Tag Archives: Guide for the Perplexed

Why Does Judaism Look So Much Like Other Ancient Religions?

The ever prolific blogger Dov Bear posted a question on facebook, apparently on behalf of some other anonymous thinker/friend of his:

What would “authentic” judaism look like? Let me clarify the question: what would Judaism look like if you stripped out anything that was “borrowed” from other religions or pagan practice…

I’m not so bold as to try and figure out what “authentic” Judaism would look like, but I do want to pose the following question: Why is Judaism so similar to the religions and societies that were around at time the Torah was given (as well as to those from the time of Avraham)?

The answer, as usual, can be found in Rambam among others, but I’m posting this as a lazy sketch, not a real post, so bother me later for sources if you really want them.

One important explanation is really quite simple. I think I might just post what I commented on Dov Bear’s status on facebook, where I responded specifically to a commenter’s claim that Rambam would exclude sacrifices (korbanot) from Judaism if he could, because sacrifices exist only to wean us away from paganism in his opinion.

Just to put out a thought I think is important and relevant here.

First, Rambam wouldn’t exclude sacrifices. Just because it exists in his opinion to wean us away from paganism (like many, many, other mitzvot in his opinion) does not mean that if we would start again we would not have them. Rather, we should learn that God gave the Torah to man, to fit man as he basically still is, but more specifically was, at the time the Torah was given.

If the Torah resembles Hamurabi’s Code, it is because God wanted the Torah to be given in the most understandable way possible for people at that time. They would have understood that code, and even if it was reinterpreted and changed, they would respond to it with sympathy and understanding (“imagination” and rational thought being necessary in this case, see Faur’s homo mysticus on the MN).

Same goes for brit milah, and endless things. The Torah was given in the language of man, etc.

“Native Judaism” is a Judaism that is not just native to the Divine, but is also native to the people who were taken out of Egypt, as well as to the human psyche in general.

The Moreh Nevuchim will probably always be the best book for this point of view, but it pops up here and there, and seems implicit from TaNaKH (the Bible) itself.

As usual, it’s always good to recommend anything by Nachum Sarna, because he explains beautifully in many places how the Torah wanted to take a pagan world view and make it into a monotheistic one, with all of the implications that come with this.

Taking this understanding with us also allows us to understand many Aggadic (non legal statements) from Chazal (The Sages) in a new light.

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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.

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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…”.

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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.

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Are the Sefirot Heresy? Rashbash Takes On Kabbalah As We Know It

In the vein of my last post, where we discussed the surprising fact that some consider Kabbala to be “at odds” with the Torah, I thought I would point out the view of someone who does not, strictly speaking, oppose Kabbala, but does oppose the doctrine of the Sefirot as possibly heretical. This is the view of Rashbash, as we will see below.

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To sum up the concept of Sefirot as succinctly as possible, we might just say that in their efforts to relate to the living God, many Kabbalists make statements about the nature of God, each according to their own unique schools of thought, which seem to imply that God has 10 “parts”1.

The problem that arises from saying God has different aspects present (even in a uniquely divine realm) is that it seems to contradict the idea that He is one and infinite, and therefore by definition does not have parts. (As we have mentioned, God’s unity is one of Rambam’s principles).

For this reason many people opposed the doctrine, and I’ll just bring the objections of Rashbash on the matter, in a non-perfect translation.

He begins by noting that Kabbala is an inherently secret tradition which is only passed on to the extremely wise, and then only by word of mouth. Therefore, anyone who publicizes kabbala is either making things up or violating the law to not publicize it. He then says regarding the Sefirot in particular:

“Furthermore, they don’t know what these ten Sefirot are; if they’re  descriptions, or names, or influences that emanate from God…”

In Rashbash’s opinion, these are the only plausible understandings for what the Sefirot may be. He then discusses each option.

If you say they are (just) names, then they (must not be) independent parts; but if they are independent entities then they are a multiplicity of parts, and if this is the case, the Christians claim there are three parts (to God), and these ones (publicizing Kabbalists) claim there are ten!

And if you say they are (descriptive) attributes, then why are these ones different than the other attributes which describe God? God taught Moses about 13, so why have they diminished from this number by 3?…And if Moses did not reach (the level to know the Sefirot), how could another reach (the level to know) them?

…And if you say they are influences…that is to say, angels…one who prays to them- if he says they are powers or influences- if this is the case, one who prays (to) and concentrates on them is a heretic, since anyone who prays to one of the angels is a heretic! And one who thinks (the Sefirot) are things unto themselves and different than God is a heretic!

And if you say they are attributes, they should tell us what difference there is from the other ones.”

He concludes with the following:

 ‘…students who have not learned enough, and who do not want to put in effort into legal topics, choose impatiently to glorify themselves with the knowledge of Kabbalah, in order to make themselves great before women and ignoramuses, and to take a crown for themselves with light words…and one who guards his soul will stay away from them.”

Harsh words, I think!

First of all, Rashbash’s general objection to publicly taught Kabbala is very interesting, since it makes us doubt whether the Kabbala that we hear of and are often taught in schools is the real deal. For that matter, it seems that Rashbash would be very uncomfortable in particular that the Sefirot are often referenced in the midst of Jewish education, and commonly feature in paintings and other works of art in Jewish homes and synagogues. But of course, his is not the only opinion on the matter.

At any rate, I just thought it was interesting that someone who was not opposed to Kabbala was so strongly opposed to one of its most famous and relatively standard doctrines.

What makes his opinion even more interesting is that Rashbash’s father was actually a noted Kabbalist, and likely subscribed to the doctrine of Sefirot. I have no idea if they discussed the matter, but i think that accusing your father of holding a possibly heretical idea is one of those things that cause a lot of tension at thanksgivings and bar mitzvas.

Anyway, if you are interested in the topic, you can see how many generations of rabbis treated the question of the Sefirot in Louis Jacobs’ “Theoogy in the Responsa”.

As a bonus, I’m including a picture of Peter Haas’ book, which I came across as I was looking for the Rashbash’s book of responsa. Needless to say, I did not read it.

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1I cannot do the doctrine of the Sefirot justice, since it’s enormously complicated, so if you want to learn more I suggest the interesting discussions in Moshe Hallamish’s “Introduction to Kabbalah“, Scholem’s “Kaballah”,or his classic “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism”.

The Sefirot, as I understand, are the mystic’s way to solve the problem of a distant God, the “Ein Sof”, who cannot be described or related to, since He is completely transcendent. Therefore, they explained God’s relation to the world (and apparently Himself) through the doctrine of Sefirot.

As Wikipedia puts it (succinctly), the Sefirot “are the 10 attributes/emanations in Kabbalah, through which Ein Sof (The Infinite) reveals himself and continuously creates both the physical realm and the chain of higher metaphysical realms (Seder hishtalshelus).”

In Scholem’s useful language, the Sefirot are a “realm of divinity, which underlies the world of our sense-data and which is present and active in all that exists.”

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Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus