Tag Archives: idolatry

What Are Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith?

As I said in my last post, I want to continue writing about modern scholarship and traditional faith with a post listing some of the traditional rabbinic sources that deny a complete Mosaic authorship to the Torah. I’m not sure how many places you might look for such sources, but Marc B. Shapiro wrote a fascinating book which is mostly a compendium of these sources.

At any rate, before I post about some of the sources listed in Shapiro’s book (which I’ll do next time), I thought I’d post what Rambam’s 13 principles actually are. Even though as a community we seem to pay a lot of lip service to the principles, and certainly in the Orthodox community, the Yigdal poem (a version of the principles) is recited daily or weekly, it still seems like a lot of people don’t exactly know what each of the principles are.

Before we get to the actual list, I want to emphasize again how important the principles are. In Rambam’s opinion:

1) One who accepts the principles of faith will certainly have a place in Olam HaBa (The World to Come/Paradise). If someone accepts the principles, but sins in pretty much all other regards in Judaism, this person is treated with love and compassion as a member of the Jewish people.

2) One who even doubts the principles has removed himself from the Jewish people. Jews are obligated to hate and destroy this person, even if such a person is exact in keeping of the mitzvot (commandments).

These aren’t small points to make. You may argue that there is no 14th principle that Rambam is always right (as Rabbi Menachem Leibtag pithily remarked in his fascinating talk at LSS) or that Rambam changed his mind later on, wrote his true views esoterically, etc. For these reasons, and others, it is really hard to view the 13 principles as the end of the discussion when it comes to Jewish dogma. Menachem Kellner’s Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought is essential reading on this topic, and can’t be recommended enough. Like other Littman books, you might find it a little pricey, and prefer to go to the library. Littman is a non-profit publisher, so I don’t really hold it against them for charging a little more than I’d ideally like to pay. Not to mention that every single book I have read from their publishing house has been superb. That is kind of amazing, actually.

So, then. On to the principles.

1) God exists in a unique and self sufficient manner. If God stopped existing, so would everything else, since the totality of existence relies on God, who is the cause of everything in existence. However, if all of the existence were to stop existing, God would not be affected, as he is not caused by the universe. Yahu Skaist reminded me I should have been clear, as Rambam is there and in MT Yesodei HaTorah 1:3, that it is not possible for God to cease to exist. Rather, this is a theory discussed to make a point.

2) God is one, and His unity is entirely unique1.

3) God has no body, nor any physical attributes at all2.

4) God is beyond time.

5) Only God may be worshiped3.

6) God communicates with man, in what is known as prophecy4.

7) Moses was the greatest prophet, and God spoke to him directly while Moses was awake, as opposed to through an angel, while asleep. This is how all other prophets receive prophecy. Moses was not weakened by prophecy, like other prophets. Additionally, he was able to choose when to receive a prophecy, as opposed to all other prophets, who had no idea when they would have another revelation.

8) The entire Torah was given to Moses at Sinai.

9) The Torah cannot be replaced or changed in any way. It has therefore not been changed since Moses received it in its entirety on Sinai.

10) God knows of, and cares about, the actions of mankind.

11) God rewards good and punishes evil.

12) There will be a Messiah/Messianic age.

13) God will resurrect (at least some of) the dead at some point.

Many have been noted that the principles can be put into 3 classes: 1-5 are about God, 6-9 are about revelation, and 10-13 are about reward and punishment. Additionally  Abravanel writes in his Rosh Amanah that really all beliefs in the Torah are equally important. This being the case, it is worth discussing why Rambam would write his principles in the first place, but that’s for another post.

Now that we’ve gone through the principles themselves, I feel we can discuss some of the traditional opinions which differ from them, specifically, in regards to the principles about Mosaic prophecy.


1When we describe unity we might refer to several things which are unified, such as the several players on a baseball team. Cars have parts, books have pages, the universe has perhaps infinite pieces. However, God’s unity precludes any “other” whatsoever, and He is not subject to the division of parts. His oneness is dis-similar to all other unities.

2This is really implied by the second principle, and L. Jabocs (Principles of the Jewish Faith) quotes Friedlander as saying that Rambam includes this principle because it was a prevalent belief that God has a body, even among Jewish scholars.

3As we have already ruled out the possibility of other deities (since God is the cause of the everything else, is One, so that nothing else is similar to Him, and is not affected by anything else so that we might think He has a partner or equal), this principles comes to preclude the worship of God’s works and messengers. Angels, the sun, the deceased, etc. Obviously, the sun is a gift from God, and we ought to appreciate it. But to worship it as a form of appreciation to God would still be forbidden. The same goes for everything else in life.

