Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Differing Views on Tzimtzum

L'Iluyi Nishmat Maras Menya bas Hertzel

Last time I introduced the concept of tzimtzum as a way of reconciling the differing views of the Rishonim. However, there are differing views about the meaning of tzimtzum as well. It is my contention that these are not only abstract philosophical differences, but that they can lead to differences in education, relationship with G-d and others, and how we see our role in the world.

Yosher Levav claims that tzimtzum is to be understood literally - that the essence of G-d is not in the world. This view is criticised by the chasidim as both dangerous, and bordering on heretical.

The Vilna Gaon claims that tzimtzum was literal in terms of G-d's Essence, but that His Will never left the world, and through this we can connect to him (because ultimately His Essence and His Will are One).

The Baal HaTanya attacks this appraoch, and presents the view which has perhaps become the most widespread today - that tzimtzum is essentially an illusion from our vantage point. From G-d's viewpoint nothing has changed, He never left the world, and we don't really exist. The goal of existence is to understand that "there is nothing apart from Him" and that we ourselves do not really exist.

The implications of these differing views lead to many practical differences (though most people will find a middle path, or actually do both):
Do we shttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifee cause and effect as real, or illusory? When a tragedy happens in the community, do we try to take practical steps to prevent it happening again, or do we say it is the Will of G-d and recite Tehillim? Do we teach our chidren to perceive G-d through science and the world, or is G-d to be found primarily through Torah? Do we require a Rebbe or Torah scholar to tell us how to think, or can we make decisions for ourselves?

Many of these ideas are developed further in an article I wrote for Reshimu entitled "The Perception of Reality: Contrasting Views of the Nature of Existence"

Here is the shiur. I welcome your views and comments.

Or if you prefer to download it here is the link:
Differing Views on Tzimtzum (right click and 'save as')

and here are the source sheets to go with it
Download Source Sheets

If you are interested in sponsoring a shiur please contact me by e-mail.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Tzimtzum Revolution

This shiur is l'ilui nishmat Marat Menya bas Hertzel

In the previous shiur we looked at the different understandings of the nature of G-d amongst Rishonim. I found in Prof. Menachem Kellner's book "Must a Jew Believe Anything?" an interesting source which is connected to thsi idea - Teshuva Radbaz vol. 8 number 191. There he distinguishes between "The G-d of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov" and "The G-d of Aristotle", and clearly states that Rambam, Rav Saadia, Kuzari and others were in the latter camp (though he says that was only for 'kiruv' purposes).

There are conceptual problems with each of these approaches. To say that G-d has a body is too difficult for us to comprehend, and is almost a denial of how we understand monotheism. On the other hand, Rambam's G-d is unknowable, and therefore unaffected by anything we do, and is so far removed from our experience that from our perspective there is nothing He can do for us. It is impossible to have a relationship with such a G-d, and difficult to understand how G-d could have a relationship with us.

In this shiur I look at the chidush of the Arizal, which resolves this machlokes by distinguishing between two aspects of G-d. Before tzimtzum (and outside the space of tzimtzum) we have the "G-d of Rambam" who is unknowable and indescribable. Conversely, in the world of tzimtzum we can speak about aspects of G-d, including midot, sefirot, partzufim, and the ways in which they interact with each other and with the world. In this post-tzimtzum world in which we live, G-d almost becomes physical, and in this way we can have a reciprocal relationship with Him.

There is also a discussion at the end of the shiur about whether it really makes a difference. Why should we even think about G-d? Isn't it enough just to be a good Jew and do the mitzvos?

Here is the shiur

Or if you prefer to download it here is the link:
Tzimtzum Revolution (right click and 'save as')

and here are the source sheets to go with it
Download Source Sheets

If you are interested in sponsoring a shiur please contact me by e-mail.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Nature of G-d

I gave a shiur last night. this shiur is l'ilyi nishmat Menya bas Hertzel.

