does not agree with. He then presents his own opinion. By structuring the discussion in this way, Maimonides suggests that his own opinion follows the opinion of the Jewish Law but will be formulated in a way which addresses the legitimate issues that necessitated the development of the other opinions. The complications which Maimonides’ view of providence must explain are: the seeming lack of natural order in what occurs to individual people, divine knowledge of everything that occurs and will occur, humans’ free will, and the apparent injustices that seem to contradict the principle of deserved reward and punishment.

Maimonides’ Opinion:

Maimonides agrees with Aristotle that the events which occur to the individuals of all other species are “due to pure chance” (III. 17, Pines p. 471) but he says that individual humans are watched over by divine providence. While Maimonides says that his opinion is based only “upon what has clearly appeared as the intention of the book of God and of the books of our prophets” (III. 17, Pines p. 471), it does build on the Aristotelian explanation of how providence works. According to Aristotle, the various intellects which exist “overflow from God… and they are the intermediaries between God and all these bodies” (II. 4, Pines p. 259). Aristotle says that divine providence only reaches the permanent things such as the species, however he also says that “the individuals of every species are also not neglected” (III. 17, Pines p. 465) in that every individual is given capacities which allow it to survive, ensuring the permanence of the species. In humans this includes the “faculty through which every one of them, according to the perfection of the individual in question, governs, thinks, and reflects on what may render possible the durability of himself as an individual and the preservation of his species.” (III. 17, Pines p. 465)

Maimonides extends this opinion of Aristotle’s and combines it with the Jewish opinion, saying

the species with which this intellectual overflow is united, so that it became endowed with intellect and so that everything that is disclosed to a being endowed with intellect was disclosed to it, is the one accompanied by divine providence, which appraises all its actions from the point of view of reward and punishment. (III. 17, Pines p. 472)

He argues that this way of extending Aristotle’s opinion makes sense since “the divine overflow that exists united to the human species, I mean the human intellect, is merely what exists as individual intellects” (III. 18, Pines p. 475). This means that the providence which reaches the human species through the overflow of intellect does in fact reach individuals of the species.

Likewise, Maimonides interprets the Jewish opinion of providential reward and punishment in a way which makes it fit into an Aristotelian natural order. Since providence over human individuals depends on the divine overflow of intellect, it watches over each person proportionately to the intellectual excellence that he has achieved.

The fact that some individuals are preserved from calamities, whereas those befall others, is due not to their bodily forces and their natural dispositions… but to their perfection and deficiency, I mean their nearness to, or remoteness from, God… those who are near to Him are exceedingly well protected… those who are far from Him are given over to whatever may happen to befall them. (III. 18, Pines, p. 476)

According to this, the “punishment” for those who lack perfection is that they are not governed by divine providence, instead everything that occurs to them is the result of pure chance.

The major argument which Maimonides must defend his theory against is the observation that there are wicked people who do well and good people who have many evil occurrences befall them. First, Maimonides addresses the possibility that this disorder is a consequence of God’s ignorance of what happens to individual species, an opinion which is incompatible with his explanation of divine providence. He explains that ignorance would be a deficiency in God which must be denied (III. 19, Pines p. 477) and therefore the nature of God’s knowledge must be explored in order to understand why it does not contradict empirical observations of what occurs. Maimonides’ key insight on this topic is that confusion about God’s knowledge is caused by extrapolating from the nature of human knowledge to God’s knowledge when in fact God’s knowledge is fundamentally different from human knowledge.

we do not know the true reality of his knowledge because it is His essence, we do know that He does not apprehend at certain times while being ignorant at others… that His knowledge is neither multiple nor finite; that nothing among all the beings is hidden from Him; and that His knowledge of them does not abolish their natures, for the possible remains as it was with the nature of possibility (III. 20, Pines, p. 483)

Any apparent conflicts between divine knowledge and actual occurrences must be attributed to limitations in human understanding, not God’s.

The Book of Job and the Problem of Reward and Punishment:

After bracketing the problem of knowledge in this way Maimonides is left to tackle the bigger problem of explaining observed occurrences which contradict the principle of reward and punishment. According to Maimonides the authoritative Jewish source on this question is the book of Job. Maimonides explains that Job is a parabolic esoteric book which uses repetition to hide the particular notions expressed by the characters in it. (III. 22,23, Pines p. 486,495) Maimonides uses hints and “mention” to convey the “great enigmas” and “truths than which none is higher” (III. 22, Pines p. 486) contained in the book of Job. I will attempt to reconstruct the interpretation that Maimonides presents through these hints.

