parshat nitzavim, Deuteronomy 30
Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on September 22nd 2022. The Book of Deuteronomy, also known as Mishna Torah, or the second; Reviewed Torah is drawing to an end and provides us with an opportunity to review some of the Rabbinic Principles that have guided us in the reading of the Five Books of Moses. Starting with the iconic statement that “The Torah is not in Heaven” we realize how the Rabbis began a process of humanizing, maybe even secularizing the Torah in a very radical way…. Almost as though they took the Torah from Heaven. With no apologies to Abbie Hoffman, join us for – Steal this Book.
Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition. Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8:00pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. The Book of Deuteronomy, also known as Mishna Torah, or the Reviewed Torah is drawing to an end and provides us with an opportunity to review some of the Rabbinic Principles that have guided us over the past few years in our reading of the Five Books of Moses. Starting with the iconic statement that “The Torah is not in Heaven” we realize how the Rabbis began a process of humanizing, maybe even secularizing the Torah in a very radical way…. Almost as though they took the Torah from Heaven. With no apologies to Abbie Hoffman, join us for – Steal this Book.
Well, welcome back to Madlik, and it’s great to have you as the year comes to an end, which means that our cycle of reading the parshiot comes to an end as well. And as I said, we are now in Deuteronomy 30. And I look because we’ve been doing this so long at what we talked about in previous years. And last year, we spent a lot of time on this amazing piece of Talmud, where the punch line was, you can’t listen to voices that come down from heaven. Because guess what it says in our Parsha, the Torah is not in the heavens. And so, it’s very rare that we talk about the same verse two years in a row, but we are going to go as I said, in the intro in a totally different direction, we’re going to take a que from Mishnah Torah, which is a review of the whole Torah. And we’re going to kind of review how we at Madlik actually study the Torah what principles guide us and maybe what the rabbis taught us about how we should learn torah. So, let’s dive right in Deuteronomy 30: 11 says, surely this instruction, which I enjoy knew this day is not too baffling for you, nor it is beyond your reach. It is not in the heavens, לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא that you should say, Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us That we may observe it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea, and get it for us and impart it to us that we may observe it? No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth, in your heart to observe it. So this sense that we read, and if we read it in context, Rabbi, I think you gotta believe that when it says it’s not in the heavens, it’s not in the heavens in the same way that it’s not far away in the sea. It’s almost a physical, it’s not too far away. It’s not physically beyond reach. You know, I once had a child who met with his guidance counselor at at high school. And every time he mentioned the school he wanted to go to, she said, Nah, that would be a reach. What we’re saying is that the Torah is within reach. Isn’t that the simple meaning of the text here?
Adam Mintz 03:35
That is the simple meeting. And that’s a good meaning. By the way, that’s a nice meaning that Torah is within reach. Now what that we have to figure out what that means? What does it mean that tau is within reach? Right? What’s the significance of it be within reach? Why would we think it’s not within reach? Is that mean that the laws are within reach? Does that mean that the moral lessons are within reach? What would we think and I think what we might think is that Torah is divine, the Torah is heavenly man can’t live up to the Torah…. the answer’s no, we can live up to the total. That’s a good message, I think, is a really good message for the end of the Torah.
Geoffrey Stern 04:15
I think it’s a great message. I think the verse itself, and this is before we’re gonna go to the commentaries, because trust me, the commentaries go in many other different metaphorical directions. But it ends by saying, בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִֽלְבָבְךָ֖ לַעֲשֹׂתֽוֹ, it is in your mouth and in your heart to observe it. It’s almost saying that the spirituality, the religiosity, the moral the ethics of the Torah are not some sort of natural law. It’s almost ingrained within us. That would be if I read the verses in context, I would also say not only is it not physically far from us, but it’s not an artificial edifice, it’s not something imposed on us. It’s something that is ingrained in us whether because we’re Jews and we went through this history and therefore eating matzah is very natural for us, or as human beings, that what I’m asking you to do is to be true to yourselves.
Adam Mintz 05:21
Yeah, I mean, that is really interesting, that it’s not artificial. It’s, it’s accessible. It’s real. And therefore, we have to take it seriously. That maybe there’s an inclination to look at the Torah as kind of a fable. The whole thing is a fable. It tells stories, it talks about a people who observe the law, but it’s not real. And what the Torah is saying is no, it’s real, you’ll like that, that makes good sense. I like that.
