Tag Archives: Guide for the perplexed

It’s just a Dream – Vayetze

This week’s madlik podcast:

What if the Hebrew Bible was just a dream? What happens if not only the narrative elements, but even the development of the law is taken as a dream sequence…. An unending imaginative visitation with ideas, concepts and laws that continue to challenge us? How would that change its meaning and relevance?  Would we study it differently?  Let’s take our ques from the great Maimonides and the Rabbis of the Talmud….

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Guide for the Perplexed 48 http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/gfp/gfp129.htm

Book II CHAPTER XLII

WE have already shown that the appearance or speech of an angel mentioned in Scripture took place in a vision or dream; it makes no difference whether this is expressly stated or not, as we have explained above. This is a point of considerable importance. In some cases the account begins by stating that the prophet saw an angel; in others, the account apparently introduces a human being, who ultimately is shown to be an angel; but it makes no difference, for if the fact that an angel has been heard is only mentioned at the end, you may rest satisfied that the whole account from the beginning describes a prophetic vision. In such visions, a prophet either sees God who speaks to him, as will be explained by us, or he sees an angel who speaks to him, or he hears some one speaking to him without seeing the speaker, or he sees a man who speaks to him, and learns afterwards that the speaker was an angel. In this latter kind of prophecies, the prophet relates that he saw a man who was doing or saying something, and that he learnt afterwards that it was an angel.

This important principle was adopted by one of our Sages, one of the most distinguished among them, R. Ḥiya the Great (Bereshit Rabba, xlviii 48.), in the exposition of the Scriptural passage commencing, “And the Lord appeared unto him in the plain of Mamre” (Gen. xviii.). The general statement that the Lord appeared to Abraham is followed by the description in what manner that appearance of the Lord took place; namely, Abraham saw first three men; he ran and spoke to them. R. Hiya, the author of the explanation, holds that the words of Abraham, “My Lord, if now I have found grace in thy sight, do not, I pray thee, pass from thy servant,” were spoken by him in a prophetic vision to one of the men; for he says that Abraham addressed these words to the chief of these men. Note this well, for it is one of the great mysteries [of the Law]. The same, I hold, is the case when it is said in reference to Jacob, “And a man wrestled with him” (Gen. xxxii. 25); this took place in a prophetic vision, since it is expressly stated in the end (ver. 31) that it was an angel. The circumstances are here exactly the same as those in the vision of Abraham, where the general statement, “And the Lord appeared to him,” etc., is followed by a detailed description. Similarly the account of the vision of Jacob begins, “And the angels of God met him” (Gen. xxxii. 2); then follows a detailed description how it came to pass that they met him; namely, Jacob sent messengers, and after having prepared and done certain things, “he was left alone,” etc., “and a man wrestled with him” (ibid. ver. 24). By this term “man” [one of] the angels of God is meant, mentioned in the phrase, “And angels of God met him”; the wrestling and speaking was entirely a prophetic vision. That which happened to Balaam on the way, and the speaking of the ass, took place in a prophetic vision, since further on, in the same account, an angel of God is introduced as speaking to Balaam. I also think that what Joshua perceived, when “he lifted up his eyes and saw, and behold a man stood before him” (Josh. v. 13) was a prophetic vision, since it is stated afterwards (ver. 14) that it was “the prince of the host of the Lord.” But in the passages, “And an angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal” (Judges ii. 1); “And it came to pass that the angel of the Lord spake these words to all Israel” (ibid. ver. 2); the “angel” is, according to the explanation of our Sages, Phineas. They say, The angel is Phineas, for, when the Divine Glory rested upon him, he was “like an angel.” We have already shown (chap. vi.) that the term “angel” is homonymous, and denotes also “prophet,” as is the case in the following passages:–“And He sent an angel, and He hath brought us up out of Egypt” (Num. xx. 16); “Then spake Haggai, the angel of the Lord, in the Lords message” (Hagg. i. 13); “But they mocked the angels of [paragraph continues] God” (2 Chron. xxxvi. 16). Comp. also the words of Daniel, “And the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision at the beginning, being caused to fly swiftly, touched me about the time of the evening oblation” (Dan. ix. 11). All this passed in a prophetic vision. Do not imagine that an angel is seen or his word heard otherwise than in a prophetic vision or prophetic dream, according to the principle laid down:–“I make myself known unto him in a vision, and speak unto him in a dream” (Num. xii. 6). The instances quoted may serve as an illustration of those passages which I do not mention. From the rule laid down by us that prophecy requires preparation, and from our interpretation of the homonym “angel,” you will infer that Hagar, the Egyptian woman, was not a prophetess; also Manoah and his wife were no prophets: for the speech they heard, or imagined they heard, was like the bat-kol (prophetic echo), which is so frequently mentioned by our Sages, and is something that may be experienced by men not prepared for prophecy. The homonymity of the word “angel” misleads in this matter. This is the principal method by which most of the difficult passages in the Bible can be explained. Consider the words, “And an angel of the Lord found her by the well of water” (Gen. xvi. 7), which are similar to the words referring to Joseph–“And a man found him, and behold, he was erring in the field” (ibid. xxxvii. 15). All the Midrashim assume that by man in this passage an angel is meant.