Satan, who causes Job’s misfortune, is not present intentionally but rather as a by-product of the existence of the other “sons of God” which act as agents in creating the natural order. Satan’s existence is a particular feature specifically of the earthly realm because of its nature. The effects of Satan’s actions only reach terrestrial things, but cannot affect the human soul. However, because Job is not wise or intelligent, he is not a recipient of the divine providence which overflows specifically onto the intellect, and therefore is left to the mercy of the pure chance which governs the world. (III. 22, Pines p 487-489)

According to a dictum of the Sages “Satan, the evil inclination, and the angel of death are one and the same” (III. 22, Pines p. 489). Satan is the nature of the physical, earthly world of generation and corruption which provides opportunity for the evil inclination to lead one astray, resulting in misfortune according to the pure chance which governs the rest of the natural world apart from the perfect who are watched over by divine providence. Maimonides makes this clearer in a number of other discussions. In his discussion of the nature of divine overflow he says “imagination… is also in true reality the evil impulse” (II. 12, Pines p. 280). In the discussion of man’s form which “is the image of God and His likeness” being “bound to earthy, turbid and dark matter” (III. 8, Pines p. 431), Maimonides makes clear that the very nature of this world creates a struggle of human intellect over the low, physical nature which is “consequent upon his matter” (III. 8, Pines p. 431). He says that noble people

seek a state of perpetual permanence according to what is required by their noble form. They only reflect on the mental representation of an intelligible, on the grasp of a true opinion regarding everything, and on union with the divine intellect, which lets overflow toward them that through which that form exists. Whenever the impulses of matter impel such an individual toward… the generally admitted shame inherent in matter, he feels pain because of his entanglement, is ashamed and abashed… (III. 8, Pines p. 432)

One without intellect who does not overcome his base matter follows the evil inclination, i.e. the imagination, and, as Maimonides already explained, does not receive divine providence. He is left to suffer the chance circumstances of the material world. The discussion of evil also confirms this interpretation. Maimonides writes that1

it may in no way be said of God… that He produces evil in an essential act; I mean that he … has a primary intention to produce evil… He only produces being, and all being is good. On the other hand, all the evils are privations with which an act is only connected… through the fact that God has brought matter into existence provided with the nature it has – namely, a nature that consists in matter always being a concomitant of privation… it is the cause of all passing-away and to being attained by any of the evils. (III. 11, Pines p. 440)

Secrets of Providence:

After explaining the reason for the evils which befall righteous individuals, Maimonides continues to explain the rest of the book of Job’s secrets regarding divine providence. Job’s original opinion and those of his three friends correspond to the four opinions of providence previously outlined. These opinions are criticized by God. Specifically, about the opinion of Eliphaz, which Maimonides says corresponds to the opinion of the Jewish Law, God says “For ye have not spoken of Me the thing that is right” (III. 23, Pines p. 492). The true opinions are those of Elihu and Job after his revelation. Elihu says that several times throughout an individual’s life an angel may intercede and rescue him from the evil circumstances into which he has fallen. These occasions correspond to the occasions when “God speaketh once, yea twice” (III. 23, Pines p. 495) to a man through prophecy, which occurs when his intellect overflows into his imaginative faculty (II. 36, Pines p. 372). According to Maimonides, Elihu’s opinion is confirmed by his description of the natural world. Likewise, Job’s revelation which leads him to the true understanding of his situation consists solely of descriptions of nature. By understanding that the nature of how the world works is not similar to anything which is within human ability to apprehend one can understand that it is impossible to comprehend divine providence. One must simply believe that there is divine providence which cannot be fully understood. This will allow him to accept the evils he sees in the world without them causing any “doubts regarding the deity” (III. 23, Pines p. 497).

