Tag Archives: Rambam

Fighting over the Kohen Aliyah

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

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

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

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 We shouldn’t have this outdated caste system!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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Comments

Filed under Miscellaneous

How many principles of the Jewish faith?

How many principles of the Jewish faith?

This is a picture of the 13, -no sorry- FIFTEEN principles of the Biala rebbe. Joshua Harrison sent it to me.

Comment if you want a translation. Otherwise, see if you can spot what doesn’t look quite right…

2 Comments

by | June 4, 2013 · 3:55 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) The lyrics:

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

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

3) The Danger of Having the Wrong Role Models:

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

4) The Positive Aspects of Non-Jewish Music:

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

5) Jewish Music:

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

7 Comments

Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus, Rationalism

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

This is the 5th part in a series discussing whether modern biblical scholarship is a danger to traditional Jewish belief. The first 3 parts, two speeches and a Q&A session from Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and Dr. James Kugel, are available here, here, and here. The fourth part, a very short list of some Rabbinic sources that do not believe Moses is the sole author of the Torah, is available here. Additionally, since we are, after all, discussing traditional Jewish belief, it might be worth taking a look at our short summary of Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith, and some of our other posts discussing Jewish belief such as Russ’ six part handbook to the Creation-Evolution Debate and Is It Possible to Keep the Mitzvot Without Believing?.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This of course reminds us of Rambam’s statement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Comments

Filed under Tanakh/Bible

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.

Footnotes:

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.

14 Comments

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?

10 Comments

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.

11 Comments

Filed under Miscellaneous, Tanakh/Bible

Is Modern Biblical Scholarship A Danger to Traditional Belief? (Part 1)

LSS scholarsip and belief

Most of us never stop to think about modern biblical scholarship, and in the Orthodox community my impression is that it’s generally viewed as either a danger to be avoided, or a seriously misguided approach to the Torah and the rest of the Bible.

But is this really true? Lincoln Square Synogogue’s Community Scholar Elana Stein Hain just organized a forum on the topic, with two presentations and a question and answer session from two of the most prominent Orthodox Bible scholars today, Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and Dr. James Kugel. Rabbi Leibtag is a teacher at the Har Etzion Yeshiva, as well a prominent teacher, lecturer, and writer on TaNaKh (Bible). He regularly lectures in both Israel and North America. Dr. Kugel,  a world renowned expert on Biblical scholarship and author of  “How To Read the Bible” (among other fascinating works), was a professor at Harvard before retiring to Israel and Bar Ilan University. 

Both speakers were superb, and I want to share some interesting points I wrote down from their presentations and answers. I’m a long time Kugel fan, so getting to hear him was very exciting for me, and I actually (and probably very awkwardly) asked him to take a photo with me. Why not?

I’ve never heard Rabbi Leibtag before, but I’ve heard high praise lavished on him, and he didn’t disappoint. I’m definitely going to check out his writings now, and I’m excited to learn some new things.

One of the most interesting points that came out of the evening was a fundamental disagreement between Dr. Kugel and Rabbi Leibtag, but I’ll get to that later.

Rabbi Liebtag spoke first. He was an entertaining speaker with some surprising views, but I think his perspectives would be considered a lot more mainstream in Israel.

If I understood him correctly, Rabbi Leibtag views modern biblical scholarship as a tool in studying Torah. This means that while we believe (unshakably) that God gave us the Torah, we don’t know exactly how this took place. Modern scholarship delves through history to find out what actually happened, and thus sheds light on this question.

This can be compared to modern science telling us how God created the world. It is our belief that He did so, but we don’t know how, exactly. Science and modern scholarship become tools to answer these questions, though in Leibtag’s opinion, archaeology is still in the baby stage.

This being the case, scholarship is not only not a danger, but a useful tool in our toolbox (this is his phrase).

The problem with modern scholarship really comes in when it comes to teaching it. In Rabbi Leibtag’s opinion, God created the world to have nations. He then chose one nation as His servants in order to bring Godliness to the world. This is the goal of the Torah, and the question is what role scholarship plays in this goal.

As we said, it is a tool in his opinion. The problem with scholarship is as follows:

The goal of Godliness may be likened to a bridge. When building the bridge, we need many parts. The cement, the pillars, etc. Sometimes we need to replace parts, and so too we sometimes replace parts in our belief system.

In his opinion, the parts we replace should not be viewed so much as traditional beliefs, but as traditional understandings of traditional beliefs. Thus, our understanding until this point in time did not include modern scholarship. Now it does, and our understanding has been somewhat adjusted.

However, the tool of modern scholarship is a “power tool”, and it’s not for kids. When we replace parts of the bridge, we need to do so carefully. If you’re ready, it’s a great tool. If you’re not, the bridge may fall apart.

That was really his main speil, I think. Importantly, he mentioned that he believes we should bring new understandings to the Torah. He quoted his teacher Rabbi Bruer as saying “You should read Torah like Rashi did: Without Rashi”. Therefore, while some understandably take the approach that a new interpretation must be wrong or one of our past interpreters would have thought of it already, the best approach is actually to read the Torah anew in every generation.

If we did not do this, no one would ever have written a commentary after Rashi, or Ramban, etc.

Tied into this point is the role of subjectivity in reading the Torah. While there are many objective tools (language and theme connections, contradictions, similar stories, etc.) in the end we make a subjective choice of how to understand the Torah, and this is our hiddush, novel understanding.

The Torah is not a book which makes simple clear points like a law book, which wants you to know exactly how to act. Rather, the Torah has many different voices, repetitions, contradictions, and styles, all of which invite the reader to delve into the text, rather than to skim it. To simply read the Torah like a book of directives is to miss how one should read Torah.

His quote of the night was in regards to this. In his pithy phrasing the Torah is “not an artscroll how to think book.” It takes effort to read it, and we have to engage in deep study and thought to use objective tools to come to a new subjective conclusion.

Part two will follow with some of Dr. Kugel’s remarks.

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

14 Comments

Filed under Miscellaneous, Tanakh/Bible

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.

5 Comments

Filed under Philosophy, Rationalism

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.

Introduction:

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.

Conclusion:

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

1 Comment

Filed under Philosophy, Rationalism