CHAPTER XLI

I NEED not explain what a dream is, but I will explain the meaning of the term mareh, “vision,” which occurs in the passage: “In a vision (be-mareh) do I make myself known unto him” (Num. xii. 6). The term signifies that which is also called mareh ha-nebuah, “prophetic vision,” yad ha-shem, “the hand of God,” and maḥazeh, “a vision.” It is something terrible and fearful which the prophet feels while awake, as is distinctly stated by

Daniel: “And I saw this great vision, and there remained no strength in me, for my comeliness was turned in me into corruption, and I retained no strength” (Dan, x. 8). He afterwards continues, “Thus was I in deep sleep on my face, and my face toward the ground” (ibid. ver. 9). But it was in a prophetic vision that the angel spoke to him and “set him upon his knees.” Under such circumstances the senses cease to act, and the [Active Intellect] influences the rational faculties, and through them the imaginative faculties, which become perfect and active. Sometimes the prophecy begins with a prophetic vision, the prophet greatly trembles, and is much affected in consequence of the perfect action of the imaginative faculty: and after that the prophecy follows. This was the case with Abraham. The commencement of the prophecy is, “The word of the Lord came to Abraham in a vision” (Gen. xv. 1); after this, “a deep sleep fell upon Abraham”; and at last, “he said unto Abraham,” etc. When prophets speak of the fact that they received a prophecy, they say that they received it from an angel, or from God; but even in the latter case it was likewise received through an angel. Our Sages, therefore, explain the words, “And the Lord said unto her” that He spake through an angel. You must know that whenever Scripture relates that the Lord or an angel spoke to a person, this took place in a dream or in a prophetic vision.

Following Chapter: CHAPTER XLIII

WE have already shown in our work that the prophets sometimes prophesy in allegories; they use a term allegorically, and in the same prophecy the meaning of the allegory is given. In our dreams, we sometimes believe that we are awake, and relate a dream to another person, who explains the meaning, and all this goes on while we dream. Our Sages call this “a dream interpreted in a dream.” Babylonian Talmud, Berakot 55b …

Book I Chapter II

….every Hebrew knows that the term Elohim is a homonym, and denotes God, angels, judges, and the rulers of countries,…

Babylonian Talmud 55b

אמר רב חסדא

Rab Hisda said :

כל חלום ולא טוות

[There is no reality in] any dream without a fast.

ואמר רב חסדא

Rab Hisda also said :

חלמא דלא מפשר כאגרתא דלא מקריא

An uninterpreted dream is like an unread letter.

ואמר רב חסדא

Rab Hisda also said :

לא חלמא טבא מקיים כוליה ולא חלמא בישא מקיים כוליה

Neither a good nor a bad dream is fulfilled in every detail.

ואמר רב חסדא

Rab Hisda also said :

חלמא בישא עדיף מחלמא טבא

A bad dream is preferable to a good dream.

וא”ר חסדא

Rab Hisda also said :

חלמא בישא עציבותיה מסתייה חלמא טבא חדויה מסתייה

When a dream is bad, the pain it causes is sufficient [to prevent its fulfilment], and when the dream is good, the joy it brings is sufficient.

אמר רב יוסף

Rab Joseph said :

חלמא טבא אפילו לדידי בדיחותיה מפכחא ליה

As for a good dream, even in my own case, its cheerfulness frustrates it [so that it is not realised].

ואמר רב חסדא

Rab Hisda also said :

חלמא בישא קשה מנגדא שנאמר (קהלת ג, יד) והאלהים עשה שייראו מלפניו ואמר רבה בר בר חנה א”ר יוחנן

A bad dream is worse than scourging ; as it is said, “God hath so made it that men should fear before Him” (Eccles. 3:14), and Rabbah b. Bar Hannah said in the name of R. Johanan :

זה חלום רע

This refers to a bad dream.

(ירמיהו כג, כח) הנביא אשר אתו חלום יספר חלום ואשר דברי אתו ידבר דברי אמת מה לתבן את הבר נאם ה’ וכי מה ענין בר ותבן אצל חלום

“The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream ; and he that hath My word, let him speak My word faithfully. What hath the straw to do with the wheat ? saith the Lord” (Jer. 23:28). What connection has “straw and wheat” with a dream ?

אלא אמר ר’ יוחנן משום ר’ שמעון בן יוחי

But said R. Johanan in the name of R. Simeon b. Johai :

כשם שאי אפשר לבר בלא תבן כך אי אפשר לחלום בלא דברים בטלים

Just as one cannot have wheat without straw, similarly it is impossible for a dream to be without something that is vain.

אמר ר’ ברכיה

Berekiah said :

חלום אף על פי שמקצתו מתקיים כולו אינו מתקיים מנא לן מיוסף דכתיב (בראשית לז, ט) והנה השמש והירח וגו’

A dream, though it be fulfilled in part, is never completely realised. Whence is this learnt? From Joseph; for it is written, “And behold the sun and the moon and eleven stars bowed down to me” (Gen. 37:9);

One of them commenced and said :

 האי מאן דחזא חלמא ולא ידע מאי חזא ליקום קמי כהני בעידנא דפרסי ידייהו ולימא הכי

He who has seen a dream and knows not what he has seen, let him stand before the Kohanim at the time that they spread their hands [to pronounce the priestly benediction] and utter the following :

רבש”ע אני שלך וחלומותי שלך חלום חלמתי ואיני יודע מה הוא בין שחלמתי אני לעצמי ובין שחלמו לי חבירי ובין שחלמתי על אחרים אם טובים הם חזקם ואמצם כחלומותיו של יוסף ואם צריכים רפואה רפאם כמי מרה על ידי משה רבינו וכמרים מצרעתה וכחזקיהו מחליו וכמי יריחו על ידי אלישע וכשם שהפכת קללת בלעם הרשע לברכה כן הפוך כל חלומותי עלי לטובה ומסיים בהדי כהני דעני צבורא אמן

Lord of the universe ! I am Thine and my dreams are Thine ; a dream have I dreamed and I know not what it is. Whether I dreamed concerning myself, or my fellows dreamed concerning me, or I dreamed concerning others, if they be good dreams, strengthen and fortify them [and may they be fulfilled] like the dreams of Joseph ; but if they require to be remedied, heal them as the waters of Marah [were healed] by the hands of Moses our teacher, as Miriam [was healed] from her leprosy, as Hezekiah from his illness, and like the waters of Jericho [sweetened] by the hands of Elisha. And as Thou didst turn the curse of the wicked Balaam into a blessing, so do Thou turn all my dreams for me into good.” He should conclude [his prayer] simultaneously with the Kohanim, so that the Congregation responds “Amen.”