Geoffrey Stern 05:53
I do like that. So we always go to Rashi first, Rashi says it is not in heaven, for where it in heaven, it would still be your duty to go up after it and to learn it. It’s not a metaphor for Rashi but it’s like, it’s it’s so easy. It’s like you’ve been fed it with silver spoon. There were other people that to get this message would have to convert, they would have to move from far away. But talking to the Jewish people, Moses saying, My God, you’ve been given this great gift. It’s right there sitting in your lap. I think that’s his kind of message.
Adam Mintz 06:39
Yeah, good. I think that’s right. I think that and that’s nice. I mean, and kind of that’s what the text means. It’s not it’s an it’s not a straw. It’s not what we would call it stretch. And that’s always a Rashi does.
Geoffrey Stern 06:50
Yep. So, in Eruvin it says Raba says “It is not in heaven” means that Torah is not to be found in someone who raises his mind over it, like the heavens, i.e., he thinks his mind is above the Torah and he does not need a teacher; nor is it to be found in someone who expands his mind over it, like the sea, i.e., he thinks he knows everything there is to know about the topic, so you know, he’s talking different types of intellectuals. There are some intellectuals that will look at it and look down upon it. There were others that are generalists, maybe interesting that he says it interesting that he feels he needs to say it Rabbi Yoḥanan said: “It is not in heaven” means that Torah is not to be found in the haughty, those who raise their self-image as though they were in heaven. “Nor is it beyond the sea” means that it is not to be found among merchants or traders, of course sea was the highway was the railroad was the channel of commerce in the old world. It’s interesting how everyone needs to find a kind of a metaphorical explanation for this,
Adam Mintz 07:52
Because it is itself a metaphor. לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא is not literal. Because the Torah is not in heaven. The Torah is written on the scroll that we read in shul every single Shabbat morning. So, it begs for a metaphoric kind of explanation, doesn’t it?
Geoffrey Stern 08:13
Well, it does. But I think you raise an interesting point. Because I would argue that Shamayim, in the Bible that we’re going to start all over again, in about a month, is you know, and on whatever day it was God created the heavens and the earth. And Shamaya means the what NASA is involved with, you know, and Mayim is what the Navy is involved with. There is no theological implications, I believe when the Bible, if you take it at face value talks about the heavens, you know, maybe the Torah was given from the heavens, because there was lightning and thunder, and it was given from above. But I think almost I wouldn’t say it’s a modern concept of this heaven, in terms of the firmament in terms of the sky. But I would say that the simple reading of the text doesn’t even imply we’re Shamayim is this kind of Western concept or later concept of a heaven? A spiritual, other worldly abode? Do you think I have a leg to stand on here?
Adam Mintz 09:32
That’s interesting, what Shamayim means Loba Shamayim, you need to just take your comment a step back, and really לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא. Where else could it be? It’s not in heaven. It’s not in you know, it’s not it’s it’s not far away. Why did they say it’s not in heaven? Why don’t they just say it’s not far away? That’s really the question you’re trying to answer.
Geoffrey Stern 09:56
Well, they do say it. It says it’s not in heaven. It’s not beyond the other side of the sea,
Adam Mintz 10:04
Why is it so dramatic? Why does it just say it’s not far?
Geoffrey Stern 10:08
Got it? Okay, so So you’re saying that this whole metaphor, love fest is created by the fact that it could have been much more straightforward. It’s not far away from you, it’s right in your lap. So you have no excuses, do it, something like that, something like that. So, the Rabeynu Bachya says as follows It is not in heaven. It is possible that the reason Moses made this point is because prior to bringing the Torah to the people, it had indeed resided in the heaven. And we have quoted arguments offered by the angels opposing its descent to Earth. So those of you who are listeners of Madlik. And I actually went on another clubhouse this week, and we got into a whole discussion, we remembered the Midrash that said, when the angels saw Moses getting the Torah, they said, Why is he getting the Torah? We should have it. And Moses replied, Do you have to provide for your family that you might steal something? Do you have to engage in commerce that you have to make sure that your scales are probably calibrated? This concept, which is what Robeynu Bahaya is referring to, is this kind of sense of man somehow taking this other worldly Torah, and not something that was without controversy? I mean, you know, I said, I call this podcast, Steal this Book. And you there was a radical at Columbia, part of the Weathermen called Abbie Hoffman. And when he finally wrote a book about his stuff, and put it up for sale for $7.95, the title was steal this book. In other words, don’t pay for it, steal it, he was so against the authorities. But, you know, I’m thinking of the Greek myth of Prometheus, for instance, Prometheus is best known for defying the gods by stealing fire from them and giving it to humanity in the form of technology, knowledge. He’s generally seen as the author of the human arts and sciences, in other theologies, in mythologies, there is this concept that somehow mankind got access to a higher intelligence. And I think that Midrash that the Rabaynu Bachya is referring to is as close as we get maybe, you know, others we are, maybe we didn’t steal the book. But we certainly somehow convinced God to give us this Torah, that the angels wanted to keep for themselves. And there is this sense when it says לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא that you guys got it. Mankind has gotten the Torah.
