Sunday, January 21, 2007

Tefillin of Rashi and Rabbenu Tam

At the conclusion of Parashat Bo, we encounter the commandment to wear tefillin twice. The two passages in which the mitsvah appears are actually included in the tefillin themselves. In other words, they - together with the other two references to tefillin found in the Parashot of Vaetchanan and Eqev, respectively - are written by a scribe on parchment and inserted into the leather boxes that we bind to our arms and place between our eyes each morning.

It is well known that there is a classic dispute regarding the proper order in which these passages should be placed into the tefillin boxes. Rashi and the Rambam both maintain that the order of the Tefillin is supposed to follow the order in which those passages actually appear in the Torah.

Rabbenu Tam, following the lead of many of the Geonim, agrees that the two paragraphs in this week's parasha (referred to as "Qadesh Lee" and "V'haya Kee") should be inserted according to the order in which they are written in the Torah. However, he argues that the other two sections ("Shema" and "V'haya Im") should be inverted. He bases his position on the language of the Talmud in Masechet Menahot that describes the four passages in the tefillin in this way:

Qadesh Lee and V'haya from the right, and Shema and V'haya Im Shamoa from the left.

Rabbenu Tam interprets this statement as an indication that, inside the tefillin, the two sets of passages are, so to speak, "facing each other". If all four sections were supposed to be placed in the tefillin in the order of their appearance in the Torah, the Talmud would have described them in a single, chronologically accurate list, rather than separating them into pairs and assigning one pair to the left and the other to the right.

The dispute between Rashi and Rabbenu Tam results in the following two possible arrangements:

1. Qadesh-Lee 2. V'haya Kee 3. Shema 4. V'haya Im

Rabbenu Tam/Geonim
1. Qadesh-Lee 2. V'haya Kee 3. V'haya Im 4. Shema

Rabbenu Tam adds one further caveat. Although parshiyot 3 and 4 wind up being "out of order" in the tefillin, they still must be written in order. This means that according to Rabbenu Tam, the Sofer, or scribe, must compose the fourth parasha in the tefillin sequence prior to the third, since the fourth actually precedes the third in the Torah itself. On the surface, this seems like a bizarre procedure. After all, if the tefillin have their own "order" which is independent of the Scriptural sequence, why should they have to be written according to the Torah's order?

I believe that the argument between these Rishonim can be understood in light of a number of intrinsic problems with the Torah's presentation of tefillin, and that a closer analysis of their positions will offer us a profound insight into the nature of the mitsvah. In order to appreciate the difficulties that our Rabbis were grapppling with, we must first note that, in our parasha, the commandment of tefillin is introduced, but only two of the necessary "sections" are provided. It is not until the Book of Deuteronomy that all four passages of tefillin are made available to us.

This immediately presents us with a major difficulty. Are the tefillin referenced in Parashat Bo the same as the tefillin discussed in Vaetchanan and Eqev? Or are they separate entities altogether? If we assume that both sources deal with the same tefillin, a different problem arises: How could the generation of Jews in the wilderness, who had not yet received the Book of Deuteronomy, possibly have fulfilled the commandment of tefillin without having all of the Torah passages that must be inserted in them? Alternatively, if we assume that the first generation of Jews did not wear tefillin at all and that the mitsvah began only after the occupation of Eretz Yisrael, we still must wonder - why would Moshe Rabbenu present the Jews with only half of a mitsvah upon their Exodus from Egypt, only to fill them in on the rest of the details forty years later?

Rashi and Rambam answer that, in fact, the commandment of tefillin in Parashat Bo establishes a mitsvah which is extended and amplified much later, in the Book of Deuteronomy. The passages in Vaetchanan and Eqev were appended to the original tefillin of our Parasha, and serve as extensions of those tefillin.

Examination of the content of the passages in question can help us appreciate how Rashi and the Rambam can interpret them this way. The first two passages in tefillin deal with the commemoration of the Exodus, while the final two focus upon our obligation to discuss Torah constantly. The common theme of these passages is the imperative to internalize an abiding awareness of God. We accomplish this primary goal from two angles - through reflection on Hashem's intervention in history as well as through reflection on the wisdom He revealed to us in His Torah. We can adduce a hint to this view from the text of the Torah itself, in Parashat Bo:

And you shall bind it as a sign upon your arm, and as a reminder between your eyes - so that the Torah of Hashem will be in your mouth - that with a strong arm did Hashem take you out of Egypt.

We see here that reminiscing about the Exodus and involving ourselves in Torah study are intertwined, even from the very beginning. This suggests that the two ultimately share one purpose - namely, reinforcing our recognition of God's existence and providence.

The first two passages of tefillin were sufficient for the generation of the wilderness who were in the presence of Moshe Rabbenu and hence regularly immersed in Torah study at the highest level. However, subsequent generations had to incorporate the two paragraphs of the Shema into their tefillin so that their awareness of Hashem would embrace both aspects of His providence. Because all four passages in the tefillin are organized around a single purpose, they follow a single, chronological order.

By contrast, Rabbenu Tam sees the tefillin as the combination of two separate "reminders", one established in Parashat Bo and one formulated in Vaetchanan-Eqev. The tefillin of our Parasha commemorate the Exodus, whereas those of the Book of Deuteronomy remind us to study the Torah. Unlike Rashi and Rambam, Rabbenu Tam does not subsume these reminders under a single heading, i.e., "awareness of Hashem". Instead, he maintains that each pair of passages serves a separate function - either helping us to recall God's intervention in history or encouraging us to reflect upon the beauty and depth of the Torah. Each objective is crucial for Jewish life in its own right and each could have generated its own commandment of "tefillin". However, when the Torah was finally complete, these two units - the Exodus-commemorating tefillin of Parashat Bo and the Torah-comemmorating tefillin of Parashot Vaetchanan and Eqev - were merged into a single entity of tefillin for all future generations.