Musical selection: Neshama Carlebach singing her father’s Beshaim Hashem

https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/haneshama-shel-shlomo/id475868578

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a gracious ruse and a crooked path

Parshat Yitro

Judaism has long valued attribution and respect for Intellectual Property. Any student of the oral tradition (Mishna, Talmud, Midrashic literature) knows the lengths to which our scholars go to correctly identify their sources.


The Talmud even argues that offering one’s source can bring ultimate salvation. kol ha’omer davar b’shem omro, mevi geula l’olam – “whoever says something in the name of the one who said it [first], brings redemption to the world (or, gains eternal life).”[ia]

This concept of honoring and revealing one’s sources goes back to the Bible. One cannot but take notice that when the Bible takes leave of the narrative of Genesis and the Exodus and enters the real business of providing a legal code, it abruptly introduces Jethro; Moses’ father in law, a local pagan minister and tribal leader.

Jethro is credited with providing a common sense hierarchy and organizational tree for the Judicial Branch. In fact, a whole section of the weekly torah readings is named after Jethro. This is extraordinary given that this same weekly portion contains the Ten Commandments …. but it is Jethro who gets top billing. Read the text:

And Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people; that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.” ….. And Jethro said, “Blessed be the Lord, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh, and who has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.…Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt offering and other sacrifices to offer to God.”.…. And so it was, on the next day, that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood before Moses from morning until evening. So when Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he did for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit, and all the people stand before you from morning until evening?” …. “The thing that you do is not good. Both you and these people who are with you will surely wear yourselves out. For this thing is too much for you; you are not able to perform it by yourself. Listen now to my voice; I will give you counsel, and God will be with you: …. you shall select from all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Then it will be that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they themselves shall judge. So it will be easier for you, for they will bear the burden with you. If you do this thing, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all this people will also go to their place in peace. Exodus 18 1 – 23

At least as regards the structure of the Judiciary Branch, the Torah does not suffer from a Not Invented Here mentality and for that it distinguishes itself from many ideologies and idialogues… But a careful reading of the text reveals that Jethro is used to introduce more than just a pre-existent or pagan system of courts incorporated into the Divine Law. Note that Jethro also “took a burnt offering and other sacrifices to offer to God”. As the Etz Hayim commentary correctly notes: “These are the two main types of sacrifices offered in ancient Israel. The first, olah, was wholly consumed by fire on the alter as a tribute to God; the second, zevah, was partially offered up, and the major portion eaten at a festive meal.” So the Torah, in suggesting that much of the laws to follow were “borrowed” from the existing culture and religion of the day, does not limit itself to Judiciary reform… it includes also the ritual law, including the sacrosanct priestly code of the temple and it’s sacrifices.

This is a radical thesis… to say the least. It is one thing to say that the Torah was open to some practical input regarding the structure of the judiciary.. it is quite another to say that the Torah borrowed its core rituals and laws of purity from the local practices of the ancient Near East. Far be it from me, your friendly blogger, to be so audacious. For this, I go to a higher authority… Moses Maimonides in his classic work The Guide for the Perplexed.[i]

The Hebrew word for Perplexed – Nevuchim) first appears in the Torah in the mouth of Pharaoh… Exodus 14:3 who sees that the Jews look confused and perplexed… and are living up to their latter appellation of Wandering Jews…

And Pharaoh will say of the children of Israel: They are perplexed in the land, the wilderness hath shut them in.

וְאָמַר פַּרְעֹה לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, נְבֻכִים הֵם בָּאָרֶץ; סָגַר עֲלֵיהֶם, הַמִּדְבָּר.

Buried in Part III, chapter 32 of The Guide, Maimonides makes a radical suggestion (quoted in full in the footnote[ii]); namely that all the laws of the Temple and Priesthood are only borrowed conventions, designed to move his Chosen People and humanity in a new direction. Maimonides calls this a “gracious ruse” a concept perhaps borrowed from the second-century-C.E. philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias who developed the theory of divine condescendence (Greek synkatabasis; cf. Arabic talattuf Hebrew:   הערמה האלהית  ibn tibbon )[iii] where God, in His Torah, not only “speaks in the language of man” but also legislates using existing social norms and customs, as limited as they may be. Similar to the Lurianic Kabbalistic concept of contraction (Tzimzum), God and His Torah, so to speak, descends into the muck of the crooked timber of humanity to enrich the human condition.

Even rituals such as fasting, tzizit, mezuzah, tefillin, supplications, prayers and similar kinds of worship… even the festivals and the Shabbat, are not the goal… but means to a goal and were ultimately poached, absorbed or modified from existing pagan practices. According to Maimonides, it is our job, 2,000 plus years later to try to discern the direction to which these intermediary steps are pointing. It is our job, nay mitzvah, to study comparative religion of the ancient Near East and to try to distinguish what parts of the teachings and commandments of the Torah are “borrowed” steps and which contain within them ultimate goals.