I discuss two approaches in the Rishonim about how a person should come to understand G-d. Kuzari, Rav Sadiah Gaon, Rambam and others hold that the only way to understand G-d is to use rational thought to investigate His nature. Anyone who speaks about G-d,simply based on what he heard from others or based on the words of Tanach and Chazal, without thinking about the nature of G-d is "still outside the palace".

One case where this is expressed is in Rambam's third principle - that G-d has no physical form. If a person believes the simple words of Tanach or Chazal, without using philosophy to clarify, could come to believe that G-d has a body. Such a belief is heretical according to Rambam.

On the other hand, we find Raavad and Ohr Zaruah who argue that this is not a heretical belief. Furthermore, they both claim that there were many greater than Rambam who held this belief, including (according to Ohr Zaruah) some of Chazal. They explain the reason for this mistaken belief is following the simple reading of Tanach and Aggadata.

I then look at Rav Moshe Taku's book 'Kesav Tamim' where he argues that to deny G-d any physicality is heretical. If G-d is unable to appear in physical form, He is not omnipotent. Furthermore, he claims that Rav Saadiah was the first person to use philosophy to reinterpret the words of Tanach and Chazal and this is not the traditional Jewish view. How can we possibly use our limited logic to understand anything about G-d who is beyond logic?

Rashi also seems to say that G-d can appear in physical form if He wants to. This seems to me the correct reading of Rashi in Sanhedrin, and is explicit by Tosefos Rid in a comment he makes about Rashi.

I think the underlying issue is the omnipotence paradox. Can G-d create a rock which is so big that he cannot lift it?

There have been many answers to this type of question over the past 2000 years. But to simplify - some say that G-d is also bound by the laws of logic. Yet this does not limit His omnipotence. Others say that G-d can do absolutely anything, and the fact that it apears to us to be illogical is not a reason to lmiit G-d's omnipotence.

Rambam, Rav Saadiah etc take the first view. Rav Moshe Taku and Rashi take the second.

Today all Jews know that G-d has no body, and it is heretical to think that He does. Why did the Rambam's view become so pervasive that we cannot even contemplate the alternative? I quote from Rav Profiat Duran, who shows that belief in a physcial G-d is one of the essential differences between Judaism and Christianity. Jews don't believe that G-d could appear in physical form!

Here is the shiur

Or if you prefer to download it here is the link:
Nature of G-d (right click and 'save as')

and here are the source sheets to go with it
Download Source Sheets

If you are interested in sponsoring a shiur please contact me by e-mail.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Torah from Sinai?

Now that I am no longer associated with any institution I can give shiurim on topics that interest me.

This is a shiur on Rambam's 8th principle and the concept of Torah from Sinai. Is the Torah that we have in our Shuls/chumashim identical with the one that Moshe Rabbeinu gave the Children of Israel 3300 years ago? (answer = 'no')

Is Torah from Sinai a valid concept even if the Torah is not the same as the one we got from Sinai (answer = 'yes')

Did Rambam really mean that the Torah we have today is the same as the one Moshe gave us? (According to the Ashkenazi 'Ani Maamin' and Abarbanel - 'yes' according to Rambam and everyone else 'no')

And should we try to correct out Sifrei Torah to match the Talmud/Rishonim/Aleppo Codex? (machlokes, but probably 'no')

The shiur is quite long (1:30). But I think it is also very interesting. And if you disagree I would be happy to hear from you. (As Rabbi Yochanan said to his Talmidim after the death of Reish Lakish when Rabbi Elazer was agreeing with everything he said).

Here is the shiur

Or if you prefer to download it here is the link:
Torah from Sinai (right click and 'save as')

and here are the source sheets to go with it
Download Source Sheets

A few apologies:
I forgot the date of the Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex.

And I was recording the shiur on my phone, so a couple of times my phone rang, and you get a few seconds of Eurythmics along with the shiur.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Reason that Chicken is considered Meat

Often people are confused about why the Rabbis forbade chicken (birds) with milk - why were they concerned about chicken more than fish, or pareve vege-burgers?