There is an inherent contradiction in this exposition of divine providence. According to Maimonides, the main point of the most important biblical source on providence (a source which supersedes even the common opinion of the rest of Jewish Law) is that it is impossible to apprehend divine providence. Yet in these very chapters Maimonides has gone a long way in explaining providence, and he explains even more in another discussion of providence in the final chapters of the book. Maimonides explains that the realization of the incomprehensibility of providence will lead one to not become doubtful as a result of the misfortunes which occur. But in Chapter 51 he explains how misfortunes occur to perfect people and says that it is this explanation which resolves the doubts raised by philosophers regarding the misfortunes that befall excellent individuals (III. 51, Pines, p. 625).

In the final section of the Guide about achieving human perfection Maimonides expands his explanation of divine providence. “The intellect which overflowed from Him… toward us is the bond between us and Him” (III. 51, Pines p. 621) which can be strengthened by focusing on loving and knowing God and weakened by ignoring God and occupying oneself with other things. The most perfect prophets – Moses and the Patriarchs – reached a state such that their intellect was always occupied with God and this bond was always present. This allowed them to receive divine providence even when they were occupied with material things (III. 51, Pines pp. 623-624), and, in the case of Moses, “all the gross faculties in the body ceased to function” (III. 51, Pines p. 620). For other people, even those “endowed with the most perfect apprehension” (III. 51, Pines p. 624), there are always times at which their thoughts are emptied of God, and in those times “providence withdraws” (III. 51, Pines p. 625). This is not a complete withdrawal to the state of those with “no cognition at all” (III. 51, Pines p. 625) who are like those that walk in darkness, but rather it is like someone on a cloudy day who is separated from the light of the sun. Maimonides’ “extraordinary speculation” (III. 51, Pines p. 624) is that any evils of the world which befall the perfect men and prophets must occur during these times of preoccupation with other matters, when they are occupied with their intellectual apprehension of God “all evils are prevented from befalling” them (III. 51, Pines p. 626). This explains why it appears that misfortunes occur to excellent people – they are all during times of preoccupation with things other than God when divine providence is cut off. It also fits together with the earlier statement that the intervention of an angel will save a man only several times in his life – most people do not reach the level of true apprehension and love of God except for during a few brief “lightning flashes” in the darkness of their life.

It is now possible to address the problem with Maimonides exposition of divine providence mentioned above. Most of what Maimonides has said about providence is negative – he claims that most of the time most people are not the recipients of personal divine providence. In keeping with his view of negative theology, he claims that the most important lesson about divine providence is that it is in no way similar to human providence and it is beyond all apprehension. He explains why there is usually no divine providence – it is part of the nature of the material world of generation and corruption which separates it from God. He says that humans can overcome this limitation of the material world through their intellects and describes what happens as a “bond” caused by the “overflow” of divine intellect and an individual person’s intellect. However, he does not explain how this happens, it is something which is beyond apprehension and tied to the similarly incomprehensible ability for prophecy, and can result in miraculous interventions which save one from the misfortunes which occur to all those around him. He has indeed left the key question of how individual divine providence is able to occur in the natural world as something which is impossible to apprehend, as he claimed.

Trials in the Torah:

There is one last issue which Maimonides as biblical interpreter must address, particularly since it is a potential cause of perplexity for students of the bible. This issue is the problem of trials – cases in the Torah where it seems that God caused misfortune to befall someone or a group of people who have not sinned in order to give them a reward. Maimonides addresses all the cases in the Torah where this occurs and shows that in all of them the purpose of the trial is to make known the degree of the faith or obedience of the individual or group who is being tested (III. 24, Pines p. 499). In this way he removes the possibility of becoming confused by the words of the Torah into a wrong belief regarding the nature of providence.


A proper understanding of divine providence is considered by Maimonides to be one of the most important secrets of the Torah which is necessary to achieve human perfection. Divine providence is inherently related to prophecy, divine knowledge, God’s actions in the world, the Jewish notion of reward and punishment, and the conflict between human beings’ base matter and imagination and their divine image, the intellect. By defining a number of inviolable principles such as absolute human free will, the impossibility of any ignorance or injustice being attributed to God, and the Jewish idea of reward and punishment, Maimonides is able to combine ideas from Aristotelian philosophy, traditional Jewish sources, and the key biblical source on providence, the book of Job. The understanding that results from this is that punishment is the absence of providence which leaves one susceptible to the pure chance of the natural world, and reward comes in the form of miraculous protection provided by providence whose mechanisms in the natural world are impossible to apprehend. By understanding that one cannot truly apprehend how providence works, one is able to gain a more perfect understanding of God which will be strengthened rather than shaken by the natural order of what occurs in the world of generation and corruption as a necessary result of its material nature.