4Before you get clever and question whether Rambam’s principles should be considered incorrect because he relies on an Aristotelian understanding of metaphysics for his principles, I’ll note that Rambam did not rely 100% on Aristotle’s metaphysics. Rather, he regarded it as the best theories available. However, all theories of what goes on beyond the moon were considered uncertain by him. This means that if Rambam included the active intellect in his 13 principles, it is not that you should accept the active intellect as dogma. Rather, we should accept the bottom line, which is prophecy, and examine for ourselves what might be the best metaphysical theory today. Rambam includes his theory because that is the best they had at the time.



Filed under Philosophy, Rationalism

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

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

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.


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.



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.”


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus

A Response To Rabbi Sacks: Survival of the Religious

By Gene Matanky

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recently wrote an article in the New York Times entitled “The Moral Animal”, in which he points to the evolutionary need for religion. Surprisingly, Sacks tells us, it is the evolution theory of Darwin which shows us the importance of religion and why it continues to survive.

According to evolutionary biology, although man gives his genes as an individual to the next generation, he can in fact only survive in the first place if he is part of a group that works together. The genes that allow man to become stronger as a member of a group are the genes that cause altruism and empathy, and allow people to bond and feel for each other.

As Rabbi Sacks writes, “A result is that we have two patterns of reaction in the brain, one focusing on potential danger to us as individuals, the other, located in the prefrontal cortex, taking a more considered view of the consequences of our actions for us and others. The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational. We are caught, in the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s phrase, between thinking fast and slow.”

He continues to explain why religion is so vital to this process of both thinking fast and slow: “Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions.” Therefore, instead of evolution refuting the need for religion, it is actually its greatest supporter! Rabbi Sacks thus triumphantly concludes that “Religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance is…a better predictor of altruism than education, age, income, gender or race. Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology.”

The Chief Rabbi has done a wonderful job defending religion in this article, but he has unfortunately let down those who want more than just religion; those who thirst for the Living God. His argument has marginalized religion as a necessary institution for the survival of mankind, and made it less than what it really is: a medium to experience the transcendent. Sadly, Rabbi Sacks’ religion may survive in the modern world, but only because he replaced what it stands for.

Religion is something that should bind us together as a community, as Rabbi Sacks writes, but that is not its main purpose; its main purpose is to be a bridge across the chasm which separates God and man. Religion allows us to be a voice of compassion not because it’s good for the survival of man, but because that is what God commands of us. God demands that we care for those on the periphery of society, but this is not for our selfish need of survival, but rather it is because He wills that we do not accept evil.

According to Sacks’ logic it doesn’t matter whether we are idol worshipers or monotheists, as long as it creates community. Our religion could command us to be racists, homophobic, or genocidal, but as long as we all are doing it together, a community is created, and that is what matters.

The prophets taught us that this is incorrect. They did not wage a war against the prophets of Baal because it was vital to the survival of mankind, but for the sake of the Living God. The worshipers of Baal also had a community, but that was not the problem with them, nor was it the solution.

Not only did the prophets attack the worshipers of Baal, but when the people of Israel went astray, Isaiah said:

“The multitude of your sacrifices– what are they to me?” says the LORD….”Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations– I cannot bear your evil assemblies…Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”

The people were bound together as a community, and they had religion; but God doesn’t want any of this. He wants them to seek justice and righteousness.

I am not saying that this was Rabbi Sacks’ intention, but in my opinion, this is the effect. It is quite analogous to what Erich Fromm (a non-theist himself) had to say about a similar situation in the 1960’s: “The religious “renaissance” which we witness in these days is perhaps the worst blow monotheism has yet received. Is there any greater sacrilege than to speak of “the Man upstairs,” to teach to pray in order to make God your partner in business, to “sell” religion with the methods and appeals used to sell soap?”

It is my profound hope that the new atheists win out on this argument, and by doing so resurrect the Living God, so we are not simply left with nothing more than an evolutionary necessity.

Gene Matanky studies Jewish Thought in Bar Ilan University. He is also involved with מרק״ם and the Boger community of Midreshet Ein Prat.


Filed under Miscellaneous

Does Judaism Care About Morality?

Just a few weeks ago we read the story of how Ya’akov gained the legal right to be considered the eldest child from Eisav, but for those who need a short refresher, this is what happened1:

  1. Ya’akov was making a lentil stew when Eisav came in form the field, apparently incredibly tired.
  2. Ya’akov traded the stew to Eisav in exchange the legal rights of being the eldest son (the “bekhora”) to Eisav, who reasoned “what do I need the ‘bekhora’ for?”
  3. Eisav swore to hold by the deal, and took the stew, “belittling” the birthright.