The usual answer given is that 'it looks like meat' which is not really a good answer, because many things look like meat, and many things don't.

Rambam (Hilchos Mamrim end of chapter 2) gives a different answer. He explains the 'slippery slope' argument that Chazal were trying to avoid with their decree. The context is that he is explaining why a decree of Chazal is not considered 'Bal Tosif' - and the reason is because they don't claim that it is from the Torah, even though in practice they are enacting a new rule:

אבל אם אמר בשר העוף מותר מן התורה, ואנו נאסור אותו, ונודיע לעם שהוא גזירה: שלא יבוא מן הדבר חורבה, ויאמרו בשר העוף מותר מפני שלא נתפרש בתורה, כך החיה מותרת שהרי לא נתפרשה; ויבוא אחר לומר אף בשר בהמה מותר, חוץ מן העז; ויבוא אחר לומר אף בשר העז מותר בחלב הפרה או הכבשה, שלא נאמר אלא "אימו" (שמות כג,יט; שמות לד,כו; דברים יד,כא) שהיא מינו; ויבוא אחר לומר אף בחלב העז שאינה אימו מותר, שלא נאמר אלא "אימו". לפיכך נאסור כל בשר בחלב, ואפילו בשר עוף. אין זה מוסיף, אלא עושה סייג לתורה. וכן כל כיוצא בזה.

But if someone says that meat of a chicken is permitted from the Torah, but we (Sages) forbid it, and we tell the people the reason for the decree:
In order that it doesn't lead to ruin, that people may say that just as chicken meat is permitted because it is not explicit in the Torah, so too meat from a wild animal is permitted because it is also not explicit. Then another person will come and say that even meat of domestic animals is permitted apart from goat. Then another person will come and say that even meat of a goat is permitted with milk of a cow or sheep, because the Torah only says "its mother" which means from the same species. Then another person will come and say that even in goat's milk it is permtited as long as it is not the mother of that kid, because the Torah only says "its mother". Therefore we (the Sages) forbade all meat with milk, even chicken meat.
This is not adding to the Torah, but making a fence. And all cases which are similar.

So Rambam is not worried about people who cannot tell the difference between meat and milk, He is worried about the 'lamdanim' who don't understand the system of halacha and will make false analogies, leading them to transgress Torah prohibitions.

He also seems to say that this is the logic behind all Rabbinic decrees.

I suppose a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Ibn Ezra, James Kugel and Multiple Authors

One of the stories that is on all the media at the moment is the new software which has been developed by a team in Israel which traces the different voices and 'authors' of the Bible. It was even picked up by Stuff, which is a New Zealand newspaper.

For me the key thing in the article is the last couple of paragraphs:

What the algorithm won't answer, say the researchers who created it, is the question of whether the Bible is human or divine. Three of the four scholars, including Koppel, are religious Jews who subscribe in some form to the belief that the Torah was dictated to Moses in its entirety by a single author: God.

The question is - how can people who see different voices and authors in the text continue to beleive that the entire text was dictated by a single G-d to a single prophet (Moses)? Do they have to compartmentalise in their brains, or is their a resolution of these two apparent contradictions (I think there is - see below).

Another question which has been bothering me for a while is the parallels between the story of the flood (and particularly Noach's sacrifices after the flood) in the Torah and in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Lawrence Kelemen uses this as evidence for the truth of the Torah. In "Permission to Receive" on pp. 88-89 he writes:

In 1872, Dr. george Smith of the British Museum identified the first nonbiblical, written record of such a deluge. Scanning cuneiform tablets discovered in the Palace of Sennacherib at Kuyunjik, Simith found a reference to "a ship touching ground on a mountain called Nisir," followed by these lines:

When the seventh day arrived,
I sent forth and set free a dove.
The dove went forth, but came back;
Since no resting place for it was visible, she turned around.