David Pellow is studying for a degree in Engineering Science at the University of Toronto

1 Compare the use of “intention” in this quotation and in the explanation of Satan’s presence among the sons of God

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Filed under Philosophy, Rationalism

Would Rambam Say the Ten Plagues Are Miracles?

Equipped with my very own Little Midrash Says as a child, I did not question that the ten plagues were extraordinarily miraculous. In fact, after existence itself, I think they might just be as miraculous as it gets. Don’t you?

We often like to point out little miracles all the time, because if God gives us a miracle, then He must love us. Rambam, however, insists that nature is a constant state of affairs1, and this is an important backbone for his worldview.


He therefore minimizes how often we say something is a miracle- which we might define as God’s disruptions to the natural order of things- and tells us that all miracles were actually planned and prepared to occur before there any laws of nature, that is, before creation. God sets a timer, the miracles occur and disrupt the natural order of things, and then everything goes back to normal2.

In fact, not only does he limit miracles to things that have been prepared since the Big Bang, but he seems intent on taking away as many of our miracles as possible!

This can be seen from his statement in the Treatise of Resurrection:

“Only in those cases when we are taught explicitly that a particular event is a miracle and there is absolutely no possibility of giving any other account of it, only then do we feel forced to admit that it is a miracle.”3

So two things need to happen for us to call something a miracle: We have to be taught clearly that it’s miraculous, and it needs to be impossible to explain it in a natural way. Otherwise, it’s just not a miracle.

So what does this mean for the plagues in particular?

Were we taught they were miracles? Yes. Is there “absolutely no possibility of giving any other account of it”?

Well, maybe.

If you take Nahum Sarna seriously- and I hasten to remind you that even Haym Soloveitchik respects him– then perhaps the plagues may be explained in a natural manner. In his “Exploring Exodus”4, which is well written and generally awesome, he gives natural explanations for the first nine plagues, which in his words “can all be explained within the context of the familiar vicissitudes of nature that imperil the Nile Valley…”.


He then begins to detail not only how the first nine plagues are natural occurrences, but how they each naturally caused the following plague! Now cause and affect, science fans, is nature at its very best5.

We will not go into detail here in regards to the natural explanation to each plague, but Dr. Sarna references a paper which explains the theory, and we are forced to ask if this qualifies as a “possibility” of a natural explanation. “Possible” is a pretty broad word, so my guess is yes, but you may know better than I.

At any rate, we then have nine non-miraculous occurrences, wondrous and providential as they were6. The tenth however, remains impossible to explain, and may be viewed as a miraculous plague against the Egyptians that was prepared before time.

To me this raises the question of free will versus God’s ability to see the future, but we’re not going to get into that here. At any rate, this isn’t so much a Dvar Torah, but a way to annoy your friends and family, I guess.

Do so at your own peril, and if you’re looking for a lesson, then perhaps end with “and therefore the natural order of things is truly important to Jewish theology!”

This lesson is always a winner at big meals.

Shabbat Shalom!

1“The world goes according to its custom” – BT Avoda Zara 54B

2Fox, in his superb Interpreting Maimonides (page 274) writes that “This view holds an obvious attraction for Maimonides. It preserves the order of nature, and for him this is of the highest intellectual and practical importance…Even the attested miracles are held by some sages to have been built into the order of the world at creation, and this too serves to reduce the effect of the breaks in the natural order resulting from active divine intervention.” This is based on the Guide 2:29.

3Treatise on Ressurrection. Cited and Translated by Marvin Fox in his Interpreting Maimonides, p..34. See also Guide for the Perplexed, 2:25., Eight Chapters, section 8.

4 p. 63-81

5 He even goes so far as to explain how they naturally would not have affected Goshen, in case anyone out there remembers to ask.

6Though of course providence is quite a complicated topic in Maimonidean thought.