Maimonides realized the radical nature of such a suggestion.  He writes:

I know that you will at first thought reject this idea and find it strange: you will put the following question to me in your heart: How can we suppose that Divine commandments, prohibitions, and important acts, which are fully explained, and for which certain seasons are fixed, should not have been commanded for their own sake, but only for the sake of some other thing: as if they were only the means which He employed for His primary object? ….. Hear my answer, which will cure your heart of this disease and will show you the truth of that which I have pointed out to you. There occurs in the Law a passage which contains exactly the same idea; it is the following:” God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt; but God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea,” etc. (Exod. xiii. 17). Here God led the people about, away from the direct road which He originally intended, because He feared they might meet on that way with hardships too great for their ordinary strength; He took them by another road in order to obtain thereby His original object. In the same manner God refrained from prescribing what the people by their natural disposition would be incapable of obeying, and gave the above-mentioned commandments as a means of securing His chief object, viz., to spread a knowledge of Him [among the people], and to cause them to reject idolatry.

This is truly a paradigm shift for our task in studying the Torah is now turned on its head.  Not only are we implicitly obligated to use comparative religion, anthropology, archaeology, Near Eastern studies, linguistics, sociology and common sense to understand the context and antecedents of Biblical law and narrative, but we are challenged to discern not the letter of the law but rather the direction in which it points.  Torah is less a book of laws and more a path… an arguably crooked and perplexing path.. but one we are dared to follow.

Happy are they that are upright in the way, who walk in the torah of the LORD.  (Psalms 119: 1)

אַשְׁרֵי תְמִימֵי-דָרֶךְ–    הַהֹלְכִים, בְּתוֹרַת יְהוָה


[ia] Why redemption, for properly attributing source material? The Talmud (Megillah 15) cites Esther 2:22 – “Queen Esther told the King in the name of Mordecai” of the plot against him. This extraneous positive mention later surfaced, leading the King to put Mordecai above Haman, leading to the redemption of Shushan’s Jews. See also: the Gemara (Nazir 56b) which states that when there is a long line of attribution, you need only mention the first and last.

[i] By way of introduction; Maimonides, wrote his seminal philosophic work: The Guide for the Perplexed (Hebrew: Moreh Nevuchim) in such a way so that it would enlighten those inquirers for whom it was intended but whose most heterodox and controversial ideas would be buried “in dispersed chapters” (see Epistle Dedicatory and see Leo Strauss in his Persecution and the Art of Writing.)

[ii] It is, namely, impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other: it is therefore according to the nature of man impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed. Now God sent Moses to make [the Israelites] a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. xix. 6) by means of the knowledge of God. …. But the custom which was in those days general among all men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted in sacrificing animals in those temples which contained certain images, to bow down to those images, and to burn incense before them; religious and ascetic persons were in those days the persons that were devoted to the service in the temples erected to the stars,  It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God (literally “gracious ruse”), as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used; it would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name, that we should not pray to Him, not fast, not seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action. For this reason God allowed these kinds of service to continue; He transferred to His service that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings, and of things imaginary and unreal, and commanded us to serve Him in the same manner; viz., to build unto Him a temple; … He selected priests for the service in the temple; …He made it obligatory that certain gifts, called the gifts of the Levites and the priests, should be assigned to them for their maintenance while they are engaged in the service of the temple and its sacrifices. By this Divine plan (literally “gracious ruse”) it was effected that the traces of idolatry were blotted out, and the truly great principle of our faith, the Existence and Unity of God, was firmly established; this result was thus obtained without deterring or confusing the minds of the people by the abolition of the service to which they were accustomed and which alone was familiar to them.

I know that you will at first thought reject this idea and find it strange: you will put the following question to me in your heart: How can we suppose that Divine commandments, prohibitions, and important acts, which are fully explained, and for which certain seasons are fixed, should not have been commanded for their own sake, but only for the sake of some other thing: as if they were only the means which He employed for His primary object? ….. Hear my answer, which will cure your heart of this disease and will show you the truth of that which I have pointed out to you. There occurs in the Law a passage which contains exactly the same idea; it is the following:” God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt; but God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea,” etc. (Exod. xiii. 17). Here God led the people about, away from the direct road which He originally intended, because He feared they might meet on that way with hardships too great for their ordinary strength; He took them by another road in order to obtain thereby His original object. In the same manner God refrained from prescribing what the people by their natural disposition would be incapable of obeying, and gave the above-mentioned commandments as a means of securing His chief object, viz., to spread a knowledge of Him [among the people], and to cause them to reject idolatry. It is contrary to man’s nature that he should suddenly abandon all the different kinds of Divine service and the different customs in which he has been brought up, and which have been so general, that they were considered as a matter of course; …In the same way the portion of the Law under discussion is the result of divine wisdom (literally “gracious ruse”), according to which people are allowed to continue the kind of worship to which they have been accustomed, in order that they might acquire the true faith, which is the chief object [of God’s commandments]. …As the sacrificial service is not the primary object [of the commandments about sacrifice], whilst supplications, Prayers and similar kinds of worship are nearer to the primary object, and indispensable for obtaining it, a great difference was made in the Law between these two kinds of service. The one kind, which consists in offering sacrifices, although the sacrifices are offered to the name of God, has not been made obligatory for us to the same extent as it had been before. We were not commanded to sacrifice in every place, and in every time, or to build a temple in every place, or to permit anyone who desires to become priest and to sacrifice. On the contrary, all this is prohibited unto us. Only one temple has been appointed,” in the place which the Lord shall choose” (Deut. xii. 26): in no other place is it allowed to sacrifice: …. and only the members of a particular family were allowed to officiate as priests. All these restrictions served to limit this kind of worship, and keep it within those bounds within which God did not think it necessary to abolish sacrificial service altogether. But prayer and supplication can be offered everywhere and by every person. The same is the case with the commandment of zizit (Num. xy. 38); mezuzah (Dent. vi. 9; xi. 20); tefillin (Exod. xiii. 9, 16): and similar kinds of divine service.