Adam Mintz 12:58
I mean, this, you know, this is famous that God went to all the other nations and offered the Torah, that somehow the angels wanted the Torah, this idea that there was a competition for the Torah, and the Jews won, it is a Midrashic concept. Now, I think it’s fair to ask what it means, what its significance is, I think that’s a fair question. But that is something that we’re familiar with. So, let’s take each one of them separately. One is that the Jews got it and the other nations didn’t get it. It’s a sense that they had their chance, and they gave it up. Don’t let they can complain later. To say that you know, that well, you know, why didn’t we get a chance to have the toe where you had a chance, but you know, you couldn’t you couldn’t handle do not commit murder, or you couldn’t handle do not commit adultery. So therefore, we got Torah but the angels is something else. The angels is about what the Torah is, it’s kind of related to לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא, the Torah is not for angels. the Torah is for human beings. the Torah appreciates human beings and understands what human beings are. And it’s written for human beings. It’s not written for angels.
Geoffrey Stern 14:12
So now, of course, we segue into what we discussed last year, which is this iconic piece of Talmud, which rabbis are having an argument and one rabbi named Robbie Yehoshua is saying I’m right.. let the walls of the study hall prove it. And the walls of the study hall move and the river prove it and the river goes backwards and finally says, Let the heavens prove it. And a bat kol a voice comes down from heaven and says, What do you want from Rabbi Yehoshua, he’s right!, and Rabbi Yirmia says says the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai. We do not regard a divine voice. So, he first quotes our verse, he says שכבר נתנה תורה מהר סיני. And then he quotes a verse in Exodus, which says, After the majority we incline. So there are four rabbis against you. We don’t listen to voices from heaven, because the Torah has been given to men. And we go after the majority. So, what I said in the introduction is what I’d like to pursue a little bit now, this concept of the Torah was given to Man… whether we stole it with like Prometheus, or we convinced the angels and God that it was, ultimately this Torah, by the way the rabbis interpreted this verse was given to man, and it might very well be that they reinterpreted the verse that that was not the initial meaning. But that’s what Rabbinic Judaism gave to us. And then they quote, a second principle that guides us when we study Torah, and that is, after the majority we incline, which is אחרי רבים להטות. But what’s fascinating about that verse is, they might have reinterpreted the verse לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא, it’s not in the heavens, but in the case of after the majority, you shall go, they didn’t reinterpret it. They went against the actual meaning of the verse, In Exodus 32. It says, You shall neither side with the mighty to do one, you shall not give perverse testimony to prove for read it. you should not go after the majority for bad and here the rabbi’s take it as you shall go after the majority. And so they prove their own point, they prove the point that the Torah is no longer in heaven, and that we have been given the authority, you can say also the responsibility to interpret it. Is that radical or not?
Adam Mintz 17:12
No, I think that’s great. And I think the most important thing to remember here is and it’s always gets a little tricky. The Torah is the divine Torah. But the interpretation is the rabbinic interpretation. And the rabbis were very sophisticated. So what the rabbis do is they interpret the Torah so it will support their authority. That’s what the story about the walls of the Beit Midrash falling are about. It’s about rabbinic authority. לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא means I don’t care what the heavenly voice says, we have to follow the majority לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא, God doesn’t determine things. Now obviously, that’s an exaggeration of what the phrase means because we don’t usually have heavenly voices. But that is the perfect example of the rabbi’s interpreting the Torah to support the rabbis, you see how that works. That works forward and backwards.
Geoffrey Stern 18:11
It does, but you can’t get away from the democratization of the Torah. When the Rabbi say you follow the majority, you can say it’s a majority of rabbis, you can say it’s a majority of the people.