At first this seems like very strong historical evidence for the truth of the events that are described in the Torah. However, James Kugel, in his book "How to Read the Bible" (pp. 75-6) points out that the similarities are too great, and it would seem to invalidate the authenticity of the Torah as the primariy source for this story.

The discovery of the Mesopotamian flood texts proved torubling for traditional Christian and Jewish belief. The reason may not be immediately apparent. After all, if such a great flood had indeed taken place in ancient times, there ought ot be nothing disturbing in the fact that some account of it survived outside of the Bible - on the contrary, the existence of other accounts would only seem to confirm the veracity of biblical history. But hte fact that the biblical and Mesopotamian accounts agreed in so many details suggested to scholars that there was actaully a literary connection between them: that is, the different accounts did not seem simply to agree on the events that had occurred, but on how those events should be retold, inlcuding things that could not have been based solely on historical observation. To mention one detail: why should the Bible have bothered to say that G-d "smelled the pleasing odor" of Noah's sacrifice? Certainly such a vivid anthropomorphism was a bit odd in the Bible, and the text could have as easily said that G-d "was pleased" with the sacrifice - or said nothing at all. More to the point, however: how could any on-site observer of the flood and its aftermath know that G-d/the gods had smelled anything? Surely this was not an observable event but an author's asertion; and the fact that the same asertion, indeed, the very same expression, is found in both Gilgamesh and the Bible seemed to sugest that one text was dependent on the other, or that both derived from a still earlier source. The problem was the even the friendliest dating eliminates any possibility that the Mesopotamian accounts derive from the biblical story; the oldest fragments go back to early in the second millennium BCE, perhaps even earlier - long before the time of Moses nad the traditinoal setting for the giving of the Torah and its account of the flood. As a consequence, most modern scholars today see in the biblical flood story a direct dependence on the Mesopotamian literary tradition.

So, in summary:
How is it possible to see apparent evidence of multiple authors in the Bible, and yet still believe that it was given by G-d to Moshe?
And how should we deal with the literary similarity between the Torah and the Epic of Gilgamesh, which imply that the Torah borrowed the story from an earlier source?

I would like to answer both questions based on Ibn Ezra in Parshas Chukas. Actually, both Ramban and Chizkuni give similar explanations, but Ibn Ezra is the clearest. In chapter 21 verses 13-14 the Torah says:

From thence they journeyed, and pitched on the other side of the Arnon, which is in the wilderness, that cometh out of the border of the Amorites.--For Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites; wherefore it is said in the book of the Wars of the LORD: Vaheb in Suphah, and the valleys of Arnon.

Ibn Ezra (and Ramban and Chizkuni) ask what this "Book of the Wars of the Lord" is. His answer:

“In the Book of Wars of the Lord"– this was a separate book on its own, in which are written the wars of God for those who fear Him. It makes sense that this is from the time of Avraham, because many books were lost, and we no longer have them, such as The Words of Natan, The Book of Ido, Chronicles of the Kings of Israel and Songs of Shlomo and his Proverbs.

Ibn Ezra (and the other Rishonim) claim that the Torah text we have includes within it fragments from earlier texts (which presumably were also dictated by G-d to Moshe - either G-d gave him a copy of the book or said it word for word). This also explains why the language of these verses is not in classic Hebrew, and the commentators struggle to explain some of the words.

Rashi gives a different explanation, but it seems to me that he is not giving 'pshat' - let me know what you think.

So does it not make sense that when G-d was retelling Moshe the stories from Bereishis, including the flood, that He also quoted earlier texts, even though the Torah does not explicitly quote the source of the words (I don't think G-d has to worry about plagiarism). This would answer Kugel's apparent difficulty with the biblical text.

Perhaps this can also explain why there appear to be different strands of authorship in the Bible. Moshe was combining earlier texts into the Torah that we have today - all based on the word of G-d.

I think that some people may have difficulty with such an answer, but when three major Rishonim all explain that Moshe is copying from other texts, is it really a problematic answer?

Your thoughts please.