Because of this principle which I explained to you, the Prophets in their books are frequently found to rebuke their fellow-men for being over-zealous and exerting themselves too much in bringing sacrifices: the prophets thus distinctly declared that the object of the sacrifices is not very essential, and that God does not require them. …. Isaiah exclaimed,” To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord” (Isa. i. 11): ….For it is distinctly stated in Scripture, and handed down by tradition, that the first commandments communicated to us did not include any law at all about burnt-offering and sacrifice. ….. …. The Psalmist says:” Hear, 0 my people, and I will speak; 0 Israel, and I will testify against thee: I am God, even thy God. I will not reprove thee for thy sacrifices or thy burnt-offerings, they have been continually before me. I will take no bullock out of thy house, nor he-goats out of thy folds” (Ps. 1. 29).– Wherever this subject is mentioned, this is its meaning. Consider it well, and reflect on it.

[iii] See A New Science: The Discovery of Religion in the Age of Reason By Guy G. Stroumsa Harvard University Press, 2010 page 93

For a source of Temple as gracious ruse in the Midrash, see:

מדרש אגדה תרומה:

“דבר אל בני ישראל ויקחו לי תרומה … ועשית את המזבח עצי שטים” – כל עניין המנורה והשולחן והמזבח והקרשים והאהל והיריעות וכל כלי המשכן – מפני מה? אמרו ישראל לפני הקב”ה: ריבונו של עולם, מלכי הגויים יש להם אוהל ושולחן ומנורה ומקטר קטורת, וכן הוא תכסיסי מלוכה, כי כל מלך צריך לכך, ואתה הוא מלכנו גואלנו מושיענו – לא יהיו לפניך תכסיסי מלוכה, עד שיוודע לכל באי עולם כי אתה הוא המלך?

אמר להם: בני, אותם בשר ודם צריכים לכל זה, אבל אני איני צריך, כי אין לפני לא אכילה ולא שתייה, ואיני צריך מאור, ועבדי יוכיחו כי השמש והירח מאירים לכל העולם ואני משפיע עליהם מאורי, ואני אשגיח עליכם לטובה בזכות אבותיכם.

אמרו ישראל לפני הקב”ה: ריבונו של עולם, אין אנחנו מבקשים את האבות (ישעיה ס”ג), “כי אתה אבינו, אברהם לא ידענו וישראל לא הכרנו”. אמר להם הקב”ה: אם כן, עשו מה שאתם חפצים, אלא עשו אותם כאשר אני מצווה אתכם… שנאמר “ועשו לי מקדש…” “ועשו מנורה… ועשו שולחן… ועשו מזבח מקטר קטרת”.

Spinoza poached this idea from Maimonides in A Theological-Political Treatise Chap. V : “The patriarchs, did not sacrifice to God at the bidding of a Divine right, or as taught by the basis of the Divine Law, but simply in accordance with the custom of the time: and, if in so doing they followed any ordinance, it was simply the ordinance of the country they were living in, by which (as we have seen before in the case of Melchisedek) they were bound.”  p. 73 1951 Dover publication Elwes translation.

Compare also to “the charming ceremonial insincerity known as “taarof” and “tagieh,” which amounts to the sacrifice of truth to higher religious imperative” (Italian – Iranian Hall of Mirrors, NY Times, Roger Cohen.

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be still

 

parshat Shemini

What’s the original sin? Eating fruit of the forbidden tree… Well not exactly. The first sin was that Eve fell for the oldest trick in the book.. adding, embellishing, improving on God’s laws.

You know the joke:

Said God to Moses: “Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk!” Moses replied, “You mean you don’t want us to make cheeseburgers? “Said God, mildly shocked and bewildered, “I just said — not a kid in the milk of its mother!” Moses frowned, twirled his beard, and responded, “You mean, don’t even use the same plates for cheese & meat?” God’s face reddened. “Just don’t boil a kid in the milk of its mother”! Said Moses, “My God! You mean we have to wait six whole hours after eating meat before we can have some milk?” God threw the Divine Arms wide into the Cosmos: “Have it your own way, Moses!” And so we do. (quoted in Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s Down to Earth Judaism)

Well that was Eve’s sin… no joke. God told Adam and Eve not to eat from the fruit but when the snake tempted her she said to the snake:

But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said: Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.’ (Genesis 3:3)

According to the tradition, Eve unconsciously added a chumra (a stringency): “neither shall ye touch it” and when the snake pushed her against the tree and nothing happened she succumbed. Or as Rashi comments: “She added to the command [of God], therefore she ended up by reducing it, that is what is meant (Proverbs 30:6) “Add thou not unto His words.””

Moral of the story: If Eve had not been such a “frummer” we could still be in Paradise..

Typically, the overly zealous put up multiple “fences around the Torah” in order to assure that they not be tempted to sin. But there are incidents when in our excitement and adulation of the holy, we gets carried away and add to a mitzvah.. a positive commandment.

Maimonides writes in the Guide for the Perplexed:

You also know their famous dictum would that all dicta were like it. …. They have said: (Babylonian Talmud Berakhoth, 33b) Someone who came into the presence of Rabbi Haninah said [in leading the Silent Prayer – Shemona Esrei prayer]: God the Great, the Valiant, the Terrible, the Mighty, the Strong, the Tremendous, the Powerful. Thereupon [Rabbi Haninah] said to him: Have you finished all the praises of your Master? Even as regards the first three epithets [used by all Jews at the beginning of the Silent Prayer]


we could not have uttered them if Moses our Master had not pronounced them in the Law’ and if the men of the Great Synagogue had not [subsequently] come and established [their use] in prayer. And you come and say all this. What does this resemble? It is as if a mortal king who had millions of gold pieces were praised for possessing silver. Would this not be an offense to him? Here ends the dictum of this perfect one.