Now, as a child, I was given to understand that Ya’akov’s actions should be considered moral and good so that even an objective bystander who is not familiar with our tradition would understand it this way. That is to say, I was taught that Ya’akov would never act in a way that is not moral according to man’s rational understanding of what morality is.

I do not want to bring a proof for this point of view about Judaism since I think probably most people who read blogs are familiar with it, but rather for the alternate view, which is that Judaism does not in fact abide by rational understandings of morality. This view can be found in many places, and here in particular I came across it in a quote from Rama2 in Avi Sagi’s interesting Judaism: Between Religion and Morality3. The cited quote comes from Rama’s book “Torat HaOleh”, and the translation here is my own:

“And there (are things which are) good and bad according to civility4, and (those things) are not (understood to be) good and bad according to the Torah, like killing idolaters5, as it says in the Torah “do not let even one soul live”, and this does not abide by civility, and similarly that Saul was bothered that he did not kill Agag, even though there is no good attribute like the quality of kindness, and (that) Jacob bought the ‘bekhora” from his brother with a lentil stew when he was starving6; all of these were good from a religious perspective, but are bad according to man’s rational thought…”

Thus, as Sagi explains, Rama proposes two systems of good and bad: 1) what is good or evil according to man’s rational understanding, and 2) what is good or bad according to the Torah. In Rama’s opinion, we should only pay attention to the religious system, which is our guide7.

All of this isn’t to imply Rama’s view is the only traditional Jewish view, and indeed the disagreement regarding morality and Judaism may be found in our earliest sources, so that no matter if one thinks Judaism must be moral according to human understanding8, or that it simply has its own system of good and evil, there is always a strong tradition to rely on.

Now that I’ve written this, I’m actually a bit worried that not everyone is aware that Judaism has a strong objectively moral tradition, so if anyone is interested, please either comment below or message me on facebook and I’ll post some sources next time.

1Gen. 25:29-34, in Parshat Toldot.

2Rabbi Moses Isserlis(רב משה איסרליש=הרמא), famously known for his notes on Rabbi Yosef Kairo’s ‘Shulhan Arukh’.

3Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House Ltd. 1998, p. 58

4נימוס”. This word refers to “politeness” in modern Hebrew, but the connotation here refers to a moral civility arising from rational thought.


6רעבונו”. If we translate this simply as a regular hunger the passage makes no sense, as Rama assumes the sale was unfair.

7We may find that even in his opinion the two systems overlap quite a bit, as may be implied in the famous incident with the orphaned bride.

8eg. like Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon


Filed under Miscellaneous

Equality Before God

I wrote this for Elana Sharp’s weekly Dvar Torah email list. Contact me if you’d like to be added.

In the beginning of Netzavim, we are given a list of the people “standing” before God, about to enter the covenant with Him. This list includes all elements of Jewish society, starting with “Your heads…every man in Israel:” and “Your children, your wives, and the stranger who lives in your midst…” (Deut. 29:9-10).

In sum, all of the people are present before God, “from your wood-choppers to your drawers of water”.

Now, isn’t that an odd way to summarize that everyone is present, to say from wood-choppers to drawers of water? Wouldn’t you say from the “heads of the people” to the drawers of water, or from the wood-choppers to the elders? Why does the Torah choose as examples two kinds of people who are most likely in the same rung of society, and a relatively low one at that!?

The answer is quite simple, and provides for us a great lesson in Judaism: Before God, there are no social classes, only servants who equally stand before Him.

Indeed, we are taught that all levels of society were present to enter the covenant, and that is important to note, so that we can understand that truly everyone was there. However, the Torah summarizes what “everyone” is for us: from the wood-choppers to the drawers of water, we are all equal before God, and “anyone” may be considered “everyone”.

This means that we each have the equal responsibility to serve God, and that no one may look to another level of society, higher or lower, to serve God for them. As individuals we are each obligated completely in this regard.

Of course, on the flip side, we see that we all receive equal credit for accepting the yoke of the Mitzvot upon ourselves, and we should not think that there will be someone else who has a greater standing before God than we do.

In this time of year, it is particularly relevant to remember that we are all standing before God, in a covenant with Him, so that we may focus on what is required of each of us.

Shabbat Shalom, and Shana Tova!


In Parshat Bea’alotekha a similar point is made, when Joshua runs to Moses and tells him that Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp (Num. 11:26-29). Joshua tells Moses “Kela’em”, which is translated variously as “stop them”, “imprison them” (Rashi), or “Kill them”. Moses, however, responds to his student “Are you jealous on my behalf? Would that all of the people would be prophets, and God would place His spirit on them!”

Not that Joshua was necessarily against the idea that all Jews should be prophets. Indeed, the traditional interpretation was that Eldad and Medad were prophesying that Moses was going to die and Joshua would take over, and this offended Joshua, who was jealous of the honor of his teacher. Presumably, we are taught this interpretation because the Rabbis assume that indeed, of course it would be good if all of the people would be prophets.