Adam Mintz 18:25
Thats the rabbinic interpretation. The Rabbinic interpretation is you follow the majority against God, you have to say that last piece; against God.
Geoffrey Stern 18:36
Well, you’re the rabbi, you said it!
Adam Mintz 18:38
Against God, what’s interesting, what I’m so excited about is that that’s not explicit in the Torah. … strange or interesting, whatever you want to call
Geoffrey Stern 18:52
Yeah. And radical, I’d say it’s radical. Right is a very radical piece of Talmud. But you know, it does find its place. It’s not only the majority of the rabbis, there is a concept of טירחא דציבורא that if the rabbi’s make a decree that is too tough on the people. You know, what the people wןn. So democratization is to me, the second rule if we’re kind of making a list of rules of interpretation, and the first one is that the Torah was given to man, and it’s our obligation and responsibility, privilege and liberty to reinterpret. The second is that we’re all in this together. It is a democratic aspect of it, and it could be our elected leaders. It could be our rabbis, and it could be all of us. The next law that I would like to say that has guided us as we’re reviewing these rules, is in Deuteronomy, 4: 6. It says observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples who on hearing all of these laws will say, surely that great nation is a wise and discerning people. כִּ֣י הִ֤וא חׇכְמַתְכֶם֙ וּבִ֣ינַתְכֶ֔ם לְעֵינֵ֖י הָעַמִּ֑ים I owe R. Ethan Tucker, thanks for teaching this verse. It was from a rabbi called Rav Shmuel Glasner, the Dor Reve’ee. And he basically argued that our ethics and our morality have to stand up to the rules and the laws of critical analysis, because if not, we will not be somebody who was admired by the nation’s I went to a yeshiva once on Mitzpe Ramon, Mitzpe Ramon is as close to the Grand Canyon in Israel as you will get. And the rabbi first met me in his office and he said, Now let’s go to our real office. And he took me to the edge of Mitzpeh Ramon, this Grand Canyon, and there were some yeshiva students, black hats, white shirts, sits is flowing. He said, ask them how this canyon was created. And I went to them and I said, How was it created and they start talking about millions of the years, there were plates in the earth and my mind like dulled and I’m walking away with the rabbi. And I said, What’s with the plates and the Million years this is a yeshiva , what happened to six days seven days of creation, and he basically told me כִּ֣י הִ֤וא חׇכְמַתְכֶם֙ וּבִ֣ינַתְכֶ֔ם לְעֵינֵ֖י הָעַמִּ֑ים, that God not only created a world, but he created our minds. And if we do not listen to our minds, we are breaking the law as much as any other law written in the Torah. And that just blew my mind. But It does talk to the fact that the rabbi’s absorbed and simulated rules of logic. If if you read an orthodox Siddur every morning, after you say the blessing on studying Torah, you discuss Rabbi Yishmoel’s 13 principles of hermeneutics. And he has these rules of interpreting the Torah. And Saul Lieberman says he probably got this concept of you need rules to decipher and parse a literary text from the Greeks or for the Romans. But here it was these rabbis who have never, absolutely never put their heads in the soil and disregarded scientific knowledge, I would consider that my my third rule.
Adam Mintz 22:39
I think that’s good. I like that a lot. I mean, first of all, let’s just take it back. That’s a good story. It’s a good story that a Yeshiva Bachur, you know, embraces science, and it’s sometimes they have to recognize that science is not against the Torah. Now, that’s an interesting discussion whenever we have it, and that is, you know, how can it be? How can it be that science doesn’t contradict the Torah? How could it be that these plates, you know, separated and created Mitzpei Ramon, and, you know, and that be right, and the story of creation also be right, that’s all interesting. But God created our ability to embrace both of those traditions as being true.
Geoffrey Stern 23:27
Agreed, agreed there shouldn’t be a conflict. So again, this is a review session of the rules that guide us as we study the Torah. The fourth rule, I would say, and we have quoted this many times, is אֵין מוּקְדָּם וּמְאוּחָר בַּתּוֹרָה, that there is no early or late in the Torah, which means that there is no chronology. This is not a book of history. We’ve talked and we talked about Zachor and Yosef Haim Yirushalmi saying that if Herodotus invented history, Jews invented meaning in history. And again, it’s understanding what the rabbis what the tau itself was looking to do. It wasn’t to record history as it was, it was recording history as a lesson. And that has to be a rule when we study the Torah that we got from our rabbis.