… Consider also that he has stated clearly that if we were left only to our intellects we should never have mentioned these attributes or stated a thing appertaining to them. Yet the necessity to address men in such terms as would make them achieve some representation – in accordance with the dictum of the sages: The Torah speaks in the language of the sons of man (Babylonian Talmud Yevamoth, 71a Baba Metziah 31b), obliged resort to predicating of God their own perfections when speaking to them. It must then be our purpose to draw a line at using these expressions and not to apply them to Him except only in reading the Torah. However, as the men of the Great Synagogue, who were prophets, appeared in their turn and inserted the mention of these attributes in the prayer, it is our purpose to pronounce only those attributes when saying our prayers. …

Thus what we do is not like what is done by the truly ignorant who spoke at great length and spent great efforts on prayers that they composed and on sermons that they compiled and through which they, in their opinion, came nearer to God. …. This kind of license is frequently taken by poets and preachers or such as think that what they speak is poetry, so that the utterances of some of them constitute an absolute denial of faith, while other utterances contain such rubbish and such perverse imaginings as to make men laugh when they hear them, on account of the nature of these utterances, and to make them weep when they consider that these utterances are applied to God, may He be magnified and glorified. ….

I have then already made it known to you that everything in these attributes that you regard as a perfection is a deficiency with regard to Him, … Solomon, peace be on him, has rightly directed us with regard to this subject, in words that should be sufficient for us, when he said: For God is in heaven and thou upon the earth; therefore let thy words be few (Ecclesiasticus 5:1)

Silence: The most apt phrase concerning! this subject is the dictum occurring in the Psalms, Silence is praise to Thee (Psalms. 65:2) which interpreted signifies: silence with regard to You is praise. …. Accordingly, silence and limiting oneself to the apprehensions of the intellects are more appropriate – just as the perfect ones have enjoined when they said: Commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah. (Psalms. 4:5)

(Guide for the Perplexed I 59)

Maimonides is clearly an early proponent of short Synagogue services … with an emphasis on silent meditation and concise sermons. Consistent with Maimonides’ belief that many laws (such as the Tabernacle) were commanded by God to accommodate our limited intellect (see previous post honor thy sources), so too are the theological references in our prayers and holy texts a necessary evil. Had they not been written we could not have written them. To Maimonides, all of religion and ritual is an unfortunate but necessary embellishment.

This critique of theology and ritual is actually a huge paradigm shift. It creates an entirely new way to look at God’s commandments. A commandment or Mitzvah is not so much an obligation imposed upon us by a divine decree as it is a permit by the divine to say or do something in the name of God. Just as… when we make a blessing before eating an apple.. we are actually getting permission to enjoy the fruits of God’s creation, so too, when we make a blessing on a mitzvah.. we are getting permission to indulge in a ritual.

By way of example, imagine if there was no command for tefillin and you saw an individual roll up a few scrolls, put them in little leather boxes and wrap them with straps around his or her arm and head… in the name of God Almighty. Such a person could be labeled a blasphemer, Idol Worshiper or just plain crazy. It is only because this very strange ritual is commanded in the Torah that we have the right to do such an act. With regard to prayer… had we not been commanded we would be forbidden to open our mouths… in other words… You literally can’t make this stuff up… you can only do it if you were commanded.

This bias explains the fate of Aaron’s sons:

And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was still. (Leviticus 10: 1-2)

The key phrase is “which He had not commanded them”. To create one’s own rituals is not simply superfluous, it is blasphemy.

But it goes one step further. Embellishing ritual is also the ultimate hubris. According to the R. Samuel David Luzzatto the sin of Nadab and Abihu was pride.

According to Luzzatto, the “strange fire” (aish zara) was simply fire that Nadab and Abihu brought with them from outside (zara as-in “outsider”)… they wanted to prove, in front of the whole community, that their offering was accepted.. and just in case God did not choose to send down the fire… they brought their own.

Understand… at its core, observing a Divine command is the ultimate hubris.

There is a profound lesson here. When a human being presents him/herself as complying with a divine commandment or living in accordance with a religious practice.. if there was no divine commandment then it is heresy… but even if it was commanded.. there is an overwhelming temptation to indulge in pride. Ironically, religion, which values humility, is itself, probably the oldest and most powerful source of hubris, especially if combined with outward success…. If your sacrifice is accepted.

I studied at a Mussar Yeshiva called Beer Yaakov, and if a student who had previously shaved, grew a beard and/or payos the Mosgiach (spiritual guide.. as opposed to the Rosh HaYeshiva), R. Shlomo Wolbe z’l would call him over and ask why he had all of a sudden become a tzadik. The phrase used in the Yeshiva was al tihye tzadik harbe… “don’t be such a tzadik”.

Although Rav Wolbe did not follow this school, there was a large but nowadays, largely unknown radical school of mussar known as Nevardok whose followers are called Nevardokers. This school, novelized by the great Yiddish writer, Chaim Grade in his book The Yeshiva, had a unique outlook on humility, stressing the wearing of tattered clothing and total negation of ego and the physical world.

It is widely reported that students of Novardok participated in deliberately humiliating behavior, such as going to a bakery and asking for a box of nails, or wearing a tie made out of hay (?). (see wikipedia: Novardok Yeshiva).