Filed under Parshah, Rationalism

Kavod Habrios as a Halachic Ideal

Guest Post by Daniel Kahn

The centrality of kavod habriot in the Jewish legal tradition may be traced throughout the writings of generations of torah scholars, and has led to magnificent decisions on the normative plane. As Orthodox Jews, this halachic concept influences our actions on a daily basis.

A discussion of the topic must begin with defining semantics. The Hebrew word “kavod” is loosely translated as respect. Overall respect can be categorized into 2 categories: honor, a respect based on position, and dignity, a respect based on the divine image that is contained in every individual who makes up the “briyot”, or the created.

In Parshas Shoftim, we receive the commandment to go to war under certain circumstances, as well as some of the rules related to taking such action. The Torah enumerates exemptions to potential fighters who find themselves in unique situations, such as the newly married, one who has just completed building a home, or one who has planted a vineyard. In addition to these exemptions, the Torah includes in this list  the fearful and soft-hearted as well.

The Sifre brings the opinion of Rav Yochanan Ben Zakai who says that each one of the exemptions except for the last category requires witnesses in order to prove entitlement. He continues to explain that the only reason the Torah exempted them is for the sake of the fearful. If  a faint hearted person would be seen walking the streets peacefully while his brothers are at battle, he would become embarrassed. The Torah therefore included additional opportunities for exemptions so that he would not be forced to walk the streets alone, but would rather be among others staying home. The frightened are also not required to bring character witnesses to prove they have fearful dispositions, thereby minimizing any publicity and potential embarrassment.

In the Mechilta, Rav Yochanan Ben Zakai is mentioned as well in the context of the compensation a thief must remunerate to the victim of his robbery. Rav Yochanan is quoted in relation to the law that when one steals an ox and either sells or slaughters it he must pay 5 times the value of the principle object, in contrast to when the object of the theft is a sheep, wherein he only pays 4 times the value. He explains that really the payment for theft of either animal should be equal, yet the Torah felt bad for the thief of the sheep who would have to walk around with a sheep on his back (an embarrassing situation), as opposed to the thief of an ox, who could lead the animal by a rope.

In these two midrashei halacha we see the power of kavod habrios and the lengths the Torah goes in order to maintain its prominence.

What does this mean for us on a practical level?

Rav Ovadiah Yosef was once asked the following question by a baalas teshuva (someone who “returns” to God) who had given birth to her first son:  Her husband assumed the child required a pidyon haben, a ‘redemption of the first born child’. However, unbeknownst to her husband, the questioner had an abortion years earlier, which meant that halachically she did not actually require a pidyon haben. She wanted to know if  she could proceed with a fake ceremony because she did not want to tell her husband about certain aspects of her past.

Rav Ovadiah allowed her to keep the matter concealed, and they performed the ceremony with the brocha despite the fact that it would apparently be a bracha levatala (a blessing for no reason). In response to such concern, Rav Ovadiah writes that “gadol kavod habrios shedochech lo saaseh beTorah” clearly trumps a saying a bracha levatala, an offence he considers to be on the rabbinic level.

Additionally, I have seen in a book on the customs and practices of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik recorded by Rabbi Reuven Ziegler that when a baal korei will become embarrassed by being corrected in front of the whole khal during laining, it best to abstain from such because of the severity of the issue.

It is clear then that kavod habriyot, which has truly led to magnificent rulings on the normative plane, should be considered a practical and important halachic ideal in our day to day lives.

–Daniel is a law student in Bar Ilan University

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Must I Wear a Hat?

“When will you wear a hat?” My Chavruta (learning partner) asked.

He was a young Israeli rabbi, and we had become quite friendly over the months that we had been learning together. While the question could be understood as coming from a ‘holier than thou’ perspective, I do not think it was. He was my friend, and he wanted me to wear a hat, because he wanted me to do what he thought was right.

I understood this, so I answered without insult or malice.“When I find out that it’s halakha (Jewish law), I’ll wear one.”

“Really?” His eyes glimmered. He thought he had me.

I have to be clear with you, I was already fairly certain it was not mandated by Jewish law to wear a hat, because while my father wanted me to wear a hat when I turned 13 (it’s a Rav Soloveitchik thing), he never really got into the issue with me, or told me that it was halakha1. Mostly because it’s not. But my friend thought that it was, and he got a Mishna Berura (written by the saintly Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan) to prove it.