Rabbenu Tam's prescription for the order of tefillin reflects this concept beautifully. Despite the integration of all four sections, the two pairs of passages are not inserted in the tefillin according to one principle of order that would blur their independence from one another. Instead, two are situated "to the left" and two are situated "to the right", as an indication of the fact that their underlying identities remain separate. Although they have been fused together into one mitsvah-object, the unique message represented by each pair of parshiyot is allowed to shine through.

This explains Rabbenu Tam's unusual requirement that the Parashot be composed in the proper order, even as they will ultimately be situated in the tefillin in the "incorrect" order. The first two passages are written by the scribe, from right to left, as one unit. He must then skip over a section of parchment and write the Parasha of "Shema" on the left, only later returning to the blank area to fill in "V'haya Im". In this way, he manages to write the two parshiyot of Deuteronomy in order, and as a separate unit, that begins, as it were, from the opposite side of the parchment! This special scribal maneuver required by Rabbenu Tam highlights his general theory - that the tefillin are actually composed of two separate units that are effectively combined into one. (Note: This example refers primarily to the hand tefillin, in which all of the parashot are written on one piece of parchment. The same rules of composition and placement apply to the head tefillin, although the passages in the head tefillin are actually written on separate pieces of parchment.)

Thus we see that what appears to be nothing more than an argument over Talmudic semantics actually has its roots in a deep analysis of the Written Torah. The Rabbis were grappling with the duality that is inherent in tefillin, and were attempting to clarify whether they embody two separate objectives or serve a single, overarching purpose.

Maimonides and Spinoza on Prophecy I

We previously explored Spinoza's critique of the Maimonidean approach to reconciling Scripture with reason. In this installment of our series on Maimonides and Spinoza, we will examine their difference of opinion regarding the nature and purpose of prophetic inspiration.

It is fairly well known that the Rambam views prophecy as the most advanced level of intellectual apprehension that the human mind can attain. When an individual reaches a point of extraordinary depth in his comprehension of God's wisdom, a totally new dimension of Divine knowledge may open up to him. For Maimonides, a personal encounter with this dimension of Divine Wisdom is the very essence of prophetic inspiration.

Like all human understanding, prophecy operates via the cooperation of two agencies of the soul - the imagination and the intellect. Generally speaking, when we reflect upon a matter of interest, we manipulate images and impressions we have received through our senses in an attempt to uncover the pattern or principle that they display to us. The "Aha!" moment of discovery occurs when a rather confusing collection of sense data is suddenly illuminated and made coherent by an abstract concept. Once that unifying concept is brought forth, we look upon the information differently in light of it. The data now appear simple, well ordered and intelligible. Our very perception and recollection has been transformed by the introduction of a principle or idea.

A prophet's intellect and imagination are well attuned to God's wisdom and are thus highly receptive to profound "Aha" experiences. The imagery presented to the prophet in prophecy serves as a vehicle through which his mind can derive a deeper understanding of the Divine plan. As soon as the prophetic dream sequence appears to the prophet, his intellect apprehends the underlying message it is designed to convey.

What distinguishes prophetic insight from ordinary intellectual growth is threefold. First, prophecy requires the complete isolation of the imagination from any outside influence, so as to ensure that the only force shaping it is the reality of God's truth that is being disclosed. This is why all prophets, with the exception of Moshe, only receive prophecy while asleep, and find it to be quite overwhelming. This prevents any "interference" from the world of sense perception. Second, the certainty of prophecy is intrinsic - the prophet knows the truth of what has been revealed to him, but cannot necessarily demonstrate why it is true. Finally, prophecy can be withheld from a potential prophet, even if he is fully prepared for the experience.

Since Maimonides maintains that prophecy is really an elevated form of metaphysical insight, it is obvious why he holds that prophets are capable of receiving philosophical, theological and moral messages through inspiration. Spinoza takes issue with this view and argues that, in fact, the prophets are nothing more than passionate moralists with rich imaginations. In the second chapter of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Spinoza writes,

It follows from the last chapter, as I have already stated, that the prophets were not endowed with a more perfect mind, but with a more vivid power of imagination...Those with a more powerful imagination are less fitted for purely intellectual activity, while those who devote themselves to the cultivation of their more powerful intellect, keep their imagination under greater control and restraint, and they hold it in rein, as it were, so that it should not invade the province of the intellect. Therefore, those who look to find understanding and knowledge of things natural and spiritual in the books of the Prophets go far astray...(p.21)

According to Spinoza, the Prophets are neither theologians nor philosophers; in fact, he argues, many of their ideas about God and angels are deficient and even contradictory:

…Prophecy varied not only with the imagination and temperament of each prophet, but also with the beliefs in which they had brought up, and that their prophesying never made the prophets more learned…God adapted His revelations to the understanding and beliefs of the prophets, who may well have been ignorant of matters that have no bearing on charity and moral conduct but concern philosophic speculation, and were in fact ignorant of them, holding conflicting beliefs. Therefore knowledge of science and matters spiritual should by no means be expected of them. So we conclude that we must believe the prophets only with regard to the purpose and substance of the revelation. (p.22, 33)

Thus, in Spinoza's view, the prophets are poetic souls whose message is divine not because of its metaphysical underpinnings, but because of its ethical content - that is, the fact that they preach to the people about the virtues of charity and justice is what makes their communications "holy" and "inspired". The subjects that concern the prophets are not philosophical; if they were, they would be more appropriately left to natural reason than to revelation.

Much of Spinoza's effort to limit the scope of prophetic influence was motivated by a desire to establish the legitimacy of independent philosophical inquiry, and to show that the analysis of metaphysical questions need not be influenced by the words of the prophets, who were not experts on these matters. He thus relegated the significance of the prophets to the realm of morality and virtue alone, and justified his dismissal of their philosophical opinions.

How would the Rambam respond to Spinoza's analysis of prophecy? Is it possible to demonstrate that the prophets were, in fact, competent theologians who taught us meaningful philosophical ideas as well as moral lessons?