“What made Novardok unique in the yeshiva world was the emphasis on ‘working on values’ – not merely studying Torah but correcting imperfections of the soul. Pride was considered to be the worst imperfection, and our goal was a state of ‘indifference’ – remaining completely unmoved in the face of both praise and criticism.” (See Novarodok: A Movement That Lived in Struggle and Its Unique Approach to the Problem of Man, by Meir Levin (Sara Netanyahu’s father) and review in Haaretz)

Although I could not find a source… I recollect being told that some extreme Nevardokers would try to further embarrass and humble themselves by appearing to break a commandment… such as appearing to desecrate the Shabbat by stepping onto a street trolley (only to surreptitiously exit from the other side before the trolley moved). If this is true (reader: I’d be grateful for a source)… then the Nevardokers truly understood and attempted to neutralize the inherent hubris contained in living a Holy (let alone holier-then-thou) life.

We are reminded of all the great Hasidic stories that celebrate the simple, unlearned and many times, unobservant Jew for the purity of a simple moment of faith or action. We are reminded of stories of great Tzadikim such as Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement… who temporarily went under-cover to explore the world as a simple Jew. The Nevardokers went one step further…and followed in the footsteps of their founder, Yisrael Salanter (the other Yisrael), by living, on a day to day basis… an observant life… unobserved.

Nadab and Avihu and possibly Adam and Eve sinned and perished doing what most of us involved in religion, spirituality and anything ending in “ism” are guilty of…. Embellishing the ideal and succumbing to thoughts of enlightened superiority. The Nevardokers suggested an examined life with a goal of achieving true humility. Maimonides, and Aaron tragically got it right:

be still

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Honor Thy Sources

Parshat Yitro

Anyone who has seen the Golden Globes multiple award winning movie; The Social Network, knows the ethical and legal value of the history of an idea. Deciding whether Mark Zuckerberg came up with the key elements of Facebook on his own, or whether he “borrowed” the idea from the Winklevoss twins is a $65 million dollar question. Judaism has long valued attribution and respect for Intellectual Property. Any student of the oral tradition (Mishna, Talmud, Midrashic literature) knows the lengths to which our scholars go to correctly identify their sources.

The Talmud even argues that offering one’s source can bring ultimate salvation. From Pirkei Avot (6:6; cf Hullin 104b, etc): kol ha’omer davar b’shem omro, mevi geula l’olam – whoever says something in the name of the one who said it [first], brings redemption to the world (or, gains eternal life). Why redemption, for properly attributing source material? The Talmud (Megillah 15) cites Esther 2:22 – “Queen Esther told the King in the name of Mordecai” of the plot against him. This extraneous positive mention later surfaced, leading the King to put Mordecai above Haman, leading to the redemption of Shushan’s Jews. (see)

This concept of honoring and revealing one’s sources goes back to the Bible. One cannot but take notice that when the Bible segues between the narrative introduction of Genesis and the first chapters of Exodus (creation, the patriarchs and the exodus from Egypt), and enters the real business of providing a legal code, it abruptly introduces Jethro; Moses’ father in law, a local pagan minister and tribal leader.

Jethro is credited with providing a hierarchy and organizational tree for the Judicial Branch. In fact, a whole section of the weekly torah readings is named after Jethro. This same weekly portion contains the Ten Commandments but it is Jethro who gets top billing. Read the text:

And Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people; that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.” ….. And Jethro said, “Blessed be the Lord, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh, and who has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.…Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt offering and other sacrifices to offer to God.”.…. And so it was, on the next day, that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood before Moses from morning until evening. So when Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he did for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit, and all the people stand before you from morning until evening?” …. “The thing that you do is not good. Both you and these people who are with you will surely wear yourselves out. For this thing is too much for you; you are not able to perform it by yourself. Listen now to my voice; I will give you counsel, and God will be with you: …. you shall select from all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Then it will be that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they themselves shall judge. So it will be easier for you, for they will bear the burden with you. If you do this thing, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all this people will also go to their place in peace. Exodus 18 1 – 23

At least as regards the structure of the Judiciary Branch, the Torah does not suffer from a Not Invented Here mentality and for that it distinguishes itself from many ideologies and idialogues… But a careful reading of the text reveals that Jethro is used to introduce more than just a pre-existent or pagan system of courts incorporated into the Divine Law. Note that Jethro also “took a burnt offering and other sacrifices to offer to God”. As the Etz Hayim commentary correctly notes: “These are the two main types of sacrifices offered in ancient Israel. The first, olah, was wholly consumed by fire on the alter as a tribute to God; the second, zevah, was partially offered up, and the major portion eaten at a festive meal.” So the Torah, in suggesting that much of the laws to follow were “borrowed” from the existing culture and religion of the day, does not limit itself to Judiciary reform… it includes also the ritual law, including the sacrosanct priestly code of the temple and it’s sacrifices.

This is a radical thesis… to say the least. It is one thing to say that the Torah was open to some practical input regarding the structure of the judiciary.. it is quite another to say that in fact, the Torah borrowed its core rituals and laws of purity from the local practices of the ancient Near East. Far be it from me, your friendly blogger, to be so audacious. For this, I go to a higher authority… Moses Maimonides.

By way of introduction; Maimonides, wrote his seminal philosophic work: The Guide for the Perplexed (Hebrew: Moreh Nevuchim) in such a way so that it would enlighten those inquirers for whom it was intended but whose most heterodox and controversial ideas would be buried “in dispersed chapters” (see Epistle Dedicatory and see Leo Strauss in his Persecution and the Art of Writing.)

The Hebrew word for Perplexed – Nevuchim) first appears in the Torah in the mouth of Pharaoh… Exodus 14:3 who sees that the Jews look confused and perplexed… and are living up to their latter appellation of Wandering Jews…’ Maimonides gives the following explanation. I quote at length because it is so revolutionary and rich with powerful implications for understanding the practical (halachic) teachings of the Torah.