Adam Mintz 24:24
Good. So that that is another important rule. The fact that the Torah is not a history book, it doesn’t mean that the Torah doesn’t have history. By the way, every religion has a book of its history. It has to because if not, you don’t know where it comes from. You know, Christianity is an interesting religion. We’ll just talk about this for one second. Christianity is an interesting religion, because Christianity needs the Torah…. It needs the Old Testament, because if there’s no Old Testament, then you can’t explain where Jesus came from because Jesus was a Jew. Right? The Christians believe that the Jews killed Jesus. But the Christians don’t wipe out the Jews. You know why they don’t wipe out the Jews? Because if there are no Jews, then you can’t explain where Christianity came from. If there were no Jews, what’s the story of the Christians, the Christians need the Jews. So everybody needs a book that tells their story. So, it’s not a history book that’s bound by chronology. It’s not a history book, but it’s a book of memory, like Yoseph, Chaim Yirushalmi said, but it does tell our story. And that’s a very important story, just to relate it to Rosh Hashanah because we have to pull everything back for the holiday. You know, it’s interesting when it comes to Rosh Hashanah is not does not commemorate a historical event in the Torah. In tradition, we say the Rosh Hashanah is the day of creation. But the Torah doesn’t say that. Most holidays commemorate a historical event. Pesach commemorates the Exodus and Shavuot to commemorates the day of the Torah and Sukkot commemorate the 40 years in the desert. Every holiday commemorates a historical event. So, it’s not a book of history. But the history part of it is significant.
Geoffrey Stern 26:17
Absolutely any anyone who’s seen these New Testaments that every verse that kind of shows a prophecy from the Old Testament highlighted in red. I understand that. It’s a great segue to the next rule, which is a kind of a parallel to the rule I just mentioned, which is כל מה שאירע לאבות סימן לבנים, which is the stories of our forefathers most of the time it’s referred to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But I would suggest it really refers to all of the history in the Bible is a סימן. Coming from the word symbolism is a symbol for us, so the rabbis themselves. This is not a modern concept. We’re the first to say that the book of the Bible is there to learn lessons from to draw ethical and moral teachings to guide us in making decisions going forward. But it’s not necessarily a book of history. We’re running out of time, and I don’t want to miss all the rules as we’re reviewing in this Mishnah Torah type of modality. The next one is דִּבְּרָה תוֹרָה כִלְשׁוֹן בְּנֵי אָדָם that the Torah speaks in the language of men. And it’s interesting that Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a book in Hebrew. Most of his books were written in English, his book in Hebrew was תורה מן השמים באספקלריה של הדורות, it was translated by Gordon Tucker called Heavenly Torah – As Refracted through the Generations. And if you have time to read a 600 page book, this is a great place to go. But Gordon Tucker points out that whereas other books on Judaism begin with God. Not only is his title basically, a play on our verse, it’s תורה מן השמים, the heavenly Torah, in the view of the generations, it’s really a commentary, a 600-page commentary on the verse that we started. But his second chapter begins not with talking about God, but talking about the language of the Torah is in human language, it’s written for us as humans, whether it was written by humans inspired by God, whether it was written by God, we are entitled to look at it, to decipher it, to study it, and to learn from it as כִלְשׁוֹן בְּנֵי אָדָם, and I think that last rule almost completes the circle of saying that the Torah is not in heaven. All of these rules relate to how the Torah is ours. And I think for my lesson that relates to the High Holidays, by claiming that God is King, that ה’ מֶלֶךְ ה’ מָלָךְ ה’ יִמְלֹךְ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד. What we are saying is a radical concept, that there are no earthly kings, there are no powers that control us. And we’re also saying that the obligation is that the world was created for us that our Torah was given for us. That’s where the obligation comes from, that God gave us this torah. And it’s for us in this world. It’s for us to make and remake and interpret and empower us. So, I think that’s kind of an amazing way to look at the way over the past two, three years we’ve kind of looked at the Torah and what it means for us.
Adam Mintz 29:46
It’s a great way to end before Rosh Hashanah, wishing everybody a Shabbat Shalom, a Shana Tova a Hag Samayach, and we look forward to seeing you all next week, where we will talk about VaYelech the shortest parsha In the Torah, Shabbat Shalom Shana Tova Geoffrey
Geoffrey Stern 30:03
Shana Tova rabbi, thanks as always for being a part of this discussion. And thank you all for joining.
Listen to last year’s Nitzavim podcast: Not in Heaven