Filed under Parshah

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

You’re an Apikores!

One of my pet peeves is how much people throw around the term heresy in Orthodox Judaism. Why does this bother me? Because they have no idea what they’re talking about.

Fortunately for you, I was obsessed with the question of “what is Jewish heresy?” for some time, so I have done a lot of reading (for a layman) on the matter. Furthermore, I have been called a heretic, a kofer, and an apikores, you name it! So if you’re looking for someone with some personal experience in the area- you got the right guy.

Heresy, as it is generally understood in Judaism, is an idea or belief that deviates from dogma, or authoritative beliefs that must be held. To disagree with dogma means a person has broken with Judaism. There are a lot of arguments over why you cannot deviate from certain beliefs, but at any rate, that is the bottom line.

So, for instance, it is usually considered OK to have diverging opinions over whether or not the Red Sea split into two or 12, since this is not a question of dogma. However, whether or not the Torah is from heaven is the kind of argument that can legitimately lead to someone being called a heretic.

If we can prove that Judaism has a set of beliefs that qualify as “dogma”, than any beliefs or ideas that deviate from them are heresy. If we cannot prove it, we will have less success.

The most famous proposed set of Jewish dogmatic beliefs is the 13 principles of Maimonides, which includes things like proper beliefs about God, that Torah is from heaven, and that God will eventually resurrect the dead. Presumably, according to Maimonides, if you deviate from these beliefs you are a heretici.

Now you may say that the 13 principles are our dogma, and they are certainly the most popular candidate that I know of. But a lot of people will disagree with you, and Marc B. Shapiro wrote a book that is simply a list of accepted Orthodox scholars who disagree with the 13 principles. It’s not such a short book either.

Examples of principles that are disputed:

3)That God has no body:

I don’t know anyone myself who believes that God has a body, but Raavad, the most accepted rabbinic authority in France in his own lifetime, did. He writes in his critique of Hilkhot Teshuva 3:7 that people “greater than he (ie:Rambam)” believed God has a body. Ok, so maybe this one isn’t dogma.

6)Moses’s prophecy is the most superior:

Not so says the Ari and the Alter rebbe of Chabad, R. Shneur Zalman. Kabbalists have a better understanding (likutei amarim, ‘igeret hakodesh’, no. 19).

Also, Rav Yosef Albo and R. Tzvi Hirshy Chajes both hold the Messiah will have greater prophecy than Moses did.

7) Every verse of the Torah was given to Moses at Sinai.

Modern Orthodox readers should also be made aware that Rav Soloveitchik’s view (as reported in Nefesh harav) that Yehoshua wrote the last 8 verses of the Torah contradicts this principle. Of course, this opinion appears in the Talmud 3 times, and once in Sifrei.

According to Rambam, it is a mitzvah to hate and destroy anyone who disagrees with his principles. If you will read Shapiro’s book, you will see this list contains many of the Sages, so I would would recommend that you wait to act on this instruction until you have read the book thoroughly. It is called ‘The Limits of Orthodox Theology’, and it is published by the Littman Library on a print by demand basis.

I should add that according to most interpreters, Rambam would see the idea of Sefirot as encroaching on the unity of God, which is of course against his 13 principles. Again we see that kabbala is in hot water with him.

On the flip side, there are those who hold it is heresy to not accept the kabbala, but obviously Maimonides opposes this idea, as is made eminently clear in Kellner’s ‘Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism.’ I can’t imagine a person reading this book and coming away with another idea.

So kabbala might be a moot point, despite the almost daily attempt to claim it is dogma.

I highly recommend every book I have listed here, and I encourage everyone to stop calling each other heretics until they at least peruse a few of them. Also recommended is Doniel Hartman’s ‘The boundaries of Judaism’ and Kellner’s ‘Must a Jew Believe Anything?’.

Kellner’s fantastic book ‘Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought’ goes through several attempts at Jewish dogma in the two centuries following Rambam, and you can see there that at the very least, Judaism lacks an agreed upon set of beliefs, and even lacks an agreed upon definition of dogma!

In all this uncertainty, it appears that the norm has become to simply accept anyone who keeps the mitzvot as part of the team, an opinion Maimonides seems to vociferously oppose. At any rate, rationalists continue to daven with kabbalists, and in my experience, very few fights break out.

iI say presumably because Menachem Kellner holds this really only applies to the first 5 principles. He discusses this in his Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought, mentions this in ‘Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism’, and I believe he goes over this as well in his “Must a Jew Believe Anything?’. All are published by the Littman Library.


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus, Miscellaneous, Rationalism