I don’t remember the specific placement anymore (perhaps someone could provide it in a comment), but if my memory serves Rabbi Kagan’s ruling was that while praying (and especially while reciting the blessing after meals) one must wear a hat, since we wear hats in the street. Being that while in public we dress with a certain level of respect for those around us, how can we dress in a less respectable manner before God Himself?

I agreed with this logic. I think we should dress respectably to pray, don’t you?

“But I don’t wear a hat in the street…” I countered. Rabbi Kagan was clear. If wearing a hat is part of dressing in a respectful manner, then we should wear one to pray. But if it is not part of dressing respectably, then it is no longer relevant!

“So what?” my friend countered back. “It’s the halakha!”

“But he made it dependent on the reason!”

“Maybe it was dependent on the reason then; but now, it is halakha.”

I shrugged, and that was that. We had finished our learning for the day, and I went home.

It seems to me that my friend was advocating a position where anything that was ever done as a part of Jewish law or life in the past must be kept even when the reason no longer applies. In his opinion, this would apply not only to laws from the Sages (who themselves argued about this point), but seemingly to every custom or law ever made, like the law of wearing a hat to pray, which was declared based on a reasoning that no longer applies today.

Certainly, this point is not intuitive, and the rabbis I consider my teachers have not advocated this position. I think the onus is not on me, but on my old friend, to prove that Jewish law and custom really do travel through history like fly-paper, so that while we may add, nothing can be taken off.



1-Though if you actually want to know my father’s position on the matter, you will simply have to ask him. I may have wildly misunderstood him, and I cannot take responsibility for representing his opinion on this or any other matter, in fact.


Filed under Miscellaneous

Will Keeping the Mitzvot Really Build the 3rd Temple?

Twice in the past few weeks, I have come across the same message from “Chabad In the Cardo”, which goes as follows:

“Help Build the 3rd Bais Hamikdash…By Doing Acts of Goodness & Kindness”

What exactly is the meaning of this statement?

I believe Chabad in the Cardo is implying that by being nice to people (an important Mitzvah, ask Hillel or Rabbi Akiva), we may literally cause the 3rd Temple to be built. Lest you be fooled into thinking that being nice to others is merely conducive to the kind of constructioni that occurs in a natural manner (Bob the Builder style), the sign comes with a picture, akin to Ikea instructions. In fact, this picture tells us, if we are goodii and keep the mitzvot the Temple will come down ready-made from heaven!


But is such a thing really possible?

This belief, which is extraordinarily popular in our community, may be found in many important classical sourcesiii. Despite this, Rambamiv rejects this belief completely, because there’s no way Mitzvot could have anything to do with the spiritually enchanted appearance of a building-even the Temple- from the sky. In fact, not only is this view untrue in his opinion, but it may be a damaging one, as we will show later on.

There are two reasons Rambam rejects the idea that mitzvot could have magical powers, both of which are explained in Menachem Kellner’s fantastic book ‘Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism’ v.

1) It is logically simpler to explain that mitzvot are not mystically endowed with powers, or do not have special inherent qualities, than to say that they do. Rambam prefers the simplest solution available when answering a question.

We may see his philosophical preference for simplicity when he says that “species and the other universals are…mental notions and that every existent outside the mind is an individual or group of individuals.vi

Why consider species and universals nothing more than categories man has thought of? Because Maimonides, Kellner explains, holds that we shouldn’t suggest a complex answer when a simpler one is available. In our case, this translates into rejecting the belief that mitzvot have qualities that are inherent, essential, or existential to them.

2) Rambam believes that God is “…One to whose unity there is no comparison…in the universe…His power is infinite….and the knowledge of this Monotheism is a mandatory commandment”vii. Because God is completely unique and alone in the heavens, there must not be any magic to affect or control Him. Furthermore, since it’s impossible for mitzvot to share a quality with God, it’s impossible that they are inherently holy or powerful in the way that God is.

For these two reasons, we may see that Rambam constantly demystifies the mitzvotviii, explaining them in historical and philosophical contexts that disagree with the idea that mitzvot have any inherent qualities, let alone the ability to build the Temple.