Buried in Part III, chapter 32 of The Guide, Maimonides writes:

It is, namely, impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other: it is therefore according to the nature of man impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed. Now God sent Moses to make [the Israelites] a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. xix. 6) by means of the knowledge of God. …. But the custom which was in those days general among all men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted in sacrificing animals in those temples which contained certain images, to bow down to those images, and to bum incense before them; religious and ascetic persons were in those days the persons that were devoted to the service in the temples erected to the stars,  It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God (literally “gracious ruse”), as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used; it would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name, that we should not pray to Him, not fast, not seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action. For this reason God allowed these kinds of service to continue; He transferred to His service that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings, and of things imaginary and unreal, and commanded us to serve Him in the same manner; viz., to build unto Him a temple; … He selected priests for the service in the temple; …He made it obligatory that certain gifts, called the gifts of the Levites and the priests, should be assigned to them for their maintenance while they are engaged in the service of the temple and its sacrifices. By this Divine plan (literally “gracious ruse”) it was effected that the traces of idolatry were blotted out, and the truly great principle of our faith, the Existence and Unity of God, was firmly established; this result was thus obtained without deterring or confusing the minds of the people by the abolition of the service to which they were accustomed and which alone was familiar to them.

I know that you will at first thought reject this idea and find it strange: you will put the following question to me in your heart: How can we suppose that Divine commandments, prohibitions, and important acts, which are fully explained, and for which certain seasons are fixed, should not have been commanded for their own sake, but only for the sake of some other thing: as if they were only the means which He employed for His primary object? ….. Hear my answer, which will cure your heart of this disease and will show you the truth of that which I have pointed out to you. There occurs in the Law a passage which contains exactly the same idea; it is the following:” God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt; but God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea,” etc. (Exod. xiii. 17). Here God led the people about, away from the direct road which He originally intended, because He feared they might meet on that way with hardships too great for their ordinary strength; He took them by another road in order to obtain thereby His original object. In the same manner God refrained from prescribing what the people by their natural disposition would be incapable of obeying, and gave the above-mentioned commandments as a means of securing His chief object, viz., to spread a knowledge of Him [among the people], and to cause them to reject idolatry. It is contrary to man’s nature that he should suddenly abandon all the different kinds of Divine service and the different customs in which he has been brought up, and which have been so general, that they were considered as a matter of course; …In the same way the portion of the Law under discussion is the result of divine wisdom (literally “gracious ruse”), according to which people are allowed to continue the kind of worship to which they have been accustomed, in order that they might acquire the true faith, which is the chief object [of God’s commandments]. …As the sacrificial service is not the primary object [of the commandments about sacrifice], whilst supplications, Prayers and similar kinds of worship are nearer to the primary object, and indispensable for obtaining it, a great difference was made in the Law between these two kinds of service. The one kind, which consists in offering sacrifices, although the sacrifices are offered to the name of God, has not been made obligatory for us to the same extent as it had been before. We were not commanded to sacrifice in every place, and in every time, or to build a temple in every place, or to permit any one who desires to become priest and to sacrifice. On the contrary, all this is prohibited unto us. Only one temple has been appointed,” in the place which the Lord shall choose” (Deut. xii. 26): in no other place is it allowed to sacrifice: …. and only the members of a particular family were allowed to officiate as priests. All these restrictions served to limit this kind of worship, and keep it within those bounds within which God did not think it necessary to abolish sacrificial service altogether. But prayer and supplication can be offered everywhere and by every person. The same is the case with the commandment of zizit (Num. xy. 38); mezuzah (Dent. vi. 9; xi. 20); tefillin (Exod. xiii. 9, 16): and similar kinds of divine service.

Because of this principle which I explained to you, the Prophets in their books are frequently found to rebuke their fellow-men for being over-zealous and exerting themselves too much in bringing sacrifices: the prophets thus distinctly declared that the object of the sacrifices is not very essential, and that God does not require them. …. Isaiah exclaimed,” To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord” (Isa. i. 11): ….For it is distinctly stated in Scripture, and handed down by tradition, that the first commandments communicated to us did not include any law at all about burnt-offering and sacrifice. ….. …. The Psalmist says:” Hear, 0 my people, and I will speak; 0 Israel, and I will testify against thee: I am God, even thy God. I will not reprove thee for thy sacrifices or thy burnt-offerings, they have been continually before me. I will take no bullock out of thy house, nor he-goats out of thy folds” (Ps. 1. 29).– Wherever this subject is mentioned, this is its meaning. Consider it well, and reflect on it.

Maimonides is saying that all the laws of the Temple and Priesthood are only borrowed conventions, designed to move his Chosen People and humanity in a new direction. Even rituals such as fasting, zizit, mezuzah, tefillin, supplications, prayers and similar kinds of worship are not the goal… but means to a goal. It is our job, 2,000+ years latter to try to discern the direction to which these intermediary steps are pointing. It is our job to study comparative religion of the ancient Near East and to try to distinguish what parts of the teachings and commandments of the Torah are “borrowed” steps and which contain within them ultimate goals. As he writes:

The chief object of the Law, as has been shown by us, is the teaching of truths; to which the truth of the creatio ex nihilo belongs. It is known that the object of the law of Sabbath is to confirm and to establish this principle, as we have shown in this treatise. In addition to the teaching of truths the Law aims at the removal of injustice from mankind. (ibid)

So when we review Biblical injunctions and prohibitions such as: “‘Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.” (Leviticus 18:22) we need to ask whether this is a prescriptive law based on an ultimate goal or a descriptive remnant and an accommodation to a then current social bias. The same holds true for all gender and class bias found in the Torah as relates to women, slaves, the deaf, dumb and handicapped.

By honoring our sources a whole new universe of discussion and enlightenment is possible. Let the learning begin…

This blog is written in memory of my father-in-law Shimon Wexler; Shimon ben Aharon u’ Miriam

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