To be continued soon in the next installment....

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Creativity in Interpretation

Are there any parameters imposed upon the interpretation of Torah, or is it a free-for-all?

Many find it strange that passages in the Torah that Chazal once took literally are being read by moderns in less and less literal ways. Yet, these very same moderns are unwilling to question the authority of the Rabbis when it comes to halachic matters. On the surface this appears to be hypocritical on their part - either the viewpoints of the Rabbis should be treated as sacrosanct, or we should be able to challenge them across the board!

Furthermore, the very basis of our acceptance of the Torah is our reliance upon tradition. Once we begin to undermine the infallibility of Chazal with respect to the explanation of the Torah's text, isn't the tradition as a whole placed on shaky foundations?

In order to address these difficulties, we must first distinguish between matters of halacha and non-normative matters. The field of halacha is an autonomous, rigorous discipline that has its own methodology and is grounded in unique, indigenous legal principles that were received at Sinai. Halachic "science" was intended to be a living tradition of research and analysis. Rabbis formulate theories, test hypotheses, and seek to develop the most elegant understanding of the structure of each mitsvah and its relationship to the halachic system as a whole.

The process of in-depth Torah study is, then, not unlike scientific investigation, in the sense that it demands the use of abstract reasoning combined with careful attention to the nuances of "empirical" data. Where it parts ways with the physical sciences is in the source of the material it works with. The data that scientists analyze is primarily derived from sense perception and observation. By contrast, the "data" of the halachic system are received through tradition. Aside from this important difference, though, the standards employed in halachic research are quite similar to those enshrined in fields of scientific inquiry. Just as the validity of a theoretical construct in the sciences is dependent upon its compatability with all of the empirical evidence available, so too an halachic formulation's validity is contingent upon its compatability with all of the facts provided by the Oral Torah.

The primary function of the Baale Hamesora (Masters of the Tradition), then, is to interpret and transmit the factual information of the Oral Torah faithfully. In the process, the Rabbis develop a comprehensive vision of how the various laws and principles interrelate harmoniously, and apply the law to new cases according to this paradigm.

Sometimes the theoretical perspectives of some Rabbis may diverge from that of their colleagues or from the positions held in generations past. On the surface, this appears problematic. Doesn't difference of opinion undermine the sanctity and reliability of tradition? The reality is, though, that the Rabbis never act as mavericks, casting aside precedent and injecting their own innovative ideas into the realm of halachic discourse. Like scientific researchers who are accountable to the empirical data before them, the Rabbis remain beholden to the parameters of the halachic system and must exercise their creativity within that framework. As long as they abide by this basic rule, their theoretical formulations, and halachic decisions, retain their legitimacy and holiness.

When it comes to non-halachic aspects of Torah, on the other hand, a Rabbi is entitled to exercise almost unbridled creativity. He need not feel constrained by the teachings of tradition, because there is no formal tradition with regard to the interpretation of such passages. Since the explanation of the narrative portions of Scripture is not formulated as a rigorous, internally consistent "science" like halacha, there is much more leeway to be found in this area of study. We see evidence of this fact in the Midrashic literature, wherein the divergence of Rabbinic opinion is far more pronounced than in the Talmud.

Outside of the realm of halachic analysis, then, a scholar is permitted - and even encouraged - to develop an independent understanding of the Torah that appeals to his or her intellect. This allows our appreciation of the philosophical wisdom and subtlety of the Torah to grow continuously, generation after generation. Rather than compromising the tradition, this built-in flexibility guarantees the Torah's eternal relevance to our lives.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Spinoza and Maimonides on Interpretation II

In the previous post, we explored Spinoza's argument against Maimonides' method of interpreting Tanach. We saw that it is, in fact, a serious critique that seems to be well substantiated. We were left with the question of whether philosophically inclined Rishonim actually derived their theological positions from Scripture, or simply twisted the text to accord with conclusions that they reached independently.

I believe that, in order to answer the difficulty Spinoza raises, we must look more closely at its premises. One of Spinoza's theses throughout the TTP is that Tanach should be understood on its own terms as a self-sufficient body of literature. Of course, he is of the opinion that it is full of both internal and external contradictions. But he emphasizes that if we are to honestly comprehend the message of a given passage in the Bible, we need to ignore any preconceived notions we may have and allow the text to speak for itself.

At the same time, Spinoza vehemently rejects the notion that Tanach has anything to tell us about theological, metaphysical or scientific matters. When it discusses such topics, it represents nothing more than the crude opinions of the prophets on these issues. His view is that the Tanach is primarily designed to inspire people to pursue the virtues of charity and justice in their dealings with one another. (We will analyze this position further in a subsequent installment of this series.)

Taken as a whole, then, Spinoza's critique is founded on one fundamental principle: that the Bible is not an authoritative resource for metaphysical, scientific or philosophical insight. Therefore, it need not be reconciled with other information we discover or conclusions we reach about the external world. It is a guide to human action, nothing more and nothing less.

This is where Maimonides parts ways with Spinoza. In the minds of the Rambam and likeminded Rishonim, the Tanach is a source of knowledge about the world, albeit not the only source; we also have our senses and our powers of reasoning. Neither of these three entities provide us with a complete, independent account of the whole of reality. However, since each one does contribute a dimension to our understanding of truth, we must view them as complementary to one another rather than contradictory.

Thus, if through reasoning the Rambam arrives at certain conclusions about prophecy or angels, and he is confident that his conclusions are well-founded and accurate, he perforce assumes that the Tanach will fit in with his theory. Similarly, if the Ralbag posits a specific theory of Divine Knowledge and is confident in his analysis, he will naturally expect to find confirmation for it in Tanach. This doesn't necessarily mean that either the Rambam or the Ralbag would have formulated the positions that they did from the Tanach alone. It simply means that they expect Tanach, sense perception and human reasoning to converge and yield a single consistent, intelligible worldview.

An analogy to scientific research will bolster this point. When a physicist is confronted with experimental data that run contrary to a theory that is well-established based on other evidence, his first move will be to effect some reconciliation between the new findings and the old findings. Because he is convinced that one system of natural law manifests itself in all physical phenomena, he proceeds with the assumption that the data complement one another somehow, and that further investigation will show how they fit together. Sometimes, interpretations offered for the anomalous data may seem forced or stretched, but they are motivated by the premise that there is a pervasive unity in nature and that data from different sources must ultimately reflect that unity.

The Rambam and the Ralbag approach Tanach with the same attitude - it is one of several pieces of "evidence", all of which must be harmonized if they are to develop a comprehensive and consistent metaphysical theory. Thus, just as the wisdom, spirit and vision of the Bible influence the direction of their philosophical musings, so too, the conclusions they derive from those musings influence the way that they interpret and understand the content of the Bible.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Maimonides and Spinoza on Scriptural Interpretation I

First of all, I apologize for the delay in presenting this piece. I had every intention of posting it yesterday but I was sidetracked.

In the Seventh Chapter of TTP, Spinoza writes:

Maimonides took a quite different view; for he held that every passage of Scripture admits of various - and even contrary - meanings, and that we cannot be certain of the true meaning of any passage unless we know that, as we interpret it, there is nothing in that passage that is not in agreement with reason, or is contrary to reason. If in its literal sense it is found to be contrary to reason, then however clear the passage may appear, he maintains that it must be interpreted in a different way. This view he sets out most clearly in Chapter 25 of Part II of his book "Moreh Nebuchim", where he says:

"Know that it is not the Scriptural texts concerning the creation of the world that witholds me from saying that the world has existed from eternity. The texts that teach that the world was created are not more numerous than those that teach that God is corporeal. There are ways not barred to us, nor even difficult of access, by which we can explain those texts that deal with the world's creation. Our explanation could have followed the same lines as when we denied the corporeality of God; and perhaps this might have been much easier to achieve, and we might have explained the texts and established the eternity of the world more plausibly than when we explained Scripture in a way that removed corporeality from God, blessed be He...."
[Note: Spinoza actually cites the full text.]

Such are the words of Maimonides, and they clearly confirm what we said above. For if he had been convinced on rational grounds that the world is eternal, he would not have hesitated to distort and explain away Scripture until it appeared to teach the same doctrine. Indeed, he would have been quite convinced that Scripture, in spite of its plain denials at every point, intended to teach this same doctrine of the eternity of the universe.

On the following page, Spinoza elaborates on his critique:

...He assumes that the meaning of Scripture cannot be established from Scripture itself. For scientific truth is not established from Scripture itself...And therefore, according to Maimonides, neither can Scripture's true meaning be established from itself, and should not be sought from it...Finally, he assumes that it is legitimate for us to explain away and distort the words of Scripture to accord with our preconceived opinions, to deny its literal meaning and change it into something else even when it is perfectly plain and absolutely clear...

In essence, Spinoza argues that Maimonides' approach to interpreting Scripture is nothing more than a process of reading his own philosophical convictions into the text. So, rather than attempting to understand what the Tanach is telling us, we end up shaping its message in light of our preconceived beliefs.

There is no doubt that Spinoza makes an excellent point here, and that, at least at first glance, it is difficult to defend Maimonides' interpretive method. In fact, we can contribute some additional data that seem to strengthen Spinoza's position - namely, the writings of Gersonides!

Gersonides, or Ralbag, was another rationalistic philosopher in the tradition of Maimonides. In many ways, he was more radical in his willingness to accept philosophical doctrine than the Rambam was. For example, he concludes that God has no knowledge of particulars and is only cognizant of universals. Similarly, he maintains that God does not have foreknowledge pertaining to the future actions of human beings; otherwise, he argues, free will would be impossible.

What is most striking about Gersonides, though, is that he utilizes the Tanach to substantiate his points. Both in his commentaries to the Torah and Nach, as well as in his magnum opus, the Milhamot Hashem, the Ralbag derives copious support for his untraditional doctrines from the words of Scripture.

The question is this: Does the Tanach teach theological principles, or not? If it does, then how can both the Rambam and Ralbag utilize the verses of Tanach to prove their diametrically opposed philosophic convictions?

Put differently, did the Rambam and Ralbag really develop their philosophical views from their study of Tanach, or did they formulate their views independently and then try to elicit confirmation from the words of the Prophets?

Clearly, Spinoza would have claimed that the latter option was in fact the case, and that, reality, the Rambam and Ralbag arrived at their own conclusions about theology and then forced the Tanach to corroborate them.

Of all of his critiques of Maimonides, this one is Spinoza's most formidable, in my opinion. How can we explain the Rambam's approach?

To be continued in the next post!!!

Spinoza and Maimonides - Introduction

In his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Baruch Spinoza presents a general critique of traditional Judaism and Christianity. A substantial portion of his work is directed against the views and methodology of Maimonides (the Rambam), who epitomized then - as he does now - the rational approach to Orthodoxy. This is the first in a (not necessarily consecutive) series of posts that will explore, evaluate and respond to the main problems that Spinoza raises with respect to Maimonidean theology.

The first area we will consider is Spinoza's analysis of the nature of prophecy, its objective and its reliability as a source of knowledge. This includes Spinoza's critique of Maimonides' general method of interpreting Scripture, which will serve as our point of departure in the post to follow.

Then we will look at Spinoza's dispute with Maimonides regarding the definition of Divine Law in general.

Finally, we will examine Spinoza's understanding of the Torah's commandments and their purpose, comparing and contrasting his approach with the religious vision of Maimonides.

Throughout the series, I will be referring to the translation of the Tractatus by Samuel Shirley, which is available from Hackett Publishing Company.

(Please note that I will not always present subtopics in the order in which they appear in the TTP.)

I hope to complete the first installment of this study today...So keep checking back!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Literal and Conceptual Truth in Torah

In a comment to my most recent post, Yehuda pointed out a general methodological difficulty with the study of Midrash and, more broadly, with the literary approach to studying Tanach. Specifically, he mentioned that it is sometimes possible to read so many nuances of meaning into the text that we lose hold of what aspects of the narratives are intended literally and what aspects are metaphoric.

For example, the symbolic significance of Shechem and Dotan in the story of Yosef and his brothers has received much attention in Rabbinic literature from antiquity to the present. But does that mean that the brothers didn't literally travel to Shechem, or relocate to Dotan? Or are we to believe that it was a huge cosmic coincidence that the brothers went to places that were associated, in one way or another, with deeper metaphysical themes?

This question is a formidable and complex one. I believe that the essential answer to it lies, ironically, in a Midrash! In Samuel I 24:13, King David declares:

As the ancient proverb (Heb. Meshal Haqadmoni) states, "From the wicked shall issue wickedness..."

Rashi, basing himself on several Rabbinic sources (ex., Mechilta on Parashat Mishpatim, Makkot 10B, etc), writes:

"The ancient proverb": This is the Torah, which is the metaphor (mashal) of He Who preceded the world (Qadmono shel Olam.)

What Rashi is suggesting is that the Torah itself is a mashal, a metaphor. The Rambam also seems to allude to this concept in the beginning of Hilchot Yesode Hatorah (1:9). In the midst of a treatment of God's incorporeality, the Rambam explains that anthropomorphisms used in the Torah are not literal:

If so [that God is not corporeal], what is the meaning of that which is written in the Torah - "beneath His feet", "written with the finger of God", "hand of Hashem", "eyes of Hashem", "ears of Hashem", and similar expressions. All of this is in accordance with the minds of human beings who only recognize material bodies; and the Torah speaks in the language of man. For example, it is written, "I will sharpen My flashing sword " - does He have a sword, or kill with a sword? Rather, it is an allegory (mashal), and it is all an allegory.

The nuance of the Rambam's language here - "it is all an allegory" - is very instructive. Strictly speaking, he should have said something like, "and everything similar to it is an allegory". But he chose his words carefully and said "it is all an allegory". The Rambam is pointing out a general concept that is as applicable to Torah wisdom as it is to all branches of knowledge.

Human beings think through the medium of the imagination. Even in our discussions of abstract ideas, we utilize metaphor and analogy constantly, often without so much as realizing it. This is built in to our language (there you go - built in, a metaphor), our scientific models, and the way we experience our environments. All is mashal - we use concrete imagery to capture abstract concepts, and this is in fact the only method by which we can really handle them (capture and handle, two more examples!). And that, indeed, it what the Torah is all about - creating a mashal, a systematic presentation of concrete material, narratives and commandments, that help us gain insight into timeless principles of theology and morality that would otherwise be beyond our grasp (grasp, a concrete metaphor for an intellectual activity - get the idea?).

But this raises a serious problem. We routinely distinguish between mashal and empirical fact, and we consider mashal less "real". So how can we relegate the entire Torah to the realm of mashal, thereby implying that it lacks "reality"? Isn't the Torah a literal record of events that occurred in the past? In order to comprehend the precise relationship of Torah to metaphor, we must clarify what exactly a mashal is.

A metaphor/allegory is, by definition, something composed of two parts - a superficial, concrete component and an underlying conceptual component. Whereas a factual account is mainly concerned with the empirical details it is meant to communicate (i.e., it operates on only one level, the concrete one) a mashal is primarily designed to convey the deeper principle it contains. The material found in a mashal is nothing more than a vehicle for the expression of this principle.

That doesn't mean that we should automatically assume that the "manifest content" of a mashal is not true in a factual sense. It might be entirely accurate in every nuance. However, unlike an historical report, which is created to convey empirical knowledge, the factual truth of the material in a mashal is not significant - it is being introduced and utilized to teach a lesson.

Again, the difference between mashal and history is not necessarily in the accuracy of the information they contain. They may both be equally accurate in all respects. The difference between them will express itself in what they emphasize, in their ultimate objectives.

In this sense, it is quite clear that the entire Torah is indeed a mashal. It is an account the sole purpose of which is to edify and enlighten us. It was not written to provide us with trivia about goings-on in the ancient world. On the contrary, it was introduced to help us achieve philosophical and ethical insight through the medium of its narratives.

The notion of mashal can explain the Torah's writing style as well. Unlike the epic poems of the Greeks, for example, the Torah dwells very little on the personal appearance of its characters or the dramatic elements of its storytelling. We are not told how long Avraham's hair was or what color Yitschaq's eyes were. We do not hear the beating of Yaaqov's heart with passion when he first encounters his beloved Rachel, nor are we privy to the romantic daydreams that must have occupied him while he toiled for seven years to win her hand in marriage. Regarding the fashion sense of the Matriarchs we shall forever be in the dark.

What's more, colorful detail is sorely lacking. The sun's rays do not bathe any valleys. Clouds do not dance across the sky. Monologues and dialogues are brief and to the point. Overall, the focus of the Torah stories is invariably on the key theme that is being explored. Very little space, if any, is devoted to the concrete elements of the tale. Even when it comes to narratives that are powerful and dramatic, such as the Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai, the amount of concrete detail is still remarkably sparse.

This simplicity is a particularly striking feature of the Biblical narrative style, especially when we contrast it with what we know of other literature, ancient and modern. It is thoroughly understandable, however, if we take the view that the Torah's aim is pedagogical - its eye is on the principle, the idea, the message. Unlike other books - written, as they are, for entertainment purposes - the Torah makes every effort to avoid discussion of the trivial kinds of detail that titillate the average reader. Were the Torah to satisfy our curiosity about how Moshe Rabbenu liked his coffee in the morning, it would have had to compromise on its ultimate goal - namely, keeping us focused on what is truly important, in the world and in life. Obsession with the external features of a mashal can come only at the expense of reflecting upon its inner spiritual beauty.

The notion that the Torah is essentially mashal helps us appreciate the significance of the introductory segment of the Book of Proverbs:

Proverbs of Solomon, son of David, King of Israel. To know wisdom and discipline; to understand statements of understanding...A wise man will hear and increase in knowledge; and a man of understanding will acquire new strategies. To understand an allegory and a parable, words of the wise and their riddles.

Why is the skill of comprehending parables and allegories so essential? The Rabbis tell us that King Solomon was instrumental in bringing Israel's level of Torah study to a higher plateau. The Torah is, in essence, a mashal - a text that uses concrete examples and narratives to illustrate profound ideas. Thus, in order to accomplish his goal of drawing the Jewish people closer to the wisdom of their tradition, King Solomon had to teach them the proper way of appreciating allegories and parables, of extracting ideas from the material husk in which they are embodied. In so doing, he allowed them to gain access to the Meshal Haqadmoni, the Metaphor of the Creator Himself - our Holy Torah.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Halachic Debate - Unity in Diversity

Another belated post on last week's Parasha:

In Parashat Vayigash, Yosef gives his brothers a peculiar instruction before sending them back to Canaan:

And he [Yosef] said unto them: 'Do not become angry on the way.'

The simple meaning of Yosef's command is clear. He realizes that the revelation of his identity will inevitably plunge the brothers into a rehashing of the events surrounding his initial sale. Finger-pointing and blame shifting will abound. Anticipating this, Yosef tells them not to get involved in any such bickering on the trip home.

Rashi, however, quoting the Midrash (as well as the Talmud, Tractate Taanit 11A), offers a different interpretation of Yosef's command:

Do not become involved in a halachic discussion such that the way will become contentious with you (i.e., you will get lost).

This is certainly an unusual instruction for Yosef to give his brothers. After all, the Torah commands us to use all of our free time to engage in study, and the leisure of travel provides an ideal opportunity for discussion and reflection. As we read in the Shema twice a day:

And you shall teach them to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way...

Why would Yosef tell his brothers to abstain from any involvement in Torah study during this particular trip?

I believe that this Midrash offers us a profound insight into the significance of this trip for Yosef's brothers. Hearkening back to the beginning of the story of Yosef, we see that it was in fact "halachic discussion" among the brothers, as it were, that created a lot of problems for the family. As we read in Parashat Vayeshev:

And a man encountered Yosef while he was lost in the field; and the man asked him, "what do you seek?" And he said, "My brothers do I seek; tell me, please, where are they pasturing?" And the man said, "They travelled from here, for I heard them saying, 'let us go to Dotan'..."

And Rashi famously explains, the significance of "Dotan" is deeply symbolic:

To find for you [Yosef] legal arguments [Heb. datot] to kill you.

In other words, the brothers did not attack Yosef impulsively. Their course of action was a carefully reasoned plot that they deliberated upon before implementing. The brothers were certain that Yosef was an egomaniacal demagogue who had charmed their father but was destined to lord over them ruthlessly. As such, they determined that they had a moral obligation to eliminate Yosef from the family

Of course, the problem was that they embarked upon this journey of halachic analysis alone - without any input or consultation with their father. They did not attempt to discuss the issues that were bothering them with Yaaqov. Instead, the brothers assumed that they had a more accurate picture of the family dynamic than their father, and therefore arrogated to themselves the right to override his "selection" of Yosef and remove him from the midst of Israel. Put simply, they undermined the authority of the principal "Baal Hamesorah", Yaaqov, and tried to set family policy on their own terms.

This does not mean to suggest that the brothers should not have used their minds to reason about the conflict with Yosef - or the new developments in Egypt - and arrive at a better understanding of them. What they were discouraged from doing was interfering in the practical direction of family affairs.

Even in a democratic society such as ours, a community can only survive and flourish when the final policy decisions of its leadership are respected and supported. This respect and support must be rendered despite the fact that differences of opinion continue to exist among both lawmakers and laypersons. The Sanhedrin - the Supreme Jewish Court of antiquity - operated in a similar fashion. A ruling handed down by the Sanhedrin was absolutely binding upon all of Israel. Nevertheless, Rabbis who differed with that ruling were never prevented from giving expression to their points of view in theory; provided that, in practice, they adhered to the decisions of the High Court.

With this in mind, we gain a deeper insight into the sin of the brothers in selling Yosef. Rather than trying to steer the family in a direction that suited their vision of the destiny of the Jewish people, the brothers should have deferred, at least in practice, to the vision of their father. They should have realized that the unity of the family, not to mention the perpetuation of the Abrahamic legacy, depended on it. The brothers' choice to undercut the "ruling" of Yaaqov regarding Yosef was a strategic mistake that wound up costing them more than two decades of conflict, anguish and spiritual stagnation.

Now we can better appreciate why Yosef commanded his brothers not to engage in halachic discussion on their way back to Canaan. At this juncture, it would have been tempting for the brothers to try to analyze and evaluate the surprising new developments in the family amongst themselves. They could have disregarded Yosef's instructions and formulated whatever message to Yaaqov that they deemed appropriate.

Indeed, the trip to Canaan would have provided the brothers with the perfect opportunity to discuss and debate all the relevant issues and to work out a plan of action that was agreeable to them. They had the ability to manipulate the family dynamic as they saw fit. But this would have meant falling into the same trap that ensared them when they sold Yosef the first time around. This is why abstaining from halachic discussion at this point was the ultimate demonstration of the sincerity of the brothers' repentance. It signified their willingness to accept the spiritual authority and guidance of both Yaaqov and Yosef.

The lesson for us today is clear. It is only when we as the Nation of Israel strike the proper balance between open dialogue and debate on one hand, and respect for our religious and political leaders on the other hand, that we can hope to achieve our mission in this world. We must continue to strive for richness and diversity in thought combined with unity and solidarity in action.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Yaaqov's Funeral Procession

A post in honor of Littlefoxling, who first brought this problem to my attention:

One of the primary topics of Parashat Vayehi is the death and burial of Yaaqov the Patriarch. It is interesting to note that Yaaqov gives instructions regarding his funeral arrangements twice - once to Yosef alone, and then again to all of the brothers. When Yaaqov senses that he is nearing the end of his life, he summons Yosef and makes a very important request:

And [Yaaqov] called his son Yosef, and said to him, 'If I have indeed found favor in your eyes, please place your hand beneath my thigh, and do with me kindness and truth - do not bury me in Egypt. And I shall lie with my fathers, and you shall carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial plot. And [Yosef] said, 'I shall do according to your words.'

Later on, he gathers all twelve of his sons around his deathbed to bless them, and reiterates his final wishes regarding burial:

And he commanded them, and he said to them, 'I shall be gathered unto my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite. In the cave that is in the field of Machpelah, which faces Mamre, in the land of Canaan; the field which Avraham bought from Ephron the Hittite as a burial estate. There they buried Avraham and Sarah his wife; there they buried Isaac and Rebecca his wife; and there I buried Leah...'

When the Parasha describes Yaaqov's funeral, there again seems to be a "doublet" - a repetitive account of the procession. First, we read:

Then Joseph fell upon his father's face; he wept over him and kissed him. Joseph ordered his servants, the doctors, to embalm his father; so the doctors embalmed Israel...

When his bewailing period was over, Joseph spoke to Pharaoh's household, saying, "Please, if I have found favor in your eyes...My father had adjured me, saying, 'Behold, I am about to die; in my grave, which I have hewn for myself in the land of Canaan, there you shall bury me." Now, I will go up if you please, and bury my father, then I will return."

And Pharaoh said, "Go up and bury your father as he adjured you."

So Joseph went up to bury his father, and with him went up all of Pharaoh's servants , the elders of his household, and all the elders of the Land of Egypt. And all of Joseph's household - his brothers, and his father's household...They came to Goren Haatad, which is across the Jordan, and there they held a very great and imposing eulogy; and he declared a seven day mourning period for his father.

So far, so good. But then the Torah seems to "backtrack" and repeat itself, telling us:

And his sons did for him just as he commanded them. His sons carried him to the land of Canaan and they buried him in the cave of the Machpelah field - the field which Abraham bought as a burial estate from Ephron the Hittite, facing Mamre.

Once they reached Goren HaAtad, the funeral procession had already entered the land of Canaan. Why, after the funeral service in Goren HaAtad, does the Torah speak about the brothers transporting Yaaqov's body to the Land of Canaan? His remains were already there!

I believe that the repetition of funeral instructions from Yaaqov, as well as the repetition regarding the fulfillment of those instructions, are designed to highlight an important theme in the unfolding narrative.

In order to identify the theme, let us first note that there is a key difference between the content of what Yaaqov says to Yosef privately and what he communicates to his sons collectively. When Yaaqov addresses Yosef personally, he treats him with tremendous respect. He bows to his son in gratitude and straightens up in his bed when his son arrives to visit him. Yaaqov also elicits an oath from Yosef. He is not satisfied to simply state his request. Finally, it is fascinating that Yaaqov's emphasis in conversing with Yosef is on the removal of his remains from Egypt:

Please do not bury me in Egypt. And I shall lie with my fathers, and you shall carry me from Egypt, and you shall bury me in their burial plot.

By contrast, when the brothers gather around their father as a family, he interacts with them in the role of a Patriarch. He blesses them, criticizes them and commands them. He assumes their compliance with his demands as a matter of course, and does not ask them to swear that they will bury him in accordance with his wishes. Finally, he expounds upon the significance of the Cave of Machpelah and its history in detail. Not once does Yaaqov mention the eventual departure of his coffin from Egypt. When all of his sons are present, he speaks only of his destination in Israel.

These distinctions manifest themselves again in the Torah's description of Yaaqov's funeral. At first, Yosef is credited with making all of the arrangements vis a vis securing the permission of Pharaoh, chariots, horsemen, etc. Yosef's brothers are described as coming along with him - as secondary to "the house of Joseph" - and Yaaqov is referred to as his [i.e. Yosef's] father rather than their father:

And Yosef went up to bury his father, and with him went up all of Pharaoh's servants...And all of the house of Yosef, and his brothers and the house of his father...

And he established for his father a mourning period of seven days.

After the funeral service at Goren Haatad, however, things change. The brothers now proceed to the interment service at the Cave of Machpelah as a family:

And his sons did for him exactly as he had commanded them. And his sons carried him to the land of Canaan, and they buried him in the cave of the field of Machpelah...

The pattern here is unmistakable. Whenever the context is Egyptian, Yosef stands out among his brothers - he is the focus of attention and the wielder of influence. Thus, when the question of removal from Egypt arose, Yaaqov addressed it to Yosef alone, and exhibited great deference toward his own son. Similarly, when the Egyptian burial preparations were being made, and during the Egyptian funeral procession and service at Goren Haatad - attended, as it was, by all the nobles of Pharaoh's Court - Yosef remained at center stage.

However, when the question is one of Jewish destiny, the history of the Patriarchs or the legacy they wished to pass on to the next generation, all of the brothers are on an equal footing. So when Yaaqov wanted to explain the profound importance of the Cave of Machpelah, or to bless them and make predictions about their future, he did this in the presence of all of his sons. Furthermore, when the brothers left Goren Haatad to lay Yaaqov to his final rest in the Cave of Machpelah, they did so as a family - Yosef blended in as a member of the group.

This analysis of the Parasha is most clearly substantiated by the two verses that immediately follow the burial of Yaaqov at the Cave of Machpelah:

And Yosef returned to Egypt, he and his brothers, and all who went up with him to bury his father, after he buried his father. And the brothers of Yosef saw that their father was dead, and they said, 'Maybe Yosef will resent us, and return to us all of the evil we did to him.'

As soon as Yosef comes back to Egypt, he is again portrayed as distinct from his brothers. Participation in the funeral was, in the eyes of the Egyptians, primarily a form of honor for their leader, Yosef, who needed to lay his father to rest in the Land of Canaan. Those who attended did so out of respect for Yosef, not out of any particular concern for his brothers.

Yosef's prominence among the Egyptians ultimately complicates his relationship with his siblings. After their father's burial, the sons of Yaaqov witness Yosef stepping out of his role as one of their brothers and back into his role as the influential viceroy of a foreign nation. Because of the political power Yosef has and the resentment he may harbor toward his brethren, this shift is a cause of serious concern for the entire family. As such, they act immediately to determine whether the ruler of Egypt is still in fact "Yosef their brother."

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

An Inspiring Reflection

An inspiring reflection from a secular philosopher on some of the unique contributions that Judaism has made to the world:

"That the Old Testament must be read as a story of progress is not one of the results of the Higher Criticism but one of its dubious presuppositions. What is at stake is the question to what extent the conception of progress is applicable to religions.

In the case of the Hebrew Scriptures we do not know, to begin with, what is early and what is late; but, if there were overwhelming evidence in the case of other great religions that they rise gradually from humble beginnings and slowly get better in some sense, it would be reasonable to ask whether this same pattern might not be found in the Old Testament, too.

What we find in other great religions, however, is the very opposite of all this. Where we have data, we often find a towering figure, possibly never equalled since, in the beginning, and it is therefore entirely reasonable to suppose that some of the most impressive ideas of the Old Testament might have originated with Moses...

It does not detract from the glory of the prophets if we suppose that they meant it when they said: 'You have been told, man, what is good.' To have insisted so uncompromisingly and with such an utter lack of egotism on what their people had been told before and to have grasped so clearly the moral and social implications; to have insisted on them to the point of disparaging in no uncertain terms the cult and ritual - much more unequivocally than Jesus ever did - that would be original enough. The idea that war is evil, that nation should not lift up sword against nation, that swords should be made into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, though it is implicit in the old idea that all men are brothers, descended from a single couple and made in the image of God, appears in any case to have originated with Micah and Isaiah; and to have seen and forcefully stated this implication, untutored by the horrors of two world wars with poison gas and atom bombs, shows as much moral originality as is to be found anywhere in recorded history."

(From Critique of Religion and Philosophy by Walter Kaufmann, Section 90, "Religion and Progress.")

Monday, January 01, 2007

Spinoza on the Parasha

In the seventh chapter of his classic Theologico-Political Treatise, Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza takes issue with the reliability of the Masoretic version of the Bible - the official version that we all use today - and in particular with the way we vowelize the text. He points out that, in the original Hebrew, vowels are not indicated, and that this leaves the meaning of some words ambiguous. We rely upon tradition to provide us with the proper rendition of these terms, but, in Spinoza's opinion, this tradition is really nothing more than a later rabbinic interpretation and may not represent the true intent of the Biblical authors. By way of illustration, he cites a verse in this week's Parasha, Vayehi (Genesis 47:31):

And he [Yaaqov] said, "Swear to me", and he [Yosef] swore to him; and Yaaqov bowed on the head of the bed (Heb. "ha-mita").

Spinoza, drawing support from allusions to this verse in the New Testament, suggests that the Masoretic reading of "ha-mita" ("the bed") is actually a corruption of "ha-mateh" ("the staff"). Without vowelization, the spelling of these words in Hebrew is identical - both are written heh-mem-tet-heh - so neither pronounciation would be ruled out by the Torah's text alone. Thus, according to Spinoza's interpretation, the verse should be read, "And Yaaqov bowed upon the head of his staff", which seems like a reasonable thing for an elderly man to do.

Interestingly, the New Testament verse that Spinoza cites as evidence for this interpretation is Hebrews 11:21, where two different Biblical passages are obviously confused. The author of Hebrews mentions that Jacob blessed the two sons of Joseph while leaning on his staff. Spinoza takes this as an indication that the author read "ha-mita" as "the staff" and understood Genesis 47:31 to mean that Yaaqov leaned/bowed upon his staff.

The difficulty is that the verse Spinoza discusses (Genesis 47:31), which seems to be the source for the assertion in Hebrews that Yaaqov "leaned" or "bowed" on his staff, is not part of the narrative in which Yaaqov blesses his grandsons. It is instead found at the conclusion of a discussion between Yaaqov and Yosef regarding Yaaqov's eventual burial in the Land of Israel. Yaaqov bows "on the head of the bed/staff" to express his gratitude to Yosef for the latter's promise to bury him in the location of his choice. By contrast, when Yaaqov blesses Yosef's sons in the next segment of the Parasha, no mention is made of his using any staff/bed to support his body. He is only described as sitting on the bed (Gen. 48:2).

So if Spinoza is correct in his assumption that Hebrews 11:21 is based on Genesis 47:31, then we can see immediately that the author of Hebrews committed an egregious blunder, mixing up Genesis 47:31 and Genesis 48:2. Uncharacteristically, Spinoza overlooks this glaring error in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Moreover, he relies upon it in his critique of the Masoretic reading of Genesis 47:31!

The fact is, though, that there is a more basic problem with Spinoza's approach to the verse that makes it completely untenable. As we have noted, the very next paragraph in the Torah uses the term "ha-mita" again. From the context, we must assume that this is a reference to the same "ha-mita" that Yaaqov used for bowing only three verses earlier. Yet this time the Torah can only be describing a bed:

And [someone] told Yaaqov, and said - "Behold, your son Yosef is coming to you" - and Yaaqov strengthened himself, and sat up on the bed (Heb. ha-mitah).

Spinoza's interpretation would have Yaaqov sitting down on his staff. Ouch!