Rather than explain that they are spiritually mystical rituals that affect the universe or our souls, Rambam explains that every mitzvah “exists either with a view to communicating a correct opinion, or to putting an end to an unhealthy opinion, or to communicating a rule of justice, or to endowing men with a noble moral quality…”ix. They bring us to be “occupied with” Godx, and are “the path of wisdom” which we follow because “it is true”xi. But these are all completely natural elements of the world, and there’s nothing supernatural, mystical, or magical about any of the goals of the Mitzvot.

In contrast, the statement that by doing acts of kindness we will rebuild the Temple implies that the mitzvot have the spiritual magical ability to build something, or to force heaven to build it! Rambam completely rejects this notion, since it contradicts his principle of God’s unity and uniqueness, as well as his philosophical doctrine that the simplest solution should be preferred.

In his view, all buildings must be built in completely natural ways, including the Temple. The Messianic process will be a completely natural onexii, and indeed, we will be able to say that keeping the mitzvot allowed us to reach that point. This natural process of redemption and the building of the Temple is a good example of how the mitzvot work in his opinion. They are a challenge for us, and not a kind of spiritual mysticism with seemingly magical properties.

Even though we have great leaders who held an enchanted mystical view of the mitzvot, there are some dangers in seeing the world this way.

If we tell everyone that keeping the mitzvot will protect them, or spiritually cause physical changes in our world, they may stop keeping them if they come to the conclusion this does not work. Furthermore, the belief that mitzvot are to be kept because they have spiritual powers may also cause some of us to forget that though we may keep the mitzvot so that God should protect us, we should strive to keep them because we desire to serve Him.

Additionally, this “enchanted”xiii view of our religion encourages a rejection of science, objective cause and effectxiv, and the way that the world works generally, since it could cause people to they think they have an “in” of sorts with the rules of the universe, and may manipulate the physical world. And that will probably make Bill Nye very angry.

The Science Guy aside, Rambam holds that keeping the mitzvot cannot stave off cancer, build the Temple, or protect us from robbers. If we rely on supernatural means of protection we will each suffer the consequences.

However, if we keep the mitzvot for the reasons Rambam lists, we may be able to return the focus of the mitzvot to the service of God, striving for perfection, and helping each other reach these goals, without the damages of assuming the universe or our mitzvot will do it for us. If we do that, then indeed, perhaps we will soon hire a good contractor to build the Temple, or one will even volunteer.

iRashi on dor haflaga

iiFor example, say, by not shouting or crying, as one had better not.

iiiMidrash Tanchuma, Pekudei, sec. 11, Rashi Tractate Sukka 41a ‘Ee nami,’ BT Rosh Hashanah 30a ‘lo’, Tosafot BT Sukka 41a ‘Ee nami,’ BT Shevuot 15b ‘ein’,Ritva BT Sukka 41a. Hai Gaon lists lists this as a possibility but appears to find it more likely the resurrected dead will be the ones to rebuild the Temple. (cited in ‘Theology in the Responsa’ p.23, Louis Jacobs, Littman Library,2005)

ivHe relies on other sources in this particular matter (ie:how the temple will be built), such as JT Megillah 1:11, Pesahim 9:1, Leviticus Rabbah 9:6, and Bamidbar Rabbah, 13:2. This is also likely the opinion of his followers and later rationalists, but we’ll leave that unanswered for now. However, we can say with confidence that it is certainly not the opinion of any of the Aristotelian Rishonim (Ralbag being perhaps the most prominent among them), for the reasons we will provide, which should make sense according to any Aristotelian.

vLittman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006 (Oxford), pp.11-15,33-42,59-65. Suffice it to say that this post was made possible by Kellner’s writings, which I am a big fan of.

viGuide for the Perplexed, 3:18

viiMishnah Torah, Yesodei Hatorah, 1:7

viiiAs well as pretty much else anything he can get his hands on. For example, see Shapiro, Marc B., ‘Maimonideian Halakha and Superstition’, pp.95-150, in his ‘Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters (University of Scranton Press,2008)

ixGuide 3:31

xGuide 3:51

xiMT Teshuva, 10:2

xii MT Hilchot Melachim 11:1, Hilchot Beit Habechirah 1:12

xiii This is how Kellner refers to the world of Maimonides’ opponents throughout his writings.

xiv Not exactly what Hume was aiming for.


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus, Rationalism